The door slapped shut in my face. The bus lumbered forward, belching its obnoxious toxic diesel fumes. Picking up the pace, I banged on the door, but the driver flogged the bus through the first three gears. I caught a glimpse of his slight smile in the rear view mirror as it picked up speed. My vintage Samsonite case chose that moment to break at the hinge.
Public transportation really sucked! I worked five jobs and had a schedule like a stack of Mah Jong tiles—pull one out and the whole pile crashes. Being dependent on Metro left no margin for error in my life. Especially, when I’d just learned I was being laid off of job number three.
I teetered on the edge of tears, but I was too furious and too out of breath. Bent over double, a projection of the Milky Way danced across the back of my eyelids. I thought I might throw up.
A compact sedan turned off Kirby and pulled up to the curb beside me. The electric window glided down with a mechanical whisper. I looked into grey-blue eyes and the concerned face of a blondish man in his late thirties or early forties. “Are you OK? Do you need a lift?”
I’m not the naïve kid that moved to Houston from the sticks. I know better than to get into a strange car. But his was a nice face. Not beautiful, not rugged, but really nice.
And I was really pissed.
Clutching my broken cobalt case, I flung open the car door and clambered in, “Follow that bus!”
It took just a second for my Good Samaritan to recover, but without further questions he shifted the gears of what turned out to be a BMW sedan and slid back into traffic.
The bus picked up speed, surging almost two blocks ahead of us. But I was on a mission and Mr. Nice Face instinctively picked up my energy.
“Are you headed downtown?”
“Yes, I have to get to a rehearsal on Main, and that asshole driver knows it.”
“Well, maybe I could just drop you on Main Street, I’m headed back to my magazine.”
“Thanks, but I wouldn’t give that guy the satisfaction. Please, just catch the bus at the next stop if you can.”
“OK, if that’s what you want.” He glanced over at me, and suddenly I became painfully aware of how I looked: face flushed, eyes bulging, hair tousled in a giant damp and frizzy auburn tangle down my back, clinging to the broken handle of an old suitcase, my purse and canvas bookbag stowed in front of me on his pristine floorboard. I felt the perspiration trickle down my neck and between my breasts. Not my finest hour.
“Look, I’m really sorry. You’re awfully nice to stop. Most people wouldn’t.”
He chuckled, “That was a hell of a sprint you made.” He had a slight accent I couldn’t pinpoint. “I really thought you were going to make it. I couldn’t believe it when the driver pulled away.”
My laugh sounded grim. “It’s a game we play.”
“You really need an automobile in Houston. I resisted for a couple of months when I moved from Chicago, but I gave in finally.”
Chicago? No, the accent was definitely not from Chicago.
Far ahead, the bus shuddered to a stop. I leaned forward in my seat, willing Nice Face to speed up. “Yeah, well, my car is in the shop again. Transmission this time. I can’t afford to pay my mechanic until I get a check from Interrogative. I just lost one job and if I lose my children’s theater gig because of my Metro friend, well . . . . So,” I smiled as sweetly as I could, “can you please step on it?”
“Sure.” He smiled back. “Wait, did you say Interrogative? As in the little theater downtown?”
I felt my jaw set. “We’re an Equity SPT contract.”
He looked blank, “Sorry?”
“Small-Professional Theater. It’s a contract classification with the actor’s union.”
“Oh, I see. Do you work there? I’m going to see a show tonight, with a group from the magazine.”
We inched past the coach just as it pulled away from the curb again. A string of expletives erupted through my mind, but not past my lips. At least, I don’t think they did. His words registered finally.
“You must work at Haute Houston Magazine. Of course! There’s a whole group of you guys coming tonight. I helped set up the reservation. You’re having drinks and food after, right?”
He smiled indulgently, then corrected my pronunciation.
Really! If you want your organization’s name pronounced properly, you don’t use a French word in Houston. “I’m the Education and Outreach Coordinator. But I’m also in Private Lives. I’m playing Amanda.”
“Is that a good part?” he asked.
“Sort of. It’s the lead.”
He smiled again, this time with teeth. God, they were so white. It crossed my mind that they might be veneers, but his eye tooth was ever so slightly crooked. He careened to a stop in front of the bus at a Metro stop. It was worthy of 007.
“I’ll see you tonight, then. I’m David by the way.”
“Darcy. I’m Darcy.” The driver leaned on his horn, destroying what might have been a magical moment. “Well, thanks again. Hope I see you after the show.”
