Part Six of Little Disquietude.
Leah studied her expression in the dressing room mirror. She looked younger and fresher than she usually saw herself. Her cheeks were rosy with rouge. Her outfit, from the late 1880s, itched and made her feel like something out of an Edith Wharton movie. She wriggled experimentally, but Virginia, in the mirror, wriggled back at her. Leah was gone, at least physically. She smiled. Virginia smiled back.
The mental part, she still had to work on.
Adam ducked into the dressing room. "You look beautiful," he said, and it was Sophia's voice that echoed in her mind. She shivered. He asked, "Do you need any last minute preparation?"
She shook her head, and said, "I'm psyching myself up for the crying."
"Dare I ask?"
"I was watching Cold Case on TNT back at home and they had this one about a homeless woman and her daughter."
Adam looked pale.
Leah went on," And the homeless woman won the lottery--a really small amount on a scratcher, like $25, and she used it to buy her daughter a birthday cake. It was this thing. B-plot." Leah's voice faltered as a lump rose in her throat. She inhaled sharply through her nose. "Anyway, her cake got destroyed. It was awful."
Adam frowned at her.
"What?" Leah asked through her choked throat.
"I need to stop asking actors questions," Adam said.
"It was really sad!" she yelled as he left her dressing room.
She went back to looking at herself in the mirror. Under the scratchy clothes and the silkier underclothes and the layers of makeup to change her into someone else, were the bite marks and bruises and scratches and hickeys Sophia left on her. Under that, the soreness and the aches and the still-simmering arousal between her legs. And under that, her heartbeat, pounding, making her feel alive and desperate.
"Underneath, underneath," she murmured, and Virginia looked sadly back at her, blinking away the tears in her luminous blue eyes.
"Can you sing?" she asked Virginia.
"Like a songbird," Virginia responded. "Like a warbler. Like a crow. Like a hawk."
Like a raven.
* * *
Virginia had been eight years old when Poe had fallen in love with her, but Adam hadn't cast a child, wanting to gloss over that in favor of the other tragic figures in Poe's life as the spectre of West Point loomed in his future. The widow, the invalid, his brother, dying of consumption. Already Poe had seen too much death, too much upheaval, but the musical opened with the first sonnet of "The Bells" sung sweetly by Virginia, with hope and newness and youth between them.
"From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells."
Ward was shaped by experience; charming, belligerant, more intelligent than his betters, witty and doomed. Ward blended easily with Poe, carrying the essence of a different place and time, and yet echoing the late 20th century commentators, too clever to be politically savvy, all quoting Poe themselves. Leah admitted that he had been well-cast.
Even her hatred of him seemed timely.
And Leah thought, with pleasure and clarity, that the critics would love the meta.
She cried, her back turned to Ward, her face presented to the stage, a full house, but she couldn't see any of them with the spotlight blinding her eyes, making them water. She thought of the birthday cake and a sob escaped her lips. She covered her mouth and ran from the stage.
Ward chased her, seduced her, sang to her his prayers that made her ache with their beauty, fought with everyone else, in clumsy, choreographed duels.
She sat at the piano, and bit into the capsule wedged between her back teeth. Fake blood poured from her mouth as she sang. Her voice trembled with the conductor's gestures.
Ward sat beside her, dabbed the blood from the corner of her mouth, studied her as a detective might a crime scene. With interest, detachment.
He began to drink.
She took Adam's artistic license and died, two years too early.
Ward descended into madness.
Hear the loud alarum bells -
What a tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!
In the startled ear of night
How they scream out their affright!
Too much horrified to speak,
They can only shriek, shriek,
Out of tune,
In a clamorous appealing to the mercy of the fire,
In a mad expostulation with the deaf and frantic fire,
Leaping higher, higher, higher,
With a desperate desire.
She came back as a ghost, thought of Macbeth, nearly laughed on stage. She sang alone, her face powdered white, her clothes wispy and pale suggestions. She wondered if Sophia was in the audience. Knew her mother was. Thought of them as she sang, and Adam, and Grace, and everyone she'd loved, seeing her dead on stage, and singing, carrying or breaking the musical all by herself, all at once, all alone. She kept or lost their attention for three minutes and twelve seconds.
The applause at the end of her solo was loud, but polite, and accompanied by gasps.
The language was beautiful, the words pouring out of her mouth set fluidly to the natural, organic music Adam pinned to them. The music was all his, neither apocryphal or old-fashioned, and she had sung with relish, feeling attached to the past and present, and all of culture, by the connections he had drawn. If only the audience would feel that, too. The everyman condensed into poetry.
And they would, at least, ache for the ending, as Ward stepped into the spotlight, as Leah stood just off-stage as a ghost, as he began to recite the poem they had all learned as schoolchildren.
At first, it was just his voice, monotone, methodical, his drawl completely eradicated: "Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary..."
Leah would be the one to step on stage and say, "Nevermore." The music had started by then, as Ward's desperation and urgency increased. The instruments brought forth a swelling, a terror. No need to reinvent the wheel, the art here, better to dip into nostalgia, into the shared literacy.
Ward whimpered, shouted, paced the stage.
'Prophet!' said I, `thing of evil! - prophet still, if bird or devil! -
Whether tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted -
On this home by horror haunted - tell me truly, I implore -
Is there - is there balm in Gilead? - tell me - tell me, I implore!'"
And then the stage changed, back to the street where Ward had come to woo her, outside, where the crowd milled around, ignoring his madness, as he spoke of his memories, his aching love, and he fell onto the street, and the music stopped, to leave him screaming, wounded and dying, at the sky, "And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor... shall be lifted nevermore."
He died, with a shuddering death rattle rising from his chest. Then silence, and the cry of a bird.
The lights went out, leaving the stage in darkness.
* * *
Leah dipped the cloth into the cold cream and wiped her face. Makeup washed away and unmasked herself. She smiled. Her shoulders ached. She was starved and exhausted. Her hand trembled as she removed the makeup. She had no idea if the show had gone well; it was already a blur. A headache was forming at the base of her neck, traveling upward, radiating.
