Greta loved her morning ritual. She woke up at eight or eight-thirtyish, turned on her bedside lamp which gave off a warm orange glow, and picked up her novel to start reading where she had left off the night before, often falling asleep in the middle of a paragraph. Then she’d set the book aside, yawn, stretch her stiff old bones, and wiggle her toes. She’d hoist herself out of bed, put on her soft avocado green robe and matching slippers, pat down her unruly graying hair, and mosey over to the window to draw open the curtains and let in the light. Then she’d uncover the birdcage, say good morning to Walter, and put the water on for tea. English breakfast tea, with one-and-a-half fingers of cream and two heaping, though small, spoonfuls of sugar.
This particular morning, a Wednesday, the novel was Bel Canto and she had left off where the opera singer, who had been taken hostage two weeks prior, was starting to get rusty from the lack of her morning practice. This morning, as she opened the curtains, the light entered sunny with a crisp hint of the oncoming fall.
While the teakettle was warming up, she went to get the paper from her doorstep, check the level of moisture in the soil of her spider plant and geraniums, and prepare two slices of toast with blueberry jam. When her tea was ready, she sat down with her breakfast by the window looking out onto her little courtyard and perused the paper. As usual, she skimmed the headlines and first paragraphs of the news with a frown at all the horrible things taking place in the world, and all the bad decisions being made by politicians acting like spoiled kids on a playground. Then she made her way to the Living Arts section, which she leafed through more carefully and selected an intriguing article to read in its entirety.
This morning, it was an article about the high-priced art of kitten cloning, and the prospect of designer cats becoming increasingly common and affordable in the future. The kittens featured in the photo had fluffy grey fur and deep aqua eyes and were undoubtedly precious, but she was disturbed by such manipulation of God’s creatures. She was in the middle of pondering if the kittens might be beautiful but mentally ill, or if they still thought the way normal kittens think—however that is—when there was a knock at the door.
It was startling, and very out of the ordinary. Perhaps it was a mistake. Perhaps they meant to knock on the neighbor’s door. Or perhaps she was hearing things. She resumed reading the paper, but a moment later, the knock echoed again. Very odd, she thought. But she cinched up her robe and went to answer the door. It was her neighbor, a young woman with a strange name that began with a “J” whom she’d only ever greeted in passing.
“Jessica,” she said. “What brings you here?”
“It’s Jacinda,” she corrected.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Greta. She still didn’t quite catch it.
“Not at all,” said Jacinda. “I’m very sorry to bother you, but I was wondering if I could ask you something.”
“You’re not bothering me at all,” said Greta. “What can I do for you?”
“Well,” said Jacinda. “I’m an artist—I’m not sure if you know that. I paint a lot of representations of the subconscious, not always my own.”
“Yes?” said Greta. She wasn’t sure where this was going, but Jacinda being an artist certainly explained a lot. She was wearing large, ethnic-looking earrings, some kind of slip dyed dark blue with magenta-painted lace to look like a dress, a lime green cardigan sweater—unbuttoned, and bare feet with turquoise-painted toenails.
“Well, my bed is just on the other side of the wall from yours,” she continued. “Our heads are probably only about a foot apart, separated only by the wall which really doesn’t mean much of anything energetically speaking.” Jacinda noticed Greta’s perplexed expression. “I’m probably not making any sense, but what I’m trying to say is that while I’m sleeping, not on purpose of course, I sometimes catch parts of other people’s dreams—kind of like a radio station picking up on nearby frequencies—well I didn’t mean to, but I got a glimpse of your dream last night. It was a strong image. I knew right away it wasn’t mine. And well anyway, it was really amazing, and I was wondering, if you wouldn’t mind, if it didn’t make you too uncomfortable, if I might borrow it for a painting?”
Jacinda stopped and the air was silent as Greta tried to process what this strange girl was saying. Was she crazy? Schizophrenic or something? This wasn’t normal, was it? But Jacinda seemed so sure of herself and was acting perfectly normal. Maybe Greta was crazy and times had changed more than she thought. Maybe this was some kind of generation gap thing. Then she thought for a moment. What had she dreamt? She couldn’t remember, but she had woken up slightly queasy and glad to be back to reality. What was it? Then a truly horrifying image floated to her mind. It was her, with all her flabby parts and cellulite crammed into a gaudy cabaret costume: fishnet stockings that framed her flesh as little bulging triangles, fake eyelashes and deep red lipstick obviously applied while drunk. And she was onstage humiliating herself, singing some god-awful lounge lizard song in a voice corrupted by cigarette smoke, inebriated slur, and atrocious posture. Jacinda couldn’t possibly want to paint that, could she? Maybe. Artists painted all sorts of grotesque things just to shock people these days. Was Jacinda that kind of artist? Greta shook herself back to her senses. The whole idea that Jacinda had actually tapped into her dream was clearly ridiculous. The girl must have been imagining things.
