While You Were Out

I felt that I was being watched even before I opened my eyes. I could smell cigarette smoke and hear the exhale of breath. When I forced my eyelids to part against the weight of early morning, the Coke can red of my girlfriend's hair came into focus. She was already dressed, her pale body concealed by a roomy black sweater, grey slacks and long black boots with thick, dangerous looking heels. She was sitting cross legged on my antique desk chair, considering me, one hand holding the cigarette over a heavy white coffee mug, which was serving as a makeshift ashtray. The other hand was tapping my box of practice cigarettes against her thigh. A shy morning light was peeking into my midtown Manhattan shoebox studio. I leaned up on one elbow and rasped, "Hey. I thought you quit."

She took a drag on the cigarette and exhaled, turning her head to blow the smoke above and behind her, keeping her eyes on me the whole time. "Lance called me yesterday while you were performing the matinee."

I leaned back onto the pillow and scratched my head, still more than half asleep. "What? Lance?" The smoke from her cigarette drifted straight up, like from a little train that had stopped. "He wants me back." She watched her hand nosedive the cigarette into the mug and continued looking at the mug while she spoke. "He knows about you. He said he wants to see your show. I told him how funny it is. Your show, I mean."

I rubbed my eyes. The day was coming into focus. It was Thursday. Eight o'clock show tonight. I'd had two shows the day before, which explained, in part, why I was exhausted. I'd had a drink last night, a strong one, and it had knocked me out as soon as we'd gotten home. I remembered Rebecca helping to pull a tee shirt over my head.

I said, "That's great. You and Lance can go see my show together and have a little date."

"No," she said, her voice drifting off with her thoughts. "He wants to take me to dinner so we can catch up. I mean, that's what he told me. He didn't say he wants me back, but that's what the call was about, I'm sure of it. He offered to take me to that seafood place at Union Square, what's it called...Blue Water Grill. Nobody's ever taken me there."

"Tell him to forget it. Tell him there are lots of other fish on the menu."

"Jake." She took the box of cigarettes in both hands and rotated it with her fingertips. "I'm going to have dinner with Lance, tonight. I...I treated him pretty badly back when everything happened. I mean I was...I was a real bitch. He sounded so depressed on the phone and I feel...I feel like I'm to blame for it. I feel like I've caused him so much...He was a really nice guy, he didn't deserve to be treated the way I treated him. I just felt so bad when he called. I'm not saying I'm going to give him a chance, I'm just saying I'll talk to him. And...his call got me thinking about us."

I sat up, slow and stiff. It was far too early. "Jake, this is what I've been thinking about. We've been together for what, three months? And each week, you offer me Monday nights, and only Monday nights, which - -"

"That's the only night - -"

"I know. I know. I understand. I just...It's tough to know that I come second, always. You're always tired from the show; you're always resting for the show; the show takes precedence over everything and I feel like...I feel like you've lost track of me."

She stood up and put the box of cigarettes back onto the desk. She looked at the floor and rubbed her fingertips against her palms. "I've been up all night, pretty much, thinking about this, and how to tell you about Lance calling. Jake, I...I'm not sure how I feel about this schedule we have, right now. We both know that something is off, right? Could you...Could we...I have no idea what I want to say. Everything I think of sounds like TV movie dialogue." She picked her long black hooded jacket up off of the chair and put it on. "I'm going to go home for a little while before work. Or maybe I'll just go to work early. I get more done before other people get there anyway."

I got out of bed and put on some pants and searched for a shirt. "Beck, it's only six in the morning." "I know, Jake. You know, six isn't that early for a lot of people." "Beck, come on," I said, throwing on a sweater. "Why don't we...Can we have lunch together and talk about this?" She grabbed her bag, walked over to the door and rested her hand on the knob. "I don't know," she said, facing me. She shook her head back and forth, staring at one of my framed Playbills. "I don't know my schedule. Okay? I'll see how busy work is. For now just let me...Look, we'll talk later, okay? And you - you think about if you're...if you're happy with me." She smiled but I could see she was crying. I went to her and she reached her hand toward me at arm's length. I took her hand but she held me away from her. "We'll talk later, Jake." She opened the door and left. I stood in my doorway watching her go, watching her long, smooth steps. She didn't turn to face me when she went through the vestibule door. She opened the front door, and through the little window I saw a strand of her hair flutter up in the wind in the instant before she was out of sight.

