Last Dance

September 6, 2017

 

 

The first time I saw Jackie shoplifting was at Target in the downtown Dallas shopping center in 1999. I was fourteen and she was thirteen, but whenever people saw us together, they always thought Jackie was older. She was taller than me (she grew to be 5 feet, 8 inches whereas I stayed 5 feet, 2 inches) and she liked to wear jewelry and makeup. By the time I was sixteen and she was fifteen, she had a fake ID, but she never once got carded. At the time, she wasn’t trying to get into a bar: she was trying to sneak a tape dispenser out of the local Target. She took the little green package off the supply shelf, glanced around the store, and slid it into her black backpack, the decorative white and yellow daisies folding as she forced the flap open.

            “What are you doing?”

            “Allie, be cool,” she said, tugging at the threads of her purple sweater. “Just act like everything’s fine.”

            “You’re going to get caught,” I said, turning my head frantically back and forth down the school supplies aisle, checking for salespeople with their bright red T-shirts and tan pants.

            “Be cool,” she said, walking away from the rest of the tape dispensers. I whipped my head around one last time, my cheeks stinging from my ponytail, and proceeded to follow her.

            “What the fuck do you need a tape dispenser for?”

Jackie turned and thumped her small brown pump on the checked black and grey floor. I was pretty sure the shoes were her mother’s. “I swear to God, Allison Jeanette Carter, if you get us arrested, I’m never speaking to you again.”

            “Of course not, we’d be in jail.” We left the Target without buying anything, Jackie’s tape dispenser protruded slightly from the back pocket in her backpack.

 

 

 

That next week, when I went to Jackie's house after school or after dance practice on Thursday afternoons, I would see the tape next to her twin bed on the night stand. It sat between the picture of us from third and fourth grade—me with my hair in two braids and wearing a blue polo and her with her wildly, curly hair down and a blue and white striped dress—and the lamp with the ladybugs painted on the side. Jackie had painted them herself one night years ago.

 

Once, I ripped a piece of paper, just a little, and asked her if I could have tape to fix my math sheet. She went to the kitchen to look for tape instead of reaching over and grabbing it from her night table. When she opened the door I could hear her parents screaming at each other from down the hall. When Jackie came back, I pretended to be studying a chip in the blue paint on the doorframe.

 

 

 

Our dance studio was sparse, just the barre and the mirrors. I watched the other girls slip on their ballet shoes. Jackie and I shuffled off to the right and sat by ourselves, changing out of our school clothes on the scratched wood floor and into our matching black leotards. The other girls chattered about the upcoming recital.

            “Aren’t you so excited to perform?” Jackie asked.

            “I guess,” I said.

            “I am,” Jackie said, tossing her hair back. Jackie was the only one of us who never tied her hair back. After she broke enough hairbands, our dance teacher Mrs. Hattem—a tall, thin woman with grey eyes who always wore red lipstick—had finally given up.

            “Alright, ladies,” Mrs. Hattem, dressed in her own leotard, said from the entrance, clapping her hands. Jackie and I stood, placing our hands on the barre while we waited for Swan Lake to start playing.

            “Are your parents going to come?” I asked.

            “Who knows,” Jackie shrugged as the music started. In unison, we all lifted our legs to the side. I could never get mine to go as far up as Jackie’s.

 

 

 

About a week after the Target incident, I woke in the middle of the night shivering. The window was open. I sat up to shut it and realized someone was climbing into my room. I started screaming when the someone ran up to me and clamped a clammy hand over my mouth. “Shhh, Allie, it’s me.” She sat on my bed.

            “Shit, shit, shit!” I glanced at my alarm clock. “Jackie, it’s two o’clock in the morning!”

Jackie reached over me and turned on my butterfly lamp. Her mother’s mascara sat in pools under her coffee brown eyes. “I know, I just, they had a fight.”

            “Jackie, I can’t. My parents can’t know you’re here.”

            “I’ll be gone before they know anything. I’ll sleep on the floor, even.”

            “You have to be gone before six. That’s when I get up for school.”

