Toe, heel, kick, step-step, toe, heel, back step.
I repeated each dance step like I would show my work even when I could do the math in my head, like I would outline an essay even when I already knew what to say. Because that’s how you give one hundred percent.
Toe, heel, kick, step-step, toe, heel, back step.
My brain cycled through the choreography, hitting each step with precision, even as my dance partner, Jeff, missed every other step, his hand slick with sweat where he grasped mine.
Soon, I would know each of these steps by rote, my body moving through them without thought, just like I moved through my carefully balanced day of school and extra curriculars. But that didn’t mean I stopped repeating the steps. It was like the way my schedule was carefully drawn out in my planner: Trig, Advanced Placement English, Gym, lunch, work at the school candy store, History, Biology, Spanish, School Newspaper, rehearsal for the school’s year-end musical revue, homework, sleep. Steps in a dance carefully practiced until memorized, the correct balance and rhythm of every movement essential to the whole.
Turn, left kick, lift right, left kick, lift left.
Jeff’s hands were on my hips, hoisting me up into the air when the pain tore through my back like a sliver of lightning. It burned first and left tingles in its wake. Air hissed through my teeth on the way down from the lift.
Great. This again.
The pains had been happening a lot lately. Most times it was a constant thrum, a dull ache, and then something like this would happen.
Jeff eyed me strangely. Damn, he must have noticed. He opened his mouth to say something, but my hand clamped down on his. No. We were finishing this dance.
The choreographer had barely told us to take five before Jeff was tugging me off-stage to the dressing room. My heart twitched – did Jeff want to be alone with me so he could ask me out? The scent of the dressing room, like a decade of sweaty old gym socks, kind of made me wish he would pick a better place for it, if that was the plan. I tried breathing through my mouth, but then the room just tasted like sweaty old gym socks. Damned if you do…
“You okay?” he asked.
I was right. He had noticed my pain which I guess meant he was paying attention…
“Just a twinge in my back.”
He squinted at me a little. Then, he laid a hand on each of my shoulders, pressing down harder on my left side as if I was a scale he was trying to correct. “You’re standing crooked. Are you sure it only hurts a little?”
I swatted his hands away and tried to swallow the ache that welled in my chest as he tried to fix something that couldn’t be fixed. “Stop it. It’s nothing.”
Except it was something. It was Jeff, noticing my scoliosis. Nobody had ever noticed it before.
My stomach twisted.
“Guys!” Called my best friend, Lisa. She stood behind me, twirling a springy black curl around her finger. “Lynsky called it for the day. Time of death,” she checked her watch, “7:15. Pizza time, Tina?”
I agreed and waved goodbye to Jeff with my best fake smile. Lisa and I headed down the block to Sorrento’s Pizza and I tried to stay cool, tried not to look like I felt.
Since I’d been diagnosed with scoliosis four years before, nobody had been able to tell. For Jeff to be the first one who noticed…my chest felt like somebody had tied a band around it and pulled tight.
Lisa and I ordered slices and grabbed a table. As she patted the excess grease off her slice, and I sprinkled garlic onto mine, I finally felt like I could talk. “Jeff noticed my back thing.”
Lisa looked up from her pizza. “Oh that explains it.”
“What? Did he say something?”
“No. You were wearing your fake smile. Wasn’t sure why.” She shrugged. “What did he say?”
“He said I was standing crooked. I think I have to go to the doctor. Do you think he’ll make me wear a brace?” That had been on my mind since my diagnosis, but I hadn’t meant to say it. Cute guys like Jeff didn’t tend to date girls who wore back braces.
Lisa chomped a huge bite out of her pepperoni slice and chewed it thoughtfully. “It’s worth checking out.” Which meant, now that she was looking for it, she saw what Jeff had seen.
“Yeah, but when the hell will I go? My schedule –”
“–is packed tighter than that stick up Lynsky’s ass. I know, I know.” She shrugged. “You’ll balance it.”
I picked a mushroom off my slice and tossed it aside. My appetite had gone to shit. “Yeah, I’ll balance it,” I said, because I always did.
No matter how straight I tried to sit, I still felt crooked.
