Kate took a deep breath, and then another. Her dress felt too tight, but then, modern image had it that Romeo’s Juliet was something of a stunner. Hence, she couldn’t be seen in anything that billowed too loosely. She would have to make do with what little airway she was afforded.
The backstage of Whestleigh High School’s theater department reeked of body odor and fear, but Kate wasn’t positive they weren’t side-effects of her own person. Today was the day: the group theatre project for her Shakespeare class; the one-act revival of Romeo and Juliet.
Kate looked up at the clock hanging beside the left wing entrance. It was 7:50 a.m. They’d been instructed to show up at quarter to eight to have a quick meet-and-greet with the school’s theater director. Kate considered that at least she’d been lucky to have gotten Whestleigh High School as the locale for this so-called production. Unlike her classmates, most of whom lived on campus at Cordwyn—a twenty minute commute—she’d had a comparatively restful morning.
But she probably shouldn’t have eaten that second muffin for breakfast this morning. She’d wanted to make sure she left on a full stomach. Now, an hour later, the contents stirring rebelliously, Kate wondered if that hadn’t been such a good idea. Pinning a smile on her face, she reminded herself that she was fine. She wasn’t going to vomit. She wasn’t going to pass out. These were just a bunch of kids for goodness sakes, what did she care for their critic?
Her mantra sort of helped.
That is, until the teacher worked in. At first, shrouded in the shadows of the dimly lit room, Kate couldn’t make out his features but after the first couple of steps, his patrician nose, sandy blonde hair, those wide shoulders came into striking view…and she wanted to barf all over again, but for an entirely different reason.
If memory served her correctly, and admittedly she’d been pretty drunk that night, the man making his hurried way toward their ragtag troupe of actors was none of than Madame Penny’s next door neighbor. What had Penny said his name was? Jackson?
If Kate prayed that his recall wouldn’t extend to that evening, she was doomed for disappointed. No sooner had he reached their little group then his eyes, scanning what should have been the faces of relative strangers, twinkled knowingly, deliberately upon contact with her own diverted countenance.
Just as quickly, however, his eyes moved on, brushing past her, leaving Kate wondering if she hadn’t just imagined the humor she’d read in them moments ago.
“Good morning everyone,” he announced then, his voice infused with sudden energy. “Let me introduce myself. My name is Jackson Fischer. I’m the resident English teacher and, subsequently, the theatre director here at Whestleigh. I want to take a moment to both welcome and thank you for taking the time to rehearse this scene with our students today. We’re really excited to have you!”
Out of her peripheral vision Kate say the rest of the group smilingly nod at his preamble. Like a robot, she followed suit.
“Now let me see,” he said then, looking down at a piece of paper he’d been quietly holding in his hand, “who is our Romeo today?”
“That would be me.” The guy to Kate’s immediate left held up his hand.
“Ah, Guy Patterson, correct?” Mr. Fischer clarified.
“And who is our esteemed Mercutio?”
Going down his list exactingly, Jackson called out each individual player, until all had been properly identified themselves. At last, he turned to Kate, who remained the only unannounced attendant.
“That leaves our beloved Juliet,” he said, with a pointed look in her direction, “which means you must be Kate McDonald.”
“Yes,” she said simply, exerting all her energy to keep a rising blush at bay.
“It’s so nice to be properly introduced.” Though the statement was said in benefit of the entire cast, Mr. Fischer’s eyes never strayed from Kate’s downward cast expression. He was baiting her.
Before she could come up with a witty comeback, something that wouldn’t give her away, he spoke up again. He didn’t seem to require much feedback with his commentary, which was probably the teacher in him—used to being listened to.
“Before the students arrive, let’s quickly run over how the day will progress. You will perform for three different classes today: first period, second period, and fourth period. I apologize about the small gap of time in the middle, but at least you won’t be stuck here all day,” he said with a smile at the group.
“I will introduce today’s exercise at the start of each class, a matter of five to ten minutes. I’ll end each speech with this address “Now, without further ado….” When the curtain goes up, you’re on. Following the performance, should time permit, I would like to open the floor for a round of Q&A. This is a rare opportunity not to be missed, granting the audience a session with their actors,” Fishcer said, waving his arm expressively. “Of course,” he added, “it will be limited to the arena of the theatrical process and experience.”
“Sounds great,” Amanda Steven’s said, buttering up to the teacher as though she were still in the seventh grade. Kate rolled her heavily made-up eyes. Either she really wanted an A on this project or the girl was hot for teacher. Not that Kate would entirely blame her…at least on the latter assumption. Even Kate could admit, though she didn’t want to, that Jackson was a damn good looking man.
