Gage woke with sand in his eyes and mouth and boulders bouncing against his skull. He lay there for a moment counting the thuds – one for every shot of that evil German rotgut he’d taken before switching to beer. Too late, he thought. It wasn’t like him to make such a rookie mistake, especially with two performances scheduled the next day.
“Fuck,” he muttered. He rolled onto his back and rubbed the grit out of his eyes with a few careless swipes of his fingers. As his vision cleared, he could see sunlight and shadows mingling on the ceiling, and a green paper lantern dangling a few feet above his head. Gage didn’t remember his ceiling being so clean, or his light having any sort of covering. He pushed himself up on his elbows, the movement sending little twinges and aches through his limbs and abs and... uh oh.
Snatches of the previous night snapped across Gage’s brain like one of those viewfinder kid toys with the lever that clicked to show different pictures. The bar they’d all gone to celebrate their opening-night sellout, the gigantic bottle of Jaeger their evil bastard of a stage manager had ordered, the endless parade of toasts and shots, a drunken round of pool, an even more drunken poker game which had lasted hours and outlasted most of the troupe, until it was just Gage and –
As slowly and carefully as he could, Gage shifted onto his side. He was indeed in someone else’s bed, which was a pretty common occurrence for him, especially after a rowdy bar night. But the person with him was not a bar hookup, or a random backup dancer, or one of his go-to fuckbuddies.
Gage gazed at the back of his bedmate’s head, where carefully cropped black hair exposed a pale nape, slender neck and graceful collarbones stretching into finely formed shoulders. Most telling of all was the tattoo, a deep green vine with delicate leaves that began just below the base of his neck and wound its way down and around the left side of his back.
Gage bit back about a dozen more curses, slid out of bed, dressed as swiftly and silently as possible, and slipped out the door.
# # #
“Thirty minutes, people! Thirty minutes!”
Gage fiddled with the front of his tight black velvet sheath and glanced over at Shara, his co-star for the matinee performance. Lily, one of the troupe’s youngest dancers, was helping Shara fasten the French cuffs on her tuxedo shirt, which at the moment hung open to her navel, although it exposed nothing more than the tight white fabric of Shara’s chest binder. It never failed to amaze Gage how completely the binders Kai provided the female actors concealed any hint of cleavage, though he supposed it helped when the boobs in question tended toward the smaller, perkier end of the scale. He quickly turned back toward the mirror – the last time Shara had caught him staring at her boobs, she’d threatened to help him discover the higher end of his vocal range. As a cover, he grabbed a brush and ran it through his long red hair. It was nice not to have to wear a wig for once, he thought.
“How are we doin’ in here?” Benj appeared behind Gage and frowned into the mirror. “Man, you look like fifty shades of hell. Nina!” he yelled. “Gage needs you to work some magic!”
Gage glowered at Benj. “And whose fault is that?” he muttered.
“Hey, I didn’t pour that shit down your throat or nothin’.” Benj’s grin turned toothy. “Besides, you should be thankin’ me. That Jaeg got you farther in one night than you been gettin’ in the last six months.” He clapped Gage on the shoulder, and Gage grabbed his hand.
“Keep your voice down,” he hissed.
Benj chuckled. “Little late for discretion, Casanova.” He patted Gage’s shoulder again and turned away. “Shara, you are the sexiest Macbeth I’ve ever seen! Let me help you with those buttons….”
“Touch me and you die.”
“Aww, is that any way to talk to your most devoted fan? You know that’s a prop gun, right?”
“It’ll still make a sizeable dent in your skull.”
“Okay, okay… backing away slowly. Yo, Kai, here for wardrobe check?”
Gage froze with the concealer brush he’d just lifted halfway to his face. He could see Kai’s profile as he approached Shara, lips pursed in concentration.
“Maybe leave the top button open,” he said. “No, the top two. The binder will remain concealed, and it will convey more vulnerability. And have the bowtie on but undone. Perfect.”
Gage swallowed heavily as Kai’s face appeared in the mirror. “How is our Lady Macbeth?” he asked.
“Oh fine, fine,” he replied, a bit too heartily. Kai frowned, and Gage felt his throat constrict.
“That bodice looks a bit uneven,” Kai said, turning Gage’s chair toward him. “Here, stand up and let me fix it.”
Gage considered protesting, but knew it would only draw more attention to them, so he stood up without a word and attempted to stare straight ahead as Kai plucked and tucked and smoothed. He tried not to notice how good Kai smelled, or that the T-shirt he was wearing had a wide, slouchy collar that revealed a good bit of his lean, tattooed chest. He then had to try not to remember tracing the winding path of that tattoo with his lips and tongue. Dammit.
“Much better.” Gage looked down at Kai, briefly meeting his eyes, which were partially obscured by the reflection of his glasses. “You look like a woman men would kill for,” Kai said with his usual benign smile. He turned and greeted Nina, who took one look at Gage and pointed to the chair.
