PRIMA DONNA by Julia Sand
DONNA TOLD HER HUSBAND and her daughter to go screw themselves and hurled a dish against the kitchen wall; it exploded and she crushed the splinters with her heel.
“Sweetheart,” said Tim.
“Screw you, Tim. Marrying you was the worst mistake of my life!” Her bag was over her shoulder, her keys were stabbed into the ignition of their old blue Chevy. “And you, Bethany, I wish you'd never been born.”
Bethany was slumped against the porch swing, sullen and ugly. Donna screeched out of the driveway, scattering a spray of lime rock dust. She drove to The Manatee Playhouse, where her real family was waiting.
Donna Trebor (Once Donna Marsh, always the star of any stage) was Citrus County's sweetheart. She had been discovered by Trudy Bigelowski three years ago, when Trudy cast her as Maria in The Manatee Playhouse's production of The Sound of Music.
“You're too old,” Bethany had said when Donna snipped out the casting call from the Chronicle's Entertainment section. “Maria is nineteen.” But Donna was beautiful and looked to be in her mid-20s, not her mid-30s; everyone said so. And when Donna stood on The Manatee's stage that first time, when she opened her mouth and sang People, when the retirees and skittery high school girls had beat their hands together, when they’d said: “Trudy, that's our Maria!” everything—everything black and miserable—had melted away.
She'd been their Maria: sold out performances, a first in The Manatee's history. She'd been their Aldonza, their Eliza Doolittle, and their Anna Leonowens, too. Their vampy Velma Kelly last fall. Their luscious Sally Bowles this past spring. Never mind that the stage had been too small to host Cabaret, that the set designers—Crystal River High students—had made the Kit-Kat Klub look like a biker bar. Never mind that Todd Fleming, the retired oncologist playing Cliff, was a tone-deaf geriatric robot. Joe Santos, the Tampa Bay Times' theater critic, was the one who mattered, the one who wrote, “Donna Trebor: the saving grace of community theaters everywhere. Cast her in everything, please.”
And Trudy did. Trudy was a retired drama teacher from New York City; had been a Rockette in the 50s or so she said, anyway—the woman was a lipsticked troll; you couldn't for love or money imagine her line-kicking. But she knew theater like nobody else and, thanks to her, Donna couldn't go to the bank without getting recognized.
There was the way Donna's heels crunched over the sawdust on the floor during rehearsals; the way her nose drank in the paint fumes; how her pulse fluttered when she waited, breathless, behind the curtain. The flurried costume changes under the florescent lights. Ma ma ma ma ma. Mi mi mi mi mi... Tonight, Liat (Jessica Proux: CRHS Sophomore) brought in homemade Snickerdoodles. Tonight, the SeaBees tramped on the stage—There is nothing like a dame!—and their boots thundered like a rain of cheerful bullets. And then, at nine-thirty, Trudy called rehearsal. Donna could have danced all night. But Donna kissed everyone’s cheeks, allowing Lieutenant Cable (Brandon) to smell the drops of Gucci Poison on her neck. Donna gathered her script and her purse. And then she drove back to the little white house on Venable; shutting off the ignition in the driveway. Listening to the hum of the no-see-ums. The thudding of her heart. Tim and Bethany would be in bed: Bethany with a book under her covers, Tim in his pajamas, waiting for her. Donna opened the Chevy's door. The perfume of wet lawn pierced her lungs as her heels crunched through the palm fronds. Donna passed the kitchen and saw that the light in Bethany's room was on, but, as usual, the door was shut. She sensed the shapeless mass of her husband's body in the dark as she crossed their bedroom and locked the bathroom door behind her. She removed her makeup—Donna had only used Pond's cold cream since becoming an actress. She unlatched the bathroom door; took off her clothes and tugged on a nightshirt, slipping beneath the sheets. Tim's body was warm.
“Hi,” he said.
“Hi,” she said.
He opened his arms. She faced the wall.
Tim woke Donna with kisses on the shoulder and a timid hand between her legs. Drowsy and irritated, she tried to remember the last time they'd had sex, her rule being that if she couldn't place the occasion, it was only fair to submit.
She couldn't remember.
“Mmmm,” said Tim, sliding on top. Donna considered faking pleasure, or even an orgasm—an acting exercise. She settled for patting Tim on the back.
“Oh, Sugar,” Tim said, shuddering and flushed.
Donna held her breath until he rolled off. He opened his arms.
“You'll be late,” she said.
