"When are you coming back?" Adam asked through the phone.
"Why not Sunday? What is there to do in New York on a Monday night?"
"Very funny. Sunday I'm in a studio. They're putting me on another CD."
"Angel got fired from his show," Leah said.
"Because of his nose?"
"I don't know why you hang out with losers, Leah."
"I don't know, Adam."
Leah said, "He spent the whole day with me."
"That's because he has no other friends, Leah."
"He's going to be bigger than all of us someday," Leah said.
"So you say. He's got the voice of an angel. He's the next Euan Morton."
"So why won't he work with you, is what you're saying?" Leah asked.
"I know why he won't. And Leah. He's 35. He's never going to be bigger than us. He'll never live up to your Hugh Laurie expectations," Adam said.
"Do you hear me, Leah?"
"Yes. Don't do drugs."
"And lay off all the drinking," he said.
"What am I supposed to do, Adam? I'm an actor. I have demons. Demons, Adam."
"So act. Put them into your characters, so they won't live in you. Hey, I'm writing that down. Oh, and listen, we're sending a car for you on Monday. Look for your name."
She heard him rustling around, searching for paper, and hung up on him.
* * *
She put on her sunglasses before walking gingerly down the gangway to the surface of the earth. The terminal rose up before her. She sweated in her leather jacket, which had seemed appropriate in the cool New York air and the freezing air conditioning at LaGuardia.
Her jeans, already tight, stuck to her thighs as if they'd been spackled on. She crept toward the terminal, too tiny to legitimately be an airport, and through the refreshing air conditioning and onto the street again, where Sophia stood, holding a sign with her last name scrawled across it in purple magic marker.
"What are you doing here?" Leah asked, as Sophia hugged her.
"When I was third witch/understudy, this is what I did," Sophia said.
"You were third witch?"
"I was very scary," Sophia said.
"Anyway, Adam sent me."
"Oh, so it's Adam now."
"He's interesting. If I spend any more time talking with the Macbeth crowd I'm going to kill them. I've been hearing I only got the part because I was sleeping with Elaine."
"How is Elaine?"
Sophia's face fell. She met Leah's eyes, and said, "She's in the hospital again."
"I'm sorry." Leah put her free hand on Sophia's shoulder, and hefted her bag up again with the other.
"It's all right. They're all going to the zoo tomorrow. Photo op. So I thought I'd at least take today and have a change of scenery."
"So I'm scenery," Leah said, and smiled.
"Very nice scenery."
The low heat that had begun in Leah's abdomen at seeing Sophia spiked into white fire. She thumbed Sophia's shoulder. Sophia leaned her cheek on Leah's hand, and asked, "How was New York?"
"I needed a change of scenery, too."
"It made me appreciate why I'm here," Leah said.
Sophia didn't move as Leah leaned in, lifting her hand off Sophia's shoulder to cup her cheek. Leah kissed her. Sophia responded to Leah's pressure with her own, nuzzling Leah's lips. For a moment, everything was perfect and still, and then Sophia pulled back to study her face.
Leah let go of Sophia and looked around. If everyone had seen them, they were politely looking away now. She shrugged.
Sophia kissed her cheek.
Leah smiled. She said, "I think I know why I'm in Poe now."
"That was some trip," Sophia said.
"Well. It was some trip back."
* * *
"Hey, Leah," Adam called from the third row. "What do you think of the name Edgar Allen Poetry? Get it?"
She would have flipped him off, but the producers were there to watch the first tech rehearsal. She settled for sighing and saying, "Ha. Ha."
"Okay, let's do Dream. From the top."
Leah went to the wings. Ward stood on stage, presumably outside her building, waiting for her to come home. She tried to think of herself, in love, scared, thirteen years old, but all that came to her was Sophia. She inhaled, and squared her shoulders, and then let them slump, and went onto stage.
Ward caught her arm. He pulled her around. "Virginia," he said. His voice was low--meant to be a whisper, but no one could whisper on stage. So, just quiet. Library voice. Indoor intensity on the outside stoop in Boston.
"You shouldn't be here," she said. She pulled out of his grip, and went downstage.
He was supposed to follow her, but he stayed, and cried out, louder now, "Virginia."
"You can't be here. This can't happen. It's not real," she said. She thought of saying the words to Sophia, and could not think of any reason to say them, not Virginia's reasons--age and propriety and other loves--and yet, her eyes filled with tears. She blinked them away.
Ward, damn him, was still upstage, trying to force her to turn around and see his pain. His want, his desire, naked on his face. And the audience wouldn't see the grief on hers. She said, "Go away."
"Virginia," he whispered, hoarse and frustrated.
She turned around, and stalked past him. With her back to the audience, she gave him a little smirk. He looked over her shoulder. When she passed him, he seized her arm, and squeezed a little too hard. She yelped.
