Lily stared at herself in the mirror. She reached for the makeup remover and slowly wiped it across her face. She stared at the blush and foundation that had disappeared from her face, and now stained the wipe in her hand. And she wondered, who was she today? After every performance, she developed a kind of amnesia. She was so consumed by her characters, pretty much swallowed up by them, that she found it sometimes took a full day or more to return to the self that she presented to the world when she wasn’t onstage.
She had learned to play roles as a young child with a mother who could barely get out of bed some days, often forgot to buy food, rarely cooked, and relied on Lily to be the adult in the family at the tender age of 6. Thankfully, her grandmother became aware of what was going on and soon moved in with Lily and her mother, taking charge of the cleaning and cooking so that Lily could be a kid—at least for a while. Her Nana forced Lily’s mother to get out of bed and wash up and she dragged her to the doctor to get her brain working straight. For a while, it worked. Lily’s mother even got a job at the diner two blocks away and seemed to like the work. She even began to smile sometimes. And when Lily realized that if she acted like the perfect little girl who her mother remembered, it made her mother happy. When she was happy, she didn’t yell or cry or throw things or slam her door shut and refuse to come out of her room.
Nana was a wonderful cook and she taught Lily how to make mouth-watering meals with noodles and chicken and even vegetables that somehow tasted delicious.
“I’ll never be able to cook like you, Nana,” Lily said hopelessly one day as she layered everything in a casserole under her grandmother’s watchful eye.
“Nonsense!” Nana exclaimed. “Anyone can learn to cook. Just follow directions and then you put lots of garlic and onions and my secret spices in and you can’t go wrong.”
“But how much?” Lily asked.
“Until it tastes right,” Nana said firmly.
Things seemed almost normal for the next few years. Lily knew instinctively which personality she needed to exhibit on a given day, depending on her mother’s mood. But it wasn’t too bad with Nana in charge. Until the day before her twelfth birthday when she had bounded in from school and Nana wasn’t there.
“Nana!” Lily called as she walked through the apartment. But there was no answer. “Nana!” she cried with just an edge of panic in her voice. Nana always was home when Lily returned from school, the smell of scrumptious food either bubbling merrily on the stove or baking in the oven. But today there was nothing. Lily ran down the hall and peeked in Nana’s room when she got to the end of the hall. And there she saw Nana face down on the floor. She screamed and ran over to her beloved Nana, calling her name over and over as she cradled her. She forced herself to get up and dial 9-1-1, but when the EMTs arrived 20 minutes later, they could not revive Nana. Lily’s mother burst into the apartment just as her mother was being wheeled out on a stretcher, a sheet over her body. Lily was sobbing, but her mother did not walk over to comfort her, but instead stumbled right past her daughter into her bedroom and slammed the door shut. And Lily didn’t see her for a week.
There wasn’t anyone who Lily could call for help now that Nana was gone. She continued to go to school, but although the other girls were nice, she was afraid to confide in anyone, having heard about cases like hers where someone reported the troubled parent for child neglect and took the child into protective custody. As bad as things were, her mother was still her mother. Lily didn’t want to be taken away to some stranger’s home where things could be even worse. And if they took her away, what would happen to her mother? So she brought perfectly made sandwiches to school for lunch, sat with the other girls in the cafeteria, smiled when they smiled, and acted like everything was normal. As long as she could read the cues coming from her classmates, she learned she could fit right in and act the way the rest of them acted. Everyone saw her, but they didn’t really see her. She felt that the real Lily was invisible, but she also felt safe with her true self being well hidden.