I couldn't go back to sleep when she left. I paced around my apartment wondering what I could possibly do, wondering about this Lance guy. I'd usurped Lance, when he had been unable to make his mind up about committing to Rebecca, and now that I was in a show that demanded every ounce of my energies and concentration, he was back. I had only Monday nights off, there was no way around it. I was in a show, a popular show, finally, after years of auditions and rejection and, even worse, temp jobs on Wall Street. Rebecca and I had been off to a good start, before the show. We met each other on jury duty. We both had the gift - or curse - of having phenomenal memories. I knew that she remembered every moment we had together as well as I did. I knew that the show had consumed my attention and would continue to do so until the audience stopped coming and the producers pulled the plug on us. I knew Rebecca well enough to know that if she was unhappy, she would do something about it.

The morning hours passed. Rebecca couldn't do lunch, and we didn't talk again all afternoon. I wandered through the Lincoln Square Barnes & Noble reading opening paragraphs and book jackets, buying nothing, in an attempt to distract my mind. The thing about having a big role is, a part of your brain needs to be working on that chunk of memory at all times, keeping it fresh, keeping the unique connection of neurons healthy, so that when the time comes, at eight o'clock Tuesday through Sunday and two o'clock Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, you can repeat the performance. I called my sister at Sotheby's. The payphone was freezing cold. "I only have a minute," she said. "Go." I started to sum up the Rebecca situation and she cut me off before I finished. "Jakey, I'm telling you, stick with theater women or forget it, because nobody is ever going to understand you. Nobody, ever. You don't have a chance. You're complicated, you're at least two different people on any given day. And you know the weirdest thing? You love your job. What kind of freak loves his job? Okay, I gotta go." She hung up on me.

At six I decided to go to the theater; the show was all I could think about, no matter what was happening, no matter who Rebecca was dining with or what she thought of our deteriorating relationship. The show's theme music was in my head. My lines were in my head. I pulled my hat down over my ears, wrapped my scarf tight about my neck and took great care crossing streets.

When I got to the theater, I changed into my tattered blue running suit and went to the rehearsal room to warm up. Big Phil, my only co-star, was already there, lying on his back with his eyes closed, on top of a yoga mat. He'd tied a long white towel around his head like a Sheikh, and he wore an old torn up grey Holy Cross Football tee shirt over grey sweatpants. Phil was bigger than me by about fifty pounds, which put him near two twenty and earned him the right to have people call him Big Phil. "Mr. Holt," he said, not bothering to open his eyes. "Dory was just in here. Said we'll have an esteemed guest at tonight's performance. Harold, our favorite producer."

"Really?" I said, swinging my arms about to get my blood flowing. "Is our Harold worried?" Phil let his head roll toward me but still didn't open his eyes. "Who knows, he might just be in town, thought he'd stop in because he misses us so much."

"And now we know."

"Yes. And now we know."

"At least someone told us this time."

This time of day was my favorite, warming up in the quiet rehearsal room with Phil, the silence broken with fragments of lines and conversation, the quiet before the show's storm.

The show was an exercise in schizophrenia, a character actor's dream, over two hours of wacky dialogue, fast costume changes, mind boggling entrances and comic timing. The show was 'Greater Tuna,' a comedy in which each of us played sixteen different characters, young and old, male and female, all citizens of the small town of Tuna, 'the third smallest town in Texas'. We played radio announcers, cops, wives, little boys and girls, troubled teenagers, church ladies and journalists. The backstage action was as choreographed as the onstage business, with smart stagehands assisting us with Velcro-laden costumes, fake moustaches, wigs, glasses and props.

We were focused and comfortable together in this pre-show time. We hummed and stretched and shook out our muscles and fluttered our lips. We ran a few lines from the show and then fell silent, ready.

