Over Again Until We’re Finished
By Jaime Fountaine.
Back in our dancing days, my sister would always lead. I was the shy one. You couldn’t tell just by looking at us, but I’d get so nervous going on, I’d have to hold her hand when we walked onstage. I suppose it looked sweet and not like she was dragging me out there, those practiced smiles hiding all the kicking and screaming I wanted to do instead. She’d start us off and I’d follow, keeping time under my breath, just loud enough for her to hear, too. It wasn’t the dancing that frightened me, I was just fine with all that, the shuffle shuffle step turn shuffle step turns and the high kicks, wide eyes and smiles. Just as long as we were alone with it, I could have twisted and grinned and turned and leaped for hours to the record player in the garage, pulled the arm back to the beginning of the song with stronger resolve to perfect it this time every time. It was the crushing sounds of the band behind us and the audience before us, pushing from either side that got to me. The glare and heat of the lights blinding us, beating down like the sun. It was hard to breathe. I’d start to wheeze, and once, right before a recital, I got so flustered, I fainted. It was like all those sounds closed in on me, swallowing me up ’til there wasn’t any air left. I woke up in my sister’s lap with a wet washcloth on my forehead. She fixed my hair back around my damp face with a stern look and said the show must go on. Our teacher was worried, but my sister insisted. She was the strong one; she’d carry me if she had to. Counting was my sister’s idea. She thought if I had something else to focus on, between all the numbers and the steps, that I’d have so much else to do I couldn’t get stage fright. One two three, she told me, just like that, over again until we’re finished.
I was born twelve minutes before her, but my sister always rushed ahead like she had to make up for lost time. Our parents laughed about it, the way she’d gallop to the front of lines, volunteer to go first for anything. They thought she had something to prove, but I knew she was protecting me from my indecisiveness, my doubt. All the friends we had were shared, someone she met first who could like us both. We were a package deal. It took the two of us to manage. She’d carry me out and I’d keep her steady.
We sure were something then. Shuffle step kick turn smile turn shuffle shuffle step smile. Whenever they’d announce us, they’d say “double trouble” “two’s better than one” “the more the merrier.” Smile step shuffle shuffle turn smile step land smile. We travelled the country, the world, before we hit twenty. We lived more before anyone else had gotten around to it, so settling always seemed nice. I didn’t mind receding from the lights and the sounds and the crowds. I never belonged there, but I waited ’til my sister was good and ready to leave. She couldn’t have done it without me.
She tried to only once, after I landed on my foot the wrong way and turned my ankle too badly to go on. The director sat me down and spun her into the arms of some young man, who pulled her across the floor, one two three four two two three four one two one two three four. I could see her falter from the side of the stage. Her lips were moving, counting, but her timing was off. The boy, fluid, dragged her alongside as best he could, but you could tell there was no chemistry. It was like their bodies spoke different languages. When the number was over, she ran off the stage in tears, pushing past her dance partner and the director for the back door. I hobbled after her held her while she shook with rage and tears. Never again, she told me. Not alone like that.
When we were young and dancing, no one questioned that we were inseparable. Between the travelling and the shows and the polite meet and greets with whoever would have us, there wasn’t much time for anyone else. It was a whirlwind, and when we’d finally unwound ourselves from it, there weren’t too many people left to talk to. I suppose it doesn’t much matter now.
She’s been rushing ahead of me again lately. The stairs are taller, the distances between things longer than they used to be. When she coughs, I can hear lungs up against her bones. I’m not so much better. My skin is like paper, thin and easily torn. I’ve been losing track of time, hours passing like days. But I don’t feel as fragile as she looks.
I had to help her into bed. Her breath was ragged, weak. I took her hand and I counted one two three one two three slower than I used to, just loud enough for both of us to hear, and waited for her to catch up. She fell asleep that way, hand in mine, shallow breaths coming softly from beneath the blankets. I’ll wait, keeping time, one two three one two three one two three one two three one two three over again until we’re finished.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jaime Fountaine was raised by “wolves.” Her work has appeared in PANK, Bluestem, and Pear Noir!.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, December 13th, 2012.