Courtney Justus

My House

This house I live in is not my own. Two stories, colonial style, in northwest Houston, wooden floors like my dance studio, plus a wide, metallic gate and a garden through which I rarely walk, because Mr. Martínez, the owner, a balding man in round glasses, told me there were snakes. My father, my papá, an Argentinean immigrant and former dancer, gets half the second floor from him, plus a small salary, for working at his business. I was five years old when Papá and I first moved here. Soon, I will be seventeen.

The roof of Mr. Martínez’s house slants low in my room, making an incline going from the right wall toward the bed, creating a kind of trapezoidal shape if you look at my bed from the door. If I had all my friends from dance class over, six of them plus me, then we could all fit into the room, sitting in a compressed half-circle around my twin bed. My friends say it’s “cozy” and “cute” and “rustic chic,” words which are supposed to mean good things, though I often think otherwise.

The kitchen and eating area stretch across nearly half of the first floor, marbled countertops gleaming, baskets loaded with mangoes and plantains, lemons and oranges. At breakfast, I slice mangoes and fry eggs for my father as he tucks one of his four starched shirts into worn trousers. Morning is the only time of day when I am consistently able to cook for him, or do anything much to help out. I once suggested that I could get a job during the summertime, to help out, so that maybe he wouldn’t have to worry so much about all the housework he has to do, on top of all his real work for Mr. Martínez. I thought that maybe, if I contributed a little more money, he could really start saving up for a place of his own. When I merely mentioned working over the summer, however, he shook his head.

“You need to live your life while you are young, mija,” he said while scraping chopped bell peppers from a wooden cutting board into a shiny metal salad bowl. “Once you are a little older, closer to college, then you can get a job. But not for me. For you.”

Live your life while you are young. And what happens after that, papá?

The First Meeting

They met at a record store, Los Buenos Beats, just north of downtown Houston, where my father was trying to look for a job. I was looking up at papá, watching him thumb through the alphabetized records. He had reached the B section, maybe C section, when Mr. Martínez backed into my father, who had just picked up a Bach record. Classical music had been his love.

In remembering this first meeting, my father claims that I puckered my lips at Mr. Martínez, glaring at him from beneath the hood of a soft pink hoodie. My father laughs at this memory, so I try to do the same, to make my laugh match his. 

Mr. Martínez wants me to call him José, but I won’t. Calling him José would be like promoting him to the status of an uncle, a real family member. Not that I have many of those, but I’m not about to let him pose as one. Even imagining Mr. Martínez as a father is difficult. I imagine one of those bronze statues at a museum, bent permanently in one position, a man hovering over his sons. Mr. Martínez has no daughters. No young girls descended from him, of his blood, whose recitals he would attend, whose pictures he would place on his nightstand.

The Studio

Every Tuesday and Thursday, fifteen of us girls climb three flights of stairs to a ten-by-ten contemporary dance studio housed in a rundown yellow brick building, nudged between a laundromat and a 7-Eleven, mere blocks from where we went to school. Most nights, a Pakistani man named Behroze wheels his food cart around outside, selling hot dogs, soft pretzels and kebabs. 

On weekends, Sara, our instructor, will open the studio for us while she runs errands or plays with her children, but always makes us promise to be careful. She bites her brightly painted nails, tucks her red hair a half dozen times into a small bun. Sara says she loves us but can’t entrust us with the keys. 

“Maybe one day Sara will let us use the keys, so that she doesn’t have to,” Georgie says one evening as we buy two lamb kebabs. When I first started taking dance classes, Georgie let me borrow her leg warmers and her mom offered to give me a ride home when they learned my father did not have a car. She introduced me to Halsey and Bishop Briggs. Some days, when Georgie and I get to class early, we sit on the floor of the dance studio, the two of us listening to “Castle” or “The Way I Do” from her iPod, one earbud tucked behind Georgie’s orange-brown curls.

Ursula shakes her head, green eyes downcast, hands tugging at her red plaid shirt. “Probably not. But if she gave them to anyone, it would be Eva.” She shoots me a look then, of disappointment or envy, I’m not sure. Ursula was the last one to join our group. Her parents are joint partners at a law firm. We have all been to her house a few times, but have never seen them there.

I want to ask Ursula, or maybe one of the other girls, what it is like to live in a house that was your own, that your parents have paid for in full. Then I remember my father, how he paid with more than money to keep us somewhere, to keep me in a place where I could feel safe.

