Felix went all in to help Adele with her final performance in acting class. Perhaps he was regretting that he hadn’t signed up for 201 with her; every time they hung out with friends from the first class, they said they missed him. Weeks before the end of semester, he had mapped out a plan for Adele. He chose the monologue, coached her through it line by line, designed the set, and did her hair and makeup. All because she looked like Bette Davis.
It wasn’t an easy three weeks.
There were times when Adele begged to abandon the project. One night she came really close to putting her foot down entirely. When she yet again failed to enunciate her lines with the proper Davis clarity, she tossed herself across the battered sectional in Felix’s basement. Hugging a pillow close to her chest, she suggested she might rather do the monologue from Fame, which she still remembered from high school. It was a little on the short side, but she even had the clothes she’d worn. The leg warmers were doing double duty as curtain tiebacks in her bedroom.
Felix wouldn’t hear of it.
“You’re destined for this role, Adele! Don’t be faint of heart…”
He motioned for her to stand, and she rolled her eyes, but she climbed out of the sunken cushions. She had the big eyes and the small mouth and if she could just learn to actually be dramatic and articulate all at once, while not dropping a line or forgetting a mark, then she’d be fine. His big obstacle was getting her to embrace the bigness of the part. Adele had a dry, close-lipped personality, but for this she’d need to have sweep and volume.
Secretly Adele thought the lines were corny, but Felix was protective of his heroes. “Bette exudes corruption once you get to the end and look back on it, but for at least the first half, you’re convinced she’s the classic woman wronged. She plays it so well.”
His eyes would drop to the floor each time he praised the long dead actress, as if embarrassed that Adele might feel inadequate by comparison. She could have told him she didn’t like that whole old style – people didn’t act like that anymore – but they’d had exhaustive talks about it in the past. He thought there simply wasn’t enough guts and saliva in modern theater.
That night they watched the movie together again. Maybe for the first time ever, Adele was glad she wasn’t stoned because there were some line readings that would give a nun church giggles. Glancing over at Felix, she saw a pleased little smile on his lips. With his dyed black hair and painted on brows and lips, he looked vampiric in the television light. Not that she would ever tell him; he was too vain about his looks already. He’d spent almost two months pay on green contact lenses to look like Louis from The Vampire Lestat. And one night he told her about an exhaustive face lightening regimen that involved peroxide and a nail brush.
He was silly, she thought then, growing frustrated with the movie.
“Can’t we turn it off and try the lines again?” she asked.
He agreed too readily and she wondered if subjecting her to the film had become a tactic.
“Feed me my line…”
He was about to when they heard a soft knock, telling them Felix’s mom had come down the steps and wanted to enter her son’s subterranean den.
“Hello?” Jean called out warmly.
Felix looked peeved, but Adele felt like she was getting a pardon.
“You two still working on the play?” Jean asked. She was dressed in denims that rose all the way up to her bra and a sweat shirt with an appliquéd kitten clambering anxiously out of a watering can. Her shoulder length hair was messy except for scrupulously combed bangs.
“Yes,” Adele said. “The drill sergeant never sleeps.”
“Ha, ha,” Jean laughed. “Well, Felix, you ought to give Adele a break. You two could come upstairs and eat with me. I made goulash.”
“No, Mother,” Felix said. “Maybe later.”
Adele never knew how to act around Jean. If she followed Felix’s example, her demeanor would hardly be warm. She was raised to be polite to elders, but like her friend she wasn’t always comfortable with chit-chat. As usually happened, a silence stretched between the three of them and eventually Jean edged towards the steps.
“Well, I’ll let you get back to it then…”
When she’d gone, Felix made a little face. It wasn’t exactly mocking, but it seemed to say, ‘What just happened?’ As if it were odd that a mom would offer supper to two teenagers who rarely left her basement except to go to their classes. Feeling angry at him but unsure of exactly why, Adele took a deep breath and began her monologue.
“‘I was in love with Jeff Hammond. Been in love for years. We used to meet each other, constantly, once or twice a week-”
“Can you hit those t’s a little harder? It’s like this…”
Pulling his characteristically slumped shoulders back, Felix launched into the monologue in a perfect impersonation of the old movie idol. Adele stared at him with a mouth like she was eating worms.
