The day I decided my dream would no longer be to travel the world singing opera, I dyed my hair red. To dye your hair you must follow the instructions on the box: wear gloves, work in a well-ventilated space. I live in San Francisco, on the first floor of a house with three units. A man lives in the basement below me, making kazoo sounds and cooking strange-smelling meats. Above me, an older woman mouses around. The day I dyed my hair red I opened all the windows to let the fumes out. I am nothing if not polite.
For a long time I have liked the idea of a choice with irreversible consequences. If I was born a man, with a man’s deep bass, maybe there would’ve been a place for me among the few. As it stands, I am one of several thousand sopranos, blonde and rail-thin, with the necessary training and desire. Of us, several hundred will find steady employment in the opera houses and traveling companies and orchestras. Of us, several hundred more will work in the conservatories as teachers. The rest are destined for a singer’s underworld: weddings, off-Broadway musicals, televised talent shows. Only one will become the singer of our generation; almost always a blonde, they say, but sometimes, a brunette. It helps to be able to contort. The crowds love a flexible girl, all elbows and fleshy big ears. They love it when she can lean out over a railing, her hair trailing a long golden staircase to the stage. You learn to invite each person in the crowd into a tale or you play the witches and the hags, powdering your face into old age.
The day I decided my dream would no longer be to travel the world singing opera, I dyed my hair red. There has never been a successful opera singer with red hair. I liked to imagine it a clean and bloodless severance, a better way to live.
For a long time I had been feeling untethered. Dying my hair was something I contemplated the way my parents had contemplated ending their relationship for years. In the absence of love for one another, they love me. Their checks arrive bi-monthly. My mother’s envelopes are silver. My father’s bear a corporate logo and cellophane window. The stamps are put on by machine.
They like having a daughter who lives in California. They frame me in all their upper Manhattan rooms. I am their only child. They play tapes of my voice for friends in the wee hours of dinner parties. My mother sometimes hosts séances with a group of women she met in her stretching class. She glues a crystal bead to her forehead and gets drunk for a few hours, then calls me to relay the messages sent by ghosts. It’s always her father, telling her that her life was a waste. “Well fuck him!” she says, and goes on complaining about all the time and effort she’s put into caring—for and about, him and everybody else. “But,” she concludes, voice sailing upwards in a forced cheer, “I am coming to realize that this is my burden. The better I suffer, the greater my rewards.”
My father brings the women he dates to all their parties. When he texts, all the words begin with capital letters. In other matters he is strictly attentive. He never leaves two spaces between his sentences. He only drinks on holidays or birthdays. His car is always washed and waxed. He brushes his thinning hair with a short boar-hair brush. As a girl I used to run it over my legs, imagining I was reaping fields of wheat. The bristles left small white lines on my skin, which I rubbed away with my mother’s honey-scented lotion.
“Stop,” she’d say if she ever caught me, “that’s expensive!” She was so worried about her face and now she’s a hag and it bothers her, so she gets drunk and pastes beads to her skin as a distraction. As I have come into adulthood, she has turned more childish; even her body is smaller in a strange way. I, too, am disappointed in her. But I don’t think I could say this, even were I to become a ghost.
I have never seen the face of the older woman who lives above me. Once a week, packages arrive in her name from QVC and I nudge them out of our shared stairwell with my toe. At night, when she walks from the bathroom to the kitchen to the bedroom, her rooms laid out identical to mine, there is a generous creaking. It sounds like someone is walking through the halls of my apartment, and sometimes I get up to reassure myself that I am alone.
When my mother calls, to bear the conversation, I complain about the upstairs neighbor. “Thumping around,” I say.
When my father calls, it’s the slanted apartment. I work him to an outrage, then slowly calm him back down. “It’s not worth the hassle to move,” I tell him. “I’m so busy with these auditions I’ll never find the time. Do you know how hard it is to get an apartment in this city?”
“Your mother and I—” he begins.
“No, no,” I say, mimicking the familiar tone of their arguments. I wonder, can he hear the pair of them in me anymore? Or is it only when I’m singing? Then my mother always wants to say, “That’s my voice! How uncanny!”
The floors of the apartment are all level; it’s the house that’s tilted around them. I didn’t believe the landlord. I am a proper girl-child of the upper-middle class, and have been warned all my life against crooks and thieves. So I brought a pocketful of marbles and laid them in different rooms, secretly so he wouldn’t see. I’m always conscious of people watching me. If the landlord saw he didn’t say anything. He had the deposit check in hand and was taking his own secret smells of the envelope, one of my mother’s silver ones, which I’d reused. It still had a soured drop of her perfume. As we toured I checked for the marbles in corners, where I thought they should have rolled.
