She turned her head as the sound of gentle rain became sleet and pelted the window behind her. Weary and chilled, she pulled a wooly throw over her, only her two hands uncovered to hold on to a bag of chips and a Coke bottle. She settled on the sofa to watch the new show everyone at work had been talking about featured as, “two young women living and loving in Brooklyn.” What was meant by “living” she also wondered.
The TV screen lit up with the swirling psychedelic colors, shapes and patterns of the show’s introduction. Then, the five-minutes of pre-show commercials blared out for Viagra, Volkswagen and Kraft macaroni and cheese. “Good combination!” she said out loud.
The scene opened on a lovely courtyard. A slim, beautiful woman sat at a little table with her coffee—picture perfect. Something dropped from above, past the branch of a tree, as her eyes followed it to the ground. “It’s a condom!” the woman shrieked, but she didn’t seem too surprised. Her roommate opened a sliding French door, peeked out, with a little grimace—glancing at its landing place. Then began to discuss their jobs; one was a waitress, the other a financial advisor. The subject turned to men and innuendo about a date the night before for one woman, and an upcoming one for the other with banter about newly bought underwear and allusions to Fifty Shades of Grey.
“This is a bunch of crap.” Reaching for the remote she surfed through the shows: pawn shop dealers, rattlesnake hunters, political analysis, and cooking competitions. She threw it across the room, disgusted at the taste of “some people,” and more so that she had eaten all of the chips and drank half of the litre of Coke. Licking off the salt around her lips, she dropped the bag and bottle to the floor. She passed her hand over the little roll of flesh above the waist of her pajama bottoms, “Oh, God!”
She stretched her hand to the side table to grab her reading glasses. She placed them on the tip of her nose and picked up Love on the Subway beside her, which she had been trying to get through since last spring. After three pages, she slammed it shut and threw it on the floor. “This is crap, too!” Jumping up, she tipped over the vase of holly she had placed there for a little Christmas spirit. It landed on the Coke bottle. Picking up the book, the vase, and bottle, she stomped to the kitchen and tossed them in the waste can. When she got back to clean up the spills, she pricked herself on the holly leaves and screamed, “What the hell?”
Though she had held it in all day, now it burst forth in a flood: tears flowing and breath coming in short gasps. As if in a fog, through misty eyes, she picked up her phone, to call her best—her only friend now. “Hey, it’s me, Jessica,” not recognizing her own tremulous voice between sobs, as she blurted out her anguish at that morning’s revelations, with confessions of self-loathing, guilt and shame.
“I'll be right over—hold on," came the familiar voice with it’s comforting Italian accent. Near hysteria, she felt her mind wavering between what she had wished for, and the reality she now had to bear.
Life was not as she had imagined it would be when she first arrived in New York two years ago. “I’m here, Ma; I’m good. Everything's gonna be alright, so don't worry." She wanted to believe it herself, and it was alright, at least at the beginning. "I registered for classes today. I've gotta do this.” She did not want to return a failure to that wretched town.
Acting was, or so she thought, her reason for being. Before she even arrived, she had registered for classes at The Studio, a well-known, successful neighborhood theatre, and a week later took a job as a hostess at a corner bistro a few blocks away. She felt her new life had begun.
Jessica had escaped from that dreary Ohio town in winter to bustling Brooklyn. The few things she had brought with her, she positioned in just the right places around her tiny, ground-floor apartment: the little French, marble-top nightstand went under the window facing the alley; the white cushioned chair in the corner near the exposed brick wall; black metal floor lamp with a bright yellow shade on one side of a faux fireplace. Near the sliding door to a small patio, she placed a plant stand holding a dark-leafed plant dotted with tiny pink flowers (how it managed to keep blooming in the low light, she didn’t know); and a small, red side table (awaiting a sofa) against the wall facing the “fireplace.” She had been ecstatic each time she was able to add something new and needed.
Her favorite addition was found among the props being discarded at the studio to make room recent donations of more desirable pieces. She rescued the round, glass-top table with bronze legs in the shape of tree branches. Months later, she still hadn’t sat at it, not having found the "just right" chairs, though she kept searching everywhere.