She left her hair pinned up, regal and exotic, and reapplied makeup, more subdued, just hiding the wrinkles and letting herself look younger. She changed into a suit, already missing the period costumes. When had she become a little girl playing dress up? She opened the door.
Sophia flew in.
"Hi," Leah said, closing the door again, raising her eyebrows.
"Adam let me backstage," Sophia said. Out of breath, she asked, "Should I go?"
Leah shook her head.
"All right," Sophia said. She flung her arms around Leah and hugged her tightly, pressing her cheek against Leah's hair. Leah held her back, trying to keep them standing as Sophia swayed. She shook a little in Leah's arms.
"Are you crying?" Leah asked.
Sophia nodded. She kissed Leah's temple and said, "It was so powerful."
Leah didn't know what to say.
"You were," Sophia said.
"The material was good. And the music."
"And you." Sophia pulled back, and looked down at Leah's face. She said, "I'd never seen you on stage, before. Except the first time we met."
Leah smiled. She said, "Now you know."
"I guess the rumors are true."
Leah reached up and brushed tears off Sophia's face. Sophia kissed her, hard and hungry, turning her around and pressing her against the dressing room door. She lingered, robbing Leah of breath, smearing her makeup. Leah kissed her back, moaning as Sophia sucked on her lower lip, and wondering if she was making too much noise.
Sophia raised her head and sighed. She asked, "Another party?"
"It's our job," Leah said.
"My job is over. Even the party part."
"Come on. You might meet someone famous."
Sophia smiled. She kissed Leah again, firmly but briefly. Leah held the side of Sophia's neck, and extended the kiss, and then said, "My parents will be there."
"Do you want me to meet your parents?"
"Kind of," Leah said.
"Really?" Sophia brightened.
Leah remembered that Sophia was impossibly young.
* * *
She made Sophia wait outside while she fixed her makeup, too afraid she'd succumb to kisses, or sex, or tears. Outside in the hall, with the stage hands and the prop master passing by, as exhausted as she was, she could be demure with Sophia. Calm. Though she still took her hand, and they walked side by side to the party. Poe was not Macbeth, and the party was just down the street.
The air outside was humid and enveloping. Leah inhaled, feeling the weight of it settle on her, feeling blanketed. Poe had been intense; the weather washed that from her. Reminded her that the rest of the world wasn't as crazy as theater.
Sophia reluctantly let go of her hand as they climbed the steps to the restaurant. Leah took it again. A bouncer looked them over, glanced at the guest list, and waved them through without asking their names.
"Posh," Leah said.
"You're a star."
"Stop saying that."
Sophia grinned at her, and nudged her hip. Leah poked her back.
"Ladies," Adam called, waving at them.
Leah let go of Sophia's hand to wave back. He was standing with her parents and her sister. They'd flown in from New York in the afternoon, and not seen Leah before the show. They wanted the purity of the experience.
"This is so quaint," her mother said as Leah hugged her.
"I know, mom," Leah said.
Adam kissed Sophia's cheek and offered her his glass of champagne.
"We loved you," Leah's father said. He hugged her, and then her sister did.
"Really cool," her sister said.
"This is Sophia Medina," Leah said, and Sophia smiled shyly, looking at them but not quite making eye contact. "She played Lady Macbeth. At the theater. I mean, simultaneously."
Adam stepped in. He said, "She's the fresh young talent in North Carolina."
"Is Macbeth still running?" Leah's mother asked.
Sophia shook her head. "We just closed, two days ago."
"I'm sorry to have missed you. Leah, do you want to have lunch tomorrow? I assume you have people to meet, tonight."
Leah nodded. She said, "I'll come to the hotel and pick you up."
"We're flying out tomorrow night," Leah's dad explained to Sophia.
Someone called Sophia's name. She apologized and went toward the voice.
"That's the mayor's wife," Adam mused, watching her go. Leah, too, watched Sophia glide across the room, her back bare in her low-cut dress, her skin flawless. "She looks so young," Adam said, vocalizing Leah's thoughts. Leah felt warm, thinking of all she and Sophia had done; how impossible it seemed.
She turned back to her parents, and asked the dreaded question, "What did you think?"
Her mother smiled. She said, "I think you'll always be employed, when you command a stage like that."
Adam put his arm around Leah and asked, "And me?"
"You, too," her mother said.
"Though," her father said, "I did think the entire thing was over-wrought, Adam. I mean, honestly, I needed a trip to Aruba after all of that hand-wringing and grief."
"Point taken," Adam said, grinning.
"It's every mother's dream to hear her daughter sing like that," her mother said. "Whether on stage or off. You have the voice of an angel."
Leah was sure she turned beet-red.
With that, her parents left her, though her sister lingered, following her around, meeting the actors and the crew, wide-eyed. Then she met the mayor's wife, decided she didn't care about North Carolina politics, and went to rejoin her parents.
The mayor's wife said, "You were striking. Amazing."
"Thank you. I owe a lot to Adam," Leah said.
"I'm sure. What are you doing, after the party?"
Leah raised her eyebrows.
The wife continued, "I mean, do you have someone waiting for you at home?"
"I--yes," Leah said, forcing herself not to search the crowd for Sophia, wondering how she'd have answered that question a week ago, a month ago--or a month from now. She smiled, and shook the mayor's wife hand, and was relieved at the polite, pinched smile the woman gave her before walking off.
She made the rounds of the room once with Adam, took pictures with everyone, and then found Sophia at the bar, talking to Glick.
"One more picture?" he asked.
Leah looped her arms over Sophia's shoulder and smiled at him.
"Fabulous." He took the snapshot.
"Can we go now?" Leah asked.
"To my place," Leah said.
"Will your parents be there?"
Leah shook her head.
On their way to the door, they were stopped by well-wishers and friends, and Leah's arms ached from all the flowers she carried. She made Sophia carry some, and as they descended the steps of the restaurant, Leah turned around to smile one more time in the general direction of her parents. They were across the room, watching her, and both smiled when she waved her flowers. She turned back around, feeling like they were watching her go.
