Warning: This work has been rated 18+ for language.
The velour curtains looked as heavy as the air felt pressing down on me. I wondered if the others felt it too. We were out of our element.
Just the reflection of the spotlights radiating off the gaudy, candy-colored stage made a screw tighten in my head. I couldn’t imagine standing under it; I don’t know how Lily stood it.
We sat in the back, scared away from the looming monolith of the stage as well as aiming to stay out of earshot of other theatregoers. I looked down at them from our seats on high.
They were well-dressed, laughing, and smiling. People embraced as though they hadn’t seen each other in whatever a long time meant to them. They looked clean and sophisticated. The opposite of our ridiculous band.
Payton had on an overall dress over a striped, short-sleeved shirt. They hadn’t bothered to wash splatters of green paint from the stained denim or the goosebumped skin of their arms. Jace dressed just how he did to school: odd but decent. I sat between the two. I caught glimpses of Connie’s understated but done-up silhouette out of the corner of my eye.. She had at least somewhat dressed for the occasion. Addison’s style was amorphous as always.
Her boots rested on the seats in front of her, and Payton and Jace couldn’t stop swearing. They talked around and over my head a bit, but did their best to include me, or at least to make me laugh. They took any quirk of my lips as a rousing victory. I was glad we sat in the back; maybe we wouldn’t get kicked out this way. We looked like the poster children of insolent youth.
We weren’t silenced by the dimming of the lights or the swelling of the orchestra, but by the quiet that ballooned up the rows from under us. Not even Payton had the courage to swear in a silent theatre.
The show began, lines were spoken, and Payton whispered down the row to Addison, and she whispered back. I couldn’t see either pair of lips to read or listen under the music to hear their words, but Connie shushed them and went to swat both their heads. Payton ducked away and let out an odd whisper of a laugh, but Connie caught Addison just enough to matt up her hair. She shot out an elbow and a challenging grin, and this time Jace had to hush Connie and hold her fast in her seat.
We all stirred as the show went on, Connie fixing her hair and Addison repositioning her boots in the corner of my eye, but true to the silent oath we made the moment we stepped through those heavy wooden doors, we were silent and watched the show. I didn’t think it was as bad as Lily said it was, but I can’t say how much any of what was going on passed through the fog sitting behind my eyes and in my ears into my unsteady mind.
The only hammer we brought to the thin ice of quiet was when Payton hooted over the blaring of horns overscoring Lily’s entrance. Jace and Addison joined briefly but joyously. Lily’s hair was done up, and she was in a suit just like those in line with her. I caught a glimpse of Connie behind Jace’s bent-forward back. Her hands were in her hair, as if she had been restyling it, but they were frozen. Her whole body was, save for the sharp flicking of her eyelids.
Lily didn’t even blink at our cries. She didn’t look up at us for even a moment, just stared past the chairs into a place that we couldn’t see. She sang and danced, a grinning beacon in the row of disillusioned chorus members. I knew she was meant to have a masculine role, and so did she, but I doubt anyone in the audience did. Her hair was done up in a bun, her normal style, but something about it was ever so slightly neater. Her nails were painted and they glittered, and her makeup was on par with the leads who, according to a snide comment from Lily afterwards, had their hair and faces done up by professionals. She put them to shame. She took her suit and her role and made it a woman’s. After all, they belonged to a woman. And what more was there to it than that?
Lily finished, and as her chest heaved and her eyes sparkled it felt like a storm rolled through me. She had such control over how she was perceived. Beautiful, feminine, in-control, and rapturous. If she hadn’t confided in us, I would never have known she had doubts or discomforts as she stood there under the lights. They seemed like they were especially made to shine on her as she, in turn, shone on us. My forefinger ran down the warped, cheap plastic of the armrest. It didn’t give, which was a small surprise. I wasn’t sure why.
Lily didn’t go into my dazes. She didn’t go into a project wondering what would come out of it. She knew what she was doing, where she was, and who she was. She was sure to the point where three of her peers cheering up from the shadowy recesses of an audience couldn’t even make her flinch. She moved with the control that Connie had taught her. That we had all taught her. That no one had taught me.
