Leah went to Adam's apartment because he had a piano. All he had was the piano, a full grand, sitting magnificently in the center of the room. A twin mattress was on the floor in the dining nook. Leah settled herself in the lawn chair and waited for Adam's cat to leap into her lap, but Adam took her hand and pulled her to her feet. He thrust sheet music at her.
"Sing this," he said.
"What is it?" she asked, annoyed, but already reading the notes, licking her lips and humming along, trying to find the tempo.
"You'll know when you sing it."
He'd promised her lunch, in exchange for her voice, and since Care Bears in the Park had ended last week and she was out of work, she couldn't quite turn down whoring her voice out for food. Which he knew, the bastard.
"We'll go someplace with waiters," he said.
She squared her shoulders, and did her breathing exercises, and ignored the delight in his eyes as her diaphragm tightened. He began to play the piano, and she watched him, letting the melody, a bit haunting but with a little flourish in the upper register, seep into her. He nodded, and she sang. She missed the timing on the first note. Then it was a scramble to get each word out on each beat, without knowing the words or the beats. He urged her on, his notes carrying her, until she found the song.
Or the song found her.
"Up shadowy long-forgotten bowers of sculptured ivy and stone flowers... Up many and many a marvellous shrine..." The words were archaic to the point of tackiness. They stumbled out of her mouth to fill the apartment. Adam smiled at her. "The viol, the violet, and the vine," she sang to him.
Despite the corniness, so far from Adam's usual soulful, light compositions, the imagery evoked was immediate and tangible. She could feel the light and the turned earth of a garden around her. And something more elusive, that she wanted to discover.
She reached the end of her sheet and Adam stopped playing. He said, "Not bad."
"What is this?"
"I've only sung it for myself. A woman--yes." He hadn't really answered her question, but he prompted another one.
"I'm the first person to sing it?"
"Adam, tell me," she said.
"You like it enough to want to know?"
She loved it. She traced the names of the flowers with her thumb, and turned the sheet music sideways. And then, with a sinking sadness, said, "You didn't write this."
"But it's lovely."
His smile got wider and he said, "Edgar Allen Poe did. I'm setting his poetry to music."
Dark, gothic images came to her, from school English classes, and movies she'd seen. She considered them, and then asked, "Like 'The Raven'?"
"Like, a concept album?"
"Yeah, maybe." He folded his arms and leaned on the piano.
"Adam," she said. "I want to sing them. All the songs."
He smiled and closed his eyes, and looked for a moment like a bashful little boy. He said, "Let's talk about it over lunch."
* * *
Three Years Later
Adam's phone call woke Leah up well before noon. "Meet me at Zarth's," Adam said.
"Garth's?" Leah, eyes still closed, sprawled on her back with the phone somewhat near her ear, tried to remember the Garths she knew. Garth Brooks? He didn't live in New York City. Unless he had moved recently and she'd just forgotten to read the right tabloid. Who was he dating? Was he--
"Zarth's," Adam said impatiently, stressing the Z, bringing to her mind the tiny, indistinctly European restaurant that required reservations weeks in advance, even for lunch.
"Now?" She rubbed her eyes.
"Tonight at eight. Wear something fabulous," he said.
"So you can drool at me? How does that work?" Leah asked. Unknown stage actress and freelance songwriter caught a in tryst at a restaurant they couldn't afford, she imagined reading in Time Out. Maybe she was still dreaming.
"Because they have a dress code," he said.
"See you then."
The phone clicked off. She listened to the silence until her bladder and her hunger and her hangover told her she wasn't going to fall back asleep. The clock on the phone read 11:06. She had nine hours to figure out what Adam had meant by fabulous. Maybe she should buy a new dress. It would cost less than a meal at Zarth's, and Adam, who lived in an efficiency basement in the Lower East Side, would only be paying if it were worthy.
New dress worthy.
Although she did have that thing she had worn to the Off-Off-Broadway benefit luncheon last month... But Adam had been there. He would complain.
Nothing like trying to dress to please a gay composer.
* * *
"What?" She growled at him over the amuse bouche. He crunched obnoxiously what she'd tentatively identified as squid. She ate her own, with more grace. Definitely squid.
He asked, "Why are you wearing a suit? Didn't we discuss a dress?"
"I looked at my bank account." The black suit she wore was ill-fitting, and she'd pinned up her dirty-blonde hair in order to look more severe, and used makeup to cover her faint laugh lines. She looked, she thought, like a corporate shark, though improperly matched to her companion, who had on a sports coat and a dress shirt with the top three buttons unbuttoned.
"And you traded up?" Adam asked.
"And I couldn't afford a new dress. Even for you."
He pouted and examined his fingernails.
"So, this." She gestured at herself.
"Is that your interview suit, Leah?"
"How long have you had it?" Adam asked.
"My father brought it for me," she said.
She kicked him under the table. He grinned, and said, "Well this is an interview, so I suppose it's fashion-appropriate."
She put down her napkin and stared at him.
The waiter appeared. "Drinks, ladies?"
Adam giggled. Leah kicked him again.
"Champagne," Adam said.
Leah shrugged when the waiter looked in her direction, so he left. Adam's drink order didn't necessarily mean anything; the man loved champagne. She leaned across the table. "Adam, please don't tell me you got a television deal and you're abandoning me for Los Angeles." She clutched his hand.
"No, but close." He grinned wider.
Her stomach sank.
He lifted her hand to his lips and kissed her knuckles, and then said, "North Carolina."
"What's in North Carolina? Are you writing the sequel to Shag?"
"That was South Carolina, darling, and no," Adam said. He squirmed giddily in his seat and said, "They're producing Poe."
"They're producing Poe. Our baby, Leah. At the Durham Theatreworks. We're the token premiering musical and the token modern piece, between South Pacific, Macbeth, and Side Show.
