Anna burst through the stage door, out into the chilly night air, the adrenalin of the performance still coursing through her veins. She’d been flawless; not a flubbed line or a misstep, not an instant of breaking the fourth wall or making eye contact with the critic in the front row, despite his feet extending onto the stage and protruding into every scene. She’d saved the vicar from embarrassment when he dropped a critical line that set up a red herring, and she hadn’t even tripped on the stairs during her dramatic exit tonight. She couldn’t help but let her mind flit to the theatre’s annual awards, to the agent she might snag, to the West End, the Oscars, a whole new Anna. It was possible; anything was.
She’d envisioned pushing through an electrified crowd to reach her parents, but instead she found clusters of relatives and friends gathered around their particular actor, heaping praise and flowers. Her parents were nowhere to be seen. Making a note to teach them some basic theatre terms, like explaining that the stage door was generally at the back of the theatre (i.e., near the stage), she set off along the side of the old brick building towards the lobby.
With the cool air on her face, she could feel the pores on her face shrinking, squeezing the heavy mask of makeup and powder into her skin. A light mist had rolled in from the sea and gathered on the tips of her fake eyelashes, loosening the gum that held them in place.
“You were wonderful,” said a woman she didn’t recognize, thrusting a hand towards her.
“Was I really?” Anna started to say, but reminded herself to be gracious, not needy. She smiled at the woman, their momentary connection filling her with an unfamiliar yet comfortable sensation — a feeling of expanding beyond the confines of herself and soaring into a new level of the atmosphere, where the air was sweeter, more life-giving. “Thank you so much for coming,” she said. “I’m glad you enjoyed the show.”
She found her parents in the lobby, their heads leaned in towards the board of headshots, trying to match the faces in the photos to the characters listed in the program. Anna paused inside the door and watched them for a moment. They were good parents, weren’t they? They’d encouraged her through school, and helped her buy her first car, teaching her the value of money, and the pride of owning something earned. They’d celebrated her first summer job with a fancy meal she wasn’t sure they could afford, and now, here they were again for her.
She adjusted the bow on the front of her polka dot dress, straightened the fake pearls at her throat, and strode across the foyer’s red patterned carpet, the rolls of her blonde wig bobbing as she went. She held out her arms to her parents, beaming with expectation.
“Oh,” said her mother, giving her a cursory hug. “You’ve still got your costume on.”
“I thought I’d come out and see you first,” said Anna. “Well, what did you think?”
Anna couldn’t miss the glance her parents exchanged before her mother said, “It was very nice.”
“Very nice,” her father parroted.
“Didn’t you enjoy it?” Anna prodded.
“Yes,” her parents said in the same high-pitched voice that sounded as if it had been forced across their vocal chords.
They hated it, thought Anna. They hated me in it. The balls of her feet were starting to throb in her thin-soled, high-heeled shoes. The shoes were too small, but they were the only pair of ’40s-era peep-toes that matched her dress, and the director had been adamant that Anna’s character would never wear a mismatched outfit, even coming out of five years of war and rationing.
“The vicar was good,” said her father. “We were just looking at his photograph.”
“Headshot,” said Anna.
“Is this the girl who played the maid?” her mother said, tapping Megan’s sultry shot. “Pretty girl, but her accent was a bit uneven, wasn’t it?”
Anna pushed her lips into a brief smile, suddenly feeling defensive of Megan’s almost incomprehensible Cockney twang.
“Still, for an amateur production it was very good, and as long as you had fun, that’s the main thing,” her mother said, folding the program in a rough crease and stuffing it into her purse
“Who took your photograph?” her dad asked.
“Headshot,” muttered Anna. “A professional photographer.”
Her father made a scoffing noise in the back of his throat. “You should have let me take them. I could have taken a nice picture of you. I hope you didn’t spend a lot of money.”
Anna closed her eyes and tried to contain the onslaught of misguided compliments. Her parents didn’t mean to be hurtful; they just didn’t understand this kind of thing. Or maybe they did. Maybe they understood her completely and this was their way of showing disapproval.
“Why don’t you go and change?” her mother chimed in.
I already have, thought Anna. “I thought we could go and get a coffee,” she said. “My treat.”