My Father’s Music

My father has old records he brought from Argentina, but he shakes his head at the music I move to in the studio, the acoustic love ballads of American artists and the pop songs girls of my age played on loop with their friends.

Papá still comes to see me at recitals, but in the confines of his own small room, he returns to the years with my mother, my mamá, to the bars of Hilario Camacho and Carlos Gardel, Charly García and Los Gatos. Recently, he added Maná to his playlists, after Mr. Martínez introduced him to “Rayando el Sol” and “Labios Compartidos”.

I wonder what my mother would think of Papá’s taste in music. Would she be proud of him, for sticking mostly to his roots? Or would she wish him assimilation into this other place, the world where music in Spanish played just as frequently as music in English on the radio?

My Music

At night, in my twin bed, underneath a pink afghan, I listen to Halsey, Bishop Briggs, Kygo, but also Maná and Hilario Camacho. Pop,folk, and acoustic. New and old. An eclectic mix, my father named it. Strange and romantic, my dance friends call it. I gathered the songs together into a few sweet playlists, songs I heard on the radio, or sitting in my father’s bedroom, leafing through his CD collection.

“Those were your mother’s,” he said one time, pointing to a Hilario Camacho album, then another one by Charly García. “One moment, something airy. The next, jazz and grit and heat.”

I smiled. Mamá was never a formal dancer, but she and my father went to clubs, sometimes with friends, mostly by themselves. Whenever I looked through her old albums, I often pictured her in a black gown, a tall slit snaking up one leg, jewels studding her collar, next to her my father in a white shirt with sweat stains and cigarette ashes, the two of them pressed to one another, ears tuned to a guitar.

I ask my father if he will teach me the tango, or perhaps a cambalache.

“One day, mija,” he says, eyes trained on some distant point. “One day.”

Family

I can’t remember the last time my family actually owned the house we lived in, if ever. Maybe my parents did, before I was born, before the idea of me even existed. My father won’t say. Some nights, lying in bed, I picture him standing on the clean wooden porch of a white townhouse, my mother standing in the circle made by his arms, red lipstick fresh, green eyes shining in the waning sunlight. They grow magnolias and bluebonnets, keep a small herb garden just outside the kitchen.

My family used to rent a small apartment on the northwest side of Houston, with light blue walls and flower boxes in the windows. I remember it mostly from the pictures my father keeps of that time. In many, I see my mother, standing in the sunlight with me in her arms. She died when I was five years old.

“Cancer,” Papá told me. “We didn’t have the treatments that people do now.”

He tells me I was not there when it happened, not for most of it.

“Where was I?” I asked, clinging to his arm.

“We had you stay with some friends, while I went to the hospital. It was very sudden, mija. I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”

I have some vague memories of Mamá, slightly altered and enhanced by these photographs my father keeps. In my father’s old trunk, I found a large stack just of her, wearing silky pink skirts, dresses with jeweled bodices. In each image, she would have one leg lifted, or an arm raised as she lifted her gaze skyward. As if she were searching for the source of some music she was hearing. 

There is one photo of her with me that my father keeps in a wooden frame on his nightstand. In it, I am wearing a pink tutu and she is crouching down next to me, smoothing my hair, her own curls dark and glossy. Like mine are now.

Dream

I dream of choreographing one of the end-of-semester dances for my class. Sara has not yet called me capable, but did her head a few times in my direction, said “Good, Eva” as I performed some of the trickier leg lifts and turns, so perhaps I am on my way. I’ve started to master my tilts, too, or so I thought. Sara says you never really finished mastering anything, but you can make it look beautiful if you practice enough.

I picture over and over again what the group would like performing these moves, my moves, onstage for hundreds of people. Shadows and lights in the shapes of half-formed silhouettes moving across the wooden panels. I make new dance playlists. “Fall Contemporary Playlist #3”, “New Pop for Dance Practice”, “Latino-Halsey Dance Mix”. Another, “A Playlist for Mamá”. Sometimes, I hear songs in my dreams and want to put those in my playlists, too. Often, I wake with the memory of some distant song in my head, something I heard between dreams, only to find that I don’t truly remember it at all. What if I could remember it? What if I could put these words into movement, this movement to music, show it to someone who could dance to it beside me?

