by Lily Furlong
I had a ritual for days like these.
I paced the empty booth, from one wall to the other, three times. The sneakers I wore thudded harshly against the carpeted floor, providing a steady background noise to rival that of my own loud breathing.
Three times around. Breathe. Walk to the mirror. Breathe. Stretch. Breathe. Inhale for four counts. Hold for seven counts. Exhale for eight counts. Breathe.
I clutched the back of the ugly office chair in front of me, letting my nails make little half-moons in the soft leather. The way my anxiety was gripping me you’d think I was on my way to death row.
A sharp knock on the door interrupted my thoughts. One of my assistant stage managers, a young college student, poked her head inside.
“Hey, I just called five.”
“Thanks.” I gave a half-hearted nod as she disappeared back into the hall. No sooner had I sunk into the chair than the door swung open a second time. Chris Reynolds entered the room with a self-confident gravitas few could manage. He was dressed in a white button-up shirt and navy blazer, which accented the Ken-doll blue of his eyes.
He wrinkled his nose, surveying the wreckage that was my desk.
“It smells like a frat house in here,” he scoffed, leaning against the wall behind me. I squinted at him.
“Meaning what, exactly?”
He glanced down at my tabletop, then raised an eyebrow.
“Were you seriously vaping?”
“There isn’t exactly a rule against it.” I crossed my arms over my chest protectively. “Was there something I could do for you, or did you just come over here to insult me?”
“Lighten up Vi…” I could feel his eye roll as he leaned down and picked up the Juul from my desk, taking a long fragrant drag from it. “Can’t I come and wish my baby sister good luck?”
“You? Fucking fat chance…” My tone went sour. I snatched the pen away from him, tucking it into my pocket. “How did you get back here anyway?”
“Just said my sister’s running the show and needed my moral support,” he crooned.
He took a step forward, peering out over the large window that took up the entirety of the wall. It looked out over the sea of audience members and the stage below, currently hidden behind the dark green velvet drapes.
It was my first Broadway show as Stage Manager. It’d taken four years of living in New York but, despite my traditional Midwestern parent’s doubts, I’d managed to carve out a little space for myself in the city.
“Mom was asking me if you’re ever going to come home for the holidays again,” Chris said, as he stepped away from the window.
“Maybe when she stops asking me to move back home.”
“I know, then I’d actually have to spend time with you,” he mock-shuttered and I punched him lightly in the shoulder.
“As if you’re ever home.”
He snorted at that. In our parent’s eyes, Chris was the ideal child. In high school, he’d been the youngest captain of our varsity football and hockey teams. He married his high school sweetheart, went to college on a scholarship, and now worked as a successful salesman.
I, on the other hand, was destined to be a failure. Thinking back on it, maybe I should have gone into acting instead of production management. It wasn’t like I lacked practice in pretending to be something I wasn’t.
“Jane is looking forward to it,” Chris said. “She’s happy for the vacation, either way.”
“Not like I had to bribe you to come out here or anything…” I reached for my binder, which lay open on the desk, only to catch my finger on the side. “Fuck!” I hissed, drawing my hand away sharply. A small bead of blood clung to the pad of my index finger, like a little jewel.
Chris raised an eyebrow at me. “You get blood on my shirt and I’ll tell Mom you started going to church again.”
“Ha-ha, fuck you,” I scowled as I began pawing through my bag for a Band-Aid. “I swore I organized this.”
My head whipped up so fast I nearly gave myself vertigo. Chris was holding my phone in his hand, looking at a text with interest.
“What the hell? Give me that!”
“As your brother I’m just wondering—”
“Chris, so help me god—”
“Hey, Violet, I just called places. We ready to go up… Oh.” My assistant was poking her head into the room, taking in Chris and I with a wide gaze. I flushed and snatched my phone from him, shoving it into my pocket.
“I’m good here, Clare. Can you send Robert and Lexi in?” I grabbed my headset off the desk, tugging it over my ears and adjusting my mic. “Chris, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a show to run.”
