The Isis Lounge has a real dressing room mirror—the kind outlined with a blaze of bare bulbs. That’s one of the things I like about it. To me, it just screams professionalism with 1500 watts. It shows respect for the performers. It doesn’t matter so much that here backstage we have fans heaving through summer nights, trying to breathe some fresh air into the old building, or that, in the fall, shimmering termite wings dust the vanity when I arrive. The place smells like vodka and old pan stick and even older sheet music—sixty years of nighttime absorbed in the faded green carpet. And then there’s the mirror.
I arrive through the back door of the Isis Lounge and I feel like a star before I even take off my daytime uniform—the slacks, the button-up shirt, or the t-shirt I might have thrown on in that liminal space between day and night. I trade it now for a silver sequined gown, then I sit down at the mirror, flip on the lights, and get to work.
My reflection shows a nose too broad and lips too thin, limp, mousy-brown hair, and blue eyes with crow’s feet beginning to scratch patterns at their corners and over my cheeks. But I can change that; I know how to re-shape my face and recreate myself. In the mirror, I become Ava Pulchritude, cabaret goddess.
The stress of the day disappears under a thick layer of foundation. The time for unengaged students who look everywhere but at me, and their uninspired essays I graded until sunset, has disappeared under the dark sky. Now I blend away the years, the lines, the scars with a triangular sponge. I cover the worry lines between my brows, the small crater in my left temple where a chicken pock ruptured thirty years ago, the thin white line on my right cheek from the first time I got punched. Ava’s face is flawless, serene, a blank canvas for feeling and music to color.
Next I highlight my T-line with white to contour my face. I am a sculptor with the power to carve, refine, reveal the beauty inside. I move deftly after years of practice. I know my face and the lines and brush strokes that connect it to Ava’s face. The muffled piano down the hall tells me I’m right on track as I powder and set.
The spotlight will wash you out—expose your insufficiencies and flaws. I have to be bigger and brighter than the light.
Now the eyes. That’s the most important part. The eyes communicate so much. The audience wants to be able to see into them, so they need to be open, alive. If they can’t see your eyes, you lose them.
I brush a base of brown over the lids and add white under the brow bone, redefining the landscape of my eyes through tricks of light and shadow. I shade the outside corners and the creases in smokey blues and purples, then extend my eyes with a swooping wing drawn in one confident swoop of the blue liner pencil.
“Blue eyes are the hardest to see on stage,” Daisy Gardner told me long ago. My first mentor, back at the Poisoned Parakeet, who blended the lines my foundation made around my jaw—an amateur’s mask—and calmed the garish green of my lids. “No one can see you under this…” I was nineteen, but I felt like the little four-year-old kid again, who smeared on the makeup Mom left on the bathroom counter.
“People look right through blue eyes,” Daisy said. “You have to give them something to latch onto,” and she painted this shimmering progression of blue that spread the light in my eyes across my face.
There’s no such thing as blue pigment in the eyes. It’s all a reflection, an illusion. Blue eyes are blue like the sky or the ocean—they reflect the light. So much of life is an illusion. I’ve learned ways of tricking the light, making it reveal only what I want to show.
I finish contouring my face with bronzer under my cheekbones and chin, framing the bridge of my nose, using shadow like a scalpel. I trace a dark liner outside the natural boundaries of my lips.
“Fifteen minutes to call time.” Gus sticks his shining cue ball head through the doorway.
In the mirror’s reflection I take him in, one beefy hand holding the door frame. “It’s a rowdy crowd tonight,” he says. “Good luck, hon.”
“Guess I’ll have to dial up the charm,” I say.
“There you go! Charm their socks off.” The proprietor knocks on the wooden frame.
“They’re going to be taking off more than their socks when I’m through with them.” In the mirror, I smile at Gus—my slow, wide smile that critics have called captivating. I finish filling my lips with an intense berry shade: Tumultuous.
“Hats off to you, Ava. There’s a reason you’re my closing act,” Gus says before he disappears into the shadows down the hall.
I close one eye and gently apply my lashes. I hate a rowdy audience. They remind me of my high schoolers. But here at the Isis Lounge, I have more crowd control tools at my disposal—my body, my art, my voice. I’m larger than life and shielded by dark and pan stick and piano. I’ll handle them—turn their energy inward. That’s what I do.
The finishing touches—I adjust my wig until a fringe of black bangs hovers over my brow and a smooth bob hugs my jaw line. Tonight calls for my security blanket: the boa. I fluff the pink and purple feathers, the colors of sunset, and then disappear into their mass.
It was always easier in a feather boa. I remember wrapping Heather Ratliff’s over my shoulders at the cast party, after the recital. We were all parodying each other’s songs (we’d heard them enough times in rehearsals). I disappeared into the soft pile of feathers. They made my voice sultry and soft as I began my interpretation of Heather’s Maybe This Time, lavish twirls of the boa around my hip, an exaggerated shoulder roll—or at least it felt exaggerated until I got into it.