I found Mom in her usual place on the big green couch in the living room, the one that looked like split-pea vomit. She was watching “Jeopardy” and as I walked in, she was shouting an answer at the TV as though it could hear her. “What is the People’s Republic of China?”
When she heard the door close behind me, she peeked over the back of the couch. I had inherited everything from her – my curly dark hair, my brown eyes, my facial features, my spinal curvature. You could almost assume my father played no role in making me, which was fitting, because he only seemed to call when it was time to interrogate me about my grades, and he was around even less than that.
“Hey honey!” Mom’s voice was chipper as usual. “How was rehearsal?”
“Good. Listen, I think we should make an appointment with Dr. Silvian.” We hadn’t been to visit him in two years and I was pretty sure my spine was paying for it.
She raised her eyebrows. “Why?” She rose from the couch with a groan. I almost never noticed the uneven set of her shoulders, but in that moment it was uniquely obvious, as was the slight hump it created on her back.
“My back is bothering me again. I think we should make an appointment.”
“Give it a few days,” she said, but her smile was tight across her face. “These pains come and go. It’s a part of having –”
“We keep saying that and never do anything about it.” I should have had this conversation with her a year ago, but the looming specter of a brace stretching from my neck to my waist had caused me to keep putting it off. It couldn’t wait any longer and Mom was never going to be the one to push the matter. “Ignoring something doesn’t make it go away.”
Mom’s face told me that if ignoring me would make me go away, she would try it right about now. “Fine, I’ll call tomorrow morning. But I’m telling you everything is fine. You worry too much.”
“Thanks Mom!” I kissed her cheek and kept the fact that she didn’t worry enough to myself. Mom always wanted me to have more faith that things would turn out okay, but I had no patience for it. I could only manage things that were provable, things that were routine. Mom’s version of having faith had always seemed to be a way of deflecting reason.
Just in case, I was sure to leave a reminder note waiting for her the following morning.
Dr. Silvian breezed into the examination room, his white hair slicked back so tightly, his forehead looked stretched. He had a considerable nose, and his glasses rested comfortably atop it like an eagle on its perch. He was skinny, somewhat fragile looking, and he couldn’t have been younger than seventy. His mouth was a line so straight it could have been drawn with a ruler. “Sarah! How are you today?”
Dr. Silvian hadn’t remembered my name once since I’d started coming to see him. He’d written the book on scoliosis, like, actually written books on it, but he never could remember that I was Tina, not Sarah.
I corrected him and he shook his head in that nutty professor way of his that always set my nerves on edge. “Let’s see your spine, Tina.”
I unhappily succumbed to letting him poke the run of my spine and make sure everything was in the right place. It felt like an insult.
He made a dissatisfied humming sound. “I’ll need to see an X-ray.” And then, to Mom, “I told you when she was diagnosed – consistent check-ups. This disease requires routine maintenance.”
We waited in silence as Dr. Silvian reviewed the films. The walls were covered in brightly colored floral patterns and signs offering positive words like “Hang in There” and “Patience is a Virtue” and “All’s Well That Ends Well”, but the chipping paint and peeling wallpaper drained away any feelings of comfort they tried to promote. The room looked like it had last been decorated twenty years ago, when my Aunt Abby used to come for treatment to correct the very same hereditary affliction. Maybe I should talk to her. See how she handled it. But then, she’d had it far worse with the surgery…
Thinking about Aunt Abby made my heart jump around in its own version of toe-heel-kick-step-step. “They never did an X-ray before.”
Mom didn’t say anything, but her face was whiter, and she was wringing her hands. This was what it looked like when somebody realized they’d put their faith in the wrong things.
The wait for Dr. Silvian wasn’t long. When he called us, we sat on one side of his enormous polished oak desk. He sat on the other side, the desk stretching out like a barrier between us.
There was a lightbox on the wall to his right where my X-rays hung, blocking out most of the illumination. I wouldn’t look there. Couldn’t bring myself to do it.
“You have two forty-two degree curves in your spine. One in the lower lumbar region and one in the upper thoracic region. Tina,” he said, and I couldn’t care less that he had gotten my name right this time, “you will need to undergo surgery to correct this quickly and decisively. If the curves continue to grow in the direction they are going, they could compress your lungs. This could lead to serious complications…”
I heard him, but I didn’t really hear him. For the first time ever, I wished he would get my name wrong, wished that it was some poor unfortunate girl named Sarah with forty-two degree curves and not me, just another ditzy mistake from Dr. Silvian.
