Her uncle's house felt cold to Gina, and damp. She rounded the corner on the walk home from school and shivered looking at it. Uncle Eugene’s white and grey house was three stories tall with gardens surrounded by a curling black iron fence. It was two hour's drive from her old house in Minneapolis. Her uncle’s house in Northfield might as well have been on another planet. Gina sighed and took the mail out of the box. She unlocked the heavy door with her key.
She looked at herself for a moment in the mirror on the closet door as she hung up her coat. Gina was twelve and a half. She was dark-haired, small, and slender like her mother had been. Born to dance, she had heard people say.
Gina shut the closet door. She didn’t take off her navy uniform sweater. It was late February of 1991. Although it was growing warmer everyday, it was winter in Minnesota. The afternoon had a dark early evening feeling. She hugged her arms to herself.
Her gaze shifted to the open curving staircase and she watched for her cat, Nijinsky, to come out. Gina walked on polished wooden floors through large beautiful rooms with graceful furniture to the kitchen. Everything was neatly arranged according to her Uncle Gene’s wishes. No soft mounds of clothes were strewn about. There was not a single strain of music to stir up painful memories of her mother.
Nijinsky appeared and brushed his grey-striped face against her ankles. She missed Nijinsky all day at school.
Having hugged Nijinsky, Gina put him down to sit by her ankles. Out of deep green eyes she looked at the mail. There was nothing from her father. There never was.
He had left Gina and her mother when Gina was eight. She remembered hearing her mother arguing with him when he was drunk. Even so, Gina looked for him at her mother's funeral. He never appeared.
A week after her mother’s funeral Gina came to Northfield to live with her Uncle Eugene. Gina left her old school, her old home, and ballet lessons behind. She was miserably forced to attend St. Elizabeth’s Middle School near her uncle’s house.
She looked at the notice of parent-teacher conferences from St. Elizabeth’s that was in the mail. Today at school hadn’t been quite so awful, she thought. Considering it was only slightly less awful than the day before.
Gina thought of the girls at school this morning. A smug girl, surrounded by a pack of her horrid friends, had come up to Gina at her locker.
The snobby girl asked, “Is it true that your mother died of cancer?”
“What? What do you know about my mother?” asked Gina in surprise.
“Oh, Mrs. Murdock told us to be nice to you because your mother died.” The girls stood around and waited for Gina to answer.
“Mrs. Murdock! She said that to you!?” Gina stepped back in shock.
“What kind of cancer was it, anyway? Are you afraid you'll get cancer someday?” one of the other girls pressed.
“That’s none of your business!” Gina shot back.
“I only ask because if there are other students like you here, maybe I could get up a little grief club. I’m president of the eighth grade. It’s my duty to see that our student body is well-served.”
“Leave me alone!” Gina almost shouted.
Gina wanted to punch her. It would have hurt, too, with those braces on her teeth. Gina chose instead to loudly slam her locker door. She gave her long, dark hair a toss and walked away. She heard the voices of the girls behind her, “Can you believe that? I was just trying to be nice.”
Gina set the mail down on her uncle’s kitchen counter with a similar slam. She hugged Nijinsky again. She fed him his dinner. He liked only dry, crunchy cat food, day in and day out. Yesterday her Uncle Gene brought home liver, shrimp, and lobster-flavored treats to entice Nijinsky. Gina knew from the excitement in his voice when he called for Nijinsky, that he had a new brand of kitty treat. Then she heard his sigh as Nijinsky gave one sniff and turned away in revulsion
Her uncle, Dr. Eugene Shostek, was a professor in the Russian Studies department at Carlton College. He was tall, dark-haired, and starting to grey. At forty-five years old, he was handsome and youthful. Dr. Shostek, was known as “Gene” to family and friends. He had sparkling charm and a kind heart.
Gene had visited Russia many times to work or to study. Russia is often called "The Land of Ballet” and Gene had gone many times to see beautiful ballet performances when he was there. His sister, Lily, was Gina’s mom. Lily asked Gene to take of Gina when she knew she was dying.
In the kitchen at Gene’s house the phone rang. Gina picked it up, hearing Uncle Gene’s voice.
“Yes, Uncle Gene, I got in just fine. I answered the phone didn’t I?”
“Yes, Nijinsky is fine, too.”
“No, the stove is not on.”
“Uncle Gene, you ask me the same stuff every day!”
“Yes, I’ll do my homework. I love you, too. Bye.” Gina replaced the receiver. Gina knew her uncle worked late because he loved being a professor of Russian. So much that he wanted her to learn the Russian language, too!
Last Sunday evening, Gene sat Gina down in the dining room to teach her the Russian alphabet. Gina could hear the seconds ticking away from the grandfather clock in the hall. Gina found Russian monstrously confusing. She gazed politely at the books Gene placed in front of her. All the while she planned her escape. She finally burst out, “Uncle Gene, I don’t need to know the Russian alphabet!”