I spend each of the four weekdays leading up to my decision to quit singing at the office of my therapist. Atop his desk rest the usual devices: photographs of children and a wife, a wooden frog with ridges on its back that croak when rubbed by the accompanying wooden stick, a ticking pendulum with four or five silver balls suspended on strings. Blobs of colored gel congeal at the bottom of a glass cylinder and as I wait for him to speak, I resist the urge to turn it over.
The therapist’s walls are adorned with documents behind glass and large black and white photographs the size of posters. In them, he poses before exotic monuments. In my favorite, he stands amidst African grasses, holding the pelt of a spotted cat with two hands. He is a hunter, well-traveled. He reminds me of the therapist I had as a younger girl.
There was nothing wrong with me at the time. It was simply what parents of precocious children did, when they could afford it.
By fourteen I was already having the dreams that bring me to a therapist still, ten years later. In these dreams, a man enters my room in the night, gouging the soft meat of my neck. Sometimes I die. Sometimes I fend the attacker off, and live but am mute. Sometimes I recover fully to rise to the center of an international spotlight. Mornings after, I wake with a sore throat. I am hoarse more days than not. My vocal coaches prescribed remedies of tea and lemon, suggested a humidifier. I stopped drinking milk. A throat and ear specialist diagnosed me with allergies. “The throat swells in the presence of irritants,” he said. “Histamines.”
My therapist asks, “What would happen if you never sang again?” He would be a tenor, sweet and middling. I tell him I fear the disappointment of my parents, the scorn of classmates. I say I will not know how to live.
When I was young, my therapist had me draw pictures. He had me speak to him in strange positions: laying on my back with my eyes closed, or in a headstand against the wall. “Let the blood rush to your head,” he told me. “You need to drown your brain.”
Now that I am grown, I simply sit across from the therapist with folded hands, talking. Or sometimes I don’t—sometimes, I just listen to music and close my eyes and silently recite I love you I love you I love you I love you behind my eyelids, where the therapist’s face swells into a warm, pleasant blur.
He says, “I would never advise someone to give up on a dream, but—”
He says, “Maybe you should consider a change of pace.”
He says, “Get a makeover, go on a trip, try being someone else, for a change.”
Days later I dye my hair and then the chorus arrives, worried. A brunette rushes me with a hug. “Oh girly,” she says, “Everything will be okay.” The blondes all crowd in the doorway, craning for a look.
“Come in,” I say, “Come in.” My hands are loose and away from my body. I am wearing a nightgown like a madwoman, a red slash among the strokes of gold and brown.
A blonde twirls my hair around her finger. “We miss you.”
“Yes,” another blonde says, stroking my hair from the roots to the tips, her fingers smoothing across my shoulders. A blonde behind me kneads a knot near my spine.
“Please let us know if there’s anything we can do.”
I am thinking about the woman upstairs, who suffered a recent fall. I heard her clatter to the floor like a mug, then listened for a broom with baited breath. A day later, she was moved out of her apartment by relatives. Now, sounds echo back through the apartment in a strange way. The blondes coo and I hear pigeons in the walls.
“You’re so fierce,” says a blonde who would benefit from highlights. They are all standing around me in a circle.
“That hair,” says another. I stand there letting them adore me. I can’t tell if they want me to come back with them to the conservatory, or if they want to stay in the apartment with me forever. I don’t know what I will feed them. I don’t know how long I can keep them alive, but am ready to offer them my blood, should it come to that.
Of my absence, the professors at the conservatory say nothing. They are famously cruel.
When the therapist asks if it bothers me, I tell him there are only two choices for an old person: “You wither into your demise or you become mean, bony, and hard. A hag,” I say, “or a witch.”
I do not tell him about the upstairs neighbor’s fall: that it’s haunting me. If only she had the spite in her of an ancient prima donna! There’s a regret I can’t quite explain. My wrist feels sore, as though I pushed her to the ground.
Then there’s my mother. I go on and on, describing her crystal bead.
I like to watch the therapist scribble. I speak and he copies everything faithfully down. His script is slanted, loping, and large. His letters take up three lines on a yellow legal pad. Watching him, I realize my power. There is a sudden thrill in me. I feel it in my teeth.
I travel far from the initial question, but it doesn’t matter. The therapist is listening. He follows me with his pen like a dope: “Our teachers showed us how to prevent light-headedness, fainting, the belly rumble of hunger. Sing from the gut. Imagine you are pushing light out the top of your skull. Dip cotton balls in water and swallow them; you’ll feel full. No wonder we all ended up a few brain cells short.” There is a sharp, unfamiliar edge in my voice. In a mirror on the wall behind the therapist, I can see my face from the forehead up. I speak to see my brow animate in reflection. I imagine it covered in jewels—a real crown, nothing cheap.
