Crowded with scenery, the storage rooms of the Opera House are never silent. The old cardboard and wood sets seem to breathe as they shifts, gravity slowly doing its work on the heavier cloth and paint and plastic glued all over them. A perpetual cool, musty smell permeates the space, and the air is full of dust.
Lena coughs and the magical quiet is broken. She is looking for a crown for Cleopatra. She tried to explain to the director that the Egyptians didn’t wear Western crowns, but he wants one anyway. He’s a dolt, a pompous man in his forties who knows quite a lot about the music but very little about theatrics. Opera, Lena knows, is the essential and rarely achievable mixture of the two; it is a gentle recipe, to be handled with the hands of a gourmet chef, not a meat grinder.
Some of the older costumes are shoved in here on old metal racks. The kind of crown that the director wants to try on his Cleo – as he calls her, familiarly, as if she’s his mistress – is here, Lena knows. She’s been working here for seven years. She sometimes sleeps in the storage room, when she and Alicia are having a fight. The guards don’t bother checking the storage room before locking up for the night, because it stays locked unless things are being removed from it or put back. Lena is one of the people who has the key. She’s trusted.
Fights with Alicia have become more frequent recently. Alicia is ten years older than Lena, and she’s growing tired of her younger partner’s lifestyle. She never says this openly. She fights with Lena about other things, the laundry, the garbage, the dishes, the mundane facts of life. When Lena tries to fight back, Alicia slams her against the wall, beads of sweat standing out in the dips of her collarbone, and then they kiss and end up in bed. This isn’t productive, and so Lena has been leaving the apartment instead of fighting back most of the time. She loves Alicia, but she’s stopped liking her. She’s pretty sure that it’s a bad idea to maintain a partnership with someone whose chatter about the day’s news has become irksome and grating.
The crown is exactly where Lena remembers seeing it, between a sequined plus-size black dress and a shawl of deep-red that she’s pretty sure belong to Carmen, star of her own opera. Lena tries the crown on, but it’s too big and it slips down over her eyes and stops at her ears, which bulge out of her small head. She smiles at herself, alone in the storage room, her refuge, and takes the thing off. She rubs at the fake red rubies with her sleeve but they don’t shine or gleam; they’ve been purposefully made not to glint, probably so they wouldn’t catch the strong stage lights and blind the audience. Whoever made it actually knew what they were doing, Lena thinks with appreciation.
Lena carries the crown back to the director who takes it and thanks her out of the side of his mouth. It’s a trick he has, speaking sideways like this. She thought only cartoon characters could do it. She asks him if he needs anything else and he shakes his head, already jumping onto the stage to hand the crown to his Cleo, who’s fanning herself with one of the prop palm leaves.
Back in the dressing rooms, Lena gets back to her real job, which is Assistant Costumer B. Assistant Costumer A is a nice, brisk man in his late thirties who’s married and has two young children who sometimes come to work with him and sit underneath the dressing tables, reverentially quiet, staring wide-eyed at the glamorous clothes. Lena wondered once whether it was quite normal for them to be so well-behaved, but when she leaned down to say hi to them she saw that they were both sucking on long-lasting lollipops that they always got as an incentive for staying silent. They whispered to her that they also got an extra dollar on their allowance if they didn’t make a mess. Their mother, apparently, was some political activist who sometimes needed to dash off to protest something, somewhere, which would be when she’d drop them off at the Opera House.
Lena sometimes wished she were part of Assistant Costumer A’s family rather than her own. She sometimes wished she could go home with him, maybe as a new cousin or a live-in nanny, and never go back to live with Alicia.