"Side Show? Really?"
"No, darling Leah. You cannot be in Side Show."
"Because that would require me going to North Carolina. I don't even know where that is, Adam. Is that near Virginia? Or like, down by Alabama?"
She'd wanted Poe, ever since singing the first song in his studio apartment with just him and the piano and no furniture and no food. He'd let her read the drafts of scripts and short stories, and record two songs on the demo that went nowhere, and made her read biographies of everyone in Edgar Allen Poe's life until she had wanted to live in his world.
Adam released her hand, and said, "Darling, you're not going to be in Side Show because you're my leading lady for Poe."
She had not realized that his world was out-of-state. Adam was asking her to pay up for the dream he'd given her, and it seemed, as her hopes of the drafty Hilton or the intimate Roundabout burned in her mind, completely unfair. She wanted to beg him to hold out. She wanted to tell him that his dreams should not become such a small reality. That she liked the story better when it was just a story.
Adam just frowned at her.
Leah finally shrugged.
"Champagne?" The waiter asked, appearing with the bottle and two glasses. He uncorked the bottle and Adam demurred to let Leah taste. The bubbles fizzed up her nose. She coughed. The waiter remained impassive, and Adam merely smiled. She took another little sip, and let the dry tingling invade her tongue.
To the waiter, she said, "Whatever he's paying for this, it's not enough."
"Perhaps you would like a case," the waiter said.
Leah grinned and glanced at Adam.
"I can't take you anywhere," he said.
When the waiter was gone, Leah leaned forward and said, "Adam, don't I have to audition?"
"No," he said.
The word thrilled her. She felt chosen. She took another sip of champagne, and let the alcohol fall into where the joy pooled in her stomach. The compliment that made her feel warm. And then she asked, "North Carolina?"
"I can't. I can't leave. I have a schedule, and commitments."
"You're an actress," he said.
Her commitments were fleeting, it was true. She had a two week gig to dub secondary voices for an anime series--36 episodes--and she'd just finished a three day Off-Broadway play where she'd played in the chorus. She had two readings lined up next month, one workshop, and in April she would be doing backup singing for Adam's friend's first album at an independent label in the Bronx.
She sighed, and said, "I have readings, Adam. They might turn into something."
"You had this reading. It turned into something."
She studied her fingers, curled around the champagne glass. Poe had been a crazy idea, a public reading that no one attended at a non-profit theater in New Jersey. Poems set to music hadn't been that crazy an idea, but Adam's orchestrations were wild--Electric guitar to mimic gothic melody, and then moments of light that had made her cry when she was singing for him.
"Who's going to be Poe?" she asked.
"I cut Poe," he said.
"You cut Poe?"
"There is no Poe. He is the vacuum, the void, the nothingness of the soul, and you, Mrs. Poe, and the other characters, are the reactions, the vestiges, the being born and the dying. I took out what was in between."
The problem with being friends with a playwright was the concept stage. There were not enough drugs in the world for artists at times like this. She took another sip of champagne and asked a more practical question. "So, how big's the cast?"
"We need to find you a man."
Leah quirked an eyebrow.
Adam said, "Someone local. That's part of the contract with Durham. A good ol' Carolina boy. Remember, Poe grew up in Richmond."
"Where's that again?"
"Virginia. See, it's good you're coming. You need to expand your horizons."
"I didn't say I was coming," Leah said.
"Leah, you'll be the lead. The star."
"Fine. I'm coming, I'm coming."
Adam took her hand, and smiled.
She squeezed his fingers, and asked, "When is it?"
"We leave May 15th. Opening night is the end of June."
Zarth's windows were trimmed with tiny white lights, shining against the cold darkness outside. She exhaled. Summer was too far away to imagine. "Three months?" she asked.
"The best three months of your life."
"Look at where this expense account has gotten us so far, darling. So it'll certainly be the best three months of mine," he said.
She raised her champagne glass, and said, "To the theater."
He clinked glasses. "To living dangerously." And then he quoted, " But lo, a stir is in the air! The wave- there is a movement there! As if the towers had thrust aside--" until she covered his mouth, spilling champagne on the table in her effort to reach him.
"Mrs. Thero is looking for someone to give her son tap-dancing lessons," Margaret said.
"I don't dance, Mom," Leah said.
"Well, you dance well enough. We saw you, in that--what was it?"
"Company? When I played Kathy? And that's not the same as actually dancing, you know. And it was the recital for acting class." Leah sighed.
Margaret continued, "Well, I just thought, if you weren't doing anything..."
Leah put her hand to her face. She knew she shouldn't have this argument for the four-hundreth-thousandth time, but she said, anyway, "I have a busy schedule, Mom. I just don't work the same hours as most people."
Her mother brought plates to the table and said, "Honey, you're turning thirty-one in a few weeks. Don't you think it's time to--"
"Honey, I want to see your name in lights as much as you do, but--"
"Mom, I work all the time." Leah leaned against a kitchen chair. Her sister and her father were in the next room, watching Jeopardy, and she envied them. She'd wanted to tell them about Adam, but she'd opened with the anime instead, and that had led to too much explanation.
"I know, but it's not well-paying, is it?"
"It's a little too late to become an accountant now," Leah said.
"You've got your degree in Psychology. You could do all sorts of things."
"I am doing all sorts of things."
"I just didn't expect, when you started singing, that your work would be so--grungy."
"It's fine, Mom," Leah said.
"How are you going to land a man?"
"Wow, when did we go back to the thirties?"
"When you turned thirty," Margaret said.
Leah and said, "There are plenty of--people--around, Mom. I meet more people than you do."
"Someone who's not in theater," Margaret said.
Margaret gave up. She went to the doorway and yelled, "Harry! Jessica! Dinner!" Shuffling came from the other room.
Leah tried, "Mom, I got the lead in something."