Or not. When someone needs to cut your back open and move your insides around, you want them to remember your name.
I tried to prepare myself for what curves like that would look like before looking at the X-rays. On the outside, I looked like I was slouching deeply on one side, dropping one of my shoulders, maybe standing a little funny. But Dr. Silvian’s description made me feel like my spine was shaped like a letter of the frickin’ alphabet.
Despite myself, I glanced at the X-rays. My twisted spine slithered like a snake. I jumped.
“Tina, are you listening?” Mom scolded.
“Uh-huh.” But really I was watching the picture, taking in the grotesque twist of my bones. “Can I wear a brace?” Had he been talking? “Would that correct it?”
Mom started to cry. She knew I had just asked for the one thing I had been avoiding.
In my head, my neatly planned calendar had bright red scribbles all over its delicately written entries. My life seemed just as unbalanced as my slithering spine appeared. I knew what was coming even before Dr. Silvian answered.
“If you had been keeping up with your regular appointments, maybe. But at this point you could wear a brace for months or years and still end up requiring surgery to keep your spine from growing towards your lungs.” His voice was stern, like he was telling me that I forgot to take out the garbage – not like he was telling me terrifying, potentially life-changing news.
What a jerk.
His next words were a vain attempt at comfort. “I have a success rate of ninety-nine percent with this surgery.”
Something in my stomach twisted. Ninety-nine percent was a badly written essay sentence. Ninety-nine percent was an incorrectly filled bubble on a Scantron sheet. Ninety-nine percent was answering all of the above when one choice was more accurate than the rest.
“And what happens to the other one percent? Paralysis? Death?” This man could sneeze during surgery and leave my nerves all over the operating table.
“Tina! Don’t talk like that!” Mom’s voice was a ghost’s whisper, as though acknowledging negativity too loudly would give it strength.
To his credit, Dr. Silvian ignored her and reassured me that those were extremely good odds. But ninety-nine percent was less than perfect, so they weren’t good enough odds for me.
“So, it’s in a month,” I told Lisa on the phone that evening.
“Jeez.” She exhaled loudly, sending a scratchy sound through the phone line.
I lay sprawled on my navy blue bedspread with the lights turned out. The glow-in-the-dark stars I’d stuck to my ceiling as a child still twinkled, but they had dulled a bit.
“One month ain’t much time to get used to the idea. Are you okay?”
I grunted. She grunted back. Silence.
“He can’t get my name straight half the time, Lis.”
“Yeah. That would freak me out.”
“He said that he has a ninety-nine percent success rate.”
“Well, that’s good news.”
“There’s that one percent…”
I could practically hear her rolling her eyes. “Leave it to you…”
“Somebody has to be that one percent. What if it’s me? What if I’m his one screw-up in one hundred surgeries?” I cringed at the unnerved sound of my own voice.
“God, T, the chances of that are, like –”
“One in one hundred?”
“Ninety-nine people is a lot of people. There’s no reason you would be –”
“There’s no reason I wouldn’t be.”
“I can’t talk to you when you’re like this.” She sighed.
There was silence on the line for nearly a full minute before I broke it. “What does surgery even feel like?”
Lisa laughed, but it didn’t sound like there was a lot of humor behind it.
“What?” I asked.
“No seriously, what?”
“I just figured out that the unknown is your Kryptonite,” Lisa said.
“Isn’t it everybody’s?” But this didn’t have to remain unknown. I knew somebody who had been through this.
I promised to talk to Lisa tomorrow and made my next call. Aunt Abby seemed like the perfect choice to go to in the hopes of obliterating my Kryptonite.
She insisted that the conversation I wanted wasn’t the kind you have over the phone. So I spent the following Saturday sitting across from her at a tiny Chinese restaurant with only two chairs and one very fancy looking table that clashed with the everyday takeout interior.
“The truth?” Aunt Abby glanced over her plate of squishy looking noodles and shrimp with a gloppy white sauce. “It was painful. I mean, it was major surgery, kid.”
