Majestic Theatre. From behind the heavy, scarlet curtain, the theatre felt more ominous than majestic. I’d done this musical dozens of times – as an extra, of course. Tonight was different. Tonight was the first night my role as under study was being put to good use.

“Ava, you have two minutes.” Shawn was at my side. A smile inevitably formed on my face. The role of assistant director suited him well. We’d seen each other through our four years at Julliard. Somehow we bonded over nail-biting auditions and cruel rejections from theatre companies. After graduation, when we were invited to be a part of the Phantom of the Opera set in New York City, I couldn’t believe my luck. We were great friends, and he had a calming and yet invigorating effect on me. Of course, he had yet to know that. “You ready?”

I forced myself to pay attention. I am Christine Daae. Raul is the one that thinks of me fondly. I squared my shoulders, or at least squared as much as my laced dress would allow. “Who’s Ava?”

He grinned. “Good.” He scribbled something on his clipboard.

Adrenaline surged through my body and I took a deep, soothing breath to calm the fluttering in my stomach. It didn’t work. I am Christine Daae. I have nothing to fear. I’m not even afraid of the Phantom.

Music swelled. I stepped out from between the side curtains. The royal theatre didn’t intimidate me as much as it used to, but the sea of faces still made me slightly queasy. I sang out the opening lines with precise accuracy.

“Can it be? Can it be Christine?” Raul’s voice sang from the other end of the set.

Throughout the entire performance, I allowed myself to feel it. I was Christine Daae. I was in love with Raul, my childhood sweetheart. We had so many memories in store, and we couldn’t help but wanting to make more. He was terribly gentle and safe. What more could I want? We concealed an engagement, but then there was the Phantom. He thought himself to be so beastly, but I could see he, like everyone, had his own beauty. Everyone else told me to stay away, for we all knew what he was capable of. Yet I knew he was simply a wounded man, and I could hardly blame another human for being in pain.

Time flew on like a runaway kite, and suddenly the end was upon us. I did not think the Phantom to be at all ugly, but I knew choosing Raul was the only way. Everyone disapproved of the Phantom – and perhaps they had reason to after all. What sort of future would we have together?

The main curtains slid shut over the ending scene. The crowd roared and echoed with applause and praise.  First I, then Raul, the Phantom and the rest of the cast filed on stage, each of us taking our respective bows.

An hour later, I slipped out of the VIP section backstage. After spending so much time with special guests who sprinkled me with the highest of compliments, I was torn between two options: ripping out my hair from the shallowness, or letting it all go to my head.

I retreated to the dressing room and became engrossed with the tedious task of unlacing my dress. With each lace I loosened, I envisioned a different scene from that night’s performance.

A knock sounded on the door. “Ava, that you?” Shawn’s muffled voice called.

I grunted a yes, as I finally stepped out of the dress.   “I was wondering if –”

“I can’t hear you, Shawn. Hold on.” I threw on my T-shirt and Jeans. Rather than bothering to brush out my hair sprayed ringlets, I placed a baseball cap over the mess. While I enjoyed the ritz of the theatre, when I was off duty, I was the most casual woman in the universe.

I threw open the dressing room door. “What was that?”

He blinked. “You look beautiful.”

“I still have all that make up on.” I touched my face.

“I didn’t mean your make up; I meant you.”

I paused and pretended to dig around in my purse. I found my car keys –  the perfect distraction. “I really should be getting home.”

His hand grazed my arm as I started to walk away. “Actually, would you care for a bite to eat?

There’s that Italian bistro over on 35th street.” I didn’t answer, and so he continued good-naturedly. “I was meaning to ask you before the show, but in all the back stage drama, I couldn’t find you until just before you went on stage. I didn’t want to distract you then.”

I flashed a smile. “Thanks, but I have other engagements.”

“You sounded like Christine there,” he said, grimacing slightly.

I laughed. “I did not. That’s what I sound like.”

“You both sound the same to me.” Now he was starting to look a bit hurt that I hadn’t taken him up on his offer. “Tell me, in your life’s cast, am I Raul or the Phantom?”

“What?”

“Am I the one you gently reject?”

“That’s not fair, Shawn.” I crossed my arms. “You know I love doing things together. But tonight I have to –”

“Ava, your excuses don’t work anymore.” His eyes pleaded with me to change my mind. “You live in a flat with your gerbil. You’ve told me you always go straight home after shows, make homemade spaghetti, and watch I Love Lucy reruns. I know you don’t have any plans tonight.”

I’d really told him all that? I supposed I’d forgotten how well we knew each other. I paused and all that I’ve ever been told about Shawn flashed back in my mind. When my mother had met Shawn once, she’d told me not to be like her. “Don’t be careless, Ava. Don’t get attached too easily,” were her exact words. That was when she knew we were just friends. She always said she just “didn’t want me to get hurt,” but it frustrated me. Now more than ever, it worried me. When my younger sister Millie learned that my best friend was male, she told me to watch my back. She was never convinced we were just friends anyways, although that really was the truth. While she was solid five years my junior, Millie had a lot more experience with heartbreak than I did. Her first boyfriend ended up in jail. He was a drug dealer, but hid it well. Her consecutive boyfriends had their own set of problems – a kleptomaniac who stole her clothes and then a liar who claimed didn’t already have a wife. My mother’s romantic life started off on the wrong foot when my father left as soon as he found out I was on the way. Clearly, the women of my family weren’t likely to be naive hopeless romantics.

I thought back to what I’d said just seconds before. “That’s not fair.” It certainly wasn’t fair to Shawn. Perhaps there had been something growing deep inside my heart these last few years. I knew I had suppressed before it could surface. Whenever he’d suggest we do something outside of study sessions or line rehearsals, I’d back down. I always had a family thing or a headache or a special appointment. He’d only been a gentleman, and I’d forced him to wait for me to grow a brain.

It was all only a few seconds, but with the thoughts pressing on my brain, it felt like hours of contemplation. He frowned slightly and nodded. “Well, have fun with Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, then. Goodnight, Christine.”

Okay, that stung. “Shawn.” I jogged after him in my flip-flops. “Wait.” I knew now that being good on stage wasn’t good enough. I had to have enough of me inside me to be honest with those I loved most. I couldn’t let myself act my way out of things anymore.  For the first time, I was becoming alright with that.

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