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I Miss Myself

My breasts are just buds though I’m tall, fourteen, long-boned. My breasts are just ideas I have, feeling out the gestures I might make in the future. I’m a white girl who burns in the sun, and I’ve covered my skin in thick white clown foundation, pancake makeup scooped from a metal tin. I paint on lush crimson bow lips and draw one heavy black tear rolling down my cheek at the end of a kohl line. I make up my mime face, pull on a tights, white leotard, and pink tutu, and ride the streetcar to Canal Street with a wooden cigar box under my arm, after school.

I walk up Decatur to Jackson Square, choose a flagstone corner to occupy, adopt my distant gaze and strike the ballet pose. Slow motion first position, second position, third: hold each for minutes made of trembling stopgap moments. For a five-dollar bill, I’ll plié, reveille –grab my foot at the arch and extend one leg high in the air. The delicacy of it amidst the honks and exhaust and crowds makes me feel pure.

In Jackson Square in the late afternoon, the light reddens and live oaks shine and people are drunker. Horses hitched to carriages sip from the bank of concrete troughs flitting with gnats. In the center of the park, Andrew Jackson rears back on his bronze horse, frozen in the Battle of New Orleans. Scattered over the cobblestone square are other performers getting their coins, calling out to passersby: tarot readers, portrait painters, caricature cartoonists, drummers, break dancers, the mime painted silver, the jazz flutist, the roaming kids that tap dance with bottle caps on the soles of their sneakers. A woman in flowing batik walks past me, smiles, says, “I could sit still for this.”

When someone drops money in my box, the thrill crackles through me. I will demonstrate my skill: distance. I execute a basic ballet pose without moving a muscle of my face. Eyes locked on the sun setting in the distance; I acknowledge the exchange without eye contact. It’s for the viewer, this extension of my body, and I play the taut strings of my untouchability with pleasure, intimacy without engagement, my wrist bones held aloft, on loan. My white leotard, Capezio ballet flats and light pink tutu are from another world.

As the crickets start to saw and vibrate the air, a tour bus pulls up to the square and releases a group of Japanese tourists. I’m their first sightseeing episonde, and about ten gather, taking my photo, recording video, and chattering. I feel worthy to be in a cross-cultural exchange. All my secrets remain secret, yet people gather to exclaim! I clasp my left foot and extend it higher than my head. My breathing is careful, balanced with extreme effort as I tuck my foot behind her head and release my grip, raise both arms into an oval. A ripple of sound goes around the tourist group. Money falls into my wooden box. It’s a hard pose to hold and my lungs tremble under my ribcage. I’m testing my muscles; little tremors are okay, when the tremors become waves I’ll let it go. Applause erupts and the tourists come nearer have their photo taken with me. In my peripheral vision I can see my box fill with bills.    

I arabesque, extending my gesture leg at a 90-degree angle, and feel the twist of hip hyperextension. Then someone comes very close. I feel her body heat. A stout black woman in a maid’s uniform bends over towards me, a red chiffon scarf over her hair, and I look at her. I’m not supposed to see anyone now, but I look right at her and she looks right at me. Her voice is soft and gravelly as she whispers, “You got your cycle, baby.” I don’t understand—she wants my bicycle? “Your period done come, sweetheart.” I look at her face wishing I would have her in my life every day, then register shock and slowly lower my leg. Touch the ground with pointed toe and bend from the waist like a rag doll so I can peer at myself. A large, bright bloodstain spreads from the crotch of my leotard down the thighs of my tights, the very center of display. I don’t really know ballet. Cameras click and flash. One hot rivulet of blood courses down my inner left leg until it disappears into my ballet shoe. I rise back up. ”Thank you,” I whisper, and the woman nods and turns, continues on her path.

I slide my feet into first position—thighs clenched tightly, and stand there frozen until that group loses interest and moves on through the square to the airbrushing artists and the plastic bucket drummers. I have to stay until it’s dark, or else everyone will see me bleed. I stand unmoving until the sun disappears behind Jax Brewery and sinks into the Mississippi. When it is entirely dark, I pick up my box and walk to newspaper vending machine, insert two quarters and pull down the heavy royal blue metal door. I extract one copy of the Times Picayune. I can sit on it on the streetcar, and it will absorb my blood. I unfold three large pages and wrap them around myself to make a skirt, tuck their long edge under the waistband of my tutu.  Newsprint floats around my legs like a tulle petticoat. I pick up the wooden box and count $32: I’m rich enough to eat fried chicken all week long. I walk carefully down the old sidewalks of the French Quarter, mincing my steps to keep my legs nearly close, board the clanging trolley and mime my way home.

Abe Louise Young

New Orleans native/Austin activist
Abe Louise Young is the author of two chapbooks Heaven to Me (2016) and Ammonite (2010) and the free guide, Queer Youth Advice for Educators, and she is co-editor of Hip Deep: Opinion, Essays, and vision from American Teenagers. She just finished a week-long February 2018 residency at Smith College, reading poetry and exhibiting “Poet-to Poet: A Friendship in Letters.”

After working for many years as an independent writer, grant-writer, and editor, Young recently became Education and Training Director at TexasCASA. Her program will create learning programs that will reach 30,000 children in foster care across the state. In her own words, “I'm incredibly lucky and humbled to help shape what the grown folks will learn, and how, in the here and now, w[ith] this team of brilliant, committed people working to make life better for kids!”