Between the two dozen lights that dotted the ceiling at the front of the theater and the back wall lit to look like a clear sky, Grant and Callie sat on the top of the staircase of Blanche DuBois’ new apartment. It was the same staircase where they chewed their cud for hours at a time before and after rehearsals and distracted themselves with the smell of alcohol, surrounded by two-dimensional lampposts, tables, chairs, refrigerators, and beds. Between Grant and Callie on the staircase was a sweaty water bottle filled with vodka.
“I love my boyfriend,” Callie said, tossing the bottle into Grant’s open hand, “I love him, I mean, I have to, but there are times that…you know.” Her cheeks flushed and Grant smiled, nodding for her to continue. “See, you understand. He doesn’t smile around me as often as he used to. I don’t want to think the worst of him, but it makes me worried that he might be at least looking into seeing someone else.”
Grant passed the bottle back to her and she emptied it down her throat, gasping after. “Then there’s the t-shirt he gave me for my birthday,” she went on. “I mean, honestly. Seriously. The shocker?” Callie brought her hand up in front of Grant’s face and separated her index and middle finger and ring and pinky finger into a v-shape.
“That’s ‘Live Long and Prosper’.”
She turned full red. The color filled out her tattoos: the eagle over her eyebrow, the iron cross on her neck, but there was that rose tattoo on her chest Grant knew about that couldn’t get any redder than it already was. To him, those tattoos were just another thing that made her the kind of suitcase he wanted to throw over his shoulder and take across the world. Now, he had to settle for watching the eagle flap its wings again as she raised her eyebrows.
“I would’ve figured that out eventually! Though, I guess, not now. I donated the shirt.”
“The warmth’ll help someone else to live longer, yeah, I see the irony now.”
“But you’ve never seen Star Trek.”
Callie was more interested in scrutinizing the backs of all of the props for the upcoming production of A Streetcar Named Desire than answering him. Grant felt so high up and above everything that it was dizzying. The theater seemed to shift with the movement of the other actors and crew as they darted into every dressing room and emerged with new pieces for their costumes. Grant couldn’t think about the possibility that the talent agent supposed to come for that night’s performance, and the first agent to ever come to their theater, would leave him to go home to eat dinner alone again, listening to other people’s conversations through his shower window.
Callie choked the empty bottle.
“I don’t know. I might have said too much. What do you think?”
Canary bird, be comfortable, because Grant, now Stanley Kowalski again, would let the agent lead him away to freedom, to be surrounded by wildflowers and copper clotheslines. He knew he just had to say the right things and Callie would be his. He’d start with the response he gave to Moscow Mule Irish/Scottish Girl Shakespeare Pub when she said the same thing to him. They had a great one night stand, sure, but she made them stop to buy a bottle of vodka on their way to his apartment, where everyone who was on the clock greeted her like she was Norm from Cheers.
“It’s your choice.”
Through her worn smile, he caught a twitch in her lips. Twitching lips, Grant knew, were a sure sign that a girl was into you. She had to be trying to draw your attention to her lips. Grant wanted Callie. God, did he want her. That guy kept coming between them. If Grant kept listening to her like this, he knew that guy would eventually be gone, and he could just watch her lips wax poetic about acting whenever he wanted to. It seemed like every other day that they had this conversation. She would smile and nod, promise to bring her problems up with her boyfriend, and let Grant know when she finally left him.
Yet, still they made their way to this staircase every rehearsal. Every time before he was forced to put on some scratchy outfit a size too large and every goddamned time before he had to pretend to sit on flat, cardboard chairs so he could pay rent and eat the same dinner of ham, black beans, and rice every night, alone.
“I have the means, Grant, I just need to know what the end is. It’s like this staircase. This staircase gives me a clear idea about how my day is going to end. I know what to expect. With him, sometimes I don’t know why I stick around. What I’m going to get.”
