Champagne and Hot Chocolate

by Lisa Walter

We nestle into plush velvet chairs. Julia peers over the ledge and into the orchestra pit, her cheeks still rosy from December cold. We are close enough to see each musician, sense their mood as they warm up. Soon the maestro will appear, and those first lovely notes will wrap themselves around us like a blanket, each instrument holding its own to create a beautiful wholeness. I’d like to think we’re the same, each of us doing our own wild thing to create something amazing and larger than ourselves. The thought makes me a little less lonely.

Julia looks around, absorbing the scene and chattering away. I wiggle out of my coat and start flipping through the program. I think I’m listening until she grabs my hand and locks eyes with me, her own eyes bright and bursting with ten year old wisdom. “It’ll be fine, mom.” I nod slowly, stuffing the program into my purse and feeling like a child, like our roles have just reversed. I intended to read it with her, to share the background story of The Nutcracker and explain some of the scenes before it started, but she’ll figure it out. She’s not so little anymore. And she’s right. It’ll be fine. I will be fine.

I’m struck by how grownup she looks. She did her own hair tonight, braiding it into a sophisticated updo behind closed doors. I even let her borrow some of my makeup. She looks so much older with a little mascara and a touch of red lipstick, a preview of the young woman she’ll soon become. Never mind she left her room a mess as she searched for the perfect dress, clothing pulled and abandoned, left for dead on the floor like wounded soldiers. Never mind she left bobby pins and hairspray littering the bathroom counter. We’ll deal with that tomorrow.

I had my own mess to worry about. I didn’t want to come. Dread and anticipation mixed like an emotional cocktail as I got ready this evening, yanking my own dresses off their hangers and rummaging through my jewelry box as Derrick watched me from the bed. I finally settled on the earrings Aunt Charlotte gave me, the earrings I awkwardly accepted when she started giving away her earthly possessions, diamonds so sparkly they reminded me of her.

This whole night reminds me of Aunt Charlotte, her “special night with her darling niece”, she’d say. We’d zip away in her white Audi, stopping for McDonald’s on the way with opera music blaring from the stereo as we ordered Big Macs and sodas from the drive through. Surely I’d die of embarrassment if it was anyone else, but with Aunt Charlotte it was somehow impossibly cool. We’d wolf down our fries in the car and laugh out loud over the dumbest things and talk about politics and love and boys and school. I told her things I would never tell my mother. Once we found our seats at the Orpheum, we’d look over the program and ooh and ahhh over pictures of the sugar plum fairies. I’d hold her hand years past the point I would with my own mother, wandering out to the gift shop to look at porcelain ballerina ornaments hanging daintily from the Christmas tree. At intermission I ordered hot chocolate in a steaming glass mug with tufts of white sugar and whipped cream. Aunt Charlotte got champagne.

It was fast when she got sick. Cancer took sparkly Aunt Charlotte and created something different and horrifying and despicable. I hated her frail and withering body and those vacant eyes that barely recognized me when she was all doped out on pain meds those awful final weeks. I hated her hairless head, shiny and bald after months of aggressive chemotherapy and radiation treatments, desperate and futile attempts to save a woman once strong. I hated myself for hating her because she was still Aunt Charlotte, right? The answer was yes. And no.

It’s time. The chandelier slowly retreats back into the ceiling, like an upwards falling star and a hush falls over the crowd. The red curtain lifts and Julia’s smaller hand stays interlaced with mine. Derrick did right by the tickets, springing for front row seats last month as a surprise early birthday present. He’s sneaky that way. “You’ll be able to share the memory with Julia, continue the tradition. Aunt Charlotte would want that.” Dammit, he was right. I hated to admit it, but he was right. Stupid Derrick.

The first act is wonderful. We can see muscle definition of the dancer’s legs and arms, their facial expressions as they leap and plie. At times we can even hear the soft thud of pointe ballet shoes as fabric meets the floor. At one point, Julia leans over and whispers, “They all have a lot of glitter in their hair.” There’s a touch of awe in her voice and I can’t help but smile.

The curtain descends for intermission, and I think of the scenes yet to come. Magical gingerbread houses under swirls of cotton candy clouds. Land of the Sweets, Spanish Chocolate and Arabian Coffee. Julia will love it. My little Julia, growing up so crazy fast. Time catapults us forward so quickly we can barely see the individual trees through the forest. And that’s a shame.

I lean in over to her, a conspiratorial edge to my voice. “How ’bout some hot chocolate, darling girl?” Her face brightens and she nods enthusiastically. I have a sudden and irresistible craving for a glass of champagne. We wander out, but first we stop to look at delicate porcelain ballerina ornaments, hanging like icicles from Christmas trees.

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