The three of them kept their eyes on her. The boy, crammed between his parents in the first row, ignored his sister and followed her bare feet and swinging hips as she moved around the stage. The would be professor leaned forward in his seat and let his arms rest on the balcony trying to take her in completely. The musician rested against the wall of the stage’s left wing, shooting her smiles when she looked his way, and he tipped his cowboy hat playfully when she came off stage.
“I can’t stay,” he said and set the cowboy hat gently over her blonde hair.
“I know,” she whispered with her finger to her lips.
“Are you coming by after?” the musician asked softly. “We don’t go on until late so there’s no rush if you want to shower or something.”
“I wish you would,” he whispered and, hoping for her giggle, gave the side of her stomach a quick pinch.
“Maybe... We’re all, hang on,” she whispered. Layla whipped the white, oversized hat from her head, and she felt the musician’s eyes as he watched her skip toward the stage.
She had met him during a production of Grease, just before he dropped out of college. They spent three weeks together, skipping classes to fool around at his apartment, him playing old blues songs and telling her how badly he wanted to sit on stage alone and strum his guitar while she boiled pasta in her tiny kitchen, her running lines with him as they clustered their feet together under her covers, and then he struck out in a pickup truck with three other young men who had recently defected from their institutions of higher education for a life of adventure.
She had been nearing the end of graduate school when she heard from him again through a simple text message, “Please tell me this is still my muse’s number.” Within fifteen minutes, she had abandoned learning her lines for the next morning and walked to the small bar across from campus where his band was playing. Sliding into a booth near the stage, she watched his fingers work over the guitar’s neck, playing the kind of loud garage rock that was popular among her peers, but she had never really had a stomach for anything aside from Bob Dylan and a few other select folkies. Even so, during a complex sounding guitar solo, she watched him bite his lip as he found the right sound, and she allowed herself to fall for him again.
The routine started that night and had continued for two years. Whenever the musician would swing through Nashville to play a small club or bar Layla would cancel her plans to make it down to the show. She’d sneak in midway through, buy a T-shirt, and wait through the remaining thirty minutes of their set, but when he slipped his rough fingers into hers in her car, she didn’t care too much about cancelling, and when the band split up the musician took up residence in Nashville and accepted a great deal of studio work, spending three nights a week with her, boiling pasta while she made lesson plans and running lines with her while they intertwined their feet beneath her covers.
She tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear and spat out her lines. She circled the stage gathering stray shirts and bras, continuing the scripted argument with her on stage roommate. The musician grinned as she picked a red thong from the bundle of clothes in her arms and flung it with disgust toward the other young actress before returning to the wings, backed by roars of laughter.
“Sorry,” she sighed, dropping the bundle and kicking it out of her way. “We’re all going for drinks afterward so we’ll see.”
“I play better when you’re there.”
“Well, this is our little luck ritual. Wine and bruschetta after every rehearsal. We got better every day.”
“But you aren’t rehearsing anymore,” the musician pouted playfully.
“All the more reason not to miss,” she smiled. “I promise that I’ll eat like a pig and drink my wine like Gatorade and rush over.”
“Good,” the musician said, returning the cowboy hat to his messy brown hair. He leaned down and kissed her, running his calloused fingers under her chin and down her neck as he did so.
“Hey,” a sharp voice whispered.
The musician pulled away slowly and the two of them turned to see the props master, a nervous, middle aged man with thinning hair, gathering the clothing that Layla had just brought off stage.
“You can’t be here,” he whispered as he straightened his back. “How’d you get in here?”
“It’s okay,” Layla whispered. “He was trying to find my dressing room and wound up back here. He just gets turned around so easily, but I gave him some excellent directions just now, and he’s leaving.”
“Yes,” the musician smiled. “I’m leaving.”
The props master turned his back in cold silence as the two of them began to snicker.
“We got caught...” she giggled.
“Yes, yes we did.”
The musician kissed her on the cheek and, buttoning his black jacket, ducked into shadows.
“Do you think he felt it?” Kylie, the lithe, young actress playing Layla’s character’s roommate, asked. They sat side by side on the worn down sofa that represented their apartment’s common space, a small urn resting on Kylie’s knee.