Grant brought his shoulders back and pushed out his chest. That was one thing he loved about playing Stanley Kowalski: he had an excuse to wear small, skintight shirts. He had brought in one of his own. Short Hispanic Girl Spanish Potluck thought the shirt made the muscles on his chest look like a shelf, but he later found out that she catered the same kind of potluck every week. After another great one night stand, of course.
Callie lifted her arms and failed to keep them steady as she crossed her legs and smoothed out Blanche Dubois’ dress.
“I don’t know if I ever told you, but I met him on the set of Parlor. I never stayed far behind him. I followed him around, watched his scenes, got the same kind of coffee as him so we could talk about that. After production finished, I got the director to help me hide flowers in his car with letters that spelled out ‘Coffee?’ stuck in the buds. I was so worried, I thought that kind of shit might have stopped being valid after high school. Cigar?”
She moved to throw the empty bottle down to the stage for the janitor to sweep up, but Grant stopped her with a hand on her bare, raised arm. He let his hand slip off the word “true.” He hoped that, if she could see it, she would think that it was just the vodka. She set the bottle down on the stairs, and reached to comb through her bag for the Black & Milds, Grant’s favorite. The sleek color made him seem darker, as if he had the deep-seated emotional problems that might have justified the kind of attention he was trying to get as an actor. Unlucky for him, he never lost any friends to suicide, never shit the bed, and had parents that wanted to pay for his car even though he lived in the Gangs of New York part of New York and he wasn’t sure where they lived anymore.
Callie gave up searching for the cigars and dumped the contents of her bag out between the two of them. Out came a mountain made of used Q-Tips, notes that didn’t belong to her, a pink spiral notebook with “I am Callie” scripted out across the back, lipstick, her switchblade comb, the box of cigars, a gold Zippo lighter engraved to look like it had a camera lens, a phone, and six male condoms still attached to each other.
“Well, looks like you’re prepared for what comes next. All six of them,” Grant sneered as he held the condoms up to Callie. He thought he felt them shudder, as if they were blank photos waiting for memories to be recorded on them.
Callie grinned wide and winked as she lit a cigar and relinquished it to him, “I’m not going to let you get off from that one that easily.”
It was Grant’s turn to flush full red. “So you are going to get me off eventually.”
Now it was Callie’s turn. “Oops.”
“I mean, I won’t stop you.”
“Let me finish!”
“Grant! Just tell me, Grant…have you ever had any loves like that? Where you found out that doing that high school shit was still okay?”
One of the spotlights above them began to flash in each room on the set, starting with Blanche’s bedroom, sweeping the floor in a set pattern. It touched the bed, then the desk, then the painting.
“Yeah, even in high school. Every one I’ve ever dated. I left them flowers in every class. They’d combine to make messages like ‘will you go to prom with me.’”
The kitchen’s turn. Fridge, table, dishwasher.
Grant continued, “I wrote them stories about muscular strawberry heroes named Strawbizzle. I spun the endings to subtly admit my feelings. It always worked. But they always ended up hating me.”
The spotlight flashed up at the top level, crawling towards the two of them.
“What do you think love is, then?”
That forced Grant to stop and think. What all of his past loves had in common were an equal amount of attractiveness and the ability to not yell at him. They never yelled because he’d always left before breakfast the next morning. Callie was freedom; the one who could stand in the sun surrounded by curling wildflowers and rusted copper clotheslines and declare that it all is what ought to be the truth. Or was that just Blanche? Persian/Hispanic DreamWorks Panel Girl, on the other hand, slipped right out of her pants when she heard the speech he was about to give to Callie. He jumped up and began to pace around the second floor of the set, merging with the path of the spotlight.
“I know it when I care about someone. As they are now. How they were before. How they’ll be later. When I don’t have to use ‘you know I love you, right’ after a fight. When I can fight with them. Not against them. When I can’t fight any longer because we’re just purged of every feeling. When I can smile because it’s quiet. Because I know I’m home. I want a home.” Callie passed him the cigar.