"Take this kiss upon the brow," he said, and kissed her temple. His teeth grazed her skin. It felt like a violation. She pushed his chest, and when he let her go, went into the house. Behind the set, she listened to him sing.
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
She cried, behind the stage, silently where no one could hear her, and then she went to the little fake window, made of plastic. Ward paced the stage, histrionic, brutalized by her little rejection.
He clenched his fist, and said, "I stand amid the roar of a surf-tormented shore, and I hold within my hand grains of the golden sand."
Leah watched and listened as the music--Adam's four piece orchestra--created the sound of the ocean, did But he never looked back at her. He raged only for the audience.
"Bravo," Adam called from the seats as Ward's song ended and he got off his knees. Leah came through the front door. Adam met her eyes, and smiled. He said, "Not in the stage directions, but perfect. The agony of your restraint against whatever was inside you was admirable."
"She didn't look at me once," Ward complained.
"She didn't have to," Adam said. "You were always right there."
* * *
Rehearsal broke around seven-thirty. Leah was so exhausted that she'd spent the last two hours crying, off and on, in jagged shuddering. She'd lost her voice. Adam had yelled at her for not being more temperate, for not monitoring herself. So she'd become histrionic, like a rebellious child, nevermind that he was right.
She was too keyed up to go home. If she did, Adam would make tea, and she'd go to bed early, only to do it all over again tomorrow morning. That was too depressing to contemplate.
She had a dress fitting at three the next day; that was too depressing to contemplate, too.
Her back ached. She settled herself on the brick retaining wall of a yard across the street from the theater, and watched the audience appear for Macbeth. There were crowds of people--senior citizens, young parents and children, dating couples--all dressed in Sunday best, greeting each other with long-lost joy. They were treating themselves to a show tonight. Some of them might have waited all year.
Each of those watchers would feel powerful, catered to, special. They were paying for the privilege of having people perform for them, just them, something their fellow man would never experience; not on that night, not at that time.
Leah knew the intoxication of being stared at, desired, and loved. She wanted to join the crowd and be a part of its energy. She wanted to see Sophia on stage again.
The crowds thinned, and then disappeared completely into the theater, leaving the street empty in the last vestiges of daylight. She went to the ticket booth, where they were closing up and counting money.
"Hey, Leah," Seth said. "You want a ticket?"
She said, "No. Full house tonight?"
"Oh, yeah. Sold out. All the season ticket holders showed up, too. Fatime looked for empty seats, but they were all gone."
Leah imagined people waiting months in advance, or maybe years, buying tickets to shows they didn't even care about, just because it might be interesting. And they had no idea they'd be getting someone like Sophia. Only a few knew to hope for Elaine.
"So, what do you do now that everyone's trapped inside the theater?" Leah asked.
"Yell fire?" Seth suggested.
Fatime shot a rubber band at him.
He winced and said, "Now we sit around and talk for a half hour, then we start getting the food ready. Snacks for the cast, champagne and candy bars for the tourists at intermission. We point people to the bathrooms, organize the lines. You know."
"And you guys volunteer for this?"
Seth grinned and said, "I get school credit."
"Part of my parole," Fatime said.
Leah's eyes widened.
Leah said, "In New York, you guys would be unionized."
Seth raised his fist. He said, "Join us, famous actor lady."
Leah's face grew hot. She said, "I should go."
"Oh, come on, stay," Fatime said. "Tell us about New York?"
There was shyness in her voice that compelled Leah, so she went behind the desk and sat in an uncomfortable wicker chair, and let herself feel important to two school kids who handed out playbills because they wanted to act.
Fatime cracked the auditorium doors as Macbeth died. Leah felt a pang. Lady Macbeth was already dead. Swarms of people left after the house lights went up, like a wave pouring out of the theater. Some lingered, chatting with each other, or waiting for the actors to make appearances in the lobby. Their family, their friends.
A couple had flowers for Banquo.
Sophia walked through the lobby with Oscar, who Leah recognized as Macduff by the boyish haircut and the circles of makeup under his eyes, smeared by his recent anguish. He smiled, leaning in to tease Sophia about something. She elbowed him in the ribs and he danced away, and then circled back, putting his arm around her shoulders.
Leah watched, torn between possessiveness and paralysis. Sophia spotted her and smiled.
As they walked closer, Leah moved to intercept them. "Hey," she said.
"Hi," Sophia said. She hugged Leah, and asked, "Did you see the show tonight?"
"No, I was just hanging around after a late rehearsal."
"That's good," Oscar said. "You missed a doozy."
Sophia glared at him, but Oscar grinned and said, "Someone forgot her lines."
"Someone threw my timing off."
Oscar said, "Well, tonight it wasn't about the seduction of a man, it was about getting through lines without choking. And yet, dude, standing ovation. People overappreciate us."
