Backstage

 

The heavy grey sky made the campus a low-ceilinged theatre in which fog and mist had danced all day. Just now, twilight had taken the stage and whirled its dark cape behind the Gothic towers of Barbelin/Lonergan Hall. Presently, arrogant night would take all it wanted.

Along the downhill paths dawdled small groups of girls and guys. Behind them the fog embraced the lamp light, veiling yet revealing its beauty as the right dress does with the right woman’s figure. She strutted past them, exaggerating a drag on her cigarette. Exhaling, she felt like a fairy augmenting the atmosphere with magic clouds of smoke.

Something about the mist and fog made it seem an adventure could begin at any moment. Maybe it was the closeness of all those molecules of moisture — the whole atmosphere seemed a cloud of moisture surrounding her! — but, somehow the atmosphere seemed to have become electric, as if its purpose were to conduct electricity. She could easily imagine bolts of light flashing around her — from here to there in any direction, like one of those electricity displays at the Franklin Institute but with herself as the center, the lightning rod.

Oh, everyone look at me! I’m ready for my close up! And, you’re not even the star, just playing the wife and mommy! What the actress does.

Still there was something to it. In this atmosphere it seemed at every moment that something was about to happen … as if someone from your past could step out of the mist … as if a stranger in the fog could instantly become someone you know … or someone from your future whom you will know.

What does the poet see walking across campus?

The refrain of her German professor who loved to go off on tangents about Goethe, Heine, German Romanticism, and its Traumen

Das Glück ist eine leichte Dirne …

“Two people walk across campus and see different things. One sees his way to class. The other, the poet, sees something different. What does the poet see?”

Heading from the main path toward the stairs down to Bellarmine, she looked harder at the lamps and wondered what the poet sees.

Alongside the evergreens, tulip-shaped lamps … Costumed for another time … Perhaps … but from a day close enough to ours for us to understand … Edwardian? In elegant Edwardian garb.

And this costuming was necessary … Disguise! Why? Because they are Immortals! Immortals contented at their posts along the curving paths! Immortals who do not command nor beckon nor even call … But simply, … provide!

Ha ha! How about that? That is what the poet sees!

 

 

She gently closed the backstage door, wishing not to disturb the performance of the first one-act play. It was a room of whispers. Some lips were moving to fill silences and kill time. Others were bitten in silence.

All getting ready in their own way. Some being silly to hide their nervousness, others moving their lips to practice their lines. A preview of a many-ringed circus. With clowns and dramatics. There was a silly little man in black suit, derby, and walking stick. There was a young lad on his way off to work in the factory. There was an obtuse girlfriend and a nagging wife.

The ash tray was next to the little grey intercom. Through the intercom into the quiet room came muffled audience sounds and rehearsed lines. She buried the light of her cigarette in ashes and stared in the mirror on the wall. The nicotine had calmed her a bit it did not have the usual affect. Her face was ghostly. A smoke ring rose in the mirror in front of her face and disappeared so quickly that she was not sure whether it had been a full ring or not.

After throwing on the faded, flowerprint frock, she stepped out of her sneakers, pulled off her jeans, and stepped into the worn sensible shoes of the aging mother. She wanted to light another cigarette to see if she could reproduce the ring. But there was no time. Funny the way the most ridiculous ideas can seem so important … The face in the mirror pouted like a child and then smiled at itself.

The intercom trembled with applause. Less time than she had thought!

She lit another cigarette. She did need to calm down a little more. She placed the grey wig carefully on her head, adjusting it with both hands. The reflection was immediately older. Tendrils of smoke shimmied toward the mirror’s frame. She placed the cigarette in the ashtray and began making herself up. She had to become a lady with a husband and grown son.

Should she go splashing into the world of the mirror!? How the poet bleeds!

Draw the lines just as you did for dress rehearsal. Placing them where they will really be some day? Who knows? You know. This whole performance is really a dress rehearsal when you think about it. A girl becoming a middle-aged lady. Aging myself. Oh, dear, I’m dating myself – aren’t I?! Fast forward. From youth to age. Like with a VCR. From the beginning of the story to the end? Exposition to denouement? Moments and I’ll be a mother with an emptying nest. Wishes made and wishes thwarted. Five Fs: fruit, fertile, fecund, futile, finale. Skip over the vital stage of love and marriage, the crazy coincidence of meeting and courting, the wild exhausting energizing early days: love and lovemaking ’til floods of desire empty you. Then the smallest unsatisfied drop scalds you on the inside, too hot to stand. Those days with him. Wonder if he’ll be here. He said he would come to see it. Mom and Dad will be there. My mother watching me be a mother and a wife.

Skipping over bearing the child, giving birth, a drama in itself in those Edwardian days, raising a child, wondering if what you told him was right, if you had made a mistake, pushed too much or too little … As if this movie were made by a man. What the actress does. Or a man has the remote control, anyway.

Yes, we’re skipping all that. Skipping it. It’s already happened. I am she already. Though it is part of who I am. I am the shape shifter going from maiden to mother to crone. What the woman does! Not showing the hot central stage of swelling womb and milky breasts. Skip to motherhood with a strapping son. Then losing him. You’re a crone! A crone! Achone, achone! Unimaginable? Lose your flesh and blood. Lose those years of vitality. That energy that could lift a car or kill a monstrous attacker. Obscure the years of vitality behind make up. Instead of obscuring age.

Lose his presence around the house. His presence as a constant care in your mind. They must worry about him still and think, “I should do this” or, “He needs that.” Phantom cares. And then to remember that he is gone! Oh, God! It’s impossible to really know. After all the thought and work and worry … and nothing. Except the husband standing there, the dumb ox, trying to pretend that it’s not his fault.

Husband. Funny how I am desirous of Man. Man in general. Man in general to be lover. To be boyfriend. But Particular Man?! Oh, how that feeling dries up when faced with a particular man! A very different thing. Different thing altogether. I guess guys must feel the same way. Could explain why they are so cold and never care about our feelings.

As she applied the makeup to her eyebrows, she was careful to allow her elbow to brush only gently against her breasts. They were feeling swollen and sore now. She was on her way. No chance of fertility bearing fruit this time. Could use a shot of Wild Turkey. Would have to stop drinking. Smoking, too.

Another crackle of applause came through the intercom.

She took another drag of her cigarette calmly, casting onto her face the look of a serious woman, a grown working-class woman whose life had been filled with care but who loved her family, was brave in the face of the routine of daily toil. Taking quiet joy and pride in it. Hating the rich people, probably. Envying them a little but never believing it was her lot to be like them. God and the preacher and the Bible say it and she believes it. Not much questioning of anything. Not even the dumb-ox husband, really. Simple brave life. Kind of stupid, though. Probably wouldn’t even be able to smoke back then.

What the actress sees! …