"I've picked a song for our Freestyle!" Austin beamed triumphantly at me as I stepped into the studio a few days later. My half-cast had come off the day before and although my doctor had warned me to take it easy for a few days, Austin and I both knew that we couldn't afford to lose any more time.
I dumped my dance bag on the floor and looked up at him with excitement.
"Oh really?" I asked. "Which song?" So far he had chosen "My Heart Will Go On" by Celine Dion for our Waltz, and "Let's Get Loud" by Jennifer Lopez for our Cha-Cha-Cha. I was really curious to see what he had chosen for our Freestyle.
Without answering, Austin simply strode over to his iPod which had been connected to the entire sound system in the studio. He scrolled through his playlist for a moment, then smiled brightly as the well-known song burst through the speakers.
"Footloose!" I screamed.
Austin did a double-take. "Whoa! You know this song?"
"I do have a life outside of Mozart and Beethoven, you know? Plus, my sister went through an 80's phase at one point. My mom was rarely in the house during that time."
He put down the iPod and motioned for me to join him in the center of the studio. A quickly kicked off my shoes and followed him, being careful not to put too much pressure on my foot.
"Well, I thought this was a good song choice," Austin said, taking my hands in his. "I think it really reflects your personality."
A shot him a quizzical look. "How so?"
Instead of replying though, he began spinning me around and re-enacting his crazy moves from Prom. His smile was becoming more and more infectious, and pretty soon I realized that I was grinning from ear and ear and giggling as we jumped around the studio like crazy.
"Just think of the lyrics," Austin eventually said once the song had ended and we were catching our breaths. And by "we" I mean me. Austin looked as calm as if he had merely returned from a stroll in the park, while I huffed and puffed like I'd just run a mile.
"What about...the lyrics?" I persisted through gasping breaths. My eyes zeroed in on the bench at the side of the room, but my legs refused to carry me that far. Instead, I simply plopped myself down on the floor. Austin chuckled and sat down beside me.
"Well, you just always work so hard, Jules," he explained. "You're always 'obeying the rules' and being the perfect daughter." I shot him a look. "Okay, at least you used to be that way." I nodded, more satisfied with that answer. "But I can tell you're still hesitant to break out of your shell and be the person you want to be, instead of the person your mom's forcing you to be."
"And what gives you that impression?"
Austin shrugged. "Have you confronted your mom about being a doctor yet?"
"Does she even know we're dating?"
"And why's that, Julianne?"
I couldn't bring myself to answer that. I tore my gaze from his intense, green eyes and focused on the specks of dust littering the hardwood floor instead. Did no one ever clean this place?
Austin sighed, running his fingers through his hair and rising back to his feet. "For once in your life, Julianne, just stop trying to make everyone else happy and think about what makes you happy. Just...cut loose. Break free of those puppet strings and be yourself. Okay?"
I nodded, even though I wasn't completely sure I'd understood what he was saying. "Okay."
He smiled, offering me his hand and helping me up to my feet. "Good. Now that that's settled, let's choreograph this thing."
"Austin, I can't do this," I said, for the millionth time.
"Yes, you can. Just...let your body move. You're stiff again."
I sighed deeply, looking at my sweaty and frustrated reflection in the studio mirrors. If I had thought that Austin's brilliant Dirty Dancing lift was impossible, it had been because I'd never experienced something as ludicrous as the Freestyle. The Freestyle had only one rule which, at first, I thought would be a good thing. Unlike Ballroom or Latin dances, I wouldn't have to worry about posture and hold technicalities or forbidden lifts.
"The only rule," Austin had said, "is that there are no rules!"
That's when I got that gut-dropping sensation you sometimes get when the teacher calls on you in the middle of class and you have absolutely nothing useful to say, and all eyes are on you and all you want is for the floor to open up and swallow you whole.
It was not a pretty feeling.
Austin had managed to choreograph the whole dance in his head while I had been home for the past week, watching chick flicks and keeping my foot elevated on three pillows. In theory, everything was supposed to work out. However, in theory, Austin also had a world-class partner with fifteen years of dancing experience (a.k.a not me). What resulted in reality was a complete disaster. You may not realize it when you're listening to the song, but once you start dancing to it-My God! You need energy, speed, sharp kicks and fluid movement-all while trying to think fast and remember what the hell you're supposed to be doing next. Between the flips, lifts and crazy spins, it's a miracle I'd survived so long. Austin had sure managed to pack a lot into a dance that was only supposed to last a maximum of two minutes.