At the end of the week, her mother’s door was open, but her mother was gone. Lily tiptoed into the bedroom and found her mother’s wallet stuffed with dollar bills. She was so hungry, and after a moment’s hesitation, she grabbed the money, shoved it into her pocket, and headed to the corner store where she bought several cans of tomato soup and chicken noodle soup, a loaf of bread, a few boxes of macaroni and cheese, a jar of peanut butter, and a container of milk. She felt lonely and scared and hoped that her mother would come back soon. She spent her time after school watching TV while she did her homework. The TV kept her company, and she began to rely on it to keep herself from falling into despair. The characters on the shows became like a substitute family, so she didn’t feel so alone. Her mother didn’t show up until two days later, no explanation, no conversation. Lily tried to talk to her mother, but she met her with silence.
Life continued like this for the next few years. Lily had no idea where her mother was getting the money for them to live on, but somehow there was always money there for her to buy food. And they weren’t out on the street, so somehow their rent and utilities were being paid. And sometimes her mother would sit at the table with Lily, watching her eat. Lily would try to get her mother to smile or talk or communicate. Lily would turn the TV on while they sat there, picturing herself living in the world of TV sitcoms with a real family, a mother who smiled and gave her hugs and advice about life, and sometimes, she dared to dream of even having a father as well.
One day, during one of their silent meals, there was a particularly funny scene in her favorite show, and Lily laughed out loud. She snuck a look at her mother and it shocked her to see a hint of a smile on her mother’s face. Lily almost spit out her milk in surprise. Without stopping to think, she mimicked the daughter on the show and repeated the line. Her mother looked at her for a moment, and then the hint of a smile returned. And Lily was hooked. It was as if she had found the key that could open the lock to bring her mother back to life. And she felt that she finally had become an actual member of the families she had been watching so long on TV. She was now one of them. And so every night, they would watch TV together. Lily would study her mother surreptitiously, looking for the lines that would bring that change in her mother’s demeanor, and she would perfectly mimic the actor who said it, remembering the nuances and inflections perfectly, striving for a reaction from her mother. And most of the time, she rewarded Lily with that tiny little bit of a smile.
Lily decided to take an acting class as one of her electives in the spring, and it turned out to be the best decision of her life. Mr. Swanson, the chair of the theater department, was brilliant, quirky, and fun. The other kids in the class were mostly outsiders like her, and Lily found a sense of companionship and belonging that she had never felt before. And she felt seen, no longer invisible. Mr. Swanson cheered her on as she read lines, did improv, and soaked in everything around her. She blossomed. She felt safe. And when Mr. Swanson asked her to stay after class one day, Lily didn’t know whether to be excited or nervous. She was both.
“Lily,” he began. “I’m so proud of the work you’ve been doing this semester. Your willingness to take risks and put yourself out there is so refreshing. And your uncanny ability to lose yourself in the characters we study is amazing and rare. Have you ever considered acting as a career?”
Lily stared at him. A career? She had never really considered her future beyond high school. She was aware that most of the kids she knew were planning to go to college and focused on their grades and test scores. She now had real friends thanks to her acting class, and they would have long conversations about where they wanted to go to school and what they wanted to study. Lily would listen, but rarely participate in these conversations. How could she leave her mother? And even if she went to a local college, how could they possibly afford it? In her mind, all she could see was a brick wall looming at the end of high school.
“Umm, I haven’t considered any career, Mr. Swanson,” she said softly.
Mr. Swanson studied her carefully. “I understand you live with your mother,” he said carefully. “Surely she has talked to you about your future?” He said this as half statement, half question.
Lily wanted to assure him that her mother had certainly discussed her future as any normal mother would. She grasped for a character who exhibited self-confidence and assurance who she could pull out of her repertoire. But no one came. So Lily looked at her teacher helplessly and shook her head.
Mr. Swanson began pacing across the stage. “I’ll be honest with you,” he finally said. “I’ve never had another student like you. I believe you have a unique talent that shouldn’t go to waste. I have friends at NYU who I could talk to…”
Lily’s mind raced and she no longer heard what Mr. Swanson was saying. NYU? Was that even possible? How could she even begin to think about college, and how to pay for it, and an actual future? She heard Mr. Swanson say something about scholarships and her eyes began to fill with tears. “Thank you, Mr. Swanson,” she said shakily. “But I don’t think we have the money for it. And I have to take care of my mother. I don’t think I could find a way to do this.”