We went to the greenroom, a makeshift space at the end of the narrow curving dressing room hallway that consisted of a couple tattered, cigarette-stained couches, a folding table with a coffee maker, and an overstuffed magazine rack. Fastened to the wall above the coffee maker was a corkboard, which held thumb-tacked performance schedules and reviews of our show. Phil poured a cup of decaf coffee for me, some tea for himself and then we settled onto opposite couches, as usual. Rebecca was supposed to meet with Lance around the same time we were due onstage. I wondered what she would wear, and what she would say. Kristi and Dory, two of our backstage assistants, both clad in black, waved hello as they passed by on their way to the backstage area. Our understudies checked in with us. Will vaguely resembled me, and Aaron vaguely resembled Phil. They made the usual jokes about our health, and then left us. I wondered about them, these two men who were completely prepared to take over the roles that we played night after night, and yet never got a chance to go on. We'd performed the show for seven weeks, and still they waited. The thought of missing a show made me shudder.

Later, in our shared dressing room, Phil and I stared into the mirrors, lit to extremes by the vanity lights. Audience murmur mumbled through the speakers on the walls, the sound of it steady and smooth as an ocean machine. I applied a thin, fake moustache to my upper lip while Phil slicked back his hair. He said, "You available for a drink after the show?"


"Shucks," he said, "I sure as hell could use a drink right now." He paused and leaned toward the mirror to examine his face. "Heather and I had a little...argument today."

I smoothed the moustache and then pulled up my overalls. "I'm sorry," I said, placing my cowboy hat onto my head. "You gonna be all right out there?"

"Of course. Oh - whoops, I forgot all my lines. Wait, no - they're back."

We heard the cheerful voice of our stage manager, Cheryl, give us our five minute call. In the background, the audience rumble was broken by occasional laughter.

I said, "I hope our dear Harold enjoys himself this evening. Think he got a seat?"

He said, "Yeah...That wouldn't be too difficult, lately." And then he said nothing more, straightening up his shirt, buttoning the top button of his rodeo-style shirt. We bumped fists and headed out the door.

Our faux snakeskin boots squeaked as we headed down the hallway, through the greenroom and into the cold blackness of backstage, at the exact same time we do before every show. At the exact same time she always did, Dory, whom I had never seen without her black beret, gave my right butt cheek a good luck squeeze and then stood up on tiptoe to give me a peck on the lips. The peck was part of our nightly ritual and meant nothing else, although one peck might occasionally linger a millisecond longer than the peck from the night before. She went to her customary spot offstage and Phil and I stood together in the darkness, focused, shrugging off strands of nerves, finally becoming perfectly still as the house lights dimmed and the country twang of banjo strings rose and then over it we heard my prerecorded voice cut through the theater and the first laughs leapt from the audience.

The show went well, with no major screw-ups. Offstage, Dory and I were finally becoming more efficient at executing some of my trickier costume changes, so much so that we discovered precious seconds available for a high-five that turned into a momentary hand squeeze. I acquired a new bruise on my left shin somehow during act two and Phil cut his hand backstage on a railing, but other than that we were fine, relieved again that we had pulled it off. We bowed together, smiling into the bright lights at all the clapping people and the scattered red of empty seats.

Offstage again, we made the rounds, thanking our assistants. Harold, the producer, breezed through, his travel garment bag draped over his shoulder, in a flurry of hand squeezes and air kisses, assuring us that we were all just 'decadent lovelies', before heading to an airplane bound for Los Angeles. We showered and changed into civilian casual wear and repaired to a dark, narrow bar down the street, one with couches and low tables separating two exposed brick walls, for the drinks that would bring us down from our performance high. Dory, Cheryl and some of the lighting guys joined us for a little while. Dory asked if Rebecca was coming out. I told her no, and then changed the topic. Cheryl left first, and then Dory and the lighting guys suggested we go to another bar to hear some band play. Phil and I declined, citing fatigue, and they left without giving us much flack.

Phil and I raised our glasses at each other in modest salute. "Heather was auditioning for a show in Dallas," he said, "and just flew back in last night. She said she had something important she wanted to tell me, but she didn't want to distract me from the show. Of course, all that did was..."

"All that did was distract you from the show."

"You got that right, pardner."

"I couldn't tell, bucko. I thought you were right on tonight."

"Thanks. Hell, you are a sweet son of a bitch. So she didn't tell me what she was talking about, but we managed to have a fight regardless. I couldn't meet her at the airport...because of the show...I couldn't see her at all until this afternoon, because of the show, and she...man, did she let me have it. I mean she was yelling and pounding her fists on the table and everything. I left. I walked out. I mean, I just told her I had to get ready and she flung her hands up in the air and said...and I quote, 'Fine, go do your fucking show,' end quote." He took a sip of his Jack and Ginger. Four gorgeous college aged girls, dressed in tight black outfits and impossible heels, sat at the couch opposite us, and we took a moment to appreciate them before resuming our conversation.

