Olivia had her rituals to quiet the noise: running her hands over each leg to get her hosiery just so, only side-glancing at herself in the mirror once she was made up, reading the Brontës before shows. She tucked herself into her chair and tried to ignore the squeaking sounds of the new girls’ nerves.
It was her mother’s legs that had really drawn a crowd. Mama had started when the girls were still called Rockets, having subverted what good girls from Missouri do on their feet, those tiny, high-arched, jeweled feet. She’d high-kicked her way through Germany, to the World’s Fair, and shimmied through New York with a lethal clatter. But once she started fooling around with the choreographer, the story turned—her gait forever altered after the doctor confirmed she was just another pregnant dancer, riding a rocket back to church bazaars and her high school beau, who came home from the war short an eye and long on melancholy. Olivia never forgot the image of her mother in metallic shoes, kicking and twirling, even as she watched her chop onions for marinara.
All her life, Olivia tried to make it up to her mother by practicing herself into the legs her Mama once had, but she was too tall and too sad and preferred books to the sound of her heels hitting wood floors. Her clatter was a reaction, an effect, an homage to something beautiful she’d sucked from the world. Olivia never wanted the comparisons, never read the reviews, was content stuck in the middle of the line with the other tall girls, blending in, disappearing into the tinny bang of all those legs: up, down, up, down —a single beast with a hundred pale, curled hairdos.
But Olivia was old hat now, lasting eight years longer than her mother had. No men wooed her backstage. She met a gay poet in Greenwich who said he wanted to marry her. Maybe she’d misread his proposal, like she misread his poetry about star stuff and alley men, but she longed for an unconventional life. Belly deep in grass and Russian vodka, he said, “Let’s flee to Cuba. We’ll live like vagabonds, fight with the revolutionaries, take lovers, meet at the breakfast table in ostrich feather robes. Tell me you don’t want that. Baby, I’ll hold your face in my hands every morning, read poetry in those eyes, and never speak of your mother. Let’s leave this world to its mad ruin.”
Today’s the same sorry routine. Just shy of her retirement age —fishnets, bra, and coffee before anything. Boots and a quilted jacket for the long walk to the theater. By the time the other girls arrive, she is in her book. She needs this time, her ritual where she lives in words and rolls in dreams of men named Heathcliff, of men who offer to love her for being too tall, men who never want her to show them her high kick. But she won’t call for those men. She’s more comfortable with her poet, who meets her after the matinee on Sundays, takes her to diners, and makes his pleas for their escape.
Beth Gilstrap is the author of I Am Barbarella: Stories (Twelve Winters Press, 2015) and No Man’s Wild Laura (Hyacinth Girl Press, forthcoming 2016). She serves as Fiction Editor of Little Fiction. She has been awarded residencies at The Vermont Studio Center and The Cabin at Shotpouch Creek through Oregon State University’s Spring Creek Project for ideas, nature, and the written word. Her work has appeared in Quiddity, Ambit, The Minnesota Review, Literary Orphans, and Synaesthesia Magazine, among others. She lives in Charlotte with her husband and enough rescue pets to make life interesting. http://bethgilstrap.com/publications/