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by Monica Byrne
Edited by Nebula winner Rachel Swirsky.
Content warning: grooming, sex with a minor.
Subject: Interesting news
Date: June 1st
Hi chimichanga! It’s your Dad.
Don’t tell your Mom but guess what. I am in a play this summer. I saw a sign for auditions for The Tragedy of King Lear in a hippie coffee shop where I like to read the newspaper and I thought heck why not. And they cast me as the lead. I guess I was the only old man who auditioned. I didn’t even know the play but it’s about an old king who goes crazy because his older two daughters betray him, and only the youngest one really loves him. Sound familiar? Ha, ha!
From afar, Suja saw Jesse sitting alone on their special bench. He seemed distracted. She walked right up to him and sat down next to him, not looking at him, though his body radiated heat.
“It’s closing night. You better pick a special warm-up,” she said.
He noticed her, as if coming out of a reverie. “All right,” he said. “Let’s do my favorite. Categories. First one to hesitate loses.”
“What’s the category?”
“Okay.” She glanced down at Jesse’s knuckles, pale knobs with gray hair, and smiled, wry. “Deaths in Shakespeare.”
“Deaths...in...Shakespeare!” Jesse repeated, grandiose. Then, “Cordelia.”
Suja narrowed her eyes, and thumped him on the shoulder. “You can’t say my character!”
“Ouch! Don’t hit me, I’m an old man.”
“Whatever.” Suja looked out toward the stage, pouting. But she was pleased at the rhythm of their banter. Things were going well.
Jesse rubbed his shoulder, chuckling. Then, as if suddenly self-conscious, he leaned back and peered out at the audience through a thin strip between the curtain and the wall. He was looking toward the audience a lot tonight. Who was he looking for? Suja wished he’d stop and pay attention to her.
Jesse bent down and picked up a safety pin from the ground. Then he dropped it. Then he rubbed his hands together and straightened up. When he spoke again, his voice was more gruff, adult, businesslike. “So. Are you going to keep acting after this?”
Suja didn’t like the shift in his voice. But she could always bring him back to ‘her level,’ as he called it; she just had to be patient. She shrugged and swung her legs like she didn’t care. “Probably not. Dad wouldn’t want me to.”
“Do you always do what he says?”
Suja turned to face him. His lips were parted and his eyes had gone a little out of focus. That was a good sign.
But he retreated back over the line, and spoke again in his grown-up voice. “Did he, ah, come to any of the shows?”
Suja snorted. “No. He thinks this is a waste of time. Anyway he’s in Dubai now.”
“Huh.” Jesse uncrossed his ankles, then crossed them again. “Well, you’re pretty good at acting. I could see you going to a conservatory.”
“I wish. He wants me to go somewhere in the Ivy League.”
“I never went to college,” said Jesse, raising one eyebrow. “I was too busy with...Aquarius.”
Jesse’s mouth yawned open in a silent laugh. “Oh God, you’re so young! It means I was a hippie. You never heard of the Age of Aquarius? Free love and all that?”
“‘Make love not war’? ‘Love the one you’re with’?”
“It’s simple, really,” he said. “We believed that no one should tell you who to love.”
“But nobody tells anyone that now.”
“Sure they do. You can’t be with someone who’s married, or if you’re married you can’t be with someone else, or too much older than you. I thought it was dumb.”
“It’s still dumb.”
“You’ll know all about it soon enough,” he said, and winked at her. “You’re what, eighteen?”
“Seventeen,” said Suja.
He turned away and shook his head. “Seventeen,” he muttered to himself.
Places. The stage manager whispered deep backstage and the word was repeated, touching flame to flame. Places.
Jesse planted his hands on his knees and heaved himself up off the bench. Suja felt the sudden vacuum at her side.
“Okay, kiddo, break a leg.” He glanced toward the audience again, then lingered in front of her, as if pondering something else to say, but then disappeared backstage.
Suja sat back on the bench.
Darkness had fallen. Stagehands scuttled over the catwalks.
