The audience was somewhere out there. The lights blazing the stage were so bright and the pit below her feet so black that for all she knew they could have been performing to an empty room.
But as always, their telltale signs gave them away.
The persistent aroma of sweetened cocktails with just a dash of booze to keep the ladies perky, intertwined with equally as potent mixture of perfume and cologne. The invading smells of hard liquor and cigarettes which would fan over the room and then fade just as fast.
The flow of cool dusty air that pushed out towards the stage every time someone moved the heavy velvet curtain on their way to the bar.
And of course the most important, what every performer lived and died for - their voices, the lifeline that connected the stage to the darkness below.
She didn't know if they were full tonight, but the applause sounded pretty decent. The scent was especially heavy on Channels and Burberrys. That's right, she thought, NFR is in town. As if in response she glimpsed a cowboy hat block the beam of the projector as its owner briefly stood up, allowing someone to pass.
She was doing Britney, a personal favorite that normally she looked forward to greatly. But tonight she wasn't really feeling it.
Finally here was her closing routine, a crowd favorite. The dancers stirred around her with jerky forms. Every couple of moves she would join them making sure to reconnect with the microphone just in time for the next line of the chorus.
She could see more cowboy hats now as the audience began to join in and dance.
Then abruptly the song ended and after a split second the darkness filled with applause, overwhelming Lilianna the MC who was making her way onto the stage for a few jokes and to call the next number.
As she stood frozen, waiting for the curtain, her gaze fixed on one of the dancers. She began examining his features like she was seeing them for the first time. They looked waxy, like a doll. Is that what I look like, she wondered.
"Fantastic as always Valentine, my dear!" called out Ariana, marching past her. "You rock that Britney!" "Oh stop! YOU do it better!"
Ariana was Cher tonight and already in character. She looked stunning, like a lioness she moved with purpose and confidence.
A woman to admire, Valentine thought as she listened to the muffled announcement from backstage:
"Please welcome the diva that has far more outfits that I do but wears a lot less of them. Ladies and Gentlemen it's CHEEEEEEER!"
"Valentine!" called out the stage manager "You are done for the night. Change if you want to, we don't need you for the closing act."
Startled, Valentine's hand darted to her chest.
The letter that was ruining her night was hidden in her bra, the safest place she could think of in the five seconds she had before she had to go onstage.
Relieved that it was intact she quickly retreated.
Backstage was always an adjustment. The theatre was old and the narrow hallways here were dim, stuffy and smelled of mildew. The sounds of the performance upstairs faded with every step.
Valentine fluttered her thick lashes trying to adjust to the light. After running into a couple of stage hands she darted into the dressing room she shared with Ariana.
Catching her breath she sat in front of the mirror and began rereading her secret letter.
"Dear Mr. Valentine. We are pleased to inform you that you have been selected as the top candidate for the lead tenor at the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
We were highly impressed by your talent and we are excited at the prospect of your joining our group. Please respond promptly should you wish to accept."
She sighed, looking up at her reflection. God knows how many hours she spent here every night applying layer after layer.
She realized with some surprise that she actually didn't remember ever taking the makeup off. She must have done it countless times, but the memories were completely absent.
Resolving to remain conscious, she placed the wet sponge against her face and watched with fascination as the foundation began to melt and drip down her cheek.
Next came the lipstick, then the eyes which she was forced to rub with so much intensity, she wondered how her eyeballs remained intact all this time.
This role, no, this job, it will have to be me. Not Britney, not Cher, no makeup or wigs, no nothing. Can I still do that?
Suddenly, Ariana busted through the door. She was as always in a rush to get to an afterhours gig.
"Darling you really should take the wig of first!" she wailed, rolling her giant frame around the room like a hurricane "The oil ruins the hair! I've told you a million times!" "You have?!"
The wig finally came off. Ariana paused and looked at her friend with a smile. "You really are handsome."
Brian didn't respond. He was looking at the letter that lay on the floor between them. Ariana followed his gaze and picked it up.
"You are leaving aren't you? I knew you would eventually." She hugged him. He breathed in her perfume burying his face in her hair. It tasted bitter in his mouth.
"Don't worry. I'll tell the girls." "No it's ok, I will." Ariana looked surprised but nodded in approval.
They walked out together. Leaving the air-conditioned casino felt like running into a wall of heat, the burn peeling away the top layer of your skin.
He took off his jacket and watched Ariana walk away. Three giant bags dangling from her shoulders, she looked as elegant as ever. As real as ever.
It was about time he found his real.