Dolores struggled to pull out the wad of mail stuffed into her tiny mailbox. She was stretching on her tiptoes to reach it. The lobby of the six-floor walk-up tenement where she lived was littered with pizza boxes and take-away menus. An incessant growl from the West Side Highway, one block away, sent a familiar vibration beneath her feet as she trudged toward the stairs, clutching the three-day pile of letters. Pulling her emergency Marlboro Light from behind her ear, she scowled at the sticky steps ahead.
“This don’t get any easier after 30 years!”
Flicking through the bills and circulars, she shuffled up the six floors to her small one-bedroom rent controlled apartment. She took a pause at every landing for a long reparative breath, clutching her heaving chest, before having another protracted puff on her diminishing cigarette. On the fifth floor she dropped the bundle of letters she was leafing through with a gasp. One remained in her trembling hand. The spidery red ink scrawl was unmistakeable; she hadn’t seen that handwriting in 12 years. There was no return address and the postmark was blurred. Pressing it to her breast, she stubbed out her cigarette under her slipper. She gathered up the scattered mail and stuffed it into the pockets of her tatty housecoat. With as deep a breath as she could muster, she hurried up the remaining stairs and aimed her quivering key at the lock.
Zachary, her elderly Ginger Tom, meowed and pushed his plumpness against her legs.
“Not now, Zach!”
Dolores dumped the mail on the small sofa. Then she placed the one with the red address on the table by the window, with reverence. She poured a cup of coffee from the pot on the stove and lit another cigarette. The Hudson River was just visible through the grime on the glass that was compounded daily by the fumes and dirt from the booming highway below. Her fingers gently stroked the letter as she gazed through the gloom.
She pulled out the solitary stool from under the table and sat down, drawing deeply on her Marlboro before balancing it in the groove of the ashtray. She turned the letter over: there was a shaky kiss crossing the point of the seal, written in the same red ink. Wiping a dirty knife on a dishtowel, she carefully inserted it into the flap and cut along the top of the envelope. Inside there was one folded sheet of notepaper, wrapped around a photograph and a glossy colorful flier, folded in two. She unfolded the latter and smoothed it flat on the table and, with a slow smile of recognition, picked up her glasses and peered at it. Her eyes filled with tears and she kissed the image.
“Gigi, I thought you were dead!”
Superimposed over a photograph of two heavily made-up, air brushed blonde women, gold letters announced: “Final Performance at the Roseland Ballroom, W. 52nd Street. Dolores & Gigi, ‘The Midas Twins.’ April 3rd & 4th.”
Dolores wiped her eyes and began to smile as she examined the gold dresses they were wearing, looking every inch like twins with their matching blonde beehives and white furs. Two 50-year-olds trying to look 30. The photograph showed a very bleary-eyed Gigi planting a kiss on her puckered lips. They’d been like sisters all those years, practically living with one another, sharing everything. Gigi had always looked out for her then; she had grown to depend on her completely. Some of the song and dance routines played in her head again and she could hear the applause as if a Broadway audience was right there in her grubby apartment. Zachary had been her sole audience for many years now.
“Those were fine days,” she said, picking up the folded paper.
It was typewritten but she recognized Gigi’s red scribbled “G” at the bottom.
“G, I miss you!”
She spread it flat beside the flyer. With a return address of Malcolm X Boulevard in Harlem, dated April 17, 2009, it said:
“My Dearest Dol: Sorry will never cover how I feel. There’s no excuse for just disappearing like that. I want to try and explain to you what made me do it. I can’t forgive myself for giving up on what we were to each other for all those years. We weren’t just an act, we were close — family even. It seems like yesterday, you and me — up at Cloisters, rehearsing. Jeez, what people must have thought, the stuff we got up to there! I’ve sat there every day going back over it all, since I got back from my travels. Don’t you miss those days? I miss working with you. Above all, I miss your company, sweet Dol. I hope you feel the same honey. Anyway, I have something very important to tell you. So much has changed since we last met. My biggest regret is letting it all happen without your knowledge. Will you meet me at our old haunt so we can put all these wasted years behind us? This is so very important to me Dol. I know this is out of the blue but please, please come. It’ll mean the world to me. I’ll wait for you between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. on Wednesday, April 29. All my Love, G.”
Dolores read the letter several times. “No apartment or street number, no phone. Why so mysterious, Gigi?”
She pushed her fingers into the envelope. She held the page up to the light and sniffed it. What could Gigi possibly want after all these years? There had never been a bad word between them, but they hadn’t spoken in almost 12 years. Gigi’s farewell had been an empty apartment, no note, nothing. All that love, all that closeness, gone without a word. Gigi would have done anything for her back then. It was unthinkable that she’d simply disappear. What could she want now? Did she want to start up again, at their age? She stood up and paced the small carpet, occasionally stopping to gaze out over the Hudson. Costumes, lights, songs began to fill her head. The audiences loved them back then. Were those audiences still out there? Waiting tables in the Flame Diner wasn’t really cutting it for Dolores.
She went into the bathroom and dropped her housecoat to the floor, revealing her pink baby-doll pajamas. Lifting up the top, she examined her sagging breasts in the mirror.