“Give me your phone.”
“I want to see if you still talk to them.”
The spotlight flashed back to the bedroom to begin its pattern again. Bed, desk, painting. Grant plopped down next to Callie and obeyed.
“Alright, now…contacts…you’ve got a lot in here. ‘Persian/Hispanic DreamWorks Panel Girl,’ ‘Moscow Mule Irish/Scottish Girl Shakespeare Pub,’ ‘Short Hispanic Girl Spanish Potluck’…wait a minute.” Callie tapped the phone and hers started to ring from on top of the mountain of her junk. “Ha! ‘Fit British Actress Eagle Tattoo?’ It’s like I’m looking at the contact list of a sociopath on a bender spree. Do you know how many short Hispanic girls there are in this world? What’s there to set this one apart?”
“I haven’t seen anyone else with an eagle tattoo,” Grant smiled.
“Check my outgoing calls. You’ll find ‘Mommy’ makes up most of it. That is actually my mom.”
“You’re so full of shit.”
“Call her. I’m not lying.”
“Grant. Not that. You give these speeches about love that are so fairytale sweet they might as well be from a DreamWorks movie. Then, I find out DreamWorks literally makes up someone’s identity to you. You sure everyone’s really what you say they are, here? ‘Moscow Mule,’ I mean, I’d be worried that’s not actually the number of some effeminate-looking guy that identifies as a cat.”
Callie laughed. Grant wondered if the heat building in his cheeks was from the vodka. Of course Moscow Mule Girl wasn’t a freak, but that was also little more than a year ago from the last rent check. Grant was caught in a dry spell, for sure, but only because he hadn’t tried since. He’d been so caught up in using his break into acting to break out of sweaty, crushing, musty, dark and distant New York that, like his fascination with the Black & Milds, going home alone just seemed to be a part of the mystery of theater culture.
“Call her,” Callie said as she shoved Grant’s phone into his lap.
“Hey, it’s Grant. Well, I wanted to see what you were doing tonight – we’re doing another Streetcar show, and an agent’s supposed to come watch. If it goes well I’ll be set for life, and I want you to watch it happen. Do I know your name? What kind of a question is that, of course I remember your name,” Grant winced, “Sara.”
He let his arm drop and forced a sigh into the open theater as the line went dead.
“I guess you don’t get a diamond if you put stain remover on a turd.”
Grant could see the light of the fake sky spilling out from where the eagle perched above her eye. It was hunched, eyeing the other actors as they’d slowed down and grouped together to practice their lines. “They all hated me for good reason,” Grant said as he took a drag from the cigar burning closer to his fingers. “Each one of them was a different experience. One was raped by her step-uncle. Not while I knew her.”
He sucked in some more ash. The spotlight died, but the lights that dotted the ceiling lit up and covered the stage.
“She said it made it so difficult for her to say that she loved me. It took until after a day on the playground with her midget brother. He cried the first time he saw me. But after the playground, I felt like he was my own son.”
And some more. “She and I never had sex. She didn’t want to feel pressured. Eventually the pressure got to be too much.”
And even more. Don’t talk about past sex, that’s rule number one, idiot. Grant’s lungs gripped at his heart while the lights dimmed and came back to life in waves. “For me. You need to practice. Not long ‘til curtain.”
Callie pawed at her eye, the one without the eagle. There was what looked like a potential overflow of moisture, and what little poked over the lid shimmered in the stage lights. “At least a little, yeah. I still don’t get Blanche.”
“The aversion to reality? Or how easily she gets manipulated by Stanley?”
“More like how I have to spend the majority of a scene acting excited that your birth sign is a goat.”
“I’m not playing an introvert. I mean, the rape.”
“Raping someone doesn’t mean you’re not an introvert. Someone would have to be that cabin-in-the-woods kind of crazy to do that, anyway.”
“But you don’t complain. You haven’t for all twelve shows.”
