Sunday, May 8, 2011

TWO: Dread

        Several streets from Diana Heard’s apartment, Caleb Deering and George Ekdahl (it had been years since anyone called her Georganne) had finished dinner and were sitting in Caleb’s living room with coffee and a plate of little cakes she had brought. Caleb lit another cigarette, put another long-play record on the turntable, and in the candlelight and the quiet they listened to Isaac Stern play Brahms. They, too, were celebrating the close of Les’s production, not so much because it had been a great artistic achievement as that it was finally over and that, happily, it hadn't killed anyone.
  In Caleb’s opinion, Les had behaved like whatever the macho version of diva is. When Olivia Troute had asked Caleb to design the lighting for this production, he had nearly refused. But he had learned to give Les’s megalomania context: Big Fishes and Little Ponds. At first Les had been more genial than Caleb had ever seen him. And he almost had a sense of humor. It lasted for a while, but it extended neither to George nor to Moira O'Hare. George was an adjunct faculty member and she was Les’s assistant director and for a couple of weeks all was well. Then Les began to ask her at the last minute to take over full rehearsals that, for unexplained reasons, he could not attend. And then he vilified her publicly when he disapproved of something she had done. Eventually he had begun to talk about a “family friend” or “the family babysitter” or both and soon Diana the Townie was coming to rehearsals to assist. George did not complain even to Caleb, though she was the first to suggest that Les’s interest in Diana might have less to do with theatre than with other areas of his life.
  Les had long ago established himself as a hands-on acting teacher, fully engaged with student actors, provocative, physical, even confrontational. He used the phrase “in your face” to describe it. And they adored him for it and the few who didn’t left his classes and avoided his productions. But with Moira in this production he had reached new levels of psychic and physical aggression. A particularly intense scene in the play between Moira’s character and Douglas’s (it had seemed a good idea at the beginning of the semester to cast girlfriend and boyfriend opposite each other) got Les right up on stage in the middle of it, physically pushing, prodding, building the tension until at the climactic moment, he slapped Moira hard across the face. In itself, this was not unusual; he often slapped actors at the moment when the words of another character were meant to hit like a figurative slap in the face. It provoked true response, he said, rather than hollow emotion. Though Caleb recognized neither the wisdom nor the appropriateness of this, he had remained silent. But there was something particularly transgressive about it this time. Was this Les the Embodiment of Powerful Situational Stimuli at Work on Dramatic Characters or was this Les the Man in Charge Frustrated with Moira? And if so, was it artistic frustration or something more personal and therefore more dangerous?
  Caleb challenged Les about it and was told to back off since he had neither the experience nor the expertise to express a meaningful opinion. When he asked Moira about it she was furious that he had interfered--to the point of tears.
  It had happened early in the process—the first time Caleb had gone to a rehearsal--but last night someone had seen Les talking with Moira during intermission, cajoling her, “working her up” as they put it, and while it was discussed as fact at the cast party, no one had actually seen him strike her just before she went on stage.
  And then there was Moira’s deepening affection for him, Caleb—something that Les could not have missed. She respected Caleb, trusted him; she enrolled in all of his design and aesthetics classes and she understood more deeply than most what he was teaching. She had become his friend, he her confidant. He knew there were dangers in such intimacy. Falkes Hollow was a small college and its community was close. Still, Moira had entrusted him with details of her troubled family life and had allowed him to help her through the final throes of the hurtful break-up with Douglas. He had tried to help her navigate the increasingly difficult waters with Les, especially after the early violent rehearsal. 
        Caleb disliked Les but for Moira's sake he had committed himself passionately to making the production a success. The intensity of that commitment, however, he fully acknowledged had more to do with his passion for the playwright. Temple Lubiak was not yet twenty, he was in need of artistic encouragement, and he had decided that Caleb would be his mentor. The play was heady and poetic, perhaps a bit too sturmy und drangy, but it was young and earnest and full and fervent--as was the playwright. And Caleb was trying to keep himself from falling in love with the playwright.