Phil said, "I wonder where she is tonight."

"She never told you what the important thing was?" I asked.

"Nope. It could be anything. I wouldn't be surprised at this point."

"And she doesn't want to distract you from the show? She, of all people, understands that the show could go on for a long time, right?"

"Or not. I don't know what she understands. She called up crying the other night, at three in the morning, woke me up. She didn't say why she was crying, just wanted to hear my voice. So she goes back and forth, you know?"

The college girls didn't even look in our direction.

I told him what had happened that morning with Rebecca.

"Shit," said Phil. "Isn't that just like life, though? We get a great fucking show to do and our girls get all upset. I mean, when they met us, didn't they know what they were getting into? I can see how Rebecca might not have any idea how difficult this is, but Heather? Gaw-lee. Have you been sleeping? I haven't been sleeping. Man, I don't want to be selfish, but...I feel like if I'm not..."

"I know," I said. "It feels like if you stop paying attention, the whole thing could fall apart."

"Heather says it's like I'm having an affair with the show."

"Interesting." The couch was cool and comfortable. I slouched a little more. "Maybe she got it backwards. Maybe you're married to the show, and you're having an affair with her."

Phil rolled his head over so he could see me. "I hadn't thought of it like that. Ooh, that's good, I have to remember that. Oh, here's something else. Heather accused me of being dead when I'm outside the theater. What do you think?"

I thought about that. Phil was not exactly a wild man. "No, you're not dead, you're just...you're thirty eight, man. You're mature. And you work hard. Becky tells me the same thing. I don't know. The show just takes everything I've got. I don't feel like doing anything else afterwards. I don't even feel like moving."

We slouched without talking for several minutes, watching the girls across from us, and the new ones that walked in, a pair of brunettes, looking around, wondering if they should stay. They nodded at each other and one moved to the bar. I noticed that I'd sunk so low into the couch that I had some difficulty pouring my drink into my mouth. My eyes were heavy. I sat myself up.

Phil said, "Doesn't it bother you, her being out with this guy tonight?"

"Of course it bothers me, but what can I say to her?"

Phil sat up and fussed with the band-aid on his finger. "Maybe you should consider taking a night off. Surprise her; take her out, like a normal boyfriend. Will would love to go on for you."

"You think she'd like that?"

"Sure. Look, nobody is going to give you a hard time for taking off one show. It would probably do us both good, keep us fresh."

"Would you do it?"

"I'm thinking about it. I'm seriously thinking about it. You try it first. At least Rebecca is still talking to you. If you survive, maybe I'll try next."

"I don't know."

"I know, I don't like it either, but just think, if it's not as bad as we think it is, we can do it again. In the long run, it's probably a good idea. Harold is on his way to L.A. and I bet he won't be back for at least a week, so this might be the best time for it. Nobody is asking us to be the Off-Broadway Cal Ripken."

"Huh," I said. "I hadn't thought of it like that. I reckon you're pretty smart for an actor."

"Naw," he drawled. "But I can play smart if'n I got to."

Back at home, slumping around the apartment with a lazy buzz, I wrestled with the idea of taking a night off from the show. I'd made a promise to myself that I wouldn't miss a performance, just like I'd promised myself I'd get a perfect attendance certificate in high school. Then I chastised myself for being selfish...Don't I care about Rebecca? Shouldn't I put in some effort? Would she understand what a sacrifice it was? Selfish again. Just take the night off like it's no big deal. I debated with myself back and forth for a long time, while watching the clock and waiting for Rebecca to call. I tried not to picture her at a dinner table with Lance, the stuffed suit. I imagined him to be some tall, dark, gorgeous pillar of success. Then again, I reasoned, I was the one who had accelerated the process of breaking the two of them up in the first place. Maybe he wasn't that handsome. Maybe he was just attached to a wallet. Maybe this was payback. Where the hell were they at nearly one in the morning?

After a long stare at a photo of me standing with my arm around Rebecca at somebody's wedding, I called Will on his cell and told him my decision to let him go on for me tomorrow night. He thanked me repeatedly. I offered to run lines with him tomorrow afternoon but he said he'd be okay.