His slacks hugged his toned gluts to perfection and his polo shirt displayed just the right amount of upper body muscle without being labeled too-tight. And both were pressed with an expert hand (even his nails were nicely groomed!) His eyes were alert, signaling a man who had slept well the night.
Kate shook her head. She had more important things to think about Jackson Fischer’s sleeping habits…boxers, briefs, buff? Telling herself to get a grip, she deliberately shifted her body, changing her line of sight. She now had a fantastic view of the stage curtain, fluttering slightly from a nearby window.
Jackson kept talking, but Kate had now tuned out. Hopefully it wasn’t necessary information, because she just couldn’t summon the strength to listen to him anymore.
It made it so much worse, knowing that he was watching. Kate wasn’t sure why she’d given Jackson the power to increase her nervousness, she wasn’t sure why she cared that he was an audience member. She barely knew the man. Other than one drunken swim she’d have never known of his prior existence.
With or without reason, the fact remained: he was in the audience, watching her…and it had an effect. She suddenly felt seven years old again, her throat constricted, her hands batting against her collarbone, hoping to pat the airway back open.
This extra-sensory awareness of Jackson Fischer’s presence couldn’t have come with a more inconvenient scene, Kate knew as she walked quietly on the stage. In less than thirty seconds, the stage crew would draw the curtain, announcing the beginning of the production. In another five minutes she would kiss Guy Patterson, but all the while she would be thinking of Jackson Fischer. How freaking messed up was that?
But somehow, she made it through—through the kiss, the embarrassing succession of sexual entendres shortly following thereafter, even the flat marriage conducted between herself and ‘Romeo’—somehow she made it through to the conclusion of Act II, constituting the end of her first performance of the day.
One down, two to go.
Now, sitting in the chairs that Mr. Fischer had oh-so-thoughtfully provided for the players, she turned her attention to the students crouched in the theatre seats before them, waiting as the first round of questions began.
“Is it embarrassing, when, you know, you have to kiss someone on stage? Like, pretending to be in love or something?” A lot of girlish giggles followed this question, bravely articulated by a young lady whose face now flamed fire-engine red.
Guy Patterson fielded that question, for all the world as though he were some seasoned actor, and not someone who just last week asked Kate which side ‘stage left’ presided upon. Still, she kept a straight face as he fumbled his way through.
“Once you are in character, all reality is striped clean. I’m not kissing Kate,” he said, pointing at her to further his point, “I’m playing a part, I’m embodying someone else, who’s kissing someone embodying yet another someone else.”
Well, if that doesn’t clear things up, Kate thought humorously, her eyes scanning the furred eyebrows of the puzzled expressions circling around her. That got a little muddled.
“Honestly,” Kate said, piping up, “it is a little awkward…at least, at first. But, as Guy was saying, since we’re both playing a part, it’s easier to move past the weirdness of it all. By that I mean, I don’t consider that I’m kissing Guy when we’re on stage, rather that Juliet is kissing Romeo. I’m in character. Does that make sense? We’re telling someone else’s story through our action. Knowing that helps to make it less… uncomfortable.” Kate doubted that helped much, but she was glad to see some of the creases marring these confused foreheads iron out.
“Now Guy, you said you are, and I quote ‘embodying someone else.’ That’s a very important aspect of acting. Could you expand upon what that means further?” This question came directly from Mr. Fischer. Heaving a slow sigh of relief, Kate sat back further in her chair. She was off the hook this time.
To give him credit, Guy did his best to describe the process of getting into character. Unfortunately, it’s a more-or-less abstract concept. It’s not only hard to explain and, as such, digest, but each person undergoes that transformation differently; certainly Kate doesn’t do what Guy explained: closing his eyes and envisioning his character standing in front of a mirror, the background of which, besides showing his own reflection, playing out a reel of this newfound life, the character’s favorite meal, moments in his past that shaped his person, love interests…the whole shebang. That Romeo’s favorite dish and his first kiss were never spoken of in Shakespeare’s work hardly mattered, Guy defended. These nuances were created in effect, a tool for Guy to better understand his new persona, to make his character feel real by ‘living’ their life story.
Kate simply read the script and tried to emulate the person as they were written, copying her behavior to their language, her tone to their meaning, her message to that of playwrights hand. Of course, she’d never considered herself much of an actor either, so it was probably best that she hadn’t been called on to answer that one anyway.