“Jesus! These puppies are gonna need some help!”
For the rest of that week and the early part of the next, Dolores pulled out old suitcases from under her bed. She yanked boxes from the top of her wardrobe and trunks from her basement storeroom. Eventually she had put together a whole outfit that would be just right for her meeting with Gigi. On the evening of April 28, she picked up the phone and dialed the Flame Diner.
“Frank? Oh hullo Frank, honey. I’m just calling to say I won’t be in for the morning shift. I have a doctor’s appointment uptown . . . yeah sure, yeah I guess I’ll be back for the lunches. . . .”
Dolores emerged from the subway at 190th Street looking radiant. Her gold lamé jeans could have been sprayed on. The spangles on her bomber jacket glinted and glittered and her girlish blonde curls adorned the lapels. Eighteen-carat curb chains reflected their glint over her jowly over-painted face and turkey neck, the only part of her look that gave the game away. She looked at her watch and grimaced. It was 9:20 a.m. It would take 10 minutes, probably more in these shoes and she hoped that Gigi wouldn’t think she was a no-show. As she teetered along the sidewalk on her gold stilettos, she chuckled at the wolf whistles she received from the hard-hatted workmen on the buildings opposite.
You still got it, girl!
Her heart was pounding and she felt constricted by her push-up bra as the Cloisters came into view. A few weak sunbeams were pushing their way through breaking cloud, giving her a faint sense that the spotlights were getting ready to shine on her again. She opened the gate into the lush gardens. This was her oasis in the concrete north tip of Manhattan and had always been an inspiration — invariably a break from the everyday claustrophobia of her life. Up ahead she could see the gothic arches that had often acted as a proscenium for their latest routines. The two of them would appear from the gloom of an arch, into the sunshine, belting out a new number. That’s where Gigi would be waiting.
As she walked into The Cloisters from the gardens, darkness engulfed her. She stood for a few seconds and listened, unable to see. Silence. There was rarely anyone there that early in the day.
“Gigi? G? . . . it’s Dol, are you there honey?”
Her voice echoed through the dark stone chambers. No reply. Then she thought she heard a low cough, deep inside the darkness.
“G, is that you?”
Another cough, then the sound of some throat clearing.
“Hello Dol, I’m here honey. I’m in the cloister right up by the museum. The one with the stone benches.”
Her voice reached Dolores’s ears with its familiar sing-song Queens accent. But it sounded hoarse and cracked, deeper than she remembered. A cold realization began to wash over her. Gigi was sick! She made her way deeper into the darkness, her eyes gradually becoming more accustomed to the lack of light. She saw Gigi’s silhouette, sitting cross-legged on one of the benches off to the left. She looked much thinner than she remembered. Her hair was cropped tight to her head. When she got closer she could see it was completely white. Suddenly she felt overdressed and foolish.
“Gigi, honey, you’ve lost so much weight! What’s wrong?”
Gigi stood up and came closer. Dolores could see she was dressed in a dark suit: a shapeless trouser suit. So different from the sort of feminine flamboyance she favored in their heyday.
“Dol, you look fabulous! You haven’t changed a bit honey. You’re just as beautiful as I remember.”
Dolores was shocked by how deep Gigi’s voice was and how thin her face looked; above all by how hoarse she sounded. Gigi wouldn’t be singing any day soon!
“What have you done to your beautiful hair, G?”
Gigi came closer to her and placed her hands on her shoulders. She brought her face close and now Dolores noticed some faint, grey stubble on her cheeks. Gigi cleared her throat.
“Dol, honey, I’m George now. I’ve been George for the past eight years. Actually, deep down, I’ve always been George.”
Dolores gasped and clutched her chest. All color drained from her, and her dark lips pursed and twisted into a scar. Her disgust was palpable.
“Dol, I want us to be together, can’t you see? I’ve always loved you!”
She pulled George’s hands from her shoulders like they were burning her and turned her back on him.
“Oh G, you broke my heart once. I thought you were dead! Now you want to do it all over again!”
“Dol, you’re all I’ve ever wanted. You must have known that!”
She didn’t turn around. She couldn’t bear to look at him.
“We were sisters, Gigi. Sisters! You know how much that meant to me? That’s gone forever now!”
She ran, stumbling toward the light and into the gardens, without looking back.
“Dol, come back! Please!”
The clouds had darkened, making her look small and tarnished. Tears streamed down her face, leaking dark mascara trails like cracks over her heavily powdered mask. As she approached the subway steps, wolf whistles emanated from the building site opposite once more. One spangled arm stiffened skywards with a middle finger protruding from its clenched fist as she descended into the gloom of the ticket hall.
As the roar of the subway met her ears and she smelled the musty odor of the waiting crowds behind the barriers she felt an inexorable sob rise in her chest. I can’t give up on all these years!
Moments later, she returned to the street, wiping her face, and ran back to the Cloisters as fast as her stilettos would let her.
Fin C. Gray is a resident of Amagansett, New York City, and London. A native of Scotland, he is studying for a master of arts degree in creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University, and working on a novel.