Susan Dugan: My Funny Valentine

Jay Whitiker parked in a space outside the church and sat drawing deep breaths, hands over naval–left, over right for males, the way they taught in his tai chi classes. Outside the car window, the day shone like a page torn from a Colorado Bureau of Tourism magazine: blueberry skies and sugared mountains. A fresh coating of powdery snow steamed off the asphalt.

Jay glanced over at the roses he had picked up at King Soopers that were resting on the passenger seat beside his battered leather shoulder bag. A dozen red, a dozen white.

Angelica.

Even his voice teacher’s name suggested higher realms. Sometimes he would find himself suddenly repeating it over and over in his head like a string of prime numbers.

A rap on the window startled him. His hands flew up, palms out, as if expecting to confront a police officer demanding license and registration. But it was only Sheila, upstairs neighbor of his rented flat. Flustered, he grabbed the flowers and his bag, and climbed out of the car.

“So, you did make it,” he said, relieved.

She stood on tiptoe to kiss him on the cheek.

 “I told you I arranged to get off work early,” she said. “I mean, I couldn’t miss your debut.”

She was dressed in one of those thrift-shop costumes she loved to throw together from her giant steamer trunk. A bangled angora sweater, a polka dot skirt with a tule crinoline, and hot pink, kitten heels with bows that reminded him of the Walt Disney character Mini Mouse. Her hair, freshly streaked with purple in a botched effort to disguise the grey, was pulled up on one side with a sparkly clip.

Around them the parking lot started filling up. Young girls in tights and velvet poking out from under parkas, boys in ill-fitting suits and scuffed dress shoes, parents in overcoats spilling out of SUVs, all calling greetings.

Jay moved among them unnoticed as a ghost, Sheila trailing, toward the concert’s venue, a cement, ranch-style church of unknown Protestant denomination with an odd, gravity-defying, 1960s-era roof, perhaps designed by an architect experimenting with LSD.

Inside, against a painted cinderblock wall, a table had been set with a red paper tablecloth adorned with heart-shaped doilies glued to construction paper, heart-shaped cookies, a glass dispenser filled with ice, orange slices adrift in a red liquid sea.

They took a program from a little girl with braces and chose seats in the pews a few rows back, blinking in the light that streamed through floor-to-ceiling, stained glass windows, illuminating images of shepherds, rotund sheep, and misshapen lilies.

“Beautiful roses,” Sheila breathed.

“I offered to pick them up for all of us yesterday at dress rehearsal,” he said. “And, say, it turns out I’m the last act and I need to present them to her. Could you bring them up right after I finish? I know it’s a lot to ask, but . . .”

“Of course,” Sheila said. “Just hand them up to you, you mean?”

“Right,”

“No problem,” she said.

“You don’t think they’ll wilt by then, do you? Should I keep them in the car?”

Shirley squeezed the bottoms of the cellophane-wrapped bouquets. “They’re still damp,” she said. “It’s cool in here; they’ll be fine.”

It was so not cool in here.

Jay took off his coat and wrestled out of his sports jacket, fending off Sheila’s attempts to help. He struggled to straighten his rounded shoulders, pushing his arms out from his curved core to create space between his armpits, already pooling with sweat. He loosened his tie and collar, yanked a hankie from his pocket, and mopped the stubble of his receding hairline.

Sheila lay a hand on his knee. “Nervous?” she asked.

He nodded, huffed on his wire-rim glasses, rubbed the hankie in circles to clean them. Although he knew all too well that she believed talking things out would set you free, it only served to breathe life into his fears.

“Look at how cute these kids are all dolled up,” Sheila said.

The kids were mostly lawless little creatures, severely testing even Angelica’s boundless patience yesterday at rehearsal with their chatter and complete inability to sit still. The girl who sang Annie’s part in “It’s a Hard-Knock Life” was clearly unfamiliar with a “hard-knock life” in her designer-labeled T-shirt and skirt. She was a mean piece of work, openly making fun of Jay and inciting her peers as he struggled through his song, causing Angelica to pound on the keys, take the microphone from Jay, and ask them to have some respect for other people or go home.

The children and their parents were sliding into seats now, shedding their warm clothing, younger siblings climbing their mother’s legs and dribbling sippy-cup contents on their big sisters’ dresses. Mothers’ and fathers’ limbs moved robotically to contain them, even as they continued to examine the screens of their cell phones.

A lanky young man in tight black jeans was setting up a video camera on a tripod aimed at the stage behind the wooden altar. Angelica, wearing a knee-length skirt and a silky, high-collared blouse, stood fiddling with the lighting. Jay had forgotten that they were going to film the recital and make CDs available for a nominal fee. If his mother were still alive, he would have bought one for her, to show her that the dream of a singing career she had so consistently lobbied against might yet materialize after all these years.

###

“Is that her?” Sheila asked.

