As Eva stared at the cracked ceiling, her throat tightened but it was not her soft navy plaid scarf pulled too tight. She was feeling things. She’d so regretted that her very grown up children had never seen her act, specifically not in any role other than that of “mother.” And, of course, that was not an act but a daily devotion, a way of living, a tale made of scenes whose very genesis was unknown to any of them. They had not witnessed her life on any stage other than the most pedestrian, the household on Tremont Street. It had often worried her, that the three of them wouldn’t realize how she loved being an actress long before they came along. But now instead of regret, a chill along her spine telegraphed terror to her crowded consciousness.
Eva lay with neck against the cold curve of a shampoo sink at her favorite salon. The stylist’s gentle massage of hair follicles loosened a few memories, emotions she had kept at bay for weeks. It wasn’t meant to be so important. It had started out as a whim, this foray into drama, a silly bet between friends. She had seen the ad for auditions at the community theatre, then her best friend had challenged her and Eva had tried out. And gotten a small part. But no one knew about it except Nils and he thought it was just for fun, too. Until she ended up liking it far more than any of them had planned. Well, Eva knew better. She knew that once she got out there, the passion reignited as she felt the heat of the lights and heard that applause, it would be too late to turn back.
She remembered how the two boys, Dean and Todd, and their sister, Cam, had made up plays, dragging out her scarves, a box of old clothes kept readied for donations to charity, odds and ends they pulled from drawers and closets to design a set. It might be a remake of a fairy tell one week, a story of their own making, often confusing and lengthy, or a puppet show. Eva always jumped right in, trying to improve on their designs or themes, employing her sewing skills at times, showing them how to tweak a walk or speech until finally, when Cam was ten, they forbade her to take part. When Eva, astonished by their lack of gratitude, asked why, the answer was simple: “It’s our’s, mom. You get to watch, though.”
And they were right. It wasn’t her story or mini-production, nor her privilege. So she never told them she used to act, how she had left southwestern Michigan for Chicago and took acting lessons and began to get good parts. How she had been planning on succeeding as she knew well she had a strong will, even at twenty. And then she’d met their father’s eyes across a gleaming lobby, then across a dinner table at a restaurant, then… Well, in due course, Nils and she made changes they could not have foretold at that initial eye-to-eye rhapsodic moment.
Her head was swaddled in a fluffy white towel and she was led to a swivel chair. The wind rattled the building’s ancient windows and she imagined it might snow, luxurious, dangerous drifts of it covering roadways so no one could get to the theatre. It would be a reprieve if nature intervened. This was not feeling wonderful, not at all. What had she been thinking?
Vi, her hairdresser, smiled at her in the mirror. Eva tried to avoid seeing herself; she looked like a cousin to a wet chicken. It was her eyes, looking too small, unblinking as mild shock registered and her public persona vanished. The washing always erased part of her protection and left her vulnerable to random pricks and pinches of life, she thought, and so she looked down. She felt too much, that’s what it was, and she couldn’t hide it without help. A lifelong problem.
“So, the usual?”
Eva nodded, tried on a smile.
“Even with the big to-do tonight? I thought you’d want elegant or daring. You still have pretty, long hair. How about an updo? It’s soon to be New Year’s Eve!”
Eva froze. “Grey hair, long or not, is still grey hair… don’t change anything, Vi. There’ll be enough for the family to contend with as I step on stage. They may slink out as soon as the lights go down as it is.”
Vi put hands on hips and cocked her own pink-haired head. “No way! They’ll at least be happy for you. I’m happy for you, girl. Not a bad move at all, you trying out for that play and now this–what is it? Some reading, you said?”
“Reader’s theatre. We read from scripts on stage, but not with scenery and all the frills. It’s…well, spare, which can make a story more intense.”
Vi snipped locks here and there, then turned the chair. “I never saw anything like that. Might be interesting. Like radio? You see it in your head? No, that’s not right, you’re on stage…well, the important thing is it’s you, their mother, up there.”
“It is rather like radio, how smart to think of it. But what is something is that my husband will be coming. He didn’t get to the play.”
“Really? Why not?”
“He was away on business.”
“Ah.” Snipsnipsnip. “He’s always on business, isn’t he? I mean, so you say, often.”
Eva was spun back around to face the mirror. She could barely see herself through long bangs she had grown out.
