They say we are equal before God.
But could two Huskies be compared? The one,
whose only life priorities are meeting the owner, being stroked, and wagging its tail.
The other, born in the snowdrift by virtue of its own strength and prowess,
lives triumphantly in a hostile environment where only the strongest survive.
Ink black darkness made it almost impossible to see anything inside the old, abandoned opera house. Suddenly, the darkness was interrupted by a light coming from the hand lamp of a young woman entering the building.
“Julia? Are you there? The carnival is over. Everyone is looking for you. “
“Julia?” The woman rushed to the orchestra pit. Julia’s body, breathless and bleeding, lay behind a large, black piano. The young woman approached carefully, stepping over the Svarovski crystal-studded train of Julia’s gown.
“Oh, Julia, no!” the woman shouted, checking for a pulse and finding none. “Who did this to you?” But there was no answer, “What will happen to your twins? Your husband?”
The woman carefully closed Julia’s eyes and made a firm promise. “I will find whoever did this to you and make them pay.”
She yelled for help, still holding her cousin’s hand,
Julia… a name of careful deliberation and passive consideration; the kind of name that was treated with the same care as everything else in her life; something written down and stuffed into a vast fruit basket enjoyed by Julia’s mother to celebrate her birth… Julia. A name chosen deliberately by the man who would become her father… A man who—by her 13th birthday—had abandoned his family to court his mistress, whisking himself away to whatever country.
Julia’s mother was a proud woman. It’s why, when all was said and done, that she left with nothing but that pride in tow, hoping that he would come back after learning the error of his ways—maybe even change his attitude again. Julia’s father left her with two children as quickly as he could. It was holding out this whole time that led to her father quickly finding his new passion in life, discarding his old wife by giving her an apartment to live in while happily forgetting about his family’s existence. Yes, pride was not much to live on, after all… living in a small, decrepit home that once belonged to her parents in the middle of nowhere while she worked two jobs, with extra jobs on the side, to make ends meet. Odd jobs that came her way… washing laundry, sewing clothes, cleaning homes, making deliveries. Still, there were times when it wasn’t enough to put food on their table, and Julia’ mother soon had many wrinkles on her face from sleepless nights and constant stress. As far as Julia could remember, her early childhood had her and her sister, Stephanie, in rags and tattered pieces of oily cloth.
Julia tried to question her mother about the life they led, confronting her in the late evenings when her mother finally relaxed after a more-than-tiring day. She did what she could to get the truth from her. Why did her mother not do more to secure their future? Why would she not willingly give up the lives they led just to preserve her pride?
“But Mother, how can we live like this?!” Julia shouted as her mother—irate and saddened by her daughter’s words—knocked over an empty glass on the table with a wave of her dismissive hand.
“Should daughter instruct mother on the finer ways of providing for our family?” her mother shot back in snide discourse, smiling ruefully as she shoved the glass toward Julia with reckless abandon. “Could you better provide for us? Go then, and let your hard work and tears provide for this family!”
It was most saddening when—in her most dire time of need—Julia would watch other children as they went off to school, advancing their education, while she was at the hospital with her mother, cleaning and scrubbing floors. Even worse, she and her mother would eventually make their way to the schools to clean the floors once all the children were out and home for the day. It was an endless cycle of menial labor to compensate for one’s wounded pride.
Being that Julia was the eldest daughter in the family, her mother was under the very harsh and assumption that Julia was required to help her in these times. If she did not have Julia’s help in this life, she would simply reach one slippery step, clutch her heart and keel over from sheer heartbreak. Of course, she used that guilt to get Julia up at five in the morning to wash porches on her hands and knees.
And then there were the fights. Oh, she could never forget the fights, the times she would yell and scream at her mother, “I hate your prideful ways Mother. I hate that you cannot confess that we need help. You would have us live like animals just because you want nothing to do with the man I call Father!
To hell with dignity, and to hell with this life!”
Her mother knew as well as she did that it was never meant to last forever. Julia had pushed herself as far as she could go, but she had no more lines to draw. Now, she had to enforce them. So through the fights and the backbreaking work, Julia just envisioned her life as someone else, swearing to herself and the gods above that she would never wind up like her mother. She wouldn’t grow old and gray at forty; she wouldn’t spend her whole life with her head in the sand; and she would actually ‘Live’ her life, not just survive it.