She got up and wandered among the other actors who stood in the dark with their heads bowed, sightless like cave fish. She reviewed the exchange with Jesse. She knew he’d been flirting with her ever since they'd been cast together. He tried to be casual about it, like it was a joke, but she knew from his body language he wasn't just joking. Tonight was the last performance. She'd finally tell him.
I think I’m ready. I think you’re the one.
[He takes her hand, kindly, this broad-shouldered kingly man.]
I’ve put a lot of thought into this. I just feel so close to you.
[He cups her cheek, makes a self-deprecating joke about his age.]
[She laughs.] Yes, I’m sure. [She decides to make a joke of her own.] I’m Cordelia, right? I’m the only one who loves you.
From the stage, there came a ripping sound. Suja turned. The curtain was being pulled back along its knotted cords so quickly that the bottom edge trailed the top, widening a dark V where the audience sat. Sudden light made Suja shield her eyes.
Waiting on their cues, the other actors gathered around her. They adjusted their cuffs and shook out their legs and rolled their shoulders. Suja stood still, her arms crossed, calculating how to make what needed to happen, happen. She felt as though she were standing in surf, and the sand was draining away beneath her heels, leaving pedestals that collapsed under her weight.
Their cue arrived. They strode forward, and light surged over them.
Everyone in the play dies of course. That’s Shakespeare for you. The cast is a hoot. Some of them your age in fact. The one who plays Cordelia (that’s the youngest daughter) is eighteen, an Indian girl. Well I guess she was born here but her parents are Indian. Anyway she’s very bright. She put me to shame at our first rehearsal. I brought donuts for everyone though and they were much appreciated and maybe made up for my being so “green.” The Indian girl ate three of them. She could really put them away.
Suja shivered out of character as she crossed the threshold.
She picked her way to the changing room. A dozen actors rested there, coming and going between their scenes. It was too dark to see much. During a show, the room felt like the bridge of a submarine: quiet operations in the oceanic night.
Jesse would have to come in later for a costume change. She, however, was at leisure: her character didn’t appear again until Act IV, so she could do whatever she wanted for the next hour.
The couch was full: Edgar, Edward, Reagan, Gloucester, Fool.
She had an audience. She was going to rehearse.
Standing in front of the dressing rack, she unhooked her gown with slow twists of her fingertips. The fabric loosened around her shoulders and she emerged, back blooming, like a cicada shedding its shell.
Suja paused to look over her shoulder. Anyone could see her, if they wanted to. If they looked up right now.
She unsleeved herself and the dress flopped over at the waist. She pushed it down with both hands, wriggling, bending over, until the dress lay rumpled at her feet. She stepped out of its ring and picked it up, taking her time, selecting a hanger, putting it away. She folded her elbows behind her back and unhooked her maroon lace bra and pulled it off. Her heavy breasts wagged in the blue light.
She turned around, casually, as if scanning the room for a missing item. She knew she had that retro kind of pinup body, an hourglass figure, a devi icon, and she wanted to be appreciated.
But no one looked at her. They looked at their laps, still and mute. A night train full of statues.
Suja waited a few seconds more, shifting her weight, pretending to stretch.
Still, no one looked up.
She turned back around, angry. No one was playing along. She re-fastened her bra and yanked her next costume off the rack with such violence that it rocked back and forth. Jesse always looked, when he was there. He’d lift his head just a little, trying to appear not to, trying to get a look.
She didn’t have to change into her costume for another hour, so she pulled on leggings and a tank. It felt right: casual, but calculated for maximum sensuality. A teenage girl in leisurely flower. Yes, this would do. She stalked back out to the special bench in the wings and waited for Jesse. She watched him onstage and rubbed her hands together, and the dead skin made spindles of paste in her palms.
She would tell him now. Otherwise there might never be a good moment again.
She listened to Jesse’s voice. He was giving his big speech.
O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven! Keep me in temper: I would not be mad!
And neither would she. This was her moment of triumph.
Jesse was done. He strode into the wings, his great velveteen cape trailing him. He circled, spending his momentum.
Suja watched him. Her heart beat faster, but she kept still.
