But what they didn’t know was that her name was Clara, too, just like the star of the ballet. Surely, for that, someone would give her a gift. Maybe clip-on earrings or a porcelain doll like the one she saw when she was shopping with her parents at the antique and garden store.
Clara knew if she could just rise from her seat, twirl her velvet dress, and approach the woman with the present, all she would have to say was, “My name is Clara,” and the woman would be charmed. Everyone would be charmed.
But at that moment, her grandmother wrapped her leathery hand around Clara’s wrist and squeezed.
“Do you want a peppermint?”
Clara rattled it around in her mouth, clicking the candy against her teeth. Now the lights were dimming. She had missed her chance.
When the ballet was over, it was decided. She would become a dancer, and everyone would shower her with gifts and flowers. The spotlight would shine down from the roof and the whole room would gaze on her alone.
Back at her grandmother’s, she rummaged through the closets for ballet slippers. She settled instead for terrycloth house shoes with rubber grips on the bottom. She spent the rest of the afternoon imagining the patio was a stage, and she was Clara, the star Clara, who had a growing Christmas tree and a real prince and a benevolent uncle who was also a magician.
When she finished her dance, she set about gathering leaves and sprigs from her grandmother’s yard, topping off the arrangement with all the fern fronds and large succulent leaves from her grandmother’s potted plants. She wrapped them in a paper towel like a bouquet and cradled them in her arms, thanking her adoring fans.
Her grandmother had had enough ballet for one day.
“What have you done to my fern?” she said.
Clara didn’t have an answer.
“Let’s get you back home,” her grandmother said, shaking her head.
Clara spent the drive back to her house staring out the window, imagining she was alone, and imagining that everyone loved her.
“I don’t see why I couldn’t spend the night,” Clara sighed.
“We didn’t plan for that,” her grandmother said.
When the screen door of her parents’ house slammed behind her, the magic was gone.
“Get changed—you don’t need to play in that dress,” her mother shouted from the kitchen.
Clara could smell spaghetti sauce and some kind of vegetable she was certain to dislike. Downstairs, one of the twins was screaming. She hung her dress on a pink plastic hanger in the closet she shared with Emma and traded it for blue polka dotted leggings and a yellow turtleneck with a faint Kool-Aid stain near the hem.
Emma wanted to hear about the ballet, but Clara didn’t want to talk. She knew if she stayed inside, she would be asked to do chores. She had enjoyed an afternoon of extravagance with her grandmother, and now someone would want to make her pay. Drying the dishes. Picking up pine cones. Sorting the clean laundry into seven stacks—one for each member of her crowded family.
“Where are you going?” Emma whined, as Clara double-knotted her sneakers.
“Shut up,” Clara said, even though those words were off limits.
She sneaked outside and hid under the deck.
It was too tight to stand up and continue practicing the fine art of ballet, so she braided two clusters of pine straw together and pretended it was a dancer. There was a dead roly-poly near her foot.
“A rat!” she whispered, and jumped her pine straw dancer away.
She wished she had kept a piece of her grandmother’s fern. Ferns are infinitely more graceful than pine straw. Clara arched the straw dancer, bending it into an arabesque. The straw broke, leaving her dancer’s leg ruined.
She heard the thunder of little feet on the deck above her head. It was Emma with the twins.
“Clara!” Emma called. The twins echoed. “Supper’s ready!”
Under the deck, Clara tensed, drawing her knees up to her chin. She had forgotten her jacket and was getting cold, but she didn’t want to go in. She didn’t want to go to the dinner table, fight over the breadbasket, and watch the twins and baby Julie smear spaghetti sauce in their hair. She didn’t want the noise and pain of it. The knives screeching on plates, Emma kicking her shins under the table.
No one would pay any attention to her. No one would think she was special for having the same name as the star of the ballet. She was the star of nothing. There would be no elegance in scraping leftover food into the garbage can and loading plates into the dishwasher. Nothing lovely about sliding a nasty broom under the baby’s high chair and pushing crumbs into a dustpan.
“Is Clara gone?” she heard one of the twins ask Emma. “Where’s Clara? We love you, Clara!”
“Go on in,” Emma said. “I’ll find her.”
Clara heard the twins run back across the deck, and she saw Emma’s feet coming down the stairs. Emma peeked around a beam.
“There you are,” she said.
“I’m not hungry,” Clara said.
“Look what I found in mom’s room,” Emma said, crawling beside Clara in the dirt. “She said you can have them.”
Emma handed Clara a tattered pair of ballet slippers, long and narrow like their mother’s feet. The leather was still a perfect rosy pink, and inside each heel someone had written their mother’s initials with permanent marker.
“After supper, will you show me how to dance?” Emma asked.
“Maybe,” Clara said. “I’ll think about it.”
They left the broken pine straw in the dirt and went inside.
Written by: Dot Dannenberg
Photograph by: Emily Blincoe