“I brought industrial-strength concealer and some of my ancestral hangover remedy,” she said, popping the top on a can of Red Bull and setting it on the dressing table. “Drink, then we’ll do damage control.”
# # #
A director had once told Gage that some people were born actors, while others were made actors. Then there were those who sort of stumbled into it, like Gage.
He had been tending bar one night at a hole in the wall a few blocks west and north of Broadway when his old college roommate Benj had breezed in with a half-dozen honeys and a wad of cash. Gage immediately assumed he’d gotten into the pimping business, given Benj’s penchant for less-than-legal ways of getting money.
“Naw, naw… these are dancers from the way-off-Broadway show I’m managing right now,” Benj said.
Gage laughed in his face. “Seriously!” Benj protested. “Girls, tell ‘im!”
“He is an assistant stage manager,” a buxom blonde said, giving Benj a playful swat. “As for the dough, it’s mostly from the suckers who don’t know better than to not play poker with him.”
“Now that I believe.” Gage winked and set a cosmopolitan in front of the blonde.
Benj shrugged and grinned. “Hey, when’s your shift done? Wanna hang with us?”
Gage set down the bar rag and let his eyes wander over the row of dancers. “Only if you share,” he said, drawing squeals of delighted protests from the women. By the end of the night he’d scored six free beers, two dancers, and an interview for what Benj told him was a job as a stage hand.
That was before he was literally run into by a skinny lavender-haired guy the next day while looking for his interviewer. “What the fuck?” Gage sputtered, clutching his midsection. The guy who’d nearly toppled him had staggered backward, and was now staring intently at Gage.
“You are perfect,” the guy declared. He grabbed Gage’s hand and dragged him through a set of doors into a small theater.
“Wait, wait, I’m not here to audition,” Gage protested. “I’m here for a job interview with --”
Purple-Hair waved a dismissive hand. “You will interview with me,” he said.
Gage rolled his eyes. Theater people. “Okay then.” He was guided to the front of the theater. His self-appointed interviewer took a seat in the front row and nodded at Gage.
“Sing,” he said.
Gage stared. “What?”
“Anything you like. I’m partial to Sondheim -- maybe A Little Night Music? Wait, you may be too young to remember – perhaps something from Into the Woods?”
Gage thought this nutcase didn’t look much older than him, but that was beside the point. He shook his head. “Um… sir? I’m here for a stagehand job.”
“But you are really a singer,” Purple-Hair insisted. “I can tell by your aura. So unleash that beautiful voice! Try the first few bars of ‘I Guess This Is Goodbye’….”
Gage thought about heading back to the bar, but he was sick of dealing with drunks and drug-dealers and deadbeats, and the idea of working every day surrounded by delights like the two nimble beauties who had entertained him last night was too tempting. “I don’t really know any musicals,” he admitted, shuffling his feet.
Purple-Hair clasped his hands over his heart. “You cut me to the quick, beautiful siren!” he moaned. “Very well, then. ‘Don’t Stop Believing,’ and don’t try to tell me you don’t know that one.”
Gage knew it well – it was one of his go-to numbers when the bar had karaoke nights. He closed his eyes to help steady his nerves and belted out the first verse. By the end of it, he heard a smattering of applause, and opened his eyes. A bunch of people had filled in the first few rows, including a short, wiry kid with gorgeous brown eyes and a thousand-watt smile.
“That was awesome,” he said. “Zak, you gotta hire him.”
Purple-Hair nodded. “So I shall, my young props master.” He stood and held a hand out to Gage. “I’ll have Jerome draw up the contract. Do we have an agreement?”
“Uh.” Gage tugged on his ponytail. “I can sing a little, sure, but I’m no actor. Only role I ever played was Tall Tree Number Two in my third-grade holiday pageant.”
Brown Eyes snickered, and Purple-Hair rubbed his hands together. “Leave that to me,” he said. “To the office! Sonny, show our handsome new songster around.”
“Yes sir!” Brown Eyes bounced up to Gage. “I’m Sebastiao Sontara, but everyone calls me Sonny,” he said.
Gage shook the proffered hand. “Gage Josephs,” he replied.
“For real?” Sonny’s grin widened. “That’s better than any stage name Zak’ll come up with. That was Zak Ro, by the way – up-and-coming director, soon to be one of Broadway’s brightest lights, just ask him, he’ll tell you.” Gage couldn’t help laughing with Sonny – the kid had a laugh that was impossible to resist. Among other things, he thought, gaze lingering on Sonny’s taut backside.
“Didn’t know they let kids work backstage,” Gage said casually, hoping to hell Sonny was at least old enough to vote.
Sonny shot him a glare. “I’m twenty-one, asshole,” he said. “And you better be nice to me cuz I’m in charge of props and stuff like that harness up there. You don’t want a strap to come loose while you’re in the air, do ya?”
Gage gave Sonny a smirk. “I prefer my straps to come loose elsewhere, thanks.”