Rebecca called, as she promised she would, and I told her to dress up tomorrow, that I was taking a night off from the show so I could take her to Nobu. I did not ask her why she hadn't called until almost one in the morning. She hesitated on the phone. "Really?" she said. "You can get a table at Nobu?"

"Yeah. Our stage manager knows someone there and she keeps offering." I wasn't, in fact, sure I could do this, but I acted confident, and I was, after all, a professional. "Will's going on for me tomorrow night, lucky kid. I wish I could have seen his face when I told him. I think he started running lines the moment I hung up. No, actually, I think first he threw up, and then he started running lines." I wondered what she would tell me about her evening. I waited a few moments, then said, as casually as I could, "How's Lance?"

I paced around my apartment, barefoot, listening to her think. "I don't want to talk about it on the phone. I'll meet you tomorrow. No, you pick me up, like it's a real date. Pick me up at seven."

"Six. And it is a real date."

"I don't get home from work until seven."

"Oh. Okay, seven. Beck? I'm sorry I've been so...I mean, I'm no prize, but..."

"Tomorrow, Jake. Stop talking now, okay? We're both tired. This is when we have fights, when we're tired."

I stopped talking and doubled over, exhausted from everything.

"Goodnight Jake. I gotta go. Get some sleep. You sound like you're about to collapse."

I hung up the phone. I turned all the lights off and stood in the dark for a little while. Then I downed a few gulps of rum and flipped back and forth between the Daily Show repeat and the real news until I fell asleep.

The next morning, it was ten thirty and I was singing lyrics to Rolling Stones songs in the shower, as I usually do, before I remembered that I was not going to perform the show that night. As soon as I thought it, everything felt weird. I was completely out of my routine. I couldn't remember the lyrics to 'Emotional Rescue.' I skipped my usual late breakfast at home and went to a diner around the corner, to let someone else worry about making my coffee and eggs. The weather was weird, alternately partly sunny and then completely overcast for the bulk of the afternoon. I called Cheryl, who worked her magic with her friend at Nobu. I thanked her and promised her a favor in return. Around four o'clock, I delivered a card, a dozen roses and a twelve-pack of Will's favorite beer, Stella Artois, to the dressing room.

Dory saw me in the hallway and stopped in front of me. She already had her black backstage outfit on, the turtleneck, the beret, the form-fitting lycra pants. In the light I could see that her eyes were green.

She said, "Is it true, what I heard? Tell me it isn't true."

I shrugged and smiled. "Just wanted to give the kid a chance, you know?" For some reason, I didn't feel like mentioning Rebecca.

She hugged herself and leaned against the wall. "I guess so. I guess that's awful nice of you. Well, it's only one night. Right?"

"Yeah, I'll be back all weekend."

"Good. Well, that's certainly good news." A couple of lighting guys moved by us, all of us turning sideways in the narrow hallway so they could pass. I half turned as if to leave, but she shot her arm out and grabbed my arm. "Hey, um, we never talk about it, but...I mean...The thing is, I guess the pre show routine will be a little bit different tonight, for me. You know, right before the show?"

I grinned. "It will be, huh?"

She said, so softly I could barely hear her, "I'm not going to...That is, young Will won't learn all of your secret routines."

"I would be upset if he did," I whispered back.

"You would? Hmm."

"Hmm." I hadn't thought of how my absence would affect Dory. I said, "It's only one night. Just do what you can to help him, all right? He's a good kid, he'll be fine. You've seen him in understudy rehearsals. You've worked with him."

"Uh huh," she said, but she didn't sound convinced. "Well, I have to go microwave my soup now."

As she walked away, she said, "Have a good time tonight, whatever you're doing."

I watched her turn the corner and then headed uptown.

At the time I would normally be warming up with Phil, I was dressed in my nicest suit, hoping Rebecca wouldn't notice the slight wrinkle in my right pant leg, and pressing the buzzer to her apartment. She met me downstairs, looking several light years out of my league. She wore a sleek red dress, earrings, pearls, and a mink coat that I did not know she owned. Her red hair was teased and curled, like Venus de Milo's, and she wore a light red lipstick that made for a sensual target, a shock next to her pale skin.