Jackie’s face split into a grin. “Thank you, thank you, thank you, Allie! Really, I’ll be gone before they know I’m here. I promise.”  She bent over, kissed me on the cheek, and lay down on the floor. Her mouth was wet with lipstick.

 

 

 

I saw a couple things appear on the nightstand after that. A glue stick. A pack of gum. A ball of yarn. She never used any of it. I asked her about it once, at a WalGreen’s, after she tucked a spool of thread into her mother’s dark blue shopping bag. “You don’t need that, Jackie. You’re just going to let it sit in your drawer anyway.”

              “What the hell is that supposed to mean?” She placed a hand on her hip.

              “It’s not supposed to mean anything. It’s what you do with all your stuff. The glue and the gum and everything else.”

              “Whatever, Allie. You don’t get it.”

I crossed my arms. “What’s there to get? You’re stealing.”

              “Whatever,” she repeated. She marched down the aisle and went to look at the make-up I knew she wouldn’t buy. I followed her.

 

 

 

I waited for Jackie to throw on a tightly fitted grey sweater before walking out of the dance studio. She slipped her dance shoes off last.

              “I can’t come over after practice,” I told Jackie as we walked out of the studio. The other girls stood away from us on the street, most of them waiting for their mothers to come pick them up. Jackie and I usually took the bus back to her place.

              “Why not?” she demanded.

              “My mom wants to go shopping for a present,” I said. “For my dad’s birthday.” I gathered my hair and tucked it up into a bun.

              “Allie, if you don’t want to come over, just say so.”

              “That isn’t what I meant,” I said. She shrugged and wandered over to the other girls. She towered over them all.

 

 

 

I don’t remember when Jackie and I stopped shopping together. The thread was the last thing I saw her take. We saw each other at dance practice, mostly, after that. We stopped hanging out at her house, where her stolen things were always scattered around the room. After Jackie followed me to high school and became friends with some of the older girls, she stopped coming to mine, as well. We did ballet together for a while, until I quit dancing my junior year of high school. She called my house and left a message, asking if I was okay and if I wanted to hang out soon. I put off calling her back. I found out later from a mutual friend that Jackie’s parents had split up.

 

My senior year I got into Howard University. I spent most of the summer packing. The night before I left for school, my mother asked me to put all the things I didn’t want anymore in a black trash bag to give to Goodwill. I put the butterfly lamp in the bag.

            “You don’t want to keep this?” My mother asked. She had been surveying my room, which had been pink since we bought the house when I was in first grade. My parents had promised to keep it just like this for me when I came home.

            “What for,” I shrugged. “Howard will have lights.”

She picked up the lamp. “I know, but it’s cute. You made it with Jackie, remember? You guys were what, like, ten? And hers had, um, bees or something?” She sat on my bed and ran a hand through my hair. She had cut hers short a while ago. I looked at my knees.

            “Lady bugs,” I said.

            “Lady bugs, that’s it! Do you remember that?”

            “I know,” I said. She looked at me.

            “Everything okay? You can be nervous. That’s allowed.”

            “It’s fine,” I said. She put the lamp back in the bag. We dropped it off the next day, on our way to Howard.

 

 

 

A year later, Jackie graduated and went to Ithaca in New York to study dance. I majored in journalism, and got a job with a paper in New York after graduate school. I moved to the city. I got engaged. By the time I was thirty, I helped start a newspaper in Mount Vernon and became the managing editor. Since we were short-staffed, the editor-in-chief asked me to cover an up and coming dance group in the city. I felt a pang in my chest as I thought of Jackie and how we used to dance together, but I agreed to go. I emailed the company and the director invited me to attend one of their rehearsals that weekend. I met the company’s director in the back, a small, pale woman (smaller than me) with a short brown bob and black, square-rimmed glasses on a beaded chain.

             “Ms. Carter?” I nodded. “I’m Diane,” she said, extending a frail hand and grasping mine. “The girls are rehearsing now. Would you like to sit in on it and conduct the interview afterward?”

