Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Flash Fiction by Jackie Davis Martin

High Standards

We'd giggle at the slovenliness of the dance costumes, she and I.  We'd poke each other in the ribs and whisper:  "Look, she's wearing underpants underneath and they show!"  We'd nod our heads in united disapproval, even sadness, that the child's dancing teacher didn't have the standards the Miss Diedre did.

"Look," Shelley would say.  "There are no sequins in back.  They're just wearing the costumes the way they came out of the plastic bag!"

"Tsk tsk."  I'd make those little scold noises with my tongue.

We were attending a dance recital where a friend of hers, another 4th grader, was performing.

"Their hair isn't pulled back," she whispered.  "And they're doing ballet.  It looks so messy."  It was the next dance, just after we'd looked at each other incredulously in the semi-darkness:  No tights.  The group of girls sported bare legs with tutus, their hair hanging down or in pigtails.

We left the theater in roars of giggles.

"Did you notice how half of them didn't even try to smile?"

"And their toes weren't pointed.  Look!"  And she pantomimed an arabesque right on the sidewalk, leg extended, foot comically flexed.

Oh, we laughed.  We were so superior.

"And they walked offstage, instead of running after their bow!" Shelly was having such a good time.  The kids looked lost, lame, just wandering off, not purposeful the way Miss Diedre's students looked.

I'd made a good choice with that dancing school, I told myself.  The training was good and the standards were high.

But there the story ends.  I don't mean to end it there, but one wonders what happens to all the life lessons, what they all amount to.  People say you build memories.  People say that the value is in the experience.  I suppose all that is true.  But, haughty as we were back then, the superiority didn't get us anywhere.  Shelley--and then I, with her--continued to take dancing lessons, in spite of the fact that she gained weight and I couldn't stop her and that was no standard at all.  She pretended by the time she got to be fifteen or sixteen that she wasn't overweight.  I referred to her as "chubby" or "a bit hefty" to myself or to my friends, unless I was really mad and then I'd scream at her:  "You're getting fat!  I'm not buying you costumes if you're going to parade around in that fat!"  And she'd scream back and cry.

I pretend those scenes didn't happen, the dissolution of patience, of kindness.  Shelley died--and she was overweight then--indeed she had only a few brief spurts in her life when she lost enough weight to measure up to standards I was insisting on and I swear, I swear, she had such power at those times.  Why didn't she maintain it?  Oh, who knows.  It's an old story and the chapter is surely closed.

The irony is that Shelley thought she held on to the rules of the game as we learned them.  Up until the time she graduated high school at seventeen--and was still dancing--we both were, together--she rigidly followed Miss Diedre's teachings, and later used her as a model of setting high expectations for her, Shelley's, own students.  She continued to dress exactly, buy good make-up that she applied exactly, polished her shoes, had everything professionally dry-cleaned.  She exacted standards I thought were expensive and unnecessary, but who was I to say?  She was paying for it all, compensating, as far as I could see, for something that we also laughed at when we sat in those rows in a strange auditorium watching "another" dancing school's performances.

"Mom!  Did you see that fat one at the end?  She doesn't seem to go with the others."

"Well, she's trying," I'd say.  "I think."

"I hope she doesn't do acrobat," Shelley would giggle.  "That'd be really funny.  Plop!"

She was in third or fourth grade.  What did we know of life?

Do they mean anything, those high standards?  I'm still aware of dancers; I study the professional ballet dancers through my binoculars, I wonder about what they wear or don't under their streamlined leotards, admire their lean muscular legs.  And of course think of my daughter.

Death takes away the worry and the standards.  She is not overweight; she is dead.  Isn't that a relief?  No, it is not.

But there were the good times.

Jackie Davis Martin has had stories and essays published in print and online journals including Flash, Flashquake, Fastforward, 34th Parallel, and Sleet.  Her most recent work is in Enhance, Counterexample Poetics, Fractured West, Dogzplot, Bluestem, and Gravel.  A flash won the Spruce Mountain Press Awards.  Two stories are anthologiezed in the current print Modern Shorts and the new Love on the Road.  A memoir, Surviving Susan, was published in 2013:  all three of those are available on amazon.com.  Two stories have been included in previous Kind of a Hurricane Press anthologies.  Jackie teaches at City College of San Francisco.

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