Chapter Nine

ICLOSE THE APARTMENT DOOR behind me and nearly slam into someone in the hallway.

When his hood falls down, I don’t recognize him. He’s wearing a black coat and gray Windbreaker pants. He nods at me, being friendly enough, and lifts his hood back over his head. Our apartment building has about twenty units and I’ve seen nearly every person or couple who lives here, but not this guy. Maybe he just moved in.

“Excuse me, sorry!” I say as I move out of his way, but he just grunts in reply.

At the corner of the block, I break out into a run. I wait for the ache to resurface in my knee, and it does, but it’s bearable now. The low, simmering pain is no longer a sharp throb.

I pick up my pace. My Nikes hit the sidewalk with hardly any noise at all. I remember when I first started running and my legs would burn and my chest would feel like it was going to explode. I pushed and pushed—I needed to be healthy, and now I am. Not healthy like the stroller moms in Brooklyn who take shots of wheatgrass for breakfast and feed their babies kale and quinoa for lunch. But healthy insofar as being active.

I often empty my mind when I run, though sometimes I think about my mom and the baby, about Tessa and Hardin, or I stew with frustration if the Chicago Blackhawks beat the Detroit Red Wings. Today I feel like I have a lot on my mind.

First: Dakota’s behavior. She’s barely spoken to me since she broke up with me, and now she’s acting like we will see each other every day. She was so worked up over her audition and I wish there was something I could do. I can’t go to one of the most prestigious ballet academies in the country and knock on their door claiming racial discrimination without any proof. Especially with all the madness going on in the country already. The last thing that I want to do is to cause Dakota to get too much negative attention while she’s trying to start a career there.

The shit that I’m used to helping her with is so different from this. Her career is something that I absolutely can’t do anything about. The obstacles that we used to battle together seem so distant now, a part of our past. Our problems felt much heavier back then, much more immediate. I don’t know what to do with practical, day-to-day problems like school or career choices.

This is one of the few times that I would like to be Hardin for about an hour. I would rush down to that academy, pound on the door, and demand justice for her. I would convince them that Dakota is the best ballerina they have there, that despite her reminders that she’s not a ballerina yet, she is indispensable to them. The best.

Ballet to Dakota is what hockey is for me, only ten times more so because she actually does it. My school didn’t offer hockey as a sport, and when my mom signed me up to play at the local rec center, it was the worst two hours of my life. I learned very quickly that hockey is a sport I can love to watch—and never play. Dakota has been dancing since she was a kid. She started with hip-hop, moved to jazz, and settled on ballet in her teens. Believe it or not, beginning ballet as a teen is a huge disadvantage and in some circles is considered to be too late. But Dakota smashed those assumptions during her first audition at the School of American Ballet. My mom sent her the money to go to the audition for her birthday present. She cried grateful tears and promised my mom that she would do her best to pay her generosity back someday.

My mom didn’t want to be paid back, she wanted to see the sweet neighbor girl rise above her circumstances and make something of herself. The day she learned of her acceptance, Dakota came running through the house with her letter waving above her head. She was screaming and jumping and I had to pick her up and flip her small body upside down to get her to stay still. She was so happy. I was so proud. Her school may not be Joffrey, but it’s a highly rated academy and I’m damned proud of her.

All I want is for her to be happy and for her talent to be recognized. I want to fix this for her, but it’s out of my control. As frustrating as it is, I can’t think of one realistic solution to this problem. I should have asked her what else was going on; there has to be more to work with . . .

I file that away for later and shift my focus to Nora. She does look more like a Nora than a Sophia, and luckily I’m not as bad as Hardin with names. He refuses to call Dakota anything other than Delilah, even to her face. Enough about brooding Hardy.

Hardy.

That makes me laugh. I’m calling him that next time he calls Dakota “Delilah.”

As I pass a grocery mart, a woman with her hands full of paper bags is staring at me, so I stop laughing at myself and my corny plans to stick it to Hardin. Or Hardy.

I laugh again.

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