A Night at the Opera
By the glow of a bare red bulb, Janixce immersed her thoughts and gloved hands in liquid alchemy. In the semidarkness of her laundry room she swirled around photo papers, watching them take form, then washed them clean in the sink. She exposed cyanotypes of her New York City summer beneath glass and the flash of the sun. Janixce sold her art at First Friday’s shops in Phoenix on consignment to supplement her income.
A week earlier at her favorite dive bar and artists’ hangout in Tempe, John, a bouncer friend, had extended an invitation for two back stage passes to the opera, one for herself and one for Cat, her roommate and best friend. John mentioned a party after the opera. She imagined distinguished men, champagne, and delicacies and thought going would satiate her lingering desire for New York.
Holding her blue photos, thoughts of the summer flickered in her body’s memory. She missed the rush she got from New York and desperately wanted more.
It was hard for Janixce to come back to Arizona after summering and making art in Manhattan. In a heat of passion for New York she had sold whatever she could to get there — including her new VW Bug, a college graduation present. At least she had the good sense not to sell her stilettos and several pairs of True Religion jeans. She regretted selling some gowns, especially since she had nothing to wear to the opera and party.
At the resale clothing shop where she worked, Janixce handed a bag of clothing and a receipt to a customer. Janixce wore a pair of her expensive skinny jeans with a long black top that hugged her body and set off her copper, waist-length hair. An underemployed freelance graphic designer, she was working in retail — one of several underemployed artists working there. When not at work, she snapped photos of Cat and other friends in vintage clothes — clothes she picked up cheap from thrift stores — and sold the clothes online and in shops.
A professional woman of about Janixce’s size and height walked up to the counter carrying a large plastic bag full of clothing. Janixce held her breath, hoping for the right dress for the opera. Sorting through the clothes, Janixce was disappointed. The resale shop did not buy anything more than a year old unless they were vintage pieces. Janixce took some of the newer pieces and a few that would add interest to the retro rack.
With the bad economy and approaching holiday season, the resale shop was extremely busy; most retail places were crying in their beer, but resale was booming. And although it was only eight dollars an hour, at least she had some job security.
Sitting in the break room alone, Janixce rested her legs on a chair and pulled an apple from her bag. Her earrings reflected the light. She flipped through a fashion magazine, where a model in a black and white Chanel ad gazed back. Clean and classic lines.
Janixce picked up a pen from the table and traced the contour lines of the dress several times, sculpting it in her mind. Desire for something special to wear to the opera swept through her, clinging to her body like an ethereal slip. Her fingers tingled with energy as she cross-hatched the Chanel gown in the magazine, adding depth to her emotions.
A sharp image of the Chanel shop on Fifth Avenue flashed through her memory. She felt electric visualizing otherworldly gowns in the shop. Thoughts flickered of her riding the subways and cabs with her artist friends along with a montage of images of Central Park, Fifth Avenue, Williamsburg, Coney Island, and New York Harbor. Her body’s memory lingered in New York Harbor and at the Statue of Liberty. She loved the pagan woman holding the flame. Then her thoughts drifted to Brooklyn. Brooklyn was her favorite place, perhaps a part of her collective unconscious, since her ancestors had immigrated and lived there for generations.
Janixce wanted a cigarette. She scripted “Janixce’s Opera Dress” above the Chanel ad. She underlined the words several times and ripped the page out. She slipped the ad in her purse. Checking her cell, she felt for her smokes and walked out the back door.
Outside, she lit up. Blowing smoke away from herself, her thoughts drifted back to New York. She had never dreamed that Wall Street would fall within weeks of being home in Tempe. She had walked Wall Street in her stilettos, checking out the sights and men in their suits. The revolving doors of the AIG building burned in her memory when she watched the news on TV. She had sat in the velvet-cushioned pews of the gothic revival Trinity Church in the very heart of the financial district. She had breathed in the beauty of the stained glass windows and carved art.
After coming home, Janixce had a one-week stint with a graphic design company whose style she loved, and picked up odd jobs designing logos. Many months later she was still working at the resale shop, nurturing her love of fashion while she looked for something in her own field. Janixce put out her cigarette and texted Cat about the opera before she went back inside.
A blonde woman in a green retro jag parked in front of the store and came in carrying a garment bag. She was not Janixce’s size.
“Do you buy high-end clothes?”
“What do you have?”
“Chanels.” Janixce took a deep breath, incredulous. The woman unzipped the garment bag. Janixce gasped. She caressed the cool satin with her fingertips; the fabric rippled with electricity, the garment sparked, and she felt a slight shock.
“Never worn,” the woman said, pulling at a tag. “Sea foam green and cobalt blue.”
Janixce took another deep breath.
“I bought them sizes too small,” the woman said. “Such a dream — size six.”
“It’s good to dream.”
“No, I really need to let go of these unrealistic fantasies of what my body should be,” she said, with a catch in her voice. “Selling these will help me accept myself.”
Janixce didn’t even have to try to strike a bargain with the woman.
At home, she showed the dresses and the altered ad to Cat, who was finishing lesson plans for her second graders. Cat chose the cobalt gown, which was loser fitting and nicely complemented her short black hair. Janixce slipped on the green gown in front of her full-length mirror. Her nipples rose beneath the cool satin.
“Cat, can you get this zipper?” she yelled.
“Sure, hold on, I’m looking for my gloves,” she yelled back. When she came in she handed Janixce a nude pair of elbow-length fishnet gloves. She zipped up the gown and they headed out the door to Janixce’s old silver Honda; it squealed as she backed out of their drive way.