“Jesus Christ,” I sighed dramatically, leaning against the brick wall. We were outside the actor’s entrance to the stage, both of us downing bottles of water like our lives depended on it. My sound board operator, Robert, rolled his eyes. “Do you know how many times I’ve had to get on them about that cue? I gave them two warnings, a standby, plus the go. I mean, what more do you need!”
“Not to mention Casey changed up visual cue in 2.3 yet again,” Robert muttered.
“I mean seriously! Actors!” I threw my hands up in exasperation, nearly spilling water on myself in the process. Robert laughed. “We don’t get paid enough for this shit.”
“It really wasn’t that bad, Violet,” Robert said, squeezing my shoulder gently. “You’re too hard on yourself.”
“Yeah, thanks.” I offered a weak smile. The cold April air was biting, making me shiver in my black T-shirt, but in the moment I was grateful. After a three-hour show there was nothing better to wake me up. “You did good. I should get back inside though, I’ve still got a report to write.”
“Just have Carmen do it. Take the night off. Some of us were going to get drinks over at Shoney’s. You want in?”
“Can’t. Thanks though. My brother’s in town and I said I’d go out with him and his wife afterward.”
“Is this the one you called a walking douchebag?”
“The very same,” I said, taking another gulp of water. “I love him though.”
Robert opened his mouth to respond as the door beside us swung open. Carmen stepped out, gripping a clipboard in one hand.
“Hey, Violet,” she said. “I think someone’s waiting for you up in the booth.”
“I don’t know, I just saw Lexi let someone inside when they were leaving.”
“Oh…” I shot a curious look at Robert, who shrugged. “I’ll get on that. Thanks.”
I made a beeline through the narrow halls of the greenroom and backstage toward the control booth. Along the way I gave out so many congratulations my mouth felt dry.
When I reached the lacquered wood door and threw it open, I fully expected to see some theater critic or poor sap who’d wondered up here by mistake. Instead, seated at my desk, was a tall woman dressed in a leather jacket over a red blouse and jeans. She had a thick mane of black hair styled in an afro, and even in the harsh dark light of the room, I could make out her bright brown eyes and dark red lips that curled into a familiar cockeyed smile.
“Elise?” I felt like if I looked away, she’d disappear. “What the hell are you doing here?”
By way of an answer, she got to her feet and crossed to me. In one smooth movement, she grabbed the collar of my shirt and pulled me into a deep cherry-flavored kiss. I smiled against her mouth, feeling more grounded than I had all day.
She pulled away after what felt like hours. “My meeting got out early. Thought I’d come and say hello.”
A giddy laugh escaped my lips. It felt like champaign bubbles.
“So,” Elise said, collapsing into the desk chair. She reached over my desk and picked up a pencil, twirling it between her fingers. Elise had a way of making herself at home in pretty much any situation. She could make something as simple as waiting for coffee seem like the most elegant pastime in the world. “The show went well. But something’s wrong.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I huffed, taking the chair at the lightboard. “Besides actors never remembering their goddamn cues.”
“Come on,” Elise waggled her eyebrows. “What’s bothering you?”
“What’s bothering me,” I pursed my lips, fingering the edge of the fabric seat, “is that I can’t get real cheese curds anywhere in the state of New York.”
“Come on, Vi.”
“Seriously! It’s like this is supposed to be a food capital, right? But you can’t provide me my midwestern comfort food when I need it the most?”
“I mean what is this, discrimination against the state of Wisconsin?”
“You’re not from Wisconsin, honey.”
“I know, I know. I think I just miss Iowa.” I pouted, resting my chin on my hands. Then I cringed. “I cannot believe I just said those words.”
“I’m being serious.”
“There’s not even anything in Iowa! Just corn and depression!”
I went quiet, flushing as my gaze fixated on the ground. I traced the curving outlines of the carpet pattern from one side of the room to the other. When I looked up, Elise was standing over me.
She went down on one knee, grasping my hands in her own.
“Honey,” she said. “Do you want to tell me what’s wrong?”