"Poe is being produced. Budget for costumes, lighting, music, everything."
Harry walked in and asked, "Poe? The musical your friend wrote?"
"Yes, Adam wrote it," Leah said.
"He came to Thanksgiving?" Harry asked.
Leah's face felt hot. She said, "And Hanukkah."
Harry said, "That's a relief. I thought he was actually homeless, and Poe was just part of his wild imaginings."
"I sang a song for it at your office's Christmas party," Leah pointed out.
Harry cringed, and said, "Oh. So you did."
Jessica's giggling increased, and Leah cursed a family with no appreciation for the arts.
"Dinner is served," Margaret said, and they all settled in at the table. Leah looked at her plate while Harry said grace, and then Margaret asked, "So, which theater, dear? Roundabout? Little Theater? Stage One?"
"Well. It's in North Carolina."
Margaret dropped her fork.
"Where's that?" Jessica asked.
"Well, honey, do you know the Mason-Dixon line?" Harry asked.
"You are not crossing that," Margaret said.
"That's where the Germans settled."
* * *
"Happy birthday," Adam sang, wrapping his arm around Leah's shoulders and dragging her from side to side. The tavern owner brought over a birthday cake with 31 candles arranged along the edges, and she blew them out, not looking at her mother.
"Did you make a wish?" Jessica asked.
"Yes," Leah said.
"And?" Jessica prodded her in the back.
"I want it to come true," Leah said.
"Why change things now?" Jessica asked. She stood on the other side of the low, rich wood table, seemingly free from her parents, who surrounded Leah instead.
Leah said, "You're not getting any cake."
Jessica stuck out her tongue. Her mother went to cut the cake, urging Leah out of the way, like she might mess up something.
Leah went to the window. The night sky glowed as the city lights reflected the blanket of clouds hovering over New York City, making everything feel warmer, and closer, but also bringing snow. The first snowflakes were supposed to fall by morning.
Her reading with Mark and Naomi was for a new Pixar musical early in development. She would play a singing animal. She hadn't told her mother. The check would barely cover her cell phone bill. Her dating status would be the topic of conversation after her next acting class, and she was tired of the same old people and the same old gossip.
Adam looked happier lately than he had in months. He glowed. He smiled. Derrick leaving him must have taken a harder toll than she realized. The depression had changed him minimally, but the elation was so drastic that she agonized for the man he was before.
He came to her side, at the window, and she said, "Adam, I'm sick of everybody." She could see her family in the reflection, and the small crowd, her friends, the people who came to all her shows, and she envied them their belief in her success.
Adam asked, "You had dinner with your mom, again, didn't you? Alone."
"It's not just that. It's Pixar and my birthday and wanting to do something important with my life. Something important that has my stamp on it as much as anyone else's."
"I wrote Poe for you," he said.
He tucked himself around her elbow and said, "Happy birthday," he said.
"We should probably get married. My mother loves you."
"But your father doesn't approve," he said. "Is it because I'm gay, or is it because I'm black?"
"It's because he believes in passion."
"Don't we all?"
"Do we?" Leah thought of her passionate, wounding affair, with Grace, who had managed to work as an actress in New York ever since without running into her. Grace was playing Meg in Phantom down the street, and Leah could walk by the marquee and only feel cold.
"You're thinking about Grace, aren't you?"
She glanced around to see where her family was before answering, and hated herself for doing it. She said, "It's been five years. I think that part of my life is over. It's time for the 'settling down and having puppies' phase."
"Being in love is kind of like being crazy, you know? And now that they've traced it to a specific biological process, maybe they can cure it."
"Or bottle it," Adam said. "That phase of your life is only over when you die. Think of Poe. He ached and loved deeply."
"He died at 40."
"Then you'd better get started," Adam said.
"I started years ago."
Adam leaned his head on her shoulder and said, "Then maybe you'll get somewhere."
Her mother called her back, holding out a piece of cake.
* * *
Sophia stood as still as possible as at least a hundred people rushed past her. Someone she didn't know came up to her with a tape measure, measured her, touched her waist, her breast, her calf. Told her how tall she was.
That the dressers were late was only the tenth thing that had gone wrong today.
"Stage left, Sophie," the director called. He sat an impossible thirty feet away, in the fourth row of seats. She moved to the left.
"Okay, Sophie. First monologue. Lady Macbeth. Boom."
"Now?" She glanced at a crew member carrying a castle turret past her.
"You do know your lines, don't you?" the director asked.
Her face burned hotter. She had been the understudy for months and being bumped up to lead didn't automatically make her an idiot. And yet, she started badly, stumbling over the first line, distracted by the noise around her, "They met me in the day of success..."
The director stopped her with a wave of his hand, and said, "Try to sound excited, Sophia. This man is telling you about witches, not that he got a raise at work."
Her eyes stung, and she started again, reciting her lines in front of those hundred people, most of whom probably thought they could do a better job than she could as Lady Macbeth.
Even the men.
The rest just wish she'd get out of the way so they could set up the lighting effects.
"Art not without ambition..."
She closed her eyes as she went on, pretending she'd been on stage for twenty years, like her predecessor, the one everyone still thought of as the real Lady Macbeth. She lifted her chin, and tried to show everyone that she belonged.
"Better," the director said.
* * *
One Day Later
The theater sat over five hundred people and had no balcony, so Leah could sit on the edge of the stage and look into the back and the chairs would disappear into the darkness when the house lights were off. She'd asked Adam on the bus ride just who he expected to come to this musical of his, and learned that half the seats were taken by season ticket holders, another fourth by local schools and senior centers, and the rest would be snapped up as soon as the reviews were out.
"We're getting reviewed?" She had asked. "Like, Ben Brantley reviewed?"
"By someone local whose job is to be both the movie critic and theater critic."
"I don't actually believe you," Leah said.
