My pants don’t fit.
These are the good ones, the khakis from J Crew, the ones everyone wears. No matter how much I tug on the legs, pulling them down past my waist, there’s still a wide gap between the hem and my foot. When I look in the mirror over my bedroom dresser, I see two inches of gym sock glaring back at me, which reminds me: I should probably not wear white socks with my brown loafers.
“Benny! Ben! Are you coming down?” Dad calls from the bottom of the stairs. “It’s time for school!”
First day. Junior year. I look like the Hulk exploding out of his clothes.
In the front hallway, Dad is getting his gadgets together for the day: phone, tablet, laptop, Fitbit. “Hurry up,” he says, his eyes on his toys and not me. “I have just enough time to get you to school and—”
“What are you wearing?” Pops says. He’s come from the kitchen carrying a glass of orange juice which I grab out of his hand and gulp down. “Where are the khakis I got you a couple of weeks ago?”
I swallow the OJ and stare down at my ankles. “These are them.”
“No, they’re not.” Pops’ sharp gaze inspects me from head to toe and by the time he gets to my shoes, his blond head is shaking from side to side. “No socks?”
And now Dad turns too. He frowns. “Ben. Really?”
“The black ones are too small.”
His eyes open wide. “Did you grow another two inches overnight?”
I grin around the OJ glass. “Maybe. Hope so.”
Pops grabs me and aims me toward the stairs. “Your dad’s closet. Go. Find pants. And get socks from my top drawer. Brown, not black.”
Fortunately for me, both of my dads are tall, like I am now. But I didn’t used to be. Just three months ago I was a shrimp. Over the summer I grew four – no, make that five – inches. I also practiced free throws, dribbling and sprinting with Dad. I’ve never played on a team before but I just know this is my year to make the basketball team. I won’t be Invisiboy anymore. People are going to notice me.
I mean, I’m tall now, right? They can’t not notice me.
Mr. Kaplan is the school’s basketball coach and also my History teacher. He looks me squarely in the eye when I enter his classroom. “Benjamin,” he says, formally. “Have we done something to our hair?”
A few girls behind him giggle and I self-consciously run my hand across my head. My hair is short and straight and black, just like Dad’s. “No, sir.”
His eyes twinkle with mischief. “No? Maybe it’s your mustache.”
I feel heat in my cheeks. Mustache! I wish.
“Well, there’s something about you that’s different.”
“Sir, I’m—” Tall, I want to say but the second bell rings over my words. Oh well, he’ll figure it out when I go out for the team.
Like every first day of school, the morning passes in a whirlwind of activity. New rules, new schedule – and always a few new students.
I see her at lunch, sitting with a group of girls from the drama club. I’m struck first by her hair: a light brown braid that trails to the middle of her back. It catches the sunlight streaming through the window of the cafeteria and shines like it’s dusted with diamonds. When she turns from the other girls to take a sip of her bottled water, her wide eyes blink as if she were moving in slow-motion.
Or maybe it’s me. I can’t take my eyes off her. Her high cheekbones and slim neck. The curve of her arm as she reaches for an apple on her tray. The upturn of her lips as she laughs. She’s—
“Wilson! Are you listening to me?” A fist punches my shoulder and I turn. My best friend Sam shoves me forward. “Grab that table over there.”
While Sam edges me on to a prime spot at the back of the cafeteria, I can’t stop wondering about the beautiful new girl. Is there any possible way I can meet her?
As I slide into a plastic-backed chair and upend my bagged lunch on the table, I know the answer: nope. A girl like that? And me? Not a chance.
I know my spot in the hierarchy of this school. As a junior, I’ve got a little edge over the underclassmen but not much. I’m okay-looking but no one’s going to mistake me for a movie star, especially not in Dad’s old chinos and Pops’ brown socks. I’ve got a decent average in my classes but I’ve never been an honor student.
That’s why I’ve got to make the basketball team.
Sam’s my best friend and Destiny player extraordinaire. He’s an Invisiboy too but that suits him fine. He’d rather play videogames which he does way better than me. In fact, I get a little jealous when Sam kicks butt on our Destiny missions. Everyone thinks he’s a great team leader – and he is – but I wouldn’t mind a high-five or two, even if it were virtual.
“…up ‘til three this morning and I am dragging, dude,” Sam says around bites of a sandwich. “I need a pot of espresso to wake me up.”