I opened the BMW door and got out with as much dignity as I could muster, clutching my belongings. I could feel the glare of the driver and the curious eyes of the passengers as I strolled leisurely to the accordion doors, and waved at David before climbing the steps of the bus. Only then did I realize that I’d dropped my transit pass somewhere along the way.
I made it downtown ten minutes before my rehearsal. Scurrying off, I high-fived the little old lady who fronted me the last fifty cents for my fare. She gave a little surreptitious wave, but then cut her eyes toward the driver. She had to take this bus all the time.
I burst through the glass revolving doors of the Kreigle building, into the dark paneled coolness, pale cream and peach marble floors, and brass and crystal Art Deco fixtures of the lobby. The Kreigle was an Art Moderne high-rise, part of the original downtown Houston skyline. Our own miniature Chrysler Building—without the gargoyles. I used this lobby as my mental image of the French Riviera hotel in Noel Coward’s Private Lives. But now, I needed to get to my Arabian Nights rehearsal.
Joe, the security guard at the oval mahogany desk in the center of the lobby, gave me a big grin. “What, no take-out in all that baggage?” I sometimes bring him a cookie.
“Sorry, Joe. My Metro nemesis made me late today. No time for lunch.”
His rugged face folded into a craggy frown. “Well, that won’t do, young lady. Just like my daughter—always on the run.” He gave a snort and a chuckle rumbled out of his chest. “Grab some coffee on the thirteenth floor. I keep a pot going in the little kitchen there.”
I blew him an air kiss and headed for the brass grill of the elevators. Like most of the fixtures in the building, the elevators were original and moved at 1920s speed. The doors opened on thirteen into almost pitch blackness. The reddish glow of the Exit lights barely illuminated the foyer and hallway. I stumbled ahead and felt my way along the corridor. Just around the corner I found a small break area with a coffee maker and a soda vending machine. My mood brightened for a split second, until I remembered all my change went to Metro. I poured the last of the sugar into the cup of tar-like coffee, praying that Joe would forgive me.
I’m not superstitious, or no more than most theater people–and baseball players. But most buildings of the Kreigle’s vintage didn’t designate a thirteenth floor; they simply skipped the number. I faced a wall of glass that fronted onto a lovely open deck running the width of the building. At least, it must have been lovely when plants grew in the enormous Chinese urns and before it faced a high-rise parking lot.
Rehearsal resembled an insane asylum—or maybe it was driving me toward one. I distributed rewrites and our director, Cecil, reblocked the scene. But he didn’t stop there. He decided to restage several scenes.
Just before rehearsal finished, my cell phone trumpeted the opening bars of Flight of the Valkyries. I’d worked with the same temp agency for several years, always with a formidable head hunter named Candace. Accidentally, I hit the hands free button.
“Darcy, my girl. Haven’t heard from you in weeks. What’s up?” Her voice reverberated through the rehearsal room.
Cecil glared at me over his Prada reading glasses and I struggled to turn off the speaker without losing the call. Finally, I made it to the privacy of the hallway.
“I just found out my regular part-time gig is taking a break for at least a month this summer. It could be six weeks. That’s why I called this morning.”
“Fabulous! I have an absolutely incredible opportunity, and I thought of you immediately.”
Oversell meant she was desperate.
“OK, what is it? Reception work? Secretarial? Please tell me it’s not another filing gig?” One such ‘incredible opportunity’ involved scanning mounds of paper and creating a digital file system at the expense of my manicure and my sanity.
“No, this is a writing job.” She paused for effect.
I wasn’t biting.
“A local publication needs a part-time staff writer. You’d be like Joe Friday, running around getting the story.”
Cultural illiteracy was a pet peeve of mine. “You mean like His Girl Friday. Joe Friday was Jack Webb on Dragnet back in the fifties.”
“Whatever. It’s a great opportunity. You’re into your writing thing now.”
I sent her an invitation to the show. An actor needs to keep in touch with her agent and her head hunter at all times, so they don’t forget she exists.
“But the writing I’m doing is for the theater. What kind of writing do they need?”
“You do interviews and write stories for the online magazine. Some become features in the print version. Maybe you can talk them into assigning you stories about theater and museums and stuff.”
“You say part-time. For how long?”
“Girl, if you do well on this job it could become full-time permanent. Do you have any sample work?”
Yeah right! “Other than the play, I’ve only written marketing materials.”
“Well, pull some of that stuff together. I’ll set up the interview.”
I hung up and immediately felt both relieved and anxious. I couldn’t afford to be out of work for even a week.