My fingers rubbed up and down the armrest. I was not sculpting; it did not yield.
I was snapped out of my reverie by applause. Lily’s scene was over, which meant that she would not be coming on again. Payton leaned back and closed their eyes. I slipped out of the moment with a practiced ease.
I don’t know what drifted through my mind, but suddenly there was applause and a grandiose chord lifted up by the actors. Lily was there too. I could hear her voice, delicately bending behind the voices of the others. The sound and lights cut out, and suddenly people were bowing.
Lily was one of the first to take her place up front and take her sweeping bow with a line of men. I had thought the leads bowed first. I guessed I was wrong.
Lily’s chest swooped in a graceful arc. I saw pieces of Connie in the way her right foot stood pointed behind her left. She had made a bastard child of a bow and a curtsey. I wondered if Connie saw that. I wondered if she was smiling.
Lily blew a kiss to us and smiled. The intangible thing she cast off her hand struck through my heart like an arrow.
Her smile was bright, and it shone in the stage lights. She was happy. She was proud. She went through so much to get here and hated every second of it, but now she was smiling. She loved what she did. I saw my sculptures. I didn’t have that love for them. I didn’t cradle them and feel their weight in my arms when they were finished and smile like Lily did. I carved because it didn’t seem like I had any choice. Or maybe it was just to pass the time.
My fingers pressed up and down along the armrest again. Cold. Always cold. Frigid.
A knee pressed into my right leg. The right side of my body wound tight. My wrist went so tense that it trembled.
The knee pressed further. I looked up. Payton’s eyes, brown and watery like a deer’s, looked back at me, hooded under knitted brows.
“You okay?” they mouthed. I swallowed and nodded. I noticed the others were on their feet, shouting. I rose uneasily and began applauding with them. When Payton saw me steadily on my feet, they flashed me a smile before drowning out the shouts of the others with their own. Lily smiled knowingly and laughed. We were too far to hear it, but I knew what it sounded like. My clapping stuttered. Or did I?
We clapped politely for the rest of the cast, but that was the least of our concerns. I think we only clapped for them because Lily did too. If something was worth her appreciation, it was worth all of ours.
The instant the actors left the stage, all of our phones lit up in unison. It was a text from Lily.
Thanks for coming guys!!! The lobbys a nightmare just stay there and ill be out in a few
Then another notification:
Im telling my mom to come meet with you guys hope that’s okay
FUCK YEAH IT IS!! responded Payton. GO STEPHANIE!!!!!!!
“I still don’t get how you keep calling Ms. Hartley ‘Stephanie,’” Connie said after sending a thumbs-up emoji in the chat.
“You get on a first-name basis after enough sex,” Payton smirked.
“Payton, shut the fuck up!” Addison groaned. “Ashton, do me a favor and hit them over the head.” I couldn’t. Connie did it for me. “If you ever call my mom anything other than Mrs. Vega, I swear to God I will end you,” Addison continued her tirade over Payton’s squeaks of protest.
As the squabble continued, Connie joining in from time to time, Jace leaned his shoulder into me. My whole body tensed up this time. I think he felt the muscles bunch up beneath my shirt. His hand went towards mine. His ring glinted as he pulled away.
“What’s up?” he asked, wedging his hand under his leg.
I shrugged. The word “nothing” brushed across my lips.
“Don’t lie to me,” Jace whispered, pressing further into me. My body did not yield, like stone. Or plastic. He asked again, “what’s wrong?”
I shrugged. The gesture was tight and jerky.
He took a deep breath. “Hey, if you need-”
“Hey!” shouted Payton, drowning out the rest of Jace’s words. A shadow flitted across his face. He opened his mouth again, but this time Addison’s voice rose up.
“We’re over here Ms. Hartley!” Connie made some snide comment to Payton about Addison’s use of Lily’s last name, and the moment was officially broken. Jace pressed into me a final time. Lily’s pride stuck in my mind. The cool collection with which she held her legs, her head, her hands. Phantom grain of my wooden tools brushed against my lips. Jace smiled at me, differently this time, before turning to wave to Lily’s mom.