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People had begun to ask questions.
Are you planning to get a mortgage? How come you’re still single? What’s next on the agenda?
Big things, she’d told them, big things. That was when she decided to become a lounge singer, placed an ad on craigslist: beautiful female seeks accomplice with enchanted fingers for dreamy evenings playing covers.
That first night, in the dank, dive bar basement, the shadows collected, cringed at her pitchy notes, her cut too-low dress, the moment when she clambered onto the gleaming piano, seal-like, sheened in nervous sweat; a satin shoe slipped off. Yet she survived, and there was even applause from the shabby tiffany lamp-lit crowd and the manager demanded a reprise performance that turned into a residency, a nightly routine, a way of living, a private society; shadows retreated.
She mumbled about the weather between songs, asking the expanding audience how it was up there — mostly they didn’t reply and she’d segue serenely into the next number, her stroke-of-luck maestro’s dexterous hands always hovering, ready to press down on those magic ivories the second she recommenced her lethargic croon.
Over time, her voice blossomed, became nuanced, silken highs and lion purr lows that caressed the room’s softening lobes, punters got luckier and luckier the more they frequented the place, where she became a staple then the soul attraction. The staff shook the cocktails for far too long.
Her commitment was profound. A mystery seamstress designed her a different gown for every night of the week. She never smiled, her mournful eyes made to appear even more mournful with heavy powder – a morose diva giving art-deco sadness, cheeks sharp in blue stage-lighting, lipstick matched to her dresses, pretty shades: velvet plum, pearlescent peach, moon gleam, wine stain. It was as though she had spent her entire life living in a chrysalis and finally emerged impossibly beautiful, but broken-winged.
A mattress appeared in the backstage room along with a surplus of half-burned candles and wilted flowers positioned among grime-coated extension leads, the cat called Vivien tip-toeing between them; apple cores accumulated in the corner. The lounge singer would come out to perform the same nightly repertoire and go away again. She never stayed to talk to anyone but sometimes, before her set, she would quietly sip a whisky sour perched on a stool at the jelly-red bar. The bar staff noted her singed cuffs and curls.
All who witnessed her performance felt like they had become part of a strange and romantic movie. They liked the feeling. In this way, every performance was a gift, one that could be taken away and unspooled in memory, a souvenir the singer gave nightly; nostalgia for something that had never been. As time went by, she grew pale, her voice became thin, a yearning ache, a wish.
After she disappeared, leaving nothing but a trail of sequins behind, the manager swore blind he’d get her back, that he’d find her and convince her to return. That he didn’t know her name only occurred to him once he began looking. My cover girl has gone, he kept repeating, like an incantation that might summon her back to him.
The new girl he got to replace her wasn’t nearly so successful. She wasn’t authentic, the customers said, not like the old one. They didn’t feel like they knew this new one at all.