"I'm not liking the idea of this flip," I said, planting my hands on my hips and shifting my weight to my uninjured foot. After nearly five hours of nonstop dancing, my ankle had started acting up again. I didn't dare mention it to Austin, though.
"It'll be fine," he promised. "Monique and I have done this a million times."
"Yeah, well, I'm not Monique."
Austin rolled his eyes, probably not wanting to get into the Monique discussion again. "Come on, just try it."
After a moment's contemplation, I slowly trudged toward Austin so that we'd be back to back.
"You ready?" Austin asked as we locked arms.
I let out a shaky breath, trying to calm my nerves. At the same time, my stomach growled like a famished bear, echoing throughout the studio. That's what I got for skipping lunch.
Austin hesitated. "Was that your-"
"Yes, Austin, it was my stomach. I'm hungry, and cranky, and tired, and I really want to go home! Can we just get this over with?"
"Alright, alright, no need to get your knickers in a twist." He paused for a moment, then continued. "How's your ankle, by the way?"
We got back into position-back to back, arms locked-and I prepared myself for the flip. Austin bent forward, lifting me up onto his back. I straightened my legs upward and did the couple of kicks he had instructed me to do, then brought my knees to my chest and kicked them upwards again as Austin pulled me over his shoulders. Theoretically, I was supposed to land on my feet, untwine my arms from Austin's, and strike a sexy pose.
That's not what happened.
What happened was that I managed to land on my injured foot. Pain shot through my ankle and up my leg, coursing all the way up my spine and making its way out my mouth in an agonized cry. Caught off -guard, Austin pulled away too soon, causing me to lose my balance and fall. Hard.
I landed in a sobbing heap on the floor, afraid to even move. My ankle burned with pain. My eyes were hot with tears. Something felt funny about my right shoulder. Disappointment gnawed at my insides. Overall, I did not feel too good.
Austin squatted down beside me, gently brushing the hair out of my face to reveal my tear streaked cheeks. "Your ankle isn't fine, is it?" he asked.
I shook my head as I repositioned myself, pulling my ankle out from under all my weight."I'm really sorry, Austin," I said, wincing through the throbbing pain.
"Jules, why are you apologizing?" He reached out and began wiping the tears from my cheeks. "It's my fault. Your half-cast just came off yesterday. It was too soon for lifts."
I didn't reply, just took off my sock and began analyzing my ankle. It didn't particularly look like anything was wrong with it, but the stabbing pain begged to differ. Austin offered to go get me some ice and quickly left the studio, leaving me sitting in the middle of the room, surrounded by still quiet. Just as I caught sight of my frightful reflection in the mirror and began trying to do something about my despicable hair, the ringing of my phone shattered the silence. I glanced in the direction of the sound, realizing that my phone was buried somewhere in my bag. And that the bag was at the other and of the studio.
"You have got to be kidding me!" I mumbled to myself. I attempted to get up, but that was a no go. Then, to my surprise, the ringing stopped. So I shrugged, thinking it would just go to voicemail and whoever it was would just leave a message.
I had just gotten back to fixing my hair when the ringing started up again.
"Oh for the love of God!" Annoyed, I crawled over to my dance bag, tore the zipper open and began rummaging around until I reached its very depths and my hand curled around my phone.
"Hello," I said, slapping it to my ear.
"Joanna!" I tried mimicking her enthusiasm, but failed miserably. Thankfully, she didn't seem to notice.
"How are you, little sis?"
"I've...been better," I admitted, glancing at my aching ankle again.
"Oh, what's the matter?" She sounded genuinely worried, and so I gave her a brief recount of my ankle troubles. "Oh man, that's awful," she said once I'd finished. "I really hope you'll get better in time for the wedding!"
The thought of her wedding nudged a smile on my face. "Me too, Joanna! I'm really excited for-"
"Speaking of which," she cut me off, "you can still make it tonight, right?"
"Yeah, of course I-" I stopped short as my mind drew a complete blank. "Where am I going, again?"
"Umm, the final dress fitting? I don't want my bridesmaids looking anything less than fabulous in front of a church full of people!"