"My parents are staring," she told Sophia.
Sophia looked dumbly at her.
Leah shook her head. It would be too hard to explain.
* * *
The house was dark, and Leah dropped the flowers on the porch to fumble for her keys. She'd been there in the afternoon to shower, but it seemed like forever since she'd been there to settle. The house felt foreign. She glanced at Sophia as she put the key in the lock, and asked, "You don't have anywhere--to be?"
Sophia shook her head. "I am. Where I want to be, I mean," she said.
Heat rose in Leah. She pushed open the door, and then knelt to gather roses. She led Sophia to the kitchen, where Adam had thoughtfully set out a dozen vases and Big Gulp cups and bowls for flowers.
"This isn't going to be enough," Leah said.
"Some of these are too big, anyway."
Leah considered, and said, "Let's put them in my room." She settled what she could in several vases and put them on a TV tray. Sophia followed her carefully up the stairs.
Her bedroom seemed dusty with disuse, and too quiet. She opened a window. The sound of crickets and frogs got louder. She smiled, and said, "I don't know how I'll be able to sleep when I get back to the city."
Sophia said nothing, just put the bouquets on the dresser, leaving Leah to put vases on the windowsill and bedside table. The scent of flowers filled the room, mixing with the fresh night air. She went to the window and looked out at the quiet street. Sophia came up behind her, resting her chin on Leah's shoulder. Leah reached behind her. She found Sophia's hand, and wrapped Sophia's arm around her waist. Sophia's other arm encircled her of its own accord, and they stood, holding each other. Sophia pressed a kiss to her cheek.
"Help me out of my dress?" Leah asked.
"How did you get into it?"
"You don't want to know."
Sophia's hands left her abdomen and slid up her back, and found the first clasp. Leah leaned back into her hands. Sophia tsked. She helped slide the dress to the floor, and then before Leah could turn around, blocked her shoulder from pivoting, and then unfastened her bra. Leah, naked, came to face Sophia.
Sophia smiled shyly, and Leah draped her arms over Sophia's shoulders and drew her in for a lingering, sweet kiss. Sophia nuzzled her lips, and then her delicate, flickering tongue entered Leah's open, offered mouth. Leah sank against the windowsill, jostling roses, and Sophia held her waist. The kiss intensified. Leah tangled her fingers in Sophia's hair to hold her head close.
Distantly, the front door slammed close, and then, closer, Adam's voice called up, "Girls, I hope you're decent."
"Go away," Leah mumbled, but only Sophia could hear her. Sophia giggled, and dropped her forehead to Leah's shoulder.
"It's opening night," Adam shouted. "Get down here!"
"I bet he has presents," Leah said.
"I have presents," Sophia said.
Sophia put her hand on Leah's breast.
"Oh," Leah said. She covered Sophia's hand, and pressed. She sighed, and said, "He's not going to wait forever." She reluctantly slipped away from Sophia and went to the dresser for sweats. She hesitated, wondering if they were at the sweats level of their relationship. Being naked was one thing...
Sophia was kneeling on the floor, rummaging through the pack she'd brought. She pulled out satin pajamas.
Leah put the sweats away and settled for a tee shirt and slimming jeans. She didn't bother with anything under them, and Sophia whistled at her.
"Stop," Leah said, feeling her face get hot.
Sophia slapped her ass.
They got changed and got downstairs as Adam began his third round of shouting. Ward was there, sprawled on the couch in his tuxedo, tie loosened, hair limp and sticking to his face. He smiled lazily. The conductor and the assistant director and the costume and set designers were there. They all applauded when Leah made her entrance. She bowed graciously and rolled her eyes, and settled onto a bar stool near the kitchen.
Adam poured champagne. He raised his glass and said, "To us. Whatever tomorrow's papers bring, this has been the greatest night of my life, because of all of you. Thank you."
They drank, and he poured for everyone again, and opened a second bottle of champagne.
Leah glanced at Sophia and murmured, "This is going to be a long night."
Sophia tapped her glass to Leah's.
Adam began a second round of toasts, and then the conductor stood up, and then the designer. Leah barely listened, thinking instead of what she might say. Her stomach churned with nervousness. Adam passed her the bottle of champagne, mostly empty, and she took it to the center of the room. There was Sophia, smiling supportively at her, a light in her eyes that enchanted Leah. There was Ward, and Eric, and Daniel, and Adam. Her friend Adam, who thought she could really sing.
She lifted the bottle to him and said, "I know I should have my diva moment now, but all I can say is thank you." She crossed the room to him, and kissed him. "Thank you."
She went around the room, to Ward first, to Sophia last, kissing each one on the cheek, hugging them, and saying, "Thank you." Then she went back to the center of the room, flung her head back to gaze at the ceiling, spread her arms wide, and hollered, "Thank you."
Everyone whooped and applauded as she drank the last of the champagne straight from the bottle. Fizz ran down her chin.
Ward got a new bottle and uncorked it with flamboyant style, winking as the froth ran over his fingers. He said, "Well, if she's not going to be a diva, I'll be that enough for the both of us."
He droned on. Leah returned to Sophia, who slipped her arm around Leah's waist and whispered, "Thank you for letting me a part of this."
"Of course," Leah said.
"Really. This is so... Look at you. Just a handful. It's so intimate. And you did something so amazing. All on your own, because you wanted to."
"People paid a lot of money so we could," Leah said. "But that's even more incredible. I know. I know." She kissed Sophia's cheek, and then nestled into her, and the night went on.
After toasts, Adam forbade them from talking any more about the show, promising that they could all look forward to tomorrow at eight o'clock, when the senior citizens of Rosemont Circle and the paroles of Durham County Jail would be coming to see them, along with the usual ticket-holders. Then he turned to Eric, the assistant stage manager, and asked him about his cats.