Jay nodded, forehead glistening.

She was younger than Sheila had imagined and attractive in a schoolmarm way, with thick, wavy red hair pulled back from her forehead and bunched around her shoulders. Her large eyes were magnified by oversized, dark-rimmed glasses.

Sheila had never seen Jay this distraught, which was saying quite a lot. Infected by his stress, she could feel her shoulders and neck stiffen, along with the disturbing tightness in her chest that came at work around Thanksgiving and Christmas and especially—Valentine’s Day!

A little boy in the row in front of them was monkeying around on his mother’s shoulder, playing peekaboo with Sheila. She pressed her tongue against the inside of her upper lip and widened her eyes, producing the face she would make while reading yet another Curious George book to her niece Miranda when she was little and not yet too cool for sleepovers at Aunt Sheila’s.

The little boy started making the face back, tilting his head and ducking around his mother’s shoulders until she finally deposited him into the straight jacket of his father’s arms.

It seemed a miracle that Sheila had somehow talked Benji, the child-man manager of the See’s Candy store where she worked and where she had once more been passed over for promotion, into giving her the rest of a precious Sunday off before the actual holiday. She didn’t think she could bear having to miss Jay’s recital. Not after listening to him rehearse night after night. He would stand on the cold stairwell to the parking lot of their building for the acoustic effect that amplified his anemic tenor, imbuing it with a timbre beyond itself and causing alley cats to howl in soulful solidarity.

If she was honest with herself, it was the song’s lyrics that captured her, certainly not the delivery, her heart thumping in recognition—“My Funny Valentine.”

How had Frank Sinatra ever recorded this anthem to the spectacularly ordinary, invisible nebbishes like Jay and Sheila who wandered this world undetected, and were yet, somehow, beloved by the writer, the singer of the song?

Sheila would open her windows to the freezing air and lie on her couch, pulling the afghan from her childhood up to her chin, and listen to Jay, accompanied by his Greek chorus of felines, soaking those soothing words into her oversized pores. His thin vibrato fed something deep inside that she thought had perished from malnutrition years ago—the hope of being seen for the funny valentine she was almost certain had once struggled to thrive within her.

And yet this was Jay, she reminded herself, as familiar as the musty throw itching at her neck. Jay, whom she had met five years ago when he moved to Denver after the mother he’d cared for since graduating from college finally met her maker, felled by the foul nature of her obsessive, hypochondriacal thoughts. Jay, for goodness’ sake, allegedly named for a blue bird that same mother had spotted singing in the limbs of a tree outside the hospital window the day she gave birth, right before Jay’s father flew the coop. Jay, who might better have been named Puffin given his plodding movements and carnival contours.

Sheila knew she was simply confusing her own longing for love with the singer of the song. Jay, her best friend, always there, just one floor down. Ever ready to trundle up the stairs to sample another of her experiments in orchestrating some complicated dish from the far reaches of the globe that she had seen on the Food Network. Ever available to listen to her elaborate speculations about the motives of the customers who came in hoping to find the perfect bite to fill a lack that never went away—no matter how many dark chocolate Bordeauxs or Scotchmallows were gifted or swallowed.

The voice teacher was tapping on the microphone now.

Sheila glanced over at Jay.

He was still staring straight ahead and appeared to be holding his breath.

Sheila placed her hand on his trousered knee again. This time he left it there.

###

Angelica breathed into the microphone, adjusted it to her height, and cleared her throat.

Around them parents began hushing children, wrestling toddlers back into their laps, weaning themselves from their phones.

The young cameraman stood behind his equipment, peering through the lens and making final adjustments.

Jay’s stomach churned. He had barely eaten that morning—just yogurt and banana—but it had left him with a sour taste. He felt hot again and feared he might be getting sick. He considered making a run for it. But every time he steeled himself to rise, he remembered all those lessons standing in the little box of a house Angelica had purchased near Ruby Hill.

He would stand facing the console piano in the cramped living room beside the red, velour loveseat, pillar candles burning on the coffee table, a stoppered, half-empty bottle of red wine on the windowsill, the voices of children playing soccer drifting through the screen. Running through scales from vowel to vowel. Angelica gently talking him into guiding his breath to uncharted abdominal depths. Her instructions as hypnotic as one of the guided meditation tapes he used along with a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos to reground himself after a long day on the phone coaching elderly clients through the uncharted territory of their computer screens.

Jay tried but failed to draw one of those breaths now. He was not originally scheduled as the final act, but the middle school boy slotted to sing in the “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” duet from The Sound of Music had come down with the flu and a high fever on Friday. One of the parents had jumped in to edit and reprint the programs, moving Jay from his spot in the middle to the end under the reasoning that the song’s title reinforced the Valentine’s Day theme.

“I’m sorry but there’s nothing I can do about it now, Jay,” Angelica told him yesterday.