“Yes, nothing new.”
“Well, this will be a change, then.”
Eva thought, yes, that’s the problem, we are not about surprises, but gave a half-smile from beneath the fall of hair and fell silent.
After her hair was dried and Vi had convinced her to try the updo and Eva saw it suited her well, she left and headed to the tailor’s. The new dress she had splurged on didn’t fit quite right on the curve of the left hip, the curve that she found more generous than she had expected. She pushed open the door and a pleasant bell announced her arrival. Mr. Avanti rushed forward.
“Mrs. Wainright, hello. Your beautiful raspberry dress is ready. Let me get it so you can try it on.”
In the dressing room she shivered and held the fabric up close–her dress was burgundy, so why the dreadful comparison to a child’s crayon? But once she stepped into the flourescent light, she saw what he meant. It looked like a somewhat deeper raspberry sorbet that she sometimes indulged in. It wasn’t quite what she had wanted but it was unique.
As she stepped up and before the mirror, Mr. Avanti shook his small, neat head, a grin changing his face from merely lined and pallid with weariness to nearly incandescent.
“You see, it fits well now, just skims the body, and how right for you, this color!”
Eva looked at the three-view mirror, saw her left side (the seam corrected so it fell against her full thigh without any error), then her right (quite the same as the other), then full-on. Was she like an ice cream cone turned upside down, perhaps?
“The color, a little young? A little garish?” she asked.
“Lively, good drama, if you are asking, Mrs. Wainright.”
“I wonder…Nils likes me in classic clothing, you know, neutral shades. Mostly navy, grey, ivory, black. Or tweedy, even, if you recall his taste…” She made a little face, then laughed to herself.
“Yes, ma’am.” His own expression was replaced by a pensive look.
“But it’s for an event, did I tell you?”
“Yes, New Year’s Eve tonight. In an hour I go home to prepare for mine.”
“How lovely. You and Mrs. Avanti going out dancing?”
He blushed, enough so that Eva felt foolish being so personal.
“Yes, true, we are going to the ballroom, we love to dance all night.”
Eva studied him, then the dress and murmured, “Wonderful, you are probably very good at it.” She ran her fingers over the draping neckline, thought it a bit low. The jersey fabric was silky, graceful.
He nodded, then rechecked seams, hem, the fit of shoulders. “All perfect, and the color…may I say, he will like it.”
Eva turned to him. “It’s for a performance I am in. A sort of theatrical thing, you see. He hasn’t seen me in something quite like this, at least not for decades! And my children will even be there.” Eva felt the sudden pulsing pressure of tears against the rims of her eyes so turned back to the mirrors, then composed herself, stood taller, head up, lips pressed together until they were pale and thin.
“That is remarkable, performing! Very good, Mrs. Wainright, no worries, you are a vision!” He cleared his throat. “I mean, a good dress, very well-made for you.”
“Yes, perhaps.” She breathed in and out slowly, commanded the tears to recede. Her reflection nodded gratefully back at his reflection. “You did such a fine job. I must hurry now.”
“Indeed, big night. A new year!”
Eva changed back into black jeans and boots and sweater and sat on the little bench. Her heart was fluttering. Was she having stage fright before she even got there? No way was that going to get her. She exited fitting room, and paid for the alteration.
“Happy New year, Mr. Avanti!”
“Happy New Year, have a splendor night!”
Eva sat back in her car and chuckled at his kind error of speech. Splendid, not splendor, yet maybe that’s what he meant. It would be above and beyond her hopes to have any splendor happen, to feel like it was a risk worth taking, that her family would truly appreciate it. Even find her good enough to be proud.
But this performance was first and last not even for Nils, not for Todd and Dean and Cam. It was for herself. It was her desire to act, her dream reclaimed. She hoped it was a real thing, something she could pursue even now, in a small way. She had started off in the community theatre, down this acting path, a few months ago. Had said nothing to most people, not even her children. Until last week.
Of course, Nils had been informed early on, as he would notice her absences–when he was around. At first surprised and annoyed that she’d be gone much more often, he finally said it was a relief that she’d located an outlet for her “restless energy, for all those latent creative tendencies now that you are in retirement.” Which meant he’d missed the point, didn’t understand her so well as she thought, and had seemed to forget what real acting had meant to her long ago. But at least he hadn’t complained. He uncharacteristically held her close more than a moment and even kissed her before ambling off in search of his new pipe.