Kid. I hated when people called me that.
“Painful like what?” I really had no idea what I was looking for.
“Like painful, Tina. Like I was in traction for weeks.” She scooped up a mouthful of food, chewing it with her mouth open.
Of the two sisters, Abby had always been the crass one. Unfortunately, she was also the realist.
I poked at my beef and broccoli, my appetite almost completely gone.
“You don’t want to look like Grandma did before she passed, do you?” She had that edge in her voice that said she believed she was smarter than everyone else.
My grandmother had walked so hunched over that I spent most family gatherings fearing she would tip over face first.
Aunt Abby straightened her brown leather jacket and I caught sight of her shoulders which looked almost perfectly even. God, I wanted that. I was tired of people telling me to stop slouching when I wasn’t. She was right. I wanted to get better. And if this surgery was what it took…
“I mean, so what if my sister and my mom needed to wipe my ass when I used the bathroom for a while. In the end, after all of that crap, it was worth it. No pain, no gain, right?”
And there went whatever appetite was left.
“Look, I’m not trying to freak you out, kid. I had that surgery so long ago. It’s completely different now. Medicine has advanced. Considerably. You’re surgery is going to be different. There’s a good chance you won’t even need that kind of help.”
She was right. Medicine had advanced, but I still felt sick at the idea of needing to depend on anyone that much. I didn’t want to need help. And I didn’t want to need a surgery.
After lunch, Aunt Abby drove me home. She came into the house to talk to Mom, and it was a blessing, just the shield I needed to go to my room and lock the door behind me before Mom could come and question me about how it went. I needed a minute to process this, to deal with what I had learned before having to discuss it. I really needed to get my emotions in check, push them a little deeper, so nobody could tell I was losing my footing.
I unzipped my jacket, tearing it off as if it was too tight, as if it was the reason I couldn’t seem to breathe.
This surgery would be bad enough if I landed in the ninety-nine percent. My best case scenario was to make it through finals in two weeks and then spend my entire winter break and the first two months of next semester being home schooled. Home. All day. With my Mom, Ms. Positivity, who would spend the entire time telling me that my life could be so much worse, that there were starving children in Africa. I already knew that! But it didn’t matter how much pain was happening in the world because your own pain always resonated the loudest. I could already hear my Mom’s voice in my head and I —
Knock, knock, knock.
Well, speak of the overly optimistic angel.
“Tina, sweetie, how are you doing in there?”
“Fine, Mom.” I was pacing around my room, wearing a hole into my rug and I really didn’t want her to see me like this. I wasn’t even sure she could handle seeing me like this.
“I’m guessing talking to Aunt Abby didn’t help?” She said it in that knowing way that said she saw her sister as a bit of a screw up.
I threw the door open, my breath catching in my throat so hard that I choked. “I don’t want to rely on you. For anything. You are not going to be wiping my ass for me. I can do that by myself! I don’t want your help or anybody’s help!” My voice came out shrill, the words just spilling from me like water from a bottle, tipped on its side.
“You won’t have to –”
But I didn’t stop there. “What if my surgery goes wrong? And don’t say it won’t. Just, what if? Being in a wheelchair will seriously cut down my choice of acting roles. Broadway would be a complete joke. You know, it’s much harder to get perfect grades when you’re dead!”
“This apartment is a two story walk-up with no handicap access. What then? If this goes badly, will we have to move? Can we afford to move? And what about sex? I’ve never done it. Should I hurry up and do that now before I lose my shot?”
“Tina!” Her voice sailed over mine in a shriek so loud it echoed against the walls.
I stopped talking.
Mom took a deep breath and in that moment she drooped a bit. I could see the bags under her eyes, the dark circles.
“Can’t you just think positively?”
She stepped a little closer. “Everything is going to be fine. Really, it is.”
“I know you think it will be. You always think it will be. But somebody has to prepare for the possibility.” Hot tears filled my eyes, making her image waver. “Ninety-nine percent is not one hundred percent.”
“You sound just like your father!” Mom shouted and it knocked the wind out of me. She shook her head and then hugged me, hard, like she hadn’t done since the divorce three years ago. We didn’t speak for a long time. When we did, she was whispering, “But one percent is a very, very small number.”
