I own nothing*
Fake Friends – Joan Jett and the Blackhearts
The first love of Leah Juliana Clearwater's life was dance. She loved art and music too, but ever since she saw the local dance troupe in Port Angeles do a promotional performance for their Christmas showcase of The Nutcracker, she was lost. Her heart sped up, she felt shy, and she couldn't take her eyes off the dancers. It was difficult to convince her parents, but she persisted. Even at four years old, she was a pain in the ass.
Her Grandma Julia helped, offering to drive Leah to the studio in Port Angeles even when the number of days that her granddaughter went from two to six. Julia Littlesea Clearwater never missed a single recital, rehearsal, or competition. Not even after she got sick. It was her who taught Leah how to put her hair in a bun and how to use a curling iron. She taught Leah how to put on makeup, so she wouldn't have to ask the teachers and dance moms who always used foundation that was far too light for her brown skin.
There was music, too. Leah had a natural mezzo voice and was often called upon to sing at events on the rez. There was that year in sixth grade when Jared taught her the guitar in exchange for tutoring so he wouldn't have to stay after school for remedial lessons.
And art. Leah loved art because Grandma Julia loved art. It was something that they shared between them. Chiaroscuro, abstract movement, Vermeer, impressionism, were all words she heard from Grandma Julia first before any teacher. Many summer days were spent in Seattle museums and galleries.
Find your voice, my sweet girl. Find your voice. And Leah knew her grandmother didn't just mean the art.
When other kids were grappling with their awkward phase, Leah had been popular in middle school. She was the girl who could sing and dance. She won art competitions and was an honor student. She was pretty, cheerful, and outgoing.
You are so lucky, people would say to her parents.
I wish my kid was more like Leah.
Your daughter is so perfect.
Her parents would preen. Of course, they would. Leah's accomplishments were a reflection on them. Not Grandma Julia though. She would never preen. She would only look like she was glad slow people were finally catching up to how amazing her granddaughter was, as she'd always known. And Leah loved her even more for it.
When she was thirteen, things started to go south. Her parents threw her a party, and the theme was ballet, of course. Streamers of light pink, a strawberry cream cake, white roses because she was growing up, and new pointe shoes from Grandma Julia for a present. Everyone at school came and brought gifts, and Leah felt so proud of her 'grownup' party. But the aunts and uncles (everyone was an aunt or an uncle on the rez) only commented about how much money it cost her parents to send her to dance lessons. How her dad worked two jobs, how her mom would pick up extra shifts, how her grandmother helped to pay, how difficult it was to have a career as a ballet dancer especially as a Native, how Leah's Port Angeles dance studio will never be able to provide the training found in schools in major cities like New York.
All of a sudden the streamers and the cake and the roses seemed silly.
Coincidentally, that was also when her dance teacher started dropping hints about her body type and height not being ideal for ballet. She would look at the other girls, and not really understand what the difference was between her shape and theirs. At five foot four, she wasn't the tallest girl in class either. Many, many years later, Leah would understand that her teacher whom she loved, trusted, and looked up to had wronged her in a cruel and racist way. But before then, at the age of thirteen, she internalized it, blamed herself, hated herself as she looked in the mirror. For many, many years, Leah considered it to be the first time her body betrayed her.
That was also the year that her Grandma Julia got sick. Really sick. She had pancreatic cancer. It spread quickly without symptoms. Leah watched while doctors ignored and dismissed her grandmother. The woman who spoke five languages, worked for NASA, was one of the few Natives to make it as a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Washington in Seattle, who became an acclaimed local artist after she retired, was just an old woman who didn't understand the complex medical stuff they had to deal with.
Soon, Leah would miss ballet lessons and started to spend more time in the hospice. The pointe shoes would be the last birthday present from her grandmother. They never get broken in.
Keep dancing. Always. My sweet girl.
That was the last thing her grandmother said to her. And Leah knew she didn't mean just the actual dancing.
Leah resolved that if her body type wasn't suited for ballet, then she'll find something else. She made medicine her new goal before she even finished grieving. People like her grandmother needed someone who would listen to them.
She knew she would need money. Lots of it. She started researching financial aid and scholarships when she was in 8th grade. She started her personal statement letters in 10th grade. She tried out for various sports team, not that her high school had a lot of options. Volleyball, basketball, and track. That was pretty much it. But she was hoping one would land her a scholarship. It was the 100m sprint that distinguished her. She was the first freshman to anchor the 4x100 relay. She would get up at 5am to do extra conditioning. She took all the discipline and dedication from ballet, and poured it into track. More than once, she would be the only one on the team to place at a meet.
She poured herself into schoolwork. Whatever time she didn't spend on track was spent studying. She got a driver's license as soon as she was old enough, so she could take classes at the Peninsula College because the Advanced Placement classes were limited on the reservation high school. And reading, always reading.
She gave up dance and music, mostly. But not art. It was her last link to her grandmother. Besides, it's good for college applications. At the community college, she tried her hand at photography and languages to be more like her polyglot grandmother and also because she dreamed of travelling the world beyond the small town where everyone knew everything and reinvention was impossible. Maybe she'd work for Doctors without Borders. Maybe she'll get a Master's in Public Health and be an advocate for healthcare in indigenous communities.
She had plans. Lots of plans.
She was the daughter of a council member. She was a Clearwater, an Uley, a Black, and an Ateara. She was connected to all the important families in the tribe, and she felt the need to look and act the part. She always dressed appropriately, her skirts were never too short. She resisted dying her hair and getting odd piercings. When their track team met with other schools, and the other kids would hurl slurs, she would bite her cheek and pretend she didn't hear.
The boys wanted her. The girls wanted to be her.
Then, there was Sam. Much had already been said about the tragic circumstances surrounding that. Joshua Uley a terrible father and an even more terrible person. All his life, Sam wanted respect, to get past the look in people's eyes that waited for him to screw up and show his blood. He was polite, hardworking, calm, and friendly. A golden boy. Wasn't it right that the golden boy should date the golden girl and be the perfect golden couple? Later on, when things did fall apart (spectacularly so), Leah would wonder if what they had was even real. Or if she, at her best, was just a stepping stone for Sam Uley and his status goals.
They met on the track team. He was a year older. They ran, studied, practiced together. They were the couple that parents and teachers pointed out as ideal. The ones who pushed each other and didn't let their relationship derail their studies and commitments.
They were going to go places. Together. They were going to last.
Leah would look back and remember how the community took pride in her. Her accomplishments were the tribe's. Local newspapers would write about the Quileute girl who won art competitions, and placed at meets. The one who got a scholarship to Boston University. Her bright eyes and pretty smile in the pictures.
Maybe that was why her fall came so hard and so fast.
Maybe all those times when people wished her well, they were just waiting for her to trip. Maybe the boys didn't want her as much as they wanted to prove that she was never too good for them. Maybe the girls didn't want to be her as much as they wanted to see her fail.
And if they were stuck in this town, then she should be too. Why should her dreams come true when theirs don't?
To Leah, it felt like people she had considered to be friends had only been pretending. And now that the girl with the long, silky hair and glossed lips was gone, they were free to abandon her.