S.J. Dunning


for Kristen, who knows what I mean when I say I used to be a ballerina

“Let’s put on Kathy Kelly with music” is what Ryan says, nights like these.

It’s raining, and we’re drinking, and my friend Kristen is over.

She hasn’t seen it yet—VHS footage of my childhood home.

Eventually, Kathy Kelly with music sounds better than an exquisite corpse or a shot of tequila in a prom dress, so I drag the camcorder from the closet I left it in last, and Ryan hooks it up to the receiver, projector, computer, an elaborate chain of cords he understands better than I do. There is no audio—the film was Super 8, originally, transferred later to a black tape labeled with my mother’s maiden name. We make do with the machine that made it (VCRs obsolete) and a soundtrack we overlap.

There is no date on the tape, but it’s 1986, let’s say.

I’m four years old, my sister six, and we are dancing in the living room.

White leotards sag around our torsos. Blue tutus rest crooked upon what will become our hips, the tulle wrinkled in places, tattered from so much use. Floppy net hats fall over our eyes. The hats have long white veils that billow as we spin.

The door behind us is splintering—we are half as tall.

Our pet deer is eating the fern in the corner.

The light is poor, casting shadows over our faces, which look the same as our faces now, just smaller, everyone agrees.

The color, also, is off, for lack of a better word.

But we don’t know that in Kathy Kelly.

There, we are spinning. We are spinning like the ballerinas inside our matching music boxes. We are spinning like the ballerinas painted on the vinyl totes that hold our slippers when we aren’t wearing them.

There, we live in a house at the end of a long gravel road.

There, our mother’s last name is the same as ours.

There, we are ballerinas.

Ryan kneels before the computer, ready to switch i-Tunes from The Cinematic Orchestra to the saddest song he knows by Sigor Ros.

He has the transition timed perfectly, bless him, nostalgia’s DJ.

Kristen is crying, really crying, by now, a tall PBR, half-empty, in her hand.

“What’s wrong?” I say, knowing the answer but not how to put it into words.

Kristen is not my sister, but she also is my sister.

My pet deer was not her pet deer, but she knows it vanished.

“I don’t want this to end,” she says—about Kathy Kelly, about the song by The Cinematic Orchestra, about grad school, about her PBR, about this moment on this blue couch in this living room in this house in Idaho we call The Ark, where the moment is not yet a memory, it’s happening, my pet deer eating the fern in the corner right before our eyes.

What if Kathy Kelly didn’t exist?

Would I know Ryan or Kristen?

Would I know what an exquisite corpse was, or the word surreal?


S.J. Dunning‘s work has appeared in Front Porch Journal, Creative Nonfiction, Flyway, YES! Magazine, Dogwood, and other publications.