Ch. 2 – That Day in Beforeworld (2)

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By now, Zacharias was supposed to be on stage for the final rehearsal but instead, he still sat in the dusty dressing room in his shabby underwear. Not that anyone but he cared much whether he actually played well or not. Still, that final run helped him keep calm during the performance. It was important to him.

But Mr. Todd hadn’t returned yet. Zach glanced at the many nonfunctioning lamps around the mirror and the one functioning lamp on the ceiling. He tried to listen for Mr. Todd’s footsteps—but nothing. Zach could hear nothing in this thick-walled basement room.

He’d placed the bandages that he’d undone from his hands on the table in front of the dressing mirror. Should he put them back on? Wasn’t Mr. Todd supposed to be here any minute?

Zach wasn’t going to go on stage with those bandages. In a sick way, he wondered what the reaction of the audience might be once they noticed the bruises from his left pinky to right pinky.

Maybe a similar curiosity was the reason that more people had bought tickets for tonight’s show. Usually, the hundred-person hall of the Luminary Theater only filled up a tenth. If lucky, half. But, as difficult as it was to believe, Mr. Todd had informed Zach this morning that the seats had sold out.

That was why they hadn’t canceled the concert despite Zach’s injury. To play in front of a full house—that was a first for Zach that he didn’t want to miss. And since no church orchestra was to join tonight’s performance, clearly, these people had bought the tickets for Zach and Zach only.

He wasn’t a particularly pushy person. He hadn’t actively tried to reclaim his honor when his career had gone south through a series of mysterious misunderstandings. But he also never refused a chance to play in front of an audience. Playing was what he was born to do. What he’d left the cornfields for. What he’d left the cramped but therefore warm room with all his siblings for.

Damn, did he miss that room now. The only potential company here was the pitiful spider that had spun the cobweb who knows how long ago and might still be wandering about in search of prey.

That insect must be as silly as Zach. As if there was anything in Carningsby, New York to survive on. Who knows? Maybe the spider had tried to fend for itself in New York City, too, only to be sabotaged by a series of inexplicable miscommunications that ruined its reputation as a proper spider. A disgrace to its species…

The quickly approaching click-clacking of high heels made Zach sit up, then get up.

That wasn’t the sound of Donald Todd. The owner of the Luminary didn’t wear high heels and even if he did, couldn’t possibly walk that fast with such purpose and in such a steady rhythm, like a march, in his perpetually drunken state.

That was the sound of a woman with purpose. And jeez, being exposed to a strange woman in this half-naked state just before a performance was not the type of excitement that Zach needed.

What if lies spread as if they were true? What if Angeline caught wind of such lies and thought him unfaithful? Not that they were married, but still, Zach had always thought that the least he could do for her was to stay true to her. He couldn’t ask for her hand in marriage for fear of dooming her to poverty, so he’d better prove in other ways that he meant it when he said he loved her—such as by not getting mixed up with other women.

Zach wildly looked for a hiding place. The only furniture in the room was the chair on which he’d sat on and the dressing table with the mirror. He jumped behind the mirror right when the door whipped open. How rude to just storm in here—

“Angeline?” he said, recognizing the woman.

“Oh, darling, I’m so glad you’re all right. I’m so glad—”

Angeline didn’t finish the sentence and swept in like a snowstorm. Before Zach comprehended the situation fully, he was buried in her fluffy white mink coat. The surface of the coat was icy cold from the wind outside so that Zach shuddered as her arms tightened around his waist. But since the front of the coat was open, he could wiggle his arms around her waist and there—oh, the joy of warmth. The air between Angeline’s silk dress and the interior of the coat had warmed with her body heat.

The smell that he associated with comfort enveloped him as his body warmed. Tree barks and leather. Quite manly and to be honest, odd for a lady to smell like this, but this was how Angeline smelled and Zach had no complaints. She’d told him once that she was very close to her father and brothers. They liked their cigars smelling of tree barks and leather, she’d said.

Presently, her head rested on his chest, and even though, as always, she wore quite substantially high high heels, he could see the crown of her blond head. A golden necklace sparkled on her nape, taking advantage of the little light in this depressing dressing room.

Then, when Angeline pushed him away to look him in the eyes, the front of the necklace was revealed. Green jewels that Zach couldn’t even name complemented her green eyes, the color of a fairy-tale forest, the kind that flourished with green life even when a layer of snow crystals covered the thick mossy roots of the trees. They—the jewels, as well as her eyes with uncharacteristically smudged, messy makeup—glowed so mercilessly that Zach became painfully aware of his shabby state.

This woman, Angeline Conners, was the one person Zach still knew from his New York City days. This tiny yet energetic person had stood by Zach through good times and bad times, sometimes helping him out financially, in such a loving yet effortless way that he never failed to feel infinitely grateful and infinitely insignificant at the same time. If he’d thought that he could function as a proper husband, he’d have proposed to her years ago. But the contrast between their attires in this very moment symbolized just how wide a gap existed between their statuses, not just financially but also socially.

Frankly, Zach didn’t know details about Angeline’s family beyond the fact that it must be wealthy and refined. He and she had been lovers for ten years and they knew frightfully little about each other. Zach didn’t want to talk about his past (which contained fond memories of his family and therefore had to stay separate from his miserable present state, just like he liked to keep Angeline separate from his current career or lack thereof). Zach also didn’t want to know about her past, present, and any future plans her family had for her. This, because he feared—or rather, because he knew—that he wasn’t going to be part of it. A wealthy, refined family would most likely have a good marriage plan for Angeline. One that, if Angeline refused, would result in her being kicked out of her family, its will, inheritance, everything. How could Zach do such a thing to her? What would he do with a preknowledge of such a plan?

