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Final Rose


I often wish I was less self-aware when it came to my deficiencies in character. In Psychology class I’d learned about Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, they were numbered 1-6, each stage more enlightened than the one before it. The third stemming from a juvenile place where one only does the right thing to appear like a good person and avoid judgment. While on a good day I try to make my decisions based on Stage 5, (the belief that all people deserve respect and empathy), going to see Isabella as “ensemble” in Pippin was definitely a Stage 3 motivated decision. The musical “Pippin” follows a troupe of players who tell the story of ‘Pippin, a young prince who struggles to find his life purpose. It is a play within a play, and that night I felt like an actress too.

I found myself to be the embodiment of phoniness when it came to my friendship with Isabella. She was the type of person who believed she deserved a surprise party because she, in her own words, is “an incredibly nice person”. Isabella tended to operate at stage 2 on the Kohlberg Scale, where her decisions were driven by reward and satisfying her own personal needs. She gave compliments in hopes of receiving ones in return. She manufactured an air of bubbliness because she relished in others saying how sweet she is. I won’t say she isn’t nice, however that kindness is almost exclusively found after you’ve intently listened to her talk about something you have no interest in, and have accepted that no questions will be posed to you.

She lives as if she is the main character in a John Green novel whose profound coming of age and self-discovery is something that everyone is privileged to bear witness to. To not attend her play would be a travesty followed by five subsequent passive aggressive social media posts, in the likes of  “tired of giving so much and getting nothing back”. While I often found them laughable, I did not want to have the dull, ambiguous end of the stick pointed at me. Like the stage three decision maker I was, I didn’t care so much for Isabella’s feelings as much as my own reputation. I couldn’t risk having Isabella’s social media followers believing that I’d exploited and lacked gratitude for Isabella’s benevolence.While I’d subconsciously been waiting in the wings for her glass ceiling to shatter, I did not care to shatter it myself. They could nick themselves and I’d sweep it up like the ego custodian I’ve always been. At least I had my friend Grace with me, whose threshold for ego stroking managed to be greater than mine. I’d always thought Grace was a stage five, as close to moral perfection as someone could be at age 17. Even if Isabella was the type to keep her grievances to herself, Grace would have come anyway, because she believed that everyone deserved cheerleaders, even the people who don’t cheer for anyone else.

I entered the lobby of the theater two minutes before curtain, I had gotten caught up perfecting my winged eyeliner for Christian Roland who I claimed I didn’t want to run into. I knew he’d be in the show like he’d been in all of the shows prior. I had to be pretty enough to be preyed upon, just like I was at Isabella’s party six months prior. God forbid he looked at me and thought to himself that I was never attractive enough to be rejecting his advances. I told myself I’d be in a hurry to leave after the final bow, but I knew I’d linger, just to be seen.

I saw Grace waiting by the willcall with our tickets in an envelope. She was dirty blonde with dark wash jeans and a black tank top that highlighted her figure in a way that was still classy. She was casual perfection without the ego to match, which never ceased to amaze me.

“Sorry I’m late, I don’t have a good reason. I wanted to get my makeup right.” I said walking over. If it had been anyone else I would’ve come up with some lame excuse like losing my keys or getting blocked into my driveway, but with Grace I knew I didn’t need to.

“Well you look hot, so it was worth it. Also 7:00pm curtain really means 7:08 so I don't think the world will collapse if we walk in late.” Grace said.

“Thank you for getting the tickets, I know it was a little down to the wire.”

            “Oh yeah no problem. I will say, it sucks being the one who Isabella got mad at for waiting until the last minute when I’m the only person who got the tickets. Where was that energy for everyone who is drinking on the beach tonight?”

            “It sucks being the people who show up, when you could avoid the conflict just by turning your phone off for 48 hours and not leaving the house. But we’re here so oh well.”

            “Well, now it is 7:04 so we should probably go in.”

            I nodded in agreement and we walked into the theater and just like Grace had predicted, the curtain was closed and the lights were still on. We picked seats near the front in hopes that we’d be immediately visible to Isabella as soon as the lights came up. I thought that I had mapped out all of the possible people I would run into that night, and how to navigate those social interactions. I’d budgeted my energy so that I would have just enough for every acquaintance I’d see that night. I’d say “it’s great to see you”, knowing within the next 6 months we’d exchange another fifteen words at most. But then Penelope Carlisle from our choir class tapped Grace on the shoulder.

            “Oh my God I didn’t know you guys were coming tonight. I already bought tickets for tomorrow’s show. I know it’s gonna be unbelievable.” Penelope said. I smiled and nodded as her and Grace chatted about the show and other miscellaneous subjects. I looked at her and could only remember that two weeks ago I was crying in the bathroom stall at school. I’d screwed up our group presentation in choir class and instead of consulting me privately she’d taken it upon herself to express her frustration in front of the class. I knew I could have broken her right back; if I’d decided to tell her how closely I thought she resembled Miss Piggy from the Muppets she’d be in tears too. But everyone thinks appearance-related insults are low, and nice girls don’t go there. They bite their tongues and smile to themselves as they imagine how good it would feel to say every heinous thought that pops into their head. The show hadn’t begun and my carefully constructed energy budget had already been blown way beyond my expectations.

