I - Sacramento
The lights blared in Vivian’s eyes, distorting her reflection in the foil mirror. As she dabbed the empty make-up brush over her cheeks, already blushed backstage, she wondered if the audience could see the pallor beneath her mask of make-up. Would Conrad see it? He always saw right through her.
She exaggerated her smile until her cheeks brushed the false lashes on her lower lids. It didn’t matter. The show must go on. She listened for the heavy stomp of Conrad's leather boots on the stage's wooden floorboards and ignored the way her heart felt like it was pulling against invisible seams. What was taking him so long? Vivian tried to banish visions of him backstage, tangled in Sandra’s embrace. She longed to return to the peace she’d felt ten minutes ago, before she knew.
“Are you okay, honey?” her understudy, Aimee, had asked as Vivian adjusted her sparkling costume jewelry in the real mirror of her backstage dressing room.
“Perfect, dear.” She twirled and adjusted the plunging neckline of her silk dressing gown. “Why?”
Aimee brought her hand to her mouth. “You didn’t know? I was sure you must have seen…”
“Know what?” Vivian's eyes narrowed in the mirror as she looked at Aimee’s reflection hovering over her shoulder. “Know what?” she repeated more loudly over the obnoxious silence.
“I’m sorry. There’s no time to get into it. I’ll tell you after your scene.”
“If something is happening, I don’t want to be the last to know,” Vivian had demanded. “You brought it up, now spill it.”
“I guess it’s best you hear it from me,” Aimee conceded with a sigh. “It’s Conrad. He’s dating one of the chorus girls. I’m sorry, honey.”
Vivian bristled under the warm hand Aimee laid on her shoulder. “Why should that bother me?” Her smile never faded, even as the room began to spin.
“I just thought you two–”
“We’ve been separated for almost three weeks. He can do whatever he likes. Or whomever.” Vivian smoothed the hair around her face, keeping her eyes glued to the mirror as she asked, “Which chorus girl?”
“Sandra,” Aimee answered through clenched teeth.
Vivian sighed. Of course, Sandra: long hair, long legs, and never a long way away. She’d sit right in front of Vivian and Conrad on the tour bus, her hearty laugh the soundtrack for their drive down the West Coast.
Vivian watched the color drain from her cheeks. She reached blindly over her dressing table and grabbed a make-up brush. “Good for him,” she said, dabbing a fresh layer of blush over her cheeks.
“That’s right, honey!” Aimee trilled. “You’re okay, then?”
“Perfectly fine.” Vivian ignored the cold feeling in her chest. She grabbed a sponge and started blending the angry red into her cheeks. “We’re both professionals.”
It was only half a lie. She would be fine, she told herself as the spotlights filled her stinging eyes. An actress can be anything she wants to be.
“Your fans must have heard you’d be appearing in person. They’re staying away in droves!” With a loud stomp, Conrad invaded the scene from stage left. His voice rang out deep and arrogant.
Nothing had changed, Vivian reminded herself. When she took a deep breath and began her lines, she felt herself transform into hot-tempered diva Lilli Vanessi. “Do you know what day this is, Fred? It’s our anniversary and you’ve forgotten.”
He came close enough that she could smell him, a mix of sweat and cologne. “What anniversary?”
“The first anniversary of our divorce.”
The sound of her own voice, chipper and smug, reassured her. Vivian and Conrad had performed together flawlessly as feuding ex husband and wife on twenty-four stages as their production of Kiss Me, Kate toured the Western United States. Their electric on-stage chemistry had launched them into a passionate real-life relationship, and then survived an amicable break-up. It could survive this, too, Vivian told herself. “That was the season we played the Barter Theater in Virginia…” Her lines came like muscle memory.
“...and they gave you a ham…” She looked closely at him. Conrad seemed his normal self. She could always see through him, too, beyond his character, into his moods. “I was understudying the lead…” he said. He was overacting, just a little. She saw the stiffness in his shoulder as he flung his arm dramatically into the air.
“No, dear. We were both in the chorus.” She counterbalanced him with a flat, understated reply and savored laughter from the audience, hidden somewhere behind that light. Did he notice the way she stressed “chorus”? Did he know she knew?
If he did, he didn’t show it. They were still a team on stage. “Wunderbar!” they exclaimed in unison.
And it was wunderbar–wonderful–their voices and their feet weaving around one another, lithe, playful, energetic as they danced their waltz.
Then the orchestra slowed. Conrad picked up her hand as usual and drew her in close. She could feel the warmth of his body through her thin dressing gown, but instead of meeting her gaze, he looked over her shoulder into the darkness beyond their spot lit bubble. She stared into his tight jaw and willed his eyes back to her own as they slowly swayed together.
Everything was fine on the outside. “What a bright shining star…” their voices blended and danced through the air together. “Like our love is…wunderbar.”