Tim said nothing, as Donna knew he wouldn't. That was Tim, non-confrontational to the end.
“Go,” Donna said, flapping the bedcovers.
Tim rose heavily and plodded to the closet; the shuffle of slacks and button-downs, the clink of metal belt buckles. Donna looked up at the ceiling: popcorn stucco from the 70s they couldn't replace because Tim wouldn't ask his boss at the accounting firm for a raise. To think his shyness had been what initially won her over. Tall and lanky, with a cleft in his chin that had made Donna think he'd one day be strapping like Burt Reynolds; the poor man turned red every time she walked past him. Donna had liked that, as well as the fact that he didn't paw her like the other men she had dated, or like her schizo mother's parade of deadbeat redneck lovers. Tim had had a rough childhood, too, weathering the rages of an alcoholic father who regularly put his mother in the ER. They'd shared those sad old stories at the diner where Donna poured coffee, finishing each other's sentences. Yes, Donna thought, twisting in her bedsheets. That's it. That's what she would tell the interviewers when they asked; her, in a chic black dress on a plush red couch and them, pens and notebooks in hand, hanging on her every word in front of a live studio audience.
INTERVIEWER: And then, Donna? What happened in 1981?
DONNA MARSH: We got married.
INTERVIEWER: Why so young, Donna?
DONNA MARSH: I'm still not sure. He was sweet. He'd had a hard childhood, too. [No, better to say this:] I’m still not sure. I guess when you're 20, you don't realize your true potential. [Perfect.]
INTERVIEWER: When did you realize that you deserved more out of life?
Donna didn't need a thoughtful pause or sip of water for that one: the honeymoon in Boca. When there was the mix up with their honeymoon suite at The Flamingo and Tim didn't fight it so they spent the week in a whitewashed cell with a twin bed. When Donna got pregnant.
"Sugarbear," said Tim. The ends of his burgundy tie dangled around his neck. Donna lay back in bed, her arm slung over her eyes. "Sweetheart?"
"Fine," Donna sat up, her nightgown slipping over her shoulders. She tied the tie.
"Thank you, Sweetheart."
"Don't be late."
Donna heard Tim's shoes tramp across the hall carpet: "Pretty Girl?" That was what he called Bethany. Of all things.
"You have breakfast?"
"Cocoa Pebbles in manatee milk."
"Wisegal. Say goodbye to your mother."
The screen door slammed and Donna was, at last, alone. She lay in bed, soaking up the sunlight. Then she pushed off the covers; shed her nightgown as she went to the bathroom, leaving it on the floor behind her.
As the steam crept up the bathroom mirror, she studied her naked body. She still had the knockout shape, but the skin on her belly was saggy; the fleshy crescents on the bottom of her breasts kissed her ribcage. Bethany's fault, of course. And Tim's, for doing it to her. In the shower, she ran her hands over herself under the hot rush of water and thought of Brandon; the way his lips curled each time she looked at him. She closed her eyes. She let the steam seep into her mouth.
INTERVIEWER: It's an understatement to say that you've inspired millions, Donna. But what inspired you to become an actress?
DONNA MARSH: Well, I always loved playing pretend. My mother wasn't well—mentally, I mean. She had these terrible rages where she'd throw plates and my father couldn't take it, so he left. Her lovers pawed me, one after another, and she knew but she never cared. Whenever my mother started screaming or one of them put his hands on me, I pretended I was a princess in a tower. Or a mermaid in the sea. Or a butterfly in the sky. Anywhere far away. Anything beautiful. I guess I got pretty good at it.
Steam. Steam. Running her fingers over her arms, stroking the soap away from her shoulders.
INTERVIEWER: That is so very moving, Donna! It must have been very difficult at times.
DONNA MARSH: It was. My father wouldn't send money and with her problems, my mother could only get janitor work. She didn't believe in dreams. She didn't believe in my talent. She always said I was no good, just wasting time. “You'll never be anything, Donna. You're just a cheap slut, just making a fool of yourself.” Soon, I didn't believe in myself, either.
Yes, Donna, perfect. Tear up when you say that. Momma will be watching from inside her sad trailer; everyone will. Donna ran the shampoo through her hair. She sang "Memory." She sounded wonderful.
INTERVIEWER: You always knew that you were meant to be in front of a camera, Donna. But when did you discover your incredible singing talent?
That answer was easy, too. Well, Donna would say, leaning back on the red couch, looking firmly into the camera. I always had a voice. I just decided to let other people stop stifling it.