Walking from the bus stop on a balmy spring evening, with the fragrance of lilac in the air, she noticed two white chairs. Up close, she noticed vine and leaf carvings on their backs .They were placed one on top of the other under one of the blossoming cherry trees lining the street. As she awkwardly picked them up, she noticed that across the street, a striking, dark-haired man leaning against a porch post watching her intently. When she saw him, she waved, feeling a little embarrassed caught in the chair rescue. He did not wave back but, rather, just kept his gaze on her. In the raking light cast by early evening sun, his white shirt stood out so brightly against his face and dark wavy hair. She quickly turned and walked away at a brisk pace, awkwardly holding the chairs in front of her. The image of the man remained with her as she made her way home —those piercing eyes seemingly looking through her,
Cleaning up her finds that evening, she noticed vines carved into the wood were in silver leaf on one of the chairs and the gold on the other. ”There!" she sighed, with an extraordinary sense of pleasure and satisfaction. Now the chairs had found a home across from each other with the little table that stood alone for so long. She felt it meant something, maybe that she was going to feel settled in at last, and that good things were in store for her.
She had planned to study a script for an upcoming audition, make a cup of tea and sit at the table for the first time, but she felt such a drowsiness coming on. Instead, she went straight to bed feeling totally drained.
That night in a dream she was sitting at the table. The windows above it were open, the wind howling outside and the driving rain coming in. The front door blew open, and the dark-haired, mysterious man came in and sat across from her. They looked into each others’ eyes in silence. His were deep, dark and penetrating, expressing a longing, like her own yearning for love and intimacy. When she awoke the next morning, she looked around her room. She could not remember having actually gotten into bed the night before. She felt a little unsteady as she opened the bedroom door and peeked out, half expecting to find the him sitting at the table waiting for her.
As her sleepiness faded the dream remained vivid, even though she knew dreams can feel so real and images and feelings of the dream can linger for a time, maybe even for days. Then they fade with time, but for the rest of the day the dream remained with her, and she began to wonder if there were some hidden message or portent in it. On her way home from the Studio that evening, she felt compelled to walk past the house with the porch, but no one was there. In the following months, she walked that way at least once a week. The dream never faded, but was in her thoughts—day and night, even though she never saw the dark-haired man again.
She was certain that her dream did mean something until a whole scenario formed within her. She often had to stop herself from believing that she would see him again, be with him, make love, marry him, have his child by saying out loud over and over, “Stop, no, no. This is not why I came here. What’s wrong with me?” She, but she had no answers and she couldn’t shake it off.
When the weather began to turn cold, she tried to be more practical, took the shorter walk home, avoiding that street, that house, and the man who wasn't there. Strangely, though, everything in her life was on the upswing with good fortune and coincidences (or not), all of which she attributed to the dream, the dark-haired man and his increasing “presence” in her life.
At the bistro the manager had given her raise, “Hey, J Lo,” the manager of the bistro, who had a nickname for everyone, called her aside. "You gotta way aboutcha, and customahs love ya.” The extra money was enough further adorn her living space: a bright Tibetan carpet; framed photos of the Bowery, the Brooklyn Bridge and Gramercy Park. She bought several figures of Hindu gods and goddesses and placed them where they could watch over her, or so she liked to believe. Shiva*, creator and destroyer both held pride of place on the half shelf above the front door.
Also, she there was a circle of friends from the The Studio who met at a pub in the Village after classes. Her life was falling into place, but still with a feeling that there was more to come!
It got even better. Less than a week after she had finished reading The Merchant of Venice, there was an open audition call posted at The Studio for an off, off Broadway production of it. With the encouragement of one of her instructors and several of her friends, she auditioned. Weeks later, when she had given up hearing anything back, she got a call and was offered the role of Portia, which she felt had nothing to do with her talent. It was destiny!
The good news spread quickly, and another friend put her in touch with Gena, a more experienced actor, who also had landed a part in the play. They arranged to meet for coffee and immediately clicked, although they were nothing alike. Gena was laid back and laughed a lot. ”Isn’t it funny. I got the part of Jessica, and you're Jessica in real life?”