Eric's expression lit up with joy. He took the center of the room, and regaled them with a story of his wife's phone call to him which made him glad to be in Durham and not in New York. "Your cat climbed the curtains today," he said, mimicking his wife's voice. "What will the neighbors think?"
"She thinks since I'm in the South, I should buy a BB gun. I told her I was an artist, and she said, 'Christ, then, buy a pink one.'"
They all talked well into the night, as the alcohol muted their exhaustion and it faded to tiredness, and when they felt they could sleep, people filed out into the night, brave in their intoxication. Adam offered peanuts and DVDs of Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, but Leah smiled shyly at Sophia and took her hand, and said goodnight.
Her clothes were off as soon as her bedroom door shut. The waiting had made the room fill with floral scents, heady and strong. Sophia shucked her pajamas, muttering about how satin tore. Leah took her by the waist and lowered her to the bed, ignoring the state of the blankets, to awake with arousal, with readiness, to care about anything but the naked body underneath her, welcoming her.
She worked her hand between their bodies, finding Sophia's center, finding her wet. Sophia cried out and offered herself to Leah, spreading her legs further. Leah's desire spread through her. Her fingertips tingled. Her nerves were on fire. She rubbed against Sophia's body, seeking relief and closeness. Her hand, trapped between them, was ineffectual to mute Sophia's needful whimpers, so she slid down between Sophia's legs and buried her face there.
This time Sophia's hand on her head was bolder, her verbal pleadings more hoarse. Leah licked at folds and crevices and swelling already becoming familiar to her. She knew just when to press her lips against Sophia, to hold herself still until her jaw ached, and when to tease, to slide her tongue inside, to lap and stroke. She was becoming addicted to Sophia's taste, the heat against her tongue, the texture, and the willingness of Sophia to let her so close.
Leah wanted to do it again, to make Sophia come against her mouth, even as Sophia's passion rose, as she screamed, loud enough to shake the house, trembling enough to shake the bed, shifting underneath them, banging against the wall. Leah pressed her tongue to Sophia, wincing as Sophia bucked, hitting her teeth, and then clenched her thighs, suspending Leah on the bed. Leah experimentally flicked her tongue, and Sophia yelped and shuddered. Leah smiled against her.
Sophia let out an exhausted giggle, and loosened her grip. She tugged on Leah's hair. Leah crawled up on the bed, knelt over her. Sophia rolled her head to meet Leah's gaze, and tugged on a strand of hair. She said, "I had plans."
"To put on a show for Ward and Adam?"
Sophia shook her head, and said, "To show you how much I appreciated--loved--seeing you tonight."
"I think that came across," Leah said.
Sophia blushed. She pulled Leah down for a tight hug. Their legs tangled together. Sophia's hands moved over her back, stroking, pressing. She said, still breathless, "Do you have any idea what I can do with my mouth?"
Leah remembered the talent in Sophia's fingers and shivered. Sophia scratched her spine. Leah asked, "Did you go to Summer Stock for Sex or something?"
Sophia laughed. She said, "My mom always said that something worth doing is worth doing right."
"I love your mother."
"Your mother is a little scary," Sophia said.
"Oh, I know." Leah inhaled, and said, "I'm going to tell her, tomorrow."
Leah shook her head, and said, "That I'm gay."
Sophia rubbed her back.
Leah lifted her head and smiled at Sophia. Sophia kissed her jaw, and said, "Then you should be as gay as possible, tonight."
"Earn my shame?"
"Believe me," Sophia said, her voice becoming low and seductive, "You have nothing to be ashamed about."
"Let's keep trying," Leah said. She kissed Sophia, who touched her cheek, and then stroked the curve of her ear, while she kissed Leah back. Leah was still sprawled on top of Sophia, content to marvel in the ways they pressed together, calmer than the last night's nervous explorations. She began to roll off to the side, still kissing, but Sophia's hand dropped to her shoulder to stop her.
Sophia tugged her lip between her teeth, released it, and asked, "How good are your knees?"
Arousal Leah couldn't quite define shot down her spine, pooling between her legs, and she managed to stammer, "They're fine? I mean, they're--fine."
"It's your night," Sophia said, pushing hair out of Leah's face. "I want you to feel powerful."
At the moment, Leah had never felt more powerless, paralyzed and weak from lust, the saliva drying in her mouth as she gaped at Sophia.
Sophia stuck out her tongue, pointed and small, in an unmistakable signal.
Leah lunged forward and covered Sophia's mouth with hers, opening her mouth to the intrusion of Sophia's tongue, kissing her until desire overpowered hesitation and she sat up, straddling Sophia's abdomen. Sophia's breasts, nipples straining upward, tempted her. She touched one, experimentally tugging on the nipple, and Sophia arched underneath her.
"We have all night," Leah said.
Sophia nodded. She closed her eyes.
Her responsiveness, the way she quivered when Leah ran her finger down between her breasts, drove Leah forward. Sex had never been so enjoyable. She resolved to follow Sophia's footsteps along the path of pleasure, whoever was her teacher. She bent her knees into the pillow that framed Sophia's head, and before she could ask, "Really?" Sophia had grabbed her ass, yanking her into position.
"God," she said, as Sophia began to nuzzle her inner thigh.
"How loud can you scream?" Sophia asked.
Leah clutched the headboard, and at the first touch of Sophia's agile tongue between her legs, she screamed. She did feel powerful in that position, her hips rising above Sophia's face, instead of crushed and safe under Sophia as she'd felt last night. Her destiny lay in the strength of her leg muscles, in where she was willing to let Sophia's tongue travel. She pushed her face against the wall and panted.
Sophia's firm tongue stroked her quickly, almost sharp and stabbing, and Leah said, "Inside." Sophia shifted Leah's hips and the tongue flicked inside her, circling her, leaving her clit exposed. Leah dropped a hand between her legs and stroked herself, letting Sophia's stinging tongue penetrate her, slip out and lap at her with soothing strokes, and then enter her again.