The glint in Sonny’s eyes was promising. “Good to know,” he said.
# # #
“This is all your fault, you know.”
Sonny looked up from the harness he was fiddling with long enough to give Gage a sly smirk, then bent his head to his task again. Gage glared at the props master for a few silent seconds before continuing –
“Seriously, you used to be all about helping me out in my time of need. Then that blond dickhead has to get all possessive and shit….”
Sonny sighed and set the harness down. “Thought you said me bein’ only with Jo wouldn’t mess up our friendship,” he said.
“Fuck.” Gage pushed himself off the wall and sat on the edge of the stage next to Sonny. “I did, and I meant it. Sorry, man.”
Sonny gave Gage a playful nudge with his shoulder. “It’s okay. I’m used to you being an asshole when you’re scared.”
Gage snorted at the idea of being afraid of their soft-spoken, ever-polite wardrobe master. “Not scared. Just nervous,” he said. “I don’t wanna screw things up for the company, y’know? We finally got a good team together. Don’t want Kai to quit over this or anything.”
“Just go talk to him,” Sonny prodded. “He’s a reasonable dude, and he’s been here long enough to know how you are. I’m sure he wasn’t expecting you to propose or anything.”
“Well, no, but he’s a sensitive type. He doesn’t do anything lightly.” Gage felt the guilt he’d been carrying since that night double in weight.
“Well, it’s not like you do either,” Sonny said. “I mean, yeah, you’re a slut -- ”
“—but you don’t hide it or nothin’. You make it plain from the get-go. Anyone who expects anything permanent is kidding themselves.”
Gage’s cheeks burned. “Damn, you make me sound kinda heartless,” he said.
“Ah fuck, I didn’t mean it like that.” Sonny scratched the back of his head. “You know I’m not that good with words and shit. I mean… you like bein’ with lots of different kinds of people. You’re a, what do you call it – a free spirit. Free spirits don’t tie themselves to one person, it’s too limiting or whatever.”
“You did,” Gage said.
Sonny smiled, somewhat sheepishly. “Yeah,” he said, “but Jo’s a special case.”
Gage snorted. For the life of him, he could not understand what Sonny saw in that puffed-up prick of a songwriter. Sure, he was hot, but of all the ‘s’ words Gage could think of for Jo – stuck-up, selfish, snide, sarcastic – ‘special’ was not one of them. “He must be special as hell in bed,” he muttered.
“Oh, he is.” Sonny’s smug reply made Gage snort again, this time with amusement. “But it’s not just that. Ah, fuck it -- I could spend hours telling you all the other reasons and you’d still hate each other’s guts.”
“I gotta get back to fixing this thing. Go talk to him, Gage.”
# # #
Gage knew he was in trouble six months ago, the moment he first laid eyes on the company’s gorgeous, newly hired head costume designer.
“Cho Kai. A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Josephs.”
“Just call me Gage. Welcome to the funhouse.” Their handshake set off an attraction that buzzed along Gage’s skin like a mess of bees.
Kai’s smile was polite. “I would like to schedule a fitting with you as soon as possible,” he said. “Clearly, your former costumer had your measurements all wrong.”
Gage, who was dressed for a night out, not for the stage, found his hands involuntarily smoothing the leather over his hips. “Hey, I paid $300 bucks for these pants,” he said, a trifle indignantly.
Kai frowned and adjusted his wire-rimmed glasses. “Then you were robbed,” he said. “But I may be able to fix them for you. Come with me.”
Gage fidgeted. “Ah, well, I’m kinda on my way out.”
Kai raised one eyebrow. “I see. Tomorrow morning, then? About nine?”
“Make it ten.”
“I look forward to it.”
Gage couldn’t resist a quick glance over his shoulder as Mr. Cho headed backstage. Yep, his ass was just as fine as the rest of him, he thought with a leer. He had barely had time to start fantasizing about seeing that ass unclothed before a sharp pinch to his ear brought him back to reality.
“Ow! Fucking hell, what?” he snapped, wheeling around to face the company’s producer. He didn’t have to look far down; in her five-inch heels, Candace Bosatch was almost as tall as Gage. She glowered at him.
“All right, Josephs,” she said. “Just this past season we have had to replace ten dancers, two actors and one wardrobe master because of your screwing around. Actors and dancers are thick as flies in this town, but if you make me go through the hell of finding a decent costume designer again, you’ll be back doing karaoke in Hell’s Kitchen faster than you can unzip those tight pants of yours. In summary: leave Cho Kai the fuck alone. Am I clear?”
“Yes ma’am.” Gage went for his best good-boy expression. Candace’s lips twitched with her effort to suppress a smile.
“You are damned lucky Zak loves you,” she growled. “Now get out of my sight.”