             “That sounds great,” I said. I followed Diane into the auditorium and watched several women dance, all of them around my age or younger. Imagine my surprise when they cleared, and there was Jackie, spinning in the middle of the stage. Diane nodded and pointed a manicured hand at my oldest friend. “That one has a lot of potential.” The other girls scattered as Jackie danced, her hands pointed at the ceiling and her toes curled toward the floor. I felt a decade of breaths catch in my throat. “I bet she does,” I said.

 

 

 

I knocked three times under the golden nameplate on the door with black script. Jacqueline. Jackie used to hate it when anyone called her that. The door flew open and Jackie stood there, in a dark green sweater that was just a little too big for her and a tan scarf looped around her neck. Her once round face caved in at the cheeks, and her formerly curly hair had been relaxed and tied up in a bun. She had always been tall and thin, but now she looked stretched out, like a blouse that had gone through the wash a few times too many. Her eyebrows flew up into her hairline when she saw me standing there. “Oh my God, Allie?”

            “Hi, Jackie,” I said. “I saw you dance.”

She laughed and grabbed my wrist, leading me into her dressing room. “What are you doing here?”

She sat in a black chair with her name printed on the back, reminiscent of the kind we played with when I got a Hollywood Barbie for my birthday one year. I sat on a blue armchair across from her and told her about the article. “I’d love to talk to one of the dancers,” I said. “I mean, if you’d like to talk, that would be good.” She grabbed my hand. Her peach nails dug into my palm.

            “I know the perfect coffee shop, just down the street. We can sit and catch up,” she said. “If you just wait for me to collect my things.”

            “That sounds great,” I said. Jackie grinned, grabbed her keys, her brown leather purse, and led the way to the coffee shop.

 

 

 

            “I’ve never done an interview before,” Jackie laughed. “I hope it was good.”

            “You were fine,” I said, shutting my tape recorder off. She reached out and squeezed my hand on the marble table. Her fingers were bony and cold.

            “God, I hope so,” she said, sipping her black tea. I glanced down nervously at my croissant and coffee—extra milk and sugar—replaying the interview in my head. For the last few years of our lives, Jacqueline Renée Johnson had become someone I barely knew. I detangled my hand from hers and ripped off a piece of my croissant. I took a bite.

            “So how are you?” Jackie asked. “Ms. Newspaper. Big deal.”

I swallowed and shrugged. “It’s good. Actually, I’m engaged.”

            “That’s amazing! Why didn’t you tell me right away? What’s your fiancée’s name?”

            “Alex,” I said. I had taken my ring off before I went to see Jackie and had stuffed it in my purse. I wasn’t entirely sure why.

            “No one in my life,” Jackie laughed again. “Too busy dancing. Actually, you should totally see the show. We’re performing tonight, around eight.”

            “I should really get back home soon,” I said. “My car, it’s in a lot.”

            “Oh. Well, I would love to see you again,” Jackie said.

            “Me too,” I said, throat tightening and eyes looking down at the table. I waited for her to use the bathroom and we walked out of the cafe together. Jackie kissed both my cheeks.

            “Well, I’ll see you, Allie,” she said. She turned and started to walk away.

            “Do you remember the tape?” I blurted.

Jackie turned around, eyebrows furrowed. “Huh?”

            “The first thing I ever saw you shoplift was a tape dispenser,” I said. “It was green and small. You kept it on your nightstand.”

She frowned. “Oh, that,” Jackie said. “I had completely forgotten.”

            “I just—I don’t know why I asked,” I said.

Jackie shrugged. “I’ll see you soon, Allie,” she repeated. She marched down 42nd street, dark brown heels kicking against concrete until she turned the corner.

 

That night, I stayed for the dance. I sat in the back and watched the other performers. None of them were perfect. Their feet were too close together or they were half a beat behind the others—until Jackie. Hair held high in a bun on her head and wearing a white leotard, she spun out into the middle of the group for her solo, spinning around and around and around.

 

 

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NICOLE ZELNIKER is a graduate student at the University of Columbia, studying journalism. Her work has appeared in The Greenleaf Review and the Guilford College literary magazine. She is the winner of the Dean's Writing Award for her poetry and the Rachel Linder-Leahy Award for her prose. Her short story "Last Dance" was one of four short stories that she wrote for her senior thesis at Guilford College.

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