Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Black Gown

The long, satiny black dress is cut on the bias. It fits…it fits the way it's supposed to, revealing the chest between my small, well-shaped breasts. Even lower in the back, but you can't see that in the photo. There are several shiny necklaces around my young neck and a bracelet on each wrist. There's a dangly earring on each ear—clip-ons—partly obscured by the corkscrew curls a cast member has created at each of my temples. My glossy dark hair is parted, pulled back in some kind of a bun. I'm wearing makeup, also courtesy of the young woman who did my hair. I loved her looking intently at my face and her gentle touch as she applied the make-up. In the photo I give the camera a baleful look, standing with one hand on my hip and the other bent up and touching my bare shoulder. The stance and the baleful look are all my mother's. The strange cocked position of my arm is hers, as well, one she adopted after she cut the arteries, tendons and nerves in her wrist on a broken window. To me it reads sexy. The hint of wariness in my eyes and reserve on my mouth is all me, though.

My arms are buff—a term we aren't anywhere near using in 1970, when the Hunterdon Repertory Company puts on Dracula. At 16, I've been carrying two buckets of water up the slope from the well to my horse twice a day for several years already, and at this point I am also taking a night school fencing class. It has occurred to me that I will most likely not have a man protecting me once I leave for college, and I've started running the perimeter of the fallow field behind our house, because, as I've articulated it, I may have to run someday.

There is a women's liberation movement starting and a gay liberation movement as well. This is not an historical note, but a matter of desperate importance to me. I hear about women's liberation and gay liberation from the TV news that reaches central New Jersey from New York. I've been to the libraries, both Flemington's and Hunterdon County's, to search for books on feminism, but all I found was Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own. The disappointment I felt was like dry bone meal in my mouth.

The real capital of New Jersey is not Trenton, but New York City. The rest of New Jersey is decentralized, a backwater. Nobody goes from Flemington to New York except on school field trips, as far as I know. New York might as well be a foreign country. Dracula will be interesting for me. An ancient actress who belongs to the Company speaks with a whisky voice, and smokes Tiparillos. She, it is said, is a lesbian. I seldom see her, and I don't know why she's hanging around the women's dressing room on opening night, but that night she growls to me, "Knock 'em dead." And then there's Berta, who plays Mina, Dracula's second victim. Her husband is the dentist who has crafted Dracula's fangs. Between the fangs and the thick Transylvanian accent, Dracula is barely intelligible at times. But Berta, his stage lover, is perfect. Delicate, slim, dark, and a good actress. Years later, when I return to New Jersey from college on Christmas vacation, my mother will tell me that Berta has left the dentist and run away with a woman to Florida. "She's a homosexual" my mother pronounces carefully. I pretend indifference. Anyway, the romance is short-lived and she straggles back after a while.

Just as interesting are the dreams all the female cast members have of being attacked by a vampire. My part in the play is not exactly cast. The director has decided to do live ads instead of a program. It's a clever idea, giving more people a chance to be involved in the production and saving printing costs. I'm one or two of the commercials. She's also got the blood bank parked outside taking blood—a nice tie-in. We are blessed on opening night by the appearance of the theater bat—or if not, it becomes theater lore anyway. I never see it.

In 1970, it's not de rigueur for kids to run like crazy from one activity to another, and the Repertory Company is a rare social opportunity for me. The 4-H horse club. That's about it until next year, my senior year, when I'll take Russian and join the Russian Club. I love the theater group. I get to hang out with adults and some other teenagers. I've had a stagecraft class in high school, so I know as much about that as a lot of the adults. Early in my involvement with the theater group, I actually went on some dates with the son of one of the directors.

My mother and my brother have both had major roles in Hunterdon Repertory productions. They run pretty hot-blooded. My father and I are cooler. He takes pictures of rehearsals. He took this picture of me. This live commercial for Bram Stoker's Dracula will be my only appearance on the stage of the Clinton Theater. The high point of my involvement there will be in a later production, Once Upon a Mattress. I will have a hand in designing the set and crafting props. It's a marvelous production with fine actors, music, comic dancing, colorful costumes and a set so encrusted with gold glitter that it swirls around on the stage as the actors move, interfering with their contact lenses, and looking positively magical from the audience.

My closest friend is Debbi. She comes to a Dracula rehearsal and sits in the seats with me coloring drops of blood on the play's posters with red magic marker. I am in love with Debbi, who shows every sign of being heterosexual. She dates a football player named Hans, who turns up in one of my fencing classes. She complains in a general way about boys wanting to handle her. I dream nightly about "handling" her. I have been working assiduously since I was 13 not to touch her, not to tell her I love her. I have developed very good self-control.

The sophisticated black gown is a costume. The teenager is wary and reserved.

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