# # #
For those first couple of months, Gage found it easy to keep his promise. He saw Kai at work, but rarely socialized with him, since Kai tended to work late hours and keep mostly to himself outside of that. It was Benj, who considered himself as much as social director as a stage manager, who convinced Kai to join their twice-weekly poker games. There, the seemingly harmless costumer revealed himself to be a razor-sharp card player who more often than not cleaned them all out with very little effort.
“Worst decision I ever made, letting you in on our games,” Benj grumbled one night after losing half his week’s pay to a hand in which he’d been sure Kai was bluffing. When Kai presented his straight flush, Gage thanked whatever gods protected gamblers and fools that he’d been smart enough to fold.
“Don’t listen to him,” Gabe said, offering the winner a beer, which Kai declined with a head-shake. “Benj’s not used to being second-best at the poker table.”
“I’ve always been lucky at cards,” Kai said. His green eyes darkened, and he got that pensive expression Gage sometimes caught him wearing when he didn’t think anyone was watching.
“Whatever. I’ve still got enough to buy a round at Duffy’s.” Benj shrugged into his leather jacket. “You guys comin’?”
Gage glanced at Kai. “My apologies – I have some alterations that I need to finish tonight,” Kai said.
Benj shook his head. “We don’t open for another eight weeks,” he said. “You should slow down, live a little.”
“Yeah, c’mon,” Gage said. “I know you don’t drink beer, but I’ll buy you a glass of whatever you do drink. It’d be good for you to get a look at the world outside your workroom.”
Kai studied Gage with slightly narrowed eyes. “All right,” he said.
Duffy’s wasn’t quite a dive, but it was a more than a few steps below respectable. Gage snagged beers for Benj and their assorted crew of dancers and stage hands, then turned to Kai. “What’re you drinking?” he shouted above the schlock rock playing on the sound system.
“Scotch, please,” Kai answered. “Neat.”
“Any brand in particular?”
“Whatever is in the well.”
“Ah, so you have been out before.” Gage was pleased to see Kai blush a bit at his teasing.
They held court in the corner for awhile. Duffy’s was a popular gathering place for the theater crowd and their hangers-on, and Gage had gotten to know some of the regulars pretty well. He introduced Kai to some of the cooler people and made sure to protect him from the more unstable elements. Kai was his usual quiet self at first, but by his second scotch, he was bonding with the costume designer for some avant-garde production of a popular children’s book. She was petite and dark-haired, and she kept touching Kai as they spoke, first on the arm, then the shoulder. Gage, meanwhile, had set his sights on a good-looking singer from a nearby piano bar, but he kept a wary eye on Kai. He felt responsible for the guy, since he’d been the one to convince him to come out.
“So you’re playing Lady Macbeth,” his companion cooed. “I’ll bet you look damned hot in a dress.”
Gage flashed his most suggestive smile. “I’d be happy to show you sometime,” he said.
He ran a manicured finger up Gage’s arm. “Why not tonight?”
“Tonight works for me.” Gage glanced around and saw that the woman Kai had been chatting up was now deep in conversation with Lily. Kai was nowhere in sight. “Hold that thought, beautiful. I’ll be right back.”
Gage ducked out the door. Kai was already halfway down the block, his hands tucked into the pockets of his wool jacket. “Hey wait up!” Kai stopped and turned, and Gage jogged up to him. “Why you leavin’?”
“It’s late,” Kai said, in a tone that suggested it should be obvious. Gage rolled his eyes.
“I mean, why are you leaving alone? You and what’s-her-name seemed to be getting along.”
Kai’s lips tightened. “Her name is Selena, and I enjoyed talking with her,” he said. “But as I mentioned earlier, I have work to finish up.”
“What, she’s not your type?” The minute he said it, Gage wished he had kept his big mouth shut. Kai looked angrier than Gage had ever seen him.
“Not that it is any of your business, but no.” Kai began to walk away from Gage, and Gage grabbed him by the back of his jacket.
“Wait, no, you’re right, that was out of line. I’m sorry.”
Kai reached back and gently removed Gage’s hand. “Apology accepted,” he said. “Now, you should go back inside. It isn’t polite to leave someone mid-conversation.”
So Kai had been watching him, too. Gage felt inexplicably pleased at the knowledge.
“Nah, we wrapped it up before I left,” he lied. “I’m pretty tired anyway. I’ll walk you back – my train’s just down the block from the theater.”
In the weeks Gage had come to know Kai, he had learned to identify which of his smiles were polite falsehoods, and which were real. The one Kai wore now was wide, warm and genuine.
“I would appreciate the company,” he said.
# # #
“Hey Kai, got a minute?”
Kai looked up from the ball gown he was pinning on a dress form. “Certainly,” he said, motioning to an empty chair next to his worktable. Gage marveled at the neat line of shears, tape measures and marking pencils next to the carefully folded piles of fabric. Kai’s sense of order had creeped him out at first, before Gage had gotten to know him better. He flushed at the memory of that night -- of Kai, hair mussed and glasses askew, pulling his pants off and tossing them in a heap on the floor of his bedroom. He hadn’t even bothered pulling his belt off first.