Jay had swallowed hard and stopped breathing entirely.

Now Angelica, poised and posture-perfect on the stage, was thanking them for coming. She introduced the first performance, those two middle school girls performing “For Good” from the musical Wicked. Sheila had gotten free tickets the year she volunteered as an usher at the Denver Center Theater and had treated Jay. He had purchased the score on iTunes, played it over and over again on his walks around Cheesman Park, singing along, oblivious to the odd looks of neighbors who instinctively veered away as if from another homeless person.

From her seat at the piano to the left of the stage, Angelica waited for the two girls, who seemed on the verge of yet another pubescent giggling attack, to compose themselves before she played the intro.

Jay found himself once more mesmerized by the quality of their voices, the strong resonant alto of the petite African American girl singing Glinda’s part, the skinny, towering, acne-faced Elphalba’s surprisingly soaring soprano.

The girls held on to each other’s hands, echoing back and forth as they came to a close.

Despite the song’s familiarity, reinforced by the repetitions yesterday at rehearsal, Jay had never heard those words the way he did now. He gulped at the possibility of relationship as a force for good.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Sheila wipe away a tear.

What the hell were you thinking?

Jay’s mother’s voice barged into his head again. These children were truly talented. These children had a right to be here.

Don’t embarrass yourself again for Christ’s sake!

He had never made it on to the choir at Roosevelt High, each failed audition another blow to the solar plexus. He was always good at math, true, but that’s as close as he would ever get to genuine musical ability. He could sing into his pillow clutching his transistor radio under the covers like a dirty magazine until the cows came home, but no one would ever want to listen to a voice like his.

Let’s face it, you’re just not solo material.

The concert continued. A few of the beautiful young voices stumbled and one little girl stood rubbing the folds of her skirt between her fingers, eyes on her feet, singing a Sarah McLachlan song involving an angel so softly in her sweet falsetto that she could barely be heard, seeming to teeter on the edge of consciousness.

Nonetheless Jay continued to marvel at the talent in the room in growing terror as Angelica smiled and nodded unwavering encouragement to her students from the piano bench. Jay had been forced to go through his song thrice yesterday, flubbing the lyrics the first time, careening ridiculously off key the second to the delight of the little Queen Bee who sang the song from Annie.

And then his voice teacher rose to the microphone to introduce him. He had that familiar feeling of leaving his body. Floating over the proud parents and squirming siblings like an unmoored balloon. Past the table of sweets, out into the hallway and through the door someone had propped open to let in the fresh air to where he could see his car. Waiting. He could go there, he could. Right now. But he didn’t.

Instead, he came back to his body to the feel of Sheila’s hand rubbing his back in circles, handing him his sports coat. He looked up and saw Angelica smiling straight at him. Waiting. He could go there, he could. Right now.

“Break a leg,” Sheila whispered.

And somehow Jay stood. He buttoned his jacket and walked his body up that aisle, step one, step two, step three. Eyes fixed on his freshly shined shoes so as not to trip. He pressed his palms together at his chest in a gesture of gratitude to Angelica and turned to face the audience. Conscious that he was again instinctively running his hands up and down his upper arms as if to comfort himself, he forced those limbs down to his sides, the way Angelica had instructed yesterday.

“Remember to find a focal point in the audience,” she had likewise advised.

Jay searched the faces small and large trying to stifle their mirth over the spectacle he must have made until his gaze fell on Sheila, leaning over and forward to smile out at him from between the tall couple seated in front of her.

He turned toward his voice teacher and nodded, the cue they had agreed on to begin.

###

Sheila wanted to smack those kids two rows up for all that whispering and giggling—poking fun at him like that! Their mothers leveled restraining looks, even as they widened their eyes, exchanged knowing, judgmental glances with their spouses, struggled to subdue their own ridiculing urges.

Jay was chewing his lips, swaying slightly. If he passed out, he would crack his head open and Sheila would have to drive him to the ER and what if he had one of those brain bleeds afterwards and died!?

She leaned over and craned her neck to get a better view—nodding reassurance.

He stood up straighter and the music started.

Around her Sheila could hear the continuing crackle of rude chatter and stifled laughter as he began, looking miserable, voice trembling. But a few phrases in, he stood up almost straight, opened his bird mouth wide. His voice rang out with such force, it silenced the interference in the room, astonishing them all.

He was hitting the notes, all of them, filling the air around him. He had somehow captured the sentiment those lyrics had unearthed within Sheila those nights she had eavesdropped on his rehearsals. Somehow embodied the hunger her customers dragged into the candy shop day after day, slapping their credit cards down.

Jay threw his hands open as the song carried him to the end, his big heart on display.

Sheila pressed a tissue to the inside corners of her leaky eyes.

In the silence that followed, Jay turned toward his teacher.

She signaled him to bow.