"Or there's power in simply being," Leah said. She had her hand on Sophia's shoulder. Sophia leaned into her; just enough to let her know she was pressing back, was seeking more. Leah brushed her thumb against Sophia's arm. Sophia flashed her a smile.
Oscar said, "Drinks, ladies?"
Leah was tempted, but hanging out in the theater for three hours had tempered her exhaustion into mere fatigue. She shook her head. Sophia said, "Tomorrow. Tonight I'm going to soak in a hot tub."
"And?" Oscar prodded.
"And read my lines," she said, and scowled at him.
Sophia shot her a glance and said, "Memorizing is hard."
"Everything's hard about Shakespare," Leah said.
Oscar shrugged. He squeezed Sophia's forearm and kissed Leah's cheek, and went to deign to talk to the crowd waiting for him. To thank him for his Macduff, for pouring out his heart on the stage, and making them think of their children.
"What do you think Shakespeare would have thought of psychology?" Leah asked.
Sophia turned her head to put her chin on Leah's fingers. She said, "He would have a justification for why we are all so much less than we aspire to be."
"I take issue with his 'barren woman leads to madness' idea, though," Sophia said.
"I think you need to take that up with Freud."
"If I'm talking about anything with Freud, I'm starting with my mother."
"I don't know anything about your mother," Leah said.
Sophia frowned. She pulled away from Leah slightly, and said, "My mother's--my mother."
Leah said, "Let me walk you home."
Sophia raised her eyebrows.
"Just to the door of the roach motel."
Sophia smiled. Leah turned to the lobby exit. Once on the street, Leah bumped Sophia's shoulder as they walked, close enough to brush against each other. Leah grasped Sophia's wrist, and slid her fingers down to intertwine with Sophia's. The answering squeeze Sophia gave her hand thrilled her. She squeezed back. She wanted to win more response in Sophia, to see the pleasure flush Sophia's cheeks, to make her smile, to be the cause of it.
At the sliding doors of the hotel, they stood to the side, away from direct light. Leah turned down an offer of pot and a party from men passing through the doors, and then from Sophia's fellow cast, returning for the night. Sophia giggled.
"I should go have tea," Leah said. "I talked all night. That's probably the last time I can do that, for a while."
"Okay," Sophia said. She looked at the door, and then back at Leah.
Leah put her hands on Sophia's shoulders, and then couldn't think of anything to say. She tilted her head and said, "I'm sure you were good tonight."
Sophia chuckled. She said, "I'm sure I'll be good tomorrow night."
Leah leaned in. She waited for Sophia to draw back, to hesitate, but Sophia's smile remained, so Leah kissed her. Sophia's lips gently pressed back. Leah pulled on Sophia's shoulders and brought her into a hug. Sophia rubbed her back. The kiss remained chaste, and Sophia tilted her chin to kiss the corner of Leah's mouth instead, and then pressed her face into Leah's neck.
The brush of Sophia's lips against her throat made Leah shiver. She was so aroused, so suddenly, that she clutched Sophia until Sophia murmured against her throat, "So, are we dating?"
"Yes," Leah said, because she wanted it to be true.
Sophia nodded against her neck.
Leah swallowed. She said, "Next time, invite me up."
Sophia slid her hand up between them to cup Leah's neck. She said, "Okay."
Leah pulled back to find her mouth again, and kissed her more deeply, so that Sophia's lips parted against hers. Sophia bit into her upper lip, and Leah's tongue flicked out, to protect herself instinctively, and met Sophia's. She shivered, and kissed Sophia harder. Sophia murmured a plea, and Leah broke the kiss, her whole body throbbing with need.
Sophia stepped back, toward the lobby door, and smiled shyly over her shoulder at Leah. She went inside.
Leah exhaled. She closed her eyes against the hot air, and tried to quell her heartbeat, tried to ignore the expectation that this was all fleeting expectation, and therefore would hurt her, perhaps too soon, that ruin here would ruin everything around her. She rolled her shoulders, and smiled.
Then she surveyed the neighborhood around her, and thought of the time, and began to walk the six blocks back to her house, as quickly as she could.
* * *
"This trip is supposed to be about your big break in a musical, not some romance," Adam complained over breakfast.
"Rehearsals are boring."
"Not if you have the distinct terror of failure," he said.
Leah smiled at him.
"Let's go," Leah said, finishing off her orange juice. "I want to sing."
"Sing what?" Adam asked. He reluctantly got up from the table and gathered his portfolio, shoving sheet music into it, loose leaf, and a handful of red and blue pens.
"I was aroused from sleep by the cry of fire. The curtains of my bed were in flames," Leah said, nearly humming the words, sending them up and down the scales.
"That's not actually in the musical. Have you been reading on your own?"
Leah winked. She slung her backpack over one shoulder and went to the door.
"Leah. You do care!"
She stepped out into the sunlight and said, "I do."