Shit. That was not helping. Gage gave himself a mental shake and sat across from Kai, who regarded him with mild interest.
“How can I help you?” he asked.
“Well… um… it’s just… you know the other night?” Gage managed to say.
“What other night?”
That was Kai, never making it easy for him. Gage took another deep breath and plunged ahead.
“You know, the night we all went out after the opening? And we all had those shots and…”
“Oh. That night.” Kai shifted in his seat. “I was hoping we wouldn’t have to talk about this.”
Kai took his glasses off and rubbed his eyes. “Gage, I want you to know that I enjoyed myself thoroughly that night. But I’m afraid that is as far as it goes.”
Gage’s mouth hung so far open he was afraid he might actually catch flies, like his brother had always teased him about. “Huh?” he said again.
Kai regarded him solemnly. “I have a strict no-dating policy,” he said. “I should have told you earlier, but I honestly had not expected us to… well.”
“You… you’re okay with that?” Gage couldn’t believe how lucky he was, or how completely he had misread Kai.
“Of course.” Kai tilted his head. “Aren’t you? I don’t mean to offend, but your reputation suggested you would have no problem with a one-night liaison.”
“No, none at all!” Gage smiled tentatively. “I mean, it was fun, and really great, like you said. But you know, we’re friends, and… you know, this shit can sometimes get complicated. Better to keep it simple.”
“Precisely.” Kai gave Gage one of his real smiles. It made Gage’s toes tingle. “I am so relieved that’s settled! So, is there anything else?”
Gage shook his head. “Guess I’ll see you later,” he said, pushing the chair back. “Gotta meeting with Zak. He’s making noises about changing the banquet scene again.”
“Ah. I hope he was only joking about recasting it as The Last Supper,” Kai sighed. “That’s quite a turnabout from the 1940s.”
“Maybe he meant it symbolically. I’ll keep you posted.”
Gage left the workroom feeling both lighter and strangely unsettled.
# # #
“Leave me in peace, woman!” Macbeth dropped onto the settee, her face a study in torment. “I dare do all that may become a man; who dares to do more is no man at all.”
Lady Macbeth dropped to one knee in front of Macbeth, taking one of her hands in both his own. “What demon has made you break your promise to me?” he entreated, clasping Macbeth’s hand to his breast. “When you made that vow, then you were a man; and, to follow through, you would be so much more. You said you would make the time and place for the deed; yet here they have made themselves, and now you hesitate?”
He tossed Macbeth’s hand aside and stood, pacing and tossing his hair in agitation. “I have suckled a babe, and felt the tender love for the child at my breast,” he hissed. “Yet I would, while he was smiling in my face, have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums, and dashed his brains against the wall, had I so sworn as you have done to this.” He heard some of the audience gasp as he mimicked the violence Lady Macbeth described. He was definitely in the zone tonight, he thought, somewhat sardonically.
Macbeth rose. “If we should fail?” she asked, in a tone that begged for convincing.
“We fail!” He took Macbeth’s face in his hands. “But screw your courage to the sticking-place and we’ll not fail.” He ran his thumbs along Macbeth’s jawline, his voice a seductive purr as he described Lady Macbeth’s plan to render Duncan’s attendants insensate with wine and song so that they could enter Duncan’s bedchamber undetected. The scene ended with Macbeth laying his head on Lady Macbeth’s lap, and Lady Macbeth stroking her hair with a triumphant sneer.
As soon as the curtain hit the stage, Shara jumped up and grinned at Gage. “Damn, you are on fire tonight,” she said. “I had to stop myself from wincing when you did that throwing motion. What inspired you to add that?”
Gage had based his entire Lady Macbeth persona on his abusive bitch of a stepmother, but he wasn’t about to open that can of worms, especially in the middle of a show. He shrugged and hustled offstage, giving a low-five to Sonny, who was clad in bright gold spandex for his intermission contortionist act. Gage peeked out at the half-empty theater. It was a damn shame. If the audience knew what Sonny was capable of, they would definitely choose a full bladder over missing out. One day maybe Zak would give him a role in the production itself, though Sonny insisted he preferred the low pressure of performing between acts.
He ducked into the dressing room and almost ran into Kai. “Oops, sorry,” Gage said, hoping Kai would mistake the red in his cheeks for an overenthusiastic application of blush.
“That was a magnificent performance,” Kai said, staring intently at Gage. “Truly one of your best.”
“Uh, thanks,” Gage said, feeling the blush spread down his neck. “You got my next outfit?”
Kai shuffled the pile of garments in his arms and nudged the cream silk nightgown to the top. “I’ll be back in a moment,” he said as Gage took the gown from him.