Even so, as Jacinda opened her mouth to describe the dream to which she was referring, Greta panicked at the thought that the unsightly image still lingering in her mind might actually be articulated aloud, and flushed, she hurriedly shut Jacinda up with her consent.
“Wonderful!” Jacinda lit up and became suddenly emboldened to hug her. “I will try my best to do it justice. I’m very excited about this. I’m going to go start working on it now.”
Greta half-smiled, nodded, and politely shooed her off the threshold so she could close the door. The girl was clearly mad.
“Some people!” she said to Walter. “Be glad you’re a bird, Walter. Nobody will ever ask you such strange things. Neighbors asking to borrow dreams. I’ve got sugar! Why doesn’t she want sugar?”
Walter chirped in response. He didn’t know what Greta was saying, but he was still politely waiting for his food. The cabaret image still hovered uncomfortably in her mind. She was sure she didn’t have anything to worry about—Jacinda was just confused. Almost sure, at least. Still, she would have preferred not to remember that dream—or better—not to have dreamt it. She switched on the TV to begin the business of forgetting, attended to Walter’s needs, washed the dishes, and watered the plants that she had previously determined needed watering.
For the most part, she had managed to go about her day keeping busy and avoiding the small unsettled feeling that the morning had left her with. She bought fresh fruit, spinach, and dishwashing soap. She went to the Senior Center for her book discussion group, and stayed after to use the computer there to check for e-mails from her daughter, Margaret, who moved too often to have any sort of reliable snail mail address. Margaret was 31, a good girl, amiable, but Greta had more or less failed with her. She was unmarried and unfocused, and changed jobs, boyfriends, and apartments on a regularly erratic basis. She was headed nowhere. Now she was in Seattle, enrolled in some sort of film class, and pouring her small stash of savings into video equipment she would likely wind up using for less than a year.
By the time Greta settled into bed with her novel that night, she had almost completely forgotten the event of that morning, and when she did in fact recall it, it seemed so obviously inane that she chuckled at the idea that she had given it more than a moment’s worry. And the dream itself was probably just her subconscious putting a bizarre spin on something she had seen on TV once. Nothing to take seriously.
She drifted off to sleep right when the opera singer was negotiating the possibility of acquiring sheet music from the outside world. Greta had once desired to become a singer. In fact, she had been well on her way. She had studied voice for many years when she was young, and gave performances at college, church, and community events. She received standing ovations on more than one occasion and it was suggested that she sing professionally. She wondered what would happen if she tried to sing again, if her voice would croak, if she could sustain her breath. Maybe tomorrow she would try.
The week passed as usual. She volunteered Tuesdays and Thursdays at the Senior Center doing paperwork to make use of her skills as a retired secretary. Her daughter wrote her that she was interviewing and documenting lighthouse keepers and their inability to pass down traditions to their sons in the face of modernization. Greta did, on a couple of occasions, dare to sing quietly to Walter, but refrained from belting out a croak. Perhaps Jacinda might hear her and knock on her door asking to paint her as a frog.
Friday morning, when she stepped out to get the paper, she saw Jacinda coming up the walk bearing a large, flat, package wrapped in cloth and tied up in string.
“Good morning!” Jacinda sang out. Greta, upon seeing her coming, had just begun to doubt that it was.
“I’ve finished the painting,” Jacinda said, a huge smile spread across her face. “I think it came out well. I really hope you like it. I’m hoping to include it in a gallery showing of my work in two weeks, with your permission, and of course you’re invited!” She held out the package to Greta who smiled politely and reached out to take it.
“Yes, well then,” she said. “I’ll have a look at it.”
Jacinda lingered staring at her expectantly for a moment, with that dopey insistent smile. Then she caught herself, “Oh, yes, of course, you should look at it in your own time. Just let me know when you get the chance!”
Greta nodded and Jacinda turned back down the walk to her door.
Mortified, Greta eyed the package. So Jacinda had actually done it. She thought maybe that she wouldn’t, that she’d start it and then get distracted and move on to something else. Weren’t artists supposed to be flaky?