“I just—” my voice stuck in my throat. “I’m going out with Chris tonight, and I was just thinking…”
Elise nodded slowly. She sat cross-legged on the ground and patted the carpet next to her. I slid off the chair, seating myself next to her and leaning my head on her shoulder. Her hair brushed against my neck, tickling it, but I didn’t move it. She smelled like lemon soap.
Our quiet reverie was broken by a sharp knock at the door. Elise and I jumped apart, and I felt heat rise in my cheeks. I stood and swung the door open, then balked again.
“Mom? Dad? What are you—”
Within seconds I was enveloped in a warm, knitted-sweater hug that smelled vaguely of rosemary.
Whenever I pictured Meredith Reynolds, I imagined her standing by our old kitchen counter. One hand probably drifting by the old landline I couldn’t talk her into getting rid of, the other likely clutching the thin gold cross she always wore.
Now she stood framed in the doorway of my theater, looking wildly out of place. Like a cat that had just been shoved into a sweater. Her graying blonde hair was pulled back from her round face in a tight, neat bun. Her smile, like always, was a little too sweet. Like someone who’d just taken a shot of vanilla extract. Behind her stood my father, Paul, a gruff lumbering figure that contrasted her smaller, stocky one. She’d manage to coerce him into a button-up and dress pants, which abruptly contrasted his unkept mop of graying hair and peppered mustache.
Hidden behind them was Chris, who looked just as miffed as I felt, and his wife Jane.
“How’s our blessed girl doing?” my mother asked as she took a step back, sizing me up with a critical eye. “Are you feeling alright? You look like a twig! Have you been eating?” Mom hardly seemed to breathe as the questions spilled out of her mouth.
I took a half-step back. Inhale for four counts. Breathe. Hold for seven counts. Breathe. Exhale for eight counts. Breathe.
“I’m doing fine ma’am.” I smiled as warmly as I could manage. “What are you guys doing here?”
“Well we knew you had your little opening tonight, and your father had a meeting in the city with some investors this afternoon. So, we thought we’d surprise you!” Mom clasped her hands together, like she’d just said the most delightful thing in the world.
“I wish you’d told me you were coming,” I said, forcing my tone into lightness. Behind me Elise gave a little cough. “Uhh… you guys remember my roommate, Elise?”
“Of course, good to see you again dear. How are you?” Mom crossed the room and embraced Elise.
“I’m doing fine, Mrs. Reynolds. Mr. Reynolds.” She gave a wave toward my father, who just nodded.
“Oh, isn’t this nice!” my mother said, her tone becoming overly excited. “Chris said he was going out for drinks with Violet, why don’t you join us all?”
“I don’t think Elise—” I started, but Elise grabbed my shoulder.
“I’d love to Mrs. Reynolds. Thank you so much.”
“Of course, dear!”
“Right.” I shot a death glare at Chris, who threw his arms up in surrender. I turned back to Mom. “Well I’ve got to get changed, Elise and I will meet you down in the lobby then?”
“Sounds good dear. Oh, and wonderful job with…” Mom gestured vaguely toward my desk and the stage. “All of this. Really… fun show!”
“Thanks.” I fought down the bile that was rising in my throat. “I’ll meet you down there in just a second, okay?”
“Okay dear!” she chirped as she turned around, and I slammed the door shut.
I exhaled through my teeth, turning back to Elise who was looking at me with pursed lips.
“What was that?” I asked, my voice coming out sharp and cold. Elise raised an eyebrow.
“What was what?”
“Why would you want to come to dinner? You know how I—”
“Babe.” Elise crossed over to me, grabbing my hands and squeezing them gently. “I want to get to know your parents better. I mean, we’ve been together almost four years now and I’ve met them… what, twice? I want to know the people who made you! You, the most beautiful woman in the world. The most charming, talented, funny, sexy, adorable—”
I leaned forward, planting my lips firmly on hers. “Okay,” I whispered as I pulled away. “Flattery will get you everywhere.”
Elise laughed, and I could see the little dimples on her cheeks as she did.
“I just…” I let my voice fade, scrambling for the right words to articulate my feelings about my parents. “I hate doing this to you. Pretending you’re not… everything to me.”
