Photograph of Toni Garrn by Karl Lagerfeld for Vogue Germany, February 2010

I stepped onto that stage for the final time last night. Lights glittered across the room, glancing off the mirrors behind the bar, the martini glasses, the silver and diamonds dripping from the patrons, and off the polished, angular sculpture at the back of the stage, behind me. I could see the sculpture, and me in front of it, reflected around the room.

Singing there was like singing at the top of the Chrysler Building. Singing there, I felt glamourous. Magical. Elegant. Last night, everything seemed to glitter more brightly as I allowed myself the indulgence of believing my act one final time.

For the few hours each night that I stepped onto that stage, I became someone else. I became that mysterious beauty that everyone thought they knew. I became whatever they imagined; the women who wanted to be me, the men who wanted to have me.

But none of them knew me. They just owned me. They would eye my angular features, my slim, pale hands and body, my bobbed hair right off the latest cover of Vogue, my exquisite gowns, and they would get that dreamy, hungry look on their faces.

But for me, despite the brief indulgences I allowed myself, it was always just a job, just a persona I slipped on, just a chance to sing. Really, I have always been just another girl in the city trying to get by.

They wouldn’t recognize me on the street, those patrons with their hungry dreams. Only those in my building knew both sides of my life. They saw me come and go over these past few years and they eyed me with their judgement.

It’s all over now but I know they will still look at me as they always have.

Tomorrow, I begin my new life. Tomorrow I become respectable.

But today, I am caught somewhere in between.

The harpist is practicing next door. Her beautiful water music trickles through the golden-lit day. The sun’s rays stretch through the window, between the cracks in the blinds and into my room. All this tells me that it’s past midday. It’s time I was getting up.

I turn the percolator on and stand at the window, watching the city go by while I wait for the coffee. I light a cigarette and squint my eyes at the sun which is now streaming in through the screen of smoke. When the coffee is done and I’ve had my bath, I dress and ready myself for the day. It’s the first time in years that I haven’t been on my way out to a club for the night. Instead, I’m going for a walk in the park – a luxury.

When the elevator doors open, two sneering faces look back at me. I almost hesitate but instead I hold my head high and step in, turning around to face their skewed reflections in the burnished brass doors. More than once these women have hissed at me from behind the trappings of their tired, acceptable lives. It’s their fear, their jealousy that they’re hissing at, though. It’s not really meant for me. Still, I would have preferred to have avoided them today.

“Wicked!” whispers Mrs. Emerson from apartment 5C as she nods her head in my direction. I can see her looking me up and down and shaking her head, though I know there is nothing in my walking attire that anyone could possibly find fault with.

Mrs. Dodd from 7B matches her expression and nods, “wicked and immoral,” she replies, not bothering to lower her voice.

When the doors finally, mercifully, open, I gather myself and head for the door, walking with as much purpose and poise as I can muster. I am channelling my onstage persona.

“Good afternoon, Miss Abigail,” says the doorman as he prepares to hail me a cab. I had been so caught up in my escape that I hadn’t seen him there.

“Not today, thank you, George,” I reply with a smile. I wait until the two women leave before heading in the opposite direction.


14 thoughts on “Refraction

  1. I’m not 100% on what her wickedness is- a drag queen or just a sultry lounge singer or mistress, but you totally nailed the biddies, hissing at their own jealousy instead of at her. I apologize if I missed an obvious point, I’m known to do that upon occasion 😉

    • Hi Shannon, and thanks for your comment. I’m always thrilled to have feedback, both the positive and the critical, so thank you. I’ve been known to be too vague at times, so it might just be that I didn’t explain clearly enough. My idea was that she was a club singer in the 1920s or 1940s, and to the biddies, this was simply not the way a young lady was supposed to carry on. Not only does she have an unladylike job, but she also lives alone. Perhaps they’re jealous of her freedom of expression and her freedom from marriage!

      • Well, m’dear, if in you were writing a flapper then, for me at least, the story just got even better 😉 One of my favorite eras in women’s ever changing history, truly. Thank you so much for clarifying!

        • Oh good! I’m so glad you like my original idea that much…though I have to say, the drag queen interpretation is a good one, too. I’ll leave it up to people to decide, but yes, a flapper was my original plan 🙂

  2. Really enjoyed this, Silver. I got that she was a flapper right away (photo probably helped) and I loved the way you described the nightclub – one would almost think you have performed in a similar venue…… Seriously though, I loved your insight into her relationship with the job and the patrons especially “They just owned me.” Well written.

  3. I love the 1920s – and I was hoping someone would go there this week, so thank you! Great character. I really like the way you bring us into her head, so we see the nightclub and her world from her eyes. Kinda wish she’d punched those ladies in their smug, judgemental faces. 😉

  4. You can really be in the moment with this piece. When I first went to read it I did my average scanning of the beginning and the end but something pulled me into the article. Then reading slowly from the beginning through to the end I can honestly say this was beautifully imaginative in the sense that it painted a clear picture in my mind. Keep it going!

  5. Love the complex descriptions of the ballroom and her act. The interaction between artist and audience is stark and clearly laid out. How strange that people would go to see her and want her for their various reasons, but then consider her wicked in normal life. Good for her finding the “luxury” of a walk in the park. I think you characterized the experience of many performers beautifully. Well done! 🙂

    • Thank you so much! I’m really intrigued by the different ways people can look at someone, the inferences they make and all the judgements, which are really based on their own experiences and not at all on the person in front of them.

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