Jesse got his breath back. He leaned forward again to peer through that tiny strip, to scan the audience for someone he didn’t find. Suja drummed her fingers on the bench, waiting.
When he pulled back, he squared his shoulders and smiled at her.
She took it as a sign. The time was now.
“Good show so far, eh?” he said, sitting down next to her, placing his metal prop crown on the floor. He had left only a narrow space between them. She could smell his cape, a dusty relic brought up from the theater’s storage.
“Yeah,” she said, stalling. She had to segue somehow. “And...I thought about what you said.”
“What? What’d I say?” He held up his hands in mock-defense.
“What about it?”
She turned toward him. He didn’t look at her. But her courage grew. She angled her hips, more deliberately this time.
It worked. His eyes flickered over her, the glints hopping in the dark.
“About free love,” she said, making her voice soft.
Jesse sat still, tented his fingers, and said nothing.
He was ready too. She knew it.
“I think I’m ready. To have intercourse,” she said. “I want you to be my first.”
Suja held her breath, blushing, expectant of his next words, which she’d heard in her mind so many times.
Silence followed, enough time for seven heartbeats.
Then Jesse shook his head and planted his hands on the bench and got up and pulled his costume around him. He snatched up his prop crown. “Jesus, girl,” she heard him mutter as he disappeared into the darkness.
Suja, alone, was an open cavity.
She replayed the last few moments in her mind. Then again.
He said no? He said no.
In her mind, the line repeated: I would not be mad.
So anyway enough blathering. I wonder if your Mom would let you come see the play. Or just come and don’t tell her. We open on July 6th and we run till July 26th and you could come and stay with me any time. If your Mom doesn’t want you to take the bus up then she could drive you and do whatever she likes after that, go to yoga or something. Then you could come by yourself and surprise me in the audience.
Suja sat on the floor, in the wings, with her back to the cinderblock wall. She gazed up at the catwalk, where stagehands were shaking the thunder sheet. A storm was raging in the play. Lear had gone mad. And what of Cordelia? On the other side of the curtain, she could hear actors moving in reverent quiet, as if in a fever ward. She heard whispers, but no words. She wanted to clap her hands over their mouths, shut them up, suffocate them. Instead she turned over on her hands and knees and crawled away from them, her knees drawing all the dust in her path.
She settled in a new corner, alone and obscured from the others’ sight, near a big cloth pile. She watched the stage, mouthing each line as it was said.
At length she felt hot. Her clothes was too tight. A tangy smell clung to her armpits. She arched her back to work out the kinks that had sprung in her joints, but they didn’t go away. She fidgeted again. She pulled down her straps, to cool herself. But soon she was rolling up her leggings, too. She had done everything right. There was no reason for Jesse to say no, especially when he so clearly wanted her. But maybe he just needed time. Maybe he’d reconsider later. It occurred to her that she could just walk out of the production onto the street but no, one cannot violate sacred time. The show must finish and everyone must play their part. So she had to stay. Everything was too hot and tight. She got onto all fours and hunched over, pulling her shirt off, then her leggings. She kicked them into the base of the cloth pile and then arranged a black curtain over it so she didn’t have to look at them.
Now Suja could relax a little. She leaned back against the wall in her maroon lace bra and panties. She could feel the stage grit beneath her thighs. Her legs splayed open toward the stage, dust alighting on her baby-oiled skin. Her belly puffed with rapid breaths.
Finally, she stood up with her hands on her hips and looked around. She needed something new to wear, something befitting her new situation. She took the black curtain from the top of the cloth pile and arranged it over her head and shoulders like a highwayman’s cloak. Looking around, she spotted a safety pin in the dust—the same one Jesse had picked and dropped before the show—and used it to fasten the cloth beneath her chin. She swished out with both arms. The cloak fell about her like great big wings, covering up the lingerie. Delighted, she crept backstage, now even more invisible than before.
Otherwise life is good for me. Every morning I go to a coffee shop called Bean There Done That. Ha ha. The girls there know me. As soon as they see me come in the door they’re starting on my latté with whole milk. I never thought I’d need anything but black coffee but I’m getting soft in my advanced years. I even get a donut sometimes. OK I lied. I get one every time!
