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Damaged Goods: Chapter 44


My Lev-less (read: heartless) existence is bearable. In the same way sugar-free, water-based oatmeal is bearable. I’m in a constant state of flavorlessness.

Three more weeks pass after I bought my new pointe shoes before I gather the courage to slip Lev’s apology letter in the mailbox. I ran out of excuses and, frankly, damns to give.

Yes, I’ve been horrible. Yes, I’ve done horrendous things.

Yes, I’m willing to work hard to repent for them. But I can’t turn back time.

And we both need this closure, even if that means shutting the door to friendship—anything. I’m tired of being in the dark.

After getting the address from Dean, I send him the note and force myself to forget about it. Kind of like an audition.

Speaking of—I’m relieved not to have to face those anymore. Not to be constantly measured by a moment or two of excellence.

Now I’m focusing on applying to colleges. I want to study education. And I want to study somewhere nice. Sunny. Beautiful. Somewhere that makes me flourish. Which is why I send applications to UCLA, Stanford, and FAU.

I don’t know what I expect after I send Lev the letter. A phone call? A text? A handwritten reply?

I’m trying to keep my expectations down. Explain to myself that he is super busy with his workload. But it stings. The silence that drags day after day after day as though he was happier to forget about me. Yes, some terrible things happened between us.

But we were once best friends.

In fact, we were once best everything.

You don’t throw that away when things get hard.

Unless…unless your best friend also made you feel the worst.

On the sixth day after I send the letter to Lev, I finally come to terms with the fact that he might never reply.

That sometime down the line—a month or two from now—we’ll meet at a mutual function between our families and exchange smiles, and pleasantries, and half-hearted apologies.

We’ll both pretend my letter didn’t arrive so as not to embarrass the other. We’ll be strangers.

Cordial. Nice. Cold.

“Do you need anything else from me?” I ask Luna before I exit her house, my backpack slung over my shoulder. I’m already in black leotards, a warm-silver knit top, and white leggings. I’m going to teach my first-ever volunteer dance class at a local retirement community.

I imagine if word got out to Katia, my dormmate at Juilliard, I would become another Lauren anecdote. A sad story about a girl who didn’t make it. Only I did make it—I made it out alive and with a dream of my own.

Luna looks up from a pile of pages making up her first draft, lost in thought. “What? Oh, no! All good here. Thanks so much, Bailey. You’re a lifesaver.”

I wink at her with a smile.

“Hey.” Her voice halts my steps toward the door, but I don’t turn around to face her.

“He’s busy, okay? Knight says he barely has time to talk to him on the phone. Only once a week.” She’s trying to make me feel better about Lev not making contact.

Nodding, I choke out, “I know.” I don’t know. So I cope. I take my deep breaths. I promise myself I’ll call Daria when I leave here.

Slipping into my car, I make my way to the gated complex I’ve been invited to.

Mom found me these gigs as soon as I told my parents I wanted to volunteer. When I get to the gym, which also moonlights as an auditorium, there are only a couple more cars in the entire parking lot. Mom said she’d be here to show support, so I guess she’s running late.

I kill the engine, take a deep breath, remind myself that everything is okay, and get out.

There’s only a handful of elderly women in the studio. They’re chatting to each other.

I draw a deep breath and introduce myself. “Hi. I’m Bailey and I’ll be your dance teacher today.” I give them a little wave, smiling—and noticing that for the first time in forever my smile isn’t forced. The three of them turn to look at me. Their smiles are genuine too.

“Oh, we’ve been waiting for you. We’re excited but also worried about breaking a hip!” one of them blurts out in a laugh.

I laugh too. “Don’t worry. I’m not here to train you for the Olympics. I’m here to make you happy. To celebrate your bodies and have fun.”

“I haven’t been celebrating my body since I turned eighty, which was three years ago.”

Another one of them laughs. “It’s all a string of disappointments at this point.”

I grin. “I like a good challenge.”

“Then you’re going to love working with me.”

They introduce themselves as Alma, Ruth, and Mariam.

I hook my phone up to the stereo and get started with a very light warm-up.

I’m trying to shake off the fact that only three people came as I roll my shoulders back.

I inhale positivity. Exhale negativity. Also—where is Mom?

This is supposed to be my come-to moment. The beacon of light I’ve been looking for.

If only I had my dove bracelet, I’d be able to clutch it and get through this. But no one even wants this here. Other than these three ladies.

Who matter, I remind myself. A lot.

I pinch my shoulder blades together, and they repeat my action. The soft music fills the air-conditioned room. I’m too deep inside my own head to hear the door open, but at some point there’s a figure standing by it.

Mom finally came. Ten minutes late, but better than nothing.

“Now let’s move to the barre and I’ll show you some…um, simple moves. You don’t have to be on your tiptoes, but good posture can strengthen your spine and…eh, its supporting muscles.”

Marx, I need to pull myself together. My insecurity is showing. I’m really not great at this, which is crushing, because it was supposed to be my plan B.

Approaching each of the three ladies, I correct their posture, curling their fingers around the ballet barre. We go through all five positions. They’re giggling like schoolgirls, but I’m still tense, stumbling over my words, slipping out of tempo with the music. I handed out leaflets beforehand and advertised it everywhere I could. This was supposed to be my redemption.

I don’t want it to turn into my failure.

They’re having fun. Lighten up.

“Are you okay, little lady?” Mariam inquires.

“Don’t be down about the poor attendance. People our age don’t like trying new things,” Alma adds.

“I don’t! I mean, I’m not!” I chirp. “It’s totally fine. Everything is great.”

“Got a spot for another student?” I hear the figure at the door pushing off the wall and heading toward us.

Only it doesn’t sound like Mom at all.