* * *
After five hours of rehearsal, she was flat on her back on the stage, panting. Sweat on her arms and palms sealed her to the wood.
"Leah, you're ruining the costume," Adam said.
"I'm supposed to be lying like this," she mumbled. Her throat burned. She swallowed, and the saliva cooled her, and then the pain began anew. She swallowed again, but her mouth was dry.
"Yes, but you're not supposed to lie in it eternally. Come on, Macbeth needs the stage. They're doing put-ins."
Leah rolled to her knees and began patting her hair. Then she frowned at Adam. "Are you just fucking with--"
The auditorium doors burst open and the cast of Macbeth poured in, coming down the aisles. Leah got to her feet.
Adam folded his arms.
Leah came to the edge of the stage and said, "I'm going to shower, then."
"Wait," Adam said. He vaulted onto the stage, and, still sitting on the edge, said, "I have opera tickets."
Ward eagerly scurried over. "When?"
"Monday," Adam said. "Before South Pacific and Macbeth run their last weeks. It'll be our last chance for anything fun before dress and opening night."
The mention of opening night made Leah suddenly nauseous. She knelt next to Adam and breathed through her nose. Even Ward looked green, standing over them. Adam pulled out two tickets and offered them to Leah.
Leah took them and asked, "Adam? These are in Charlotte."
"Did you think there was opera in Durham?"
"You're not riding with us, either."
Leah shrugged. She stood up and said, "It'll be a nice break. A way to remember there's something else to live for besides Poe."
Adam looked wounded.
* * *
She went to the ensemble dressing room to change, nodding to the Macbethians gathered to gossip and get ready for the rehearsal. Then she slung her garment bag over her shoulder, checked that the opera tickets were in the back pocket of her jeans, and went upstairs to Sophia's dressing room.
There was a sign taped to the door that said Sophia Medina, and another sign that said Joyce Tam and Erica Rosen, the female leads for South Pacific. South Pacific ran that night, after the put-ins and dinner, so Leah knocked cautiously.
"Come in," Sophia's voice called.
Leah turned then knob and swung the door open. Sophia, leaning down in front of the mirror to put her hair in a pony tail, smiled when she saw Leah's reflection.
"I've never been here," Leah said.
"It'll all be yours when we leave," Sophia said.
Something cold settled into Leah's stomach. She put her hand over it and said, "Try to keep it clean, then."
She let the door swing shut as she walked further into the room. Sophia had pictures, toys, and Nutrigrain bars on a high shelf labeled Sophia, and a black bag was next to her feet.
"You can put your stuff down," Sophia said.
Leah let the backpack slide off her shoulder and to the floor, and then put her garment bag on top of it. "We got costumes today."
"What does it look like?" Sophia asked, turning toward Leah.
"Come to opening night and see," Leah said.
"Comp me some tickets."
"Sure. I get four. You can sit next to my mother, my father, and my sister."
"They're coming? That's so sweet."
"Didn't yours come?"
"Well...yes." Sophia grinned.
"I'm hoping mine won't be stuck next to any reporters. My dad tends to make... comments."
"Does he like musical theater?"
Sophia was standing, facing her, but hadn't moved. She stayed rooted in spot, and so did Leah, feeling awkward, wondering what she was doing there, and what Sophia expected her to be doing.
Leah said, "In theory. But the things he's seen--the things I've done--I die in Poe twice. That's not going to thrill him. But at least I won't be going topless."
Sophia's eyes dropped to her chest, and then the gaze returned to Leah's face. She asked, "Really?"
"I was in college."
"Sure you were."
"Hey, I had a solo!"
They both laughed, and Leah crept closer, to lean against the makeup table. She asked, "Do you like opera?"
"In the sense of--being in it?" Sophia asked.
Sophia shrugged. She said, "I've only been to one. My mother took me to Amahl and the Night Visitors when I was four."
"Golden opportunity, then."
"Does Durham actually have an opera?"
Sophia frowned. She said, "That's..."
"South. Westish." Leah gestured in a vague direction.
"I was going to say, the home of NASCAR."
"Do you prefer that? Because I didn't get comped tickets to any races."
"Opera it is, then," Sophia said.
Leah realized Sophia had tacitly agreed without even asking when it was, to say she might be washing her hair. She blushed, and said, "It's Monday."
Sophia tilted her head.
Leah dug out a ticket and asked, "Want to come?"
"Yes," Sophia said. There was rose in her cheeks, too, and when she took the ticket from Leah's hand, her fingers brushed Leah's wrist.
Leah said, "There's a problem."
"We don't have a car."
"I'll borrow one."
"There's another problem," Leah said.
"You don't drive, do you?"
"I'm from New York."
Sophia said, "Welcome to the South, honey."
"We could take a train. Amtrak."
Sophia took a step closer. She asked, "Don't you trust me?"
"Isn't driving hard?" Leah reached out and took Sophia's hands.