            Finally, the lights went down and the curtain opened. The opening number “Magic to Do” began, and the entire cast was dressed in plain gray tank tops and bottoms. I knew nothing about the show, so I don’t know what costumes I expected, but it definitely wasn’t what I saw. Watching felt almost voyeuristic, seeing the performers unmade up seemed accidental, yet they sang in four part harmony, unphased by the stage lights. I was meant to see this. The lyrics were generic, an introductory song that prepared the audience for the tale of adventure, lust, and blood that was to come. However when the lead Player sang “Join us, sit where everybody can see” I was awake. In the darkness of the audience I felt seen. I watched as the female ensemble members sang, with the miniscule amounts of clothing highlighting slim but feminine figures. The pudge of my stomach and the wideness of my hips felt pronounced even in the darkness, hidden under my dress. Looking at their bare faces made the foundation on my face feel heavy. Rationally I knew they couldn’t see me, I’d been on stage and knew the lights were blinding, but this persistent voice whispered everybody can see.

            The voice grew louder as Christian Roland appeared on stage, playing the role of King Charlemagne. King Charlemagne is a real historical figure from the Middle Ages, however the play lacks any historical accuracy. What was perfectly accurate, was Christian being cast as the king. King Charlemagne was blood-thirsty, willing to sentence thousands of young men to death in battle, in the name of glory. The only thing as enticing to him as blood and glory were his wife’s sexual advances. King Charlemagne had the power of man and the instincts of a beast, seeing the world as nothing but a blaze of red. Christian was just the same, he couldn’t even be defined by a number on the Kohlberg scale, not even the first one, where one did the right thing to avoid punishment. He didn’t seem to fear punishment, he acted as an apex predator, in which the laws of karma don’t apply. Yet he did not look like an apex predator, he was wearing a plastic crown and a long red robe that swallowed him. He was skinny, probably weighing less than I did, he was blonde with large framed glasses, and a prominent nose; his features reminded me of a rat.

He was so enveloped by fabric that everyone else looked naked in comparison. I remember that’s how I felt when I saw him at Isabella’s party in September. He’d had a reputation for being an opportunist, he’d never formally assaulted a girl, he just waited for them to be drunk and broken down to strike. He was the weakest lion looking for the weakest gazelle to prey upon.

            That night at Isabella’s party, he thought the gazelle was me. I could handle my liquor and I only took two shots, but I could see the silhouette of a smirk on his face each time I downed one. As I danced, talked, and laughed throughout the night, I found myself switching tabs in my brain, between what I was seeing and how I imagined I looked.

            “Wow you’re gone. You can hardly walk in a straight line.” He said. I was hardly tipsy, but after that I found myself stumbling. He was the creep, and I was the naive drunken girl, and that’s the role I was playing for the night. I had stood outside on the patio and he had placed his hand on my lower back while he was squeezing by, signaling to me that I’d played the role successfully. His suggestive touch was my rose for a performance well done. I could then lift the curtain and tell him I had a boyfriend. The play was over.

 Now as I sit in my velvet seat with my tight dress squeezing my stomach I realized the play had never ended. I was still in costume, trying to embody effortless femininity while holding my breath, petrified that exhaling would reveal that I secretly carried more weight in my stomach than my chest. I was watching a play while performing in one that only I was watching.

            The rest of the show soon became background noise to the buzz of stage directions echoing in my head. By the time the lights came up and the performers bowed for the last time I realized I didn’t remember having seen Isabella at all. I clapped in unison with the rest of the audience, and eventually Grace and I filed out of the theater and into the lobby. It was filled with parents, grandparents and significant others with bouquets of red roses. I was empty handed, with the exception of my invisible dead rose from Christian that I was still clinging onto. Amidst a sea of people, Grace and I waited patiently for Isabella to exit from the stage doors.

            About ten minutes later she emerged, with flushed cheeks and a large bouquet of pink roses with a card attached.

            “Oh my God, thank you guys so much for coming!” Isabella said, giving each of us a quick hug.

            “Of course, we wanted to see you!” Grace said.

            “Did you guys like it? It’s a really unique show, it involves the audience in a unique way.”

            “Yeah, it makes you think. I haven’t really seen anything like it.” I said.

            “For sure! Okay well I really have to go, the cast is going to Circle Diner and I gotta dip now if I’m going to make it out of this parking lot.”

            Grace and I waited a minute to ensure that Isabella was out of earshot and then exchanged a glance.

            “Wow I’m so glad we carved out our night so we could have that thirty second interaction.” Grace said.

            “Oh yeah I know. I feel like we could’ve stayed home tonight and it wouldn’t have even mattered.” I said.

            Isabella had left, our duty had been fulfilled, but I insisted we linger, to wait for the parking lot to clear up. I soon feigned surprise as Christian Roland emerged from the stage doors, smiling. He walked toward us and embraced me, warmly but not for too long. I searched his face for desire, or bitterness, or any indication that our brief skit that September night had left any impression. I waited to see the flashes of red in his eyes, I didn’t care if it was lust or hatred, I wanted my dramatic finale. But he met me with dull indifference and civility. I felt like the Lead Player as she waited anxiously for Pippin to toss himself into the flames, so she could have a dramatic and glorious ending to her show, only for him to calmly and coldly step away from the fire. Just like the finale of Pippin, the interaction was undramatic. I deserved my grand finale, and with his fraudulent appearance of civility, he had robbed me.

            “A friend?” Grace asked me.

            “Nope.” I replied. Not even a spectator anymore I thought.

 

BIO


Holly Smyth is an 18-year-old aspiring writer from Fairfield, CT. She is a first-year student at Lafayette College and is studying International Affairs. She writes in all genres but has a focus in poetry, with common themes revolving around love and relationships, familial tensions, mental health, and women's issues.

 

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