“I know.” It was all I had the energy to say.
I felt better after talking to Mom, and for a moment, I had found my balance again. The next few days were good. The year-end musical revue went off without a hitch, and Jeff had given me a sweet get-well card that made me feel less like a freak, and more like a normal teenage girl. But the peace only lasted until the day the phone rang and interrupted me as I studied for my finals.
My Dad. The world must’ve been knocked off its axis.
“Hi, Daddy. How are you?” Why did I still call him Daddy? He hadn’t earned the title. It was like an involuntary twitch, a knee-jerk reflex.
“I’m doing well. A couple more weeks in San Diego. But I promise I will be home in time for the big day.”
He said that like I was getting married, not having my back moved around like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
An awkward silence. They often populated our conversations.
“Sooooo, how are you holding up?”
“I’m fine.” There would be no tearful outbursts here. With Dad, I was all business.
“Studying for finals?”
“Yep. Right this minute, actually. History. The exam is tomorrow.” That would be your cue to get off the phone.
“Good. Let’s bring that grade up from last time. Ninety is still ten percent down from one hundred, right?”
My stomach pitched. “Right, Daddy.”
That night, I jolted from sleep in a panic, beads of sweat trickling down my chest, the front of my pale blue sleepshirt darkened by them.
Had I been dreaming something? I couldn’t remember, exactly. All that remained was the horrifying feeling that the things Dr. Silvian had described about the surgery were all wrong and he had no idea what he was doing.
I threw my covers back and spilled out of the bed, my legs too shaky to walk straight. I stumbled to my computer and typed ‘double rod fusion scoliosis procedure’ into the search bar. As I read through the results, I contemplated the idea of putting my life in the hands of a person who I couldn’t even trust to describe the procedure properly, all the while wishing there was some way that I could perform spinal surgery on myself.
Obviously, that was absurd, but who else could I trust with something so big?
As I searched, I began to hum. There was a counting song about zoo animals I used to sing when I was a kid. I found its words spilling from my lips, my name finding its way into the lyrics, the meaning of the song twisting with my alterations. I looked through web pages filled with pictures of disfigured spines, singing in a voice that was almost a whisper. “Tina the camel has two humps. Tina the camel has two humps. Ride, Tina, ride.”
By the time I was done with my search, I was more than sure that Dr. Silvian had described my surgery correctly and in nauseatingly accurate detail. Whatever he’d left out, my research had more than made up for. He would cut me open, the scalpel slicing through layers of skin and fat and muscle; take a piece of bone out of my hip and move it into my spine to add strength to the bones that hadn’t grown as they should; shave down my ribs so they still fit into my body after the deformity was corrected; insert steel rods into my back, attached by hooks to my spine; use those to keep me straight, to eliminate the “S” shape of my spine, the slithering snake on the X-ray; make it so my shoulders didn’t hunch anymore, so I was more balanced – which was funny, because since hearing about the surgery, balance felt more and more distant.
I could see myself strung up on the hooks in my back and being moved around on surgical thread like a gruesome marionette performing each step of the surgery. That would be one way to pursue a post-surgical dance career.
Clearly, I was insane from lack of sleep, but that didn’t mean I could make myself cooperate. I stayed awake all night, until it was time to head into school for my history final.
Every day of finals week passed the same way. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t think about anything but the difference between ninety-nine percent and one percent, which would have been great if it was exams I was worrying about. Exams were what I should have been worrying about. But instead, I obsessed about this surgery, like a sore in my mouth that I couldn’t stop poking with my tongue.
And then, I was staring at a paper that had been placed on my desk face down. The grade of my last final awaited a flip of the page. All results I had received so far had been in the eighties, a disappointment compared to my usual showing.
My head was spinning, my heart doing a tap dance very much like the one I performed for the year-end musical revue. Would that be my final performance? I hadn’t even bothered to sign up for auditions for the spring musical. Who knew where I’d be then? In what physical condition?
I flipped the paper over. “70%” was written in heavy red ink on the top of the page.
Seventy. I’d never gotten less than an eighty-five in my life and even then that was only in my hardest subjects.