“No. Just as I’m sure the audience won’t if I scream incoherent again. I need to have the time on this staircase, you know.” she said. He didn’t say anything. He could wait for the meal of ham, black beans, and rice. Though, maybe he’d get to hear the neighbor fall down the stairs after his girlfriend flashes him again. That was always fun when the TV went out. “I’ll let you know when I’ve had enough.”
The Photoshop gradient sky behind them flashed to a still black that had just about pushed some red streaks down under the invisible horizon of a cityscape. Grant wasn’t quite ready to test how easy being quiet around Callie would be. There was no need to give her a reason to join the flourishing movements of the group down below them. The mountain of things from her bag would have to do for now.
“What’s that pink notebook?”
“It’s just for ideas,” she laughed, “you know, I make up my own fairy tales, thrillers, and whatnot. My boyfriend says,” she squinted her eyes and held up her hand like she was a stereotypical Italian man toasting a delicious dish, “‘it’s nothing more than commercial fiction, it has no value’ but, hey, it makes me happy. Want to hear some?”
Grant was happy to oblige. So, she talked. She talked about blind dates with guys named Rico Suave that had black hearts that matched their shirts. She talked about girls named Red Riding Hood who wore blue riding hoods and met guys named “The Wolf” and eloped with them because they smelled like fish and that reminded them of a better world. She talked about thrillers that pitted a hapless office worker named McClane against an English-speaking terrorist, which, as she told Grant, was written so she could use it for a Spanish assignment. She got away with it. The idea of using English on a Spanish assignment made Grant laugh so all parts of him shook, and he, for one brief moment, forgot his neighbor’s name.
She was telling him about detectives named John Kennex who verbally refused to be robbed at gunpoint when she stopped.
“Fuck it. Fight me.”
Her hand shot into the mountain of her things, pulled out her switchblade comb, and she threw herself over his shoulders with the teeth of the comb at his jugular. He could feel her heart beating against his back, and the smell of vodka slid its way out of her mouth and up into his nose. He yanked her up with him as he ran down to the stage floor. She held, with her arms wrapped around his throat and her legs tight like ribbons around his hips.
They were fighting against each other, but there was one thing Grant could do to change that.
“Have you lived a full life, Callie?”
The teeth dug into Grant’s neck.
Grant fell forward.
“Nonogodjesus –” Callie pulled the comb away and let go of Grant as he hit the painted-on sidewalk on his side with his arms crossed in front of his face.
“Had to learn that one from wikiHow,” Grant said as he sat up.
Her lip twitched again.
“You dumb Nebraskan bastard.” Callie smiled as she helped Grant up, flashing teeth.
Grant and Callie were facing full dark in the theater. Neither had spoken since they sat back on the top of the staircase. She was drifting, somewhere, but where, Grant couldn’t tell. Finally:
“Put your arm around me. Come close,” she mumbled into the still theater, where the actors had scattered and now sat slumped back on whatever flat surface they could find. Callie’s head bowed into her lap, she pulled her legs up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. The eagle disappeared.
He knew he could do it.
Grant slid over and pulled her as close as he could. He had to settle for listening to her heart beat with his own, fighting as if it would stop if it beat any slower.
In that indeterminable amount of time, she was his. He smiled. He was happy. It was quiet.
She raised her head and leaned it against his cheek. He watched the lights dance around so happy he thought they might as well be at a concert. He kept watching until he could feel his neck seize up from exhaustion.
“I never thought someone’s face could make me feel safe. I could kiss you right now. I suppose, I mean, I could’ve kissed you any time. I mean, I could kiss anyone at any time, anyone could, but now I want to kiss you.”
“Then why don’t you?”
Her turn to exhale. If they were outside in the cold, Grant thought, anywhere in the cold, it didn’t matter, their breath might have strung together in ribbons. That would’ve been something to see. Still, this was New York, and between them would have been smog insurmountably thick. “I think it’s because I love you.”