Leah groaned with every breath, her thighs shaking, her hand moving as rapidly as Sophia's tongue as the climax came, sending her thudding against the wall, the texture of the wallpaper as rough against her cheek as Sophia's tongue against her. She lifted her hips away from Sophia with a mighty heave, and then trembled in the aftermath of orgasm, afraid if she moved she'd fall off the bed.
Sophia's hands cupped her ass, and then Sophia was there, behind her, wrapping strong, sturdy arms around her to support her. Leah took a deep breath, and then let herself fall backward, into Sophia's embrace. Sophia kissed her neck and said, "I have no idea how you keep that all contained on stage."
Leah closed her eyes and rolled her head back against Sophia's shoulder. She whispered, "I had no idea it was there."
Sophia twisted and brought them down into a sitting, snuggling position against the headboard. Leah kissed Sophia and said, "Let's stay up all night and make love."
"Okay. As long as we can have champagne between kisses," Sophia said.
Leah squinted at her.
Sophia grinned, and said, "I'm thirsty."
Leah flung on her tee shirt and jeans, leaving them unbuttoned, and padded downstairs for champagne. She ran into no one, which meant that it took her a good five minutes to get the bottle open, and another five minutes to find where Adam kept the glasses. She skipped back upstairs to find Sophia still gloriously naked, spread out on her bed, waiting for her.
To stand in the door, drink champagne, and bring herself off again was tempting. But Sophia extended a hand to her, and she went back to bed. Sophia drank champagne, and Leah blew against the top of the bottle, and then set the bottle and her glass on the floor. She felt sticky and grubby and the bedsheets were the same, but there was no thought of turning back to civilization.
Sophia dipped a finger in her glass and painted Leah's lips. The bubbles made them tingle. She licked away the champagne, and Sophia kissed her. Leah drew her into an embrace and they kissed languidly, sitting against the pillows, chuckling between brushes of their lips. Sophia's hand settled on Leah's breast, squeezing through her tee shirt. Heat rose anew in Leah, and she asked, "Slower? Because I don't think I can go slower."
Giggling, Sophia kissed the corner of her mouth, and slid her hand under Leah's shirt to stroke her breast. In retaliation, Leah reached between Sophia's legs. Sophia clamped her legs around Leah's hand and shook her head.
"I'll come like a rocket."
Leah shifted to bring Sophia into her arms, sitting between her raised knees, and said, "I'm not sure I understand the metaphor."
Sophia elbowed her.
Sophia scoffed, and then snuggled back against Leah. "You feel really good," she said.
"The shirt's 100% cotton." Leah ran her fingers up Sophia's thigh, and when she dipped toward Sophia's center, Sophia exhaled, and then swallowed audibly when Leah's hand settled over her. "There?" Leah asked.
"There," Sophia breathed. Wetness coated Leah's fingers. She explored further, fondling Sophia, sliding one finger between her folds, tentative, and then retreating again to squeeze a thigh and leave slick fingerprints.
Leah said, "We're going slow."
Sophia drank champagne, settled into Leah's arms, and tried different moans, gasps, and whimpers to coax Leah into breaking her word.
* * *
Leah woke to the scent of coffee. She rolled onto her back, and winced as sunlight penetrated her eyelids. She imagined her bedroom awash in white glow. She opened her eyes and so it was. Coffee. She sat up. If the reviews had been good, Adam would have come into her room, pounded on her until she woke up, and shoved the paper into her face.
A feeling of dread sank into her. She got up slowly, wincing at the twinge in her back. Thirty-one wasn't that old for that much sex. She protested the universe, and was rewarded by seeing Sophia, sprawled on her stomach across the bed, beautiful with sunlight touching her back.
Leah glanced at the floor, prodded her jeans with a toe, and decided to shower. The room stank of sex. She assumed she did, too. The newspaper would still be there in ten minutes.
She went downstairs in a coudrory dress she couldn't remember why she packed, and Adam was there, drinking coffee, and Ward was cooking breakfast.
"This can't be good," she said aloud.
"He's despondent," Ward said.
"Hardly." Adam snorted and pushed the newspaper toward her.
"Durham Herald. Filthy rag. Hey, there's me!" Her picture with Sophia, both beaming at Glick's camera, graced the first page of the art section, below the fold, next to the headline, "Poe's Raven Flies In, Takes Crap on Stage."
"He liked you," Adam said.
Leah scanned the article until she came to, "Leah Fisher (Virginia) proved why she's the ringer in this year's season after Elaine White's retirement. Her voice gave remarkable depth to the lyrics. Her acting, though earnest, wry, and bold, was a strong reminder that the playwright had given her a one-note part." She glanced at Adam.
"I'm sorry for not writing you a better part," he said.
She pushed his shoulder, and kept reading. "They liked the costumes. And the ending."
"What, the part where it says I deliver cliche well?"
"Well. Give the people what they want," Leah said.
"No, this is good." Adam snatched the paper from her and said, "I can learn from this. He's doing me a favor. Poe will be better when it opens again. Maybe we can even do some tweaking during our run." He took his coffee to the piano, and began pounding at the keys.
Ward settled at the kitchen table beside her, and asked, "Cereal?"
"How's your date?"
"Upstairs," Leah said.
"Drop dead," she said.
"They liked me," he said. "I already got a call from Florida about a part down there."
She had skimmed the part about him, and didn't feel a bit guilty. Sophia came downstairs, also showered, wearing a white tee shirt and black jeans. She rubbed Leah's shoulder, and asked for aspirin.
Ward smirked, but managed not to say anything while he got it for her, and let her drink it down with a V8 from the fridge.
"When is lunch with your parents?" Sophia asked.
"In an hour."
Sophia nodded. She glanced into the living room, where Adam played scales, and asked, "That bad?"
"Like killing kittens."
"What are your plans?" Leah asked. "Or, are you done with--Oh, God, are you done?"
Sophia smiled, and said, "I have a meeting. I'll be in town tonight."
Leah's shoulders dropped. Sophia hugged her waist, but didn't say anything about tomorrow or tomorrow or tomorrow. Leah contented herself with the idea of one last night. She inhaled, and kissed Sophia's collarbone, and tried to talk herself out of thinking about the future.