"Right, right," I quickly said. "I'll be there. 7:00, right?"
"No, 7:30." Her voice was hesitant. "We had to push it back half an hour because of your piano class, remember?"
Oh shit! Mrs. Lewis was back from vacation, wasn't she? I furtively glanced at my watch, realizing that it was already quarter to five. I had just over an hour until my piano class.
"Right, of course." I chuckled sheepishly, wanting to slap myself for forgetting such things. As Sherlock would say: "It is elementary, my dear Watson."
"Julie, is everything okay?"
At that moment, Austin burst back into the studio, ice pack in one hand and tenser in the other. He gave me a quizzical look.
"Who is it?" he asked.
"Joanna," I mouthed back. Then, I turned back to the phone. "Yeah, Joanna, everything's fine. Aside from my ankle everything's...great! Why would anything be wrong?"
"I don't know. It's just not like you to forget these things. I mean, you remember that James Chadwick discovered the proton in 1932, but you forget about your piano class and your dress fitting?"
"You mean neutron."
Joanna paused. "What?"
"James Chadwick discovered the neutron," I sighed. "Not the proton."
"Exactly!" she exclaimed. "You see what I mean? What's gotten into you?"
"Nothing." I tried keeping my voice as nonchalant as possible, but this time, she picked something up.
"Julie..." she said playfully. I didn't like the sound of her voice.
"Have you met a boy?"
"You did, didn't you?" Oh God. If there was some kind of scale that measured excitement, I'm pretty sure she would have broken the instrument.
Austin knelt down and placed the ice pack on my ankle, making me flinch as the cold seeped through my skin. Even his ears perked up at the sound of my squealing sister. I decided that I really didn't want to talk about him, in front of him.
"You know what, Joanna?" I said hurriedly. "I have to go."
"Julie!" she shrieked. "You can't go! Tell me-"
"I'll see you later! Bye!" I slapped the phone shut before she could say anything more, and threw it back in my dance bag as if it had bit me. Austin glanced up, giving me a funny look.
"What did your sister want?" he asked, slightly amused.
I shrugged, pretending I didn't know he already knew anyway.
"She was reminding me of the dress fitting tonight. And my piano class, which is in like," I checked my watch again, "an hour and ten minutes. And then she made fun of me for forgetting, and...yeah. Girl talk."
Austin smirked. "Girl talk about boys, right?"
"Maybe..." I gave him a sly smile, but didn't elaborate.
Once my ankle was numb with cold Austin drove me home so I could shower and change out of my stinky dance clothes before my piano class. I left Austin sitting in the living-room, entertained by the ending of "Jaws" that we never got to see because the power had gone out. As I was in the process of washing my hair, I was startled by loud pounding on the bathroom door.
"Jules!" Austin yelled. "You're needed!"
"What?" I shouted back. "Now?"
"Just get out here! There's some kind of...girl crisis!"
A what? I shut the shower off and wrapped a towel around myself, mumbling curse words as I caught sight of the nest of shampoo on my head in the mirror. I swung the door open, shivering as a gust of air conditioning swept over me.
"What the hell are you talking about?" I asked, wrapping the towel tighter around my body.
And then I saw her. Lilly. She was slumped against the wall, eyes red and mascara smeared all over her face from the tears. Her usually perfect hair was a tangled, frizzy mess, and her soaked, white T-shirt stuck to her skin, revealing her yellow polka-dotted bra. I had never seen her look so fragile and vulnerable in all the years I'd known her.
"What happened to you?" I sputtered.
"It's...Brad...he..." She burst into sobs before she could finish, letting herself slide against the wall and onto the floor. I immediately crouched down beside her, fingers clutching the towel even tighter. Stupid Brad. I should have known he'd do something stupid! I was afraid to even ask what he had done. I took a deep breath, bracing myself for the worst.
"What did he do, Lilly?"
For a few moments she just kept sobbing and shaking her head incessantly, as if she still couldn't believe it herself. I realized Austin was still awkwardly standing in front of us, so I jerked my head in the direction of the living-room.
"Right, right," he muttered. "I'll...give you some privacy."
As soon as he was gone, Lilly finally brushed the hair out of her face and looked at me with bleary eyes.