“No, being burned...I know that it’s stupid, but I mean like,” Kylie paused. It was here that Kylie allowed two small streams of tears to slip from her eyes. Perfectly. Every time they had done the scene. “He was so scared of fire as a kid...”
“You know he couldn’t feel it,” Layla said softly as Kylie continued to sniffle. “My grandfather was cremated. He walked from his apartment to church every Sunday. He loved that street, and when he died they were fixing a slab of the sidewalk, and while we were walking back to his apartment my mom opened the urn and sprinkled some of his ashes into the wet cement. He got to be a part of what he loved, and I think that’s all we can really hope for anyway.”
Kylie wiped her eyes, stood up, and opened the urn as she crossed to the broken window up stage. She removed the taped cardboard square and dropped a handful of ashes through the broken glass. She sniffled and replaced the urn’s lid before crossing to the door of her character’s bedroom, leaving Layla alone on stage to curl up on the sofa before the curtain fell.
Layla and Kylie took hands and smiled at one another before running through the curtain to take their bows with the three other cast members. The bows had always made her dizzy. Layla would bow, scan the eyes of the audience, bow again and lose her balance when she refocused on the audience. It was the boy who first caught her eye, and his intent stare unnerved her and made her check her shirt for fit or a stain. She saw a small group of her students, mostly the girls from the Drama Club, that had come to show their support and take advantage of the extra credit she had offered earlier that day. She knew that her bond with the students was purely because of her age, and that the two of them who held a poster with “We LUV U Miz Z!!!” scrawled across it in pink would have gladly forgone the extra credit if she were thirty-six instead of twenty-six. Layla did not look into the balcony, but she glanced into the empty wings as she bowed, thinking that the musician might have stayed.
Layla, as was custom in the small playhouse, stood in the lobby with the other cast members to thank the audience for coming, their support, and their applause. Coming straight from the stage, she was still barefoot and kept an eye out for heavier patrons to protect her toes.
“You were amazing! All of you,” exclaimed the first woman who entered the lobby. The bracelets on her wrists jangled as she shook Layla’s hand. She was middle aged, dressed in a simple green skirt and white top, and her frizzled brown hair was graying around her temples. Her quiet husband followed behind with their jackets, nodding to the cast as he passed. Layla kept the couple in her sight as she gave her thanks to other audience members. The woman wrapped her self in what had to be a burlap cape taking her husband’s hand and stepping out into the night.
As the last patrons made their way out of the theater, she still had yet to see the would be professor. When the audience began to group off in an effort to avoid the cold and talk a bit longer with the cast Layla slipped through one of the large white doors and skipped down cold steps, looking for the rounded shoulders and wrinkled jacket she knew he would be wearing. When the front entrance proved empty she turned and moved quickly down the sidewalk.
“Hey book boy,” she called when the top of his head came into sight.
“Hi,” he smiled, lifting his eyes to greet her.
“This is right, right?” he asked, offering her the small bouquet of roses at his side. “Flowers on the first night? I left them in the car, but I wanted to give them to you; it’s lame I know, but I think I saw it somewhere.”
“God,” she smiled nearly ripping them from his hand. “Yes. And thank you.”
“No problem,” he chuckled.
“I mean it. It’s very sweet.”
“Did you like it?”
“I did,” he said.
Layla watched him let a rare smile slip out into the night, his eyes beaming as she held the flowers to her nose. She enjoyed letting him see his plans come to fruition.
How they had met still eluded her when she tried to remember. In college or just after it? At the library or waiting for coffee? He found her to be cute, or she thought he was funny? Whatever it was, she had had him when she needed him. She liked his reference to her as an inspiration, and when the musician had disappeared she let him push the loneliness from her mind and body, and they worked for a while. They made plans to go to Newport for the folk festival. She whispered in his ear on long nights, describing the adventures they could have in Newport, the positions they could take, but they remained whispers; whispers that she knew still ran through the would be professor’s mind on nights when he could not sleep.