While Sam talks, I can’t help but steal looks at the girl. She’s uncrossing and re-crossing her legs and her sandal dangles off her toes. It’s purple. Hey, we’re all supposed to wear brown or black shoes! A purple sandal is pretty daring for our school.
I turn to Sam. “Espresso. Three in the morning. I heard you.”
“Did you hear me ask you about basketball tryouts?”
Now he’s got my attention. “No. What’d you say?”
“Sign went up outside the gym this morning. Tryouts this Friday.”
I swallow my lunch without even chewing. “Already?”
“Yeah, man. This is it. This is your shot.” He laughs. “Ha! Basketball joke.” When I don’t react, his face falls. “Shot? Like shoot hoops?”
“I get it.” I shrug. “Not that funny.” In truth, I’m just nervous. I may have been practicing all summer but that doesn’t mean I’m any good. I think I’m better than I was three months ago but I’m also just closer to the hoop than I was.
I look up at the new girl and her braid whips away.
Was she looking at me? Did I catch her staring in my direction? Nah. I’m probably just seeing things. I must really be nervous about tryouts.
I spend the rest of the week in front of the basketball hoop Pops installed for me over the garage. After school, before and after dinner, I practice taking foul shots and doing lay-ups. I miss more than half of what I throw, which is really discouraging. Dad watches me, retrieving the ball from the bushes whenever I overshoot the basket.
The night before tryouts, he tells me he’s proud of me.
“Because I have zero athletic skills? Thanks.” In the kitchen, I go to the fridge and poke my nose in, even though we ate a huge dinner less than an hour ago. Missing all those baskets made me starving.
Dad leans against the counter. “You worked hard all summer.”
“But I’m still not any good.” I spot peanut butter and ham and English muffins and wonder if that would be a good combination. “I see a massive fail in my future.”
“Just try? For me?”
Way in the back, behind the grapefruit juice and the mayonnaise is a plate covered in tin foil which immediately intrigues me. “What if I totally screw up and can’t do anything and everyone laughs at me?” I peel back the foil. Pizza! “Can I have this?”
Pops appears out of nowhere and takes a big whiff. “How long has that been in there?”
Dad and I both sniff at the congealed mozzarella and orange-colored sausage bits. “Smells fine to me,” we say at the exact same time.
Dad fist-bumps me as Pops shakes his head and grabs the plate out of my hands. “Let me heat it up, at least, and kill anything growing on it.”
Dad steals a lump of sausage before Pops puts the pizza in the toaster oven. He makes a face like he’s just eaten a bite of heaven. “I want to see you try something new, expand your horizons beyond Sam and Destiny.”
“Maybe Sam’s his destiny,” Pops says with a laugh.
“Ha, ha,” I say. I lean back against the counter next to Dad. It’s weird being side by side like this. We both slouch the same way. We cross our feet and arms the same way. Too bad he’s not better at basketball. Maybe I would be better too. I glance over at him. “You really think I can do it?”
“I don’t care if you make the team or not,” he says. “I just don’t want you to give up on something if you really want it.” He shakes his head slowly. “I did that once and I always regretted it.”
I think about that for a moment. Maybe he’s right. I have been working hard for the past three months and I’m at least a little better than I was. I suppose if I truly fail, I can always hide in a game of Destiny with Sam.
The smell of baking pizza interrupts my thoughts. Dad and I look at each other and we both lunge for the oven. We even do that the same way.
On Friday at the end of the day, I’m in the wing near the gym psyching myself up for basketball tryouts when I spy purple sandals in my peripheral vision. New girl. I’ve been so preoccupied that I haven’t had time to find out more about her.
“Hi!” She’s right in front of me. Like, right in front of me. Her hair isn’t in a braid now but a tight bun on top of her head. It’s pulled way back from her face, making her cheekbones stand out. She’s got a short denim skirt and matching jacket over a white tank top and shiny pink tights – not the school uniform of khaki skirt and blue Oxford.
“That’s not what you had on before,” I blurt out, completely oblivious to the fact that this makes me sound like a stalker. I quickly backtrack. “I mean…”
“You noticed?” she asks. There’s that slow motion blink again.
“No! I…well…just that we all have to wear the same thing and that’s, you know, not it.” I really hope basketball tryouts don’t go this badly.
