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A Play in Progress

Charley and Andy sit together on their brand new sofa, in their luxury condominium overlooking the beautiful Victoria harbour. Charley is a stunningly beautiful woman, well matched by her handsome husband, but her brow is furrowed. She wants an honest relationship with Andy, and she has been working up to this with difficulty.

"When we met, I didn't know you," she says. Her husband appears unmoved.

"I hung onto you because I wanted a baby. Because Mina had a baby."

Mina has been the love of Charley's life since they were little girls together. They have shared every secret, every hope and fear. A year ago, Mina gave up on their ever getting it together, and eloped with a stranger in the same predicament. Ronnie was unprepossessing, but he was a decent and kindly man. Mina came back pregnant with his son. Charley had never seen her so happy.

"And now I love you, even if you can't be with her." Charley's voice becomes wistful. "I was hoping Tom wouldn't mind her."

Andy's perfect features twist into an expression of regret. "I'm grateful that you're with Tom," he ventures. He and Tom have been together almost as long as Charley and Mina. They met Charley on a trip to Vancouver, and Andy brought her back to Victoria the next day.

Charley nods. "Our little girl will play with Mina's little boy."

"And with Tom's," adds Andy. "It'll be beautiful."

In a poorer part of town, a long haired youth sits on a chair with peeling paint, a scuffed cello case propped up beside him. Muffled explosions emanate from the telephone receiver in his hand.

"Of all the people in the world, you chose to sleep with somebody I know!"

Mickey is taken aback. "Emma!" he chokes into the receiver, "What are you talking about? I hate to think how many lovers you have!"

"And she's not my agent," the explosions continue, "She's the maid! What did you think you were going to get from her?"

"I wasn't trying to get anything!" yells Mickey. "I'm a cellist!"

"Why did you do such a crazy thing?"

"You were never around, and she reminded me of you. After I found out about the other men...."

"Do not sleep with anyone I know! Ever!"

Mickey becomes sardonic. "So, what's this? A rule, suddenly?"

"And of all things, with the maid! How could you? The maid!"

"Money's so damn important to you, isn't it!" snaps Mickey. "You know what? You're poor! You know that? You're incapable of a real relationship! You'll never know what it is to love another person!" The receiver comes down with a bang.

"Job snob," he mutters, and reached for his cello case. What a dreadful woman. So different from Charley.

Baby Annie is fast asleep, and Charley is cutting vegetables for dinner when Emma walks into the kitchen. Emma has no children, and her business suit contrasts with Charley's sweat pants and loose shirt. She puts her arm around Charley, who returns the hug and continues working.

"Hi, hon," says Charley. "How'd it go with Mickey?"

"Usual thing," yawns Emma.

"But you did explain."

"No," Emma waves her hand dismissively. "It was impossible."

"I think he should be given a chance. I'll talk to him." Never has Charley explained the facts of life to a straight college student, but there's a first time for everything.

"I'm finished with the kid."

Charley looks at Emma intently. "I'm not even started. You never know, he's very fond of Mina. Says she has a heart of gold, says looks don't matter as much as character. Nice guy. What if he went for her on the rebound?"

Emma yawns again.

"Mina and I, we have to take every chance we can get. There's been so much pain, that's why she got married and had her baby without me. If it weren't for you I couldn't stand the separation."

"You two were famous in Vancouver, you went through so many guys. Too bad it never worked out."

"That's why she married Ronnie. Had enough with glamour boys who didn't want her."

"Pity they can't live here," offers Emma.

"He can't be expected to uproot," says Charley. "It's not fair."

"Never met him," says Emma. "He wasn't in the pretty crowd, you know."

Charley pays Mickey a visit and explains everything to him, and next time Mina is in town their happiness begins. Andy doesn't seem threatened, and as the months go by everything just seems to get better and better. It's as close as Charley and Mina ever come to their dream. They have Mickey, some of the time, and their children play together, some of the time, and that's good enough for them. And Andy is a good father to little Annie.

Life is sweet, until the inevitable happens. When Mickey appears on the doorstep, Charley needs only one look at Annie's face. How can a child so young understand so much? But she does. Clearly, she does. And it's not good.

"You can't come here!" hisses Charley. "He's my husband! He's the father of my child!"