He had shown her the Raleigh News & Observer and the Greensboro Record. Not only could people read in North Carolina, they were kind of artsy. There was an independent summer film festival and some kind of naked Shakespeare at the beach. That prompted her to ask why they weren't at the beach.
"Well, the middle is really where you'd want to be, in North Carolina," he said.
"David Sedaris is from here," Adam said. "Alan Gurganus?"
"Are they actual local gay people, Adam?"
"Only in a sexual sense."
She smacked him with a newspaper.
The bus from Port Authority had gotten into the Durham bus terminal at 4 A.M. Filled with homeless people and quiet, the terminal didn't seem that much different than New York, except that it was outside, and she could see buildings between the buildings. She felt exposed, and let herself be bundled into the rented car.
Unwilling to see what a Best Western was just yet, Leah opted for being dropped off at the theater, to see if it was an actual theater, or if Adam had found some amphitheater without bathrooms or stage lights, where they would prance around like forest nymphs reading poetry.
The set designers for South Pacific let her in when they arrived at 6:30, and then they went back hammering underneath the stage and painting and playing with electronics up in the soundbooth, so aside from a few flickering lights, she was left relatively alone.
Singing Poe was daunting. The process had seemed less intimidating back when she'd been in the bare room with a fold-out table and Adam was at the piano, when it was just a cool idea that might one day be a concept album. But now the theater was sold out, and she wished she weren't the leading lady.
If the music was good and she couldn't sing it, she could ruin Adam.
Her hands felt cold. She hummed a few bars. The theater remained unimpressed by her. She kicked her feet, dangling off the lip of the stage. She was pretty sure her butt was asleep, and the raked stage, though swept and mopped, had the imprint of a thousand shoes. She cleared her throat, and there was no answering echo, no haunting accompaniment from the grand piano behind her, no crash from down below.
"And thus thy memory is to me," she said, in a hoarse half-whisper, and forced the next line to be more melodic, "Like some enchanted far-off isle--"
Footsteps sounded in the wings. "In some tumultuous sea," Leah mumbled, as a woman approached.
"I didn't mean to interrupt," the woman said. "I didn't know you were here."
Leah got to her feet. The woman before her was younger than she was, taller, weighed maybe twenty pounds more, and had black hair that shined in a sudden spotlight and dark brown eyes Leah had tried to capture for herself during the contact craze. The woman carried herself with grace across the stage, but the voice she projected seemed hesistant, apologetic.
Leah felt like an old and tiny stick figure by comparison, and her knee didn't do her any favors by creaking as she straightened up. She said, when she realized the woman was studying her with open interest, "I just got here."
"Where did you come from?" the woman asked.
"New York," Leah said, and then added, "Manhattan."
"Oh. I've always wanted to go." Her voice, still quiet, echoed her distant expression, even though she was looking right at Leah.
Leah asked, "You haven't?"
The woman shook her head. She said, "I don't have my Equity card yet."
"Oh, so you're an actress?" Leah asked.
But the woman nodded, and said, "I'm playing Lady M. In, you know--"
"I know." Leah looked furtively at the ceiling. She didn't believe in the Scottish Play curse, but who ever knew, in the South. She'd seen The Gift like everybody else. She asked, "Aren't you a little young?" Then bit her tongue. Too late.
In New York, she never would have asked such a rude question. But then, in New York, she would have known already who was playing Macbeth. She tilted her head, but the woman didn't look angry.
"It's--" she paused. "A long story."
"I was coming to work on my monologues. Without the crew--It's been so incredibly loud. I'll leave you to your song," the woman said, and turned to go back into the wings. She'd spoken quietly, as if to herself, and Leah could just hear her thoughts.
"No, wait, I'll go," Leah said, reaching out to stop her.
"No, it's fine. I'm sure you're here for the same reasons I am."
"I am." she said, "But there can only be one Lady M," and then she kicked herself for inflicting her tacky humor on an unwitting and gorgeous stranger.
The woman smiled, just as Leah's cell phone rang, playing "Memory." Adam's ring. He had programmed it himself. Leah blushed.
The woman stepped back, closer to the wings.
Leah said, "See? I'm late for my breakfast date. I'll go."
The woman smiled and gave a little wave goodbye as Leah went down the stairs at the side of the stage. She headed for the back of the theater, and then turned around to watch.
The woman took center stage, and said, in a voice suddenly loud and bold, that didn't seem to match the quiet words from five seconds ago, "The raven itself is hoarse that croaks the fatal entrance..."
Leah tried not to be foolish enough to take that as some sort of portent.
* * *
"So, I want to tell you--" Leah started, and then looked around. "Are we really, actually at a Waffle House?"
"Leah, don't stare, you look like a tourist."
"An actress. Besides, if someone says 'Ya'll ain't from around here,' I'm likely to spit orange juice out of my nose and it will hurt." He shook his pinkie prissily at her.
"Oh, like New York is so cosmopolitan."
"Don't do that! They might beat you up, or something."
"Leah, darling, half the people in this Waffle House are gay."
She looked around. There were two middle-aged women sitting with a little girl, watching indulgently as the girl drank a milkshake. They had mirrored expressions of motherly love on their faces. Across the room, a man, writing in a leather-bound notebook, sat alone at the counter, looking ordinary, but Leah heard him order steak and eggs and really, like Adam she could sometimes sense things.
She looked back at her compaion. "I'm so disappointed," she said.
"Gay people at Waffle House? Is there no place to get a champagne brunch?"
"Obviously not. Here we are."
Adam leaned across the table and took her hand, and she rolled her eyes and prepared to listen to his speech yet again. He said, "If you'd just come out when you were with Grace we'd be so over this by now. Your mother keeps leaving me voice mail. I think she suspects something."
Leah sighed. She said, "Name one publicly out lesbian actress in New York."
