1. Capri Capri
IT’S FUNNY HOW A PERSON can live in new york their whole lives and never travel to the city. I’ve only been there once, when I was eight years old.
The night sky was painted with dark oil and hid the glittering stars I usually saw shining in Hamilton. My grandmother, who we called Ma, held my hand tight, and Justin, my older brother, held the other. Our mama, who we called by her first name, Essie, was making her way quickly ahead of us in her white peacoat with a matching fur band wrapped around her cropped hair. She seemed to dance with the crowds, weaving in and out of them expertly, with a careless smile, making sure not to shove nobody, gracefully leaping and spinning around each person she passed. She was like a young child, giggling and laughing the whole way to the theatre.
“Come on, slowpokes, this is the city. You have to move,” she called to us over her shoulder. Ma, hushing her, mumbled things under her breath that I couldn’t hear over the noise of the traffic, but even she was smirking the whole while. Essie was a real beauty.
I wanted to be just like her.
Essie had Justin when she was fifteen and me, just one year later. We all lived with Ma in Hamilton at first, but after Essie started her acting career, she was almost never home. Now, Essie was bringing us into her adopted home. Broadway didn’t smell like magic and new opportunities as Essie described; it was more like hot pretzels and perfume wrapped in a cloud of stale cigarette smoke. She said New York’s streets was paved with gold that glimmered brighter than the stones on the yellow brick road. I only found graying sidewalks with blackened gum and a few people wrapped in old blankets.
But the lights—the lights she didn’t get wrong. They did outshine the fireflies we caught behind Ma’s house in the summertime. Each theatre was playing, as Essie said, a different world for us to peek into; worlds of sadness turned happy, stories of love, music, and dancing. Essie said it was like visiting a magical library that opened its books for us to travel through, and it was. Each book lined the streets, illuminated with bright lights. Something Rotten!, The King and I, Hamilton, and Wicked!
Some of the names from the shows wasn’t familiar; others I’d already watched Essie act out for me in her bedroom, putting on different hats for the characters, singing their songs and proclaiming their lines like she was born into them. Even though I never been on the streets of Broadway before, I felt like I knew just as much about theatre as anyone else, including the old women I overheard talking about the different versions of Essie’s show they’d seen when Ma, Justin, and me sat in the theatre. They said they couldn’t wait to judge and see if it was better than the one in London that they’d saw that summer. That night, I didn’t need to see no show in London to compare to Essie’s.
I knew hers would be the greatest of all.
Essie told us we had great seats, but she didn’t tell us how great they actually were. We didn’t have nobody sitting in front of us but the orchestra. Ma even smiled when she saw the three reserved seats with our names written on them. It made me feel real important, like a star on television or something.
The conductor of the orchestra winked at me and told me my dress was the most beautiful thing he ever saw. I did feel beautiful in the bright blue dress Ma got from the charity store downtown. It was used, but Essie said used dresses wasn’t ever really old. My dress was new because it was the first time I wore it. She said it was my turn to create an adventure in the dress—that new adventures for an old dress was like retellings of old stories to ears that never heard them.
When the curtain lifted and the lights dimmed, Essie ran across the stage in tears, and I wanted to run up on stage and hug her. Ma could tell I was agitated and assured me Essie was only doing her job to entertain. Still, I believed everything Essie was saying under them bright lights. I believed her when she cried after burying her lover in the play, when she danced across the stage with the chorus, when she fell in love again, and when she died in the end. I believed it all and stood with the audience when they clapped. I agreed when the old ladies said this was the best version of the show they’d seen, even though I didn’t see no other one.
My Essie truly was a star.
Only three months later, when I found out Essie’s heart stopped onstage, I assured Ma that she was probably just acting. When her open casket sat in front of me at the church on Sixth Street later that week, I told Essie it wasn’t funny anymore. I told her she had to wake up now. Her skin was blotchy and the blush they put on her was too bright. She always told me the right shade of blush for her complexion was hard for people to find. That’s why she always did her own makeup before her performances.
They forced her eyes shut; no one was able to see the light that flew from them when she acted, sang, danced, or told her stories. Her lips were glued shut, hiding the smile that kept my heart believing in miracles. Her hands that once brushed my hair were frozen and stiffly folded over her thin body. I couldn’t look away.
“The show is over. Wake up,” I whispered, nudging her rock-hard shoulder.
“She’s dead,” Justin said, standing next to me. He was staring at her too, frozen just like me. “She not coming back, Capri.”
I looked around the church. It was small and cold. The sweater Ma made me wear was tight around my shoulders and didn’t shield my arms from the goose bumps that ran up and down them in waves. The pale gray paint on the walls was peeling, and the Black Jesus on the stained-glass windows turned ashy with dust. It smelled like mold. Flower spreads were scattered around with condolence messages on them, and everyone was wearing black, even Essie. This wasn’t the way her shows were. The theatre always had beautiful gold lights above. The seats were burgundy and comfortable, not hard like the brown pews we sat on. I looked again at Essie. How could someone who had so much life look so… imprisoned?
Ma didn’t think it was a good idea for Justin and me to ever go back to the city. It was because Essie was everywhere. The pictures from the shows she was in still littered the walls of almost all the theatres. A theatre in New York City decided to keep a billboard of Essie plastered to their side wall, in her memory. I only saw it that one time we went. Essie rushed us to look at what they’d done for her. In the picture, she was wearing a white dress with a crown of many colors, her legs stretched into a split leap. She was smiling wide, soaring across the sky like a rainbow.
Essie lived her life the way she wanted and died doing what she loved.
I always vowed somewhere inside of me, to do the same.