Donna did the grocery shopping on Wednesdays. She liked to go right after lunch, when she was less prone to buy figure-spoiling snacks. A moment on the lips, forever on the hips: the only sane thing her mother had ever said. Donna pushed her shopping cart through the wide aisles of the supermarket. A pinwheel of Publix deli ham and a wedge of Publix brand Pepper Jack today. Three cans of green beans, two frozen blocks of spinach, and four loaves of Wonder Bread on sale. The wheels of the cart dragged along the linoleum, begged her to steer towards the bakery, where the cupcakes lay in wait. Be strong, Donna.
Donna looked up. It was a man, tall and slender, with wide shoulders. He looked like a celebrity in his crisp navy blazer, white V-necked T-shirt, and jeans. Aviator sunglasses were pushed up through his thick brown hair. His mouth was twisted into a playful grin.
“Sorry,” Donna said. The wheels of her shopping cart stuck; she saw that he had stopped it with his shoe.
"You have nothing to be sorry for, Donna Trebor,” he said. “I've been hoping to run into you. I'm Mack Newland.”
The name was vaguely familiar, like she'd read it in a church bulletin. A bottle of red wine was under the crook of Mack Newland's arm. A packet of Marlboro Reds was in his hand.
“I'm an actor, too,” he said. "I knew we'd meet one of these days."
"I've never seen you before," said Donna. "And I've been in every show since '92."
"I know," said Mack. "I just moved out here from Orlando this past summer. And no offense, but I don't do The Manatee. I'm a professional actor."
"We're all professionals at The Manatee," said Donna.
"Look, toots,” said Mack Newland. “You retirees, schoolkids, and housewives may have fun. I hear you put on some cute little shows in your sandbox. But professional actors get paid."
"It was nice meeting you," said Donna.
"Hey," said Mack Newland. His foot pressed insistently against her cart wheels. "No offense meant, darlin'. From what I hear, you are professional material."
Donna's cheeks prickled; her knuckles slackened on the handle of her cart.
"You've got a face and a body that belong on camera," said Mack Newland. "You know Martin Scorsese, the director? Taxi, Goodfellas? I was in his last movie. Casino, with Sharon Stone. I was a blackjack dealer. If you look at the credits, you'll see my name. Marty's got a real thing for leggy blondes like you. It's a crime that only old farts in wheelchairs get to appreciate you. Are you in anything right now?"
"South Pacific." Donna paused. "At The... at The Manatee."
“Playing Nellie Forbush, of course."
"Got a card?"
"Yes," Donna had had the cards made after The Sound of Music: Donna Trebor, Actress and Vocalist. Mack turned the card over in his long fingers before tucking it into the pocket of his blazer.
"Wonderful to meet you at last, Donna Trebor," said Mack Newland. He took his shoe out from under her cart. Donna watched him stride, loose-limbed and athletic, down the aisle.
Donna made casserole for dinner; her own recipe. Green beans, bread crumbs, chicken broth, ham, and chunked-up potatoes. A bit of the Pepper Jack and then some more breadcrumbs on top before it went into the broiler. While it sizzled, she rooted through the pantry and found the bottle of red the Stevensons had brought over for New Year's—it was never opened, never anything to celebrate. But tonight Donna uncorked the bottle, poured herself a glass and let the tart wine fill her mouth, like triumphant juices from a fresh kill.
“This smells wonderful,” said Tim. “You could win an award for your casseroles, Sugarbear.”
Bethany sat down at the table, squeaking in her chair. Her face was covered with a new crop of pimples. There had once been hope for their daughter; she was born a beautiful little girl. But her teeth came in badly. The baby fat wouldn't budge. Then came the acne and that was the end for Bethany. To think Donna had looked forward to being a mommy, to being better than her own crazy mother had been. But all Baby Bethany had done was cry. The only thing that ever stopped her was a swat on the mouth. When she eventually learned to stop crying, she was dark and insufferable, hiding in her room, dragging her feet with a scowl on her face. “Just let her be,” Tim always said. “She'll come around. You're a wonderful momma.”
Bethany picked at her casserole. She shuffled her feet under her chair.
“Just look at your face,” said Donna. “Throwing your Homecoming Queen bid in the toilet, huh?”
“Only sluts get on Court," said Bethany.
“Only ugly girls say that.”
“Okay, Bethany—enough,” said Tim. “Eat.”
Bethany rocked on her chair. Donna swirled red wine in her mouth. She closed her eyes.