Jessica, being more serious and cynical thought, Whatever real life is, but said, "Yeah, ironic! Hey, did you get an invitation to the director's pre-rehearsal party?”
Gena laughed the answer to Jessica’s question,”Yes, I did, and I’m so excited about it. Why don't we go together? Can’t wait to meet the director. Hope he’s not tyrant.”
“Sure, yes, we can go together, why not? I don’t think he’ll be a tyrant…not sure why, but….”
“Great, what are you going to wear?” Gena asked.
From the moment Jessica got the part, she began to imagine the director was the dark-haired man who had arranged everything exactly as it happened and would happen—world without end, amen. She learned that his name was Leon Lorenzo. She asked and searched everywhere for an image of him, his address or any personal information but found nothing. Around the same time, she took to reaching up to touch the little golden figure of Shiva above the doorway each time she left or entered her apartment, like dipping her hand in holy water at a church door. She remained on the threshold for a moment each time to remind herself that she was standing on the brink of…something.
All of her free time was devoted to memorizing Portia's lines, reciting them in the shower; during lulls at the bistro; in elevators; on the subway and late into the night. Anticipating, yet apprehensive about the upcoming party, she began to plan for it in every way. She envisioned how she would look, how she would smile and speak when she finally met him face to face--her mentor, her lover, her all. She lost five pounds, splurged on a short black dress with tiny silver sparkles in a small swirl around one shoulder, and a pair of black boots with grey patent leather dots around the top—perfect!
When the night finally arrived, she spent hours at the mirror, applying make-up (which she didn’t usually wear), and straightening and arranging her normally frizzled hair. All the while, the practical part of her knew she was out of control. The director was not, could not be, the dark-haired man. But the deepest part of her did not believe the other part.
Ready to go, she wrapped herself in a magenta mohair shawl and left to meet Gena at the subway station, who stood waving crazily when she saw Jessica approaching. Jessica waved back, as she picked up her pace and took in Gena's appearance: white leggings, a pale blue silk Indian tunic, a blue and white veil over her head, all embroidered with darker blue, and silver and white filigree designs. The street light shone behind her head, like a halo, as snow flurries began falling around her.
Gena looks beautiful, like the Virgin Mary. “Mother of God, it’s cold!” she shouted to Gena, as she hurried toward her. “You look heavenly, Gena!”
“Thanks, Jess. You too— be-ooteeful.”
“Neither one of us is dressed for this weather, though.” Jessica shivered as they joined arms and stepped onto the escalator down into the depths of the city.
After manic small talk and alternate expressions of fear and humor, they arrived at the mid-town apartment. Not wanting to be the first, too-eager guests, the women walked around the block, laughing, freezing and looking forward to the evening with mixed feelings of dread and awe. Back at the building, they squeezed into the small foyer and rang the bell on the nose of a brass gargoyle.
Stepping into the elevator, Jessica thought she would be sick, felt a gurgling in her lower abdomen, and when she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirrored walls, she didn’t recognize the reflection. I’m overdressed. I look ridiculous! Even Gena looks better. At least her outfit has conversational value. Whatever confidence she had was dwindling into self-consciousness. What am I doing here? How did I get this part? I want to go home. And she didn’t mean to her apartment in Brooklyn.
When the elevator doors opened, the women turned left, but from the other direction they heard voices and music spilling out into the black and white tiled hallway. They backtracked to 933, and entered the candle-lit room with the open door, unnoticed at first. They made their way amidst small groups of the guests—some looking as “put together” as she had hoped to be. Others were in jeans and tee shirts, and plenty of were outfitted for at least as much conversational mileage as Gena’s get up. Everyone had drinks in hand and smiles on faces. Some immediately directed exclamations, congratulations and questions toward Jessica, knowing she had a lead part.