“Hey.” Elise cupped my chin in her hand. “I knew what I was getting into when you told me your parents were Catholic Iowans.”
I snorted, and Elise’s smile was so sincere I wanted to kiss again her right there.
“I meant it, babe.” Elise pulled away slightly. “Whenever you’re ready to tell them. Not a minute before. I’m here for you.”
“I hate this,” I said with a sigh. Elise pulled me into a hug, and I breathed in the smell of her.
“I know, baby. I know.”
“So, I told them they could take my cheese too or no deal,” my father said, his gruff voice cutting easily through the distant din of the bar. “They said that they’d think about it.”
The six of us were crammed into one large booth, an array of beers and cocktails between us. We’d settled on a mellow bar only a few blocks away. Despite the darkness, outside the windows were still bright with the lights of the city.
I ran my finger absently over the rim of my glass. I’d changed into jeans, a stripped blouse, and jacket but still felt underdressed. My hair too, which was styled in a black pageboy cut, was still ruffled from the headset I’d been wearing.
“If you can get your products in Kroger chains that’d be huge,” Elise said.
“We’ll see.” My father shrugged, taking another sip of his beer.
My parents had been recounting the epic struggle in negotiating selling their products from the farm with chains.
Chris leaned forward. “I’ll say it again, if you want my help with making a—”
“I think we can manage, dearie,” Mom said, reaching across the table to squeeze his hand. “You’ve done so much for us already. Plus, you and Jane have the kids to worry about.”
I scowled into my glass. It didn’t matter to my parents that I was actually finally making a name for myself in theater, or god forbid that I was really happy with the life I was building here.
“So Violet,” Mom interrupted my thoughts, and I looked up with a start. She was gripping her martini lazily between two fingers, so loosely I thought she might drop it.
“Are you seeing anyone?”
I felt Elise turn to me and heat rose in my cheeks. I forced a placid, practiced smile.
“No, Mom, not at the moment. But I’m kind of okay with that.”
“Oh honey, you shouldn’t sell yourself short,” Mom said. “You’re a beautiful young woman! I’m sure there’s the perfect man for you somewhere in this place.” She chuckled, gesturing vaguely toward the window. “Besides, you don’t want to wait too long to settle down. I mean your brother already has two kids!”
“I’m not selling myself short,” I muttered, gripping my glass a little too tightly. “And wait too long for what? Marriage?”
“Yes! You won’t be young forever. Plus, you don’t want to wait to have kids—”
“I don’t even know if I want—”
“Enough of this, honey,” she said, the scorn in her voice was unmistakable. “What are you going to do if you don’t find a nice boy and start a family?”
“I think I’ll be fine,” I said, my voice a little desperate. My mother shook her head, her expression almost pitying. I floundered for a new subject. “Elise is running for a part-time editorial position at The Times.”
“Oh really? That’s quite impressive Elise.”
“Thanks,” Elise said as she brightened a bit, straightening. “I’m really excited about it. I’ve been thinking of going for a beat position for a while, but this is even better. It’s really competitive, but I think my portfolio is as strong as it can get. I had—”
My mother cut in. “So will that come with a pay raise?”
I froze and saw Elise flush a little. “Why do you ask?” I blurted.
“Well, I’m just wondering if she’ll be able to afford to move out of your apartment,” Mom said, picking up her nearly empty glass and gesturing with it as she spoke. “You know, two grown women—who both have their careers taking off—I just though the two of you would appreciate the space of living alone. Or with, you know, a family. Are you seeing anyone Elise?”
My face felt numb. My mother’s voice was empty of any malice, just curious. Completely innocent.
“So, Mom,” Chris cut in. “What did you think of the show?”
I turned to him in surprise, but his gaze was fixed on our mother.
“It was very fun dear!” Mom smiled, nudging my father. “Right honey?”
“Yes,” my father grunted. “Very fun.”
“I liked all the… the dancing, the singing. Everyone was so talented…” She let her voice trail off, then wrinkled her nose. “Those theater boys are always so… flamboyant though, aren’t they?”