“So how was school, Pretty Girl?” said Tim. “Anything new?”
“Nope,” she said.
"Nothing to share with your old folks?"
"Nah," said Bethany. “Well. I mean. I had an idea."
"I," Bethany flicked her eyes at Donna. "I thought I might start doing props at The Manatee.”
“Great idea, Bethy,” said Tim.
“What the hell for?” said Donna.
“I don't know," said Bethany, small in her chair. "I thought it might be fun. You always seem so happy when you come back."
“The theater is hard work," said Donna.
“First of all, it's not work,” said Bethany. “It's volunteering. And I figure my credentials are just as good as yours."
“You little bitch,” said Donna.
Donna threw her glass of wine against the wall. Long shards of glass; arcs of bright wine that made ghastly dripping streaks on the striped wallpaper.
"Fuck you both!" shouted Donna.
INTERVIEWER: So, Donna, how do you balance the demands of fame with raising a child?
DONNA MARSH: It's not easy, any celebrity will tell you. And I had children before I became famous. I didn't have a nanny. I was the nanny.
INTERVIEWER: You did it the hard way, raising her yourself.
DONNA MARSH: The only way! But it definitely was a challenge. I was alone most of the time. You make sacrifices. But there's joy, too. Because being a parent is creative. I couldn't create art when I was young, but I did create my daughter. [audience murmurs appreciatively] I'm thankful every day that I became famous when my daughter was already grown. And the proof is in the pudding! The second thing people compliment me on—after my talent—is my parenting skills.
INTERVIEWER: Does your daughter ever think of getting into show business herself?
DONNA MARSH: She's mentioned it, but it's not for everyone, you know? You have to have a thick skin. A tough heart. And, of course, talent. Not everyone can pull off a red lip and hit a high C.
Bethany came. She came anyway. Donna couldn't believe her eyes, but there, in Donna's sanctuary, was her dishrag of a daughter, sitting in the front row of The Manatee Playhouse. That treacherous little brat. That pimpled pig. She was smiling beneath her bangs, chatting with Marcia, Lewis, and Trudy who, at the sound of Donna's footfall, turned around in her red directors' chair, bulge-eyed behind her bifocals.
“Donna, darling," said Trudy. "You didn't tell us your daughter was going to join us."
"That's right!" said Donna, striding across the theater. She hugged Bethany to her side and looked lovingly into her eyes, stroking her daughter's lumpy cheek with her fingertips. "My baby has come to join the Manatee family!" Bethany went stiff in her arms.
“What's the matter, young lady?” Lewis said. “Your mother is an amazing woman. Talent, looks, one hell of a heart. You should be proud!”
Bethany shrunk, her face livid.
"Teenagers today," said Trudy, shaking her head. "They never appreciate anything."
“It's all right, everyone, old mom is used to it,” Donna said, winking. “Now run along, sweetie. Marcia will want to show you where everything is.”
Marcia and Bethany disappeared behind the scrim. Donna stood up, sucked in her stomach and strode past the stage, clasping and unclasping the outstretched hands of Mitchell and Ron (retired attorney; lifeguard at Fort Island Beach) as she passed: “Hello-o-o-o, darlings.” The break room curtains parted and Donna balanced her forearms on the folding table, breathing angrily through her teeth: sssssssssssssss. She'd barely clenched her eyes when she caught the spicy whiff of pine-scented cologne.
“Hey,” said Brandon.
Donna opened her eyes slowly. "Hello, Marine," she said. She squared her shoulders and turned her face—languidly, silkily—to smile at him. As her lips curved, she saw that Brandon's dark hair had been freshly shorn, the sides tight and the top high, like a stiff brush.
"You liiiiike?" he asked. He ran his hand over his scalp and grinned, his cheekbones even more rugged when not covered by his usual tumble of dark waves.
“Well, aren't you sexy, Lieutenant Cable."
"Sexy yourself," said Brandon. He gripped her by the waist and swung her in an arc. "Mm-mm. There is nothing like a dame."
Donna looked up into the lights, white and shrill. The theater door slammed and Brandon's hands flinched.
"Guess we'd better get to work," he said.
"You're probably right," said Donna. Brandon set her down and swished through the black curtains. Donna waited half a minute, then whipped the curtains apart and entered the theater.
Mack Newland was sitting in the front row.
INTERVIEWER: It's a halcyon period in any actor's life, isn't it, that whisper-thin vellum of time between anonymity and the big break?
DONNA MARSH: [thoughtfully, intelligently] Hmm.