“I can’t drink coffee at this hour,” her mother said.
“Then have cocoa,” Anna snapped.
Her mother peered at her the way she’d peered at Megan’s headshot, as if trying to match the two disparate personas — the daughter she knew and the daughter that stood before her.
“What’s going on?” her father said, narrowing his already small eyes.
Anna caught a breath and steadied her nerves. She’d been perfect in rehearsals, calmly explaining herself to her parents, predicting their objections, and countering with dignity and coolness. She’d planned to have the conversation over a civilized cup of coffee, but now she felt a new sensation growing inside her, pushing past her neatly scripted announcement and scattering her practiced words. “I don’t want to study business anymore,” she said. “I don’t think I want to be an accountant.”
The silence that followed seemed to drag on towards eternity, as her parents stared at her, the muscles in their faces barely twitching to move their expressions through incomprehension, confusion, and realization, waiting for someone to throw them the right line to say.
Her mother cracked first. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she said. “What on earth do you mean, you don’t want to be an accountant?”
“I thought that’s what I wanted, but I don’t. Not any more.”
“What about all that studying and your internship? You were lucky to get that placement. Why would you throw that away? It’s doubtful you’d get so lucky again.”
“I know,” said Anna, trying to maintain her cool. “But it doesn’t make me happy.”
“It’s work,” said her mother. “It’s not supposed to make you happy. It’s supposed to keep a roof over your head and keep you from worrying about starving to death. Happy things are what you do after work, on the weekends, on holiday. Ask your father about being happy. You don’t think your education was paid for in laughs, do you?” She let out a hiss of breath that whistled through her teeth. “I can’t have this conversation right now. Talk to her, Frank.”
Her father seemed to have curled down into himself, but at the sound of his name, he unfurled to his full height and straightened his neck. His hair was getting thinner, Anna noticed. He looked tired. Maybe he’d always looked tired. Maybe that’s what she was supposed to do, too — work hard, be happy on the weekends, look tired.
“What is it you think will make you happy?” her father said. “This?” He held his palms wide as if lifting the cloud of heavy air that had descended around them.
Anna rolled her lips between her teeth. She could taste the thickness of the sticky red lipstick — Carmine Red, not easy to find — and the slight saltiness of perspiration on her upper lip. She could feel her scalp starting to itch under the heat of the wig, but she stood her ground. “Maybe.” She didn’t know yet. Maybe not this, no, but something, something that made her feel like this.
Her mother let out a hoot that seemed to bounce off the walls of the deserted foyer. “I don’t think I’m hearing this. I am definitely not hearing this,” she said and strode towards the exit.
Anna glanced at her father, but his expression was unreadable. She expected disapproval, but instead he looked sad. Her stomach cinched into a tight knot of guilt. Fuming would have been better. She knew they’d be disappointed in her, and she’d known from the beginning that her mother would fly off the handle, like she always did. But she hadn’t thought through how her father might react and she hadn’t expected this. It was worse than disappointment; it was regret.
“We should go, too,” he said, his voice low, resigned.
Anna nodded and followed behind him, trying to remember what she’d rehearsed and if she had anything that might be the right thing to say now. She came up with nothing.
At the exit, her father pressed his big hands against the glass door, but he didn’t push, and Anna, watching her peeking toes brush across the carpet, almost ran into him.
“I used to play the piano,” he said, his big voice barely a whisper. “Did you know that?”
Anna nodded. She’d seen him play once at a friend’s house. He’d tickled out a tune and ended with an impressive flourish. She remembered laughing at her goofy old dad, but she’d never stopped to think about it more.
“I thought I’d be a brilliant pianist, play the Royal Albert Hall someday. I might have been good enough, I don’t know.”
“So why didn’t you try?” said Anna, her voice catching in her throat. “You’re the one always telling me life’s too short.”
“I did tell you that, didn’t I?” Her father laughed and shook his head. “I got it all wrong, I suppose. Life’s not too short at all; it’s too long. Year after year of it, and too damn long to spend doing something that makes you miserable.”
He pushed open the door, letting in the chilly night air. “Too damn long to not have a coffee with your best girl, too.”