Suja poked her head out between the curtains backstage. She was wearing sunglasses, now, and a boa. She watched Cornwall gouge the eyeball of Gloucester, and mouthed the famous line Out, vile jelly! like the refrain to a teenage anthem, then withdrew again, a cuckoo into its clock.
She slunk along the walls backstage, making her way to the changing room. This was the appointed time. Jesse changed his costume now, in this little interval. She watched him every night. But now he’d be expecting her. So she’d hide.
She stepped around the others, slothful subjects of an enchanted kingdom. She slid into a corner and crossed her legs, making sure the cloak was arranged to cover her body. She became still, feigned inactivity, to blend in with the darkness.
Jesse came into the room. Suja watched him. Did his body move differently? Did his motions betray any psychological disturbance? He looked at the couch where Suja usually sat. He relaxed when he saw she wasn’t there.
He stood with his back to her, in a pool of soft blue light. He put down his prop crown on a table. Here began the sacred ritual. He pulled off his cloak and draped it over a hanger, taking care to fasten the toggle so it wouldn’t fall off. He untied his tunic, and loosened the undershirt up around the waistband.
Suja leaned forward out of her sitting position and began to slink forward, low to the ground. She took care that she couldn’t be seen in his mirror. She noted the delta of sweat gathering down his back.
He pulled his undershirt out of his breeches, so his torso was naked. Suja paused to look. His shoulders were round, his back was broad, and his muscles rippled under his skin like piano keys. She felt dizzy and put down a hand to steady herself as he began to unlace his pants. He pushed them down and bent into a figure-four. His balls swung from one leg to the other, a pendulum in 6/8 time. Suja opened her mouth in a silent scream to mark the appearance. He was fully naked now: angles and planes in blue. Suja crawled a little bit closer. Jesse towered above her, leaning back on one leg like Zeus at leisure, searching for his Act V breeches on the rack. She noted how his legs ballooned with muscles at the calves, muscles that contracted and loosened as he shifted his weight. This body was its own thing, she thought, not really a person at all, but a beast acting with beast intelligence, like her own. She shuffled a little closer. She could smell him: bitter dirt, walnut sweat. She was very close now, within arm’s length. With one hand on the ground to balance her, she reached out with her other hand, inch by inch, and it floated up between his legs like a zeppelin, seeking something warm to cup.
He was looking in the mirror. He had become still. He was ready.
Suja watched her hand move in space. But it did not go where she meant it to go. It sailed between his legs like a tailfin and dropped back down, to the prop wildflower crown that lay on the ground, the crown that he needed for his next scene. She grasped it and turned her wrist, so that it turned also, and drew the crown between his legs, not a single cloth flower touching his skin.
She took the crown with both hands and pressed it down on her head.
Jesse suddenly moved. Suja saw he was about to bend over. She pushed herself back with her hands, removing herself from his space and slinking away like a dog into shadows.
Donuts are a little pleasure I allow myself. They make them on the premises in the back every morning which is what makes Bean There Done That a cut above the rest. I get a powder sugar one every time. Sometimes I eat it with my hands and get powder all over my hands and beard, sometimes I cut it into bites with a knife and fork, sometimes I dip it into my latté. The other people in the coffeeshop watch me but it’s OK. I like to be the town eccentric. If you come here you can tell everyone I’m not crazy, ha ha.
Suja, wearing the wildflower crown, watched Jesse exit the other side of the stage. He wore only long breeches and a blanket fluttering open to reveal a sweating chest. He had just finished his big madness scene. Again, he peered through the narrow strip between the curtain and wall, looking for someone in the audience. Who! Suja wanted to know. He looked exasperated, which pleased her. She liked to imagine that whoever he was looking for was not there, and that he had searched for his wildflower crown wildly, helplessly. But she had claimed it from him.
Suja stepped on tiptoe, out of the shadows. Jesse saw her. Her hands moved up to her crown. She plucked it off, rotated it and set it down again, like a stripper with a top hat.
Jesse crossed his arms and looked down.
