Nora Sun | CNF | Changing Room

Changing Room

Atop the glass tower in the prayer room, shrouded in jaundiced light, a woman with flowing robes sat on her lotus pad. Her porcelain face was as smooth as a tranquil lake, her hands were upturned and folded in her lap, and an intricate crown lay on her head. 

Another woman knelt in front of the glass, her hands pressed into a prayer and her face down. Her long, dark hair, greying around the crown, shielded any expression she might wear from my sight. Her voice was loud and cool as she half-whispered, half-chanted the Bodhisattva’s name. Guanshiyin Pusa, Guanshiyin Pusa, Guanshiyin Pusa. She had been reciting this mantra for almost half an hour now, and a different one for another half hour, pace kept steady by a string of round wooden beads between her fingers. 

I used to sprint past this room whenever the door was left open out of fear that I’d accidentally catch a glimpse of the mysterious scene which produced an hour of chanting every morning. But today, an exceptional bravery had possessed me. I found myself tucked away behind the door, face pressed to the wall, peering in. I struggled to make sure the duffle bag dangling from my elbow made no noise. All of it was treacherous. I was certain that some unspeakable retribution would result from this transgression. 

Eventually, I realized that I felt very little at the view of my mother praying. The air was placid and congealed. The wooden walls echoed my mother’s voice with volume. The half-moon eyelids, round lips, and straight nose of the porcelain Bodhisattva filled my chest with an eerie calm. Other than this, there was nothing. 

Before classes began that morning, they’d announced a new duet. My mother hadn’t finished her morning prayers until a quarter to nine, so I’d arrived late. If fate hadn’t momentarily twisted itself, I probably would’ve never heard about it. Georgia, the lyrical choreographer, waved me over to the corner of the teal-walled studio with my ballet slippers barely on my foot. She was a muscular, tan woman with a loud voice and eyebrows that twitched when she spoke. 

“You available Saturdays, 11 to 1?”

I nodded.

“I’m putting you down as stepping in for West on the Eden-West contemporary. He’ll be out for the rest of the months with a hip injury, but we need Eden practicing the partner choreo now. You’re the only junior with the height and upper body strength for it.”

I watched Georgia blankly. 

“It’s the My Scream, Your Silence one we just discussed. You just have to stand in for West. You good with that?”

I nodded. I’d probably never get to do contemporary at a competition, so this was my only chance to try it. 
“Good girl.”

The Bodhisattva could manifest in at least thirty-three forms. I didn’t know which form she was in when she visited my mother’s dreams, just that it was one of the female ones. The story felt sensational when my mother told it not because of any emotions in her voice, but because she seldom talked about us. The story lasted only two sentences. She came the night before you were born. She said that my daughter would have the most beautiful smile. My mother had been worshipping her since then.

An expressionless face gazed back at me from the wall of mirrors in the side studio. The lights were low, and everything was dim and cool. The room seemed larger than it was, with its silence interrupted every so often by the click of the wall clock and the canvas of my pirouette shoes pressing against the shiny black floor. 

At ten past eleven, the door swung open, and a girl burst into the room. Half-finished granola bar in hand, brunette curls in a scrunchie, a company hoodie over her ballet uniform. She dropped the pink polka dot bag in her hand with an aimless flick of her wrist, and it slid to a stop by the wall. Georgia followed behind her with a water bottle and a laptop. 

“Sorry we’re late,” Eden announced, pulling her hoodie over her head as she approached me. Her voice was surprisingly deep for the large brown eyes and delicate button nose on that face. I had seen her every year in the center spot of the group dance, but this was somehow the first time I had heard her speak. “Oh, you must be—”

“Yes,” I said. 

“Alright,” Georgia said, setting her stuff down at the center of the room. “I’ll try not to keep you for too long, but Starpower’s literally breathing down our backs. Anyway, the piece is about a woman who’s struggling to communicate with her boyfriend. Eden, you have a very special prop for this dance. It’s a black mask that will go over your mouth. The idea is that it keeps you from speaking. During the dance, you will struggle to take it off. You will beg West to help you get it off. Oh, and the prop won’t be in until the end of the month, but once it is, we need to do fittings immediately to make sure you can breathe under it. Got it?”

“Wait,” Eden said, “so do I get it off at the end?”

Georgia shrugged. “Depends. Gotta see how you two work with each other on stage. By the way, West’s at PT today, but he’ll be in to take notes starting next week. The music’s all instrumental, so I’ll send it to you and you can listen later. We’re gonna go into blocking the three major lifts today, starting with the last and most difficult.”

Georgia described the lift. It went like this: In a climatic attempt for salvation, the woman threw herself onto the man’s back. Her hands joined with his, and her back arched outwards from his skin. To free himself, the man pliéd left, then right, then left again. The woman extended the opposite leg into an arabesque and, in the final two beats, twirled from his body to stand face to face with him. 