To hell with pride. After all, what did it gain her? False dignity and shame so that others could live the way she wanted while she labored on her hands and knees, scrubbing the floor like some bad dream…
It wasn’t until Julia turned eighteen that she finally decided to act on finding a better job, maybe even escape somewhere—escape from the nightmare that was her mother’s life.
That ‘someday’ came very soon and unexpectedly, when Julia sat at the table and carefully read the ‘Help Wanted’ ads in the paper. It had become a ritual for Julia, though—the same time every single day as she went about her routine. Good jobs weren’t in abundance, and it was rapidly becoming a hopeless search, but still she spent her afternoons during break circling want ads in the paper.
One day, though, wasn’t entirely lost, as her sister Stephanie spent that afternoon helping her go through the paper. Julia tore herself away for a moment and smiled warmly as she cupped her sister’s cheeks in both her hands.
“I am sorry, Steph, I just wish to find a better life… for both of us! God bless her until the end of days, but our mother does not have the strength to give us what we need. We will have to make our new lives for ourselves.”
Julia could only hope, though, as she looked ruefully at her younger sister for a passing moment. But as she heard Stephanie crinkling the paper, passing through the ad after ad her hope returned, until her sister gave a slight yelp and leapt from the bed to tackle her where she sat.
Julia freed herself and grabbed the paper. “Hmmm, jobs in fast food, laundry…”
Dear Julia! Dear Julia!” Stephanie shouted, and it took Julia a moment before she could calm her down and ask what had gotten her so excited.
“Here, dear sister! Here!” she said, thrusting her finger at the paper in Julia’s hands. Look! An advertisement of a new modeling agency that has opened in our town. You should try it. You look pretty!”
“Do you really think so? It’s better than working in fast food restaurants or cleaning houses, but… but I don’t even have a dress to wear!”
“I have some things in my closet that I used to wear. They should fit you. We’ll try them on and go from there.”
They went into the bedroom. Stephanie rummaged around in her closet and started pulling out some dresses.
“Here is a pretty one,” Julia said, holding up a bright red satin gown studded with crystals, beads, and sequins.
“I wore that at a club once,” said Stephanie, remembering one of the few nights she had been able to afford a night out.
“It’s a great dress. Like something a movie star would wear.”
“Or a singer. Try it on.” Stephanie said, rummaging through her closet to pull out a hat, gloves, and high-heeled shoes. “These go with the gown. See if they fit.”
The gown fit like a glove and left Julia just enough room to breathe and walk. “Umm…”
“No, you won’t. Just don’t bend over. “Stephanie laughed. “I’ve got a little fake fur stole that you can wear over your shoulders. Hmmm… your hair…”
A curling iron and lots of brushing followed. “There, that’s better,” Stephanie said as she sprayed a cloud of hair spray around Julia’s head. “Now, make-up. “
“Oh, my God. Is that me?” Julia asked as she looked at her reflection. Looking back from the mirror wasn’t a washerwoman or chambermaid, but a beautiful woman ready for an elegant evening.
And yet her sister knew Julia well. Of all the things in life that Julia had, she never had the confidence to assume she was a beautiful woman. Still, her younger sister wrapped her arms lovingly about Julia’s waist and guided her toward the mirror. She then discarded the paper in the waste basket, convinced Julia wouldn’t need it anymore.
“Is it so crazy in this little world we live in? People pay left and right for the indelicacies of life. So why not beauty?”
The next day, Julia took part in the casting and… surprisingly, got a modeling job after a hard competition. She plunged into the unknown life—shows, shootings, presentations… Champagne, parties… professional cosmetics, stylish hairstyles, beautiful outfits… everything was good, except for one thing: her salary was so small that the money went away in a moment. She always wanted more.
The following summer, she was invited to the city for a festival celebrating youthful fashion. Julia soon arrived, and after having successfully gone through several hours of registration upon arrival, she went to the airport with very little luggage in the arms but high hopes in the heart.
The city was nothing like she was used to. The heart of this provincial girl was pounding because she was nothing like the quiet calm of the town where she grew up. It was a bustling, big city, and she struggled to keep pace. Balanced on narrow, three-inch heels, she rolled her luggage through the airport, the excitement staying with, for now she realized the previous period of her life had ended. Tomorrow meant a new life, unusual and unknown …
After finding a secure place, Julia humbly sat on a bench of gray iron, peering peered into the crowd. Deafening sounds surrounded her, the newly arrived throng of people seduced by the city’s attractions, drawn to the lights like the moths; a fertile ground of unfulfilled ambitions and the promise of paradise. People from all over the world now landed in this city of big dreams, perhaps with plans, hopes and illusions of their own, running or walking hurriedly throughout the airport, seeking friends, family and colleagues to help them fulfill their dreams.