"Not compared to acting," Sophia said, leaning over Leah, pushing against her hands.
"How about singing?" Leah asked, and lifted up to kiss her.
Sophia just kissed her back, without comment, sealing their lips and wrapping her arms around Leah's neck. Leah pulled Sophia against her waist. She hugged Sophia tightly, rewarded when Sophia intensified the kiss.
When they broke off to catch their breath, to soothe their racing hearts, they didn't speak. Sophia just nuzzled Leah's cheek, let Leah kiss her jaw and her neck, and then they'd kiss again, tongues stroking, teeth grazing lips, their mouths pressing together and breaking apart and pressing together again with more pressure. Leah could only hear her own panting, and Sophia's, and neither heard the knock on the door until Geoffrey stuck his head in and said, "Sophie, you're late."
Sophia pulled back, breathing hard. Leah's face burned with embarrassment. She didn't look at Geoffrey, but Sophia grabbed her bag and left, her hand brushing Leah's shoulder on the way.
"Isn't that Leah Fisher?" Geoffrey asked, outside.
Leah crept to the door, to hear them as they reached the stairs.
Geoffrey said, "She's the headliner!"
"Well, I'm not an understudy anymore, Geoff."
Then they disappeared down the stairs, and Leah couldn't hear any more. She wrote down her phone number on a stack of stage manager notes, and added, as an afterthought, "Call me."
* * *
She went back to rehearsal, in one of the empty rooms away from the stage, just a piano and a folding table. Adam lost his temper. He moaned, raged, slammed his hands down on the keys to make awful sounds.
"It's not you," he said. "It's just not coming together. The costumes aren't what I wanted. The stage is all wrong. The music won't flow into the words. Why can't you make it flow?" This, he directed to Leah.
She turned to Ward, but he was just as terrified as she was. His eyes were wide, and he hadn't said much. Usually he'd boast and annoy her and tell Adam, "I can do this--Don't give me direction, I can do this."
Today he mumbled his lines, stepped on hers, and forgot the lyrics to "A Dream within a Dream." She sat in a folding chair, since there was no wall to hide behind, and felt nothing as he and Adam rehearsed.
Ward glanced at Adam. Adam said, "You stand..."
"You stand..." Ward sang.
Adam cut him off and said, "I stand."
"I stand amid the roar," Ward sang, and though his voice was beautiful enough, there was nothing behind it, nothing in the room with them, to echo the words. "Of a surf-tormented shore."
Adam played the piano louder, forcing Ward to sing over him, to yell, "How few! Yet how they creep."
Leah laughed. Adam banged the keys, and she laughed harder. Ward stopped singing, and fled. He slammed the door, leaving Leah alone with Adam.
"What's so funny?" Adam asked.
"Nothing. Nothing." Leah continued to giggle. She put her cheek against the table.
"Stop it," Adam said. "I need you, here."
"Find someone else," Leah said, and laughed. Hurt flickered across his expression, but she didn't care. She felt nothing, except a sickening sense of dread.
* * *
Sophia didn't call until Friday, after a week of tech rehearsals so endless and exhausting that Leah could barely bring herself to shower each day.
"I've got the car," Sophia said quietly. "If you still want to go."
"That's fantastic," Leah said. "How's Macbeth?" She hadn't seen Sophia, not even in passing, for days. Were they dating? At least Sophia hadn't forgotten her name. Or maybe she just really loved Die Fledermaus.
"Macbeth. I just want it to be over. I'm so tired of being so hateful and awful every night."
"Better than playing a victim," Leah said. She felt overly cheerful, elated by the thought of the opera, to Sophia's serious, distant tone.
Sophia said, "Elaine says it's the material, not the character's age, really, that makes older women play this part. There's just so much rawness and power here. She says that Desdemona and Lady Macbeth should be flipped, that Desdemona has the layers and Lady Macbeth is driven by one thing alone, but that it's unsustainable."
"Does Lady Macbeth have a name, you think?" Leah asked.
"Like, Sarah Macbeth?"
"Or Jodie," Leah suggested.
"Her real name was Gruoch," Sophia said. "But I think naming her takes away from her identity being born in her husband's--What she makes of him, she makes of herself."
"That's feminism for you," Leah said.
"That's the best we get. The role of the woman in theater is not especially liberated."
"But I am working with a 400-year-old text," Sophia said.
"Well, I'm inhabiting a 13 year old virgin, and my text is only a hundred and fifty years old. I'm not sure we're making progress."
"Oh, great. I look forward to the opera, then."
"Well, unless it's subtitled, we'll have no idea how subjugated the girls are," Leah said.
"Oh, I think we'll be able to tell."
Leah smiled. She pressed the phone against her cheek. Warmth radiated through her chest. She'd only known Sophia a couple of weeks and already Sophia was her closest confidante, outside of Adam. She couldn't imagine what life was like before meeting Sophia, and didn't want to think about going back to New York, alone, and pretending this hadn't been a part of her life.