"There was this party Friday night," she began. "I couldn't go because my parents were both out for the evening, and after Fiona's doctor appointment, it turned out that she was actually quite sick so I had to stay with her. But...Brad went. And...and that stupid Chloe from your English class."
Oh shit. This couldn't be good.
Lilly's bottom lip began quivering, and I gave her shoulder an encouraging squeeze. After taking a deep breath, she continued.
"The next day, rumours started swarming and I was getting all these weird texts from people. I didn't want to believe that anything had happened at that party...until I got this." She pulled her phone out from her shorts pocket, scrolled around for a bit, then thrust it in my hand.
The picture was rather dark, and at first I wasn't quite sure what I was looking at. But then I recognized Brad's athletic frame and Chloe's long, blond hair. She was pressed up against him as they kissed, her arms snaked around his neck while his hands seemed to be lingering somewhere near her butt. A wave of fury instantly washed over me. What a total and complete jerk! How could he do this? Sneaking around with that idiotic Chloe while Lilly's at home, taking care of her sister? Did he have no decency? No respect for Lilly? How dare he-
"He left for the cottage the next day," Lilly cut into my thoughts, taking her phone back and shutting it off. "He got back yesterday, so today I went to ask him about this."
"Well, I didn't show him the picture right away. So at first he denied it."
"Oh, it gets even worse, Jules," she wailed. "Eventually I shoved the picture in his face, and you know what he said? 'It didn't mean anything. She had a few beers and practically threw herself at me. It's not like I actually wanted to kiss her.' Ha!" She scoffed. "He definitely looked completely repelled by her!"
I shook my head in dismay, speechless. What was there to say? Brad was a rotten, despicable, repugnant excuse of a human being, unworthy of someone as amazing as Lilly.
"So..." I said. "What now?"
"We broke up." She sniffed. "Apparently he doesn't like the fact that I have trust issues."
"Trust issues?! Well, can he blame you? He's the one running off with the bimbo of the school and claiming it was nothing! If anyone has issues, it's him, Lilly. You're far better than this!"
She shrugged and wiped the tears from her cheeks. "I hope I never see him again! I swear, if I ever see that lying, cheating, abominable scoundrel again, I won't even hesitate to throw something at him! Or push him in front of a bus. Whatever's more convenient."
I giggled and wrapped her in a hug, glad to see that she at least still had her sense of humour.
"Good," I said . "Who needs guys anyway, right?"
As we pulled apart, her soaking wet T-shirt rose to my attention again. "Hey, Lilly?"
"Why are you all wet?"
She groaned and rolled her eyes as if she really didn't want to revisit the incident. "I got splashed by a bus. Whatever compelled that driver to speed up as he drove straight through that giant puddle, I'll never know."
I smiled sympathetically, knowing all too well what it felt like to walk down the sidewalk perfectly dry one moment, and then finding yourself dripping wet in the next one. I honestly thought that some drivers sped through puddles on purpose, just to get a kick out of ruining someone's day.
"Go and borrow some of my clothes," I told her, winking. "I'm sure you'll find something decent to wear."
"Well, I would hope so! I'm the one who reconfigured your entire closet, right?"
Smiling, she began making her way down the hallway towards my room. As soon as she'd shut the door behind her, I returned into the bathroom and climbed back into the shower. As the hot water streamed down and rinsed away the shampoo on my head, my mind wandered to Austin as I thought back to Brad and poor, heartbroken Lilly. Surely, he'd never do something like that to me. Right?
"That was much better than last time, Julianne," Mrs. Lewis said, sounding incredulous. "I'm glad to see you've been practicing."
It was the beginning of my piano class, and I wanted to burst out laughing. Little did she know that I hadn't played the piece since that time at Austin's cottage. I truly felt bad about not practicing more often, and, to be honest, I had no idea why she was so fascinated by my playing. I knew for a fact that I had messed up exactly four times during that run-through. Maybe that vacation of hers had affected her hearing.
"Actually, Mrs. Lewis," I said, "I haven't been practicing all that much."
Her eyes all but bulged out of her face in shock. "But dear, that was amazing! Surely you must have been doing something to improve so much!"
Yeah. Totally. Lately I'd started dancing around my apartment as I listened to the song, getting bewildered looks from my mother while my dad just shrugged and got back to reading the newspaper. After hearing the piece so many times, every note had been drilled into my head.
"I dunno." I shrugged. "I guess I've just learned to feel the music."
