Despite Eli’s worry and my own growing concern, I went to the theatre on the day and time I was told. I only made one addition; Simone came with me. Since I didn’t want to bring my daughter with me as a chaperone, she agreed to wait at the nearby coffee place.
At first, I’d told her she couldn’t come. “But you might need me,” she’d declared.
“I’m not a child. I can handle this on my own.”
“Mom. Come on. This is a big deal. Don’t you want to be able to talk about this right away? Analyze how the first day went? Gossip about the other actors?”
I laughed. I didn’t know if Simone could sense her dad’s lack of enthusiasm at the idea of the play, or if she genuinely was excited for me and wanted to be a part of it. “I can talk to you after school.”
“How about we compromise?” She held up her phone. “I looked up the theatre, and there’s a shopping center down the street. I’ll wait somewhere and do homework while you’re at the rehearsal.”
“Hmm.” That wasn’t a horrible idea.
She sensed me wavering. “I haven’t missed school at all this year.”
So as far as Simone was concerned, she was coming with me. She also designated herself my wardrobe consultant, suggesting I wear a flowing dress, to get in the mindset of an imprisoned woman.
“Because that’s what women wear in jail. Dresses.”
“It’s romantic,” she insisted. “You have to be pretty enough for the guard to fall in love with you.”
“You’ve lost your mind,” I answered, wary.
She just held out the dress, one I bought the previous summer but felt it was too nice to wear for cleaning my house. It was long, almost too long for me to walk around in it comfortably, but Simone held out heels that would help keep me from tripping on the hem.
“What about my hair?” I asked, then rolled my eyes. I was asking my teenage daughter’s advice.
“Leave it out, around your face. You’ve been incarcerated,” she reminded me. “You wouldn’t have time to do your hair.”
“But I have time to coordinate my outfit?”
“Mom. Come on. You could have been arrested in it or something. It doesn’t matter. You look good, and will make a nice first impression. That’s all they’ll care about.”
“You’re sweet. You know that?” I leaned over from where she was putting on my eyeshadow to give her a kiss.
She accepted the praise, and the kiss, but firmly pushed me away so she could finish before she finally stepped back. “There. You look perfect.”
And though I tried one more time to get her to attend school instead, she was adamant she’d rather be with me. Honestly, she made a nice distraction from what I was doing.
Would they make me sing? On the first day? I really, really hoped they didn’t.
“Why am I pretending I can do this?”
“You’re gonna be great,” Simone assured me.
“This is all your fault. If you hadn’t dared me to sing, I’d be home. Polishing something.”
She giggled and went back to typing on her phone. “Here. You should warm up your voice.” She played music from one of our favorite musicals, which we’d cheated and watched online.
We’d only been to a handful of shows together. Who honestly had the time? When she found a website that showed Broadway musicals, we’d been hooked.
I pulled into the parking lot and stared down the street, toward the theatre. “I should have brought some water.”
Simone paused after she opened the door and reached into her purse. “Take mine.”
“You’re the best.”
“Thanks, sweetie. I’ll text you when I’m on my way back.”
“Good luck!” she called through the window.
She had faith. Her enthusiasm almost made me believe I’d be okay.
The last time I had a job was just after college.
I was bad at interviewing, really bad, and frequently embarrassed myself at big, fancy offices. I decided employment in one of those places wasn’t for me.
A friend got me a job where she worked in human resources. When someone quit and the boss was desperate, I took my shiny degree and joined the small company as a secretary.
It was perfect for me.
I’m sure there are generations of women rolling in their graves, ashamed of me, but I genuinely loved it. I liked answering the constantly ringing phones, solving problems, calming people down.
And my parents, they loved that they spent thousands of dollars for me to type emails and memos and fetch coffee, but they left me alone when I told them I liked my job.
My boss was tough. She didn’t take any excuses, and I spent more hours working for her than I ever did studying in college. I felt more rewarded, too.
And then one day I met her son. A beautiful man named Eli who, once we were introduced, dropped by to visit his mother as often as he could. She teased he was only there to see me, so I finally paid attention to my appearance, hoping I’d run into him. I didn’t have to try too hard. He made his interest clear from the beginning.
When we got married and had Jayce, I stopped working for her. I’d missed it, missed having somewhere to go every day, but I really liked being home with him, and then Simone. I wouldn’t trade those years of being there for anything.
But I also meant what I’d said to Eli. The kids were practically out of the house. What would I do with myself then? I didn’t necessarily want to start a career so late in my life, but I’d been thinking I’d like to do something. I had no hobbies, played no sports. All I was good at, besides being organized and scrubbing toilets, was singing. But I never considered I could do that as more than an escape.
This might work out well, I thought. I left my car, and entered the theatre.
The inside was dark, crowded with people. It took me a minute to realize most of them were around my age. They even looked similar to me.
I searched for Harper and breathed in relief when she called my name. “I’m so glad you made it.”
All the nice pleasantries left me. “Um…”
“I know. We had a big turnout. Well, big for a small production.”
She handed me a slip of paper with the number thirty-one on it. “So far you’ll be up last.”
“Up last for what?”
Harper smiled at me. “Your audition.” She held up a hand. “I know. You thought you were just coming here to meet us. I did, too.” She pointed out a man sitting in the fifth row. “That’s my writing partner, Mark Donahue. I told him all about you…” she huffed, “but he insisted on holding auditions anyway.”
“Okay,” I said, slowly.
