She opens a drawer, rummages through it, and takes out a black t-shirt. She shakes it out and holds it up, studying it in the late afternoon light. She sighs and puts it into the laundry basket and resumes her search through the drawer.
“Please tell me it’s in here.” She pulls out a second black t-shirt, laying it out on her son’s rumpled blue coverlet. The closet door is open and she moves the hangers to one side, taking out elastic-waist black dress pants. She carries the shirt and pants down to the kitchen where she sets the iron atop the ironing board.
Her husband sits on the couch reading. The television is on and her other son and a daughter watch the screen intently.
“Is Cliff in there?” She places one leg of the pants on the board, smoothing down the pocket. When no one answers, her voice rises over the noise from the TV. “Is Cliff in there? Anyone?”
Her husband stands up and stretches. “I think he’s in the bathroom.”
“Oh my God.” She puts down the iron and runs to the bathroom. Cliff is standing at the sink, pumping out the last of the hand soap under the running water. Soap foam is scattered in frothy piles around the sink top, pooled on the floor and soaked into his shirt. She watches a trail of foam slide down the door of the vanity. He steps away, dripping water onto the ceramic tile. His eyes widen when he sees his mother’s face. His bottom lip and his chin are covered with foam.
She places her hand on her forehead, and Cliff runs out of the bathroom. Her lips are pursed, and she begins to wipe up the mess with paper towels. She hears her husband say, “Oh no, Cliff, what did you do?” He laughs. His brother and sister laugh. She shuts the bathroom door with a quiet click, leaning against the wall. She cries noiselessly.
Someone turns up the volume on the television. She blows her nose, dabbing her eyes carefully around her makeup, and returns to finish her ironing.
“Cliff, it’s time to get dressed for the show. Come on.” He is dancing in a circle, one hand on his hip and the other holding his iPod in front of him. She signs to him, “Time to go,” and he follows her up the stairs to his room. “Take off your headphones a second.” She helps him out of his damp t-shirt and shorts.
“Try not to make a mess now. You’re going to be on stage today. Your dance show is today.” She touches his cheek and feels beard stubble. He smiles at her and puts his headphones back on. “Cliff, remember you can’t have your iPod with you on the stage. Understand?” Her voice is firm, her eyes tired. He responds with a loud sigh.
He follows her downstairs, stopping in the hallway that leads to the garage. He slips into his Velcro sneakers and carries tap shoes in an athletic bag stitched with his name out to the car. He climbs into the back seat of the mini-van, switching back and forth from one side of the car to the other three times before he puts on his seatbelt.
She calls out to her husband, son and daughter. “Let’s go or we’re gonna be late!” She puts on her coat and they follow her out to the driveway. Her husband is holding tickets in his hand, and gives them to her before he turns the key in the ignition. He turns the radio on and their daughter hums to the music as they drive to the theater.
Inside the theater they weave through the people standing in the crowded lobby. She hands her husband all but one of the tickets. “You guys go ahead and find your seats. I have to help Cliff with the rest of his costume.”
She takes Cliff’s hand and walks him down the corridor to the dressing room. Everyone else is already there, completely dressed in their costumes. She finds the black top hat and sparkly green jacket hanging up behind a small, curtained area and holds the jacket out to him. “Okay, time to take off the headphones.” Cliff is still, holding his mother’s gaze.
“Cliff, come on. You have to get ready for your dance now.” Her eyes are stern. Cliff looks past her.
She reaches for his headphones and he takes a step back. “No!”
“Cliff, I’ll hold onto your music in my purse. You can have it back after the show.” Her arm is outstretched to receive the iPod and headphones. He turns and runs to the door of the dressing room and stops when she yells, “Clifford Taylor!”
He allows her to put on the jacket, and she hands the hat to someone. “He won’t keep the hat on, so have him put it on just before he goes on.”
She turns back to him, and takes a deep breath. “Okay, Cliff. I have to go sit down now. Let me hold your head phones.”
“No!” He backs away from her.
“Listen, you have to leave them here. You can’t wear them on stage!”
He turns away from her. “If I see you with your headphones on that stage, we are NOT going to the restaurant!”
She waits a beat and repeats herself, adding, “I mean it, Cliff.”
A girl dressed in a ball gown hears her and steps in front of Cliff. “Cliff, you have to listen to your mom.”
She leaves the room, and barely returns the smiles from the parents lining the hallway.
Her husband waves to her from his seat and she sits down with her arms crossed. “Just so you know, I told him we’re not taking him out to dinner if he’s wearing those fucking headphones onstage.” Her husband and her kids glance at each other, silent. He pats her thigh.
The curtain rises, and they watch as dancers move across the small stage. Her arms remain crossed through each successive act, until she adjusts herself in the seat when Cliff is introduced. The lights come up and he steps onto the stage holding his instructor’s arm. He is wearing the green, sparkly jacket and no hat. The music starts. She watches, unsmiling, as he does the entire routine wearing his headphones and holding the iPod in one hand. The crowd erupts into applause and whistles. Some yell out his name. Her husband and kids are clapping, and she looks down at her shoes.
She is silent when they walk out to the parking lot. Cliff is giggling, his arms around his brother and sister.
“Good job, Cliff! You’re a great dancer!” He tightens his arms around their necks.
They pile into the car and her husband is in his seat holding the keys in his hand. “Well, what do you want to do?”
Her eyes are focused on the dashboard. “I already told him we weren’t going out if he didn’t take off his headphones. So we’re not going out. Period.”
He starts the car, clears his throat and waits. “Well… what do you want to do for dinner then?”
She turns away and looks out the window. Her daughter taps Cliff on the arm, and forms the sign for “I love you” as their father drives slowly toward the exit.