“I tried acting once but I was so conscious that I was acting, you know that I was still really just me underneath it all and it felt…I don’t know, fake like a cheap imitation or—” a young girl started to say then. She was sitting two rows back, her face half hidden behind a curtain of hair. “How do you break out of that? I mean, like so you can embrace the imaginary so completely that it feels real.”
Kate blinked. So did Guy Patterson.
Instead, it was Shelly Bibbon, who played the Nurse Maid, who answered this profoundly insightful question. “It takes a lot of practice. You have to be able to compartmentalize in a way, to mentally lock away the, you underneath all that acting, until the job is over. It takes a lot of discipline but the more you act, the better you get at it. The self-conscious awareness that you’re only acting slowly fades as you continue to embrace other identities. Then, after a while, this freedom of expression takes over, where you are able to be anybody you want to be, and that doesn’t feel false anymore. If feels like a super power.”
Jackson Fischer spoke next, his words indicating the end of the class hour: “What a great exercise. I challenge everyone: when you leave here, I want you to pretend to be someone you’re not. Keep it small: if you’re shy be a little loud, if you’re crazy-expressive be really observant. Be appropriate: this isn’t an excused free-for-all…unacceptable conduct will not be tolerated. The same rules and consequences will be expected and enforced,” Mr. Fischer said in rider to this announcement. “Leave here today as your alter ego, the person you’d be if only you weren’t you…stretch your imaginative prowess.
“I’m sure Kate would agree with me on this,” he said then, and suddenly he was looking straight at her, causing a swift shuffle of heads to follow in wake. Damn him, she could’ve sworn he threw a wink her way before explaining that cryptic little opener: “sometimes it’s necessary to shed our ordinary self for someone new, to thrust out our common appearance and personality, even if it’s just a little bit, and do something different to make us feel alive in a new kind of way. Be daring! Right Kate?”
Gritting her teeth so hard, Kate was surprised her jaw didn’t creak when she answered him. That louse, he definitely winked. “Hmm. Yeah. Right.” The clipped note of her voice didn’t invite further discussion. God, you get drunk one time and sort-of/kind-of go skinny dipping and you can never hear the end of it!
Mr. Fischer turned his gaze back to his students, dismissing her glare as though it weren’t even there, as though it mattered that much to him. “Because that,” he said slowly, dramatically, “is what acting is really about.” On that note he sent them on their way, but not before reminding them once again to relish their assignment for the day—self-transformation!
“Well guys, how did you think that went?” he asked after the door banged shut after the last student.
“That was great! The students were so receptive to what we did. It was great, getting feedback on their experience,” Amanda Steven’s gushed, kissing up to the teacher for all she was worth. Kate hunched her shoulders, hoping her nonverbal message would be clear to Mr. Fischer: she was done sharing, for the moment at any rate.
Mr. Fischer smiled angelically, obviously pleased with her answer. “Great. Well, you’ve got about ten minutes before the next class will get here. Its home room second period so everything gets delayed a little. Take this moment to hit up the bathroom or grab a drink of water,” he said briskly, moving toward the door himself. “I’ve got to run back to my classroom to take attendance. Be back shortly.”
Then he was gone.
Jumping off her chair, Kate lowered herself off the stage and onto the ground floor of the auditorium. Her throat felt a little parched and in her frenzy this morning she’d forgotten her water bottle at home. Walking up the center aisle, Kate had her sites sit on the door Mr. Jackson had just exited. There was probably a water foundation nearby. She’d just about reached the end of the rows, her feet moving quickly, when a hand snaked out suddenly, indistinguishable in the low lighting there, the fingers grabbing onto, and holding fast, a stray piece of ribbon hanging loose on Kate’s dress. The action effective thwarted her process.
Letting out a small squeak in surprise, Kate stopped mid-step, her eyes searching through the darkness until they made out a silhouette attached to the otherwise foreign arm holding her hostage: big hair, chunky scarf, bangles running up the fellow wrist.
“Penny,” Kate breathed in recognition, “Jesus, you scared me half to death.” Kate’s left hand landed with a pause against her chest, over her fast-beating heart. “What are you doing here?”
“Well, I wasn’t going to miss out on your first performance. I mean what kind of friend would I be, if I didn’t support you in this?” she asked, perfectly serious.
Kate wasn’t sure if she wanted to laugh or scream.
“Penny, this isn’t a public show.” Kate wouldn’t have set one foot on that stage if it were. High school kids were one thing; she didn’t even compare to their self-experimentation-scientific-study case of weirdness. They weren’t her peers. Everyone else, well that was an entirely different matter.