Lady Peaceful, Lady Happy, that’s what I long to be… and I felt that longing take over. It was exactly what I wanted to be. I felt it in my toes, in my fingertips, in the way my thighs tightened and dipped as I belted out the final notes: Maybe this time…
This was my time. I had been a lackluster Curly McLain in a cowboy hat, but here I shined.
“Holy crap,” Heather sighed. “I think you did that better than me.”
Heather (petite little fairy!) was four sizes smaller than me. She had nothing to offer me but the boa, and a blessing. “It’s yours,” she said. The feathers, the act, the longing.
Some people give themselves completely to the longing. They become Lady Happy. Some of them truly are happy. Not me. Ava Pulchritude lives only at night. Her voice is meant for soft lights, sultry piano chords, the clink of glassware, lipstick on bar napkins. She wears the night like a cloak laced with starry sequins.
The light can burn. Too much light and you can’t see straight. Daisy Gardner, for instance, died eight years ago. Overdose.
During the day there are other voices. My voice—my daytime voice—drones. I lose the students. I see my audience drift off. They write notes, doodle in margins, whisper to friends across the aisle. I see their eyes lost in other thoughts.
Maybe if Hamlet had a piano tinkling chord progressions under his soliloquy, if they could hear him reach for that high B flat at the peak of his agony, then maybe they would listen.
I talk less in class, ask more questions.
“You ready?” Gus interrupts my thoughts from the doorway, tapping thick fingers on the wood. “Come on, you’re making me nervous.”
“Beauty is a tough master,” I tell him as I flip a flaming tail of feathers over my shoulder and follow Gus into the darkness.
I’m not nervous. I got over that long ago, but I still feel a certain electric buzz in my collar bone, in my fingertips.
I have a routine in the wings, in those final moments before I take the stage. I gaze over the shadowed audience and look for one person to sing to. Maybe the bored man staring into his half-empty beer mug. His wife dragged him here, I can tell. She’s dressed up in a low-cut cocktail dress that she probably wears once a year. She holds her martini glass carefully around the stem with three fingers. She doesn’t care that he’s not excited; she just needed a warm body with her. He doesn’t get it, but he’s here. If I can make him understand what brings me up to the stage, make him feel what’s inside of me, inspire him to go home and fuck that wife—well, it’ll be a good night for all of us.
Tonight I survey the audience while I can, before they’re lost behind the spotlight. It’s a young crowd, college kids trickling back in for the summer, money from temporary jobs as waiters or file clerks burning holes in their pockets. I note the sparkle of empty glasses on the round tables.
“Ladies and Gentlemen…”
Gus transforms under the spotlight, too. His voice stretches like taffy. His chest puffs and his feet are light.
“Give a warm welcome to our leading lady, Ava Pulchritude!”
I hear a polite smattering of applause, and then a call that chills me: “Mister Polk!”
It was quick—an obnoxious male hoot—but it was too clear to miss. It’s followed by cheers and whistles.
It’s only a matter of habit that my feet step out onto the dark stage. I don’t look at their faces anymore. For almost ten years I’ve kept my daytime life and my nighttime life separate. Alvin Polk and Ava Pulchritude are two people who never meet, except in that dressing room mirror.
I don’t know what will happen to either of them right now, with the secret apparently out. All I know is that I am a professional. I strike a pose before the spotlight swallows me, but I let the piano vamp for a few extra measures while I collect myself.
“Mister Polk!” The same voice calls. This could all fall apart.
Here in the spotlight, I am alone with myself. All I can see is the glint of my sequins and the tips of my false lashes. I am Ava, and the show must go on. Make them feel it.
Living in the shadows, hiding from the sunlight, hiding from the one light that might help to guide you...
I dig into Henry Mancini's low notes, shading the song with my own uncertainty. My voice does not break, but it feels fragile.
Still, I sing and I remember why I do it. Here, blind on stage, I become notes and feelings; I am music and emotion, cut free from a body that’s too heavy, too rough, too achy. I become the spirit that stirs the corners of their eyes, that makes them reach for the person next to them, slows their breathing and quickens their heartbeats. I become pure beauty.
No, not pure. Not like some aria. It's more complex. It's a beauty that weaves together the pieces of me—the mirror, longing, the fear, the electricity.
I can't see where that voice came from, but I want to make him feel everything. Here, I can make him listen. I am bigger than the light.
Pulchritude is the ugliest word I can think of for beauty. That's why I chose it—because beauty isn't always pretty. Sometimes it's just achingly true.
Tonight I admit the truth. My voice builds and soars up to the climactic A, hovers, and drifts back down.
Soon you will be seeing what you're all about. Living in the shadows, you'll never find out.
The room is quiet after my voice and the piano fade away. I can’t see their faces beyond the spotlight. I hold my final pose for two seconds, three, four. I wait until the room erupts in applause.