INTERVIEWER: You've told us about the struggle: your abusive schizophrenic mother, your absent father, your loveless marriage. But sometimes Lady Fortune comes calling, and she leaves a card. Donna? What happened in October 1996?
DONNA MARSH: Well, I'd been working in the local theater, The Manatee Playhouse...
[studio audience applauds thunderously]
DONNA MARSH: Thank you, everyone. I'd been working my way up the show biz ladder, starring in every show in every season. And then I met this handsome, famous stranger at a supermarket. I guess I made an impression, because he tracked me down. The director said, "Nobody enters my rehearsal off the street!" But he just told her who he was and about the movies he'd made. Even she couldn't resist his charm. And then he just plopped himself down in the front row and watched me as I sang "I'm in Love." I almost forgot the words! But he liked what he saw and [pause; look into the camera] the rest is history.
Trudy called break—she finally called break!—and Donna, skin glowing, pulse fluttering, stepped to the foot of the stage. Mack Newland's hand was stretched in front of her, large and inviting. She put hers inside, and he guided her down off the stage. Her toes lit delicately on the floor, barely skirting his.
"Well," she said. She looked up. There were his green eyes, smug and knowing, staring into hers.
"Let's talk," said Mack.
"Let's," said Donna, hot and pink. She could feel Mack Newland's eyes on her neck as she led him to the back, through the thin curtain. He seemed taller in the small break room, and even more handsome than she remembered. He leaned against the water cooler and observed her calmly.
“Cute place, your Manatee Playhouse,” he said. “I guess Craft Services are outside?”
“Craft what?” said Donna.
“Nevermind,” he said. “So, listen. You're good.”
“Thank you,” she said.
“Really good.” He reached his hand into the prop box on the table, stroking, first, a set of dog tags and, next, a glass cruet. “Your husband must be proud.”
“Him?” said Donna. “Ha!”
“Oh, poor baby,” said Mack Newland. “Unappreciated at home.”
Donna could see coils of dark hair pushing through Mack Newland's T-shirt. Tim was hairless; she'd always found his smoothness weak. But she could grip onto Mack Newland's chest, she could cling to him like a life raft. He could pull her out from the waves, slick and wet and safe on the shore.
"Do you think I could be in movies?” Donna asked. “Your... professional opinion.”
Mack Newland's lips curved and he tilted his head.
“Let me call my agent,” he said. “When's opening night? I'll bring him with me and see what he thinks of you.”
“Oh, Mack Newland!” said Donna. “That would be wonderful.”
The curtain fluttered open. It was Bethany. She saw Donna and Mack Newland and hopped on her back foot.
“Sorry,” she said. “Marcia sent me in here for the brandy glasses.”
“Well, there they are,” said Donna, nodding towards the prop box.
“And who's this?” said Mack Newland. “One of Citrus County's young hatchlings, reaching towards a future in the Bright White Way?”
“Me?” said Bethany, her face flushed. “No. I do props. Mom here's the actress.” She slid past them to collect the cheap glassware. Mack watched her as she tucked glasses in the crooks of her arms, gliding through the wings.
“Mom?” said Mack Newland.
“Yes,” Donna admitted. “That's my daughter.”
“Your daughter?” said Mack Newland. “Well, well. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree.”
Donna, feet planted firmly at the lit end of the tunnel, heart light with hope, nonetheless felt as though she'd been slapped.
The house was sparkling and the air was thick with the smell of butter, zesty key limes and Cool Whip. Donna had made a pie for dessert. She made great pies. She sang as she brought out the pie tin, gifting Tim a kiss on the cheek as he sat down. Bethany's face was livid with acne. Donna didn't care. She slid her knife through the flaky crust and served them both fat yellow slices. Someday soon, someone would make key lime pies for her.
“Honey,” said Tim. “How are you enjoying working at the theater with Mom?”
“It's interesting," said Bethany.
"How so?” said Tim.
“Well,” said Bethany, swirling her fork into the Cool Whip. “It's all these people from town, people I've seen my whole life. Like Mr. Jackson, from the bagel place. Or Brandon Holme—he was a senior when I was in 6th grade. And I knew them one way, right? Now I see them in costume, reading words they'd never say in real life. They're almost like different people. It's cool. It's fun.”
"That's nice, Beth," said Tim.
“And,” said Bethany. “We had that actor guy come in the other day.”
“Who?” said Tim.
“No one,” said Donna. “Bethany, eat your pie.”
