Second Prize winner, Canadian Authors–Metro Vancouver 2017 Story Contest

The Last Opera by Susan Burns Yao

She stood softly crying into the padded grey wall.  It had been a beautiful afternoon.  A beautiful opera. The soprano was so lovely and the tenor so fine and the costumes—divine. What she could remember anyhow.

Her hearing was probably better than her vision.  It was very probable that the costumes she was seeing were those of a long ago production. Maybe just illusion. But, illusion or no, it had been a beautiful afternoon.

Her last such afternoon—the last opera of the season.  Also, her last opera.

She would not be making this jaunt into town anymore. She could not find her way there and back on her own. And she had already exhausted those of her circle who could join her. Her friends were too frail to venture into the city from the safety of their care homes or else their caregivers could not spare time to bring them. Most of her friends were already dead.  Not to put too fine a point on it, there weren’t many people left who enjoyed opera or who would put up with the experience for another’s sake.

And there was the issue of her failing memory.  Lost in the story of this afternoon’s offering, Elsie had drifted along, alternately happy or sad, following the emotion of the tale. Once it was over and her first set of tears dried leaving her face tight around the eyes and cool along the cheekbones and sides of her face, she realized she needed to get out of the great space. She realized, too, that she could not remember how to get to the washroom in which she was suddenly in desperate need.

What are you thinking of, Elsie, Elsie my love!  You better get moving old thing!

She tapped her cane on a step, one step, then another until thankfully she reached the flat area where uniformed women and men were directing patrons towards various exits.

“Sorry, miss? Miss? Sir? Sir?”

No one answered her quavering entreaties.  No one noticed her as she teetered her way towards an exit and then stood, uncertain of her next step.

She leaned against the wall beside the exit, relishing the small respite this support gave her aching bones.

What now?  What now?

There were no handrails in the large open area of the foyer.  No one to tell her which way to the nearest toilet.  Everybody was moving with purpose and speed—wind from their swift movements created fresh currents that made her shiver, deep down into her bones.

“Please! Please!” she cried softly, tears starting once again to wet her face. “Please!”

“I’m here.  Can I help?  What do you need?”

Elsie could make out swirls of colour— her eyes were clouded with cataracts and tears that made a kaleidoscope of anything in her view.

“I can’t find the washroom. I need to get to the toilet!”  Elsie was acutely aware of the indignity of this admission to a complete stranger but with choices so very limited, appealing to this apparition was an absolute necessity.

A warm hand and forearm slid along Elsie’s own and guided her along.

“I too am in need of the toilet!  Let’s go there together!”

Elsie could see now a woman, not young, but not quite old either, coppery lights sparkling from the sides of her head.  Elsie wasn’t quite sure if these weren’t the sparkling lights of a human-sized fairy, so sweetly and magically did this apparition seem to be guiding her to where she so badly needed to be.

Elsie sat and peed, a small stream of stops and starts but eventually she felt a relief that she had been afraid would not come in time. She had had the occasional accident, but certainly never had this happened at the opera.  And this her last time.  It would be too much humiliation layered onto the melancholy of this being her very last one.

She made her way to the bank of sinks and let warm water wash away the sins of her imperfect attempts to dry herself with the thin sheets of toilet paper in the toilet cubicle.

She dried her hands on rough sheets of paper towels, avoiding the loud blasts of the hand driers that she was instinctively wary of.

She shuffled and tapped her way away from the row of sinks and cubicles, entering the dim hallway leading to…she was now not quite sure.  Elsie stood in the dim hallway where light seemed to wink at her from a far-off distance.

She was not sure where she was meant to go. She remembered that she had been going somewhere pleasant. Somewhere for the last time?  What was she meant to be doing now?

Elsie leaned her hip into the padded grey wall and cried softly as swiftly moving bodies created cool currents that made her shiver.

“Oh, there you are!  Ready to go?”

Elsie felt a warm steady arm twine around her own and a human-sized fairy godmother guided Elsie to the top of the stairs. And there they were, suddenly standing in the bright foyer of the theatre where Elsie now remembered she had just listened to the opera.  Her last opera.

“It was so beautiful!” Elsie quavered, the tears ready to flow but not quite.

“It was that,” said the apparition.  “Do you have a ride coming for you?”

“My daughter, “ said Elsie. “Only I don’t have a phone. Could you help me find a pay phone?”

“I don’t think they have those anymore.  But I’ll lend you mine.  What’s your daughter’s number?”

Elsie closed her eyes for a moment, working her jaw a little as she tried to remember this piece of information.  Number?  Her daughters number?

“Wait!”  Elsie brightened as she opened her purse which contained only a handful of items—her tin of sweets, a small comb and her large folded handkerchief.  Under these was a recipe card with a phone number written in large printing and the name “Julia”.

“Her name is Julia!”  Elsie said as she handed the benevolent stranger the piece of paper.

“Julia!  My name is Julie, as it happens. Nice to meet you!”

Elsie was guided through the now almost empty foyer to a set of doors.  Her daughter was there;  her son-in-law helped her into her seat, pulling her seatbelt into place.

“It’s my last opera,” she had told the apparition as they had made their way to the exit that had been the entrance earlier that afternoon.   She could now recognize where she had come in before the opera began.

“It’s my first opera!”  said the apparition.  “I guess we were lucky to be able to see it together.”



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Historic Joy Kogawa House, the home from which author Joy Kogawa’s family was displaced in 1942, is run by a not-for-profit organization. The house now serves as a cultural and heritage centre, a site of healing and reconciliation, and a place for author residencies.