Grant perched even higher than the eagle as he buried his chin in her hair. Maybe it was because that was all he needed to hear to remind him he still had the capability to make someone love him.
“Because I have to try to make my relationship with him work,” Callie continued, getting louder. “Live long and prosper, I, I’ve never seen Star Trek. And he knows that. Maybe it’s just his funny way of showing that he cares, telling me to live long and prosper. I have to figure that there’s a reason he does stuff like that. Don’t you? You know. I’ve been fine with coming up these stairs with you, just to be with you. Maybe my end with him can be just being with him. I’m sorry, Grant. I know I’ve only ever said bad stuff about him, but that’s only because, well, that’s all I’ve said.”
The lights cut their happy dance short and moved to shake their heads once in Grant’s direction.
“We can’t go any farther than this, can we,” he said, voice dropping.
“We can’t. If I let him go, I’d never see what kind of an end there might be. That wouldn’t be fair to him, me, or you. I don’t know…you’d think that after all this time with him that I’d be able to see that. I mean, come on, I’m pretty sure we’re both just a few years out of college. Shit can change pretty quickly, that’s just how life works.”
Grant knew that Callie would have to be his secret, but…
“So, if this is all there is…did you just use me?”
“What? No, God, no. It’s…a mess, though, isn’t it. How do you think we got into this?”
“You obviously still want to be better. And you made my days better. Maybe we took those desires too far and thought there was such a thing as better people. But, you let that shirt go without a second thought. If he doesn’t smile so much around you, and you don’t show appreciation for his gifts, relatively speaking…neither of you are really that bad. So…if you gave up on him now, that would just make you dishonest towards yourself. But…now, if I pushed you any farther, if I kept listening to you say bad things about him, that wouldn’t make me better. That’d just make me dishonest enough to deny myself the opportunity to admit I’m flawed too, and could never actually help you.”
Callie stood, pawing at her eyes again. The lights pointing at the stage died, bowing their heads, and others came to life to point towards the theater’s exit, highlighting the cracked and crumbled chairs before the two of them.
“I think I’d better go practice. You’re right.”
Grant watched her as she swept her things back into her bag and grew small down the stairs onto the painted-on sidewalk and smaller into Blanche’s room and smaller still through the door into the dressing room. Their play wasn’t quite perfect, Grant thought. To an outsider, Callie’s Blanche had left his Stanley smaller than clotheslines, smaller than wildflowers. In his reality, he was hungry. A little thirsty, but he could still taste a little bit of the vodka. The outsider would like the play better, probably, but Grant had work to do. He reached for his phone, and made a move to send a message to Callie.
There’ll be other staircases. You should bring him to one.
He sat in the blank darkness for awhile, lit in the stark, silvery light of his phone. His time with Callie would have to be his secret, but there was still time for damage control. He flipped to his contacts, found “Fit British Actress Eagle Tattoo,” deleted the name, and typed out “Callie” in its place. Before he could slide the phone back into his pocket, it rang with the sound of an orchestra warming up. He stiffened. It was a message from Callie.
Rosenfeld’s here. I’ll be back before curtain. Can’t celebrate after, boyfriend made dinner reservations in the rich part of Queens!
Grant vaulted down the stairs, but Stanley was the one who landed. He called for Stella Kowalski.
“Hey, Stella! Come on, Stella!”
To the beat of Stella’s approaching footsteps, Stanley went on practicing his favorite line, patrolling the fake concrete sidewalk.
“Now just remember what Huey Long said. What Huey, Long said. What, Huey Long said. Now just remember what Huey Long said – that every man’s a king – and I’m the king around here, and don’t you forget it.”
He came to this theater to leave his life behind, free to see the world while never having to work another day in his life. Tonight was his opportunity to make that happen, because no one knew when an agent would return to their rundown theater again, if ever.
But he’d be sure to get that line right in front of Callie.