“The guy who runs the hobby shop on Highway 44,” said Bethany. “Citrus Hobby? The one next to the Chinese place. Apparently, he's been an extra in tons of movies.”
“Oh, right. Newland,” said Tim. “The guy with the Don Johnson complex.”
“Right,” said Bethany. “He came in and started having a pissing contest with Trudy about who was more wonderful.”
“Shut your mouth, Bethany,” said Donna.
“Yes, Beth,” said Tim. “That's not very nice to say.”
Bethany shrugged. “I didn't mean anything bad,” she said.
INTERVIEWER: We've all heard the adage - don't mix business with pleasure. It's good advice, wouldn't you say, Donna?
DONNA MARSH: [firmly, wisely] Indubitably.
INTERVIEWER: Could you tell us about working alongside a partner?
DONNA MARSH: It can be difficult to see someone where he or she doesn't normally belong. At least that's what I've heard, anyway.
INTERVIEWER: You don't find it to be true?
DONNA MARSH: In my case? Oh, no. Working with Mack is....
DONNA MARSH: It's just a dream come true.
Because Mack Newland was handsome, he was brilliant, his name was in the credits of Casino; Donna rented it and rewound and rewound the flash of what must have been his profile between the arc of Sharon Stone's neck and the shadow of a slot machine. He was in the front row next to Trudy with his sunglasses pushed up through his sandy hair and a grin playing across his full lips, and Trudy said, “What do you think, Mack?” and, “How about that number, Mack?” and “What would Martin Scorsese say, Mack?”
“He wouldn't think much of this set, sorry to say, Trudy. But he'd approve of your lead actress!”
He had his unofficial seat now, next to Trudy, and he whistled each time Donna came on stage. He emitted a sharper whistle when Jessica came out for her love scenes with Brandon, which was smart of him, really, because you couldn't just let everyone know what you were up to, even if everyone could guess. That was class. That was Hollywood. That was another set of warm ups, their eyes meeting across the piano as her golden high notes rang out above the other voices. He would look at her that way in their silken king-sized bed, she knew it, her legs around his waist and his slim hips grinding against hers.
“Oh, Sugarbear,” said Tim, delighted and sweaty in the dark, “What a nice surprise. I love you like this. What brought this on?”
At dinner, in the car, in the laundry room, Bethany chattered: “They should try for a little more authenticity, don't you think, Mom? The Seabees should all have high and tights, not just Brandon. And Mack was right, the sets are amateur. He told Bonnie and Vanessa that they should use fake trees and coconuts instead of just painting them on the walls and he's right. He gets really excited, like a kid and it’s funny. Marcia said we girls shouldn't bother him but we do anyway because he's got a lot of great ideas and always wants to hear ours and sometimes he has good advice for the other girls about boys. I told him what I thought about the Seabees and their haircuts and he said I was right. But I guess that's asking a lot for community theater, huh, Mom? You know what, Mom? You did a really good job tonight. I mean, you're still too old to play Nellie but it's okay. It's going to be a good show, isn't it, Mom?”
Brandon snaked up behind her in the break room, his sneakers muffled by the carpet of fresh sawdust. "Hey," he said into the nape of her neck. "What's going on? You never talk to me anymore."
Donna pulled away and smiled at him over her shoulder as she pushed through the curtain. "You're imagining things," she said. Thanks to Mack Newland, she was Hollywood now, too.
And after dinner, after her usual cup of honeyed tea, Tim brought her the latest issue of the Chronicle.
“Look!” he said. “There's an article about the play.”
Donna read it: “Manatee Playhouse veteran Donna Trebor is sure to please this Friday as Nellie Forbush in South Pacific, the latest play directed by Trudy Bigelowski.”
“It's nice to see your name in print, huh?” said Tim, looping his arms around her. “I'm so proud of you. My beautiful girl with her name in lights.”
“It is nice,” Donna said. “And you'd better get used to it."
It was Hell Week. Trudy was drooling bile: “Off book, off book! Everyone's supposed to be off book!” The little girls were sweeping up sawdust and Lewis's coconut bra wouldn't stay on and Donna? Donna was running on sheer electricity. Two more days and she would leave the popcorn stucco, the painted sets, everything behind. Two more days and the world would know. She and Mack Newland were standing by the water cooler, his elbow slung against the wall. They were alone, their toes close to each other, and he was smiling so brightly at Donna she thought she might faint.
“Well," said Mack Newland. “He's coming."
“Who?” she said.
“Leonard. My agent.”