She turned back to me. “I’m sure you’re the one. He doesn’t know your number, so when he agrees with me, you’ll know you got the part on your own.”
“Harper. I’m really grateful for the chance, but…” I needed reassurance. Because I was one minute away from turning around and running back to my car.
Telling Simone I was too afraid.
“I definitely want you,” Harper assured me. “All these women are here for Mark. I need you to convince him you’re right for this part.”
“And how am I supposed to do that?” I asked.
Harper smiled. “Sing your ass off.”
Right. Okay. Easy.
Sing in front of all these people.
All the professional people who probably auditioned for a living.
I waited in the audience for my number to be called. One by one, I watched amazing women sing, some even danced a little, all different songs. Popular ones you could hear on the radio. Show tunes my grandparents probably liked.
To say I sweated through my dress wasn’t an exaggeration. I sat, frozen in my seat, wondering what I could possibly dazzle them with.
Despite my always trying to forget, my mind wandered back to that time, over twenty years earlier, to when I got a part in the spring play. I’d always been a part of the theatre group we had at our school. I loved nothing more than trying out for a role, singing something I’d practiced for weeks. I never minded when I inevitably was a part of the chorus. We rehearsed for months, and I cherished every minute of it.
Eventually, I earned better roles, some with lines or parts of a song I had to sing alone. That never bothered me, never gave me stage fright. Until my senior year, when I won the lead.
I’d been beyond excited. Finally. A chance for me to show everyone how talented I was.
I’d been vain. Overconfident.
I was the good girl in school. I had the grades, kept quiet, and only talked around my theatre friends or with my family. So I anticipated the moment when those around would fall speechless at my brilliance.
During the last week of rehearsals, the director invited a few people to help us get used to performing in front of a crowd. Mostly me, I realized, even then. I had a tendency to freeze up if anyone unfamiliar came to watch us. I’d stumble over the words, forget what came next.
Make an idiot of myself.
And then in front of that small crowd, Luther included, I lost every scrap of confidence. I couldn’t focus. I blanked on every single word. Every note.
I quit the next day. And the director, a really nice woman who had always encouraged us, barely tried to talk me out of it. Even she recognized I was hopeless. The understudy took my part and did such a good job, I heard she got a scholarship to study theatre in college.
I gave up all desire of trying to sing back then. And I was okay with that decision, with pretending the safety of my home had been enough for me.
As I watched the women on Harper’s stage, I remembered the fun I used to have. How much I’d enjoyed being a part of something.
And I knew I wanted that again.
When my number was called, I stood. And trying to appear natural, as if my heart wasn’t pounding and my mouth wasn’t dry, (I’d finished all of Simone’s water by then), I ascended the stairs and walked to the center of the stage.
I turned to face the people who’d be judging me. Not only Harper and Mark, but the other women who’d auditioned. To my surprise, there were only a couple left. The others must have fled after they sang. That would make what I was about to do a little easier.
Harper smiled at me. “Whenever you’re ready.”
She’d said that to everyone. Well, some started before she’d had a chance, but not me. I figured being polite could only help.
I took a deep breath. Wiped my hands on my thighs.
At first, I strained to remember the words. I hadn’t sung the one I chose in years. Luckily, back then, I’d gone over the words so much, they’d never completely leave me. I had hoped anyway. And I was right. I sang all the notes perfectly, my voice soaring out as I clenched the muscles in my stomach and let myself forget where I was.
I felt the emotion of that song. And I felt proud of myself, so much that by the end, I had maybe a few tears in my eyes. I prayed Harper and Mark thought they were on purpose.
I let the last note hang a moment before I hurried and collapsed in my seat. I leaned my head back and to my horror, the next thing I knew, I woke up with a jerk. Harper and Mark were standing over me, their faces concerned.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“You passed out,” Mark answered. He didn’t even try hard to hold in his laugh. He happily let it out, then walked away from us, his voice echoing in the small space.
I said bye to Harper, rushed out of there, and ignored her calling my name.
I’d been an idiot, and I needed to get away from the people who’d witnessed that.
“So…” Simone asked the moment she opened the door.
I picked my head up off the steering wheel. “Never again.”
Her face fell. “Oh. Well, at least you did it.”
“I guess. Did you do your schoolwork?”
“Are you changing the subject?”
“Yup. Did you?”
“No,” Simone said, “but I texted all my friends.”
“I’m kidding. It was only my boyfriend.”
My mouth opened as I took my eyes off the road. I prepared to yell she wasn’t old enough for a boyfriend. Then I saw her cheeky smile. “You’re such a brat.”
She laughed. “Yes, I did all my schoolwork. I even studied for the geometry test I have next week.”
“Are you going to tell Dad?”
She was sneaky with the subject changes. She always had been. “I will. Eventually.” I shook my head. “Maybe tomorrow. When it’s a bad memory. Maybe next week.”
“He knew it was today, right?”
“He might remember.” I wanted to say, he’s not used to asking me about my day. Honestly, there were only so many times I could tell him about folding laundry before he lost interest. Even I lost interest in my life.
“Don’t worry. Next time, you’ll be better prepared. We can practice together.”
“Didn’t you hear me? Never. Again.”
She laughed. “Mom. Come on. You’re being silly.”
I sighed. “I know.” I wanted to tell her about the fainting, but I backed the car up and headed toward home.
She convinced me to stop at our favorite bakery instead.
I’d raised a smart girl. How could I refuse?