“But it would be excellent for you to know it!” Patiently she listened to his Learn the Russian Alphabet lecture that he gave to university students. “Two little old monks, Cyril and Methodius sat down one day and wrote the Russian alphabet. Isn’t that fascinating?”
“Fascinating? Are you kidding?” Gina looked at him in disbelief.
“It’s not as foreign as you think. Look at these letters, Gina, you already know them.”
She looked over the letters, “A, Z, K, M, O, T.” He crowed, “There you’ve already knocked off six of them!”
“Uncle Gene, there are twenty eight more letters. The Russian C is an S, P is an R, and H is an N. That’s not even counting the letters that don’t even look like letters!” she pleaded. She pointed to the alphabet in front of her. “See that! That’s a squiggle!”
“Gina, my dear, some day I know you will thank me for teaching you the Russian language. We might travel on the Trans-Siberian railway together in winter! And you will become a Russian ballerina! How delightful!”
“Uncle Gene, I will not eat borscht and wear woolen scarves on my head! No way! And no more ballet!” Gina shuddered at the thought.
He ignored her and went on. “Learn this letter with a picture. For example, look at the letter X. It makes a harsh ‘H’ sound, right? So if you imagine a pair of HOCKEY sticks crossed in an X, you’ll remember the sound ‘H!’” He had removed his suit coat and tie at this point.
“But, Uncle Gene, what if I remember HUBCAP instead of HOCKEY sticks and end up with an O instead of an X?” She begged off to go to her room. Gene sadly put the books away as Gina disappeared down the hall.
She sat down on her new bed in her uncle’s house. Gina had loved her mother’s funny old house in Minneapolis. It had been built in the year 1910 and was forever falling apart. The doors and staircases creaked, doorknobs fell off in their hands, and the faucets leaked. Gina and her mother were sure the place was haunted. Gina had loved all of its nooks and crannies and messes and joy.
Mostly she missed her mother, Lily. Her mother was a ballet teacher. She taught Gina her very first steps. Gina got up from her bed. She looked into the mirror above the dresser. She made slow graceful, movements with her arms.
When Gina was four years old she began dancing in the mirror after she saw ballet dancers on television. By the time she was eight years old she loved to listen to Debussy’s L’ Apres Midi d’ Un Faun. It was so beautiful it made her cry. Gina knew there was something delicate and graceful about herself.
She picked up her pink satin pointe shoes from the dresser and held them. In Minneapolis Gina had loved pointe shoes, ballet lessons, and her last teacher, Madame Branitskaya, who was from Russia. Gina lay back on the bed, staring at the ceiling, picturing her mother in her mind. She remembered Lily’s voice from one of the last times she was with her in the hospital.
“Gina, did you practice your dancing?” Lily had asked sitting up in bed.
“Of course, I did mom. Watch this!” Gina had learned a new step. She executed a springy “pas de basque” perfectly for her mom.
“Gina, that is wonderful!” she remembered Lily exclaiming in delight.
Gina slowly put her pointe shoes back into their pink, mesh bag and set them back on the dresser. For two long months, since moving in with her uncle, she hadn’t danced at all. She didn’t have the heart to practice. Gina felt too sad. Her heart was empty and she hurt. She would never hear Lily’s voice again.
She sat down on the floor. She hated crying, but she couldn’t seem to stop herself. She tried to cry quietly so that her Uncle Gene wouldn’t hear her. She hated it even more when he came in and tried to comfort her. She heard a soft knock at the door.
“Uncle Gene, I’m okay,” she sniffled, getting tissues from the dresser.
“Would you like to like to watch the news with me?” he gently asked.
“I’m really okay. I’m going to bed.” She blew her nose.
“All right, dear Gina. Sweet dreams.”
“You, too, Uncle Gene.”
She put on her nightgown and climbed into bed. Gina burrowed her head into her pillow. She remembered her first recital for Madame Branitskaya. She had been sick to her stomach and ran away from the theater.
“I don’t have enough courage to dance in the theater, anyway. It’s a good thing I quit,” she said to herself. Gina found herself talking to the ceiling, “Mom, you used to promise me you would teach me how to get over stage fright. Now you’re gone and it’s too late! Anyway, no one cares if I dance or not. Even if I did, they wouldn’t like it.”
Gina turned her radio on to the classical station with the volume on very low. Even if Uncle Gene heard the radio, she knew he wouldn’t mind her listening to classical music. A piece of music was playing that her mother had danced to, the music by Tchaikovsky for The Russian Dance in the Nutcracker Fantasy ballet.
Gina thought that she would never be able to perform on stage the beautiful way her mother had. Gina loved to watch her mother do the simplest things, like walking. There was something so breathlessly delicate and powerful about Lily’s walk.
“I miss you, mom.” Gina turned over and tried to go to sleep.