It might have been the smell of her, the scent of a drifting promise that rolls in with every new morning. It might have been the way she took your hands in her own as she listened, offering an essence of easy humility. It might have been her long, casual stride and the careless way she traveled like a party balloon whose work has been done, dancing through the air with nowhere else she would rather be. It might have been any of those things or all of them, but it wasn’t. I think now, it was the way she barely noticed me.
Valerie said goodnight to us all in a voice that was nearly a whisper. That was the way she always spoke, never raising her volume. It forced you to pay attention and maybe that was her strategy, forcing you to look directly at her in order to hear her so that you had to combine listening with lip-reading. She never repeated herself, either. If you couldn’t understand her, then what she had to say probably didn’t concern you. This particular way she had of communicating left me wanting to get closer so I wouldn’t miss anything. And so, I made an effort to be someone who mattered enough to a woman who didn’t seem to care if someone heard her.
I had joined a theater group in West Hollywood with the aim of making my hesitant voice reach the cheap seats. The group I found was planning a showing of an original piece based on the life of Annie Londonderry, a woman who was said to have traveled the world by bicycle. I auditioned, hoping to be cast in a significant supporting role, if not as the leading lady herself. As it rolled out, cast as a by-stander, I cheered Annie on as she leaves her home in Boston in the year 1894.
My part in the production showcased enthusiastic waving as Annie cycled away from the city. I was to smile and cheer while briskly rubbing my hands together, as if I were reacting to how chilly it might be on the northeast coast. Depending on how casting went, a small child might accompany me to stand at my knees with a mustard covered pretzel. Even though I had no lines, I was to attend rehearsals, which took place every evening after work and lasted long into the night.
Valerie’s part in the production was to portray Annie Londonderry in all her fantastic, self-styled, story-telling glory. She was to present an image as colorful and believable as the one Annie had presented nearly one hundred and thirty years ago. The stories Annie told may or may not have been true, nevertheless, there we were, all this time later, still being entertained by the claims of a woman who, some surmised, just wanted a break from the husband and three children she left behind.
During rehearsals, Valerie pursued an energetic dialogue regarding her character and the interactions she would have with her co-stars. Since my small part in the play offered no direct dialogue and since they mostly left me out of these discussions, I created my own backstory, inside and quietly. I wanted to perform with the necessary commitment, which would allow Annie to peddle off with confidence, so I cast myself as the lover-left-behind. Our relationship would have existed clandestinely in an era when many women enjoyed few pleasures outside the home. As I built my character and sculpted my behavior, I began to think it was possible that Valerie might see the sense of my creation and help me to present an authentic performance.
It wasn’t easy to get Valerie’s attention. As the actor portraying the main character, she was in nearly every scene. We had been rehearsing every night for three weeks when everyone’s hard work was finally falling into place, and someone suggested we all take the rest of the evening off. As the cast shuffled outside the theater while exchanging hearty goodnight wishes, I saw an opportunity to move closer and caught Valerie off guard. “Hi!” I smiled as if she and I had earned this break together.
Valerie hid her puzzlement as she sandwiched my hand between her own. “You’re doing a great job with the little boy and the pretzel.”
I hadn’t had a child or a pretzel to work with since the first week. We tried it, but he was fussy, and it just didn’t hold up. I looked at the long fingers curled around my wrist, and I decided to take a chance to see where the exchange might go. “Actually, I’m your secret lover.” I paused for response and thought I saw movement in Valerie’s eyebrows. “I’m the reason you’re leaving on your bicycle. You cannot live the life you want. You’re trapped with a family you didn’t choose…” I took her faint humming as encouragement to continue. “Yet you love your children and couldn’t leave them to live a life that would surely mean ostracization from your family and friends.” I took a bow.
“That shade of lipstick is a good color for you,” Valerie said, as she let my hand slip from her own and tilted her head ever so slightly to the left.
I was a long time in understanding that many people will decide who you are based on how you fit into their world and disregard how it is you would like to be seen. Others may offer a version of themselves so they might be accepted where they may not belong. Annie told stories about herself and her adventures so we could see her the way she preferred to be seen while living the life she preferred. Just like Annie, Valerie was molding the perspective of others so she could become her true self.
When our troupe returned the next day, Valerie suggested a small staging adjustment. In this improved version, as her character readied to depart, she and I would step to the side and engage in a private exchange. My elation with this development could not be overstated! While I still had no dialogue, I had clearly become a featured player! Before long, Valerie and I were rehearsing together, spending our evenings in heated collaboration, and waking with adventurous expectations.
The play opened and rewrites gave way to lively cast celebrations. I was now expected to join in these events at Valerie’s side and did so with a fervor unfamiliar to how I had known myself previously. Where before I had been reserved and cautious, I now felt pressure to perform as someone Valerie could love and to be seen as someone worthy. Whenever I was expecting to see her, I curled my lashes and added a touch of coral rouge to lift my smile into a misty camouflage of garden tones. I took to using a pale pink gloss across my lips which sparkled slightly when I turned toward the sun as if I was unfolding among a field of wildflowers. I had begun to accept I was this person that I believed Valerie wanted to see.
Eventually, the crowds withered, and the theater group was forced to close its doors. We swept the stage, gathered our belongings, and bade our strange goodbyes. We were a group who had gathered to tell the story of a woman who was telling a story and it was unclear now what truth would keep us connected. Valerie and I strode back to my apartment and, as the night was warm, we sat on the front steps and watched the evening unfold.
“I’ll have to be getting home,” she said in her syrupy, meandering voice.
“We’ll see each other tomorrow?” I leaned back and relaxed onto one elbow.
She used both hands to tie her long, dark hair atop her head and when that was done, she said, “I mean I’m going home.”
I don’t remember if I said goodbye, as Valerie turned to leave or if she offered me an embrace. She vanished into the night like a summertime chill through an open window. When she was gone, I melted into the dark, unsure if she had ever cast her light upon me at all. Just like Annie Londonderry, Valerie was returning to her husband and children.
It might have been that she made me want to change myself, like the lock on a door that had long lost its key. It might have been that she made me want to be a better version of myself, so I might finally fit into a company of strangers. It might have been that she forced me to expose who I had always been or who I was afraid to become. It might have been any of those things or all of them, but it wasn’t. I think now it was the way she caused me to hide who I truly wanted to be.
Carolyn Nordstrom is a writer living in Los Angeles.