I wrote this piece for a creative nonfiction writing course in 2021.
“At Seventeen” hit the Billboard charts when I was in high school. This haunting bossa nova tune filled the airwaves with a lament that love was made for beauty queens. Like Janis Ian, I was a kid whose name was never called when choosing sides for basketball. Her lyrics drew me in with melancholy observations of the beautiful. The song ultimately reveals that life will not be flawless for hometown queens. Janis Ian gets us there with a samba step, forward and back. We step into predictions that the beautiful will lose love. We step back into cheating ourselves at solitaire.
At seventeen, I stepped away from my own high school lament. Dance clothes shoved into a knapsack, I got off the bus in a very sketchy part of Boston. Did my mother understand my route to the Boston Conservatory? I did not share this information with her at seventeen. I strode, exhilarated by my freedom, from the bus stop to my 1-mile walk down Boylston Street.
That summer, I left behind the high school girls with clear skinned smiles. The cheerleaders and the jocks and their Friday night parties that excluded me. I joined strangers in our mutual love of dance. Skinny young women, skinnier and more talented than I, but it didn’t matter. “Have a good class,” they’d call out to me as I leaned over the drinking fountain. We were dripping with sweat in those dance studios.
At seventeen, I donned footless dance tights and leotards with skinny straps. Bobby pins in my mouth, I pulled back my thick, brown hair and secured my bun. Ballet, jazz, modern. The barre work was hard, and the floor work intimidating. Dance teachers adjusted the placement of our arms, lifted our legs higher, and corrected the alignment of our hips. In my heart, I knew that I would never be a professional dancer. Remarkably, at seventeen, it didn’t matter.
I held my head erect. After morning classes, I walked through Boston like a queen. I reveled in anonymity. The spell was not broken by the bus ride to my job. At seventeen, I scooped ice cream for the money to pay for my freedom. I made sundaes with perfect swirls of whipped cream. I mastered the art of ice cream sodas, balancing scoops of ice cream against long spoons. If the ice cream plopped into the soda, the drink would bubble over the glass and onto the countertop.
After work, I clumsily tossed frisbees in the parking lot with the other teens. Some, as Janis Ian would describe, with ravaged faces lacking in the social graces. Work romances developed over the summer, but not for me. I remained alone as socially awkward teens paired up with other socially awkward teens. I could barely listen to “At Seventeen”, a song that cut too close to the bone.
That was long ago and far away. My social life blossomed in college, and I learned the thrill and heartbreak of young love. At seventeen, I filled the bathroom sink with cold water and a capful of Woolite. My hands reddened in the cold water as I washed my leotard and tights. I slung them over the shower curtain and spread a towel on the floor to catch the drips. Consoled myself with invented lovers who called and said, “come dance with me.”
The samba, forward and back.