I tell him about the rigor of a young soprano’s training: all these things and then, the moment the white bearded man comes into the room, places a hand on your thigh and says, “It could be you.” At twelve, you suck in your gut proudly. You feel your ribs at night like the long gap teeth of a wolf. You vow to push so much light through the top of your head that the world will think there is a new sun rising.
By the end of our session the therapist looks exhausted. I want to pet the brassy lush of his hair. Feeling bold, I point to the trophy photograph on his wall, my favorite, and say, “Fierce.”
The therapist perks right up. “Oh,” he says, shuffling papers. “You should see the elephant I got.”
That night, I open a silver envelope and use the money to buy a plane ticket for a summer trip. I have vacationed already in all the usual foreign places, have seen all the best operas in the world. Instead, I am thinking of the African grasses in the therapist’s photograph. I am wanting that kind of thing.
In the week since my neighbor’s fall, her packages have continued to arrive. With no one to claim them they make a walled fortress, blocking the passage to the upper level and making entrance to my own apartment a tight squeeze. I only leave lately to see the therapist. Our meetings, now bi-weekly, stretch beyond the allotted hour. He serves me lemon tea.
In the apartment I watch videos, wash cups, and dust the floorboards with my socks. I begin listing the furniture my parents bought me for sale on the internet. EVERYTHING MUST GO. I arrange meetings with people wanting my chaise, armchairs, desk, lamps, side-tables…I sell everything but the bed, a heavy wooden chest I once used as a coffee table, and a garishly oversized painting of a woman with one eye, which my mother insisted on for the apartment. The buyers are all crisp, friendly, and nervous. “Moving?” they invariably ask, peering around me to study the architecture, hunting a vacancy.
“Yes,” I sometimes lie, “The woman upstairs died and now it’s haunted.” I don’t help them lift, claiming an injury. I watch them struggle in pairs or trios to manage the large loads past the neighbor’s packages.
The man from downstairs comes by to complain that the packages are a fire hazard. He has a large gut, and is wearing athletic shorts with holes in them. Together, we agree that the packages are the landlord’s problem.
“What do you do?” I ask, thinking that maybe he lives like a bum only on weekends, because he has no wife or mother to demand otherwise. My therapist and I have discussed people like this, on whom the burden of discipline was not placed early, using the phrase delayed adolescence.
“Sales,” he says, “You?”
It is the first time since dying my hair that someone has asked me this question. I find myself incapable of a proper answer, so I say, “I’m moving.” Thinking of the plane ticket and then, the therapist: “Abroad. With my lover.”
I like the word lover better than boyfriend. ‘Friend’ seems to imply some amount of calculation, a spoken arrangement. I realize afterwards how vaguely like my mother I sound. My father has girlfriends; my mother, lovers.
“Cool,” the neighbor nods, hooking one thumb inside the elastic waistband of his shorts. Then he lumps back down to the basement. That afternoon, the news of Whitney Houston’s death is all over, and I sit down on the floor of my near-empty apartment and stare at the painting of the one-eyed woman. I hear the man downstairs dancing around wildly, banging pots and pans and singing an off-key rendition of “I Will Always Love You.” I find myself strangely enthralled by his strident sound. I search deep in my gut for the light to push up, up out the top of my skull, up through each of the tinny nerves of my teeth, vibrato, vibrato!
I sell the painting to a girl from the conservatory I would have called, during my time there, a friend. She comes over in the evening, from the world of twinkling lights beyond the apartment, smelling like Lo Mein and French perfume. I am proud to see her fresh head of highlights. My own roots, two weeks after the fact, are starting to grow through. Lately however, I am finding it is only possible to be embarrassed for other people. Myself I’m starting to adore.
I reached out to her because I remembered her saying once upon a time that she liked the painting, at a house party I held during the first semester. We were all at our most vulnerable, then, each of us dreaming of singing from the stage balconies. We flitted around, sipping too quickly from wineglasses and complimenting one-another’s hair.
This girl was thought of as a baby bird by the professors and chorus alike. She trembled when she sang, and the audience feared her voice would tear straight through the translucent skin of her neck, thin as tissue. She was beautiful except when she sang. We pitied her. Then she was chosen to play Eurydice over us all. I sang seconda donna as Daphne. I don’t recall any bitterness.
I invite her in after an awkward embrace. She stands in the doorway, blinking. The only light is in the kitchen. I’ve lit three candles and placed them on the various windowsills. Their flames flicker back and forth, giving everything a spooky vibe.
