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art by Jonathan Westbrook

The Show Must

The soles of the dance shoes on Joan Jansen's feet were scored and coated with countless layers of rosin. She bent the shoes up and down, stretching the fabric, and inside, her feet. What else could she do? That was her routine. It wouldn't do her any good to pull a muscle or fall down during her final performance.
Clusters of dancers stretched to loosen up, their muscles tense from the crowds and the city. They hummed to themselves while in the pit the band tuned their instruments. Joan eyed her co-star David, who paced back and forth, singing the five hardest notes in the show over and over again. Everyone was nervous, as nervous as the first night of previews. So much could go wrong.
And they were understaffed. The cast had turned out in full, and the orchestra as well, but the crew had mostly abandoned them.
"I gotta see my wife!"
"I gotta see my girlfriend!"
"I gotta see my wife and my girlfriend!"
She didn't hold it against them. A skeleton crew of the older, prouder stagehands had come to dim the lights and raise the curtain for their final performance.
Joan never doubted the cast would be there. Every single one of them. You don't get to perform on Broadway unless theater is what makes your heart beat. What would they rather be doing? Even if you're in the chorus. Even if you've sung the same songs and danced the same steps three hundred times, when the curtain rises like the dawning sun, and the people clap like a summer rainstorm, that beam of light still hits you and you are five years old again, performing for your parents' friends and bringing a bit of joy into their lives.
Your joy, their joy--everyone should get to feel that way, especially if it's your last day on earth.
Mimi's mother was visiting from Atlanta. She came up on the bus the day before the news broke. A week later, Mimi was still shaking her head at her mother's refusal to fly.
"There's no reason to spend the money!"
"But Mama, I make good money now. Let me put you on a plane." If she had come up after the news had broken, she probably would have taken the bus anyway.
On the last day, the day they knew it all would end, she showed up twenty minutes late for call. The subway had stopped running so Mimi and her mother walked to the theater from Harlem. The streets were crowded with people, but there was no looting. Why bother? But there was violence. That was the anger. There was lots of anger, and there was lots of sadness, but most people stood outside in a daze and hugged each other for the last time. Mimi walked a hundred blocks down Broadway and watched the sky, that blood-red sky of a dying planet.
Times Square looked like New Years Eve had come early. She pushed through the crowd, clutching her mother's hard, wrinkled hand.
When they reached the theater, Mimi's mother kissed her on top of her head, the way she used to before Mimi ran out of the house to go to school, lunchbox slapping against her thigh. "Good show," her mother whispered. Mimi didn't want to let go. What if they didn't make it to curtain call? What if they didn't make it to the overture?
As the overture played, Mimi stood in line and adjusted her leotard. Depressed thoughts picked at her brain. She'd never get married. She'd never have kids. She'd never dance in another show. It kept spinning through her head like a ballerina, pulling her down into a dark pit in her chest--marriage, kids, dance, marriage, kids, dance.
And then the curtain rose, and she was singing. And her voice purged the thoughts from her body. And in the packed audience, she saw rows and rows of hopeful eyes. Take me, they begged. Take me away from this place. We want to be moved. We want catharsis. We need it. Take me. Take me wherever you want to go.
She saw her mother in the fourth row. She was smiling. Her eyes did not beg. Purely, they said, "I love you."
Mimi danced.
In a quiet lull in the darkness of Act Two, David found himself beside Joan Jansen, looking into her ocean-sized eyes. He had always loved Joan, and after three hundred performances they had grown to be affectionate friends. It was his favorite scene in the play, when the two strangers, mixed up in their own lives, and smitten with the promise of a happy life with each other, finally release the romantic tension that had been holding the audience in place for two hours.
The hushed audience watched with anticipation. In the quiet, David could hear the screams and sirens outside the theater. Times Square was a swarm of bodies and violence and fear. But the sound was muted. It sounded so far away, like music in a dream, or like the hushed voices of your parents when they think you are asleep and are talking about something serious in the next room.
David took Joan by the chin and tilted her face towards his. She was crying gently. Two bright lines of tears streaked down her face, twinkling in the stage lights.
"It's okay," he said. That wasn't in the script.
He leaned in to her, and kissed her, and held her for a long time, the way his character did every night, but now the way he had wanted to for so long. They held each other for five whole minutes, while in the wings he could see his cast mates hugging and kissing, and the audience sat in rapt silence.
Later, as the final song ended and the lights went out, David took Joan's hand and moved to places for curtain call. The Earth groaned, so loud he knew the floor was about to fall out beneath them. The stage shook, but when the lights came up the actors took three steady steps forward and bowed. The groaning noise faded, and their worries faded, and they bowed to thunderous applause.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, November 27th, 2012

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