But for young Julia, sitting alone on the cold metal bench, there were no friends, no family, no parents. She was alone in this city of millions. She knew it should be impossible to feel alone when surrounded by people, but she had no one.
Julia passed through an endless stream of people. She did not think she would ever find her way out of the airport, but she finally made it to the curb where a porter hailed a taxi. The rhythm of a big city, it seemed, echoed in her heart .The supermarkets, drug stores and shopping centers were decorated in dazzling lights of every color. There were different smells and sounds, and cars of every shape and size rushed by.
The cab driver spoke over his shoulder. “They call this the city that never sleeps. Can you see why?”
Julia could see why, comparing the contrasts apparent in this big city—illusion and reality, well-lit squares and dark alleys, beggars and millionaires… the city that never sleeps, where life is always seething and raging…
The collection was a resounding success. The models were inspired, the prospect of profitable contracts looming ahead, prize money dangled in front of them like precious diamonds. Before leaving,
they decided to celebrate at an upscale restaurant with a dance floor and live band.
A man in a black leather jacket standing in the doorway made Julia shiver. Something about him made her skin crawl. But once inside, she forgot about him. The food was delicious! The girls, aware of their departure tomorrow, soon got drunk. Julia stood, wobbling on her feet and casting a glance at the stage. She sashayed over, kicked off her high heels, and climbed up to the microphone. She tapped it a couple of times, sending a dull thud through the speakers.
“Do you sing as good as you look?” The owner of the restaurant looked her up and down. She only nodded in response, tempted to let her singing be her answer. Before she got out one note, however, the man interrupted him. “My name is Alex. I own this restaurant.”
“Julia. It’s nice to meet you.”
-I’ll tell the band to let you sing something, and we’ll see. A good as pretty as you could pack this place.” Alex walked toward the bar where the band was ordering its next round of drinks.
“I don’t know if I can do this,” Julia whispered to one of the models.
“Sure you can. You said you could sing. Now you can prove it!”
Julia sighed and returned to the stage. She noticed that Alex kept staring at her while she sang. It was disconcerting.
The crowd applauded loudly and a few guys whistled when she finished. As she stepped down from the stage, the crowd called for her to sing another song. Alex, however, took her arm. It was all Julia could do to smile and not pull away.
“Well, I guess I found myself a new singer,” he said. Scattering in compliments, he gave Julia a luxuriously packaged bouquet of flowers and invited her to join at his table. “Stay here in the city. I will definitely take care of you.”
Julia went back to the hotel. She could not sleep for a long time because as soon as she closed her eyes, she saw that same picture: a girl back in her small town without any means of support, contacts, or education, working in a laundry or fast food restaurant.
The next day, Alex came to see Julia in the lobby as she prepared to check out of the hotel. He repeated his offer, but this time, when Julia heard exactly what he was offering, any doubts she had vanished like smoke. Five thousand dollars a month, a paid apartment in the city, and a car! For a girl from the sticks it was a fortune! Alex seemed like a good magician from a fairy tale, but her euphoria did not last long. Alex paid her just as he promised, and even gave her the car and put her in a nicely furnished apartment, and then announced to the world—from the stage at his restaurant—that Julia was his mistress. She swallowed the insult, knowing it was this or a trip back home to poverty. Over time, Julia learned to hide her true feelings, skillfully imitating non-existent passion and keeping Alex’s terrible jealous in check. She had to endure…
As it turned out later, Alex was into racketeering, providing a roof for some entertaining institutions in one of the city’s seedier districts. He firmly controlled these enterprises and received a large amount of money to keep them quiet and profitable.
Julia’s life was more fortunate than those of many other women her age, which caused other young women to whisper behind her back, enjoying secret smiles of mingled mockery and jealousy at her expense. Despite their petty jealousies, Julia was successful. Her eyes still sparkled like the stars in the midnight sky, and her skin had a soft, warm glow, especially when she sang. Her lips formed a perfectly subtle pout that drew all eyes to her when she wore her favorite shade of lipstick. Her angelic voice caused the patrons of the restaurant to set down their drinks and stop their conversations. People came to the restaurant simply to hear Julia sing, but after every performance she found herself walking home alone…
Alex always got what he wanted. If he wasn’t happy, then no one in his employ was happy.