"One that works for a living."
He shrugged. "I could name a dozen and so could you. But I'm not even saying you're wrong. I'm just saying it's a pain in the ass."
She was hurt by that, and concentrated on her strawberry pancakes.
"What were you going to tell me?" he asked.
"Just now, before the shocking gay people at Waffle House expose."
"Oh, that I met Lady Macbeth."
"Sophia Medina? What's she like?"
"Young," Leah said. She took a sip of her coffee, and asked, "Isn't Lady Macbeth supposed to be played by some well-regarded actress in her 40s and 50s? Usually a ringer or someone of local fame? Like me in 20 years? Not--a kid?"
"They brought someone up from Charlotte to do it, from what I read in the paper, and four weeks into rehearsal they found out she had breast cancer. Sophia was Lady Macduff, they bumped her up."
"Why not just bring in another ringer?"
"I'm sure they tried. People have schedules, Leah," Adam said. He smiled, and asked "What do you have against Medina?"
"Nothing. She's just... young."
"And beautiful, I hear. Maybe she was actually good enough for the part."
"Young, thin, beautiful actresses often are," Leah said.
"I wonder if she can sing."
"Don't worry, I'm not recasting you."
Leah smiled, and asked, "Ironic, isn't it? I'm far too be old to be playing a 13 year old love interest--metaphor or not--and she's far too young to be Macbeth. We should switch."
"I'm hurt," Adam said.
Leah felt a twinge of satisfaction. She said, "It's just business, Adam."
"Honey, it's art."
* * *
The theater was teeming with life when Leah and Adam got back. South Pacific and Macbeth were to rotate for a month in the space, followed by one week of Poe, and then the big finale with three weeks of Side Show.
Leah avoided the stage and the dressing rooms, and followed Adam around like a puppy. He explained that they would get stage time later in the week, but that he was joining the casting auditions for Side Show and some extras in order to find her Poe. He had dropped the idea that Poe didn't exist.
Somewhere in a grave, Edgar was thanking him.
"I want to pick him," Leah said.
"Your feelings will be under consideration. Chemistry is important."
"Will I get to do lines with him?"
"When we do callbacks," he said.
"What? It isn't fun from this side, either?"
"It's never fun until rehearsal."
He shooed her into a chair. Plush red velvet, but very uncomfortable. She squirmed. "Our poor audience," she said.
"I mean the chairs, Adam."
He settled in next to her. "Oh."
"Well, we'll just have to bring them to their feet, then."
"How, with our action sequences? Our amazing pyrotechnics?"
"We do have a lot of corpses," Adam said.
"That we do."
* * *
Adam chose Edward Whitfield for Poe. Edward preferred to be called Ward and was indistinctly Asian, with deep, luminous eyes and peroxide-blonde hair and a lilting Southern accent that belied his appearance and all the brooding he carried within him.
He'd spoken "The Raven," for his callback, of course, standing in the center of the stage, and there was nothing special about his oration, compared to the four times they'd heard it already, but his accent and his youth added a sweetness that appealed to Adam.
"It's changing the musical," Leah grumbled. "It's supposed to be old and dark."
"Poe died at 40," Adam reminded her.
"But not his words."
Still, it was already Ward's voice in her head, whispering, "Each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor. Eagerly I wished the morrow--" as she went to the deli down the street from the theater.
A rainbow flag hung from a flagpole on the roof, swaying in the light breeze under the oak trees. Inside, it just looked like a deli, mostly empty at seven o'clock, except for Lady Macbeth sitting at the window, looking out at the sunny street.
"Join you?" Leah asked.
A flash of terror crossed the woman's expression, and then she recognized Leah. She shrugged and said, "I'm leaving soon, but go ahead."
Leah settled down and put her food on the table, careful not to invade the woman's personal space, and looked out the window. No one passed by. There were old houses across the street, stately, with yards overgrown and bricks spilling from their retaining walls. Leah said, "I'm Leah," and took a bite of her salad.
"Sophia. Well--Most people call me Sophie."
"I've been calling you Lady Macbeth," Leah said. She chuckled.
"So, is this different from Manhattan?" Sophia asked, breaking the silence.
"Oh, yeah," Leah said.
Sophia took a sip of her soda. There was mostly ice in the glass, and she captured a piece and chewed on it. Leah looked out the window, and asked, "Is it different from where you're from?"
"Yes, but--Not really. It's just another town." Sophia exhaled, and said, "It just doesn't feel like home. You know? So it feels empty."
"How'd you get the part?"
"Elaine--I knew her in Charlotte. Before we joined the cast. She recommended me."
"And now she's--"
"Is she going to be all right?"
Leah tried to say, "I'm sorry," but her throat dried up. She swallowed, instead, and reached for her green tea. But there wasn't anything else to talk about. She didn't know this girl, sitting next to her and looking sadly out the window. "So, what's your favorite movie?" wasn't going to break the ice. Leah hadn't read Macbeth since college, and she hadn't been in college in ten years.
"Oh, God," she said.
"It's okay--" Sophia started.
"No, I was thinking of something else." Leah looked sideways at her. "I'm sorry."
Sophia's face seemed to close. Her expression became impenetrable.
Leah asked. "Will she get to see you as Lady Macbeth?"
"Yes." Sophia's shoulders relaxed and she smiled. "Yes."
Leah smiled, too. Sophia carried an intensity that made Leah's skin tingle slightly whenever she encountered her--both times--and Sophia's smile had just intensified it. No wonder she was on stage. The girl had presence. Sophia balled up her napkin and tossed it on her food wrapper, but made no move to get up.
"Where is everyone?" Leah asked.
"There's pizza at the theater for the lighting crew. But I have to go back at eight. They're doing a props rehearsal for Lady Macduff's murder."
"How's she going to die?"