But something was very wrong. A knot formed in her stomach as Vivian closed her eyes and leaned in for their kiss. She felt his thumbs cover her lips, forming a barrier between them.
A stage kiss? That bastard!
“What happened to us, Fred?” Vivian couldn’t help the indignant edge that sharpened her voice. Tenderly, she reminded herself.
“I don’t know.” Conrad gave a thin, apologetic smile she’d never seen before. And was that a shrug? Fred Graham did not shrug. Conrad Evans was breaking character.
“Whose fault was it?” Did her voice convey the panic that ballooned inside of her, Vivian wondered? This was not wunderbar; it wasn’t even good.
“We should get dressed,” he said. He sounded too eager. Conrad dropped her hand and walked into the darkness. Vivian tried not to imagine Sandra greeting him in his dressing room.
II - San Francisco
“Do you know what day this is, Fred?” Vivian said when the murmur of the audience had dimmed. It was a packed house. “Our anniversary and you’ve forgotten.” She let the vitriol pour into her accusation.
Their scene was running hot–she knew it. Like an overexposed photograph. The energy was off and she didn’t care. She wanted to stab him in the heart by staring daggers. After what he'd done–making out with Sandra in the back of the tour bus like some horny teen-ager the whole drive to San Francisco. Still not a word to her off stage, but his message came through loud and clear.
“The anniversary of our divorce. And I have a little remembrance for you.” She picked up a cork from her dressing table and thrust it into his hand.
“Why do you think I married you?” Conrad tried to laugh off her bitterness. He tilted his head, a warning. “...and they gave you that ham.” He picked up her hand. That was unusual, at least at this point in the script. Was he going to throw the scene away again?
She pulled her hand free and walked downstage, countering his unrehearsed gesture with her own. “We lived on it all winter.” She didn’t know where she’d go next.
"No, dear, we were both in the chorus!” She spat her line. She was tired of Conrad remembering things wrong. Or failing to remember at all–the way he’d told her You’re the only woman I’ll ever love, and the only artist I’ve ever worshiped, even off stage as he caressed her hair, stroked her neck.
It was too quiet for too long. “I believe there was a waltz in that show?” Conrad interrupted her thoughts by prompting her own line.
I was about to get there, Vivian fumed to herself. But you’re not one to be patient. “Yes!” She said out loud. Too loud. “Something about a bar!”
“Wunderbar!” he declared without her.
Great, just leave me behind, she said with the daggers in her stare.
It sounded natural enough. No one in the audience would catch the mix-up unless they’d already seen the show ten times before. Actors rescued each other all the time. But this was not how it was supposed to go.
Conrad gripped her waist firmly as he pulled her in for their waltz. He thinks he can control me…Vivian gripped his forearm with her fingernails as she sang “Wunderbar! There’s our fav’rite star above!” She watched him wince under his strained smile. He gripped her more tightly and she stomped on his toe before spinning out of reach.
“Say you care, dear!” she commanded.
“For you madly!” Not madly enough.
He was down on one knee, and it still wasn’t enough. It was just an act. What if it always had been?
He kissed her hand, squeezing it inside of his. “And you’re mine, dear.” His eyes held hers and she could barely contain the mix of feelings that wrestled inside her chest. She channeled them into the winding coloratura that enveloped his lyrics. She screamed in his ear as she grasped his shoulder and leaned in. He had nowhere to go until the orchestra swelled into its solo and he spun her out. They twisted and turned across the stage in broad, heavy steps.
The orchestra’s pause seemed to last for measures before he drew her in for their slow waltz and rested his forehead against hers. She could feel his message in the hand that caressed her back: Calm down.
Vivian let her hand slide slowly down his ascot, and through the opening of his dressing gown, to rest on his chest. She felt her breathing slow.
“Wunderbar, wunderbar!” they sang in unison. And when he kissed her, it really was wonderful.
III - Los Angeles
It had not been a flop. The reviewer for the Chronicle had called it “fresh” and “passionate” and Vivian was filled with new hope. If she played her role just right, she could make him forget all about Sandra.
“Do you know what day it is, Fred? Our anniversary.” She smiled sweetly.
“What anniversary?” Conrad asked absently, and she heard a murmur of laughter ripple through the audience at his rebuff.
“The anniversary of our divorce, and I have a little remembrance for you…” She strutted up to him, opened his flaccid palm, and placed the cork inside with a flirtatious smile.
“Well, it’s just what I’ve always wanted.” He held the cork up and examined it with his back turned to her.
“From our first bottle of champagne.” She would make him remember. She pressed her body against his back and ran a hand over his shoulder.
“How could I forget?” He sighed and shook his head.
She would get through to him. Was there anyone else who could respond to him like she could? Play off him, compensate for him? Not Sandra.