“I really loved it, sis,” Chris said, turning to me, once again cutting off our mother. “I’m proud of you.”
“Thanks,” I blushed. The show was a revival of “A Chorus Line,” one of my favorite classic musicals for a very long time.
“Oh yes, of course dear. Your father and I are so proud of you.” Mom squeezed my hand gently. “I will say I don’t know if I loved all of it though.”
I cocked my head to one side as she spoke, feeling my stomach drop a little. “Oh?”
“Yes… the part where… where the characters discuss their… how do I word this? Their coming of age? Was a little vulgar, don’t you think? And the gentlemen who were homosexual was a little unnecessary too.”
“It’s just part of the show, Mom,” I said. “It was showing a variety of backgrounds and people.”
I spoke slowly, trying to work around the sudden dryness in my throat.
“I thought it was great,” Jane suddenly piped up.
“Me too,” Elise said as she flashed me a fond smile.
“Yeah, the moment with the mirror-things dropping down?” Chris said. “That was great.” He grinned at me from down the booth. I blushed again.
“Thanks, that was a really tricky sequence actually,” I said. “I had to—”
“Well, all I’m saying is it wasn’t the most Christian play,” Mother said, cutting me off and taking a deep swig of her drink. “Chris, honey, how was that deal in Chicago going?”
The conversation lapsed into the usual family chatter. Mom prodding Chris endlessly, my father grunting in a comment, and Elise trying her best to get a word in edgewise. I traced lines in the fake-wood table, finding myself distracted by the little patterns of the grain.
“Violet,” my mother said suddenly, her voice low. Chris and Elise were talking animatedly about some new construction in the city, but Mom spoke in a tone only for me. “What about that gentleman over there? He doesn’t have a ring.”
I flinched, then followed her gaze to the bar. A blonde man in his late twenties was seated by himself, nursing a cocktail. He was dressed in an impeccable silver suit. As I watched I saw his gaze drift over to mine, and when he smiled I immediately turned away.
“Mom, what the hell?”
“Don’t use that language darling,” Mom said, her eyes narrowing. She tapped her fingers lightly on the table. “I just think he looks like a handsome, well-off gentleman. Just your type.”
“No, thanks.” I hid behind another sip of my beer. Mom shrugged, looking disappointed.
“Well, I’m going to go to the ladies’ room,” she said, standing.
I watched her disappear into the depths of the bar, still reeling from her comment. I checked the time, surprised to see an hour had already passed.
“Sorry she’s being so pushy.” I looked up to see my dad looking at me with a sad sort of smile.
“It’s fine, it’s not like I’m not used to it.” I shrugged.
“Still,” he said, crossing his arms over his chest and letting out a heavy sigh. “She should know it isn’t the 50s anymore. I know you’re happy, and that’s what’s important.”
“Thanks, Dad,” I said, a little surprised. He just nodded before taking another sip of beer.
“Hey, who’s Mom talking to?” Chris asked suddenly. My gaze whipped back to the bar where, sure enough, my mother was speaking to the silver-suited blonde. I shook my head in disbelief.
“Really.” I said quietly as she noticed us watching and smiled awkwardly. She said something to the man, and before he could respond grabbed him by the elbow and began marching him to our table.
“Everyone, this is David,” she said as she approached. David looked somewhere between embarrassed and bemused, giving a small wave. “He’s a stockbroker.”
“Hi,” he said, flashing me a charmingly mortified smile.
“David, this is my daughter Violet. The Broadway producer.” She nudged me sharply with her hip. I shook his hand when he offered it.
“Mom, just let the man have his drink,” I growled. I looked back over the table, most of whom looked as mortified as I felt, but Elise looked like she might burst out laughing.
“I just thought you two might—” Mom began.
“I’m getting some air,” I said, standing and brushing past her, ignoring her protests as I stepped out front of the building.
It was bitingly cold outside, especially since I’d left my jacket. I was reeling. Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined she would be so… oblivious.
The door swung open to my left and David stepped out. I raised an eyebrow.
“Hey,” he said awkwardly, walking over to join me.
