exhale2-1

Washington, DC – No matter how dark you think backstage is, you are mistaken: it’s darker. I stumble forward, trying not to get tangled in the black curtain two steps away from my entrance. The fluorescent strike tape takes five minutes to come into effect, which gives me three hundred seconds to blink rapidly in an effort to make them go faster. (Understandably, it’s never worked.) I thrust my arms out to find the splintering set piece that is made to look like a house; instead my hands make contact with the arm of a castmate.

“My wall?”

“A little to your left. There – no, there.” she guides me to the creaking plywood with her voice, and I whisper a silent thank you, stepping up onto a platform. My feet move forward of their own accord, but the still-throbbing bruise on my hip reminds me to step around the jagged edge of the door. There are voices behind and in front of me; mumbling lines and cues with the strangest frantic calm – we are forbidden to be loud in our panic. I breathe out, hoping it will help me let go of the tightness in my lungs. It doesn’t. I try again, bringing my hands up to my face, and I feel the knot in my chest loosen minutely. I adjust my costume, hissing when the line of my skirt cuts into the bruise.

“Could I grab a lottery ticket?” I whisper over my shoulder, holding a hand behind me. The murmur of voices ceases momentarily, before I hear the request being relayed back to the wings. A piece of laminated paper is pressed into my hand, and I stuff it in between my skirt and my skin. I breathe out as the cool plastic soothes the bump. Silently thanking the gods for props, I stretch out my arms, reaching for the seven-foot ceiling. I do this until I am straining on my tiptoes, before rolling down until my fingernails scrape the floor. Sunrise, sunset, I think, and allow myself a smile. I roll back up, and try to exhale again. A small, sweaty hand clutches mine briefly before letting go.

“Two minutes to curtain.”

The smile disappears; I drop every muscle in my face as though I am asleep, and start muttering my lines, monotone and hushed. I hear the footsteps of everyone around me, tripping over lighting cords and props and air in their haste to get to where they need to be. The panic is quiet and choking, but somehow distant, like there’s water in my ears. I feel like I am removed; watching my own dismay. We are barely making a sound, and yet I can hear every breath, every word, every silent prayer ringing in my ears like I was screaming it from my own mouth.

I hear five different people counting down from sixty. None of them are on the same number. The orchestra starts up, the last strains of string tuning fading into the opening cue. I slacken my jaw, standing with my hand just above the doorknob. I breathe out one last time, searching my lungs for the tightness that was latticed over my chest a second ago.

I can’t seem to find it.

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