Columbus, Ohio 1919
I felt nothing but relief when the front door slammed shut. Usually, on every other night for the past month, I would have been thrown into a state of frenzied anxiety. Whenever Charles went out, I was left to wonder. What time would he be back? Should I keep dinner warm? What mood would he be in? Not tonight. Tonight, the whole house, small as it was, seemed to be screaming that I was free. He was gone, I was free. It didn’t matter what time he came home or if he felt like putting his fist through the wall when he did, because I would be gone.
I felt like a ghost moving into my bedroom. It was as if I had already gotten away and the room was full of distant memories. I slid my suitcase out from under the bed, where it had sat since I had come to live here when we were married and started to fill it. I was relieved that nearly everything fit. I would have to abandon a few things- my wedding dress, one winter coat, a bathing costume- but nothing that would be missed.
I pinned a hat onto my head, stepped into a coat, and was out the door as quickly as I could manage. Charles had only been gone ten minutes or so, which meant I had at least a few hours before anyone would know to look for me. Even so, I let the veiling settled on the top of the hat fall over my face, obscuring it. I silently thanked my mother for purchasing such an ostentatious item.
The problem quickly became where to go. That was what I hadn’t thought through. My dash for freedom had been the subject of nearly every daydream since Charles had come home from the war, but it had taken me nearly three months to convince myself to act. Now that I had, I realized that I hadn’t planned far enough ahead. The handbag I clutched close to my chest contained only fifteen dollars. That would be enough to get me on a train to see my parents, but if they refused me, I would be penniless and sent back to my husband.
“No. I have to find another way.”
I wandered towards downtown, praying that I wouldn’t encounter any unsavory characters. I passed advertisements for workers, mostly for factory jobs and farmhands, but it gave me an idea. If I could find a job, any job, I would be able to feed and house myself. Staying in Ohio wouldn’t be ideal, but if I was smart, I could save up enough to get away soon.
A handwritten sign outside a cabaret read “dancers wanted.” I smiled wryly to myself. Maybe I wouldn’t take any job after all. Then I heard footsteps behind me. The kind made by large feet in work boots. My scruples cast aside, I tossed myself into the dimly lit doorway.
A tall man with a pinched face looked down his nose at me. “We`re closed.”
“I saw the sign.” I gestured dumbly with my elbow, trying to balance my handbag and suitcase. My voice came out reedy and pleading.
“Oh.” His voice had a nasal quality I didn’t appreciate. “We are holding auditions for a dance company, ballet dancers. You are a dancer?”
I had taken a few dance lessons as a child, a very long time ago. I was desperate, hoping it would be enough. “Not professionally. I do know ballet.”
He pursed his lips. I knew he didn’t believe me. “Oh? One moment.”
He turned to a man tucked behind a dilapidated looking piano and murmured too low for me to hear. The man nodded in response. When he turned back to me his face gave me no hints as to what had been said. “The director has gone home for the night. The company is short a dancer, I have been instructed to send her along if anyone else qualified came in. Do you want to audition?” His expression dared me to carry on my bluff.
“Yes, please.” I set my bags on the table nearest the piano, ignoring the residue of cigarette ash and who knows what else. When I laid my hat and coat on top, I felt nearly naked. The dress I had been wearing around the house today felt insubstantial against the chill of the room.
“Do you have dancing shoes?”
“No.” I remembered enough to know that I couldn’t dance with stiff-soled shoes on. I stepped out of mine in spite of my revulsion. To my great relief, the floor near the piano seemed to be both clean and dry. I ran the steps I remembered through my head, saying a silent prayer. The piano sounded nearly as bad as it looked. My chest lightened when I heard it croak forth the first tinny note. It was easy to feel graceful in comparison. I straightened my back, making sure to keep my chin raised and my expression plastered into a serene smile.
I counted beats in my head, going through my best approximation of a plie. Then when I lifted up, I pressed onto the balls of my feet and brought my arms over my head as fluidly as I could. I gave a small spin that I hope resembled a pirouette. The pianist coughed, and the notes stopped. He lit a cigarette, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he was supposed to be playing music for me. I would be eternally grateful, because I had run out of ideas.
The tall man looked me up and down with a sneer. Finally, after what felt like months of waiting, he sighed defeatedly. “Well, you certainly look like a dancer. I suppose you will do.”
Even in the face of his reluctance, and the unspoken words about my inadequacy, I was overjoyed. “Thank you, sir.”
He watched with a look of utter boredom as I got myself back into my shoes, coat, and hat, before he spoke again. “What is your name.”
“Esme…” I wouldn’t tell him my last name, or my maiden name, for fear of being found. I offered, after what I hoped was only a brief pause, the first thing that came to mind. “Bennet.”
He rolled his eyes. “Well Esme Bennet, here is the address.” He handed me a folded slip of paper, giving the address of a hotel three blocks away. “Meet the company there, they leave in the morning.”
As I stepped back into the dark street, I clutched the paper to my chest as if it were my most prized possession. I was safe. I was free.