Reese paused outside of the kitchen, toeing off the ankle boots she’d put on after class, requiring a moment before facing her mother. With a smile glued to her face, she walked into the kitchen a moment later, finding her mother stirring a pot at the stove.
“Hey, Reese’s Pieces. How was jazz?”
“Good. Full attendance. Little Maxine Weaver is showing some early signs of excelling. We might want to talk to her mother about private classes.”
“I surely will. How exciting.” Her mother made an absent gesture with the spoon. “Something came for you today.”
“Oh.” Reese’s step faltered when she saw the big cardboard box siting on the kitchen table. “What is it?”
“I don’t have X-ray vision,” laughed Lorna. “Open it.”
When she saw the sender, her heart shot up into her throat.
Leo Bexley c/o The Cookie Jar.
Those words blurred her vision. The person, the place, the magic had all been real. There were a few times over the course of the last three weeks where Reese wondered if the whole experience had been a dream.
She circled the box once, chewing on her thumbnail, then went to retrieve a pair of scissors from the junk drawer. After only a slight hesitation, she slit the tape open and peeled back the sides, her pulse spiking at the chance to be close to Leo again in some way.
Dozens of them, wrapped in cellophane and red bows, carefully packaged with insulated foam and dry ice. Reese pulled out the first one, holding it up to the light. A white outline of a dancer with green frosting making up the background, Bryant Park written in black script. The next one was a pigeon. Representing the afternoon they’d spent on the roof of the Bexley Theater? Another one was a bed with a trail of yellow Z’s sloping and looping around the small edible globe. A nap date cake pop. A furry purple coat, too. And on and on they went, pops commemorating their moments together, the final one simply saying “I love you. I’m sorry.”
Reese unwrapped that one and bit into it, aching for something he’d touched. Wanting to consume it. The red wine and cherries flavor exploded on her tongue, the closest she could come to kissing him, and she closed her eyes to savor the moment.
“Wow.” Reese didn’t even realize her mother was standing behind her until she stroked a hand down Reese’s ponytail. “A lot of effort went into this.”
“Yeah,” Reese said around a full mouth of cake, frosting sticking to her teeth. “A lot.”
“He must miss you as much as you miss him.”
“You’re not helping.” Reese sniffed, reaching for the only cake pop in the box that wasn’t directly dedicated to her, handing it back over her shoulder. “This one is for you. I told him you’d love maple syrup and crushed macadamia nuts one time when we were lying in bed. We’d just had sex, Mom. Really, really fantastic sex.” She opened the wrapper of another cake pop, this one with kitchen utensils painted on, shoving it into her mouth. “I didn’t mean to say that out loud. My brain isn’t working properly anymore.”
“Oh, honey.” Her mother took a seat at the table beside her, pushing the box of cake pops out of the way. “Why don’t you just call him?”
“What would I say? Nothing has changed.” She squeezed her eyes shut, his lopsided smile painting itself on the back of her lids. “I’m the girl who couldn’t hack it. Sooner or later, he’d be disappointed in me. At least this way, I’m saving us from that. I’ve already disappointed you and that’s bad enough.”
Her mother’s fingers paused in the middle of unwrapping her cake pop. “What in the damn heck did you just say to me, young lady?”
“Mom, please. I don’t blame you.” Reese flopped back in her chair, gesturing to their general surroundings. “You worked so hard for all of this. Worked overtime to bring me to competitions, buy me costumes, drag me from class to class to class. All those opportunities you afforded me and there’s no reward. Nothing I can give you in return.”
“Reese,” Lorna breathed. “My reward was and will always be your enjoyment. Your happiness that came from dancing. I never cared if you won first or eighth place as long as you wanted to lace up again tomorrow. Because it gave you joy. That’s all a mother wants. Their child to experience joy.”
Reese couldn’t respond, her leg jiggling up and down under the table.
“Oh my, what a fine mess we are,” Lorna laughed, scooting her chair over and pulling Reese’s head down to her bosom. “Do you love dancing, Reese?”
“Yes,” she whispered, her chest twisting. “I love it so much.”
“That right there is my gift. Having the privilege of nurturing that love.”
“Don’t you wish I’d succeeded, though?”
“Success is measured in all kinds of ways, honey. And I think finding something you love as much as you love dancing is a success in itself. There are people who’ll never discover their passion, because they never bothered to look.”
That was true. Wasn’t it? Dancing had enriched her soul, her existence, whether she made it to the top of the game or not. It taught her about herself. Gave her hope and dreams and confidence. Filled her with drive. And even though she never quite reached the heights she’d been hoping for, there was some satisfaction in knowing she’d given something one hundred percent. That, paired with the sincerity of Lorna’s words, started a slow paving over her fears of being a disappointment. It might take a while to pave all of it over, but even a small corner being covered was progress.
“Thanks, Mom.” With some of the weight gone from her shoulders, Reese blew out a shaky breath, her eye drawn back to the box of cake pops. “In that way, I was lucky to find him, too. To know what being in love feels like.”
Her mother groaned. “Call him, Reese. You’re punishing yourself. If he can forgive you for a few fibs, you can forgive yourself for them, too.”
“It’s more than that. I just…” She tried to find the words to describe her hardened resolve. “I just don’t feel whole right now. I don’t feel like me. Leo has his dream, knows exactly what he wants…and I’m reimagining my life right now. Starting from scratch.”
Lorna sighed. “I haven’t met Leo, but…” She flicked the lid of the cardboard box. “Starting from scratch seems like his thing.”