It was an early performance, as it was dinner theatre. There would be drinks and appetizers at the forty-odd scattered round tables as the actors gathered on the smallish but atmospherically-lit stage. They were reading an assemblage of poems about winter, the tendency towards rest, the hibernation that precedes transformation. Changes that cannot always be named until they are upon us. The new year rising up in the deep, wide wake of the old, the future unfolding even in the passage of this moment.
Eva had loved this idea from the start, even suggested a few poems and prose excerpts. Since she was on the board of All Girls to Women, the charity to which they were giving all donations, they had encouraged her to participate in the development of the program. At least she suspected that was it at first. But in time she heard some good words, even encouragement to pursue more acting possibilities. She had grown under her new friends’ tutelage and support. But that didn’t mean she felt perfectly prepared. Freed of queasiness that dogged her right up to the last minutes.
The boys were coming from the north end of town, Cam from the east and would meet Nils there. Eva left long before Nils, after he had admired her in the raspberry dress and new heels, an unusual purchase. She’d felt relieved, a little more confident. She could do this thing ahead of her, then maybe more. But she was happier leaving the house than she was upon entering the restaurant. It seemed insane that she could allow herself to be made a fool.
Any second thoughts were dispersed as she waved at her cheerful cohorts. They circled up and headed to the dressing room to do some relaxation exercises. Everything was set; she was as ready as she would be.
They soon gathered together back stage and waited for their cue. The crowd beyond coughed, chattered, sipped and ate while they tried to steady their heads and hands. Recessed lights dimmed above the tables and spots of blue and silver bloomed on the small stage. The MC introduced the group and the crowd welcomed them as the four of them walked on, then sat on stools set before podiums. After relative silence settled about them, the first reader, a man, stood and let his baritone voice tell of the strange richness of winter nights, the brittle brightness of its mornings, the way we wrap ourselves up in comforts and people and wait out the waiting, the lengthy and trying drear of the season.
Eva was ready for her turn in the sequence of poems and prose. She saw nothing, no one beyond the stage. She leaned forward into the faceless space, spoke deliberately, then let emotion mold each phrase as she surrendered to the poetry: a prophecy of new beginnings amid tenacious remnants of the past, every syllable a promise of more enchantments, the soul of each stanza a fragrant balm. She closed her eyes and it was as if her powerful voice rose from a place too long forgotten, from a life that was bigger and far better than she was. And she again fell in love with this, the longing to act, even as it fell for her.
And so it went, forty-five minutes of readings, the audience responding, clapping and whistling, then again silent and breathless, then erupting once more.
Backstage, Eva found herself not wanting to emerge from the tiny room where they had prepared. The others rushed off after congratulating each other, gone to loved ones and other special affairs. But then a sharp rap landed on the door and she opened it.
“Mother, that was lovely, really good!” Cam hugged her quickly and tightly.
“Great stuff, I had no idea!” Todd, more reticent, patted her on the back, then put his arm around her shoulder and squeezed a second.
“Mom, why have you hidden such talents from us all these years?” Dean lifted her nearly off her feet with his bear hug, then stood back a few paces. “Is that why you were so attentive to our make-believe?”
Eva felt herself unwind under their fondness and laughed and talked with them readily. It was good, such appreciation, their coming to witness her efforts and finding them acceptable. She knew they wouldn’t have hurt her for the world, good work or not.
And then she caught sight of Nils at the door.
He stood motionless, not watching their family, not speaking, but simply staring at her as if she was a rarity, a ruby throated hummingbird right next to him, a night-blooming moon flower, an exotic jewel. Eva stopped talking, let their three lively adult children chatter on. She crossed the room and stood before him, just a foot between them, warm breath mixing with his. He took her forearms in his hands and slowly pulled her to him.
“Hello, Eva,” he whispered in her ear. “Dear, darling Eva, so glad to have you back.”
“Yes,” she whispered back, “hello, Nils, here I am.”
It seemed they stood together with eyes closed an eternity in that embrace, and it must have been, for when they looked around they saw the room held no children, and the dim hallway was empty. Eva put her arm around Nils’ waist and he, hers, and they walked out, closing the door firmly behind them.