She hefted up the package and pulled it inside and shut the door. What was she going to do with this thing? She had no interest in looking at it. She found a spot up against the wall in the corner behind Walter’s old birdcage and let it sit. Jacinda would want it back at some point. She’d want an answer. No reason to worry about that now. Of course, it couldn’t be her in the cabaret costume—it must be something dreamed up for her by Jacinda. That could be even worse. How did a young trendy girl like Jacinda view somebody like Greta? Probably old and alone and sad. Well what did Jacinda know about her? Nothing. Greta lived a good life. She had friends. She’d been part of the community for years. She’d raised a daughter who was at least somewhat happy and did interesting things. She had 29 years of a decent marriage. Her husband passed away seven years ago quietly, and without too much pain, after a relatively short illness during which she took very good care of him, and he had time to put his affairs in order. She had traveled. She’d been to Europe, and even to Japan once. And she used to sing. She could have sung professionally if she so chose, a thought that seemed impractical at the time, but she could have, and she was proud of that. And if she didn’t do anything terribly interesting these days—or what would be considered interesting to someone like Jacinda—it was simply because she was at a stage of her life where she had earned her peace and quiet, and she could read as many good books as she liked.
Jacinda had a lot of nerve, making her a subject to be scrutinized and pitied. That painting could stay right there in the corner.
But throughout the week she realized it was not quite as easy to forget the painting itself as it had been to forget the idea of it. There it was, wrapped up in cloth in the corner spying on her, a solid reminder of its existence. She found herself glancing over at it between headlines and bites of blueberry toast. She’d eye it between passages of Bel Canto, when one of the terrorists from the jungle had stepped into the middle of the room to out himself as an unlikely closet opera star, and then ran away, mortified, to the tree house before receiving his applause. She’d be disappointed to find it still sitting there every time she returned home. She’d glare at it while vigorously scrubbing the pots. It was too heavy to carry up to the attic and out of sight, and she knew Jacinda would be knocking on her door again soon to ask about it.
And so it was that finally, one Tuesday morning at 11:34 after she had completed a perfectly pleasant morning, she lugged the painting out of the corner to satisfy her dreadful curiosity. She snipped off the string with scissors, and the queasy feeling returned as she started to unfold the cloth and prepare herself to come face to face with her as an absurd and tragic wrinkly cabaret clown, framed by curls of smoke and an unflattering spotlight.
But when the cover came off, it was quite the opposite. She was struck by the beauty and electrically charged calm of the painting before her, and dumbfounded by the feeling of recognition that washed over her. It was a piece of her dream she had entirely forgotten in the folds of her sleep, and was now brought to life and actualized before her, daring and unashamed.
She was there, naked, a younger immortal self with the wisdom of age in her eyes. She was floating, still, in the glass-like teal blue waters of a flooded gothic rooftop terrace. A mirror reflected her perfectly: the unconventional beauty of her body, the curves in places not normally desired but graceful and irresistible underwater. Her dark hair floated out softly behind and above her like a mermaid. Her eyes looked into their reflection with love and magic. The sky over the city was violet with a storm just past. She was a goddess lifted and carried by the rain clouds from the ocean, and deposited like a starfish in a tidepool as a gift to this run-down, once-great city, unaware of the secret treasure about to be released wildly upon it.
She sang under the flood. The music exuded from her skin and echoed through the cool water. It filled every nook and crack in the terrace and seeped into the abandoned rooms below. The air tingled with the promise of her raising her head above the water, of her voice being let out to fill the entire sky and showering the jaded populace, of infinite and breathable divinity.
Greta sat back on her bed, breathless. She gazed at the painting in a combination of disbelief, belief, grief, and joy. The painting held an unfulfilled promise to herself. A dream she had lost and was now put in front of her without apologies.
“Walter,” she whispered, and barely tore her eyes away from the painting. “I think I know what I have to do.”
Walter backed away a little uneasily in his cage. She had this wild look in her eyes.
She stood up like a storm, inhaled, and belted out a verse of “Memories” from Cats, a piece that, while cliché, lent itself well to belting. To her surprise and delight, her voice came out full and rich, if a bit coarse around the edges, and she found herself unable to stop.
She continued into her favorite piece—the delicate and deep intensity of Carmen, which built up into a crescendo that sent her like a wave to her window to throw open the shutters and sing out like a bird into the courtyard. As she did so, precisely on a high note, one of the shutters bounced back with force accompanied by an “Ow!” and both Greta and Jacinda jumped back startled as the song crashed into silence.
“Oh, I’m so sorry, dear,” said Greta. “I didn’t know you were standing there.”