She turns hastily to Andy. At that moment she'll say anything to stop Annie's lower lip from trembling. She has to stop that lower lip from trembling. She hates Mickey for hurting her baby. Without shame, the words come out. "It's just some kid I met, Andy. I'm sorry, this is so unfair to you."

But Andy is looking at Mickey. "No, let me say something," he interrupts. "I know I can't give Charley what she needs. If you can do this I don't mind, as long as Charley's happy."

Mickey is already on his way out.

Charley gets down on her knees and holds her baby tight. "Everything's fine, my darling," she reassures her baby. "Your Mommy and your Daddy are together forever. You never have to worry about that! Never!" Still hugging Annie, who is sucking her thumb, Charley looks up at Andy. "I'll always feel sick about what I did to him just then."

Andy looks down at his wife with gentle reassurance. "It's all right," he says encouragingly. "You don't have to feel bad."

Mina becomes more and more distraught after this incident. She has always considered herself a burden to her beloved life companion. Pleasantly plump in the wrong places, with a plain little face, Mina is adorable to Charley. Apparently men do not feel the same way. Her next visit to Victoria is her last.

"My Mina," says Charley softly. "You're so upset."

"This'll happen again and again," Mina protests in a shaky voice. "I know it could never work with Mickey, but it's too unequal for any man, being pitted against Andy. Not one of them will stay for long, they'll just be hurt. I can't take it any more, seeing them go for you and not me. And it's bad for Ronnie. A lot of pain."

"Think I could go for Ronnie at this late date?" ventures Charley, grasping at straws. Both of them know she can never pull it off.

"Too insulting, the comparison with Andy. I asked already."

"It'll be just us then, the way it was before Mickey," says Charley hopefully.

Mina's voice is full of tears. "I know about Emma," she sighs. "And I know Andy and Tom are with her."

Charley's palm rises in protest. "Emma's a friend, don't worry about that."

"It's too great a distance," Mina sobs.

"No, we can do it!" urges Charley.

Mina's voice has risen to a wail. "I started this whole mess by running off and getting pregnant!"

"Yes, you did," says Charley hastily, "but it wasn't deliberate". She sighs. "You were so sure we'd never get it together."

"How many times do you try? Over and over, they'd go for you, then the one who got stuck with me wanted out. I'm just a burden to you. I've always been a burden to you! How do you think I feel?"

Suddenly she breaks. Charley looks down at her weeping softly, and tries to pick her up. "Look at you!" gasps Mina, "You have it all now! What do you want with me? I have to go, Charley!"

And the matter is out of Charley's hands.

Annie sits on the floor of her bedroom, playing with her doctor's kit. Her mother looks fondly from the door.

"Such a good girl." murmurs Charley. She has become wan and thin, and there are circles under her lovely eyes.

Annie looks up at her. "I'm learning how to make you well again," she says.

"Your Mommy loves you very much," Charley's tired voice speaks tenderly. After a pause she adds, "And you know it's not your job to make Mommy okay. When I'm sick, it's not your fault, at all, at all."

Annie gets up and takes her mother's hand. Matter-of-factly she says, "You come over to the bed, and I'm going to take care of you".

Charley allows herself to be led, and shakily gets on the bed. Annie climbs up beside her. Charley bends over to look into Annie's eyes.

"You're my shining little star, you are." Unintentionally, she starts to lean on her daughter.

"Why don't you just lie down," says the little girl, "and I'll make everything better. There you go."

One push has her mother lying down.

"I'm going to get my doctor's kit. You just stay there."

"Such a good girl," comes Charley's weak voice.

Annie gets her kit, returns and pushes a plastic thermometer in her mother's mouth.

"Under the tongue," she says. "That's right."

She ties a ribbon around Charley's upper arm and squeezes the little rubber pump attached to it.

"I'm going to take your blood pressure now," she announces. "You're all cold, you know. I'm going to rub your hands." And she rubs first the right hand, then the left.

"Now I'm going to get my stefascope. Don't you move."

She rummages in her kit and brings out a plastic stethoscope which she puts around her neck, plugging her ears with some difficulty, since the earplugs keep falling out. She places the other end on her mother's chest repeatedly.

With authority the little girl announces, "You have a broken heart. I can hear it."

