In Character

Ian was waiting for the next show to start. It was a rerun, so it wasn’t likely that he would have to do much, and of course it had already happened. Even so, when he was in it he couldn’t remember the future. The screen flashed on and he was there again, doing the same thing again, hopelessly in love and screwing everything up again. While he waited backstage, off to the sides of the big rectangle that comprised his world, he fidgeted. He could see Emily across the screen, waiting to come on just like he was. She didn’t look so nervous, but then she always looked calm and collected. Her skin was always smooth, her hair always curling neatly, her smile always intact. His face went crooked and twitched before he could get a grin together, and he always tried to madly pull his features into obedience while she waited with such gentle pity it broke his heart.

It was nearly time to go on now. She had the first scene, in the kitchen for a while before he burst in with, what was it this time? Something about a test he failed, maybe. He’d remember once it had happened. Once he had to go tell her it happened, anyway. As soon as he was onscreen the story settled into place and took him over. Emily was stepping on already, moving so certainly into place. The lights flared and settled on her, shaping the shadows under her chin and between her lips. She froze in place and the screen lit up. There she was. He watched her smile and turn, furrow her brow in concentration, move her hands with quick easy movements.

Even offscreen he was in love with her. Offscreen she smiled at him with the same soft look, that understanding smile that meant she thought he was a nice friend, maybe a brother, but definitely nobody beautiful. He wasn’t lovely to her the way she was to him. He had a suspicion, though, that sometime around season six she would warm to him. If she loved him back onscreen then she would at least like him offscreen, he thought. She’d lean against his shoulder, maybe, while they were waiting together before the lights went on. There was a blurred memory of that, so maybe it was going to happen. Damn, he had to go on now. He flailed into the kitchen, wincing a little at the clatter of his entrance. She was calm, just bent to pick everything up as though she expected it. Perhaps she did by now.

“Emily!” he said, catching his breath. “Emily, I have to tell you something.”

She turned to him and placed her hands on her hips. “Yes, Ian, what is it now?”

He looked at her face, turned to him with such expectation. The words almost stopped in his mouth, almost changed before he let them spill out. Her eyes were so intent on his that for a moment he felt he could say anything. He couldn’t, of course. Even if he really wanted to, there was no other way than to follow the script, keep to the story, stick to the show. At least he never forgot his lines.

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Rehearsal

The stage was a well of light that glared and froze in the blackness of the theater. The three of them were sitting nearly against the tall canvas of the set, pushed into a line on one side of the stage as though they were scrambling back from the dark, as far as possible. Richard’s script was getting wavery spots of paper where it softened and stretched around his fingers, clutching it too tight. April sat composed, serene, stiff. She was still talking.

“I never said that.” Was that line supposed to be funny? She was biting a smile as she waited for him.

“No,” he said, “I suppose you didn’t. I guess I just did, then.” The words thudded in time with his heartbeat.

“Alright, then. I do too.” April really smiled now, looking right at him. He gazed back, entranced.

Matt – the director – coughed, and Richard snapped straight and peered at his script. “That’s settled then. End scene.”

Matt read the stage directions, his words jamming together. He’d been ready to head home a half hour ago. April said, “You know, I think you’re the most interesting person I know. Funny, isn’t it?”

Richard summoned irritation. “What’s funny about that? What, you mean you’re surprised I’m interesting?”

April flashed him a smile, eyes narrowed. “I’m not surprised you’re so interesting, William darling. I’m surprised I’m so lucky as to be with you.”

“Oh, good,” he bluffed, aiming for humor. Funny was called for here, right? “I’m the most interesting person I know, too.” No, damn, that was wrong. Definitely wrong. Her eyes flickered down now, breaking from his.

“Yes, sweetheart.” That was weariness, he thought, that he detected in her voice. Exasperation, maybe. Or her character’s exasperation.

He assumed a contrite expression, pulling his eyebrows up and his lips down. Matt’s sigh whispered through the air, but Richard ignored it. “Oh, my love, I’m sorry. You know I do love you terribly.” He forgot for a moment that he was telling the muscles of his face how to act, and he stared at April with wide eyes. Surely she must see the emotion bare in them, the desperation clutching at him and the sorrow barely hidden.

The light gleamed in April’s eye, rinsing pale the blue of her eyes and glinting sharp white. Her eyelashes flicked down, and she said, “I do know, I do. I love you so dearly, I love you too. I do.”

Richard smiled and sat back, satisfied for a fleeting second. Then he remembered his line, “Well then, everything’s all fine, isn’t it?”

April smiled weakly at him and that scene ended too. This was their third run-through that evening and the whole rehearsal had been turmoil. He was nearly counting down the pages until they could be done and go home, but he was already dreading the moment when she would turn and walk with such nonchalance back to her car. Every time they got through this next scene, he felt as though he’d been crushed and twisted. He started it with the same heartiness – “My dear, I wish you’d done that sooner. Hadn’t we better go right away? Go on, get in the car, I’ll finish up here. You look so lovely.”

He would listen to her snap at him, halfhearted, and it twinged in his chest. The conversation would rise and fall, and when April’s voice rose she clutched at her skirt as though holding herself down. Otherwise, perhaps, the anger she conjured would propel her out of her chair and right out the room – off the stage. Finally he would say, defeated, “Yes, well, that’s all. That’s all I can do now. I know it’s not enough, I’m so sorry. I just don’t know what else.”

April smiled brightly at him and said, “Just don’t. Just don’t do anything. Please just stop.”

“I can’t. You know I can’t.”

The fight escalated here again. Her voice sounded shrill to his ears, grating, and he pretended he couldn’t hear her. His own voice was odd to his ears. It swooped and flew. “God, I can’t handle you anymore! I wish I were anywhere else right now.”

Her words were quiet then. She murmured them, her lips barely moving and her eyes fixed on his face. “Go then. Go be anywhere else. My god, can’t you tell by now? I can’t possibly love you. I’ve finally figured it out. Go on, leave.

The scene ended as he stalked out, and his baleful glares back at her were loosened and weakened by the pleading expression he couldn’t help. When he settled back into his chair, every time his body slumped as if suddenly let go. Thankfully that was close to the end, and when the play finished they could all go home.

Richard followed April outside, mesmerized by the tap of her heels on the linoleum before him. When they reached the parking lot, April turned to him. Her face was flat. “Night then, Richard. I’ll see you Sunday.” He nodded at her, numb, and opened his mouth to answer to her back as she swayed away. The words were still stuttering in his throat as the car chirped and she swung into the driver’s seat.

Her headlights flared bright into Richard’s dazed eyes, and as he fumbled with his keys he turned away. The sudden overwhelming darkness blinded him for a long moment.