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Authors: Elizabeth Gilbert

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“Roland, join us upstairs for dinner,”
Peg said.

He hesitated. “Aw, that’s all right, Peg.”

“Don’t worry, hon, we’ve got plenty of food. Bernadette made a big pile of meat loaf. There’s enough for everyone.”

When Olive looked as though she were going to protest something, Peg shushed her: “Oh, Olive, don’t play the governess. I can share my dinner with Roland here. He needs to put on some weight, and I need to lose some, so it works
out. Anyway, we’re semisolvent right now. We can afford to feed a few more mouths.”

We headed to the back of the theater, where a wide staircase led to the upstairs of the Lily. As we climbed the stairs, I could not stop staring at those two showgirls. Celia and Gladys. I’d never seen such beauties. I’d been around theater girls back at boarding school, but this was different. The theater girls
at Emma Willard tended to be the sort of females who never washed their hair, and always wore thick black leotards, and every single one of them thought she was Medea, at all times. I simply couldn’t bear them. But Gladys and Celia—this was a different category. This was a different
species
. I was mesmerized by their glamour, their accents, their makeup, the swing of their silk-wrapped rear ends.
And as for Roland, he moved his body just the same way. He, too, was a fluid, swinging creature. How fast they all talked! And how alluringly they threw out abbreviated hints of gossip, like bits of bright confetti.

“She just gets by on her looks!” Gladys was saying, about some girl or another.

“Not even on her looks!” Roland added. “Just on her
legs
!”

“Well, that ain’t enough!” said Gladys.

“For one more season it is,” said Celia. “
Maybe
.”

“That boyfriend of hers don’t help matters.”


That
lamebrain!”

“He keeps lapping up that champagne, though.”

“She should up and tell him!”

“He’s not exactly panting for it!”

“How long can a girl make a living as a movie usher?”

“Walking around with that nice-looking diamond, though.”

“She should try to think more reasonable.”

“She should
get herself a butter-and-egg man.”

Who were these
people
that were being talked about? What was this
life
that was being suggested? And who was this poor girl being discussed in the stairwell? How was she ever going to advance past being a mere movie usher, if she didn’t start thinking more
reasonable
? Who’d given her the diamond? Who was paying for all the champagne that was being lapped up?
I
cared
about all these things! These things mattered! And what in the world was a butter-and-egg man?

I’d never been more desperate to know how a story ended, and this story didn’t even have a plot—it just had unnamed characters, hints of wild action, and a sense of looming crisis. My heart was racing with excitement—and yours would have been, too, if you were a frivolous nineteen-year-old girl
like me, who’d never had a serious thought in her life.

We reached a dimly lit landing, and Peg unlocked a door and let us all in.

“Welcome home, kiddo,” Peg said.

“Home” in my Aunt Peg’s world consisted of the third and fourth floors of the Lily Playhouse. These were the living quarters. The second floor of the building—as I would find out later—was office space.
The ground floor, of course,
was the theater itself, which I’ve already described for you. But the third and fourth floors were
home,
and now we had arrived.

Peg did not have a talent for interior design, I could instantly see. Her taste (if you could call it that) ran toward heavy, outdated antiques, and mismatched chairs, and a lot of apparent confusion about what belonged where. I could see that Peg had the same sort
of dark, unhappy paintings on her walls as my parents had (inherited from the same relatives, no doubt). It was all faded prints of horses and portraits of crusty old Quakers. There was a fair amount of familiar-looking old silver and china spread around the place as well—candlesticks and tea sets, and such—and some of it looked valuable, but who knew? None of it look used or loved. (There were ashtrays
on every surface, though, and those certainly looked used and loved.)

I don’t want to say that the place was a hovel. It wasn’t dirty; it just wasn’t
arranged
. I caught a glance of a formal dining room—or, rather, what might have been a formal dining room in anyone else’s home, except that a Ping-Pong table had been placed right in the middle of the room. Even more curiously, the Ping-Pong table
was directly situated beneath a low-hanging chandelier, which must have made it difficult to play a game.

We landed in a generously sized living room—a big enough space that it could be overstuffed with furniture while also containing a grand piano, which was jammed unceremoniously against the wall.

“Who needs something from the bottle and jug department?” asked Peg, heading to a bar in the
corner. “Martinis? Anyone? Everyone?”

The resounding answer seemed to be:
Yes! Everyone!