Sophia rolled her head to smile at Leah, and said, "Come see the play."
"Shakespeare? I don't know. I'd have to read a review first. How do I know the book is any good?"
Sophia chuckled and went back to looking out the window.
Leah finished her salad, and said, "We should get ice cream."
"Okay," Sophia said.
"Is there ice cream?"
"I don't know." Sophia furrowed her brow. "But there are donuts."
"We could take some back to your props master."
"He'd like that."
The Krispy Kreme was a little white and green neon shack in the middle of a run-down industrial strip. Inside it was clean and bright, and smelled like sugar and coffee. Leah inhaled. She said, "I love coffee."
"It won't keep you up?"
Sophia raised her eyebrows.
Leah laughed, and said, "No, I'll be fine." She took her coffee and surveyed the donuts behind the counter. "These aren't New York donuts."
Sophia touched her arm, and then let it drop, and asked, "You've never had a donut from here?"
"I've only been in Durham two days."
"Krispy Kreme is right here, though."
Leah looked helplessly at the cashier. He pulled a donut from the rack, tore it in half, and offered a piece to each of them.
"Do I dunk it in my coffee?" Leah asked.
"If you do, they will throw you out," Sophia said, around the donut piece she'd already shoved in her mouth. She ordered two dozen more.
Leah put the sticky dough into her mouth and chewed. Sweetness filled her mouth. The dough was warm, and fluffy, and the glaze stuck to her gums and her teeth. She licked her lips after she swallowed, mourning the passage of food from her mouth, and said, "Oh, my God," to keep herself from moaning.
The cashier handed her another donut. She took a bite and chewed, and said, "These are so soft."
"You should try them with the chocolate glaze," Sophia said.
"We have to leave." Leah bolted for the door.
She stood outside, eating her donut and watching the empty street, while Sophia paid and followed her out. "Where are all the people?" she asked.
"In New York, you're never alone unless you're inside your apartment--And usually, you have roommates. So you have to lock yourself in your bedroom. But here, it's so... expansive."
"Are you lonely?"
"No." Leah swallowed the last of her donut and said, "Well. Not because of that."
Leah licked her lips and asked, "Are you a crack dealer? Why did you take me in there?"
"I own stock in Krispy Kreme. How's the coffee?"
Leah took a sip and considered. "It's merely okay."
"You'll have to introduce me to what qualifies as good coffee, then."
"Adam rented a house," Leah said, thinking of the coffee grinder and the percolator he'd brought from New York, and the beans she had shipped from fair trade, supple and dark and staining her fingers in the mornings.
"For the duration. Me and him. And real coffee. A couple of the out-of-towners that came with us got another one down the block. Ours has a piano, so we can do rehearsals. We're--We're going to have a party at some point. For everyone at the theater."
"Okay," Sophia said. She hefted her bag of donut boxes, and gave Leah a wave as she went into the theater.
Leah looked down the street. The house was two blocks away, just another old, stately thing that was rented to theater people in the summer and Duke graduate students in the winter. She set off walking, looking over her shoulder. In New York, the bigger the crowds, the safer the woman walking alone. She missed tourists.
Thinking of herself as being one made her feel better.
* * *
"It's so quiet here," she said, as she and Adam sat upstairs in her bedroom. He was lying on her bed with his laptop, and she was at her vanity, arranging photographs around the mirror.
"We could put on some music," Adam said.
"That's not what I mean. I mean--I can't sleep without sirens. It's like we're in the middle of nowhere and aliens are going to come to our cow field and probe us."
A car drove by outside. Leah jumped.
Adam said, "There's a million and a half people around us."
"How do you know?"
He turned the computer around and said, "I looked it up."
Leah leaned her forehead against the mirror, and asked, "Where are they?"
She tapped her forehead.
Adam said, "I don't know how it managed to get there, but you have icing on your chin."
* * *
Leah opened one eye. Direct sunlight streamed through the window. She sighed. Adam was gone, and so was his laptop, though he'd draped a blanket over her. She still had her shoes on. Adam knew nothing about comfort.
She went downstairs after her shower, and Adam, shirtless, was making eggs in the kitchen.
"Hungry?" He asked.
"Can we have donuts?"
He glanced at her, shook his head, and said, "Do you want to check your email?"
"No." She looked at the coffee grinder. It seemed insurmountable.
"Your mother probably wrote," he said.
"She probably wrote six times. Five times to ask if I've found a man in North Carolina. Once to ask if I've found 'someone.'" She made quote fingers.
"Parents," Adam said.
"I like your parents," Leah said.
"They don't nag you about grandbabies."
"They don't want me to bear your children?"
"They want black babies. They suggest I become famous so I can meet Denzel Washington."
"Not if my mother meets him first."
Adam grinned and waved a spatula at her.
"Grind my beans?" she asked.
"Not in a million years, girl."
"I'll give you a dollar."
Adam flipped eggs onto a plate and set it on the counter next to the grinder. "Eat your eggs."
"What are we doing today?"
"Ward's coming over to do a reading. Then I'm going to go talk to the set guys."
"We're finally doing it, Leah," he said.
Maybe when she had some coffee it would sink in.
* * *
The more Leah hated Ward, the more she liked the musical. He was insufferable, and arrogant, and demanding, and young. He touched her inappropriately, he said, "Quoth the raven" like it was his mantra, and his hair--She just hated his hair.
He ran his fingers across the blond spikes as Adam gathered his things to go.
"I'll go with you," she said. She wanted to see the theater, and she wanted to see if Sophia was there. Her only other friendly acquaintance in North Carolina. They'd done a dry reading at the kitchen table, over Leah's precious Honduras coffee and tiny pancakes with marmalade Adam had made. Ward's gentle lilt did make the words come alive, she admitted, and his pace clashed with hers, making her feel guttural and sharp, too Jewish New York for singing love poems.