Ward sipped orange juice and smiled at them politely.
* * *
Leah swallowed down the nausea as she let her father drive the family to Thyme. She chattered on about the Macbeth cast party, about meeting the mayor, about the show. She thought if she just kept talking, the words would come out.
And they did, as soon as the car had come to a stop in the parking space, before Harry could put the car in park.
"I'm gay," she said.
No one seemed to hear her. She'd barely heard herself, her pip-squeaking voice not overcoming the roaring in her ears. Harry put the car in park.
"Guys?" she asked.
Everyone turned around to look at her.
Her bowels threatened her. Her stomach convulsed. If she didn't come out and say it, she'd have to puke in the bathroom as soon as they got inside the restaurant.
She closed her eyes, and then opened them, looking directly at her sister. "I'm gay."
Jessica raised her eyebrows.
"So, who wants to eat?" Harry asked.
They trundled into the restaurant, Jessica stealing glances at Leah, who looked down at the ground. There was relative silence, punctuated by her mother's cough and her sister's solitary comment, "They really do have hushpuppies," until the drinks were ordered.
"Doesn't anyone have anything to say?" Leah asked. She had no desire to talk about it, but she still wasn't quite sure they'd actually heard her.
"Why didn't you tell me?" Jessica said. Leah glanced at her and was surprised that she was glaring, and her tone was accusatory.
"I--" she started, but her sister's question was trumped by her mother's.
"Does this have anything to do with that girl we met last night?"
"The... ethnic one."
"Well, what do you want me to say? Lady Macbeth? I don't remember."
"She's from--" Leah tried to remember. They hadn't exactly discussed parentage all that much. "--Florida," she finally remembered.
"She doesn't look Cuban."
"I didn't say she was Cuban, Mom, I just said she's from Florida. Lots of people are from Florida. There are even Jews in Florida."
"There are Jews in Florida," her father said.
"At least there's a place where you two can live in harmony," her mother said, scowling at her. "Plenty of freaks in Florida." She covered her mouth and said, "I didn't mean--Not freaks, dear. But, you're an actress. You know what I mean."
"Maybe I can be on CSI: Miami," Leah said, her voice rising.
"Lady Macbeth?" her father asked helpfully.
Leah put her forehead in her hand. Though she no longer felt like throwing up, she kind of wanted to kill someone. She said, "No. Yes. No."
Harry folded his arms and smiled at her.
Leah frowned at him and said, "I was--gay--before Sophia."
"Why are you so happy?" Margaret asked Harry.
He shrugged, and said, "Come on, it had to be one of them."
"Dad!" Jessica squeaked.
Leah bit her lip. The drinks arrived. She drank half of hers before turning to Jessica and saying, "I'm sorry."
Jessica didn't say anything, but her expression softened.
"Well, if we're going to talk about it," her mother said huffily, "What about Adam, dear?"
The waiter came back. He looked to be about twelve, was covered in acne, and carried a pen and paper with shaking hands. "What will you have?" he asked.
"Our daughter is gay," Margaret said, gesturing at Leah.
The waiter got a wild, horrified look in his eyes, and said nothing, just breathed through his slightly-gaping mouth, as if he were praying Leah's mother wouldn't say anything more. Leah prayed with him.
Leah said, "I'll have the fish and chips."
Leah kicked her under the table.
Jessica said, "Me too."
Margaret coughed. The waiter seemed afraid to look at her, but dutifully wrote down her salad, and looked at Harry.
"Fish and chips," Harry said.
"Harry," Margaret admonished.
Harry shrugged, and said, "We've got enough vinegar at the table."
Margaret sighed. She took a sip of her drink and asked, again, "Adam?"
"What about Adam?"
"Well, you two seemed close."
"We are close," Leah said.
"Don't tease her," Harry said.
Margaret frowned at him.
He asked, "Is Adam gay?"
"You'll have to take that up with him," Leah said.
Harry blithely sipped at his drink.
Margaret sighed and said, "For years, darling, since you met that man at the piano or whatever--"
"He's not Billy Joel, Mom."
Margaret ignored her. She went on, "We saw the way you followed him around, and never had the heart to tell you that you simply had the wrong equipment. It's almost a relief to know that you--know."
"I know," Leah said. "I knew."
Harry slapped the table. All three women looked at him. Leah felt horror rise up in her chest. She swallowed, but ended up more whimpering. Harry asked, "It was that Grace woman, wasn't it?"
Leah raised her eyebrows.
"That horrible woman," Margaret said.
"Mom, she didn't turn me gay," Leah said.
"No, of course not, but would it have killed her to sit down to one family dinner? Just once? Not even for Thanksgiving. Honestly."
Harry shook his head
Leah considered running to the bathroom to sob, or melting through the floor, but the food arrived, so she settled for eating one French fry at a time.
"You were very good in the play, dear," her father said.
"Musical, and thanks, Dad."
"You seemed very much in love with Edgar Allen Poe."
Leah nodded and ate another fry.
"You were a convincing heterosexual. That's good acting," he said.
Leah dropped her fry remnant into the basket, and sighed.
Jessica leaned over and whispered, "The universe is punishing you."
Jessica shrugged. "Being gay?"
"Jessie, you know better than that," Margaret said.
Jessica shrugged, and asked, "Why do you think the universe is punishing her?"
Margaret looked at Leah, her mouth open as if she were about to offer a whole list of suggestions. Then she closed her mouth, and shrugged.
Harry said, "Maybe she missed a note or something."
"Any time, princess."
* * *
Leah climbed the porch stairs. A headache made her neck hurt and the pulse behind her left eye twitch. She intended to lie in the dark until Adam woke her up for showtime. The very bad day of Leah Fisher, Lesbian Daughter, Infamous Actress was...
She heard singing coming from the living room as she opened the door. A woman singing.
...Just beginning. She walked in on Sophia standing by the piano, singing "Think of Me" while Adam played. Her voice was beautifully operatic, soprano, and controlled.