“I’m Crystal,” she says, holding out her hand.
“Benny.” I wipe my palm on my pants before I touch her hand. Her fingers are soft and small and I feel like I’m a giant sweaty bear about to maul a tiny chipmunk.
“I know.” I cringe again. “Sorry. Not a stalker. Honest.”
But this time she smiles. “It’s okay.”
The hallway is empty and for the first time in the history of my going to this school, I wish it were crowded with students. I want someone to witness this beautiful girl talking to me.
“So, um, Benny…do you dance?”
I feel a laugh in my throat but she’s serious so I swallow it back down and shake my head, no. I’ve played Dance Dance Revolution with Sam as a joke. Neither one of us was very good.
“I’m a ballet dancer and I want to learn how to do a pas de deux and we don’t have any boys at my new studio.”
She’s a ballerina! I feel sweat trickle from my armpits and into my waistband.
“I guess you could say I’ve been stalking you,” she says with a laugh. Suddenly, she grabs my hand and holds it out from her as she rises up on her right foot with her left leg extended behind her.
I barely feel her weight in my hand. “How do you do that?”
“That’s nothing,” she says. She lets go of my hand and remains balanced in the air. I gasp which makes her smile. “Why don’t you come to my class today and you can practice with me?” She softly places her foot on the floor as if she were a feather landing on a butterfly wing.
“Practice what?” I know I sound dumb but I still don’t get it. What exactly am I supposed to do? I don’t dance.
“Partnering. What you just did.”
“That was partnering?”
“Sure!” Her cheeks flush pink with excitement and her hands gesture in the air. “When I’m in my pointe shoes, I’m really tall and I need a tall guy who can balance me and turn me and lift me off the ground when I leap.”
That sounds like a lot of touching to me.
“So what do you think?”
Just as I’m about to respond, the door to the gym opens and Mr. Kaplan pokes his head out. “What are you doing out here? You should be warming up.”
Warmed up? I’m boiling from the inside! I wave to him. “Sure, coach.”
Crystal tilts her head at me after the door closes. “Coach?”
I try to play it cool. “Basketball team.” I puff out my chest and hope I look more muscular.
“Oh. That’s too bad.” Like she’s disappointed.
Disappointed? Why isn’t she impressed? Hello, basketball team?
“Well, if you think you might want to try partnering me,” Crystal says as she glides smoothly past me, “you can always come by the studio.” She mentions the name of the place and its address, which isn’t too far from Sam’s house. “See ya, Benny.”
I have to admit, I like the sound of my name when she says it. And I definitely liked holding her hand. But dance? Me? I just can’t see it.
Besides, I’ve got basketball tryouts.
I wait until Crystal is gone and then I whisper a little “go, Benny!” to myself and throw open the gym door to the shrill sounds of whistles blowing and sneakers screeching on polyurethaned wood. I watch for a minute or two as Mr. Kaplan and his assistant line everyone up to practice lay-ups and run sprints.
My heart sinks when I see how many students fill the gymnasium. They’re all wannabes like me. No, not like me: taller than me. And faster than me. And more accurate than I am at free throws. Plus these guys can dunk. The tallest of them can even smack the rim with their palms as they slam the balls through the hoop.
“Wilson!” The coach waves me over to a line of guys doing lay-ups. My stomach churns and my brain whirls. How do I do this again? Three steps and a jump? Two steps and a hop? When do I dribble?
Before I know it, the ball is in my hands and I’m staring at an empty court. I whisper a silent, go, Benny! as I place one foot in front of the other and head toward the basket. I remember my Dad telling me he didn’t care if I made it or not. I just had to try and not give up.
I won’t. I won’t give up.
I run, dribble, then take one-two-three steps and jump up to the basket. The ball flies over the rim and knocks Mr. Kaplan’s clipboard right out of his hands. His gaze finds me and he frowns.
“Sorry, Coach!” I won’t give up. I won’t.
Sam texts me right after tryouts: well?
Not only did I hit the coach, I also ran over his assistant while sprinting, and missed ten out of the twelve free throws I took. My average was even worse in tryouts than at home. I text back: sucked
His reply: destiny?
Was that my destiny, as Pops joked? Videogames with Sam? I tell him yes and hop on my bike. I don’t understand. How could I have performed so miserably? I have to face the fact that maybe “tall” does not equal “good.”