The process of learning to 'feel the music' had also consisted of feeling countless bruises, courtesy of stupid coffee tables and chairs, but you know. No pain, no gain, right?
Mrs. Lewis gazed tentatively at me, nodding her head ever so slowly. "Yes," she mumbled. "Yes, I think you really have. Amazing..."
I still didn't understand exactly what was so amazing, so I merely shrugged and turned back to the piano. As soon as my fingers touched the keys and the beautiful notes filled my ears, I was transported to a whole other world, forgetting all about crazy Mrs. Lewis.
When I stepped out of the piano practice room after my lesson, I was surprised to see Austin sitting with Lilly in the waiting room, giving her a pep talk.
"You don't need him!" he said."
"I don't need him," she repeated.
Huh. I wondered how long this had been going on.
"You don't want him!"
"I don't want him!"
"He is not worth your time and tears!"
"He is not worth my time and tears!"
"Because you're too good for him!"
"Because I'm too good for him!"
Austin smiled, clearly pleased with the results. "And what will you do if he dares show up to you again?"
"Grab the nearest, heavy object and throw it at his face!"
"Noooo!" Austin wailed, burying his head in his hands. "You were doing so well, Lilly."
"But he broke my heart!" Lilly insisted. "Why can't I at least break his nose?"
I sighed and strode over to them, laying a gentle hand on Lilly's shoulder. "And what exactly will that accomplish?" I asked.
"It will rid me of my urge to break his nose, obviously!"
"And why exactly do you have the urge to break his nose?"
"Because...because he hurt me, Jules! Why should I be the only one to suffer? He should suffer too!"
"So you're going to break his nose," Austin stated, flatly.
Lilly pondered this for a moment. "Hmm...you're right," she finally said. "Breaking his nose wouldn't do any good."
Austin and I let out sighs of relief. Maybe her sanity was still salvageable.
"Maybe I'll throw him in front of a bus after all..."
Damn it. I spoke too soon.
We arrived at the dress shop within twenty minutes, which was a real accomplishment considering the ridiculous traffic and the fact that Lilly had had another breakdown almost as soon as we embarked ourselves into Austin's car. I really didn't understand what went on through that girl's head. One moment she's practically plotting the boy's death, and the next she sees some guy wearing the exact same green shirt Brad had worn on their fourth date, and she bursts into another round of tears. The idea of having her psychoanalyzed by my mother had seriously crossed my mind.
"Maybe I should take her for a walk," Austin suggested as we reached the shop doors. Lilly was once again a sniffling mess, miserably trailing along behind us. It hurt to see her like that, but if I didn't get the stupid dress sorted out, Joanna would never let me hear the end of it. Besides, she had covered for me after that Fourth of July incident. The least I could do was go through with dress fitting. It had been planned for weeks.
"Good idea," I replied. "Maybe get her some ice cream. It might cheer her up."
"I don't want ice cream!" Lilly sobbed. "It reminds me of Brad. He bought me a Chocolate Mint ice cream cone on our first date!"
Of course he did.
"Fine," I said to Austin. "Maybe a fruit smoothie. She likes Banana/Strawberry."
"Brad likes Banana/Strawberry smoothies too! We shared one in Central Park once!"
Oh for the love God. At this rate, we could have started talking about pumpkins and she'd have somehow found a way to relate it to Brad.
Eventually Austin was able to lead our weeping Lilly across the street and into a little pastry store, leaving me to face the dress madness all on my own. I reluctantly stepped into the dress shop, wrinkling my nose as I caught a waft of fruity fragrances lingering in the air. A group of chattering girls stood before a three-sided mirror at the far end of the shop, one of them perched on a foot-tall platform and wearing a poufy, princess-like white dress.
"Julie!" she shrieked, seeing my reflection behind her. "You made it!" She scrambled down from the platform, shuffling towards me as she clumsily grabbed at her dress. She pulled me in a tight hug when she finally reached me, crushing every bone in my body and practically suffocating me with her flamboyant, brown curls.
"Joanna." I choked. "I already have an injured ankle. Please don't cripple me any more."
"Oh sorry." She quickly pulled away, looking down at my once again bandaged ankle. After the day's disaster, I wasn't taking any more chances. "How is the ankle, by the way?"