She watched him become rapt in her during their short tryst, dropping the books he’d once carried and the plans he’d made to the side and only taking them up again upon the musician’s return. She guessed that he had put his goals on hold to show that he could and would provide for her, but she didn’t ask, and they drifted until he returned to school.
“Jesus,” he said. “You’re going to die or something.”
He’d caught her warming her left foot against the opposite leg.
“I’m fine. I’ve been barefoot all night, all week even,” she said.
“You covered your tattoo,” he said as he led her back to the front entrance.
“Not in the story.”
“Ah,” he smiled.
“Have you been writing?” Layla asked before they reached the entrance steps.
“Good,” she squealed.
“It is. I miss getting e-mails at 3 in the morning and reading your stories in my planning time. You should send me one tomorrow.”
“You hate me,” she sighed playfully.
“I love you.”
“I know. Do you want to come have a drink or food in a few minutes?”
“I should turn in. I have work in the morning. Maybe tomorrow night?”
“You’re coming back?” she asked.
“Duh,” he chuckled.
“Good night book boy,” she said into the bouquet.
“Good night drama girl.”
Before he could turn to leave she threw her arms around his neck and kissed him quickly on the lips, pulling away before the failed professor knew what had happened.
In the dressing room, Layla set the bouquet near against her mirror and listened sleepily as Kylie finished rehashing their performances.
“God,” Kylie groaned. “Why do I have to wear this bra?”
“You’re in a white tank top most of the time,” Layla giggled. “People could see your nipples.”
“I never wear a bra. I don’t even have tits.”
Layla agreed silently as she began to wipe the makeup from the arch of her foot. “How long babe, can you search for what is not lost?” She smiled, like always, at the Bob Dylan line she’d had tattooed on her foot after college, turning the words over in her head as she rested her eyes. There’s no reason to search for what is not lost Kylie didn’t have tits. She didn’t have to wear a bra.
“Sorry,” Layla said. “I zoned out. What did you say?”
“Sorry about my brother perving out over you all night,” Kylie said turning back to the mirror to finish touching up her eye shadow.
“Yeah, that was odd, but it’s fine. Nice in a way.”
“Gross,” Kylie giggled. “I don’t know how you don’t let it bother you. I know that people stare at us, and I like it usually. Kids bother me though. Before you hit a certain age you can’t focus on what’s pretty or talented about a person. It’s like all a kid can see is what you mess up.”
Layla nodded again, and slid the jeans from her hips. She only undressed when Kylie began to apply her makeup, and even then she did so quickly, tossing her costume pants and shirt in the corner and pulled her gray dress over her head before unwinding her tights out of her bag.
“Zip me?” Kylie asked.
The light blue dress hugged against Kylie’s waist as Layla pulled the zipper toward Kylie’s neck. She wanted to hate the length of Kylie’s legs, but she was simply too tired.
“I’ll see you there,” Kylie said, laying her scarf and jacket over her arm.
The musician sat in a plastic orange chair in the middle of a stage. His songs were slow and twangy to match his shy singing voice. He plucked the guitar’s strings with his thumb and index finger, smiling when he looked away from the microphone and caught glimpses of her waiting in the back like she normally did.
“That was really pretty,” Layla said as they walked to her car.
Layla emptied the passenger seat, tossing her empty water bottle and the bouquet into the back seat with her school bag. The musician slid into the seat and kissed her.
“Garlic and onions,” he said as they pulled away.
“And banana peppers.”
“Yum,” the musician said and chuckled. “Flowers huh?”
“Yeah. Just something,” Layla said, turning the key. “Tradition.”
“I didn’t know about that one,” the musician sighed.
“Did he give them to you?”
“Yes,” she said, waiting for him to say something else.
“He can’t be with you,” the musician finally said, looking out the window. “You know that right?”
“He gives up when he’s with you,” the musician said. “You said so yourself. Having you fulfills him and that’s all he wants. It shuts down his ambition”
“That’s nice of you to say!”
“I didn’t mean it to be bad or sound angry. It’s just that, from what you told me, when he had you he couldn’t do what he loved. I can’t do what I love without you. You have to know that.”