“No need,” Gage called as Kai hurried toward the cluster of actors in the back of the room. “I think I can manage a nightgown,” he muttered, stripping off his evening dress and draping it over a chair. He pulled the gown over his head and adjusted it so that it covered the padded bra. The gown was actually a 1940s vintage piece that Kai had found somewhere downtown, and he had only needed to let out the waist a bit to accommodate Gage’s physique. It was a little on the short side, but the skirt was full enough to conceal what Zak termed Gage’s “decidedly male attributes.”
“Let me see.” Gage turned around and obediently held his arms out to each side while Kai fussed and tucked and tugged. “I do wish I had been able to match that silk to give it more length,” Kai said.
“It’s fine,” Gage reassured him. “Besides, I’m wearing those padded briefs you gave me. Nothing’s gonna poke out of those suckers.”
“Let me make sure,” Kai said, and Gage made a wholly undignified yelp as Kai ducked under his skirt and began patting and pinching his crotch. “Dude, really?” Gage squeaked, glaring at the gaggle of giggling dancers, all dressed for the big banquet scene in Act 3. Kai emerged, smiling in that infuriatingly placating way he had.
“Sorry, sorry. All done,” he said. “Ladies, are you all sorted? Where is our Macbeth?” He exited, leaving Gage in a state somewhere between extreme irritation and arousal. He supposed he could make that work for motivation in Act 2.
# # #
Benj handed Gage a beer and took the pool cue from him. “Prepare to lose,” he said, bending over to sink the eight ball in the side pocket. He did a little fist pump and returned the cue to the wall rack. “Dude, what the fuck is wrong with you? That was the worse game I ever saw you shoot.”
Gage gave a one-shouldered shrug. “Not feeling it,” he said. “These two-show days wear me the fuck out. Think I might call it a night.”
“That’s not like you, either.” Benj put a hand on Gage’s forehead. “You sick or somethin’?”
Gage smacked his hand away. “Sick of you mother-henning me,” he said.
Benj held up his hands. “Okay, all right. But you sure you wanna leave now? That redhead over there has been sizing you up since we got here.” He grinned. “And don’t look now, but she’s making her move.” He gave Gage a salute and wandered over to the bar.
Gage watched the voluptuous woman sashay toward the pool tables. Any other night he would be practically salivating in anticipation of a wild all-night ride, but tonight he was just too tired.
“Hey,” she said, cocking her head and thrusting her chest forward. “I’m Denise. You have the most gorgeous hair I’ve ever seen.”
Gage tried to picture her fingers running through his hair, and his face pressed deep in her cleavage. But his traitorous mind conjured the only mind-photos he’d been capable of reproducing lately – himself and Kai entwined on Kai’s bed. It was getting fucking ridiculous. He pushed aside all thoughts of sleep and summoned all of his charm.
“That’s funny,” he said, letting his fingertips graze the ends of her shoulder-length hair. “I was thinking the same about yours.”
They went through the usual motions – small talk, flirting, drinking, more serious flirting. Then she was inviting Gage up to her place, and Gage was following her up three flights of stairs and hoping she didn’t have any roommates.
“Come on in,” she said. “My roommate works until 4, so we’ve got the place to ourselves.”
Gage had barely removed his jacket before Denise was shoving her tongue down his throat and a hand down his pants. “Woah, woah!” he said, pulling away. “What’s the rush? We’ve got plenty of time.”
Denise laughed. “A guy telling me to slow down? That’s a first.” She sat on the edge of the sofa with her knees together and a prim expression on her face. “Is this more to your liking?” she said.
If Gage squinted he could almost see Kai, the way he looked when he was working out a pattern in his mind, all serious and buttoned up and begging to be let loose. His dick stirred with the beginnings of arousal. Gage knelt in front of Denise and began kissing her, slowly, gently, the way things had started with Kai that night. But all too quickly Denise was opening her mouth and thrusting her tongue and making the most irritating mewling noises. It was all wrong. Gage pulled away from her and grabbed his jacket.
“Wait a minute, baby, what’s wrong? Where you goin’?”
“Home,” Gage said. “Sorry, babe. Got an early call tomorrow.” He closed the door behind him and practically ran down the stairs, all the while remembering how good Kai had tasted, how every kiss had drawn Gage deeper into a kind of desire so intense he felt like it would burn straight through to the marrow of his bones. He whistled for a taxi, and spent the fifteen-minute ride to his apartment recalling the exact shape of the leaves on Kai’s vine tattoo, the sounds Kai made when Gage dragged his teeth lightly along his skin, the feel of Kai thrusting deep inside him, hitting Gage’s sweet spot until Gage came, shouting Kai’s name.
Gage cursed as he turned on his shower and took himself in hand. Some free spirit, he thought.
# # #
Gage felt himself nodding off amid the drone of reporters’ questions and Zak’s elaborate, outrageous answers. He understood why Candace insisted the main actors attend post-performance press events, especially when there was actual press members attending them, but understanding wasn’t the same thing as liking it. He felt a sharp elbow press into his ribs, and turned to glare at Shara.
“If I have to suffer through this shit, so do you,” she whispered.