Adam reminded her that Poe wrote in Boston, as they did a second run-through, with him at the piano and Leah and Ward standing in the living room. Ward would seize her arms and shake her and sing to her, and she'd forget her lines, distracted by the intimacy of a man touching her, or anyone, after months of recording studios and singing alone on stage, or sitting at a computer, repeating words into a microphone, over and over.
"I need you both to know your stuff by the time we start tech rehearsals," Adam said.
"Because it'll all change again?"
"It has to change from something to something. Not from nothing to something."
Leah plucked a key at the piano.
"Just, start from the top," Adam said, and left.
Ward folded his arms and grinned.
"My big number is a Joan Baez song," he said. "Does Adam do anything original?"
"He's gone two seconds and you badmouth him? Fabulous. At least he didn't use any material from the last Poe musical."
"No one wants to remember that one," Ward said. "I think he's great. But I'm not saying his words."
"It's his narrative. You're singing his notes. Why didn't you try out for Macbeth? I hear that's exciting and fresh."
"I did," Ward said. "I got picked up by the experimental thing instead. It's my first lead, but come on, I've been on stage with--"
"Bigger names than me? If you're such a hot shot, why aren't you in New York?"
"I don't want to go to New York. It's big and dirty and overcrowded and fast and you can't see the sky. I want to stay here. This is my home." His accent was stronger with his passion. He'd have to trim it for the stage. There was lilt, and then there was hick. She looked sadly at him when he said, "I want the leads in North Carolina."
"Well, here you are," Leah said, and shrugged.
He sat down at the piano and said, "Here I am. Good point."
"Can we please just sing?"
"Let's start at the finale and work back," he said.
"Won't that fuck everything up?"
"It's time to experiment. To explore each other." He put his hand on her forearm. She shuddered with repulsion, and looked forward to the House of Usher sequence.
* * *
Leah went to the deli a few times for dinner but Sophia didn't show up. Leah wondered, paranoid, if she were being avoided. But maybe Sophia just hadn't liked the sandwiches. Time to stop wondering about total strangers, Leah chided herself. Macbeth was going into dress rehearsal.
Each night Leah sang by the piano with Ward and Adam. One evening they'd piled into Adam's car between dinner and getting drunk on the porch and gone into downtown. There wasn't much to see. Adam promised her pizza in Raleigh in her near future, and Ward tried to explain college basketball to her.
She tried to explain the Yankees to him, but Adam started in on the Mets, and Ward had to break up their yelling. After that they stuck to safer topics, like Webber and Sondheim, and tried to avoid all being in the car together.
Leah was used to walking to work anyway, though the summer heat made her sweat and drained her of energy. She drank more water, and justified more donuts.
* * *
The rented house had books on the bookshelves built into the living room, and Leah perused them, marveling at their eclectic-ness from a decade of students and theater nuts passing through. There were books on economics, war, and poetry, along with romances and thrillers and a collection of Garfield comic strips. She had read through the Garfield already, using each strip as a reward for remembering her lines, or working through a tricky section of the score.
"Coming, Leah?" Adam called from the front door.
She scooped up a Harlequin romance called The Prince of Patagonia and followed him out.
Ward met them at the theater. They went through the last morning of rehearsal before technical started. Ward lost his temper. Leah cried. Adam swore he'd never write another note. They got through the music in four hours, and broke for lunch.
The theater volunteers brought potluck for South Pacific's final dress rehearsal, and Leah helped herself to fried chicken and then went outside to guiltily eat it in the heat and the sun. Maybe if she melted Adam could find a new Virginia for his project, instead of one he had to keep yelling, "Sweeter. Why can't you look sweeter?" at all day.
Reading and eating fried chicken simultaneously proved impossible, so she ate, wiped at her hands as best she could, and then picked up the book. If she got grease on it, who would miss it?
"What are you reading?"
"The Prince of Patagonia," Leah answered, with flourish. Then she looked up to see who had asked, shading her eyes with the book.
Sophia stood on the top step of the theater, smiling down at her. "Is it hot?"
"I don't know. I promised myself this time I wouldn't just skip to the juicy bits," Leah said. "Maybe they'll be better if they have build-up. Or something."
Sophia nodded and said, "I'm late for rehearsal, so--"
"Break a leg."
Leah put down her book, and wrapped her arms around her knees, and tried to guess which house across the street might be a crack house, from the amount of traffic going in and out of it on a Thursday afternoon.
* * *
South Pacific opened. Leah sat in the back row with Adam, and elbowed him as hard as she could during "I'm Going to Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair." He hummed along to every song.
"Adam," she hissed.
"What? I like musicals," he said.
She rolled her eyes in the dark.
The after party was at a mostly closed restaurant three blocks away. Leah talked to each person she ran into for about three seconds each, and was strangely relieved to spot Sophia across the room. She wore black slacks and a black, low-cut top and looked both ready for an evening of dancing and for a rehearsal. Leah let herself be impressed.
"Some enchanted evening," Sophia said when she drew near.
"I saw a stranger," Leah said.
Leah wanted to say that she loved that smile, and the words were on the tip of her tongue. Sophia, though, was looking at her oddly, so she licked her lips instead, and asked, "How's Macbeth?"
"I don't want to talk about Mac," Sophia said.
Leah nodded. She said, "I hate my co-star."
"You know him?" Leah asked.
"I've seen him around."
"Oh." Leah exhaled.
"So, how's your book?" Sophia asked, and Leah's face warmed at Sophia's remembering.
"Oh. Demetrius, that's the prince, fell off his horse and into a pond, and that's how he met Brenda, who has no idea he's a prince, she just thinks he's a stupid rider."