I tiptoed back into rehearsal. At the break, I apologized to Cecil. “I found out ArtsQuest is taking a summer sabbatical and I left a message at my temp agency.”
He was over his snit. “That’s cool, we’ve all been there. I just need you to put it on vibrate, girlfriend.” Then he giggled as if he’d made a sexy joke.
By the time we finished at 5:00, the growling of my stomach had grown ominous. An awful acid burn bloomed in my esophagus from the battery acid Joe called coffee. I really needed to find a quiet little restaurant with cheap food before my call at Interrogative. As I stepped out of the elevator, Joe was waiting for me.
“You got your show tonight?” he asked thrusting his chest forward, his hands behind his back. We had talked about Private Lives a couple of times and he clipped the reviews for me.
“Yeah, Thursdays through Sundays. You want to come, Joe? I could probably get you a ticket.”
“That’d be great, but I gotta work. Maybe next week.” He pulled a small brown paper bag from behind his back. “You go eat in the park and take a break before the theater.”
I felt incredibly touched. He’d bought me lunch. “You are such a sweetie, Joe.” I gave him a big kiss on his craggy cheek.
“Wanna stay healthy. You gotta fuel the engine.” He chortled and returned to the safety of his mahogany desk.
Finding a quiet bench along the bayou walkway, I opened Joe’s picnic: a turkey sandwich on rye, mayonnaise and mustard packets, a bag of chips and a diet Coke. Bless his heart!
The rain runoff filled the bayou with silt and occasionally trash and other unpleasant things drifted by, but for the most part it was a lovely way to decompress. It felt nice to sit quietly and watch the early colors of a magnificent sunset materializing in the west. Grackles came in to roost in great waves, but somewhere a songbird started singing.
David popped into my head. Unlike the model-gorgeous guys I met in theater, I felt reasonably sure he actually might be straight. Dirty blonde hair with a good cut, blue-grey eyes, and those fabulous white teeth; he was definitely attractive in an average sort of way. He also didn’t seem one of those outdoorsy rugged types. Houston abounds with mock cowboys. I grew up around the real thing and the pretentiousness of the urban cowboy was a major turn-off for me.
I’d seen copies of Haute Houston, which was a new but potentially major magazine. Slick and fairly sophisticated, it boasted lots of high-dollar fashion and jewelry ads. But the stories were interesting and ranged from profiles of local celebrities to thoughtful essays, with the occasional salacious exposé thrown in for the general public.
What does he do there? I wondered. Maybe one of the writers? That would make him interesting, but the Beamer suggested that he sold ads. Whatever he did, I felt a little thrill of anticipation. Knowing someone in the audience always made it more personal.
Noel Coward’s crisp, bright, and brittle wit is not everyone’s cup of tea. I adored playing a character smarter and wittier than I was, who quipped things I wished I were clever enough to say. Plus, I got to wear great clothes.
But what if David is one of those men who can’t appreciate the language and the style? I’ll be so disappointed.
Before I knew it, the Elgin clock on a nearby lamppost read 6:40. I raced up the steps to the street and on toward Franklin. As I thundered down the metal spiral staircase into the front lobby, I saw our box office manager opening up. “Did the new programs arrive?”
Carol stuck her head out over the ledge of the ticket window. “They did. The color covers look really great.”
The dressing room was communal. The rolling costume racks in the center separated the ladies from the gents. Not strictly up to Equity standards, but I wasn’t complaining.
I’d beaten everyone, so I stripped in the bathroom and jumped into the shower, even washing my hair. Slipping into silky undergarments, I settled at my dressing table to blow my hair partially dry before pinning it up and donning my wig of brown marcelled waves. By the time I had applied body powder, perfume, and a matte finish of foundation and face powder, I felt like Amanda.
“Nice to be sold out on a Thursday,” Julie plopped into her seat at the dressing table. Barry, my co-star, finished initialing the sign-in sheet on the wall, crossed to me, tilted my chair back in a grand gesture and kissed me dramatically on the lips. “My dahling!” he whispered, then righted my chair to stand behind me, admiring himself in my mirror.
“You’re in a good humor, Elyot darling.” Thankfully, I’d only started to outline my red mouth.
“I’ve just come from an audition for Hamlet. I think I read remarkably well. I’m certain to be considered for the lead.”
I batted my eyelashes in the mirror. “Isn’t Hamlet supposed to be in his early thirties?”
He leaned over to kiss the top of my ear and whispered, “Vindictive little viper. Wait until Act 2. I shall delight in whalloping your lovely arse, my dear.”
It was all part of getting into character as Amanda and Elyot.