At the time I would normally be lounging in the greenroom, enjoying my pre-show decaf, I was stepping out of a cab with Rebecca on Hudson Street, in front of Nobu. We started with a drink at the bar, and at the time I would normally be applying my thin fake moustache, I was seated across from Rebecca at a dark table, nestled under one of the indoor trees, examining the menu.

I made small talk and avoided the topic of Lance. From the moment I picked her up to the moment we ordered our sushi, I think we both knew that something felt very wrong. Laughs were forced. Facts were stated and interest in those facts was feigned.

I watched Rebecca's lips as she formed words about her job and the silly co-workers that ruined her life on a daily blah blah blah, and why is she the only one who remembers to blah blah blah the copy machine blah blah blah. Normally, at that time, I would be squeaking down the dressing room hallway in my faux snakeskin boots, following Phil toward the door that led backstage,

"This is what I'm talking about, Jake. You're not here even now. You're thinking about the show, aren't you?"
"No," I said, hearing how hollow my voice sounded and hoping she wouldn't notice, like she hadn't noticed the wrinkle in my pant leg. "Shoot, I'm havin' a good ol' time. It's good to have a night off. It's good to see you out in the world like this, in the, in the..." My voice trailed off as the water boy returned to refill our glasses. I'd only taken one sip.

She leaned on her elbows and looked at me. "Admit it, Jake. Please be honest with me. I think that right now, if you were given the choice between me and that show of yours, you'd choose the show, wouldn't you? I'm not saying it's wrong, I'm just saying it's true."

At the time I would normally be standing backstage, waiting for the moment that Dory would approach me in the darkness for our nightly exchange, a bowl of steaming green miso soup was placed in front of me. I noticed that Rebecca's lips weren't moving, which meant it was my cue to talk. I said, "Beck, no, really, this is great. This is going to be the best meal we've had in months, the best sushi that...This dang sushi might spoil all other sushi for us, for the rest of our lives."

"Would you please stop falling into that damn Texas accent?"
I hadn't even noticed that I'd done it. "Oh, yeah, I'm sorry. I'm sorry. Habit. Hey, is that Susan Sarandon? Over by the...Never mind. You look really terrific, Beck. Stunning. I mean it. And isn't this place fabulous? The trees, the lighting..."

At the time that I would normally be pecking Dory on the mouth, our nanosecond or sometimes second or sometimes two or even three seconds of contact, Rebecca said, "This is the part that bothers me the most, Jake. I don't want you to tell me what you think I want to hear. I want to hear what you really think. This isn't acting, Jake, you aren't playing the role of my boyfriend." She waited and I stared at the little white tofu rectangles drowning in the soup.

She said, "Jake, I can't do this anymore. I hardly ever see you. I go to work, you're home. I come home and you've already gone to the theater. You're always tired. You're always...absent, even when you're with me. Do you realize that our sex life has...almost vanished? Do you know how that makes me feel?"

"Beck, I'm sorry...I don't think you have any idea how tired I've been. I don't even sleep. You know I still want you, I just...Besides, I'm not a kid anymore, Beck."

"You're not exactly old, either. If you still wanted me, you would take me, no matter how tired you were."

"Beck - -"

"Jake, I - -"

We both started talking and we both apologized, and we both waited.

She said, "Jake, I think we both know what has to happen here, even if it feels weird, like we're - -"

"Like we're reading from the wrong script," I offered.

We sat there, in the most expensive and exclusive Japanese restaurant in Manhattan, with two bowls of miso soup growing cold between us. The people at the other tables looked happy and glamorous and I could have sworn that I saw Christopher Walken. At the time I would normally be dashing into the second of many costumes changes, our cold soup was nudged to the side and two smooth, solid wood blocks full of exquisite sushi and sashimi was placed before us on the table. The little rectangles of fish made me think of a line from the show and I said it out loud before I could stop myself. "'Tuna, oh my Tuna, the only place I know. I've often thought of leaving you, but don't know where I'd go. For Paris has no bar-bee-q - -'"

"Jake, please do not do that."

I said, "I'm sorry. Okay, listen. Here's the thing. I really love the show, Beck. I love it. I love doing it. It is so weird to not be in it tonight. I spend years and years not being in anything, and now I'm in something, and it's huge. I don't know how long it will last. It could go another month, it could go all year, I don't know. If the show closed, and I was around at night, I would be miserable. I would put on a good face, but you have to know that deep down, I would be miserable."