Suja let her tongue hang out. She pulled back the lips of her cloak. She hooked her thumb to her panties, and began to pull them down.
He didn’t look. He walked backstage, out of sight, robes flowing behind him.
Suja stared, her tricks forgotten.
What more could she do? She had to make him see her.
She took off the prop crown and examined it. The cloth flowers blossomed from green plastic stems. She began to pick off the plastic with her fingernails until the wire was bare. Then she drew the wire across her chest, lightly at first and then, getting used to the sting, deep enough to draw blood. He would see this, surely, when they were onstage together in the final scene, as prisoners.
Anyway think about what I said about coming up here to see the play. Vermont is nice in the summer. Not disgusting and smelly like the city. The bus ride is six hours. Not the best for your butt I know but I’d pay for it. I have air conditioning in the whole house and just work when I want to because the company runs itself. I just get to sit back and enjoy my life. My life is pretty perfect, not much of anything missing.
When they both came offstage from their prison scene, Suja went ahead of Jesse. Knowing he was following her, she led him to a spot deep backstage, quiet, dark, and began to take off her plastic prop chains.
He seized her shoulders from behind, gentle but firm. He turned her around. “Suja, what’s going on?” He touched his finger to her chest, held it in the light, then showed her his fingertip—watery-red—as if showing a dog its vomit. “What are you trying to do here?”
Finally, he was looking at her.
She feigned indifference, shrugged.
Jesse clamped a hand on her shoulder. He was breathing heavily, in her face.
Suja bit her lip and worked at one handcuff.
In exasperation, Jesse reached down to expedite the process.
Like a spider she caught him.
She seized his hand and pulled him to her body. She forced his mouth open with her own, like a speculum. He sputtered and gagged, straining away, but she gripped his arm with one hand and then the other, forced his face toward her again. She dug around his mouth in circles, tasting all of his palate: beer, spearmint, thick walnut saliva.
Instead of pushing her away, he began snorting as if eating. He patted her like a blind man trying to make his way, feeling for the lip of her cloak, and slipping his hand inside to squeeze her breast over and over. He moved his head in accordance with hers, now, first one way and then the other, to mash tongues.
She felt a hard bolt against her thigh. She dropped to her knees even as he shoved her down, and gripped her shoulders, wheezing. He produced his white penis from some secret slit and anchored it against her face. She grabbed it and took it in. Above her, he sagged against the wall, looking down, his mouth a gaping black hole.
Suja got careless. As she pumped her face more violently her teeth caught his skin, and he lurched away, bent double. Her mouth was empty. She scuttled forward on her knees to take him back in, but he held up his hand to ward her off. He was huddled by the wall, assembling himself. She tried again to scuttle forward, to begin again. But this time he pushed her to the floor.
She crouched on all fours. He slumped against the wall. The two eyed each other, panting.
“I knew you wanted me,” she whispered.
He looked away and closed his eyes.
He took several long, deep breaths.
Then he pushed himself against the wall and stood up straight. He pulled his cape around his shoulders and smoothed back his hair. He zipped his zipper and buttoned his button. Only then did he regard her again, serene and untroubled, as if from a great height.
“Yeah, now you know, you little cunt,” he said. “Aren’t you glad?”
He squared his shoulders and walked past her as if nothing had happened. Suja turned and watched him go, farther and farther away. Then she could hear him, striking up a light banter with someone else.
She began to think. This could all still be saved. Yes. Had it gone differently, he might still be here. Maybe if she’d waited until after the show? Or maybe if she’d said something other than what she said? She planned and planned. She would figure it out.
Suja stood. She rolled down her sleeves, straightened her bodice, and smoothed back her hair. Then she went to the prop table and picked up her last prop, a noose of thick hemp rope, and drew it around her neck.
Subject: Re: Interesting news
Date: July 27th
Thanks for inviting me to your play. Sorry I couldn’t come—I guess Mom didn’t tell you, but I’m in a summer program that only just finished, so I wouldn’t have been able to make it anyway. I guess it’s too late to say break a leg. But hey! There, I said it.
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