“No, no!” said Jacinda, rubbing her forehead. “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to startle you, I was just coming over to ask if you’d looked at the painting, and I heard you singing, and I couldn’t help but stop and listen. Please don’t stop! You have such a beautiful voice.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Greta, playing at modesty though she couldn’t hide her compulsive smile. “I was just having a bit of fun. I haven’t really sung in years, I’m definitely a bit rough.”
“Oh no, but that’s nothing,” said Jacinda. “Nothing even just a little practice won’t fix. You’re voice is so raw and powerful!”
Jacinda’s eyes lit up with an idea. “Will you give a performance at my gallery opening?” she pleaded. “Even just a song or two? The space would be perfect for it—it’s a little old converted theatre. There’s a stage and everything. Oh, it would be so great.”
“What? Oh, no, I don’t know, singing in my house is one thing …” started Greta. But something came over her. Jacinda’s earnest excitement was oddly contagious. She felt very improper and giddy.
She gave in. “What the hell, why not?” she said, and braced herself for the inevitable hug that Jacinda lurched upon her. She laughed. Jacinda was actually quite sweet, she decided.
“You’re sure you’re not just trying to humor some stodgy old soul?” asked Greta, fishing to remove all doubt. “I’m not a charity case, you know.”
“What? No. Are you kidding?” said Jacinda.
“Okay then,” said Greta. “Let’s see what I’m letting you get me into.”
The following Friday afternoon before the opening, Greta stood poised by the piano behind the curtain at the gallery, donned in an elegant teal dress for the occasion, and an emerald green silk scarf Jacinda added for an extra touch. She had been practicing diligently all week, seeking her true voice, and realized it was going to take work. She was rusty, inconsistent, getting it right was hit or miss. It was not something she could control or summon on demand. Of course, that was to be expected, she told herself. She was going to have to cope with imperfection. She now prepared herself to begin the undignified but necessary ritual of a vocal professional, just like in the old days.
She started with forceful belts of air on the syllable “Huh!” like a martial artist readying for battle. Then she followed with scales on various vowel sounds, three times as though she had an egg in her throat, three times as though there were bees in her nose, and three times with the relaxed and powerful release of her true voice, her body fallen to surrender as a mere channel for the soul.
It almost came too easily. Like the last rusty hinge of a closed door had simply fallen away to let a river flow through. Her voice cracked then, overwhelmed by the surge, and she burst into tears. There was no stopping them. At first she tried, tried to contain herself, remind herself of the old fool that she was. This was just a simple little performance, a couple of numbers for old time’s sake, why should she be so emotional?
But she knew why. She knew why and she knew that that last hinge was gone for good, and there was nothing left to do but give in. She crumpled to the floor in a sob. All those years, all those years she should have been singing. And why didn’t she? She had believed it was just a silly fantasy, it was something other people did, were born to do. She had believed, like many around it her it seemed, that the best thing was a secure life. A good husband, a house, a family, a few small pleasures. There was plenty to be content with, so many others should be so lucky. Why did she believe that? Maybe her mother had told her to, but then, what did that matter? Who made her listen to her mother? Nobody really tried to stop her. Many had even been encouraging. She had let all those years fall away. For what?
The truth gripped her in her gut. It was fear. Plain old raw fear. The irrational trickster kind, the kind that tells you it’s better not to take your chances. The kind that she had woven into her life as the voice of good, solid reason. The kind that told her, lied to her, and said that life was something you could orchestrate under your own control. That if the sky didn’t have a proper limit, you might just go on floating out there forever, and who knew where you’d end up. That dreams were something that stayed inside your own head. It had always seemed like common sense. How ridiculous it all seemed now. Why shouldn’t she, as much as anybody else, sing?
Her tears began to slow, no longer from restraint, but from release. She pulled herself to her feet, a little wobbly on her heels, and went out into the gallery. The gallery host, a young well-manicured woman dressed in slick black, arranged cups of punch and platters of hors d’oeuvres to prepare for the opening. The first bottle of wine had been uncorked. The table was neat and nearly ready with a clean tablecloth and silver platters of cheese cubes in concentric circles with crackers spiraling out like overlapping sunrays. The ice bucket was filled with fresh white crystals. The calm before the storm.
Greta went to gaze into the painting of her dream now hung at eye level and lit with a soft spotlight. In a few moments, strangers and friends would be standing here sipping wine, munching on cheese and crackers, and scrutinizing her naked body.
She was at once both mortified at this idea, and also mortified at the idea of this beautiful painting going unseen, staying wrapped up in a corner by Walter’s birdcage. What a shame that would have been.