"Now that is an honest comment, finally. I understand that, Jake, but you have to understand how I see this, okay? I see it like this: you went through many years of not being with me, and then you found me. Now that you are in a show, you once again routinely spend most of your time not being with me, but...not being with me doesn't seem to bother you. Meanwhile, while you've been off doing your show, I've become miserable."

I had not thought of it in those terms, and now that I did, it felt like a dart had popped the balloon of my spirit.
"Maybe I met you at the wrong time," she said. "I had your attention for a whole week before you started rehearsals."
"I thought you were my good luck charm," I said. "I met you the day before I found out that I got the show. Remember?"

"Of course I remember."

We both looked at the immeasurably delicious looking food in front of us. She said, "Do you still want to eat?"

I couldn't maintain eye contact with her. I said, "I'm sorry."

She rubbed her hands together as if she was cold, and leaned toward me as if to say something but then she seemed to change her mind and grabbed her water glass instead.

I said, "Will you go out with Lance?"

"I don't want to talk about Lance."

"He took you to dinner yesterday, didn't he? I've been trying to be fine with this, but I'm really not. You had no trouble bringing him up at six in the morning."

"I'm sorry I woke you up like that."

"Forget it. So how's Lance?"

She took a sip of ice water. "He's good. He has a new position at Morgan Stanley and he might buy a place upstate, in Cold Spring."

"Were you right? Does he want you back?"

"Yes. Yes, he does, but I don't know. I don't know about Lance." She straightened the wood block of sushi in front of her and then she smoothed her napkin on her lap. "I don't want to talk about Lance. Lance doesn't matter. Lance isn't the point. What matters is...I don't think..." She couldn't finish the sentence, so I did it for her.

"You don't think this is going to work."

She was crying. She nodded and put her hand to her forehead. After a few minutes, she sniffled, "What are we going to do about this food?"

It seemed ludicrous to eat the sushi and equally ludicrous not to eat the sushi. We decided that the idea of wrapping up food from Nobu was far too depressing, so we did the best we could to make it through the usual motions of dining out. An endless half hour of empty chewing followed, during which the laughter from conversations at other tables seemed louder than usual. The laughter teased us in our awkward final moments as a couple. Deep down, I had probably known that this moment had been coming for weeks. I had been dumped before, and each of the previous dumpings had ended with me passed out in a drunken, epithet-slurring puddle of depression. I was ready for the sorrow to strike, to jump at me from around any corner. I was ready for one glance at Rebecca's face or one word from her full lips to pull the chain that would tip over the bucket full of sadness that must have been balanced over my head, but instead, relief made me float. I felt relief even as I scrawled my name on the two-ply credit card receipt, the final document on another failed relationship.

As we walked out of the restaurant I felt that I was walking away from a car crash that only she and I knew about. We hugged on the sidewalk, in the cold. I kept my eyes on her cab as it pulled away, at around the same time that I would have been doing my final monologue before intermission. I watched the brake lights of her taxi blend in with all the other lights heading uptown.

I walked all the way home. Along the way, I recited every one of my lines from the show. Once in my apartment, I collapsed on the bed, fully dressed.

I woke up the next morning at ten, confused at my formal pajamas. I called Janet, got her answering machine and left her a message about Rebecca, because I tell my sister everything. The photo of Rebecca and me at someone's wedding was still on the bureau next to the phone. In an instant I turned it face down.

By twelve thirty I was back at the theater, where everything felt familiar and safe. Everyone seemed extra happy to see me. Cheryl informed me that the show had gone on with nary a hitch, although Phil had to do some extra ad-libbing in spots while waiting for Will to figure out some costume changes. I changed into my blue running suit and found Phil in the rehearsal room. I told him about Rebecca.

"You guys broke up in Nobu?" he said, sitting on the floor with his legs extended, reaching for his toes. "Classy."

I flopped down next to him and stretched my back. "Yeah."

"Are you going to be okay out there today?"

"Of course."

By one o'clock we were relaxing in the greenroom. Will and Aaron checked in with us. Will hugged me and I congratulated him. Kristi walked by and continued on to the backstage area. Dory appeared a moment later, in her usual pitch black garb. Phil sipped his tea and chatted with the guys.