I’m headed toward Sam’s house when I pass Crystal’s dance studio. I hear the little voice inside my head say, go, Benny!
What? No, no. That’s a ballet studio. And I am not a ballerina, or whatever it is they call guy dancers.
But…she did ask me to stop by. And her hand was so soft and she smelled so good. And my bike makes the turn before I tell it not to.
The dance studio is all pink and black and the lobby is filled with parents sewing things. Classical music competes with piercing shouts: “Again! No, not the right foot!”
I find Crystal in a room with mirrors on one side and wooden bars on the walls. She’s thrilled when she sees me – and that thrills me. Who’s ever been excited to see me walk through a door? Other than my dads, of course.
“You came! Let me put on my pointe shoes and then we can start.”
I watch her slide her feet into square-toed satin shoes. “I don’t have those shoes.”
She laughs. “Guys don’t wear these. Just dance in your socks for now.”
As I heel off my sneakers, I look around. Posters of delicate women paired with strong muscular men line the walls. I feel panic constrict my throat. What am I doing here? This is going to be worse than trying out for basketball.
But then Crystal steps closer to me and takes my hand in hers and my negative thoughts evaporate. “First we’re going to practice a promenade.” She places both hands on my shoulders and rises up on her toes. We are nose to nose. “I’ll hold your shoulders and you slowly spin me around.” I feel her fingers grip my collarbone, her breath on my face.
“You, um, you have to hold my waist,” she whispers. She takes my hands and places them under her ribcage. I think my lungs are going to burst out of my chest.
I very carefully rotate her in a circle, stepping to the side and across, over and over again to maintain the same distance between us. After a few spins, she lowers herself to the ground, her face flush with happiness.
“We did it!” She grins. “Let’s try it again. I want to do it with one hand.”
We spend the next hour practicing the promenade and Crystal even tries to teach me some steps at the barre – not “bar” like I thought it was. The exercises are pretty simple once she breaks them down for me. I learn how to plie and to stretch my foot to a tendu and I even get a chance to rise on my toes too.
But the best part is not the pas de deux with Crystal; it’s the jumping, the leaping, and what she calls a grand jete. It’s like dribbling down the court without a basketball, like going for a lay-up without worrying about slamming the ball through the hoop. It’s all the good parts of basketball without the need for scoring points.
At the end of the hour, I’m sweaty but it feels good.
She taps a finger on my chest. “You’re a natural. You even have good feet.”
I glance down at my white gym socks. The soles are filthy from the studio floor. “What’s that mean, good feet?”
She laughs. “It means you have high arches and strong ankles.”
“Well, at least my feet are good-looking,” I say, teasing her.
Her cheeks flush and she asks, “You want to come back next week?”
Without hesitating, I tell her yes. It’s only as I’m biking to Sam’s house that I realize I’m going to have to tell my dads something. But maybe not yet. There’s still a chance I could make the basketball team.
On Monday, the list is up outside the gym: I made the first cut for the team! Sam is by my side. “Dude, you made it!”
“First cut,” I remind him. “There’s still another round to go.”
For the next week, I practice with the team after school and then go to Crystal’s dance studio to practice partnering. By the third day, she’s gotten me into her class and I quickly pick up the steps. It’s amazing how easily I can get the combinations.
Much easier than basketball. Lay-ups are still a struggle for me, even if they are kind of similar to grand jete. I like the discipline of ballet, the repetition of steps at the barre and in the center. Basketball has drills too but they’re not the same. When Crystal and I dance together, we’re characters in a story. We play roles and get to express ourselves. Basketball, on the other hand, is about strategy and teamwork.
But both are hard work and I’m totally beat every day. I can really only do one.
An image of Crystal in my arms floats into my head. Maybe I don’t want to make the basketball team. Maybe the team I want is Crystal’s. Would that be so wrong?
The following Friday is the second round of tryouts for basketball. I don’t think I’ve improved that much but the coach does. He wants me for junior varsity. That should make me really happy. I should jump for joy and text Sam but all I want to do is get to ballet class. I’d rather jete for joy.
When I tell them, my dads could not be happier.
“This is amazing! Congratulations!” Dad says.
Pops adds, “Pizza party to celebrate? Two pies?”
