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Performance Anxiety
   by Marjorie Carlson Davis

Smoke stacks puff cloud-like steam. Over the ferry's railings, seagulls squawk and dive for bread in blue air while a little girl runs around a circular bank of seats singing, "Mary had a little lamb." Every time she reaches her father's legs, she stops and rests her head on his knees, the rough fabric of his jeans scratching her cheek, the salty smell of him filling her nose. He pats her head and she moves again, running and singing, dizzy, dizzy with sun and wind and the movement of the boat. "Mary had a little lamb . . . " She stops. Her head rests on smooth material. Her nose fills with a foreign, lemony scent. She looks up, backs away. This is not her father; it is some white-haired stranger in a dark suit. The man chuckles. Her father, two seats away, chuckles. "Here, Katie, I'm right here," he says. Katie runs to her father, crawls into his lap, and hides her head in his familiar odor. She is four years old, and this is her first embarrassing moment, her first conscious memory of a performance gone wrong.
In brightly-lit hallways, children giggle and peek at parents perched uncomfortably on child-size chairs. Tonight the second graders are performing a musical montage of historical songs. Katie is to sing the second verse to "Johnny Appleseed" and has practiced and practiced, her high-pitched voice squeaking out the words. Her fine, straight hair is braided into two plaits. Dressed in shorts, a T-shirt, and a vest, with a burlap sack over her shoulder, she gathers with the other Johnny Appleseeds at one side of the room. The night sky in the picture windows is their backdrop. Hands fidget. Slender legs tremble and twitch. Ping. Ping. Ping. The music teacher, Mrs. Clarke, plays the opening notes on the piano, and the first Johnny, Ben Howe, steps forward, belting out his verse. Then it is her turn. Katie moves toward the front as Ben steps back. The first line flows out of her mouth beautifully, clear, melodious. All the parents smile. Her mother and father nod proudly. When she opens her mouth for line two, nothing comes out. Her mind is as blank as the dark sky behind her. A child in the back row snickers. Mrs. Clarke mouths the lines, plays the opening over again, but it is too late. Other parents smile encouragingly, but Katie sees her father's worried expression. His mouth is moving as if he is forming the words she is supposed to sing. She runs crying to her parents, smashes her face against her father's chest. Johnny Appleseed #3 takes up where she left off.
Kate's friends, Andrea Miller and Sabrina Jenkins, convince her to join them in performing a song at the junior high school talent show. The girls dress like flower children from the 60s, with white go-go boots and miniskirts. The show begins. Graham Cooper puffs out a jazz tune on his trumpet. Randy Walker juggles. Then the three girls walk out onto the stage, their boot heels tapping wood. The air is hot and smells of old sweat socks and popcorn. Katie scans the students' upturned faces students in the packed gymnasium. In one corner, the popular eighth grade boys are gathered, arms crossed over their chests. Katie sees Scott DiAmato, a boy she has had a crush on since fifth grade. His face is twisted into what she thinks is a smirk. Suddenly she wishes she had not agreed to do this. She wishes they had not chosen to wear go-go boots and miniskirts. She wishes they were not singing such a sappy song, "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing," a tune the Coke companies appropriated for a commercial. Just a few words into the song, when they get to the "....perfect harmony" line, Katie's voice wavers. Sabrina is missing notes as well. The crowd begins laughing, and Katie can see the eighth grade boys whispering comments to each other. She realizes the audience thinks the girls intended this as a joke. Blinking away a tear, Katie finishes the song but decides this is her last public performance.
Standing with her first boyfriend, Brian O'Neill, on a bridge at the edge of town, Katie leans on the railing. Lights sparkle along the riverbanks while a breeze brings sounds of distant laughter and the high, repetitive beat of disco music. A sharp, brown odor of decay lifts off the water. Brian, eighteen and a senior, has selected her, singled her out from the other freshman girls. He noticed her because one day they wore the same shimmery knit shirts patterned with leaves, and he teased her, saying she wore a boy's shirt. When Brian showed up at Katie's house for their first date, her father spent fifteen minutes interrogating the boy and embarrassed Katie by saying, "Take care of my girl." Katie knows other students are aware of Brian's attention toward her, and she hears girls and boys whispering as she passes in the halls: "He always picks out some cute freshman." "She probably puts out." "She's got it made; she'll be popular now." Her classmates' comments flatter and intimidate her; she feels she has some undefined standard she must reach, that there is a collective expectation for her, though she's not sure what it is. Now when Brian leans down to kiss her, the smell of his Polo cologne thickens her throat. His wet, fleshy lips press against hers, and she feels her own lips stiffen and dry out. "What's wrong?" he asks. "Don't you like kissing me?" She nods her head. "Yes, I do," Katie mumbles and tries to moisten her lips, tries harder to get things right.
Katie is with her long-time crush Scott DiAmato, parked in his Trans Am on a country road while REO's "Roll with the Changes" plays on the radio. Outside the window, insects pop and hum in the weeds. Now that Katie's with Scott, she's not sure how much she likes him. Scott picks his nose when he thinks people aren't looking, he snorts when he laughs, and instead of dancing with her at school dances, he plays air guitar with his friends. Katie's father has taken an instant dislike to the boy and hides behind his newspaper when Scott is in the house. Another strike against him is that Katie's mother plays bridge with Scott's mother and believes Scott is prime boyfriend material. "He'll be a lawyer someday like his father," her mother tells her, and Katie rolls her eyes. Her friends are envious too. "He's so good looking," they croon. To Katie, each date feels like an exam. Scott's car smells like old, wet towels and spoiled McDonald's hamburgers; the parking brake stabs her thigh. Katie wonders what her father would think if she knew what she and Scott are doing right now. Her mouth is on his penis, and he keeps pushing her head down farther, down into the sour, unwashed smell of him. She is afraid she will gag, afraid she will scrape his flesh with her teeth, afraid she will fail this test.