I raise my head and see…Lev.

Achingly tan and handsome.

Heartbreakingly kind.

Perfectly Lev.

He is still in his uniform of blue dress pants and buttoned-up shirt. His hair is newly buzzed close to the scalp, and my breath hitches at how absolutely delicious he looks.

His eyes glimmer playfully, and my heart liquifies inside my chest as he takes his position by the barre, looking at me seriously despite the hilarity of it all.

“You don’t seem to fit into our age group, young man.” Ruth is fawning over him. Really, though, they’re all staring at him with open, unadulterated adoration.

He glances behind his shoulder to wink at her. “Trust me, if anything, I’ll just slow you down.”

So many questions run inside my head.

What is he doing here? When did he come? Doesn’t he have school?

He can’t just take off in the middle of the year. My mouth falls open, and I’m about to start firing questions at him, but he just whispers, “Dove, we’re waiting.”

Shaking my head to rid myself of the magic dust he sprinkled everywhere when he walked in here, I return to my position in front of them.

Lev, astonishingly, completes the entire class, acting as my moral support. He groans as he slides from fourth position to fifth, raising both his arms in the air, looking ridiculous and adorable as he spins around.

Every now and then, he winks and smiles at me, silently reassuring me that I’m doing a good job, and the ladies don’t only look like they’re having fun—they’re also over the moon every time Lev so much as breathes.

“Girls.” I clap my hands seriously at one point when he lowers himself to a demi plié and his round, muscular ass sticks out. “Your eyes should be on me, not on Mr. Cole.”

“Oh, but you’ll be here next week too. You can’t promise the same about Mr. Cole!” Mariam giggles.

When the hour is over, the three thank us profusely—not just for the class but also for the entertainment.

They trickle out of the room, and it’s just Lev and me standing in front of one another. We’re both panting from the class. His expression melts from humorous to serious all at once.

“Lev, I—” I start, not sure exactly what’s going to leave my mouth but unable to take the silence anymore.

He cuts me off, fishing my letter from his front pocket and unfolding it in front of me.

“Here. I don’t want your apology.” He presses the paper to my chest.

My heart drops. This wasn’t what I was expecting when I saw him here.

“You…you don’t?”

“No.” He shakes his head. “I want your forever.”

It is extremely possible I’m about to have a heart attack. Twelve out of ten chance, actually.

“But you said—”

“We need to talk somewhere else.” He leads me outside by the arm.

I think I left my duffel bag behind and I don’t even care. We walk past the door and toward my car. I guess he Ubered here.

“How did you know I was here?”

“I went to your parents’ house as soon as I received the letter. A letter that—by the way—I’ve been waiting for, for weeks. A sign of life from you. Something to give me an excuse to seek you out again. Your mom said you were here. You’re not mad I showed up instead of her, right?”

I barely manage to shake my head no. When we get to my car, he assumes position in the driver’s seat and starts driving.

It looks like he knows where he’s going. Actually, I know where he’s going too.

The universe quickly restores itself, everything falling into place, erasing the last couple of years we grew apart.

We get to the woods not too long after. He kills the engine and we both hop out, me following his lead.

To our canvas. To our world. To our doves.

It is here, in our little snow globe, that he turns back to look at me with tears in his eyes. We’re both standing in front of one another. As if on cue, Perseus descends the treetop, landing on Lev’s shoulder.

Andromeda follows soon after, landing on mine. We both smile at each other.

How could I ever question that we were meant to be? That we were endgame?

“I’m sorry I told you, you don’t have me.” Lev’s voice breaks. “I didn’t want you to rush through rehab. I didn’t want you to focus on anything other than getting better. I had to truly let you go in order for you to find your way back to yourself. I had to.”

He falls down to his knees in front of me, pressing his head against my midriff.

I instinctively gather his head in my arms. The texture of his buzzed hair feels different.

I can’t resist running a hand over it again and again, until it becomes familiar.

“I know.” Tears run down my cheeks. “I know you had to do that, and I want you to know that I appreciate it. I’m not angry. Just ashamed of everything I’ve put you through. Not just you. Everyone around me.”

He looks up from my belly button, his green eyes glittering with tears.

His arms are enfolded around my waist tightly. “Can I try this again?” he asks. “The love declaration? Same scenery. Same girl. Different year?”

I stroke his cheek lovingly. “I’m not the same girl,” I croak. “I’ll never be the same girl.”

He presses his cheek to my palm, closing his eyes. “You’re right. You’re even more lovable than her. With the scars to prove you’ve been through a hard-won battle.”

Drawing a deep breath, I nod. “Let’s try again.”

“Bailey Followhill, I’m in love with you. I don’t remember a time before being in love with you. And I can’t see my life without you. It was you before I was even born. It will be you long after I die. You are my beginning, my middle, and…well, the death of me, probably.” We both laugh. “So please, please.” He puts his palms together. “Please help me write our happily-ever-after. Fuck knows you’re so much better with words than I am.”

Lev reaches for his back pocket. I know he won’t pull out an engagement ring.

There’s a time and a place for everything, and we still need to experience so much more before we’re ready.

I want dates. Make-out sessions until our lips are swollen. I want days where we laugh together and days where we cry together and days where we’re just together, curled one inside the other, making love.

What he produces from his pocket makes my heart stop beating.

I gasp. “You fixed the bracelets. The strings are brand-new.”

“But the doves are the same. A constant. Just like us.”

“But Thalia…”

“Is gone from our lives. Forever.”

Perseus and Andromeda fly off. It would be the last time we saw them, and somehow—don’t ask me how—I felt it in my bones that it was their goodbye to us.

Rosie sent them to show us the way back to each other.

Now, they’re no longer needed.


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