"You're back," Dory observed, sitting down next to me.

"Yeah. How was last night?"

She glanced at Will and wrinkled up her nose but said, "Oh...just dandy. You?"

"Everything's great," I said. "Everything." She looked at me, searching my face, as if trying to read something in it.

"Good. That's good to hear." We stared at each other.

Dory said, "I, uh, just bumped into Cheryl in the hallway and she asked me to give you a message from your sister. I left it on your dressing table."

"Thanks," I said, and then after a moment we spoke at the same time. I said, "So last night went okay, and things - -" and she said, "So you had fun last night and - -"

We laughed. I said, "Not really, I'd rather - -" at the same time she said, "How's Rebecca?"

I whispered, "Um, we broke up, actually."

She did not seem overly surprised. Perhaps she'd stolen a glance at Janet's note.

"Do you want to talk about it? I'm a really good listener."

"Maybe later. You have to get ready."

She waved her hand at that idea as if it were unimportant. "I'm ready," she said, resting her hand on my arm. "All I need is you. Seriously, Jake, if you want to talk about anything, or just vent..."

I closed my hand over hers and suddenly wondered how I could get through the show without Dory. No pressure ever fazed her. She was the embodiment of calm, even during our backstage circus. She helped to dress and undress me every night. She kept me on track, reminded me what scene came next, what character was next. She handed me props before I could think to reach for them myself. She knew my every move backstage, my every step, and it suddenly occurred to me that I had complete trust in her. I said, "You know what? I'd really like that. Later?"

"Later." She squeezed my arm, stood up and walked towards the stage door, maintaining eye contact with me. Before she slipped into the darkness, it felt as if we'd had an entire conversation.

In the dressing room, Phil and I did our final pre-show preparations, lit to extremes by the vanity lights. Janet's message, scribbled on a little square of pink message paper, lay open next to my makeup kit. The message read, 'Got your message. I told you redheads were trouble. She was a stuck up bitch anyway. Drinks?'

I smoothed my fake moustache and Phil slicked back his hair. Phil said, "It was awful, wasn't it?"

"No, the sushi was fantastic," I said, pulling up my overalls.

"You know what I mean."

I looked at him in the mirror. "Yes, it was. Never again."

He nodded and buttoned the top button of his rodeo-style shirt. "Good. You and me, all the way."

Through the speakers, Cheryl gave us our five minute call.

Phil put his arm around my shoulder and we looked in the mirror at each other. "I found out what Heather did in Dallas," he said. I could read that his grin was not genuine.

"Not good?"

"Not good."

"You going to tell me what it was?"

He patted me on the back again and squeezed my shoulder. "Not yet. I'm still trying to get my mind around it."

"You going to be okay out there tonight?"

"Of course."

"Okay." We bumped fists and headed out the door.

Our faux snakeskin cowboy boots squeaked as we went backstage to our usual spots. I paced in the cool blackness and listened to the audience murmur. Through the darkness I could see that Phil had squatted down and appeared to be examining a spot on the floor, but I knew he was trying not to think about Heather and whatever had happened.

Movement in the shadows to my right tugged at my attention. Dory approached me, at the exact same time she did before every show. She squeezed my right butt cheek, leaned up on tiptoe and gave me a peck on the lips, for one second, two seconds. Then, instead of moving away, she kept her face an inch from mine and looked at me as the house lights dimmed and the opening twangs of banjo strings began. She put her hands on either side of my face and kissed me again, this time holding her lips against mine, soft and unsure at first, then opening her mouth a fraction and pressing, and then just as our tongues tapped each other and my hand touched her hip she pulled away, reaching up to smooth my fake moustache and straighten my hat. She slipped away to her customary offstage spot as my prerecorded voice cut through the theater and the first laughs leapt from the audience.


Christopher Frost Shelley received his MFA in Creative Writing from NYU. His stories has appeared in Carve Magazine, (WHAT FOLLOWS, short-listed for the 2004 Raymond Carver Award), Apollo's Lyre, The Plum Ruby Review, Fiction Warehouse, Prose Toad, and FRiGG Magazine. Another will appear in the upcoming issue of The Wild River Review. He has written two novels, OFF-SEASON and BETWEEN THEM. He and his wife live in Brooklyn and spend most of their weekends traveling.

Copyright © 2006 Christopher Shelley