“It’s for the students. Only,” she said bluntly. Her mind wandered, wondering at the school’s security. Did they let just anyone off the street into the building? What about the student’s safety?
No sooner had that thought raced through her mind then she noticed the lanyard hanging around Penny’s neck, the word: VISTOR clearly marked across the front, with the school’s logo watermarked behind it. The woman apparently had connections, Kate mused.
“Oh, I know, but when I found out that you were performing at Whestleigh High, well…what else could I do? I asked Jackson if I could get a ticket to the show and he offered to allow me entrance as his personal guest, especially after I explained that it was you I wanted to see. I mean, there has to be some perks to living next door to a teacher, right?” Penny explained, but Kate was hardly paying attention anymore.
So he knew already that I was going to be part of the cast, did he? No wonder he hadn’t seemed that taken aback. He’d probably been relishing that first moment of contact. The jerk.
Shaking her head, Kate decided that it didn’t matter. Jackson Fischer didn’t matter. “Well, what did you think?”
Penny made a slight face. “Eh. I thought the kiss was so-so.”
Kate nodded her head. She had to agree.
“I mean, there was more chemistry between you and Jackson than old what’s-his-name.”
“Romeo,” Kate supplied absently.
“Yeah him. Next time, trying imaging Jackson during that part,” Penny said outrageously.
Kate shook her head. “Penny!”
“I’m just call it as I see it. You two have chemistry.”
“No, we do not,” Kate argued, cringing inwardly at her overly hot denial. Don’t get too defensive, she reminded herself, that’ll only make you look guilty.
“Oh, yes you do. I saw the look that passed between the two of you when he brought up shedding one’s inhibitions,” Madame Penny said then, fanning herself in response. “It was…hot.”
“I think you misread what was happening. If I was sending him anything hot it was via death ray. He was all but mocking me in front of everyone, and not very subtly either.”
“Oh whatever Kate. Lighten up. You did that night,” Penny scolded her softly.
“Fine. I’ll let it go, but I’m not going to agree with you about any attraction there,” Kate said huffily, crossing her arms over her chest looking for all the world anything but ‘light.’
“No?” Madame Penny asked. “Girl, he’s gorgeous. You’ve as much as admitted yourself. Most of your little crew of there is already half-in-love with him, and that includes a couple dudes.”
“They can have him,” Kate said sweetly.
“Tough crowd,” Madame Penny said under her breath.
“Not really,” Kate defended herself, “it’s just, I’ve seen it all before. Sure, his blonde hair offsets his tan beautifully, giving him the all-American Male look. Couple that off with those brown eyes and yes, he’s sure to set some hearts a-flutter,” Kate said, taking a mental stock of his assets.
“Don’t forget his muscles,” Penny said helpfully.
“Yes, those too. Well-defined and nicely proportioned,” Kate said, getting a little lost in her point.
“And he’s great with kids…surely a huge turn-on for most women,” Penny supplied helpfully.
Kate nodded her head eagerly, having pulled herself together once more. “He’s polished, clean, well put together.” Somehow, these traits were made to sound negative.
“And that’s a problem?” Penny asked, sounding baffled.
“It’s just—,” Kate shrugged, “He might as well be Phil.”
Penny went ramrod straight at those words. “Phil?” she asked, cautiously probing.
Mentally reigning herself back in control, Kate smiled. “It’s neither here nor there. I’m just saying, I’m not attracted to Jackson Fischer. I-I can’t be attracted to him,” she said, more for her benefit than Penny’s. What was that saying, if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck…any relationship would end much the same. Suddenly the smiled twisted. There was an edge to the lines around her mouth, a stubborn set to her jaw. She was done.
“You aren’t going to enlarge upon that statement are you?” Penny asked, resigned to the answer even before Kate spoke.
“No, I’m not.”
“Someday,” Penny said half to herself.
“I’ve got to get back, the second show starts soon,” Kate said roughly, without bothering to answer.
Turning around, her search for water was now an abandoned subject, Kate returned to the stage. She’d run out of time. It was left to borrow from Guy; he’d brought a large container, plus she had a sinking suspicion he’d enjoyed that stage kiss more than he was supposed to.
Out of her peripheral vision she saw Jackson come back in the room, lean down over Penny’s chair and whisper something in her ear. The psychic’s low laughter could be heard all the way across the hall. Kate couldn’t help wondering what they were talking about. Or who…?
Shrugging, she told herself she didn’t care. She didn’t care about Jackson Fischer.
She didn’t care about Jackson Fischer.
If she said it often enough, she bet she’d come to believe it too.