Gage flipped her the bird under the table and tried once again to focus on the conversation. Some hipster douchebag from one of the independent rags was asking a question.
“Mr. Ro, you chose to have men play the women’s roles and vice-versa in this condensed adaptation of Macbeth.” The reporter adjusted his dark-framed glasses. “But as far as I can tell, it appears to be a simple affectation, like your re-setting the play in the postwar 1940s. Given the tremendous strides made in the understanding of LGBT communities in this day and age, don’t you find gender-switching without purpose, I dunno, kind of insulting and… pedestrian, maybe?”
Gage glanced over at Candace, who was observing from the back and had put her head in her hand. He then looked at Zak, whose face had turned a shade of purple much deeper than his hair. Candace started toward the table, but Zak held up a hand and took the microphone.
“My dear boy,” he began, causing the reporter’s ears to turn pink, “A good number of the fine people in this company consider themselves members of the LGBT community. I would never dream of forcing them to participate in a production they found in any way insulting, demeaning, or worst of all, pedestrian.” He somehow managed to infuse that last word with enough ice to freeze over all of New York, Gage thought, raising a hand to hide his smirk.
“When I first conceived of the idea of casting women in the male roles for Macbeth, and men in the female roles, it was my intention to highlight how much the concept of gender has transformed in the past decade. What was once thought to be something set from birth by the decision of an attending physician has been revealed for the illusion it is.” Several reporters began to interrupt, but Zak made a slashing motion that silenced them immediately.
“In fact, from the moment Ms. Bosatch, Jerome Shin and I formed this company, our intention was to stage productions that celebrate the human experience in all its glorious, confounding complexity. We are starting simply, it’s true. But while you see Macbeth as female, and her lady as male, others – myself included -- may choose to see them as transgender. Who is to say that somewhere, in some other time and place, there wasn’t a community of transgender individuals who chose to ally themselves in a kingdom outside the petty judgments and prejudices of ‘traditional’ society? Who is to say Shakespeare wasn’t writing about such a kingdom?”
“Well, there is that whole ‘suckling-babe’ thing,” Gage murmured. Shara gave him another vicious rib-poke.
The reporter, now beet-red and sweating, cleared his throat to ask another question. Gage admired his tenacity.
“Okay,” he said. “But why the ‘40s? If you’re saying your Macbeth is set in a transgender community, wouldn’t a present-day setting make more sense?”
Zak shrugged. “I like ‘40s style,” he said, to a smattering of guffaws and applause.
# # #
Once Zak’s dressing-down of the hipster reporter hit the papers, the company’s humble little off-off-Broadway production of Macbeth became the hottest ticket in town. Reviews lauded the timeliness of the transgender theme, and praised the performances of the lead actors, as well as the set work and “stunning craftsmanship” of the costumes. What had been slated as a six-week run stretched into eight, then ten. Zak drew the line at the three-month mark, insisting his actors needed rest and he needed time to dream up his next project. Given the robust box-office returns, Candace was happy to let him have his way.
“But no Shakespeare!” she said during their closing-night party, snatching another glass of champagne from one of the trays being circulated by the company apprentices. “Something upbeat, musical. Let Gage show off that sexy singing voice of his.”
“As long as you don’t make me sing,” Shara said. “Julie Andrews I am not.”
“I did try to get Jo to write a song for Lady Macbeth to sing in my production,” Zak said, “but he said he wouldn’t be a party to Shakespeare turning in his grave.” He pouted in Jo’s direction, and was answered by an extended middle finger. “But no matter.” Zak raised his glass. “To my russet-tressed chameleon!” He threw his arm around Gage’s waist. “The finest Lady Macbeth ever to stalk the stage!”
“To Gage!” the revelers shouted, clinking their glasses.
“Thanks,” Gage said. “I owe it all to the world’s best director. A toast to Zak Ro!”
“Hear, hear!” As Zak preened and posed, Gage darted toward Sonny, who was nodding as Jo ranted.
“I mean, Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies! And that fucking clown wanted me to stick a song in the middle of it?” Jo drained his glass of champagne and slammed it onto a passing tray. “I don’t know why the fuck I put up with him.”
“Because he’s good and he needs you,” Sonny said. “You know Candace wants him to do a musical next.”
“Great.” Jo motioned to one of his own apprentices. “You, get me something stronger than this straw-piss.” he barked. “Whisky, no ice, no water.” The poor kid nodded like a bobble head and raced toward the back.
“Hey, Gage! This is some party.” Sonny’s grin was wide and somewhat inebriated. “That was a nice toast Zak gave you.” Sonny gave Jo a not-so-subtle poke, and Jo nodded toward Gage.
“Josephs,” he said.
“Riulta. Nice to see you,” Gage said.
Jo nodded again and made a show of looking around. “Did that moron go all the way to Scotland for my drink?” he muttered as he walked away. Sonny watched him with a disgustingly gooey expression.
“See? He can be nice,” Sonny said.