In that moment, seeing Sophia in her spot, singing with her friend, Leah hated her. She blinked. Her eyes blurred with rage. She asked, "What the hell?"
Sophia turned and smiled at her, and the happy radiance virtually burned. Leah rubbed her arms, chafing under Sophia's pleasure at seeing her. "What's going on?" She asked.
Adam said, "I'm trying her out on a few things." He half-turned in her direction, but his expression was open. He hadn't noticed her jealousy.
But Sophia had. Her face fell. She said nothing, didn't move from the spot.
Leah asked, "For what show?"
"No show. Just, you know, seeing what she has. I'd like to help her."
Leah fled upstairs.
The piano music resumed.
* * *
Adam came up an hour later, after Leah had stopped crying. She still felt indulgently childish, and was ready to fight, ready to yell at him, for taking what was hers, and to yell at Sophia, for the same thing.
"She's good," Adam said, leaning in the doorway.
Leah thought of Sophia on stage, of the few lines she'd heard of song in the afternoon, and was soothed by the beauty in her mind. She said, "Of course she's good."
"So are you," he said. He came and sat on the edge of the bed.
"Am I better?"
"You're completely different. You'll never compete for the same roles."
It wasn't a direct answer, but she understood it as truth, and it made her feel less terrified.
Adam said, "She'll be by tonight. Unless you tell me to tell her differently."
"What, are we in grade school?"
Adam tilted his head.
She scowled. She knew she was acting five. He didn't have to remind her. She said, "I'd rather see her in my dressing room."
"Wearing nothing but a little red bow?"
He patted her leg, and asked, "How was lunch with your parents?"
"This is the very bad day of Leah Fisher," she said, covering her face with her hands.
"Hey, come on. It's not that bad. Did you read the review they gave me of Poe?"
"That's true." She frowned and uncovered one eye. "I'm sorry, Adam," she said.
"Your day totally sucks worse than mine."
"Nah. You still have to go on tonight. I can eat Cheetos."
"From the front row. Where you can hear them. Crunch, crunch," he said.
"Where you can smell them."
She sighed, and said, "I'm sorry."
Now she felt worse than before. She was ashamed of herself, and couldn't look at Adam any more. She stared at the ceiling, and tried not to cry, because that would give her another headache, and asked, "Am I going to lose her?"
He leaned over and kissed her forehead, and said, "Not to me."
She closed her eyes.
He got off the bed, and said, "See you at six."
The show must go on.
* * *
Anger made Leah a better singer. She didn't care if her voice cracked, and it didn't. She belted, and her quiet notes held an intensity that vibrated through her. Ward performed exactly as he had the first night, unresponsive to her extra petulance, as tender as before when she finally let him hold her, desperately.
When she rejected him, at the fifteen minute mark in act one, she wept, because it was a horrible thing, to abandon someone. When she coughed up blood, she wanted to apologize for the anguished look in his eyes. He dabbed at her cheek. She reminded herself it wasn't real. Just acting. In real life, they couldn't stand each other. Right? Ward began to sing.
The applause was deafening. Ward squeezed her hand. They bowed together, and then each alone. No music, no fanfare. She went backstage to her dressing room. Adam had instructed her to get back out to the lobby as quickly as she could, to meet potential backers who could take the show to Off Broadway.
The door partially open, her name taped to the paint angled, and she pushed it the rest of the way open to find Sophia sitting on the arm of the couch.
Sophia said, "I couldn't find a bow."
"You don't need a bow," Leah said.
Sophia tilted her head.
Leah closed the door, and went and put her hands on Sophia's shoulders. "I'm sorry," she said.
Sophia's voice had a lightness that made Leah feel dismissed, but she wore only a half-smile, hopeful. Her hand covered Leah's on her shoulder. Leah felt like she was being tested; evaluated on her tenderness. Or maybe her idiocy.
She wanted to prove to Sophia she was not an ass, and absolve herself of the shame she'd felt later in her bedroom. She said, "I should have stayed to hear you sing. Adam said you were beautiful."
Sophia's smile got brighter.
Leah stroked her shoulder, and then cupped her neck. Sophia leaned into her touch. Leah said, "I think my whole family uses insulting humor to cope with life."
"Even my father. Just by being above it all, he's condemning the rest of us. Just a little snide." Leah said.
"And you're daddy's girl?"
"Always. My parents like to set my sister and I against each other, to have their fights for them."
"Today?" Sophia asked, her eyes drifting shut as Leah's thumb traced her jaw.
"My sister said me being gay was the universe punishing me with bad karma."
"But--" Sophia swallowed as Leah's fingers brushed the curve of her ear. "You get to date me."
"That was pretty much my father's opinion."
Sophia took Leah's wrist and brought it to her lips to kiss.
Leah asked, "Your place or mine?"
Sophia tilted her head back, regarded Leah, and said, "What, no party?"
"Nope. I just have to meet some backers, and then go back to my ordinary, non-partying life."
"Thank God," Sophia said.
Leah pulled back, and went to the makeup chair to wash her face. She asked, "Where are you from?"
Leah could tell by Sophia's expression, reflected in the mirror, that Sophia had no idea why she was laughing so hard.
* * *
"Where will you go?" Leah asked. She couldn't bring herself to say "When."
Sophia shifted. Her cheek pressed against Leah's belly, below her breasts, and Leah could only see the corner of one eye. She said, "Miami, first, for a week. After I have an audition on Thursday in Jacksonville. They might want me to join the tour of Reckless."
"Are you reckless?" Leah asked.
"That's going to get old fast," Sophia complained.
Leah stroked Sophia's hair, and asked, "Then what?"
"Where are you going?" Sophia asked, instead of answering.
"Do you miss it?"
"Every moment," Leah said, surprising herself. She said, "I wanted to get away. I guess this is why."
Sophia turned her head and kissed Leah's skin.
Leah said, "I can't believe after all that rehearsal time, the show's over in a week."
"Everything is fleeting," Sophia said.
"Tell that to the Venus di Milo."
