He slips through the back door with the broken lock during intermission and takes a seat in the empty row farthest from the stage. He’s been pacing outside the theater since only a few minutes after the show began, only late because of his incessant indecisiveness. The lights of the auditorium dim, the curtain pulls back, and she steps forward. Spotlight on her, all eyes on her. But he can’t look up, choosing instead to slump further into his seat with the wobbly wooden armrest, useless like a vestigial organ.
It’s a small run-down theater, but she calls it home. He remembers all the rainy afternoons when she’d drag him to this forgotten place that he had, at first, written off as a dump, the air inside always smelling faintly of salt and vinegar chips, even though the sign outside the entrance – the scrawny handwriting in pencil straying from the lines of the flimsy paper that it was written on, but still a sign nonetheless – prohibits food and drink of any kind. She would stand on that decrepit stage, usually just talking, an eclectic plethora of random thoughts bubbling to the surface of her mind, released through lips stained with Maybelline’s Are You Red-dy. Spontaneous and sure, the stage creaking with age beneath her, she would give him glimpses of her inextinguishable internal monologue. But sometimes, she would read from scripts printed on the back of old class notes or protestors’ fliers or whatever else she had on-hand at the time, the scrap paper’s original purpose meaning nothing to her, unimportant so long as she could consult the classics or look upon the lines of off-Broadway literature. He was always impressed by her ability to shove aside her feelings like old toys on a dusty shelf, mesmerized by the realness of her performance. But she could never manage to master crying on stage, haunted by her happiness.
Still unable to look up, he focuses his gaze on a lonely Skittle carelessly discarded on the sticky floor, the untied shoelaces of a rambunctious four-year-old occasionally illuminated by the dull lights lining the floorboards as he runs up and down the almost abandoned aisles, the glow of a Blackberry – probably belonging to a busy parent feigning benevolence. With trembling fingers, he traces the silhouette of a small bouquet of flowers being brought to the star of the show. He listens to the actors on stage talk, hears their voices, but not their words. He detects the slight quiver in her voice, knows that any minute now she’ll have to force herself to cry. He rubs sweaty palms on velvet upholstery and glances up on stage. Catching her eye, he’s surprised to find tears.
He doesn’t look up again until the show ends, until the small but proud cast has taken its bows, until he hears the definitive click of the double doors, all traces of the last spectator gone. Still in costume, she’s sitting at the edge of stage. The soft, rhythmic banging of her heels against the platform as she swings her legs back and forth, back and forth. The crinkling of the cellophane wrapped carefully around the flowers. He’s about to walk down the aisle, bouquet in hand, but she speaks first, her voice awkwardly penetrating the silence. She asks him what he thinks about the show, he gives her a cautious smile, says it was amazing, that she was amazing. They have light conversation, carefully measuring their expressions, weighing the meaning of the other’s words. Then he congratulates her, shares his satisfied shock at the surprising sincerity of her false tears. Suddenly turning to go, she tells him, honestly, now the tears are easy. It’s the smile she has to fake.
Age 16, Grade 11
Hunter College High School