Nikki Barnhart is an MFA candidate in Fiction at The Ohio State University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Juked, The Rumpus, Barnstorm, Phoebe, Quarter After Eight, Superstition Review, Post Road and elsewhere.
CLARA AND THE NUTCRACKER
When she was growing up, Clara’s favorite night of the whole year was when her mother would take her to see The Nutcracker at Christmastime. She loved the fancy velvet dresses she and her mother would wear, the smell of her mother’s perfume that she only wore for special occasions, the one from a big blue bottle. Sometimes, Clara would sneak into her mother’s bathroom and sniff that perfume just to conjure it all, like a magic trick: the feeling of the shiny marble of the lobby, the deep red seats of the theater—velvet like her and her mother’s dresses—the way the world softened under the very high ceiling as the audience waited for the lights to dim and go black. It would be black for just a moment, but sometimes it felt like the rest of Clara’s year was that moment, waiting for the curtain to spread open and the stage to burst alive.
The best part was that Clara shared her name with the main character of The Nutcracker, a young girl transported from her everyday world to a better one, a fantasy world. Clara was old enough then to know that it wouldn’t look like the world of the ballet, a land of sweets ruled by a fairy, but she believed her life would follow that same pattern—there would be a beginning, which she was in, which she knew she had to wait through, and then she would be whisked away into something else. “Was I named after her?” Clara asked her parents once, at the dinner table, she and her mother at the sides, her father at the head, facing no one. Their kitchen was surrounded by windows—at the table, they were encased in glass, like something on display, something precious but fragile, easily broken. “Of course,” she had imagined them saying, of course, of course. Her mother said yes, but at the same time her father’s voice—the one that was louder, the one that always won out—said no.
“It was just a name we picked,” he said. “From a baby book.” Clara remembered her mother’s face, the way it drew to a close like the stage curtains at the end of the show, when everything was over and it was time to go home.
Her father didn’t always come with them to the Nutcracker—usually he was working. “The holidays are a busy time for him,” her mother would remind her. Clara wasn’t sure exactly what her father did, just that it involved computers, and a large but windowless office, that it required him to wear suits, and work late, and be angry most of the time. Her mother worked too, as a secretary. She had once been her father’s secretary, Clara knew. That was how they’d met. Clara didn’t understand why she wasn’t still—why her parents didn’t want to keep working together as a team. It made perfect sense to Clara, but her mother said it wouldn’t look right. “What do you mean?” Clara would say, and her mother would shake her head, and say nothing more. Now her mother worked at an insurance company in town, in an office that was really a house, one that smelled of old carpet and dusty radiator heat. Clara went with her mother to work sometimes, on school breaks and half-days, and would read on a beanbag chair squashed behind her mother’s desk. Her mother was the fanciest person there, fancier than even her boss, a smiling man with coffee-stained teeth who wore jeans and wooly sweaters. Her mother wore black high heels and pearl earrings and silky shirts with buttons. From her vantage point on the beanbag, Clara liked to watch her mother’s long graceful fingers, nails always painted red, dance over her computer keyboard. When her mother was younger, she had been a piano player, and she still arched her fingers like she was about to start a concerto rather than a memo. When she watched her mother type, Clara would pretend that she was summoning beautiful music with her fingers, instead of just a jumbled clacking sound. “Why don’t you still play?” Clara asked her. She was always asking her mother things.
“We don’t really have room for a piano in the house,” her mother would say, but Clara could see plenty of empty spaces.
Clara would overhear her parents sometimes, when they thought she wasn’t listening, but she was always listening. Their house was quiet, usually silent, except for the click of the radiator, the churn of the dishwasher, the hum of the dryer—all these nonhuman things whirring and working steadily. It felt like they were always blanketed under a layer of snow. That was how her father liked it. He liked to hear himself think, as he would say. He taught her to walk on the balls of her feet, and not the heels. Like a dancer, he would say. Like a ballerina. “You shouldn’t be able to hear young ladies move.” he would tell her.
Sounds carried in a house like that, even the smallest, softest ones. Clara could hear her parents whisper to each other in their bedroom down the hall, in the kitchen downstairs after she left the table. Bits and pieces that Clara would mix and match in her head. You. Me. Didn’t. Don’t. Can’t. Won’t. They didn’t sound anything the way parents sounded on TV when they talked—rising chuckles and kissing noises, knowing glances that were a type of sound in themselves. Clara couldn’t make out every word her parents said, but in a house that quiet, she could tell when nothing had been said at all, how long silences would grow and grow until something beeped, or someone broke.
At Christmas though, things didn’t have to be so quiet. There were bells against the door, music on the radio, even her father laughing after a glass or two of eggnog on the rare night he came early from work. She and her mother moving about the house not caring if their heels pounded the floor. But this Christmas would be different than the others Clara had known. When she saw her mother drop an ornament on the floor from her perch on a kitchen chair, one of the frosted glass snowflakes, the expensive ones from the department store, and upon the sound of its exquisite shatter, burst into tears and cry out, “Oh, goddammit,” Clara understood she had already entered some kind of second act, but nothing like the one she had imagined.