"I told you he'd come. Didn't you believe me?"
“Donna!” Trudy's bleat cut through the curtains. “On stage!”
Donna boldly reached out for Mack Newland's hand. Her fingers shook. "Thank you," she said. Mack Newland winked. She let her fingers drag along his knuckles and glanced over her shoulder as she pushed through the curtain; Mack was looking at his watch. Donna took her place on stage, glancing down at the theater seats. They'd continue the conversation with their eyes, as always, but Mack Newland wasn't in his usual spot next to Trudy. Trudy was there, gnawing on a Publix sub, tomatoes and turkey threatening to spill out the ends, but no Mack.
“Action!” shouted Trudy.
He'd be using the box office phone, maybe – talking to his agent. Holding the receiver up in the air to let her voice ring in from the stage. Donna sang louder, brighter, clasping hands with Rick. Her hands always sweated when she worked with Rick. He had neck tattoos like Jesse, the worst of her mother's deadbeats, the one who liked putting his hand under her skirt at the dinner table while her mother stared blankly at her plate: “Stop your squealing, Donna. You give it to everyone, this is what you get.”
Donna barely suppressed a shudder, looked past Rick's eyes and heard the playhouse’s back door creak open. There was Mack followed by Jessica and the other little girls, the ones playing nurses, the ones painting the scenery. One of them, Vanessa, a top-heavy CRHS senior with long blonde hair, was laughing. Mack was laughing, too.
The door began to swing shut, but then a hand stopped it—here came Bethany. Her jacket was zipped all the way up to her neck, and her face was red, her hair worn loose for a change. She slunk past Mack and the other girls, past the stage, and through to the break room without a word.
INTERVIEWER: And now, some questions from the audience.
MARJORIE FROM DAYTONA: Hi, Donna Marsh. I'm Marjorie, from Daytona, Florida. I know you're from Florida, too. I'm such a big fan of your work. "Roses of June" inspired me to become an actress!
DONNA MARSH: That's so sweet, Marjorie.
MARJORIE FROM DAYTONA: You're so sweet! My question is, I'm a second year drama student and when I graduate, I'd like to move to the big city and see my name in lights, just like you. I'd like to know if you had any advice for fledgling actresses like us, you know, who don't have connections, who are making their way from the bottom up.
DONNA MARSH: That's a great question. It is difficult to make it in this business without connections. What you need first is talent. The next thing you need is luck. Never leave the house without your business card. Never leave the house without lipstick. You never know who's watching. I left the house to get groceries and went home a star!
INTERVIEWER: Thank you, Donna. Back there, in the blue shirt?
KENNETH FROM WICHITA: Hi, Donna. I'm Kenneth. I'd like to know about the people who supported you during your rise to fame.
DONNA MARSH: Before Mack Newland, nobody supported me. My mother was mentally ill and always told me I was a cheap talentless slut. My father had another family a year after he left ours. I believed in myself enough to become an actress all on my own.
KENNETH FROM WICHITA: What about your husband?
DONNA MARSH: Ex-husband.
KENNETH FROM WICHITA: He was your husband at the time. He was the one who paid all the bills and let you do whatever you wanted and got dumped for Mack Newland and had to watch your affair plastered all over the tabloids.
DONNA MARSH: I don't see how that's any of your business.
KENNETH FROM WICHITA: I'm sorry. I guess celebrities are above morals.
INTERVIEWER: Next question. You, in the pink dress.
KENNETH FROM WICHITA: Just a second. I have another question. What about your daughter?
DONNA MARSH: What about her?
KENNETH FROM WICHITA: Did you ever stop to think about the effect your ambitions might have on her?
DONNA MARSH: What effect?
KENNETH FROM WICHITA: Maybe you missed things that were happening in her life while you were so focused on yourself.
DONNA MARSH: I've always been a devoted mother. Everyone has always said so.
KENNETH FROM WICHITA: Maybe you should listen to your conscience instead of bullshit from your fans.
DONNA MARSH: I've always been a devoted mother. Mine once threw a broken bottle at my face because she thought I was a homeless person who had broken into the house. Bethany is lucky to have me. I know everything that happens in her life.
KENNETH FROM WICHITA: Please accept my apologies, Donna. I didn't mean to imply anything. Anyone can see you are an extremely capable parent and that you have overcome great pain to get where you are today. You story is a triumph!
Better. Much better.
It didn't happen often, but sometimes the fantasy went all wrong.