John was waiting for them in the parking lot wearing a black overcoat. He was tall with blonde curly hair and a big smile. Their Chanels whispered and lisped, flying on the breeze. Janixce felt liquid and warm with the spirit of Coco. John walked between them, linking their arms. They walked through the back gate, past the guard, and in a back door to the stage. He escorted them to their seats, then left to help the light and sound crew. Janixce pulled out her camera from her purse and snapped some pictures. During the opera, Janixce sat and listened raptly, but she felt Cat watching John more than she paid attention to the music.
After the opera, John apologized, saying he had to get to another gig. Before he left he introduced Cat and Janixce to some of the other crew members. “Hi, I’m Don,” a balding forty-something said, extending his hand to Janixce and Cat. “I do sound for the opera and travel with them. This is my son, Andrew, and this is Salvatore.”
Salvatore’s dark, curly hair was combed back. He shook their fishnet-gloved hands. Janixce noticed he had a nice face and smile.
“Ciao bella,” Salvatore said.
“So what do you ladies do?” Don asked.
“We’re students,” Cat said.
“That’s what they all say,” Don smiled.
“Hey, watch that talk,” Salvatore said to him.
Another sound person, Jake, also introduced himself.
“I feel weird going to this party without John,” Cat said, her voice tense with disappointment.
“Let’s just see what happens.” Janixce was imagining sipping champagne and meeting interesting men.
When most of the crowd cleared out, Don, Salvatore, and Jake showed some women, including Janixce and Cat, backstage. They walked into a small room with worn carpeting and a few old, earth-toned sofas. Janixce and Cat exchanged looks. A few women shook their heads and left. Two blonde women, one in white and the other in a black gown, stayed.
“Do you ladies want a beer?” Jake asked. He pulled some Buds out of a cooler. “Sounds good,” one of the blonde women said, sitting down on a sofa.
Janixce was shocked. She didn’t understand. It had been magical to get the opera tickets and the Chanels. This wasn’t the party she had been expecting. Still, she decided to stay, feeling that something was going to happen.
“Some party,” Cat whispered to Janixce. “Should we stay?”
“It might get better,” Janixce said. “Sal’s nice.”
There was something both absurd and amusing about sitting in a dingy backroom after an opera wearing Chanel gowns. It appealed to Janixce’s artistic temperament. Salvatore intrigued her, and she wanted to take more pictures. She took a few pictures at odd angles and some close-ups for fun.
Janixce and Salvatore talked about photography and the art museums in Italy and New York. He had lived there, frequented the Met, and liked eating at the café on top of the building. Janixce was enthralled.
“Ladies, care to see our bus?” Don interrupted. Cat rolled her eyes. But Janixce nodded. It was cold outside when they walked out back to the tour bus.
Inside, there were bunks and seats. Don and Salvatore talked about going to California and invited them along. Don stepped out and walked back in with Jake. Janixce could smell weed. Don took a hit off a pipe. Smoke snaked through the bus.
“Ladies?” he asked, waving it around.
Cat nudged Janixce. “We need to go.” Janixce knew Cat didn’t want to jeopardize her teaching career, but she wanted to stay.
“If Columbian is too boring for you ladies, we have other options,” Don said, reaching into his front pocket and flashing a baggie.
“I have to grade some papers,” Cat said.
A desire to transcend the moment gnawed at Janixce; she wanted to stay and get to know Sal better.
“What’d ya bring that stuff in here for?” Salvatore asked.
“Janixce, we need to go,” Cat said, shaking her shoulder.
Salvatore wrote his email and cell number on a napkin, handing it to Janixce.
“I can walk you ladies out,” Sal said.
“Yeah, I’d be happy to,” Don said.
“We’re okay,” Cat said.
Janixce tucked the napkin in her purse. Salvatore kissed her on the cheek. Her cheek burned.
Cat and Janixce stepped off the bus, and Janixce snapped some pictures.
They walked close together as fast as they could in their heels toward the back gate. Their dresses billowed in the cold breeze, and Janixce thought of the sails of ships in New York harbor. Her hair flew and sparked on the wind.
“You gonna call him?”
“Probably, he’s interesting.”
They came to a dead stop in front of the fence. It was about six-feet high, and it was locked.
“Shit,” Janixce gasped. “I need a smoke. Here,” she said, handing one to Cat.
Cat shivered, holding onto a cigarette with one hand, and jerked on the padlocked fence with the other.
“We’re going to have to climb it,” Janixce said, pulling out her lighter.
“We’ll ruin the dresses.”
“Not if we take them off,” Janixce said, letting a drag out and looking back at the tour bus.
“Look, Cat, you can still wear your cloak. I’ll throw the dress over after you climb the fence.”
“It’s so damn cold.”
“Let’s take pictures first,” Janixce said, shivering. “My dress should photograph well.”
“Pretend you’re climbing over with your dress and heels on, and I’ll take some pictures of you, dressed. Take some of me first. I could probably sell these. Then we can undress, and I’ll take some more as you climb over.”
“Are you crazy?”
“No, I really think these would sell,” Janixce said, blowing smoke. “I’ll pay you.”
“I’ll take some of you smoking.”
Janixce posed and took drags of her cigarette while Cat flashed pictures of the wind whipping through her gown and hair. Janixce held her cigarette up as though she were holding a torch.
“I feel like Lady Liberty, wearing this gown.”
“Whatever floats your boat,” Cat laughed.
Cat posed scaling the fence in heels. Janixce thought about the Chanel store off Fifth Avenue, snapping pictures of the back side of Cat’s billowing blue gown.
Copyright 2009, Alexandra Isacson
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