Sophia asked, "When should I pick you up? The opera's at eight, it's at least a two and a half hour drive."
"Will I survive two hours in a car with you?"
"I suppose we'll find out," Sophia said. She cackled into the phone, and then added, "I have no idea where to hide a body, anyway."
"And I could take you," Leah said. Though she doubted that was true. Sophia was almost certainly stronger, and Leah had never been in a fight in her life. Whenever boys pulled her hair in school, she curled up into a little ball and cried.
"Four, then?" Leah offered.
"We'll leave from the theater."
"What kind of car is it?" Leah asked.
"Oh. You'll find out."
* * *
The car was a ten year old Sebring, and Leah, freshly showered and wearing slacks and a blouse with too many black sequins on it that Adam had produced from his suitcase, gazed at the car with trepidation. She said, "It's so...large."
"It's the safest thing on the road," Sophia said. "Unless it breaks down."
Leah bit her lip.
"Can you change a tire?" Sophia asked.
"It'll be fine. I think. I drove you home from the airport, didn't I?"
"True." Leah got into the car. Before she buckled her seatbelt, Sophia got into the driver's seat, and gave her a shy smile.
"Are you wearing lipstick?" Leah asked.
"For a three hour drive? No way." Sophia patted her purse.
Leah leaned across the gearshift and kissed her. Sophia let out a muffled mmpf and kissed her back, reaching up to touch her cheek. Leah let her eyes drift shut. Sophia's lips brushed hers, making them tingle. She pressed harder. Sophia parted her lips. Leah's tongue darted in and found the warmth of Sophia's mouth. Sophia's tongue, strong and pointed, brushed against hers.
Her shoulder protested the posture, and Leah pulled back. Sophia smiled. Leah shifted in her seat, balanced herself on her knee, and kissed Sophia again, harder, forcing her tongue into Sophia's mouth. Sophia responded immediately, and hungriliy, sucking on her tongue, bringing them even closer. Leah stroked Sophia's shoulder.
Sophia wore a dress, red and sheer, and her shoulder was bare except for the thin strap that Leah brushed with her palm. She trailed her fingers down Sophia's arm.
A horn honked behind them. Leah lifted her chin. Adam, in the next car, glowered.
"Why isn't Ward leading?" Leah complained.
"Boys are dumb," Sophia said.
Leah fell back into her seat.
"Buckle up for safety," Sophia said, and she turned the key in the ignition. Leah buckled her seatbelt. She grabbed the handle above her head, bracing herself for terror, but the car pulled out into the residential street at a comfortable five miles an hour. She relaxed.
Sophia dabbed at her lips. She glanced shyly at Leah. Leah reached up to run her fingertips down Sophia's arm, and the car swerved. Leah grabbed the handle with both hands.
"The interstate's coming up," Sophia said. "Do you want to navigate?"
"West," Leah said weakly.
"It's a north-south highway."
Leah closed her eyes as the car pulled onto the on-ramp. She said, "Let me know when we get somewhere pretty." Her phone buzzed. She reluctantly pulled it out and read a text message. "Adam says you drive like his granny."
"If he's not good, I'm going to slam on my brakes and turn his car's muffler into mush."
"Go ahead. It's just a rental."
Leah rolled back against the headrest and smiled.
The thought of a two hour conversation with Sophia, who'd been the quiet sort in the few weeks they'd been friends, excited and terrified Leah. Their energy buzzed between them in the car, making Leah sweat, making her nervous, wanting to touch Sophia but wondering if Sophia wanted to be touched by someone she hardly knew. So she attempted to make Sophia talk about herself instead.
On Leah's fifth, "Really?" they both lapsed into silence, and trees and lights flew past the windows. Leah turned away from the window and watched Sophia instead, captivated by the curve of her neck, the slope of her nose, and the blush of her cheeks when she caught Leah staring.
Sophia curled her lips over her teeth and bit down.
Retreating now seemed the worst course of action, but neither could Leah will herself to reach out and touch Sophia. Rejection would make it a long night, and an even longer drive back.
The radio was off; to turn it on would be an admission that they had nothing to say to each other. Leah glanced out the back window. Adam was still there. Ward was sitting next to him, too close.
Adam waved back.
Leah rolled her eyes. She asked, "Do you hate anyone in your cast?"
Sophia shook her head. She said, after thinking about it, "They're all nice."
Sophia surprised her by continuing, "But the director makes me cry." She said it thoughtfully, as if imparting some bit of poetic information, but rage churned in Leah's chest.
"What?" Leah asked.
Sophia shrugged. "He wanted to direct Elaine. They're friends. Old friends. Even longer than you and I have known each other," she said, flashing Leah a smile.
"Unfathomable," Leah said.