Since Mina can't bear to visit Victoria, Mickey occasionally sees her in Vancouver. The first time he makes the trip he pays for his ticket, but arrives broke at the ferry terminal. Over styrofoam cups of bad coffee they remember Charley and contemplate her future.

"That child is all that's pure in her life," he says. "They'll have more, and she'll want them since they're all she has. And that's how he'll keep her."

"He gave her what she wanted," answers Mina sadly.

"Don't think he's doing it for her. It's the same as you and Ronnie."

"Ronnie never asked me to move. And it was Charley who turned him down. Ronnie's been badly hurt, what with one thing and another."

"I'm sorry he found out about me," says Mickey. There is a pause.

"I had a child," Mina sighs. "Charley wanted one too."

"It was daring of Andy, getting her pregnant against all the odds. Very romantic." Mickey's voice is bitter. "But she paid all the prices, while he got his perfect three. She should have waited."

"He used her love for me," says Mina in a broken little voice. "He could afford to make that speech to you. And at the same time he couldn't afford not to."

"It was Charley who insulted me. I really thought she'd choose me."

"The child is attached to her father. And you can't even buy your own coffee. You don't know how many straight young guys run off on women like us. And he's very devoted to his family. But of course! He gets things that way." Mina stops herself with a small, impatient gesture. "Who am I kidding? I brought it upon us, running off and marrying someone Charley didn't want. We were doomed long before Andy."

"All I know is, three people wanted you out of there. Five, if you count the lovers."

"I just saw dogs fighting over a slab of meat," says Mina miserably. "So I left. It was killing her."

"I saw Emma being tolerated and Charley turned into a queen bee. Tell you what I didn't see, and it's me as the back door man."

"They're just looking for a place in the sun," answers Mina sadly. "And everything they did, Charley asked them to do."

Twelve years later, a Satanic poster hangs on the wall of Annie's room, and her sweet little face is smeared with black mascara. Charley is still beautiful, but is showing her age. She knows that within a year her baby will be moving out, and she welcomes the opportunity to sit on Annie's bed and chat.

"You're my angel," she murmurs. It's a habit now.

Annie bounces up and moves away from her mother on the bed. She lies still, leaning on her elbow.

"Mom!" she protests loudly, "I'm not your little girl any more! I'm a slut, okay? I'm a slut!"

She starts to cry. Charley becomes frantic.

"No! Never say that!" she cries. "Never say that! You're my angel! My little angel!"

Annie is shocked at her mother's reaction. She sits up again and looks at Charley silently. "Can't I have feelings too?" she asks in a tiny voice.

"I'm sorry," says Charley hastily. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to do that."

"You and Dad do the angel thing, okay? You can pull it off. It's not for me."

Charley looks down at her hands. It seems time for a heart-to-heart. "I know ours is a hard road. Very daunting when you're young. Sometimes it seems impossible." She pauses. "I hope it works out better for you than it did for me."

"You were okay before Emma left to have the baby," offers Annie cautiously.

"You're what I live for," replies her mother. "I can't bear to hear you put yourself down."

"This is not fair." Annie's voice sounds flat.

"I'm sorry, honey. But you're pure as the driven snow. Don't say you're not."

"Are you going to be okay when I'm gone? I worry about you. This purity thing is a load of crap."

"No," says Charley. "No, it's not... um... garbage. Lots of people get it together and it works. And even when they don't, they're pure. Their hearts are pure."

"Like you and Dad?" asks Annie in a small voice.

Charley looks down again. "Your father has been very generous and kind," she explains slowly. "He went through a great deal for me. I gave him a hard time long ago, hanging on to someone who didn't deserve my love, someone who betrayed me. And I feel that I owe him forever."

"This is confusing," says Annie.

"I've tried so hard to make you happy. You're the reason for everything I do. And I've been a failure," finishes Charley forlornly.

"No," says her daughter. "You haven't." She pauses before continuing. "I think, you know, if you really love somebody, then even if you do everything wrong... you did okay. And if you don't really love somebody, then even if you do everything right, and everything's perfect... it's not."

Charley looks solemnly at her child. "No dear," she says quietly. "I don't suppose it is."

graphic courtesy of Matt Ginzton and Jeremy Ginsberg
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