“Well, at least he didn’t try to punch me in the dick this time,” Gage said. “Hey, have you seen Kai?”
“I thought I saw him talking to Nina earlier. I’m sure he’s around here somewhere.”
Gage scanned the room, but saw no sign of Kai. He looked at Sonny, who wore a knowing grin that made Gage want to smack him. “What?”
“Oh nothing,” Sonny said, sipping his champagne. Gage folded his arms and waited. He knew Sonny wouldn’t be able to resist blurting out whatever idiotic idea he’d come up with about Gage and Kai. It only took two more sips for Sonny to spill.
“It’s just, ever since your little ‘talk,’ you’ve been extra-interested in what Kai’s doing and where he’s going and who he’s talking to.”
Gage hadn’t felt this busted since he got nailed for shoplifting tallboys from the liquor store with Benj freshman year. “Bullshit,” he said.
“Not. You like him.”
“Well, yeah, I like him. We’re friends.”
“No, I mean you like-like him. Like I like Jo, like.”
“You sound like a fucking ten-year-old.”
Sonny laughed. “Now that’s something Jo would say.” He gestured to his right, and Gage felt his heart skip. There was Kai, looking stylish as hell in what Gage would bet was a custom-made tuxedo. He was talking to Jo, of all people. Jo was smiling at Kai, and something he said made Kai throw back his head and laugh. The sight made Gage want to punch Jo in the dick, hard and repeatedly.
Sonny pushed Gage in that direction. “Go. But you might want to wipe that jealous look off your face first,” he teased. Gage shook his fist at Sonny and tried to compose himself. Sonny intercepted the assistant carrying Jo’s whisky.
“Hey, Jo – your drink’s here!” He held it up, and Jo shook hands with Kai before heading toward Sonny. As Gage started toward Kai, he felt something tug at the back of his pants, and heard the unmistakable sound of fabric tearing.
“Oh shit, looks like you split your pants, Gage.” Sonny was the picture of wide-eyed innocence. “Good thing our wardrobe expert is here. Bet he’ll be happy to help.”
Gage glared at Sonny. “You’ll pay for that, Sontara,” he said.
“I have no doubt.” Sonny waved and rejoined Jo, and Gage tried to cover his butt and walk toward Kai at the same time. Kai watched him silently, one eyebrow raised in a perfect arch.
“I have my sewing kit with me,” Kai said without preamble. “I’ll meet you in the men’s room.”
“Thanks, Kai,” Gage said. He did a sort of sideways shuffle to the bathroom, and was relieved to find no one occupying the stalls. He took off his pants and hung them over the door.
“Ah, excellent,” Gage heard Kai say. The pants disappeared. “I’ll have them back in a few minutes,” Kai said.
“Wait! You can’t just patch them up in here?”
Silence. “There’s nowhere to sit,” Kai said. Ever-practical, Gage thought. Speaking of practical, it was kind of stupid for him to be hiding in a stall when Kai had seen him in every stage of undress there was. He unlocked the door and said –
“There’s a seat just outside the door.”
Kai nodded. “You might want to wait in here,” he said, glancing down at Gage’s black boxer-briefs.
“Ah, fuck it. It’s just the company,” Gage said. “Not like we haven’t seen each other’s underpants before.”
They sat side by side on the padded bench, Kai’s sewing kit between them. Gage watched Kai close the rip in his pants with swift, even stitches. “Damn, you’re fast,” he said. “Where did you learn how to do that?”
The question made Kai pause. “My sister,” he said quietly.
“You have a sister? Older? Younger?”
“Twin.” Kai’s voice shook ever so slightly.
“Wow. She look like you?”
“She did.” Another pause, this one longer. “She’s dead now.”
Gage inhaled sharply. “Oh shit, Kai, I’m so sorry.”
Kai began sewing again. “It’s all right,” he said. “It was a few years ago. Cancer.”
Gage wished he could move the sewing-kit. “That’s rough. How’d your parents take it?”
“They died when we were very young.”
Holy shit. “Well, I’m really putting my foot in it tonight,” Gage said. “Sorry.”
“You couldn’t have known,” Kai said. He tied off the thread and snipped it. “Here, they’re finished.”
“Thanks.” Gage took the pants from Kai and slipped them on. Kai motioned for Gage to turn around. “They’re fine,” Gage said, but complied.
“Not bad,” Kai agreed. “Shall we return to the party?”
Gage looked at Kai, with his sad green eyes and his sewing-case, and felt the truth of what Sonny had said hit him like a load of cinder-blocks. “Actually,” he said, “I wouldn’t mind getting out of here. Going someplace quiet for a drink.” He held out a hand to Kai “You wanna maybe join me? Talk some more?”
Kai paused for a moment that felt like the span of ten lifetimes. Gage swore he could hear the thumping of his heart in the silence.
Then Kai took his hand, his long, elegant fingers threading through Gage’s own.
“Let’s go,” he said.