“I’m so sorry about her,” I offered, shaking my head. “She has no fucking boundaries.”
“It’s alright,” he said, smiling good-naturedly. “It was kind of endearing, actually.”
“Well, you’d be the first one to think that,” I said, laughing dryly. A bitter gust blew through the sidewalk and I hugged my arms tighter to my chest. “When I was in high-school she set me up with a date to the prom without me knowing. Made for some really fun slow dances.”
“Oh god,” he chuckled. “Midwestern moms are their own type. My parents have been practically begging me to give them grandkids ever since my brother got married.”
“Right? What is with them?”
He shrugged, and I surprised myself by chuckling a little.
“Where are you from then?”
“Minnesota.” He pursed his lips, exhaling a cloud into the December air. “I only moved here about a year ago.”
“That must have been an adjustment.”
“No kidding. Your mom said you were from Iowa?”
“Yup. Born and raised. Unfortunately…”
He laughed a little at that, then went quiet. After a few moments of nothing but the sound of shouting and car horns, he turned back to me.
“You know, despite the awkward introduction, if you wanted to grab a dinner sometime or—”
“No,” I said, the word blurting out before I’d even decided to speak. David blinked at me in surprise. “Sorry, it’s not you. I just… am not interested in a relationship with a guy right now.”
“Oh.” He looked me up and down, his expression hardening a bit. “Okay. I’ll say most guys won’t be impressed by your mom being your wing-woman though. Good luck.”
“Okay,” I said, unimpressed. He rolled his eyes before taking off at a stride down the sidewalk. I shook my head and went back inside.
When I returned to the booth, Mom’s face visibly fell.
“I was just saying,” Chris said, turning to me, “how I worked with a guy from Detroit who worked on Wall Street for a while.”
“Hey,” Elise whispered, nudging me gently. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah.” I exhaled slowly, casting a glance at my Mother. “I’ll be fine.”
“What’s wrong?” I turned over in our bed to face Elise. She was lying on her back, unusually silent.
“Come on, don’t lie to me.” I smiled, nudging her gently under the covers.
She sighed. “I just hate seeing you like that. With them.”
I paused. It had to be almost midnight by now, but I leaned over and flicked on the lamp next to me.
“What are you talking about?”
“Just…” Elise waved her hand absently, still blinking in the light. “Like you’re playing a character whenever you’re around them. You’re not… yourself.”
“It’s not like I’ve had much of a choice.”
“Well you shouldn’t have to do that,” Elise said, propping herself on her elbow, meeting my gaze with a hardened glare. I glared back.
“No, I shouldn’t, but we aren’t all as lucky as you. To have accepting parents.” I threw myself back against my pillow. “All I’ve got are masks. The public gets one, Mom and Dad get another…”
“And what about me?”
I went quiet. I took in this beautiful woman, her dark hair in a frizzy afro around her head, wide brown eyes filled with such earnestness that defied description. Her cockeyed, goofy grin that was as familiar to me as my own name.
“There’s never any masks for you, love.”
She smiled, and I kissed her gently on the forehead.
When Elise fell asleep, I found myself replaying our conversation on a loop. Before I knew entirely what I was doing I found myself sitting up and grabbing my phone off the nightstand. It was almost six in the morning.
“Babe,” Elise’s thick voice drifted up from the side of the bed. “What are you doing?” My finger hovered over the call button, as she sat up and peered over my shoulder.
“I’m tired of lying,” I said, my own voice tight. “I just… I want to take this one mask off. You know?”
“Oh honey… I’m proud of you sweetheart. But you don’t have to do this now. It’s early.”
“I know. But if I don’t do this now…” I let my voice trail off. Elise nodded, then gently squeezed my arm before sliding back to her side. I let my thumb hit the button.
“Hey, Mom? I know, I know it’s early. Can we talk?”
Lilian Furlong has grown up in the great PNW and has always found the local beauty to be her biggest source of inspiration. She has had her work featured in the local Bellingham publication Snippits. She’s currently studying theater arts and journalism at Western Washington University.
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