Well, almost everyone. Olive declined a drink and frowned as Peg poured the martinis. It looked as though Olive were calculating the price of each cocktail down to the halfpenny—which she probably was doing.

My aunt handed me my martini as casually as if she and I had been drinking together for ages. This
was a delight. I felt quite adult. My parents drank (of course they drank; they were WASPs) but they never drank with me. I’d always had to execute my drinking on the sly. Not anymore, it seemed.

Cheers!

“Let me show you to your rooms,” Olive said.

Peg’s secretary led me down a rabbit warren and opened one of the doors. She told me, “This is your Uncle Billy’s apartment. Peg would like you
to stay here for now.”

I was surprised. “Uncle Billy has an apartment here?”

Olive sighed. “It is a sign of your aunt’s enduring affection for her husband that she keeps these rooms for him, should he need a place to stay while passing through.”

I don’t think it was my imagination that Olive said the words “enduring affection” much the same way someone else might say “stubborn rash.”

Well,
thank you, Aunt Peg, because Billy’s apartment was wonderful. It didn’t have the clutter of the other rooms I’d seen—not at all. No, this place had
style
. There was a small sitting room with a fireplace and a fine, black-lacquered desk, upon which sat a typewriter. Then there was the bedroom, with its windows facing Forty-first Street, and its handsome double bed made of chrome and dark wood.
On the floor was an immaculate white rug. I had never before stood on a white rug. Just off the bedroom was a good-sized dressing room with a large chrome mirror on the wall, and a glossy wardrobe containing not one item of clothing whatsoever. In the corner of the dressing room was a small sink. The place was spotless.

“You don’t have your own bath, unfortunately,” said Olive, as the men in
overalls were depositing my trunks and sewing machine in the dressing room. “There is a common bath across the hall. You’ll be
sharing that with Celia, as she is staying at the Lily, just for now. Mr. Herbert and Benjamin live in the other wing. They share their own bath.”

I didn’t know who Mr. Herbert and Benjamin were, but I figured I’d soon enough be finding out.

“Billy won’t be needing his
apartment, Olive?”

“I sincerely doubt it.”

“Are you very sure? If he should ever need these rooms, of course, I can go somewhere else. What I’m saying is that I don’t need anything so nice as all this. . . .”

I was lying. I needed and wanted this little apartment with all my heart, and had already laid claim to it in my imagination. This is where I would become a person of significance, I decided.

“Your uncle hasn’t been to New York City in over four years, Vivian,” Olive said, eyeballing me in that way she had—that unsettling way of making you feel as though she were watching your thoughts like a newsreel. “I trust that you can bunk down here with a certain sense of security.”

Oh, bliss!

I unpacked a few essentials, splashed some water on my face, powdered my nose, and combed my hair.
Then it was back to the clutter and chatter of the big, overstuffed living room. Back to Peg’s world, with all its novelty and noise.

Olive went to the kitchen and brought out a small meat loaf, served on a plate of dismal lettuce. Just as she had intuited earlier, this was not going to be enough of a meal for everyone in the room. Shortly, however, she reappeared with some cold cuts and bread.
She also scared up half a chicken carcass, a plate of pickles, and some containers of cold Chinese food. I noticed that somebody had opened a window and turned
on a small fan, which helped to eliminate the stuffy summer heat not in the least.

“You kids eat,” Peg said. “Take all you need.”

Gladys and Roland lit into the meat loaf like a couple of farmhands. I helped myself to some of the chop
suey. Celia didn’t eat anything, but sat quietly on one of the couches, handling her martini glass and cigarette with more panache than anything I’d ever seen.

“How was the beginning of the show tonight?” Olive asked. “I only caught the end.”

“Well, it fell short of
King Lear,
” said Peg. “But only just.”

Olive’s frown deepened. “Why? What happened?”

“Nothing happened per se,” said Peg. “It’s
just a lackluster show, but it’s nothing to lose sleep over. It’s always been lackluster. Nobody in the audience seemed unduly harmed by it. They all left the theater with the use of their legs. Anyway, we’re changing the show next week, so it doesn’t matter.”

“And the box office receipts? For the early show?”

“The less we speak of such matters the better,” said Peg.

“But what was the take,
Peg?”

“Don’t ask questions that you don’t want to know the answers to, Olive.”