And that’s when I know I need to spill the beans about ballet. “I have this other thing that I’ve been doing,” I say awkwardly. “I’m taking ballet lessons.”
“Ballet lessons?” Dad’s face falls. Pops glances at him and then at me. They seem to be a united anti-ballet front and I’m not sure why.
“The teacher says I’m good,” I say. “And I think I want to do it some more.”
“And basketball?” Dad’s voice is hopeful.
“I can’t do both. It’s really exhausting.” I can see they’re not getting it. “You’ve seen me shoot hoops—“
“You’re good,” Dad says.
“I’m okay. But I’m way better at dance plus, you know, I really like it.” I have an idea. “Why don’t you come to class and watch me?”
Dad hesitates. He had his heart set on me playing basketball.
“One class? Please? I want you to see I’ve got potential.”
Pops grips Dad’s hand. “We’ll be there.”
But the next day, only Pops shows up right before the class starts; the teacher lets him sit at the front of the room. I’m a little disappointed that Dad didn’t come but he wasn’t too happy with my plan so I shouldn’t be surprised. We go through the barre and some center combinations and then all the girls line up to do some partnering with me. I’m so focused on working with them that I completely forget Pops is there. I wonder if this is what it’s like to perform, to lose yourself in dancing and not care who’s watching.
When class is over, we all applaud the teacher politely and I hear another person clapping behind me. I turn and see Dad standing at the door. He’s smiling! He had to see I was good, right? That I’m much better in the studio than on the court?
The teacher, a woman about my dads’ age with a bun that’s tighter than Crystal’s and a long chiffon skirt, introduces herself to Dad and Pops. “Your son is a natural,” she says as if she were expecting them to contradict her. “He has tremendous potential.”
I notice Pops elbow Dad in the side.
“If he continues taking daily classes with us, I can see him performing in our Nutcracker at Christmas.”
On the other side of the room where they’re taking off their shoes, Crystal and her friends cheer and clap lightly. I think they’d be pretty happy to have me in their show.
After another minute of the teacher trying to convince Dad and Pops to let me dance, Dad holds up his hand. “May I ask a question, Madame?” When she nods, he goes on. “I notice you’re teaching a Vaganova style pointed foot for frappe at the barre but you’re using Balanchine style fourth position for pirouettes in the center. Which style are you teaching, Madame?”
What? My brain does a double-take. My father knows ballet?
The teacher looks confused at first and then her back straightens. “I like to expose my students to many styles of ballet. Some are more suited to one style than to others.”
Dad holds her gaze for a long moment and then breaks it finally, with a smile. “Yes, Madame, indeed. My son may be well suited for Balanchine, don’t you think? With his long legs and his quick feet?”
The teacher’s smile falters slightly. “Perhaps. If you’ll excuse me, I have another class to teach.”
As soon as she leaves us alone, I jump on Dad. “You were a ballet dancer? Why didn’t you ever tell me?”
Dad sighs and shakes his head. “I didn’t make it. I wasn’t good enough.”
“You were,” Pops says. “They just didn’t see it.”
“Ben, it’s very competitive. I started too late and I always regretted that.”
“That was what you regretted?”
He nods. “Ballet was my life but it broke my heart.”
“That won’t happen to me,” I tell him. “Not if I start now. And work really hard. Can’t I try?” I look from Dad to Pops. “Please?”
Pops turns to Dad. “He looks a lot like you when he’s dancing.”
Dad’s lips twist a bit. “Yeah, I noticed that.”
“You could help him. You could give him the coaching you didn’t have.”
Dad’s eyes narrow in thought. “I could.” He looks me up and down. “Are you ready to work hard? Bust your butt each and every day?”
I grin and salute my father. “Yes, sir!”
“This is something you absolutely want to do?” He grabs my shoulders and stares at me. “More than basketball?”
“Yes, more than basketball.”
“Then just maybe I can turn you into a ballet dancer. Maybe.”
“Thank you!” I throw my arms around them both, nearly toppling them onto the floor, which makes Dad laugh.
“How did you even find this place?” Pops asks as we leave the studio.
I hesitate and glance over my shoulder at the other dancers. “You see that girl with the purple sandals? That’s Crystal…”
Pops and Dad exchange a smirk. “It may not be ballet that breaks your heart,” Pops says.
“What? Wait, what?”
“Come on, let’s get pizza and celebrate.”