One day, Alex came close to Julia and said through his teeth, “I’ll give you exactly ten minutes to freshen up and go on stage. Do you understand me?”
“I do,” she said with tears in her eyes. Julia nodded and dragged her body into the dressing room.
“Whether you like it or not, I’ll always be behind you!” Julia wished he would disappear from her life. But it seemed no one wanted his death…
“I have urgent business, Julia. You just make sure the show goes well and the patrons stay happy. If you forget the words or refuse to sing again, I will make a dishwasher out of you! See you tomorrow.”
That evening, Julia locked eyes with a man in the audience quite by accident. For that one frozen eternity, she could not pull her eyes away. There was a flutter in her chest as she continued singing, uninterrupted.
Julia wasn’t a diva, and she’d never seen herself as special… until he made his appearance, and kept returning each night to hear her sing, whereupon she stepped blithely onto a gleaming pedestal and allowed herself to bask in the nervous, uncertain pleasure of his eyes until the end of her performance. So it was that, when her gallant stranger showed up regularly for her performances—every night, at precisely nine o’clock—she fashioned her own image and quietly filled the void she’d long felt in her life with the presence of the hazel-eyed man whose name she didn’t know.
Then he would be gone. She knew the time, and eventually learned to force her eyes away from him until she knew his seat would be empty. No name, no words—her stranger was a tingling enigma around the edges of her existence.
He’d ordered another drink and was still watching… No… she was mistaken, she realized, as her breath caught in her throat mid-applause and she stood mutely at the edge of the stage without her gracious smile and elegant departure. Finally, she found both as she smiled and, at last, stepped out of the spotlight—but his eyes were still on her, her mistake in the fact that he was in a different seat, tonight.
For some strange reason, he was one seat further from the stage.
An invitation? Julia felt an unfamiliar feeling of butterflies in her stomach. In her mind, her gallant stranger was asking her to join him, leaving her his usual space. His dinner jacket was draped over the back of his usual chair, his eyes still on her. He’d moved away so that he wasn’t being forceful, but he wanted her to sit where he usually sat… was that possessive? Was it manipulative? Or was it her imagination carrying her, step by step, smiling as though it were any other night, and he any other casual admirer who, at the end of the evening, would leave her to venture home alone, like they always did.
Like he always does.
“Hi there…” She was smiling, but it was a cold fear of wrongdoing that had her beautiful eyes wide. The man paused mid-drink and set his glass down. His mistake or hers? Her heart was beating… “Hi there ..?” Is that the best you can manage? It was the most forward she had ever been with anyone at this restaurant. “I’m Julia.”
“I know.” A pause… “I’m Michael. It’s… wonderful…” Spoken softly, lingering, with a spark of emphasis long lost on that over-used word. “…wonderful… to meet you.” Was he as nervous as she? As unsettled by the crowd, unnerved by the attention, but pulled—perhaps even torn—by the conflicting desires of watching from afar. Would he stumble taking this initial step toward heaven?
The bouquet of flowers with which Julia left the restaurant that night suggested otherwise… or, maybe, it didn’t, but she was beaming as, on this particular night, she called her a cab to take her home. She didn’t have to walk the distance. Roses… She was smiling. How had he known? They were perfect…
Everything… she thought, as she slowly drifted to sleep in the warm glow of the streetlamps outside of her window and the lingering, tingling feeling dancing its way down her spine from when he’d flashed that warm smile and given her his roses—no, her roses. …Everything is perfect.
Julia felt like she’d been born again after she met Michael. She felt confident, and with it came resolve. She wanted a new life, come what may. She didn’t want to live it alone.
The day soon came when Michael and Julia left the restaurant together. They ran off to another city entirely: first by cab, and then on foot, bathed in the naughty romance of eloping. Every day they shared was a little holiday for Julia, after which she scarcely thought of ever returning to her former life. It would feel so empty, now.
Another bouquet of roses was waiting for her one evening, along with a note.
She found it between the flowers… Marry? She thought for a moment, then took it as a joke and put the postcard in the trash. He isn’t serious. Why does he need these illusions? Girls like me never get married, she thought, drinking wine to calm down.
He was serious.
And in finding out, the cold fear of uncertainty returned, dimly recalled from their very first night together, clumsy greetings and charming smiles everywhere. There were stars in her sky again, and yet, there was something a little frightening. But he was able to convince her of his sincerity, and much doubt, she finally believed him. Then Julia recklessly fell in love with him… and after falling in love, decided to forget irrevocably about her past…
The wedding was small and quiet; modest in most every way. There was a fire crackling in a cozy fireplace, and Champagne, expensive and exquisite… Waking up later that night, she spent a long time simply admiring her husband. He was handsome, with a courageous face, high cheekbones, a stubborn mouth—everything about him made her smile.