“It was right after we closed in that Viennese operetta…No, dear, we were both in the chorus…” She kept her tone sweet, inviting. They would find their rhythm.
They did, when the orchestra started to play. “Wunderbar!”
It would be. Vivian leaned into him and stroked the hair at the nape of his neck. “Not a cloud near or far, why it’s truly wunderbar.”
Why had they separated in the first place? It had been a mistake. He would see.
“Say you care, dear!”
And she believed him when he proclaimed “madly.”
They swayed and he held her, gently. She touched his cheek and tilted her lips up to receive the kiss that she’d waited days for. Her whole body trembled with the ache of that longing.
But the lips that met hers were hard and lifeless. Their touch was perfunctory–convincing enough for an audience, but it did nothing to convince Vivian.
“What happened to us, Fred?” She had tried her best. Her voice quavered as her hopes crumbled into a heavy mess at the bottom of her stomach.
“I don’t know,” Conrad said, his voice soft and sad. His face was pale. “We’d better get dressed.”
IV - San Diego
Vivian stared at the program insert until the words on the page blurred: The role of Lilli Vanessi will be played tonight by Aimee LaPeer.
She sank onto the dressing room divan, nestling her cheek into its warm velvet. It was the right choice. She needed a break from it all–from Conrad and their nightly estrangement and reunion. She didn’t have the strength to proclaim her undying love anymore; the charade had become insufferable.
A light knock on the dressing room door brought Vivian to her feet. “Just a minute, hon,” she called. “I’m dropping off a couple of costume pieces, then I’ll be out of your hair. The room will be yours.”
“Viv?” It wasn’t Aimee’s voice on the other side of the door. “Can I come in a minute?” Conrad asked timidly.
Vivian's stomach dropped to her knees. She was always surprised by how much softer his real voice was than his stage voice. She looked in the mirror and dragged a smile up from somewhere deep inside. “I’m decent. Come in.”
“Hello.” He seemed unsure of what to do with his hands as he looked around the room. He ran one hand absently over the top of the vanity.
“Well? To what do I owe the pleasure?”
“I wanted to check on you. I saw the announcement.” He paused and looked closely at her. “Are you okay?”
“Fine.” Vivian sat back down on the divan, her spine straight. “Just tired.”
“I know it’s been a rough few weeks,” Conrad said, shoving a hand in his pocket. “I should have come by sooner. This whole thing has been harder than I thought it would be.”
“It doesn’t seem like you’ve had such a hard time,” Vivian said.
Conrad looked away. “It’s hard to break up with someone when you get back together on stage every night.”
Vivian let her smile collapse into a wry laugh. “I know exactly what you mean. I thought I’d give us both a break.”
“I hope you’ll be back,” he said.
“Don’t say things you don’t mean. There’s no one here to perform for.”
“I do!” he insisted. “You’re the only artist I’ve ever worshiped. Even when you miss a beat, it’s like you’re creating a whole new song.”
Those words stabbed Vivian, but she would not let herself bleed. Not in front of him. “It helps to have a good partner.” She sighed. “We were always better as Fred and Lilli than as Conrad and Vivian, weren’t we?”
“It’s how I knew we’d never work out,” he said. “We could never match that off stage.”
“We can say so much through their words. But this…” Vivian waved her hand across the dressing room. “Unscripted life is more complicated. It’s so easy to say the wrong thing.”
“But it’s important to give yourself the chance.” Conrad put his hand over hers. “I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to talk with you.”
“You’ve been busy.” Vivian stood up and walked across the room, away from the warmth of his hands. “A bit tongue-tied lately, no?”
Conrad brushed an invisible lock of sandy hair from his forehead. “I know. Like I said, it’s been harder than I thought. Anyway, I hope we can keep…”
“I can be very professional,” Vivian said.
“Of course,” he fumbled. “That’s what I mean. And you are. We are. And if you need me to let my understudy take over for a while, I will. It doesn’t have to fall completely on you.”
“Thank you,” Vivian said. “That’s very professional.”
“You know, I care a great deal about you. I always will. But after this show? You’ll be on to the next thing.”
“I will. And so will you. It won’t be the same without you, but onward and upward.” She fought the trembling in her lower lip.
“Because you love the spotlight even more than you love me.” He was close. She could smell him.
Vivian laughed. “I suspect the sentiment is mutual.”
“That’s what I love about you. You always get me.” He kissed her forehead, and for a moment she let her hand linger on his chest.
Another knock on the door made Vivian pull back into her own body. “Just a moment!” she called over her shoulder.
She looked back up at Conrad. “Break a leg,” she told him with a squeeze of his hand. “I hope you break one for each of us.” She turned and grabbed a canvas bag from the dressing table. “Thank you. Now, you should get dressed.”