This December, her father had not been home for weeks. His work also required a lot of travel, even international travel. It was not rare for him to be gone, for the house to contain only her mother and herself, and Clara had thought, at first, this was his longest trip yet. But then she overheard her mother on the phone with her grandmother—she could always tell by that certain hushed tone of her mother’s who it was—telling her that he had walked out. Walked out where, Clara wondered, picturing her father donning a hat and scarf and coat and heading out into the cold, trailing off into the ether the way her mother’s words seemed to.
She asked her mother what it meant the next day, at breakfast. It was still dark outside, that certain primeval blackness of a December morning that could swallow you whole, the light in their kitchen seemed like the only light in the world.
“What?” her mother said. She had been drinking her tea, looking out the window even though there was nothing to see, not their neighborhood and its spiral around itself, or the woods that stretched and went on forever behind their house. Now she looked at Clara straight on, like she had not known she was there, like she had not been the one to prepare her breakfast, to set the table for two.
“What you said to Grandma about Dad,” Clara said.
Her mother paused, gripped her mug. “It means I don’t know when he’ll be home,” she said, after a long time. And of course Clara asked why, and her mother said, “I don’t know. I don’t know anything,” in a way that made Clara feel very afraid. This was the first time she had ever considered the possibility that there were things her mother did not know.
After that, the next few weeks felt strange. They felt like the way the shattered ornament had sounded; they felt like that sound reverberating over and over again. There was that overwhelming darkness of the mornings when Clara would wait for the bus at the top of the driveway, her mother watching her from one lit window, but then there would be the holiday cassette tape her bus driver played on the way to school, paper snowflakes strung up around the classroom, piles of winter-themed books in the library, sugar cookies in the shape of snowmen at lunch. These were the rituals of December Clara had always known and she loved the way she knew the words to every holiday song, knew exactly where to cut and fold construction paper to make the perfect snowflake, knew just how to tie her scarf to keep her the warmest outside. But then she had to come home again, the day sunk into total darkness. She didn’t know how to sit down for dinner when her father wasn’t there, how to take up all the space left empty, and she didn’t know how long to sit at the table alone when her mother left, and she didn’t know if she should go into her mother’s room when she heard crying faintly through the door, or what she would say if she did. She didn’t know how long after her bedtime she was allowed to go downstairs and watch Christmas movies, but she made up the rules for that one on her own.
Clara wondered often about her father. But when she asked if she could call him, her mother told her no, that she didn’t have his number. So all Clara had left was wonder, and that wonder was endless—what her father was doing, and where he was, and how it was different from where she was. When she pictured her father, she always pictured him from behind, his back to her, eyes fixed ahead. She wondered if he was hearing the same holiday songs on the radio, and seeing the same holiday movies on TV, if they were more connected than she could possibly see somehow. Maybe he was sending her messages through the songs and the movies; maybe if she listened hard enough and watched closely enough, she would receive those messages—some secret small thing leaking out from them and into her hands, like catching a snowflake in her mittens and holding its intricate, perfect shape for a moment before it melted.
At home, Clara lost herself in waiting for messages because most other traditions, the things she and her mother had done together that had always made her feel the year was leading up to something, had now vanished. There were no poinsettia garlands across the mantel or gingerbread cake baking in the oven. No bells on the front door. They had bought their tree from a wooden rack outside the supermarket instead of chopping it down at a farm out in the country. They reused an old Advent calendar, all of the days loose from already being pried open. They didn’t go shopping in the city or even to the tree lighting in town. But Clara’s mother told her they could still go to see The Nutcracker, like always, and she could hardly wait.
When the night of the show finally came, Clara unearthed last year’s dress from the depths of her closet, engulfed by all her everyday things—without their shopping trip, there wasn’t a new one. The dress ripped at the seams when she pulled it over her head, and her mother patched it with a safety pin. “We’ll get you a new one next year,” she told Clara. “But for now, this will have to do.” Her mother was not wearing new clothes either, or a velvet dress at all—she wore a pressed collared shirt and black trousers, like she was just going to work or anywhere else. Neither was she wearing her perfume; this year, she smelled like nothing.
The pin in her dress prodded at Clara with its tiny sharp spike, from the silent car ride to the theater to the walk to their seats, all the way across the marble lobby into the heights of the balcony. In their seats, she and her mother hovered high over the stage, like they were watching the earth from the stars. Usually, they sat in the orchestra—from the balcony, it felt like they were about to watch the rest of the audience watch the ballet rather than watch it themselves—even, somehow, like they were about to watch a memory rather than a moment they were living in and a part of too.