Choreographer

“Congratulations, Eva.” 

It takes me several long moments for me to register Sara’s words, her face tilted down towards me as I am sitting on the bench, slipping off my shoes and socks. Though perhaps an inch shorter than me, she seemed so tall in that moment and, for a second, even younger than me.

I look at her. The realization hits me. I smile, closing my eyes as the young girls behind me, then my friends, start clapping. When I looked back up at Sara, she is smiling, too.

Back in my room, I start to walk in circles, lifting one foot, then the other, as I picture potential moves for the choreography. Back in the studio, after class and on weekends, I do the same. I have always chosen to dance alongside other people, yet I often picture myself dancing alone, in the same room, practicing the same spins by myself, with only some distant music to guide me.

When the other dancers lift their right legs high, I want them, with the music, to feel how something had been hit inside of them. Like the drum beat of the music is actually inside their chest, the aorta drawn through it. An instrument housed in a rib cage. Enclosed by a dancer’s slowly protruding ribs.

The Hip-Hop Dancers

On Thursday evenings, after class, a group of boys climbs to the studio above ours. Sometimes, I can hear the beginnings of songs blaring from their speakers, or even through the headphones of the boys who push past us on the stairs, their eyes dark with something I reach for in the dances I choreograph in my head. A substance in which I never fully immerse myself before pulling away, back into the lights, back onto the stage.

The Studio, Reprise

I find a way to let myself into the dance studio. If I wiggle a copper wire at the right angle through the dance studio lock, I can slip in without so much as the door squeaking. I only do it Mondays and Wednesdays after school, when I know Sara will be watching her kids. Not every Monday and Wednesday, and not too late, because Papá might worry. I keep the music low, in case anyone else is nearby and wonders if and why class is still going. This, I tell myself, is where class really begins.

I tell no one else about these sessions. Not Georgie, not Ursula, not anyone else.

The Recital

At the end-of-semester, winter performance, we wear white, our eyelids heavy, smattered with silver sparkles, courtesy of Raliia, our makeup artist, a friend of Sara’s from her time in dance school. Raliia’s brown eyes squint as she dabs another smudge of eyeshadow on me, then open wide again as a smile breaks across her square face.

“Beautiful,” she says. When I look at my face in the mirror, I see my mother’s eyes, her curls reflecting the light, her dark mouth drawn down.

Tonight, eyes are on me. On my name in the program. On my body moving onstage to the ever-closer music: “Colors” by Halsey, the stripped version. I am painted in many colors: white, blue, brown. They are coursing through my body like the music, visible and shining in the light.

Home

One night in March, when I get home from the studio, Papá tells me we must leave.

“Mr. Martínez and I had a fight,” he mumbles, staring at his shoes. “I said some things, and he asked me to leave.”

I lower my gaze, unsure what I am supposed to say. Where would we go now? Would we still live nearby, close to school and my friends, close to the dance studio?

I have never once stopped to ask Papá how much money he has, or if we will ever be able to move to a place of our own. Day after day, coming home from school, dance classes, I realize I hardly ever ask him about his day. I just kiss him on the cheek, then step in to help out with dinner if I can, if it’s not already fixed, cutting tomatoes or doing whatever my father asks me to do. But what does my father want to do?

Papá, where will we go?”

He takes my face in his hands. I do the same with his. As my gaze lifts, his remains lowered.

¿Papá?

No sé, mija. I never knew.”

Home, Reprise

Standing on the familiar wooden floors, I take one long breath in, then another one out. I hadn’t immediately thought of what I would practice, just that I had to do something. After debating whether or not to keep my earbuds in, I plug my iPhone into the speakers. I have no idea if or when I would come back here, so why should it matter if I’m a little loud?

I plug it in, then take it back out. This moment isn’t for them. It’s for me.

Earbuds in, I put on my Halsey playlist, close my eyes and let my body move. Torso tilting to the floor, right leg lifting slowly upwards. Reach one arm out as the other hand traces the floor. Tracing the floor I have thought of as mine for years.

Courtney Justus is a first year MFA in Creative Writing student at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. She received her Bachelor of Arts in English from Trinity University in 2018. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in America’s Emerging Young Adult Writers: The Plains StatesPress Pause PressTipton Poetry Journal, and elsewhere. You can learn more about her at courtneyjustuswriter.wordpress.com.

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