In college, even with the sexual revolution behind her and AIDS only beginning, Katie's sexual experiences are limited. She loses her virginity to a boy named Rod, and the irony of his name embarrasses her. She's also mortified that Rod has a fascination with Prince and has somehow made his stringy blond hair pouf out so that it looks chemically straightened. He wears jeans that are way too tight to accentuate his anatomy, and he is proud of his endurance, bragging of hour-long sexual performances. To the strains of "Purple Rain," amidst clouds of sickly sweet pot smoke, Rod grunts and groans on top of her, while Katie silently conjugates German verbs and does math equations to keep herself occupied. The rest of Katie's relationships in college are short-lived and superficial, ranging from boys her father would approve of to people he would not: long-haired stoners and a woman with honey-scented breath, who strokes Katie's leg and whispers, "Maybe your problem is with men; maybe you should try a woman."
Kate begins a career in computer programming, just woman and machine, a quiet, autonomous job. Typing the long strings of numbers and letters, listening to the hum of electricity comforts her. At home in her clean, spare apartment, she sleeps with her cat Presario curled at her feet. When her father dies, after a long bout with cancer, Kate feels plunged early into the soul-searching of middle age. She questions her life, wonders why she can't find someone to love. When she goes out to smoky taverns, sitting at gleaming wood bars, sipping lukewarm beers, Kate talks to men, sometimes ending up in bed with one. Between his semen-stained, sweat-smelling sheets, sometimes on top, sometimes missionary position, she doesn't care as long as he doesn't have expectations, doesn't ask questions like "Was that good for you?" Afterwards she feels more alone than ever.
Dr. Greene allows Kate to smoke, a habit she's picked up to keep her weight down, now that she's in her thirties. Dr. Greene is too good-looking for her taste. She expected a therapist with round glasses and a beard, someone who looked like Freud maybe, not this clean-shaven, blue-eyed man, with slender, graceful hands, and sensual lips. Kate is nervous about telling this man her problems, especially when sexual images of the two of them float through her mind. But she talks to him anyway, in his bright office with white couches, an expensive Turkish rug on the floor, healthy green plants around the room, instrumental jazz playing faintly. Puffing halos of clove-scented smoke, she tells of her childhood, charts her sexual history, searches for reasons for her dysfunction. She talks of her father, of going with him on business trips. He sold college textbooks and Kate recalls traipsing in and out of dusty, book-filled offices; remembers that her father's car smelled of new paper and binding glue. She tells Dr. Greene of the special side trips her father took her on—a ferry ride in Minnesota, a cornfield maze in Iowa. Of her mother, all Kate will say is that she is a perfectionist and that her continual refrain is, "Life is a performance; you must please others." "You'll probably say I have an Oedipal complex or the one who hated her mother," she says once. Dr. Greene smiles and shakes his head. "Psychoanalytic theory has rejected the Electra complex," he explains, then adds, "but we can explore your thoughts on this." Mostly he doesn't say much, only nods, and occasionally asks questions. Kate watches his long, tapered fingers caress his knee, stroke his chin, until one day he interrupts her with, "I can't be your therapist anymore. I'm attracted to you."
Now that Dr. Green—or Simon, as Kate calls him—is a potential lover ("We'll take it slow," he tells her), she discovers he has a sense of humor. He does Freud imitations, sucking in his cheeks, rubbing an imaginary beard, and affecting an Austrian accent: "I tink dis voman has a case of hysteria." Simon is also an amateur botanist. In the spring, when pollen suffuses the air with a greenish haze, he takes her mushroom hunting in damp, yeasty smelling woods, pointing out dead elm trees. Together they bend, breathing in the odor of loam and decay, push aside dried leaves to discover gray, wrinkled fungi, which Kate says look like little phalluses. Later in the bright, yellow air of summer, Simon leads her through botanical gardens, directing her to smell lavender and lemon balm, spreading lily petals for her to stroke the soft interiors. With Simon, Kate feels relaxed and childlike, no pressures, no expectations. Their dates remind her of those childhood trips with her father.
Jasmine incense sends scented spirals into the candle-lit room. "To relax you," Simon says. They lie naked on his white comforter, listening to New Age music. She admires his long legs, his dark body hair, finds even his slight paunch endearing. "Remember this is not a performance," he tells her and circles one breast with his long fingers. Soon he is moving over her, but just as he's about to enter her, he suddenly flops onto the bed, like a bird shot and spiraling down. He sighs, the back of his hand thrown over his forehead. "This has happened before," he tells her. "I'm attracted to you, Kate. It's not you." Surprisingly, Kate doesn't take his failure personally; it doesn't worry or upset her. Instead it liberates her. She wants to giggle like a little girl; to jump up and sing, to run around his white bedroom in the jasmine-scented air. She leans over, breathing in the clean smell of him, dizzy, dizzy with power, pleasure, and this time, her need to perform.

Copyright©2003 Marjorie Carlson Davis

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