“You,” she said. “You ought to do it.”
“I didn’t take the class. Besides, I’m not a girl.”
She almost said maybe that was up for debate, but she bit the comment back, turning away to gather up her things. “I’m going home.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I know you’re tired-”
“I am. You’re right.”
When she turned on her car lights, they shone through the patio doors of the basement, and she saw that Felix had already put the movie back on. If she knew him at all, he’d make a run upstairs for goulash in about two minutes. But he wouldn’t eat it with Jean.
The day of the performance was hectic. Felix had made a list of all the things they needed from home. Adele would bring her own extensive makeup kit, a curling iron, bobby pins, and the 1940’s outfit she’d borrowed from one of her mother’s friends. He would bring a piece of plastic rattan valance to wrap around the base of a plant he was borrowing from the admissions lobby. This would help make the set look more Malaysian, he determined. And he had a piece of cloth his dad had brought from Guam that they could drape over the This-End-Up sofa ubiquitous to all theater department performances at the college.
Tension propelled them through makeup in near silence, but they started to get testy with one another while he was curling her hair. Worrying that he’d burn her skin and ruin the show, his hands trembled and he got the waves around her face wrong. Luckily her brow was just as high and rounded as Bette’s because he doubted he could have talked her into shaving back her hairline, even though Davis had done it herself twice in her career, both times to play Elizabeth I.
“You’re pulling!” she said, punching his arm. He was through with the iron now or else she wouldn’t have dared.
Unperturbed, he spoke through a mouthful of bobby pins, “Don’t forget the line is, ‘We’d always been so careful before about writing in the past.’ You said ‘calling’ instead twice last week and you could still hit those t’s a little more aggressively.
“I’ll pretend each one of them is you,” she muttered.
He smiled for the first time all day.
“That’s right, my queen,” Felix said. “Get it all out.”
Finally there was nothing else he could do and Felix had to leave the stage area and take a seat with the class. As he watched Adele perform her scene, he was glad they’d chosen dark green for her outfit, but he couldn’t help but feel she never quite rose above a level of emotion one might call robotic. It was worse than that she wasn’t as fiery as his favorite actress. Rather she was flat, like someone who’d never felt anything before. Maybe she was on the sociopath spectrum, he wondered. Was there a spectrum for that?
The class applauded nicely for Adele. After the curtain closed on stage, Professor Dupree studied Felix for an awkward moment. He imagined she was realizing how much of a role he’d played in Adele’s final project. Impulsively, he leaned towards her and made a bold suggestion.
“Since I’ve done so much of the work in helping Adele, do you think admissions would let me sign up for the class retroactively, if I could complete all the homework assignments before next Tuesday?”
Her eyes widening, the professor said haltingly, “I don’t think they’d go for that.”
Quelled, Felix studied his lap.
A moment later, Adele was cautiously descending from the stage in her borrowed pumps. Professor Dupree gave her an empathetic smile.
“That was an interesting choice, Adele.”
“It was all Felix,” she answered.
For a moment, it seemed that the two women were transmitting a silent message to each other. Felix felt if he had a moment, he might figure it out. But then someone up on stage was asking who brought the plastic rattan valance. They needed to break things down quickly to do their monologue from Fame.
When he was done corralling all of their props and the makeup kit, he couldn’t find Adele anywhere. The class was recomposing themselves for the next number and the professor gave him a smile that was thin.
As he stepped out of the student center to see if Adele was having a smoke, he heard Professor Dupree give a gleeful little squeal, saying aloud about the next act, “Oh, I love this one!” He shrugged, thinking with some pleasure that Dupree had always struck him as fatally boring.
Adele was sitting on a picnic table on the smoker’s terrace. She’d unbuttoned the vintage blouse a little, but left her hair up off her neck and face. In the harsh afternoon light, the makeup looked thick, but her eyes were magnificent. He shook a cigarette from his pack as he approached her.
“You were great.”
“No I wasn’t,” she said. “But I’m glad its over.”
He lit his cigarette with a lighter that had a spent flint. After a moment it sparked, but it was too late to continue to argue her defense. He said instead, “You want to come over tonight. We can watch whatever you want.”
She shrugged, “Okay.”
They both knew it would need to be something funny.