“Sorry,” I apologize, “I sold all the lamps.” I take her scarf as she unwinds it, exposing her swan’s throat, and hang the silk garment carefully off a closet doorknob. She shrugs her coat, folding it over one arm.
“Boots?” she asks.
“Please,” I agree, watching her pile everything neatly. Then I lead her to the kitchen, where I have dragged the heavy painting in its gold frame to lean over the only window.
“Ah,” she says.
I climb onto the countertop to reach the highest cupboards, where I keep a chipped Victorian tea set.
“Lemon tea?” I ask.
“Yes, please,” she says, genuinely thirsty. “I’m barely over a cold.” She rubs her throat.
Singer’s talk. I begin to heat water. The room warms, smelling faintly rotten. She steps close to the painting, stroking it judiciously. I wonder if she comes from money; something tells me not. Yet she’s beautiful and wears silk scarves and spends her evenings at trendy restaurants with friends and sings prima donna and the lights sparkle off her long blonde highlights. I start to feel cruel.
The teapot whistles. I pour two mugs of scalding water into dusty teacups, adding lemon. The water swirls slowly darker and thicker with inky secretions.
“I like it,” she says at last, then laughs. “I mean, I’ll take it.”
We don’t discuss how much. I don’t even know what my mother paid.
“How are you?” she asks, blowing on the tea. She looks for a place to sit, realizing there’s nowhere.
“Here,” I say. Despite her protests I drag the wooden trunk from the living room into the kitchen and pat its sturdy top. “Sit.”
“Have your parents been supportive?” she asks mildly.
I’m inclined to think of the question as intrusive, but remember this girl as a friend. I must have told her stories of them and their strange behavior. She seems sympathetic, understanding. I must have valued that in her at one time.
Admittedly, minutes before, when the water had just reached its boil, I wanted to splash the whole kettle over her beautiful face, burning her soft exposed throat.
“Oh, they’re oblivious,” I say.
She nods, not really understanding what I mean or not really expecting to have opened up such a conversation with me, I can’t tell which. She thrusts the half-empty teacup at me and I set it on the counter.
“I’ll have to come back later,” she says of the painting, “with friends.”
“Yes,” I agree, “you probably couldn’t move it yourself. Even the two of us.”
She laughs. We walk together for the door. She dons her coat, pulling her long hair free in a loose shake around her shoulders. As I am helping to wind her scarf around her neck I recall the old woman’s clatter; I am enticed by a sudden, violent sensation. I yank the scarf back.
She thuds to the floor and I drag her all the way back to the kitchen. In a thrill, while she is out of breath, I open the trunk and push her in, slamming the lid down. I hear her banging around inside. She shouts once, but I pound the top and say, “Knock it off,” in my father’s voice. She quiets right up.
I sleep well for the first night in a long while. I can hear her scratching the inside of the chest and am reminded of how the upstairs neighbor used to scuffle around. I am comforted; I am no longer alone.
I have an appointment with the therapist that afternoon, but call to cancel.
“Is there a reason I can note?” his receptionist asks.
“I’m feeling well,” I say, my voice a strange falsetto.
In the kitchen, I fry bacon and make toast. I brew another pot of lemon tea. I open the chest and she sits up, trembling.
“Here,” I say, giving her a plate and mug. Her eyes are red from crying; black mascara has smudged down. Her throat is raw or scratched. I move to look.
She shrinks back from me but I tell her, “No,” and she submits to my examination.
“You’ll be fine,” I decide, and she seems comforted, finally indulging in a bite. I watch her eat, prompting her when she seems to give up.
I move to pet her hair. I braid it into a long cord.
“Back in,” I say, not wanting her to think me too friendly. She protests with her hands, holding her bladder.
“All right,” I agree. I lead her down the hallway to the bathroom by her braid.
While she goes, I spy a box of leftover dye on a shelf above the toilet. I contemplate it. She seems afraid.
She eats the things I feed her from the palm of my hand. I tell her, I love you I love you I love you I love you and she listens, looking up at me with big eyes. I start to call her Baby Bird.
Nights are the worst; she refuses the trunk. When I force her inside, the next morning she comes out with deep gauges in her throat. She’s obstinate; I have to yank her around by the braid and then I feel guilty. I can’t bear it—the guilt—I need to go out.
One night I let her sleep in the bed beside me, the braid coiled tightly around my wrist. The next morning I leave her inside the chest. I put on her coat and her scarf and knot my hair in a bun, locking the apartment behind me.
