Bitter Water Opera

Nicolette Polek

April 19, 2024 
The following is from Nicolette Polek's Bitter Water Opera. Polek is the author of Imaginary Museums (Soft Skull Press, 2020). She is a recipient of a Rona Jaffe Writers’ Award, and her work has appeared in the Paris Review Daily, BOMB, New York Tyrant, The Atlantic, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in Fiction from the University of Maryland, and a masters from Yale Divinity School. She is from Northeast Ohio.

Dear Marta,

I found your pictures by chance in a library archive. In one, you’re a girl in a gown. Your hand touches a birdcage. In another, you’re older. Standing in a simple dress. A cactus and your Amargosa Opera House behind you. You lived in the desert alone, surrounded by the things of your making. You, the once great ghost-town dancer, painter, actress, writer, musician, performer, one-woman show. I danced ballet until my father forbade it. I painted and took acting classes. When you were my age, you left Manhattan to dance your own dances.

At night, I drive on the highway. I pull toward exits that go somewhere far. I switch lanes, but never end up leaving. I cannot bring myself to leave the things that make me small.

I read your memoir, watched your documentary. Like a time line, I formed a life’s shape. I wonder if you, too, are able to see my life in full, and could be brought down to attend to it. I dreamt that we walked through the desert. We shared an apple.

Yours, Gia


When I first found Marta’s picture she reminded me of my mother. Slim with black hair. My mother didn’t have an opera house in the desert, but she had her small bedroom at the front of the house with:

two windows

plastic solar-powered flowers that “danced” on
the windowsill

an Audubon clock that played different bird calls
on the hour

shelves filled with books on gardening and how
to teach yourself Hebrew

a yarn collection, organized by material
the book of Proverbs opened on the table.

Similarly alone, my grandmother insisted that she was a burden to others. She banished herself to an apartment with the Catholic TV channel and potato salad. Of my aunts: one was a nun; another cured her depression by swimming with horses and disappearing into the sea. What would become of me, if not follow suit? So I fled them. Marta was different. She built an accessible grand gesture. When she disappeared, she didn’t disappear. Like a curtain, concealing and revealing, the opera house tethered her to the public.


Marta and her husband, Tom, were vacationing in Nevada, as the story goes. One morning they awoke in a wind-storm to a flat tire on their trailer. On foot, Marta found an empty white adobe complex with an abandoned hotel, offices, a café, and, lastly, through a courtyard of tamarisk trees and a door, she saw a theater, with kangaroo rats and a water-warped stage.

“As I peered through the tiny hole,” she said, “I had the distinct feeling that I was looking at the other half of my life. The building seemed to be saying, ‘Take me. Do something with me. I offer you life.’ ”

Marta and Tom moved into their trailer while they renovated. The desert was occupied by alfalfa and ostrich farms, wild horses, mesquite beans, and wind. Marta hated the wind for how it made emptiness emptier. They purchased lawn chairs and corduroy curtains, turned coffee cans into theater lights. Marta’s aloneness became something more permanent. She saw herself mirrored in the discarded buildings and the stray cats in town. She rehearsed all day and sometimes taught ballet to the local children, who would later come to her opening performances dressed in pajamas.

Tom changed too, from a big-city businessman into a desert bartender; a man in a cowboy hat who wasn’t set up to live in the dust.


A day passed and Marta and I hadn’t spoken yet. Felt fretful. Desired having long conversations in a hushed tone on the phone with someone who would share my awe or advise me on the situation.

I had a missed call from my mother.

I pushed the phone under a couch cushion.

Things in the house were missing, taken by Peter when he boxed them. I had stormy landscape paintings but no coffee table. An ornate lamp and an air mattress but no dog or cutting board. I was on leave from the film department at Shepherd College, and surrounded by half-finished projects that fell apart when Peter left. I had small savings and no social media accounts, which I deleted to watch movies on my laptop in the dark. I had an Ambien prescription to fill and a sour spot searching my stomach. I was stuck at the start of something.

I looked out the window. No Marta. Bits of paper littered the grass. My soft-spoken yet rapacious gossip of a neighbor had begun placing flyers in my mailbox for events at her church. I put them in the recycling when she wasn’t looking. Occasionally the wind knocked over the bins and the invitations ended up strewn about. Inevitable. Was this doom? I sat on the pink tile of the bathroom. I only remembered each day as it occurred.

Marta remembered all the way back to the moment before she was born. She had once told this to a television reporter, who seemed disturbed and sweaty. But Marta insisted. She remembered looking through an open window at a long white room. She saw her mother in a hospital bed murmuring to her belly. Marta stressed that she could see her own future . . . special-hearted, surrounded by sand, the letter A . . . she could sense it strongly, then a gust of wind came up from behind her and brought her into the hospital room.

This was the kind of woman I thought I would be. Alone and powerful with creation. In childhood, I refused to go to church for months because I disliked that women were made second, like an afterthought, in Genesis. When I told my mother, she laughed and quoted one of her favorite theologians that there is also “an ascending line in creation: from inanimate matter, to plants, lower animals, mammals, man, and finally, women.”

Many of our conversations were like this, gridlocked at paradoxes—how greatness is in weakness and the last are first, how in little there is enough, and how all these contradictions were contained in the life of someone who descended into and out of death in order to raise us all. It didn’t matter if she was or wasn’t right. A veil covered my heart, which opened to another veil, and another veil.

Marta was born in 1924, the same year that Death Valley Junction was built, the place that would later become her Amargosa Opera House. Some things are set from the very start.

Later, Marta wanted to be buried alongside her horses.


I’m not certain if that ended up happening, and I couldn’t imagine a polite way to ask.

Marta got through without needing, grieving, or waiting on someone, and now, after death, I was her witness, hoping that she, in some act of imitation on my part, could fix my life.

Marta made me spaghetti for lunch. I curtsied before she sat down. She didn’t notice. I was mortified. The table was dressed in a purple cloth and there were wax animal candles—a tiger, an elephant, a goose—that I used for special occasions.

“Marta,” I said. She peered at me.

She ate in a focused way. I put Strauss on in the background, a composer whom I had read Marta enjoyed. By the way she placed her fork down and listened, I gathered that the “Emperor Waltz” made her remember something. All it made me remember was an awkward babysitter I once had, who insisted I waltz with her at the playground. I was too nervous for noodles, so Marta offered me strawberries for dessert. She put her hand on mine as she ate them.

“Marta,” I blurted again. I felt like an octopus in a matchbox. Fanaticism, I’d been told, can be a form of repressed doubt, as irony is a form of concealed enthusiasm. She smiled this time.

She got up and closed the curtains. She lifted her arms and moved around the kitchen like falling ash. She hummed a meandrous melody and cleaned the surfaces while I washed dishes. Together we blew out the candles. I walked through the living room with a lightning bolt in my heart.


Marta noticed everything. The way I lingered at the front steps sifting through the mail; how I wore my bathrobe throughout the day; how I left my thermos in the car; or how the neighbor sat on the front steps knitting, and would pause around five in the evening to stare down the street as though expecting someone. Whoever it was never came. After dinner Marta sketched parts of the day, then tacked the sketches on the walls of the back room. Her watercolors hung on the clothing line that ran between two young oaks. Ribbons were tied to the tips of branches. On sunny days, she sat in the yard on a chair and closed her eyes. I’d find her with a sketch of a dragonfly resting on her knee. She saw everything in terms of ballet. Horses pirouetted; branches arabesqued.


Excerpt from Bitter Water Opera. Copyright © 2024 by Nicolette Polek. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.org

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