Locating the row of toggles labeled ‘HOUSE’, Robert switched them on and off until he found the set he wanted. Suddenly, a voice rang out through the empty theater, “Will you join me in the sea’s embrace?”
Willing his tripping heart to slow, Robert shook his head and straightened up. “Actually, the line is ‘Will you join me in the sea’s blue embrace, Sheila?’” He turned toward the main stage area. “You never did get that line right.”
Jeff leaned against a tarp-covered grand piano, looking every inch the Hollywood leading man. His blond hair was trimmed short, which accented the strong, angular planes of his face. The lithe, swimmer’s build he had carried in college had been replaced with a stronger, more solid version that challenged his tight t-shirt and jeans. Disturbingly, Robert’s heart did a little flip-flop.
The actor kept his relaxed pose, appearing to evaluate Robert. “I see you’re still an egotistical bastard.”
Unnerved by his emotional reaction, Robert snapped back, “And you’re still off-cue—-the read-through isn’t for another hour and a half.”
“Ouch! A little tense, are we?”
“Sorry—just tired with lots to do.” Robert walked over to his old friend, extending a hand. “Good to see you!”
Ignoring the proffered hand, Jeff pulled Robert onto a tight, back-slapping hug. Surprised by the close contact, Robert returned the hearty greeting. What the—? Robert felt what might have been the lightest brush of lips on his neck. Surely, that was imagined on his part? Wasn’t it?
Separating, the two men stood facing each other; the brittle silence suddenly awkward and shy.
“So!” The director stepped away and busied himself, setting up chairs. “What brings you by so early?”
“I thought we might catch up.” Jeff levered himself away from the piano, moving to help Robert with the folding seats. “You know—sorta re-connect …”
“Jeff, the only connection …” He glanced at the actor, clearly reading the expectation in his eyes. “Oh …! Ah … um … uh, I’m seeing someone.” Robert turned away, suddenly embarrassed. “Well, actually, we’ve been together for going on two years now.”
“I see.” Disappointment weighted the two syllables.
“Aren’t you married anyway?” Robert straightened up, balling his fists on his hips. “I seem to remember reading about some actress, Shelly …”
“Shannon. And we’re divorced—well, almost.” Jeff stood, hands characteristically shoved into his pockets. “So, I thought …”
“Thought what?” Anger flared in Robert’s chest, ignited by a small ember of regret. “Thought that I’d fall back into your bed after all these years?”
Robert affected an outrageous southern accent. “Thought ‘dat ‘dis li’l black sissy wan’ed som’ mo’ o’ yo’ corn-fed beef?”
“Stop!” Pain suffused Jeff’s expression. “No.”
“What, then? I thought we had just been fucking.”
Jeff’s shoulders rose and fell. “It’s not like that!”
“Really?” Robert advanced on Jeff, his index finger an accusing dagger. “‘Cause that’s all you said it was. So tell me, what is it like?”
“I … I missed you.”
“I missed you too—a lot. Of course, that was after you left for Los Angeles—without me.”
“But you wanted to go to New York!”
“New York; Los Angeles; Bum Fuck, Idaho—it didn’t matter! I wanted to go with you!”
Jeff turned away as if to shield himself from Robert’s admission. “I … couldn’t …”
“No! Not couldn’t—wouldn’t! You sacrificed me on the altar of your ambition.” Standing close behind Jeff, Robert hissed in his ear. “The little black fuck toy just didn’t fit with your plans!”
Jeff spun around, shock and horror in his eyes. “I never said that!”
“You didn’t have to. You made it clear when you were gone with no good-bye.” Scalding tears boiled at the back of Robert’s eyes. God damn it, do not cry!
“No!” Robert threw up his hands to ward off Jeff’s raw emotion. “I’m not talking about this anymore. The past is past.”
“I expect that we both can be professional and work through the play.” Squelching the anguish that churned in his gut, Robert took a deep breath and closed his eyes for a moment. Turning his back to Jeff, he began to distribute scripts. “The read-through starts in an hour.”
The sound of Jeff’s footsteps receded, punctuated by the slamming of the stage door.
Robert folded himself onto a chair, succumbing to the pent-up tears, “Shit!”
— © C.C. Williams 2012