New York City, Winter, 1953
The coldest irony, here, is that I’m just as invisible dead as I was in life.
I circle her without touching the ground. Studying her porcelain skin. The way she draws in the tiniest breath before the heavy curtains fall open, before the grand room becomes a roaring echo of applause, before the stage lights illuminate her blond ringlets and the entire theatre goes perfectly still.
There is no tap of my heels upon the stage floor. I stare into her freshwater eyes, yearning for some miniscule recognition, a shiver up her spine at the presence of her once-forever love. But she looks right through me. Beyond me. If I could feel, perhaps there would be a familiar twinge of dejection at the pit of my stomach.
“We love you, Claudette!” someone calls through velveteen darkness. There is a whistle, a cheer and then the cavernous theatre is quiet, once more. Claudette breaks into an incandescent smile, centered and poised with her gloved hands clasped around the mic stand.
Everything about this woman is graceful. I’m the one who’s floating, bodiless, and yet, she is still the more ethereal one. I don’t know that she could ever be a ghost. If death is as biased in her favour as life certainly is, she will cross this veil already crowned an angel. This evening, Claudette is regal, dressed in the opalescent gown I chose for her opening night. She didn’t wear it then. Fitting that she’s wearing it now I’m gone.
I have to admit, she’s a goddess. To know her, to love her, to smell the vanilla-lavender skin of her collarbone and count the constellation of beauty marks on her back, was the greatest thrill of my disappointing existence. I’m not foolish enough to think we were ever a perfect fit, but never in all my twenty-two years did I think I’d find another woman like me. One who didn’t know how to yearn for a man, no matter how hard she tried. We were ill-fitting, yes, but at least God made us in a pair.
She clears her throat, begins to sing, sound slipping through her lips in luscious, lilting waves. She never hits a falsetto, no matter how high the note reaches. A testament to my good teaching, I suppose. I spent the summer of ‘51 training Claudette to fill her lungs and sing straight from the gut. All between cups of honey and ginger tea, boiled and cooled to the perfect temperature, just the way she wanted it. She was a diamond in the rough back then.
“You know, Lalita, you’re my duster,” she had said one night, kissing me on the nose after the last of the stage hands had left and the theatre was finally ours.
“Gee, thanks,” I scoffed. “I’ve never wanted anything more.”
By the collar of my satin blouse, she pulled me closer to her mouth. “I mean, ma chérie, that you’ve cleaned me up. Smoothed all the sharp edges in my voice. We’re going to make it, Lalita, I just know it.”
“We?” I eyed her skeptically, pulling away without meaning to.
“Yes, we! You’ve taught me everything I know. How could we not know stardom together?”
“I love you, meri jaan. You know that. But sometimes, you—you—”
“You don’t see what’s right here in front of you.” I clasped her milky hand in the warm cinnamon of mine and brought it up to a shard of light pouring in from an open window. It was long past midnight, but Broadway never slept.
She stroked the back of my hand, brushing at my skin. Dusting. “It doesn’t matter. A voice is a voice. It’s all they’ll hear. All they’ll see.” So easy for Claudette to say when she could hide her peculiarities neatly behind our bedroom doors. When her moon-pale skin allowed her to stand out in all the right ways. When no one ever told her to go back to France.
She kissed me on the forehead. “And even—even if the producers don’t choose you, Lalita, what’s mine is yours. If I—if one of us—makes it, we both bask in the glory, oui? That house in Nantucket will be ours, Lalita, both of ours.”
Something about those freshwater eyes, those coral lips, hooked me around the throat. Made me nod. Want to believe. I couldn’t be blamed for this. God chose her for me.
On the night I unraveled from my body, I was wearing a black circle dress, cinched tight at the waist and filled with a heavy petticoat. I had on an ebony pair of gloves that Claudette desperately needed. She couldn’t find her own so I obliged and offered them to her. It was her big night, after all. The opening for her very own one-woman show. An Evening with the Unforgettable Claudette Durand.
We exited the black car together, but the cameras didn’t notice. Bodies swarmed around Claudette like bees to honey. The flashing bulbs pulsed like electricity in her blue irises. With each “Claudette, over here!” something sizzled a little brighter in her gaze and I was swallowed further into the swarm until it spit me out.
Left behind on the snow-coated street, no one saw a calloused hand grab me across the mouth, pull me into the alley—the one just beside the glowing marquee filled with her name. Not even her.
She only called the police the next morning.
Claudette coughs politely into her black glove. My black glove. “I’d like to, um, dedicate this next song to my good friend, Lalita Rajalingam, who I tragically lost one week ago.” Good friend. Not even dear friend. As though a good friend could ever hold her the way I did. “I wrote this song before sunrise this morning as I remembered her.”
She clears her throat, once again, and begins to hum a sultry acapella tune that is so very familiar. “If only you kneeeeew the water of your eyes the way I doooooo…”
I...wrote that song.