“Mom, please,” Bethany's face was red and ugly. Unbelievably ugly. “Will you please just listen to me?”
Donna hurled a dish; it shattered against the wall. “You're a liar, Bethany. A stupid little liar.”
“Mom, please,” Bethany said. “Please. I don't know what to do.”
She was sobbing passionately now, tears running from her eyes. She had never cried this way before, not even when Donna slapped her, or when Tim's mother had died, or when Donna had lifted her from her crib, sweaty in the night, for a bottle.
“Mack Newland would never touch you!” said Donna. “You're too ugly for him. Maybe Jessica. Maybe Vanessa. But not you. Nobody would want you.”
“It's true!" Bethany howled then, a panicked wail. "It was because he was giving Vanessa advice about Jason. I don’t know why he changed, but they were flirting and being crazy. He said... he said he'd c-cum all over her but when he asked if I was a virgin I told him he was a pig and I'd call the police and he just laughed at me and touched m-my butt and said he’d cum all over me, too. He's not a good person. He's a liar and a faker!"
“You're the liar," said Donna. “You've ruined everything. You're nothing but a cheap slut, Bethany. This is what you get!”
“Mommy, please,” said Bethany.
“Get out,” said Donna. “Get out of my sight!”
But it was Donna who ran. She ran to the bathroom and locked herself inside.
They were in the dressing room, and Marcia was zipping Donna into her nurse's uniform. Donna's cheeks were still red, and her eyes sore from weeping. But outside were the fans. Outside was Joe Santos. Outside would be Mack Newland and the agent.
“I'm just mortified over this, Trudy,” said Donna. She reached for her styrofoam cup of tea. “To think my own child would quit on opening night! I've been trying to teach her responsibility but I just don't know why I'm failing.”
“We have other prop girls,” said Trudy, patting Donna's shoulder. “You're doing your best. And stop belittling my star—she's a wonderful mother! Lord knows it's not easy in this day and age.”
“Oh, Trudy, thank you,” sighed Donna. “That means the world to me.”
A fist poked through the changing curtain: "For Donna!" The fist was holding a bouquet of roses. Trudy snatched the bouquet and put her nose in the blooms.
“Mmmm, they're perfect,” she said. “Just like you in that costume.”
Donna took the bouquet and looked at the note. From Tim. She lay them on the table and turned away.
“Are you ready?” said Trudy.
“Oh, yes,” said Donna. “I'm ready.”
And she was. Weeks of rehearsal. Memorizing her lines. The lyrics. The steps. Mack Newland's sunglasses watching her from the front row, that wicked smile curving his lips. And she had been rehearsing her speech for the agent for days.
She would stride onto the stage, her pin-curled hair smart underneath her nurse's cap. Her eyes would glitter as she took in her audience. She would open her mouth and stun them all. And then, when the curtain went down and the geriatrics swarmed her with wobbly handshakes, the agent would come to her. Yes, he would come to her.
DONNA MARSH: Thank you so much for coming to see me perform.
THE HOLLYWOOD AGENT: You were absolutely sensational. Far too talented for this little backwater! Here's my card. Call me. No, give me your number. I need to speak with you as soon as possible. I'm casting Spielberg's next movie and you're absolutely perfect, doll. [No, not “doll”] Babycakes! [Yes, exactly right.]
DONNA MARSH: Darling!
They would kiss each other on the cheek, like Europeans. And behind them would be Mack Newland. Mack Newland. Because he had done all of it.
Donna peeked out at the audience from behind the curtain. What did agents look like? Thick black-framed glasses, maybe. A full beard, a sharp eye? But Donna only saw the same wrinkled faces that had been coming to see her perform for three years. She looked for Mack Newland but he wasn't there, either.
The curtains were heavy against her hands, and she heard the keyboardist running her fingertips up and down the scales. A laugh tinkled from behind the curtain. A man in the front row adjusted his colostomy bag. And Tim in the third row, alone, reading the Xeroxed program.
Mack Newland must be late. Surely, he was just late.
JULIA SAND was raised in the United States and has lived all over the world, teaching language and writing about food. Her fiction and food writing have appeared in The Huffington Post, CNN Travel, and various literary journals including Storychord and Connotation Press. She holds an M.Phil degree in Creative Writing from The Oscar Wilde Centre at TCD where she studied under Richard Ford and Molly McCloskey. She was among the finalists for the 2016 Luke Bitmead Bursary. She currently lives somewhere warm and beautiful where people drink a lot of coffee and don't follow traffic laws