This was the last move Georgia had choreographed. The final fifteen seconds of the song remained empty. 

In the changing room afterwards, Eden suddenly sat down next to me. 

“I want to try it.”

“Try what?”

“The lift, duhhh,” Eden said.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“Oh, come on,” Eden said. Her hands found my knee, and she leaned forward with those big doe eyes. “Pretty please? Pretty please with a—”

“We don’t have a spotter,” I said. Classes ended at noon on Saturdays. Half the lights in the dressing room were off, and my sight was awful in the dark.

“Don’t worry, I don’t need one,” Eden said. Her nose was touching my shoulder. “Plus, the space between the benches is big enough.” Her face was stamped with a look that told me that she would get what she wanted in the end. 

“Don’t be mad if you end up with a hip injury too.”

“Yay!” Eden said. She released my knee and got into position.

Just as I was about to take back my decision, Eden landed on top of me. It was messy. Her hands missed my shoulders and slid down my chest, but she maintained her position with her elbows. Her thigh muscles tightened around the sides of my stomach. Then, her right leg extended back, soaring through the turgid air. Her body pressed into mine, leaving imprints of heat. Her body pulsed in and out, a warm mass against my neck. Her grip grew tighter on me like little bird claws. My upper body was a straitjacket, elongated and frozen, trembling slightly beneath her weight. 

Hold still. I imagined the Bodhisattva’s fair, calm face. I transformed my face into those shapes, closed my eyes, and made my mouth relax. Eden was just an extension of me from the shoulders; she spun through the air, raised leg making an arc like Thousand Hands Guanyin.  

Then, it all came crashing down. Eden landed, I opened my eyes, and the dressing room, just alive with movement, became dead again. 

Eden was grinning. Her eyes, slightly asymmetric, glowed with a new light. The two small curves on her chest rose and fell. “That was so much fun! Wasn’t that fun?”
“We’re never doing it again,” I said sternly, but that only made her laugh harder. 

We did it again the next weekend. 

West was there during class, so Georgia went over the choreography. Eden’s part had all the hardest spins, kicks, and jumps in the junior division. West’s part was easier but still far from my reach. We only worked on pacing and positions during class. All I had to do was stand at the right place at the right time. She danced, I watched. And as I watched, I began to think about her for the first time. 

When she was talking to me, her face was always moving itself into new and exceedingly expressive positions like an animated doll. She was ebullient and chaotic; watching her was like walking down Fangbang Road in Shanghai, where the hollering street vendors, colorful buildings, and warm sun felt like a safe womb that enveloped me, a helpless embryo. When she laughed, she laughed like her sound could echo from one pole to the other. 

But when she danced, the lines on her face grew denser, and her existence became intense. Every move she made was sharpened by power and intention. When I stood next to her, I imagined feeling a phantom wind as her muscles loosened and tightened into new contortions. It was the kind of performance which made me realize that her happiness was not oblivious, and her illusions had depth. Her allure was that of a wolf in sheep’s skin.

That was when I made the fatal mistake of wondering what could be happening inside her head. I puzzled about it for the rest of the two hours, and I began to realize that I didn’t know her at all. I came to the resolution that I loved the way her mind worked, even though I had no idea how it did work. 
When we got out of class, she again asked me to practice in the changing room. I agreed. I was still trying to figure her out; my motivations were scientific. 

She ended up helping me for most of the two extra hours that we stayed. She wanted me to learn West’s parts, so she taught me the turn sequence, which was my biggest challenge. Every time I whipped my head to look at her while practicing it, her hands were squeezed together, eyes wide with dramatic anticipation. Whenever I made the slightest bit of progress, she met me with that toothy grin. The first time I did the sequence successfully, she jumped up from the bench and wrapped her arms around me for some inexplicable reason. It was the hug where I noticed that she’d changed her perfume, and that her ponytail could swing back and forth like a pendulum, tickling my ear with every cycle. The lights in the changing room were still dim, but I felt all this with clarity. 

I never wondered why we didn’t practice in one of the empty studios or at her house. These places were, without question, not an option.  

Eden, did you know that before we were humans, we were formless creatures spilling light? We needed no sustenance as we drifted through time like ghosts. We lived above the world in silence and harmony. This lasted for a very, very long time. 

Then, our greed dragged us down. Our glory was demolished by gluttony. As we ate from the earth, mud trapped us into physical bodies. We were forced into coarse, heavy forms. We became male, female, wealthy, poor, beautiful, ugly. The final curse was desire. We began to crave and need each other. With every desire we had, we grew heavier and heavier, and before we realized it, the coffin had closed above us. 

That’s the Buddhist explanation. See, I only believed in Buddhism when it was convenient, like when I needed to explain to the Eden in my mind why I couldn’t fly as high as she could—it’s because I was all heavy inside. 