Out—what a strange word, what a strange place. First I stop by the downstairs neighbor’s door. “I’m going to a concert at the pier,” I tell him. “I figured you might enjoy some music.”
“I’m working,” he says, hesitantly, so I brighten my expression and he ultimately concedes to joining me. He is wearing the same ratty clothes as the day we spoke in the stairwell. I wait on the doorstep for him to change into something more appropriate and then we walk into the city. On a chance I link my arm through his. I don’t know if he thinks the whole thing is strange, or what he imagines has happened to my lover, but while we are waiting at a stoplight he leans toward me and says, “I like your scarf,” and I blush in the innocent-sort-of-way in which I have, as a former seconda donna, been trained.
On the pier we navigate a throng. It is Saturday and people are out with their families. I feel skin on my skin. Somewhere out of the mass rises a delicious music formed of several different sets: a string quartet on a restaurant balcony, a man playing piano, another person pounding the bottoms of plastic buckets, a beautiful soprano singing a familiar melody—who is the beautiful soprano? I could swear the voice sounds like mine, is mine—is hers not mine, is not my voice at all.
When I finally return to my apartment, exhausted, contented, I have nearly forgotten my Baby Bird. Upon passing the threshold, a panic takes me. I rush to the kitchen, dropping my things at the door.
The lid of the chest has been broken off its hinges. A breeze blows through. In the massive painting of the woman with one eye there is a wild slash, made by a knife, and behind it the window has been smashed. Through it Baby Bird has vanished, leaving me alone.
I wait for some consequence to come to me, but none does. I piddle about the apartment, sending vibrations to my neighbor below. He seems to have forgotten or forsaken me. Upstairs, the landlord runs a vacuum, drawing my guilt through its narrow black nose. I feel stuffed-up. Pollen washes in yellow waves against the windows and scatters, through the broken pane, all over the kitchen floor. It is a new season, I guess reason to be glad.
My therapist tells me that guilt results from a split sense of self. “You can’t reconcile your actions with your beliefs. Or, your actions represent beliefs you aren’t yet willing to admit you have.”
“What if you just did something wrong, and you regret it?” I ask. “A momentary lapse in judgment.”
He pauses to allow my thoughts their polite space. “Well then,” he says, “You have to return to the question of why you acted badly in the first place. You can’t say it wasn’t you. You’re never not yourself.”
I think of the moment the white bearded man placed his hand on my knee.
I think of the moment the silver haired woman placed her hand on my shoulder, said, “Darling, a semester off?”
I think of my chorus of friends, circled around, trilling.
People are always speaking with that lilt that implies question instead of statement.
People commenting on my hair often say, “You must be very brave.”
Bravery, a slit on the throat; bravery, a knife in the dark.
I sometimes worry my Baby Bird will come back for me, with the knife used in her escape.
In my dreams, the face of the attacker is sometimes the therapist’s face.
I walk around the apartment trying on old performance gowns: the garish blue velvet, the tan like an old rug, this white gown sparkling at the throat with crystals. I spin in them. What a way, I think. What a way to live.
My therapist says, “You seem brighter, these days.”
“Do I?” I laugh an old laugh that has crept back up on me, like a cat thrown outside to die.
The therapist loves to tease me. He is a teasing sort of man, a white-faced, tall, square-built, teasing sort of man. I imagine it irritates his wife. Me, I don’t mind. I say, “May I admit something?”
“I can’t imagine doing it much longer.”
“What do you mean?”
“This life.” I tug one long strand of hair forward, the red fading to rust.
“What do you mean?” he insists.
I shrug. The therapist waits. He is a hunter; he has perfected waiting to an art. I would prefer he lean over in his chair, knuckles gripping at the leather. I would prefer his nails bitten down to nubs. Instead, he is stoic and taloned, with long smooth nails that are so flat I know he files them. He probably pays a woman to do it, a woman who barks at him in Mandarin and smiles as she strips his hands and feet of their dead weight—a woman like a raisin, a wrinkled woman like a butcher.
The therapist adjusts. He says, “Let’s try an exercise.”
He says, “I’ll say a word, and you say an equivalent word.”
He says, “Purpose.”
He says, “Forgiveness.”
He says, “Guilt.”
He determines I’m all right.
Ariel Lewis’ short prose has appeared or is forthcoming in Electric Literature, The Millions, CRAFT, The Literary Review, Flock, Wildness, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere. She is a graduate of the MFA program in fiction at Washington University in St. Louis, where she was also the Third Year Fellow. Among other honors, she has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, awarded a scholarship to attend The Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, and shortlisted for The Plaza Literary Prize, a national novella competition. A Northern California native, she currently lives in Cleveland, where she teaches high school English.