Ninety is still ten percent down from one hundred, right?
I didn’t even remember getting into the girl’s restroom, but now my half-digested lunch was staring back up at me from the toilet. I wiped my lips with toilet paper and flushed. I scrambled to my feet and opened the stall door, its cracking red paint scraping against my fingers. Lisa was standing against the white tile walls, her naturally tanned skin a sharp contrast.
“You okay, loca?”
Crazy. Yeah. I felt like I was going crazy.
I just sighed and headed for the sink. I ran the cold water, splashing it on my face. Still, the droplets of sweat forming on my skin felt like ice chips.
Lisa rubbed a hand against my back as I stood hunched over the sink, my fingers digging into a surface I’d normally avoid all physical contact with, struggling to get my bearings.
“I could talk to Ricciardi for you? See if he can be lenient with your…” She trailed off, her reflection watching me.
That sounded like a great idea, and I was seconds away from agreeing with it. But what was I doing I didn’t even recognize myself. Where had my strength gone? Had I really allowed one shitty diagnosis to take away everything I prided myself in? For fuck’s sake! My best friend didn’t even believe I was capable of talking to my own teachers.
“No,” I said, letting go of the sink and pulling myself up as straight as I could manage. I still felt somewhat crooked, but not nearly as bad as I had before. “I’ll talk to them.”
I started with Mr. Ricciardi. All of my teachers knew about the surgery. Mom had told them, but they listened to my explanation, and assured me that they would judge my grades based on the entire semester, not some one month hiccup. As I spoke to them, as they discussed how solid my grades were, I realized they weren’t asking me for perfect, just that I kept working, that I didn’t settle or quit.
My last stop was The Creative and Performing Arts department door. The walls and the windows leading up to it were coated in a slew of student paintings and flyers for upcoming performances, the largest and brightest of which was the one for the year-end revue. I walked past them. I didn’t need to speak with Lynsky. I needed what was taped haphazardly to her office door, hanging from one unevenly cut strip of scotch tape.
The sign up sheet for the spring musical.
Would I be better by then? Would I be here at all?
I snatched a pen from my backpack and signed my name on an empty line.
The morning of the surgery, I headed to the hospital with Mom before the sun had risen. Dad met us there.
“How’s my champ?” Dad greeted me with a hug at the entrance to the waiting room. He had the broad shoulders and personality of a football coach and the clothing of a CEO. I was fairly sure he’d wanted a boy and got stuck with me instead. Champ?
As I waited, my heart steadily made its way up into my throat and then down into my stomach.
When my name was called, Dad wasted no time grabbing me up in a bear hug, apparently determined to break my back even more than it already was. “You’re fine, Tina, okay?” He whispered in my ear. “Kick ass in there.” Always a football coach despite being an investment banker. Annoying, but I hugged him back anyway.
Mom was calm when she hugged me, her nervousness only betrayed by the length of the hug. She kissed my cheek and whispered an “I love you” in my ear.
Just before I left, she said, “Sometimes, you can’t tell how things will go, so you just have to let go and believe it will be okay.”
I was beginning to understand that.
Dr. Silvian was late. He was stuck in traffic, which did wonders for my already spastic nerves.
I waited, lying on my hospital bed, and struggling not to think about the massive screw up my surgeon seemed to be.
I told myself repeatedly that I was going to be okay. Because I had to be. A good performer doesn’t let one misstep, one unexpected event, blow an entire performance. She does what she can to correct the problem and if she can’t, like the time the slipper fell into the audience during our production of Cinderella and the crowd had to return it, she puts herself in the hands of the person who can. But, most importantly, she keeps on dancing, because that’s how you really give one hundred percent.
By the time Dr. Silvian arrived, I was already groggy from the anesthesia.
“Good morning, Sarah.”
“Tina! My name is Tina!” My internal thoughts squeaked, but I couldn’t seem to form the words to correct him.
The nurse did it for me.
Dr. Silvian shook his head. “I’m sorry, dear. You just remind me so much of my niece.”
The fear that all the positive thinking in the world couldn’t lessen eased up a bit with his words, even as a fuzzy blackness crept over my vision.
I wiggled my toes and looked forward to doing it again when I woke up.