Silence overtook them. Leah knew she should go, that it was polite to mingle, that they'd had their shot at conversation and had been reduced to the romance novel, but Adam came up to them, and as Sophia laughed at something he said, her bare arm brushed Leah's, and a charge went through Leah, a heat she hadn't felt since the first time she'd worked with Grace, and she swallowed hard, unwilling to give up just yet.
Adam went on his way to talk to the director of South Pacific, and Leah turned to Sophia. She asked, "Where are you from? I don't think we ever got that far."
"Jacksonville," Sophia said. "My mother's Haitian and never quite got out of Florida. I was in Charlotte, doing post-graduate work in theater for a year, that's how I met Elaine."
"I never knew there was so much going on in North Carolina."
"We've both been trying to break into the national tours. Without much success. But I'm making enough to eat. If I don't think about the student loans," Sophia said, and looked resigned. She spoke with a seriousness that belied her age, and Leah could already imagine her onstage, intense, with presence.
God, how old was she? "God, how old are you?" Leah cringed, and said, "Sorry."
Sophia bumped shoulders with Leah, which made Leah nearly faint, and said, "25."
"And still trying to break in?"
"It's the same in New York. Instead of tours, just Broadway. And us, 'Off.'" Leah said. She noticed she was talking in sentences twice as long as Sophia's, and tried to rein in her chattiness. If Sophia preferred the stillness she exuded, Leah's chances were hopeless.
"Adam seems so talented."
"He really, really is. But it's business. And hey, aren't you?"
Sophia pirouetted. "Yes, I am."
"We get enough work to keep going," Leah said.
"So we'll keep going," Sophia said. "It's nice to meet someone from New York. Everyone here is leading a different life than what I want."
Ward was across the room, schmoozing the producers, and Leah thought about his dreams. She understood, finally, homesickness. "To goals, then," Leah said. She offered up her glass, and Sophia clinked it with hers.
"And to not having anything to fall back on," Sophia said.
"Well, except family."
"Except family." Sophia took a sip of her drink.
"I guess nothing makes me want to succeed more than that," Leah said. She made a face, and finished off her drink, and Sophia laughed and leaned into her arm.
They stood together, chatting about far-off places, as people came up to them to introduce themselves.
Later, walking home with Adam, Leah realized that Macbeth opened in two days, and Poe tech rehearsals started tomorrow, and there would be no way she'd have time with Sophia again. The words to "Some Enchanted Evening" stayed stuck in her head until she fell asleep.
Wise men never try.
* * *
"You're brooding," Adam said at breakfast.
"You had one glass of fruit punch."
"Fine. I have a crush on someone," Leah confessed. She wanted to talk about it, to make herself feel less crazy. This wasn't why she had come to North Carolina. Some people wrote it all out--like Adam, she supposed--some people brooded. She talked. To anyone who would listen, and Adam had been stupid enough to make breakfast.
Leah glared at him. He folded his arms. She stabbed her fork into the eggs. The metal clanged against the ceramic plate. He shrugged and said, "I'll figure it out."
"I'm sure you will."
"Want to read the review of South Pacific?" He tapped the folded copy of the Durham Herald on the table.
"Just tell me the good parts," Leah said.
"The avant garde staging and the sense of nostalgia in a similarly war-torn era remind us all of the timelessness of our humanity."
"Jesus," Leah breathed.
Andrew nodded. "Sure as hell hope he likes Poe."
"Don't you have the reviews you want written in your head already?"
"Sure. But that will never, ever see the light of day."
Leah covered his hand on the table with hers, and kept eating.
He squeezed her fingers gently and said, "At least the musical will."
"Does it feel like giving birth?"
Adam said, "I have no fucking clue."
* * *
The set designer kept yelling at Leah not to break anything. She stood gingerly in the center of the stage, surrounded by fabric. Her jeans and sweatshirt belied the opulence behind her, but Ward, wearing an undershirt and sweatpants, at least kept her company. They sang together. They stopped, they started. Leah began to feel like she knew what she was doing. She could close her eyes and let the century slip away from her.
Adam, conducting the five piece orchestra he'd put together, smiled up at her and she hit the harder notes, and Ward's touches were more in the moment than inappropriate, and when she ducked his kisses and he sang wounded songs to her, she felt her face grow warm.
"That's a wrap," Adam said at seven, and the crew and the musicians followed them home, to sing around the piano and drink and laugh and eat pizza. Leah settled onto the porch long after the sun had set. She listened to the crickets and the frogs, beyond the singing behind her, and let the heat invade her skin, and inhaled deeply, letting happiness fill her.
* * *
"Jeremy, come on," Leah purred, leaning against the ticket window.
"Honey, it's sold out. It's Shakespeare. People dig that shit."
"I'm not just a civilian, you know."
"It's opening night. Next week, I can hook you up, girlfriend."
Leah pressed her face against the glass.
"Here," a voice said behind Jeremy. Leah opened her eyes. Sophia slid a ticket toward her.
"Thanks," Leah said.
"You want to see me that bad?" Sophia asked, smiling. She had on worn blue jeans and what looked like the same top from the South Pacific party, and no makeup. Still, Lady Macbeth lurked within her, somewhere behind her eyes.
Leah grinned, and asked, "You're in this?"
"Just like Eve is kind of in the Bible."
Leah tapped the ticket against her lips and said, again, "Thanks."
"No problem. My mom couldn't make it." Sophia's face fell, and she disappeared into the theater. Jeremy looked after her, and sighed. Leah gave him a sympathetic look, and ran off to find her seat.
An older, gaunt woman in several layers of shawl and overcoat that still managed to show she was too thin was sitting next to her, and Leah ventured to ask, "Elaine?"
Elaine smiled. She had bright blue eyes that met Leah's without hesitation. "Do I know you?" she asked.
"No. Sophia comped me the ticket, and I just thought--"
"She's a good kid," Elaine said.
"I guess we'll see," Leah said.
* * *
To Be Continued in Part Two.
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