Still drying her eyes, she walked around for a glimpse at the other paintings, each marked by delicate skill, desires, and the bizarre but apt metaphors of the subconscious. She paused at what appeared to be a self-portrait, and crushingly less enchanted than the rest. A bony and sickly looking Jacinda stood gazing at her distorted reflection widened on the side of a car. There were puddles and frogs at her feet. The sky was sunny. People walked by and shook out their umbrellas. She looked sad.
Jacinda came up from behind and stood next to Greta. “Sometimes painting is a bit of therapy for me,” she told her. “I was really struggling to learn how to love myself when I painted this. I guess that’s an on-going theme. That’s why it was so nice and inspiring to paint your dream!” she said. “It felt like a new way of seeing.”
Greta looked at Jacinda startled. First, that a young, beautiful, self-assured woman like Jacinda would be struggling to love herself; second, that she would think Greta would have to offer her another way of seeing. Wasn’t it entirely the other way around?
The gallery host piped up behind them, “Are we ready?” she asked. Greta gave Jacinda’s hand a squeeze, and they both turned and nodded. The room was crisp and quiet as the echo of the host’s high heels journeyed across the hardwood floor. The nervous knot in Greta’s stomach tightened. There was a jangling of keys, a click, and a rush of fresh air.
The evening turned into a whorl of assorted guests: there was Fay from the senior center who confessed she’d never been in an art gallery in her life, and wasn’t it a whole other world right here under her nose—she walked by this building practically every day. And there was Sam from her book club whose stutter and warm smile sparked small butterflies in her stomach and surprise at herself with how pleased she was he’d come to see her. And there was her daughter, Margaret, who Jacinda had insisted on phoning despite Greta’s protests that she’d never be interested in flying across country for such a thing. How wrong Greta had been about so much.
And then came their reactions to the painting. “Mom, wow, I never knew,” said Margaret. “It really is you!” said Fay, “I can see it in the eyes.” And Sam, with a shy blush at Greta’s naked figure, “It’s really something.”
There were Jacinda’s guests: a plump man in a grey cardigan with a plaid cap, an artist friend with a retro-flapper bob, a young girl with sparkled ribbons in her hair and a butterfly painted on her cheek who burst into the gallery as though it were a playground. Greta watched with pleasure as Jacinda graciously received compliments and marvels from the astounding array of people in her life, including familiar faces from the paintings of those whose dreams had been tapped into: the stock broker painted as a trapeze artist, the book critic saving people from a burning building, the homeless woman winning an Oscar.
One could hear the autumn leaves stirred up in the wind outside as unlikely acquaintances paired up and discussed everything from the plight of endangered leatherback turtles to baseball scores. Greta was just beginning to relax into the chaos when the lights flickered off and on again, signifying to the guests to take their seats. The hum of conversation dropped to a lull, the background jazz music was switched off, last stock-ups were made at the now disordered and enjoyed refreshment table, and the eclectic crew of attendees began to settle down to form an audience. Jacinda winked over at Greta and she made her way backstage to await her introduction.
As she stood there in the wing, she thought with amusement how, on a normal Friday night at this very time, she would have been curled up at home watching her favorite mystery series on public television, indulging in a double scoop of chocolate praline ice cream, and soaking her feet in a tub of hot water.
But instead she was here, worlds away, her knees shaking uncontrollably, butterflies now turned to voracious fanged moths preying on her insides. She never thought she’d be here again. She never thought she’d feel this crazed anticipation, the fear of her voice cracking, the terror of blanking on the words. She let herself remember why she loved it, those moments when she stepped out on stage, when all her nervous adrenalin turned to raw magic, when time stopped and all there was each moment, each note, and each charged silence between them. She promised herself to never again forget how much she wanted this. Whatever happened. She could never again be content just to be content.
Then the crowd’s welcoming applause called her out. The silver spotlight swiveled and cast a round moon on the stage in front of her, demanding that she step forward to fill it. Greta took a deep breath, stood tall, and made the move. There simply was no other way.
Maryann Ullmann is currently an MFA candidate in fiction and the 2012 Margaret L. Whitford Fellow at Chatham University in Pittsburgh and has published multi-genre work in Halfway Down the Stairs, Cultural Survival Quarterly, Whole Terrain, International Living, and Diner, among others. She travels obsessively and lived abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where she acquired an imaginary llama named Svenz who feeds on alfalfa and dulce de leche.
© 2012, Maryann Ullmann