We rehearsed the entire routine for the first time two weeks later. 

I’d practiced it every afternoon in the past week, impressing my mother with my sudden diligence. The prayer room was adjacent to my bedroom. As I danced, I imagined the Bodhisattva watching me through the plaster wall. Whether this gaze was stern, angry, or kind I could not decide. 

Now, Eden and I were in makeshift costumes. She was dressed in a white lace leotard. The skirt drifted around her hips whenever she moved. I wore black leggings and the loose white button-up that I’d borrowed from West. Georgia and West both said something about our costumes, but most sounds had melted into white noise by then. 

I’d turned the lights off before they came in, and no one turned them back on. When the music started, it sounded just like when Eden played it on her phone in the changing room. 

I wasn’t elegant or powerful like Eden. I was the fire hydrant that gushed blood instead of water during a drought. I was always spinning like a heavy-headed top. But somehow, I’d accidentally borrowed some of Eden’s beauty after all those hours in the changing room. I just needed to watch her and bring her into my body. 

“New sweater?” Eden had said that Wednesday when we saw each other in the hall.

Her words crawled across my skin as our bodies expanded and capsized to the rhythm. I saw her in the mirror more than I saw myself. Her face was completely transformed. I was moving, but she was inexplicably alive. 

When she touched me for our first lift, her skin was hot and cold all at once. My fingers slipped up to her pulse which thumped so wildly I could feel vibrations down her hand. Her skirt flew up as she spun, revealing her vulnerable thighs. One of the straps slipped off her shoulder in the air, so I pulled it back on when I set her down. 

“You’re actually a really good stand-in for West,” Eden had said. “Like not just height or skill, even the way you move is just like him.” 

Thank you.

In the final lift, Eden wrapped her arms around my neck. I tried to free myself from her. Pliéd left, right, left. She was tenacious. The music crescendoed. Sweat crept to my nape where her new perfume touched my sensitive skin. The mirror blurred and straightened and blurred as Eden’s body became airborne. Eden’s hair swung in a wide arc in unison with mine. We were merged into a single monster.

I thought it would last longer. Wasn’t something more supposed to happen? But my body had already lightened, and Eden was across the room, getting a drink of water. Georgia clapped, or she didn’t. I was too focused on regretting; I couldn’t stop thinking that I hadn’t appreciated how I’d felt during the dance, and now it was over. 

“I love that look you added in during the toe-ball-change. Can you do that move again for West?” 

Later: “West’s doc gave the approval for him to dance starting Monday. Thanks so much for your help, sweetie.” 

I hadn’t realized that I’d had unreasonable hopes until they were gone. 

The next week was my final one at the company. I was moving to the city. Many people, some of whom I didn’t even know, told me they were sorry I was leaving, and that they would miss me. 
I didn’t see Eden at all that week. Each passing day watered a thick cloud of moss growing on my thoughts. 

Eden, even if we were two incompatible islands floating halfway around the world from each other, one hot and volcanic, the other frozen with snow, the land beneath the sea floor was always connected across the Earth.

Maybe if I could fill in the space around her body a little more, if there was room for me in this world to change into someone else… If I had thirty-three forms like Guanyin, she would surely like one of them. 

Eden, I hadn’t wanted to tell you what I was. If I’d said those words, they’d become all of me, like a veil grown over a corpse. 

In her absence, I was forced back into myself. 

On my last day of practice that Saturday, I found myself alone with Eden in the changing room. She had a half-drank muddy brown coffee in hand, a scarf dangling from her neck, and round glasses that slid down her small nose. 

“Hey,” Eden said, “I heard that you’re leaving. I just wanted to say thanks for working on the duet with me. Literally since he became my boyfriend, West and I have been wanting to do a duet like that. We thought it definitely wouldn’t be possible this season because of his injury, but Georgia said we’d be ready by comp season because I was able to practice with you!” 

She hugged me again, and I wish she hadn’t, because I felt the way I had watched my mother pray that morning—as though I’d committed some treachery and hadn’t been caught. It was the same naked feeling as seeing blood on the floor between your feet at barre or crashing to your knees on stage, a shot deer. The shadows of lockers dressed my body, stretching up my knees like a dark pyre; she was the god sitting atop that pyre, gazing upon my unspeakable retribution. 

Beeper Peddle is a writer and healer living on the East Coast. She lives with her partner and their beloved soul puppy. Beeper writes about sorrows, lies, and deep loves. When you read her work, you will dip down into her heart and end up in all manner of body parts. Should you find yourself reflected in these words, it is merely coincidence; however, it does not surprise her you share the same heart. Find her at and @beeperpeddle on Twitter and Instagram

Nora Sun (she/her) is a Chinese-American writer living in Chicago. She loves language, iliac crests, and brevity’s talent for breeding mystery.