Nine months later, Julia gave birth to twin daughters. They were beautiful, with their father’s hazel eyes and her dark hair. Michael was overjoyed with his beautiful baby girls, and falling in love with his wife all over again.
Julia was smiling, but only on the outside. Michael had asked her—begged, even—not to worry. Now, however, she had to concern herself with her children. It brought back the past she had vowed to forget. Alex hadn’t been happy about losing his star, and one or two expensive patrons hadn’t been willing to let her go. This kind of fear was different. It didn’t tempt; it didn’t excite. It was a cold and empty thing, not unfamiliar to the one-time starlet’s earlier life when the edge of the street was illuminated by the streetlamps and ringed by shadows marking the end of all things. Now there was a big world beyond the lights, and where there was room, there were monsters. For all the space she had on which to run, they had to chase her.
Somehow, running still seemed the only thing she could do. Perhaps the shadows in her dreams would stay one step behind her forever.
Some years later there was a carnival inside an old, long-abandoned opera house which had been recently restored and refurbished. Julia decided to go, and to wear her favorite dress, one of those she wore when she sang.
It feels good to dress up again, she thought as she got ready. She fixed her hair and put on her make-up. She would stand out tonight and recapture some of that old feeling. Maybe, despite the lights, I’ll be able to see the stars on my home tonight.
Costumed people were throwing beads, hurtling candy, and indiscriminately tossing small toys into the crowd. There were so many people, and they were all so loud, hollering and bantering in sheer delight.
Julia decided to take a walk on her own, along the edges of the opera house, where the refurbishing was less intensive and the lights less bright. The carnival was a delight, but… well, it simply wasn’t what it had once been, and what she thought it might become again.
Venturing outside, Julia discovered it was a cold night and it made her walk more enjoyable. So few other people were out. She enjoyed ignoring the world half the time finding that it once had paid too much attention to her—like the tall, oddly-dressed woman in baggy clothes standing by the front door of the old opera building who couldn’t take her eyes off Julia. She stared at Julia with an intense curiosity that quickly turned to disgust. Julia expected the woman to walk away, but instead she stood there, always watching her.
Something about her was… wrong, off somehow, and Julia quickened her pace toward her car. The fear overriding her senses was everything it was meant to be… and, yet, somehow familiar:
“Excuse me.” An impossible voice. “Do you have a cigarette?”
“No, I’m sorry—” Oh, God… I’m so sorry.
Julia recognized him. It was Alex.
“You thought you could just leave? Leave us?” Dark eyes glinted in the light of the streetlamps and the gleaming decorations of the opera house. There were no stars overhead. “Leave me? I found you.” His eyes were burning into her, and her bright tears couldn’t put out the fire—neither his, nor hers. “I thought you loved me. What a fool I was, Julia. I thought you could love me. I took you off the streets and brought you into high society. Wasn’t that enough!”
“Please…” She struggled to hold her eyes to his, but couldn’t stand to meet his gaze. “It’s… it’s over. Please, just go away.”
“You think you can do what you want” His ice-cold stare finally smothered the flames. “Do you know who you’re playing with, dolly?”
Julia’s heart was beating faster than ever before.
“You played with power. With me. I got used to getting everything I want. Everything. And nothing ever stopped me. I had power over everything, but not you? That has to change?”
Julia stood, muted, too terrified to move.
Alex pulled his hand out of his oversized coat’s pocket. He clenched a bright, shiny gun in his hand. The trigger was covered by a finger concealed in a bulky, oversized lady’s evening glove. Formal woman’s attire, like the coat. Like everything else.
“Did you really think I would go away?” His voice ripped with pain as the fire returned, along with the tears that couldn’t quench it. “I just took one step back. I waited, Julia… I waited for you to come back. I waited… so long…”
It felt like that first night, only this time Julia screamed. She broke away and tried to run, but there wasn’t any place to go. Opera… car… bushes… road… tree… God, help, where..? Then, there was a gun barrel pressed to her side…
The sound of the gunshot went utterly unheard amid the roar of the carnival, and the bright colors and flashing lights made sure there weren’t any witnesses—only a strange, solitary woman on the unmonitored security cameras escaping into the dark of a starless night.