"So, yeah. He got me, and he picked me, which means I'm better than everyone else he could have picked. I know that. But I'm not Elaine, I guess."
"You moved me, when I saw you on stage. Isn't that enough?"
Sophia said, "But I want perfection--no, that's the wrong word. Perfect understanding."
"Yeah," Leah said.
"But he just wants Elaine." Sophia's voice caught on the last word, like tears were in her throat, blocking her voice. Leah put her hand on Sophia's shoulder. Sophia shrugged and tried to smile. She asked, "What about you?"
"I just want someone to realize how awesome I am," Leah said.
"I know that sounds--awful. It does. But I don't want them to talk about Poe's wife when they come to review me. I want them to talk about how well I do it, how beautifully I sing. Like, I guess that's terrible, but--I want my chance."
"To be better than everyone else?" Sophia asked.
Leah said, "Like you said. To be perfect. To be me."
"I get it," Sophia said.
"But really, I just sing. As I'm told. I can't imagine how hard it is for Adam, wondering every day if he actually sucks at writing music when he hears the songs coming out of my mouth. Is it me who's going to fail? Or him? Or if we're both perfect, is anyone actually going to care? It's the end of tech rehearsals. I don't even care. "
Sophia asked, "Remind me again why we're in this business?"
"We're neurotics," Leah said.
"Oh, yeah. In that case, I guess it's our parents' fault?"
Leah thought of her parents, and how much they supported her, and how much she disappointed them, even with her successes, even past age 30, when they were still coming to see her plays. She let her hand slide down Sophia's arm, and tugged for her hand. Sophia squeezed her fingers. * * *
The two cars parked side-by-side at the opera house's parking deck. Sophia unbuckled her seatbelt. "So," she said.
"So." Leah started. "Do you--"
Adam tapped on the glass. "Drinks, ladies?" he asked.
Leah unbuckled her seatbelt.
"Wait," Sophia said, lifting up a finger to stop Adam. He stepped back from the car. Sophia looked at Leah and asked, "What were you going to say?"
Leah's cheeks burned. She forced herself to meet Sophia's eyes, and asked, "Do you like me?"
Sophia bit her lip.
"It's okay, never mind," Leah said.
"No." Sophia put her hand on Leah's arm. She said, "My show's ending in a week, and I don't know where I'm going, and--" She paused.
"--And I do. I think. I really like you," Sophia said.
"Who are you?" Sophia asked.
Leah laughed. She patted Sophia's hand.
Adam tapped the glass again.
"The opera awaits," Leah said. She got out of the car. Adam offered her his arm. Sophia took Ward's. Leah felt like she was playing dress-up. The all giggled together, and went into the opera house.
Ward and Leah opted for orange juice while Sophia and Adam split a flute of champagne.
"Five bucks, do they think I'm royalty?" Adam complained.
"You're a famous playwright, darling."
"Still." He took a sip and passed it to Sophia.
"Do you not drink?" Sophia asked Leah.
"I don't drink before shows. Whether I'm in them or otherwise. I fall asleep."
"Or forgets her lines," Adam said.
"I never forget my lines," Leah said.
"Oh yeah? Sing 'Oklahoma'" Adam said.
"Oh come on, I was twelve."
"You were sixteen!"
Leah put her hand to her head.
Sophia cast a shy glance at Ward.
Ward said, "I'm Baptist. Aren't you?" he asked Sophia.
He raised his orange juice to her. She clinked it with the champagne glass. Adam said, "We could make mimosas."
"After," Leah said.
Ward finished off his orange juice. He asked, "How long are operas?"
He raised an eyebrow.
"Long-ass," Leah said.
"I'm going to have to pee," Ward said.
"Look," Adam said, putting his arms around Sophia and Leah. "Hillbillies. I know that some of you are from around here, but we are at the opera, and we are in theater, so could we please all be a little more stuck-up and pretentious? I'm feeling a little uncomfortable."
"This is about Poe, isn't it?" Leah asked.
Adam sipped his champagne.
Sophia said, "I really hope this version is as good as the one I saw in Amsterdam last year."
Adam smiled. People turned their heads to look at them.
"I hope so," said Leah. "But I predict it will be conventional. Nothing will beat the all gay La Boheme I saw, set in a gritty Americana street block."
Ward leaned in and whispered, "You're just talking about Rent, aren't you?"
Leah grinned. She said, "Maybe I am."
Ward said, "Let me tell you, do not mention Angels in America in this town."
Sophia frowned. She asked, "What do they have against Mary Louise Parker in Charlotte?"
"The world may never understand," Ward said.
"Oh, I hope you don't think we're like that," a man said, stepping closer to enter their conversation. His eyes meaningfully looked over Ward, as he added, "Anyone's welcome to enjoy the opera."
"Thank you," Ward said. He raised his glass.
"It's our first opera," Leah said. "In Charlotte."
"We're season ticket holders," the man said.