A glass of wine was put into her hand by a short man with dark blue eyes and flowing grey hair. He called her Portia and identified himself as Shylock, her stage adversary. He took her around to meet the cast and crew, but she was distracted, looking past shoulders and heads into every corner of the room for that one face and those eyes. She began to sense“Shylock” was scrutinizing her. Was he reading her thoughts and the wild expectations and fantasies crunching themselves against one another in her mind forming into what she wished for, not what she knew to be true.
Her imaginings were interrupted when he insisted on getting her another glass of the “excellent Pouilly Fuisse.”
“The what?” she whispered under her breath, already feeling a bit woozy. She continued to scan the room, anxious and disheartened. When Shylock returned, she blurted out, “Where is Leon, the director? You'd think he’d have the courtesy to appear and introduce himself by now, don’t you?”
“My dear, Portia, the merciless, I am Leon; I thought you knew,” Handing her the wine glass, he clinked his to hers,”Salute." Then he took a little silver spoon out of the breast pocket of his black velvet vest and tapped it on his glass to call the guests to whatever order was possible. He welcomed everyone, handed out play books and made announcements about the rehearsals, none of which she heard. She only saw the evening blurring and dimming her foolish hopes. On the way home she was silent, ignoring Gena’s chatter as she had the sense that knowingly or not, Shylock had exacted his pound of flesh.
That was one year ago.
Now, on this evening, as she attempted to calm herself before Leon arrived, she tried to remember how she once had imagined her life would be. Maybe acting was not the reason I came. She hadn't gotten any callbacks for other parts since Portia, even though the play had a successful run, and she had received good reviews. In reality, she had gone to very few auditions, despite encouragement and references from Leon. Her group of friends had fallen away one by one. Have I isolated myself from them, from everything? She wondered.
Her hours at the bistro were cut back. “Hey, business ain’t what it useta be, J Lo,” her boss told her. My turning up late and calling in sick too often might be the real reason? Maybe she hadn’t come to New York for the right reasons after all. Now this! I’ve been tricked by flying too close to what I thought I loved?” She sat staring at the blank TV screen, the sound of sleet against the window pane.
Jessica refused to totally give up the idea of the dark- haired man’s influence on her life. Despite the disillusionment of Leon’s being the director, they had become good friends during and after the production of the play. From the first night they met, she felt he could see through her, which somehow was reassuring, but threatening at the same time. She had never confided in him (or anyone) about her secret thoughts and crazy imaginings—not until minutes ago when she called him, and through burning tears, told all, including the grim news she had heard only that morning.
She recounted for him that, just the night before, she found herself on the street where the dark-haired man had stood on the porch watching her that spring evening. As she approached the house, she saw yellow crime-scene tape stretched around the sidewalk and porch. Oh, no, she thought, someone must have hurt him or killed him! She rushed home, frantic to watch TV, to scan sources for any news, but there was nothing. She turned on the radio next to her bed to the all-news station, sleepless off and on most of the night.
She awoke the next morning trying to make sense of what she was hearing. On that street, in that house, there was a victim, a boy, and a perpetrator. She ran to turn on the TV to see a man being taken out in cuffs. He was not a victim, but a criminal, not a mysterious, handsome lover, but a predator, a monster who had kidnapped a young boy, locked him in a cage in the basement and abused him for over a year.
Now, she waited at the door to hear footsteps and a knock..“Leon” The sleet had turned to snow, dropping lightly to the earth below. When Leon entered, she reached for him, inhaling the cold of the flakes in the folds of his jacket. He held her close with empathy, aware of the tragic revelation, shattering a fantasy she had created and clung to for so long.
"I am so ashamed, so crazy; that boy....Could I have done something, anything? And… I…I…” she sobbed to incoherence.
“My dear, Jessica,” Leon whispered, “it is you who must now have mercy on yourself. You couldn’t have known, how? When illusions end, life can begin. Now come, sit with me.” Jessica held on to him, as they walked to the table.
There she sat for the first time, across from Leon, in silence, she on the silver chair, he on the gold. And, from time to time, she cast her gaze to Shiva above the doorway, dancing in a ring of fire.
*Shiva, the Hindu deity of creation and destruction, has many appellations reflecting various attributes, such as Hara (remover of sins) and Mahamaya (of great illusions).