Our classmate Jennifer had a role in The Nutcracker, and someone thought it was a big enough deal to bus the ninth grade to the City Ballet to see it. We didn’t know anything about ballet, classical music, or what happened in the granite halls and theatres featured in the city’s tourism ads. Sometimes we might be carefully shepherded through a museum, but we were kids of factory workers, and the concerts people in our families went to were rock shows at the Coliseum. For these, black tees and jeans were fine, but to go downtown we were made to wear long skirts and dress slacks. We waited, uneasy, on the unfamiliar velvet seats, and then, as the orchestra began playing, we felt relief. We knew this! We heard it on commercials and when Christmas shopping at the mall. Mike and I began to whistle along and bob our heads. In seconds, the teacher descended on us like a scouring angel. She was furious at our disrespect, which was puzzling since we thought we had been showing appreciation. Would you go to Cheap Trick and act comatose? That would be insulting. This was our first lesson in high culture. Don’t move. Don’t hum. Don’t react. So we sat, not understanding the appeal of these girls walking on tiptoe and twirling like car wash brushes, or the guys, ramrod straight and interesting as wood, each having obviously and inexpertly stuffed his pants. Why was no one snickering? Why was everyone acting as if all this arms out jumping was somehow normal?
Then a woman entered who was tall and elegant. Someone whispered “That’s the Sugar Plum Fairy.” Someone else said, “It’s her,” and the words rippled along the rows in a wave of astonishment and disbelief. That was Jennifer? We didn’t know her very well because she disappeared each day right after school, but that couldn’t be her. We would never admit it, but we knew we all were still gawky gangly kids. This was a woman. Beautiful. Poised. In control. Mike and I simultaneously realized we loved her, and it was too late. We were boys. She was a woman. With Accomplishments. A word our mothers liked, and we finally understood. Why had we fought so hard against piano lessons? We followed her movements with a sense of fascination and longing and loss, increasingly disquieted by a combination of awe and anger, a sense of being outsiders in our hometown, watching something we didn’t understand being done by someone whose locker was just down the hall.
A faculty member at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Joseph Mills has six collections of poetry published, most recently Exit, pursued by a bear which consists of poems triggered by stage directions in Shakespeare. His book This Miraculous Turning (Press 53, 2014) was awarded the North Carolina Roanoke-Chowan Award for Poetry for its exploration of race and family. In 2019, Press 53 published his first book of fiction, Bleachers: fifty-four linked fictions.
Author’s website: www.josephrobertmills.com