But Angeline’s family hadn’t proceeded with that hypothetical plan yet. Ten years, she and Zach had been lovers. Most girls her age—thirty—would have killed their lovers by now, for not making an honest woman out of them already. Most families would have killed their daughters by now, for being an unmarried disgrace. But no one had killed anyone yet.

That lack of conflict, bordering on disinterest, had unsettled and reassured Zach at different times. He’d asked her occasionally if she was sure she wasn’t married. (An insulting question to ask, Zach knew.) Angeline had laughed and said that of course she wasn’t married.

Why would she lie? Most importantly, how could she lie, if she had a home to tend to? If she had a husband and children, how could she spend the nights with Zach?

So he’d believed her and hadn’t asked further. Since he wasn’t going to propose to her anytime soon, it was for the best. He was lucky to have her in his life. Her, the embodiment of glamor and glitz in one tiny person, willing to spend time with him in extremely friendly ways—he needn’t destroy that relationship.

But tonight, it was Angeline who had broken their tacit agreement to keep parts of their lives out of reach from the other. She’d come to the Luminary.

“What are you doing here?” Zach asked. “Is everything all right?”

He meant her makeup, which wasn’t as impeccable as usual, but he thought it rude to mention it so openly. Besides, who cared if she looked a bit tired? Nothing that happened to her outward appearance could make him think lesser of her. He leaned in to peck her on one of her icy, rose-colored cheeks because albeit surprised, he was moved that she’d come here on a cold night.

But she retreated. Now, that surprised Zach and didn’t move him at all. She never ever declined a kiss from him. Their problem had always been that they couldn’t get enough of each other. This wasn’t like Angeline. Today, she was different from normal.

No, now that Zach thought about it, she’d been different from normal in the past few weeks. She was getting busier and busier, “Meeting people,” she said. Some doctor’s appointments too. Too many, actually. Was she ill? She couldn’t fall asleep. She looked pale most of the time. Her fashion style had changed, too, from slender-fitting clothes to empire dresses. She’d been so proud of her figure before. The new dresses had him wonder. But then again, what did he know about lady’s fashion?

“What is going on?” he asked. “Is something wrong? Where is Seamus?”

“Seamus doesn’t work for me anymore.”

Another sudden change. And this one greatly surprised Zach. Seamus hadn’t much liked Zach from the beginning and Zach hadn’t felt the need to change the man’s mind, but the relationship between Seamus and Angeline was a different story.

Seamus had been Angeline’s chauffeur for more than ten years. She herself had hired him. All that time and before that, since childhood, he’d been Angeline’s longtime friend. (Zach thought that “friend” was a kind description she used for the chauffeur, who was also the son of a longtime housemaid who worked for her father.)

“Did he find another job?” Zach asked.

“I hope that’s what happened to him,” Angeline said. Her voice shook slightly.

“Are you all right?”

“I am perfectly fine.”

But the focus of her forest-green eyes switched unsteadily from him to the open door to the dressing table.

“You want me to close the door?” he said, already on his way.

“No, no,” she said. “No one can see… If someone sees us, it can’t be with the door closed.” Then she added in a mumble, “Better I leave soon.”

With an acute awareness of how ridiculous he looked in his underwear and old shoes, Zach stopped between the open door and Angeline.

Oh, no, she’s married. She’s married and she has kids and a husband and he knows and she lied to me for ten years and now she’s come to tell me that we can never see each other again. It’s all over. All over…

“Mr. Todd is going to come soon,” said Angeline.

“What?” said Zach stupidly.

“He’s going to come here with your new suit.”

“How do you know Mr. Todd?”

“Listen to me, Zach,” she said. “You cannot wear that suit. Where are your clothes? Your own, I mean.”

“He took them. For, for, for cleaning purposes, he said.”

“Oh, no, no no no…”

“Angeline. What’s going on?”

Tears glistened in her eyes. Noticing that he’d seen them, Angeline wiped them away.

“There’s no time to explain. I can’t be seen with you,” she said.

“You’re not leaving me?”

“Of course I’m leaving. I have to go. I can’t be seen with you.”

“No, I mean—leaving me.”

Angeline opened her mouth but nothing came out of it for a few painful seconds. “I’d never leave you voluntarily,” she said eventually.

“But involuntarily?”

She hesitated. Then she swept past him toward the door. He grabbed her by her upper arm, which made him feel like an asshole. Anytime anyone had to resort to physical means to make someone stay, that was a clear sign of assholery. But it was better than grabbing her wrist, which was a hundred times more delicate than her upper arm, and he couldn’t possibly let her leave him like this.

“Did you lie to me?” he said.

Angeline looked perplexed. She, just like he, seemed not to understand why it was so important for him to know the details of the melodramatic truth when obviously, she was in a hurry and something more than mere love was at stake. But it couldn’t be helped. That was Zach. The old-enough-to-know-better man who nevertheless prioritized mere love over whatever other people thought was more important. Love for Angeline, love for the piano, love for dreams and doing something, anything.

“Lie about what?” she said.

“About”—quick, or the glamor and glitz were bound to explode in a firework on him, instead of for him—“about loving me.”

Angeline sighed. “Darling. I never lied to you. Especially not about loving you. I love you dearly. Always will. And for that reason, I ask you, do not wear the suit that Mr. Todd brings. Don’t tell anyone I was here. I have to go.”

She glanced at his hand on her arm. At the sight of the purple bruises, her sighing got heavier.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

She shook him off and swept out just as she’d swept in—like a snowstorm.

© 2022 Ithaka O.

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