The usher had handed them two programs when she seated them, and Clara spread hers open across her lap, flipped right through the pictures of the cast—she didn’t want to think of them as real people, as existing in the real world. In the back of the program was a history of the theater, how it had been destroyed by a fire and then rebuilt bigger and grander than before. There was a line about its magnificent domed ceiling, and at first Clara thought it read doomed. She looked up at that ceiling, stared into its rendering of heaven and all of its flushed angels, closer to them than ever before—frighteningly close. Something about looking up into that ceiling, how high it rose, made Clara feel like she was about to fall, it made her knees feel weak, it made her reach out and grip the arm of her seat.
A man pushed past Clara and her mother to his seat. He was dressed impeccably, much more formally than they were—an elegant suit, a cap on his head, a gold watch. He seemed drenched though, in smoke and acrid cologne, one overwhelmingly pungent, impossibly thick, some acidic undertone that made Clara’s stomach turn. The smell filled the aisle and Clara reached to plug her nose. Her mother dug her nails into Clara’s wrist, like the pin still poking at her sides, and hissed that Clara was being rude. The man sat alone, an empty seat between him and Clara. No one came to fill it, not even when the lights dimmed and the room went to black—that endless moment, Clara had less patience for it than ever before. They were trapped there together, she, her razor-edged mother, and the man. She wondered if her own father was jumbled up with another family too, if he had stumbled into a theater or some other warm place looking for them, if they all had just gotten mixed up. Clara looked up and the angels were gone, vanished right into the black.
The overture began in that void, applause rippling through the room like rain on a roof, like a storm trying to make its way inside. When the curtain rose and the light of the stage spilled out, it was like something captured released back into the wild, a bird from a cage. Clara could see her body once again, her hands and arms and legs beneath her, and on the stage, the other Clara, right in the center, stretching her hands over her head as she woke from slumber, waving at the audience, peeking through a door behind which she knew something was happening, something glorious, for her.
Clara leaned as far back into her seat as she could and tried to pretend she was the Clara onstage, that she was not here in her body with an ever-present pinch in her side, next to this foul-smelling man or the new pains she knew her mother could inflict, with all of these new feelings and questions she did not have names or answers for, but up there, with a dress that fit and a bow to match, an enchanted grandfather, a tree that kept growing higher and higher. She wished she too could vanish, could float away to a snow-covered forest, far away, crystalline and perfect, a sylvan landscape scored by harps.
Clara could almost believe it. She could almost feel herself there, the snow falling around her, her breath fogging up in the sharp air that filled her lungs. Fairies appeared from the periphery and danced just for her, and she was there next to them in the frosted trees, not watching from the balcony a million miles away. But then, the Clara onstage, the Clara that was her but not quite, not anymore, stumbled, just as she was supposed to walk out of the forest with her prince. She fell and seemed to shatter on the ground, just like her mother’s ornament off the tree. Clara imagined that same noise, that plink and crash, felt it ripple across the room the way it rippled across her life. The music kept playing, soaring and soaring, leading them into the ether, but they were stuck where they were, Clara and her prince.
“What the fuck,” said the man sitting next to them in the balcony, and Clara hated the sound of those ugly words, how they curled and lingered like the smoke he smelled of, how she wanted to get away from him more than ever now. She wondered where his family was—why he was without them. Or without one at all. What he had done to lose them. After his comment, his critique of the ballerina onstage, there was no doubt in Clara’s mind: it was surely his fault that he was alone. Her mother seemed blank next to her, frozen. The curtain was going down by now, but it was too slow to hide the rest of the dancers rushing to the side of Clara, the prince just standing there, watching them all, looking afraid, and then they were all gone.
The house lights came on—it was time for intermission anyway, but Clara told her mother she just wanted to leave, that she didn’t feel well. Her mother pursed her lips, considering, but the man next to them pushed past, trailed by that fog of cologne, and then she agreed. The theater was too bright now, it looked all wrong as they walked out, down the stairs and through the foyer. The lobby was lined with mirrors, and as Clara looked into them, saw herself under a fluorescent glare in a little girl’s dress, a doll’s dress, she wondered what would happen now—they would put someone else in for the second half, she knew, another Clara. Maybe in a different time, in a different winter, Clara would think it could be her—she would let herself imagine it could be her. Let herself imagine that she could save the day, that she could have everyone clapping for her, rising to a standing ovation, in the role she was born to play. In a different world or maybe just a different day, she would let herself dream it all, let the image flourish and swell in her mind like the surge of the overture, but not today. Not this world.
Outside, it felt like it should be snowing, it felt like it should be that kind of night, but it wasn’t, it was only cold, dark and dark and dark. The sky had nothing to give them, to gift them, it was an abyss and just that. As they walked to their car, in the garage around the corner, they could see an ambulance on the curb, red neon lights embers against the black, and the other-Clara being taken to it on a stretcher, her body pale and rippled with goosebumps in the cold, unmoving. “Clara, don’t look!” her mother commanded at the sight, and covered her eyes with her hand, bare and freezing as it was, pulling her along behind her, right over all the cracks in the sidewalk.