"And what is she, when her jewelry has been stolen and her paint faded away?"
"Fucking beautiful," Leah said.
Sophia laughed, and then dragged herself up Leah's body to kiss her face.
Every time they made love that night, Leah wondered if it would be the last time.
* * *
Sophia went to Jacksonville. Leah moped. She spent her days in the house, lying in bed, playing the piano, and eating ice cream late into the night with Adam after the performances. She was wan and emotionless in daylight, and at eight o'clock each night she exploded on stage, working through her grief, taking it out on Ward.
He had his own demons to deal with; He was no longer sleeping at the house, and Adam didn't mention him during their late-night chats. One night, Leah turned her back on him on stage, and he left marks on her arm when he pulled her back. Two nights later, she slapped his face, unscripted, improvised, and Adam gasped loudest of anyone in the audience.
Ward bit her ear. They tussled. They sang. She lost her voice on Friday, and spent the whole performance whispering her words into her microphone. Ward softened his voice to match, and though neither of them cried, singing to each other, pale and tired of it all and wishing they were somewhere else, Leah felt whole at the end, with Ward's hand in hers as they took their bows.
Adam burst into her dressing room, and said, "Leave the makeup on."
"And the wig?" she asked.
"It's girl scouts. They won't know who you are without the makeup."
He narrowed his eyes.
She sighed. It was probably true. She went and signed autographs and cringed only inwardly when the dumber girls called her Virginia and the smarter girls complained about Ward's bleach-blond hair. She'd heard "Quoth the raven" too much in that week, and never wanted to hear it again.
"I'm not doing this Off-Broadway," she told Adam as he passed her a glass of champagne. People filed out of the lobby, some lingering to look the production shots or read the bad review Adam had placed behind a glass panel.
"What? Why not?" Adam asked.
"Because I dream at night of the word 'Nevermore,' ringing in my ears."
"It's annoying. What do you dream of?"
He looked wistful.
She took pity on him and said, "Let's go home."
They walked along the sidewalk together. She wore her garb, promising Loretta she wouldn't ruin the fabric or lose her wig.
"Do you miss Ward?" she asked.
"Not really, but kind of," he said.
"Adam, you're a playwright. Please try," she said.
Adam grinned, and said, "I miss having someone warm and hard to go home with. But--did it have to be him?"
"I'll get over it," Adam said, and sighed. "Eventually. Man, that man was talented. Like a male version of you."
"Please don't tell me that's why you slept with him," Leah said.
"Or that I'm an ass."
Adam took her elbow and leaned into her shoulder and said, "You're kind of an ass."
"Oh, you silver-tongued charmer," she cooed.
"Do you miss Sophia?"
Adam frowned, and asked, "Do you have her hiding in your closet?"
"No, no. We just talk every morning."
"Not at night?"
"Well, it's late. She who does not have a play does not stay up until two AM to talk to me," Leah said.
"Oh, it'll never work."
"Unless she gets a play."
"Or that," Adam agreed.
She nodded. A breeze rustled the leaves of the ancient oak trees they passed. She inhaled. She'd miss the night here, the walks, the peace and quiet of one car passing in the distant, and not hundreds. No one ever honked their horns.
"So, how's the phone sex?" Adam asked, breaking the stillness.
He looked innocently at her.
She exhaled, and said, "It's fantastic."
He wrapped his arm around her waist as they climbed the porch stairs together. She unlocked the door. He asked, "Who knew you getting laid would make you a moodier actress than ever?"
* * *
The last performance was no more unique than the first or the fourth, except the dialogue was getting stale and Ward was getting hoarse and sweated all over her. The crowd had thinned for the last three nights, but for the last performance, all the schools with theater programs came out. Leah looked into their young, aspiring faces, thought of the crew backstage who went to UNC all day and then hammered things and dressed her at night, and tried not to miss her next line.
Then she survived the cast party and went home and fell asleep, and since no one called, and Sophia was on a plane to Miami, she didn't wake up until nearly eleven. Adam was in his bedroom, packing.
"We're seriously flying out tonight?" she asked.
"Seriously," he said.
"We rehearsed for weeks, did the show--shouldn't we, I don't know, ease out of things? The way we eased in?"
"Maybe, but it's over, Leah."
She sat on the bed and watched him fold his shirts.
He asked, "Don't you want to go home?"
She did. The thought of New York filled her mind and her mouth actually watered. She couldn't wait to be home. "I'm going to pack," she said.
The plane was at the gate and Leah was wondering why there wasn't more security at the tiny RDU airport when Sophia called.
"How's Florida?" Leah asked.
"Remind me why I came back to see my family."
"Oh, please don't do that. I'm about to go see mine," Leah said.
Sophia chuckled quietly against the receiver.
Leah said, "We're boarding in a few minutes."
"Start spreading the news," Sophia sang. And then she said, "I got a call from my agent about Reckless. I didn't get the part."
"I'm sorry," Leah said. Her heart sank with the sadness in Sophia's voice. She said, "I know you're good enough."
"Sure. Just not what they're looking for."
"Well, you're what I'm looking for," Leah said, and then blushed with the inanity of her mouth.
"I hope so," Sophia said. Her voice was more serious than flirtatious, and Leah pressed her ear against the phone. Sophia continued, "I think I know where I'm going next. I want to take advantage of the real contacts I've made--to use my friends. It's a gamble, but--"
"But?" Leah's heart beat in her chest so hard that it pushed out almost all sound and oxygen. She scarcely dared to hope.
"But it's New York. It's the theater capital of the world."
"And if you fail, you can always play a corpse on Law and Order."
Sophia said, "I won't fail. If you'll have me. Help me?"
Leah imagined herself asking something like that of Adam. She wouldn't have had the strength to ask outright. And he loved her. Sophia--"I'll help you," she said.
She didn't wonder, "Help you do what? Step over me?" She only thought of the fun they could have on a dozen different stages, of all the things she wanted to show Sophia in New York.
Leah said, "Yes. Come to New York. Come home."
* * *
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