The mother watched her daughter dance: the green silk skirt hugged her thighs and flowed outward near her calves; a headpiece heavy with metal and beads and intricately folded pipe cleaners to create a fan-like crest of green and blue plumes, an imitation of a male peacock’s crown, balanced on a bun of hair with the collaborative effort of many bobby pins and hairspray. Her daughter’s arms moved more like waves than wings, as though the sharp angles of her elbows melded into flesh. When her daughter kicked upward slightly or spun so that the skirt lifted to show her ankles and feet, the mother stared at the outline of metatarsal bones exposed at the ballet slipper openings, the bones visible under a layer of thin skin and thin tights—a barred cage sitting on those feet. The mother looked away. The audience seemed enraptured. No one was getting up for free refills of spring rolls, chow mein, and potstickers.
The old man came to the performance because his now-deceased wife enjoyed these sorts of things. His wife had claimed that they were educational experiences—both from the Deep South, they had never been exposed to many cultures or international holidays, content to stay with their own folks doing their own thing. Age had changed his wife. So whenever his wife attended the performances that the senior center organized, he’d stay in their room, questioning the point of watching whatever pathetic dance or song could be thrown together for people waiting for death like them, mentality more nihilistic than normal. When she died, he made an active effort to go to the few events held each year. Not that he had anything better to do with himself anyway. And he rather liked all of the red decorations for Chinese New Year—it almost seemed like the event organizers had tried to make it an authentic cultural experience. Minus the General Tso’s chicken and other Americanized Chinese food that he enjoyed nonetheless.
When the daughter danced, she felt her arms grow feathers nearly as tall as herself, and as she spun, the floor disappeared from beneath her feet and she ascended until she could glide through the gusts holding her body above the clouds, where her wings finally stilled, riding the wind. When the music stopped, she curtsied and bowed her head. The sequins sewn at the edge of her top which ended at her midriff sparkled under the stage lights, even though real peacocks don’t sparkle; real peacocks don’t fly. She was the illusion that had ended: her beak flattened to a nose and mouth and cheekbones, her feet supported by the floor and gravity forcing her head to pound with each step she took off the stage, each pull of the headpiece against her scalp, each pulse of blood that staved off the stars that threatened to blind her.
The mother did not watch her daughter walk away to the dressing room. Her daughter, who had begun unzipping the skirt, unaware that bending down exposed a bit of spine bone whose bumps egregiously stood out from the rest of the skin. The mother sat down in an empty audience chair and wondered how the child she nourished from within her own womb, the child she and her husband scrambled for money to buy the best fruits and vegetables—a deviance from their rice and beans and chicken diet—so that she could properly grow life inside her body, the child she raised to be happy above all else could be slowly killing herself. The mother wondered what she did wrong and if she could subsume her daughter into her womb and reattach her umbilical cord and eat for two until the real world wasn’t so scary.
This woman looked to be in her late forties. The man remembered his late forties: when he began to regret never having children. There would be no one to look after him when he grew old with a myriad of health problems, no one for him or his wife to seek companionship when one of them died, no one to inherit his name or money or belongings. More than anything, he had feared dying alone in his house some arbitrary morning, where he’d fall face down into his coffee and only be discovered weeks later by the lawnmower he hired to cut the grass once a month, the speakers still playing Beethoven in the background. He had spent the last few decades coming to terms with this deep-seated fear, and now he did not so much overcome the fear as he did grow numb to it.
The lipstick came off easily but she didn’t bother with the black eyeliner, drawn to accentuate and lengthen her eyelids in a feline way. She used to not know the difference between stage makeup and day to day makeup. The difference: the former was meant for an illusion from afar, the latter up close. The daughter stared at her face in the mirror and wondered if this was really her face, or if beneath the makeup and skin, another girl puppeteered her movement. And maybe that girl too wore a mask caked with foundation and mascara and they all served the whim of a mastermind sharing their body of carbon and oxygen and hydrogen and stardust.
The mother stood up when her daughter emerged from the dressing room in jeans and a red turtleneck sweater that looked too itchy to be comfortable. It’d be a while until they could go—performers normally mingled with the senior citizens. She watched a man approach her daughter and only then did she realize how few men were in the audience. All the wives outlived their husbands, she supposed. Normally she disliked interrupting conversations with the senior citizens, but the mother was still a mother and made her way to her daughter’s side.
“There’s free food. You should go get something for dinner,” she told her daughter.
“I know mom,” the daughter said before walking over to the trays of food, picking up a paper plate and spooning out broccoli from the beef and broccoli, then skipping over the nearly empty container of fried rice for a small scoop of white rice.
“Your daughter danced very well,” the old man said. “She was like a real peacock. And I’ve never even seen one in real life.”
“Thank you,” the mother responded. She attempted to stamp out the bud of pride that the man’s words coaxed, pride for a daughter who, to dance like a bird, metamorphosized into a bird in the process. She attempted to stamp out her guilt, the only evidence that she had felt any pride at all. She attempted to stamp it all away until she saw only wrinkles and weltschmerz when she looked at the man’s face.
The senior citizens began to exit the room, a cool breeze slipping through the open door, whispering secrets smothered by the night. The mother and daughter left together, both of them silent as though they had run out of words to say, as though there were not a civilization’s worth of words to convey meaning. The old man followed out the door, knowing the next day would come with little resistance, his body too full of Move Free supplements and a sudden, excruciating sorrow at the thought that he could not break free of this body and commence flight.