Not to be outdone, Adam offered his hand and said, "We're from New York."
"Don't tourists usually flow in the other direction?" The man asked, smiling and shaking Adam's hand.
"We're producing a play. A musical, actually. In Durham."
"A musical. Regional theater? Working the kinks out?"
Adam nodded. "It's a bit safer. The New York crowd can be... dangerous."
The man smiled. He said, "The last time I was in New York I saw, oh, what's the name... Once Upon a Mattress. Delightful."
Ward choked on his drink.
The man patted Ward on the back and said, "I save the serious theater for here. New York is for escaping. Hey, didn't I see you in Death of a Salesman in Columbia last year?"
Ward beamed. "Yes sir, you may have," he said.
"Where's Columbia?" Leah asked Sophia.
Sophia bumped her shoulder.
The lights flashed, and the man went back to his wife, to find his seat.
Adam said, "I'm writing that down."
Leah rolled her eyes. She followed Adam to the entrance, walking side by side with Sophia, wondering whether or not to take her arm, or her hand, or if that would be too personal for a public space, or too personal, just in general. She finally settled for brushing her hand against Sophia's back as they descended the steps. Sophia arched her back. She looked over her shoulder at Leah, and looked like she might purr if they were in another setting. She kept her hand on Sophia's shoulder as they went down the row.
"Where are we sitting?" Ward asked. "In the movies they always sit in the boxes."
"These are fourth row house seats," Adam said.
"Do we need to sit that close at the opera? They'll spit on us when they sing," Ward said.
"Good. You experience it. You spit on me all day long," Leah said.
"They'll see me if I sleep. They'll get all offended," Leah said.
"So don't sleep."
"But it's opera. I'm not sure what else to do."
"Read the subtitles."
Leah perked. "Okay," she said.
They crowded into their row, stepping on people, apologizing, beginning to sweat already from the cramped space. Sophia, then Leah, then Adam, then Ward.
"Are we sharing the arm rest?" Sophia asked.
Leah shook her head. She reached into Sophia's lap, took her hand, and brought it into her own lap, linking their fingers together. Sophia scooted closer, putting her cheek on Leah's shoulder.
"Aw," Ward said.
"Does he really spit on you?" Sophia asked.
"Only when he sings."
Adam said, "And don't forget, it's a musical."
The house lights went down. The orchestra began to play. Leah wondered if she knew anyone in the pit. And then, with Sophia's fingers stroking along hers, and Sophia breathing softly to her right, she wondered if she'd follow any of the opera at all.
* * *
The house lights came up. "Half time," Ward announced. He bolted for the bathroom.
"Why's he rushing? He's a boy," Leah complained.
Sophia squeezed her hand.
The last hour had been a blur of affection and German farce. Leah had settled against Sophia's hair until she'd gotten a crick in her neck. In the shifting around, her hand had traveled to Sophia's lap, and settled on Sophia's thigh. Sophia had squeaked. No one had shushed them, but Sophia had blushed and refused to look at Leah for the rest of the act.
Their eyes met in the light. Leah smiled. She leaned in, and Sophia leaned in to meet her. They pressed their foreheads together, noses not quite touching. Sophia whispered, "You are fun."
Leah had to bite her tongue to keep from asking, "Is that all?" She instead asked, "What on earth happened in the first act?"
Sophia blinked. She said, "I have no idea."
"It's in the playbill," Adam said tiredly.
"Do you need more champagne?" Leah asked, turning around, keeping her hand in Sophia's.
"I had more than enough. Do you want to get a hotel room tonight?"
"Adam," Leah hissed. "Sophia's right here."
Sophia giggled. She leaned around Leah, putting her chin on Leah's shoulder and peering at Adam.
Adam said, "The four of us."
"Kinky," Sophia said.
Leah tugged on her fingers, and said, "I'd rather go home, if Sophia's up to driving. Be in my own bed."
Sophia leaned back in her chair.
"You can join me," Leah said, and Sophia blushed and swatted her away. "Too much?" Leah asked.
Sophia shook her head.
Leah leaned closer and asked, "Not enough?"
Sophia squeaked. She closed her eyes.
Adam smacked Leah.
"Sorry, sorry. Aren't you glad we drove separately?"
"I know what I'm doing," he said.
Leah whispered to Sophia, "We could just go make out in a pretty velvet stairwell or something for the second act."
"Someone will ask us about the opera," Sophia said.
"We can Google it."
The house lights flashed.
"Too late," Leah said, "If we made a run for it, we'd be crushed by the wave of drunk people returning."
"It's just like NASCAR after all," Adam said.
Ward vaulted into his chair and said, "Die Fledermaus!"
Leah flashed him a gang sign.
"Oh, look, chemistry," Adam said.
"Fuck you," Ward and Leah said together.
The opera began.
* * *
To Be Continued in Part Four
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