“Well, I will
need
to know. We can’t keep having crowds like tonight.”

“Oh, how I love that you call it a crowd! By actual count, there were forty-seven people at the early show this evening.”

“Peg! That’s not
enough
!”

“Don’t grieve, Olive. Things always get slower in the summer, remember. Anyway, we get the audiences
we get. If we wanted to draw larger crowds, we would put on baseball games instead of plays. Or we would invest in air-conditioning. Let’s just turn our attention now toward getting the South Seas act ready for next week. We can get the
dancers rehearsing tomorrow morning, and they can be up and running by Tuesday.”

“Not tomorrow morning,” said Olive. “I’ve rented the stage out to a children’s
dance class.”

“Good for you. Resourceful as ever, old girl. Tomorrow afternoon, then.”

“Not tomorrow afternoon. I’ve rented the stage out for a swimming class.”

This caught Peg up short. “A
swimming
class? Come again?”

“It’s a program that the city is offering. They’ll be teaching children from the neighborhood how to swim.”

“To
swim
? Will they be flooding our stage, Olive?”

“Of course not.
It’s called dry swimming. They teach the classes without water.”

“Do you mean to tell me that they will teach swimming as a
theoretical concept
?”

“More or less so. Just the basics. They use chairs. The city is paying for it.”

“How about this, Olive. How about you tell Gladys when you
haven’t
rented our stage out to a children’s dance class, or to a dry swimming school, and then she can call
a rehearsal to begin working on the dances for the South Seas act?”

“Monday afternoon,” said Olive.

“Monday afternoon, Gladys!” Peg called over to the showgirl. “Did you hear that? Can you gather everyone together for Monday afternoon?”

“I don’t like rehearsing in the mornings, anyhow,” said Gladys, although I wasn’t sure this constituted a firm reply.

“It shouldn’t be hard, Gladdie,” said
Peg. “It’s just a scratch revue. Throw something together, the way you do.”

“I want to be in the South Seas show!” said Roland.

“Everyone wants to be in the South Seas show,” said Peg. “The kids
love performing in these exotic international dramas, Vivvie. They love the costumes. This year alone, we’ve had an Indian show, a Chinese maiden story, and a Spanish dancer story. We tried an Eskimo
romance last year, but it was no good. The costumes weren’t very becoming, to say the least. Fur, you know. Heavy. And the songs were not our best. We ended up rhyming ‘nice’ with ‘ice’ so many times, it made your head ache.”

“You can play one of the hula girls in the South Seas show, Roland!” Gladys said, and laughed.

“I sure am pretty enough for it!” he said, and struck a pose.

“You sure
are,” agreed Gladys. “And you’re so tiny, one of these days you’re just gonna float away. I always gotta be careful not to put you right next to me on the stage. Standing next to you, I look like a great big cow.”

“That could be because you’ve gained weight lately, Gladys,” observed Olive. “You need to monitor what you eat, or soon you won’t fit into your costumes at all.”

“What a person eats
doesn’t have
anything
to do with her figure!” Gladys protested, as she reached for another piece of meat loaf. “I read it in a magazine. What matters is how much
coffee
you drink.”

“You drink too much
booze,
” Roland cried out. “You can’t hold your liquor!”

“I surely cannot hold my liquor!” Gladys agreed. “Everybody knows
that
about me. But I’ll tell you another thing—I wouldn’t have as big a
sex life as I have, if I could hold my liquor!”

“Boot me your lipstick, Celia,” said Gladys to the other showgirl, who silently pulled out a tube from the pocket of her silk robe and handed it over. Gladys painted her lips with the most violent shade of red I’d ever seen, and then kissed Roland hard on both his cheeks, leaving big, bright imprints.

“There, Roland. Now you
are
the prettiest girl
in the room!”

Roland didn’t appear to mind the teasing. He had a face just like a porcelain doll, and to my expert eye, it looked as though he tweezed his brows. I was shocked that he didn’t even
try
to act male. When he spoke, he waved his hands around like a debutante. He didn’t even wipe off the lipstick from his cheeks! It’s almost as though he
wanted
to look like a female! (Forgive my naïveté,
Angela, but I hadn’t been around a lot of homosexuals at that point in my life. Not male ones, anyhow. Now lesbians, on the other hand—
those
I’d seen. I did spend a year at Vassar, after all. Even I wasn’t
that
oblivious.)

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