Mr. Swanson looked at her. “Would it be OK with you if I have a chat with her? Do you think she’d come meet me here at the school?”
Lily stared at him in shock. She knew her mother left the house every day, but had no idea what her mother did, or if she even spoke to other people. Ever. She looked down at the floor. “I don’t know if she… I mean, she doesn’t…I’m just not sure if she would. Or if she could…”
Mr. Swanson stopped pacing. “It wouldn’t hurt to ask, would it?” he said gently.
“I guess not,” Lily stammered.
She never knew what Mr. Swanson said to get her mother to show up at her school for that conversation. And she never knew what Mr. Swanson said to her mother to get her to agree that Lily should go to college to study acting. Neither Mr. Swanson nor her mother ever said a word about it. But her mother did finally speak to her one night as they sat at the dinner table.
“I believe it’s time you think about going to college—to NYU,” Lily’s mom suddenly said. Lily stared at her. She hadn’t heard a string of words coming out of her mother’s mouth since her dear Nana had passed. Lily was lucky if she’d get a monosyllabic response to anything she said to her mom. “I understand that you’re very talented. Your fees would be covered and you could still live here and commute. I think you should go.”
Lily was so gobsmacked that her mouth hung wide open. It seemed she didn’t have a choice. So she just nodded her head mutely, although her heart was pounding wildly with possibilities.
As the years went by, Lily knew in her heart that acting was the only thing that she could possibly do. She had found herself, but in finding herself, she had to lose herself in her roles. And that was fine with her because she had never figured out who she really was. She only felt alive and whole when she was onstage and became someone else. And she especially loved performing in comedies because they made her think of her mother and how she had been able to bring a smile to her mother’s weary face. She tried over and over again to get her mother to come see her act, but her mother always demurred. And so Lily would come home in full makeup and sometimes costume as well, and act out scenes from whatever play she was in. And she would continue to make her mother smile.
Lily loved becoming someone else - someone interesting and fun, which made it all so much easier. Conversation was dialogue and Lily was never at a lack for words even when she went off-script, because she was, once again, the character she had been playing.
One day when she got home, the apartment seemed emptier than usual. She peeked in her mother’s room and found the bed made, which was not usual. And she realized the closet was bare. Then she noticed the note on the pillow. Lily picked it up with trembling hands and read:
I’m so sorry I haven’t been any kind of real mother to you all of these years. Obviously, you know there is something wrong in my head. Sometimes it’s better, and sometimes it’s worse. But I am very proud of you, even if I don’t say it. You’ve taken care of me long enough. It’s time for you to live your life. Don’t worry about me. I have somewhere to stay and someone who will take care of me. Arrangements have been made for the rent to be paid every month and for money to be deposited into your bank account every month so you can buy yourself food and get back and forth to school. I hope you know I love you, even if I’ve never said it.
Lily stared at the note and read it over and over as the tears streamed down her face. She had tried so hard for so many years to be the daughter her mother wanted. But it wasn’t enough. She had never been enough. She wished she could look into her mother’s mind and figure out who her mother was and what she was looking for. But that could never happen. And she had to face the fact that she was alone in the world. No matter what she did, she was utterly alone. She walked slowly into the living room and clicked on the TV, switching channels until she found reruns of one of her favorite sitcoms. With one of her favorite families.
Finally, after a long while, she went into the bathroom and stared at herself in the mirror. And then she slowly wiped the makeup from her face.
Nancy Machlis Rechtman has had poetry and short stories published in Paper Dragon, Quail Bell, Goat’s Milk, The Writing Disorder, Discretionary Love, and more. She wrote freelance Lifestyle stories for a local newspaper, and she was the copyeditor for another paper. She writes a blog called Inanities at https://nancywriteon.wordpress.com.