People began clapping, only a few at first, following Sheila to their feet. Eventually almost everyone.

###

Jay wondered if he was dreaming. Wasn’t this the part where you’re supposed to look down and discover you’re wearing no clothes?

Angelica stood at the piano bench, smiling and looking into his eyes with so much, well, love! Really, there was just no other word for it. Looking at him, Jay Whitiker, the funniest valentine in recorded history, with love!

He imagined himself running to her in slow motion on a path that wound through flower beds and moss-shrouded trees like someone in an ad for Viagra.

People were clapping, many actually standing.

Don’t go getting a big head. You’re the final act, for Christ’s sake; what else can they do?

His mother again. How did she manage that?

He took another bow and looked out at the audience, to Sheila hurrying up the aisle toward him in her cartoon shoes. She stepped halfway up the stairs and handed the bouquets to Jay, then trotted back to her seat.

Jay held the flowers out to his voice teacher and the kids cheered.

Angelica stepped forward, acting surprised, and Jay handed them to her, kissing her on both cheeks the way he imagined they did on Broadway.

Everyone was on their feet now.

Angelica held the bouquets in one hand, took Jay’s with the other.

Together, they bowed.

###

In the bathroom mirror, Jay’s cheeks still shone bright pink. He ran cool water on his wrists and circled his neck to release the tension of the day that had left his muscles in knots.

He and Sheila had just finished downing punch, pocketing a couple of cookies, and making nice with the parents and kids, Sheila as if impersonating a talk show host, Jay muddling through. His mother had planted herself somewhere in the vicinity of his right shoulder, recounting in a long stream of consciousness the litany of his failures that far outweighed today’s absence of catastrophe.

The whole while Jay kept Angelica fixed in his peripheral vision, seeking but never finding an opportunity to approach her alone. An opportunity to ask the question that had seeded itself in his brain as a viable option as they stood on stage holding hands, basking in the proverbial roar of the crowd.

He would ask her to lunch. Indulge the fantasy that had started during the first weeks of lessons at Angelica’s house at which his mother continued to scoff. The fantasy he had struggled to dismiss on the grounds of, well, wild implausibility. Until that moment this afternoon when he finished, dared to meet her eyes, and registered that look of genuine recognition and acceptance he’d been waiting for all his life.

Yep, he would ask her to lunch. A late lunch date at that ridiculously romantic Italian restaurant on Capitol Hill housed in a three-story Victorian with a turret and brocade walls that looked like the inside of an old-fashioned jewelry box, its tables set with candles, fine linens strewn with the petals of red roses from bunches resting in every nook and cranny, reflected in warped, antique mirrors.

They would while away the afternoon feasting on stuffed clams and seafood pasta washed down with icy white wine. She would regale him with stories of her time spent singing with the Pittsburg Opera. Reveal, with a shy smile, over thimbles of homemade limoncello, her secret longing to settle down.

But even as parents began wrapping plates of goodies in plastic and filling garbage bags, gathering coats and wayward spawn and heading out, Angelica remained surrounded by stragglers. When Sheila asked Jay if he was ready to go home, reminding him she had a celebratory dinner of coq au vin waiting for them in the crockpot, he asked if he could meet her there, explained he needed to confirm his upcoming lesson schedule with Angelica.

Sheila had hugged him and gone to collect her things.

Jay wiped his hands and headed out of the bathroom into an empty auditorium, the lights already switched off. He strode up the stage steps toward a light blazing in the back and froze, sucked in his breath.

Angelica stood illuminated in an opening between the velvet backstage curtains, head titled back, the young photographer folded over her, so immersed in kissing they did not even notice him.

Jay’s eyes filled, that sour taste again backing up in his throat.

Shaking, he turned to find the ghost of his mother waiting for him in her wool kerchief and pilled, buttoned-up car coat, the way she had outside the choir master’s door all those years ago after every failed audition, shaking her head as if it pained her.

Enough, Jay heard.

But it wasn’t his mother’s voice. It took him a moment to recognize it as his own.

He stood up as straight as he could. “That’s enough,” he mouthed.

He walked his body past her and down the steps, one, two, three. He went to his seat and put on his coat, wound the scarf around his neck.

He picked up the hairclip Sheila must have dropped that lay on the pew and turned it over in his hands. Even in the semidarkness, its imitation jewels somehow managed to catch the shallow, late afternoon light that sifted through the stained-glass windows, making them shine as bright as real ones. He studied them, working them between his fingers like beads on a rosary, before dropping the clip in his satchel.

At the outside door he looked back up at the empty stage, to where the light still burned in the crack behind the curtains, before pushing out and heading to his car.

The wind had picked up, whipping dead leaves around the parking lot, another cold front moving in.

Coq au vin weather.

He would stop at King Soopers and pick up a cherry pie on the way home.

Sheila would like that.


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