I shrugged. "Not bad. But it would have been a lot better if Austin hadn't decided to try his brilliant flip today."
A twinkle started dancing in Joanna's blue eyes, and a smile slowly spread on her lips.
"Austin," she said. "Who's that?" After knowing my sister for eighteen years, I've come to learn that most of her questions weren't really questions. They were demands. Like now, for instance. She wasn't asking me who Austin was. No no no no. What she was really saying was: "Tell me all about this Austin kid and don't leave anything out, 'cause you know I'll find out eventually anyway."
This was the reason why she knew everything about me. And I do mean EVERYTHING! She had always been up to speed on each and every one of my crushes, all of my most embarrassing moments, my deepest and darkest secrets (the fact that I had no intention of ever becoming a doctor was old news to her), and she knew about all of my weird habits-like the fact that I wore socks to bed, and that I always shut my closet doors before going to sleep, for fear that something may spring out and kill me in the middle of the night. It was a childhood fear that never completely went away.
"Austin is..." I paused, unsure of how to introduce him. "It's a really long story."
Joanna's smile seemed to broaden even more. "That's okay. We've got time."
As she began leading me towards the posse before the three-way mirror, my brain quickly started searching for a way to start the story of Austin and me. That blind date Lilly had set us up on now suddenly felt like ages away!
"Here's your dress," Joanna said, handing me a silky, lavender gown. "Go and try it on."
My fellow bridesmaids were already in their dresses, and a frantic seamstress was bouncing from one to the other as all their voices overlapped with complaints.
"Can we do something about this halter neck?" A tall, blonde girl was saying. "I feel like I'm being choked!"
"My hem is too long," a short brunette piped in. "I'm gonna be tripping down the aisle at this rate!"
A girl who was slightly on the chubby side was unhappily staring at her reflection, hands on her hips and mouth in a tight line. "Does this dress make me look fat?" she asked.
All the other girls erupted in mortified gasps, immediately jumping to reassure her that she looked absolutely superb, and ravishing, and that it pronounced her curves.
She totally looked fat.
I raised my eyebrows at Joanna, but she just rolled her eyes and pointed me in the direction of the change room. I was only too glad to get away from all the jabbering. I quickly stripped off my clothes and scrambled into my bridesmaid's dress, not even bothering to look in the mirror of the change room. The sooner I got this over with, the sooner I could get back to Lilly and her crisis. The poor girl was probably drowning her sorrows in ridiculous amounts of sugar and carbohydrates at the moment.
I swung the change room door open and nearly walked smack into Joanna, who was practically jumping up and down with excitement. I swear, you'd have thought she'd have taken about ten Espresso shots earlier, and that they were suddenly all kicking in at once.
"Oh My God!" she squealed. "Julie, you look great!"
"Pfft, yeah sure-"
And then I saw myself in the three-way mirror.
Damn. It was like the Prom dress all over again! Only, you know, this dress was actually quite different. Although the dress did not have a design, the sheer simplicity of the lavender, figure-fitting silk was perfectly elegant. I didn't have any issues with the halter neck, the hem was just right for my 5'2" height, and for once, there were no issues with the cleavage. All the other bridesmaids stopped to gawk at me, making me feel really uncomfortable.
"Joanna, is this your sister?" The petite brunette asked.
"Yes," Joanna replied. "Girls, this is Julianne. Julianne this is Sarah"-the petite brunette-"Kristen"-the tall blonde-"and Penny"-the fat one.
"Hi." I waved nervously, which must have been a sign for the overlapping chatter to start all over again. Greetings and questions were thrown at me all at once, barely giving me enough time to reply before someone else demanded my attention. Meanwhile, the seamstress was trying to inspect every possible inch of my dress, looking almost determined to find something wrong with it.
When all the chaos had died down and I was back in the change room, Joanna decided to strike up a conversation as she waited for me just outside.
"So tell me this Austin saga of yours," she said.
I rolled my eyes, even though she couldn't see me, but told her the story from beginning to finish all the same. When I stepped out of the change room, she was quite literally doing a happy dance and grinning from ear to ear as if she'd just won the lottery.
"Awww I'm so happy for ya, sis!" she shrieked. "Are you gonna bring him to the wedding? You're gonna bring him, right? Right?"
Oh good God. Bring Austin? To a family wedding? My crazy family?
This could not end well.