  “You will love Bermuda,” George was saying. “It’s civilized. It will be a little bit of paradiso before the inferno of summer school. You’ll come to Governor’s House with us to celebrate the Queen’s birthday, which is actually April twenty-first, but in Bermuda the weather in April is so unpredictable that we celebrate it the second Monday in June.” (All this happened before Bermuda abandoned its annual celebration of the Queen’s birthday.) “And as it will be your birthday, I'll bake a cake. Or mummy will. And we’ll rent mopeds.” Here she let her nostrils flare and the corners of her mouth turn down slightly to indicate that she was thinking of something far cleverer than she could utter. “That is, if you and the Golden One will have time for birthdays or the Queen or—“
  “Stop,” said Caleb. “Oh God, I want him. I want him on the sands of Bermuda beaches, I want him on the floor of the Governor’s mansion, I want him under the prize cedar of the botanical gardens. You must help me, George, to keep my sanity through all of this.”
         George laughed.
        “Georganne, I must not fall in love with this golden Temple.”
        “Sweetie, you are already in love with this golden Temple.”
        “I can not—“
        “Each day he will wear his little blue running shorts. He will lounge in a chair on the balcony reading sonnets or perhaps Richard II.”
        Othello,” Caleb said. “He quotes Othello. I think he thinks it’s Manly.”
  “Well, I promise not to interfere,” George said. “I will have my hands full with Mummy. You’re lucky: She’s in one of her manic phases. She won't notice that you are looking at your student with lust in your heart. And Daddy is oblivious. He thinks”—she growled the words and made a fist—“MEN ARE MEN.”
        “Oh, God.”
  “We’re going to stop at Granny’s house for two days before flying on to Bermuda,” George said.
  Since her college days when she had been a dancer with auburn hair that fell to her waist and had a waist that her lover could nearly encircle with his hands, George had gained fifty-eight pounds. She was thirty-one years old, stood five feet six inches tall and had the tiniest hands and feet of anyone in her family. The grace of a dancer still played through the bulk she carried. She wore her hair twisted into a knot and held in place at the top of her head by a silver comb. She told herself that her growing preoccupation with Caleb was nothing more than a distraction and, after all, a safe one.
  “Oh God, oh God, what am I doing?” Caleb said. “I have been discreet, even saintly, here in this place that time forgot in the rolling hills of Pennsylvania. I am not a cradle-robber, I am not a counselor of undecided and tormented undergraduates. I have stayed clear of confused boys who think of me as an artistic genius who can help them discover their own artistic genius and who wish that sex was not a part of everyday life. And, yes, I know I’m waxing dramatic, but I always do that when I’m with you.”
  “More like waning, I think,” she said with a smirk and then, “I think he knows about sex, darling. I think he thinks he knows which sexual vector he wants for his life. I’m just not sure how much practice he’s had at it.” Her eyes twinkled. “I did hear some of the girls talking in the dressing room the other night.”
         Caleb didn’t want to care.
  "It seems our holy Temple has had some unholy experiences with Falkes Hollow women. I couldn’t tell exactly, but Golden One may have made some frustrated attempts at bravura sex that might have been a bit too much for the co-eds.”
  “I don’t want to hear it,” Caleb said, sinking back into his chair. “I want to end it. I want to fall in love with some nice thirtyish—okay, I'll be forty-two in a couple of weeks, so thirty-fiveish—lawyer who has been tested for every imaginable disease and who is as immaculate as the Blessed Virgin Mary and who will shout for joy that he has found someone else over thirty as clean and yet as depraved as he is.”
  “It’s still not too late to tell him he can’t come to Bermuda with us. Mummy can have gotten worse, there isn’t room for two guests, whatever.”
  “No.” Caleb sighed.  “I want him next to me on the pure sands of Bermuda stretching his long legs in the sun and I want the exquisite torture of sleeping in the same room with him during the endless hot quiet nights.”
       “That will be arranged.”
       “And I want—“
       “—him to turn to you in the silver moonlight and ask you if you would please—“
       The phone rang.
       Caleb answered. It was Olivia Troute.

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