(From the collection of short stories, Seven Tales of Love.)
Howard Ashbury strolled along Columbus Avenue, enjoying the fine weather – autumn in New York – a welcome break from the gray of Seattle. Something about the pulse of the city, the charm of the Upper West Side, brought back his younger self, and he felt happy, hopeful. He stopped in front of a little café, and, though it was too early for dinner, he decided to go in. He would read the new script over a glass of wine.
As he entered, he took in the exposed brick walls, the long windows, the candles just being lit in the softening light. Then his heart gave a little lurch when he saw her sitting there – Anna Avilov, his old Juliet. Suddenly, the twenty years since the production of Romeo and Juliet in San Francisco vanished.
My God, he thought. She’s as beautiful as ever. There she sat, with a dreamy look in her eyes, pen poised in her hand as she searched for some word or phrase. She wore her hair loosely swept up, and the shimmering aquamarine blouse caught the color of her eyes. What was she searching for – some hidden world of beauty? What did she see?
Howard felt the old chivalrous urge to help her.
But Anna had never needed anyone. He remembered how they were all in love with her, in love with the beauty and charm she possessed. Men and women alike took to her, as did the audience. They all wanted some of whatever it was she exuded – to possess it, to be in its presence, however briefly. He remembered how she had felt pulled down by that hungry need from everyone, and had shied away from the very attention the other actors sought.
Perhaps feeling his gaze, Anna looked over at him. Their eyes met, and her brow furrowed as she tried to place him.
Howard gave a small, wry smile. Have I changed so much? he wondered.
He walked over to her. “Hello, Juliet,” he said, hoping the name would bring back the memory of him. He waited a beat. “Don’t you remember your old stage manager?”
Anna’s eye widened as she gasped. “Howard!” She jumped up and hugged him. “I can’t believe it! Oh, how wonderful! Can you sit with me? I just can’t believe it!” In between each exclamation she searched his face, stepping back a bit to take in the changes.
He had forgotten how petite she was. She had to stand on her toes to kiss his cheek.
Howard pulled out the chair across from her, and waited for her to take her seat. He then sat down.
They ordered a bottle of wine. As Howard crossed his legs and turned the saltshaker around in his fingers, Anna clapped her hands in delight.
“Oh! You still wear red socks. You haven’t changed. Not a bit. Still so handsome and dapper!”
Howard smiled, realizing that it was ridiculous for her words to mean so much to him. But his recent failed affair had left him wounded and unsure of himself.
They talked and laughed and caught up on the last twenty years. Howard told her that he was still working as a stage manager, the last twelve years in Seattle. He described some of the more memorable productions.
Anna filled him in on the rather haphazard path she had taken. When she moved to New York eighteen years ago, she had found work as an off-off-Broadway actress, filling in the gaps between shows with waitressing and temping. The years since had been marked by a variety of unrelated jobs, a bit of travel, and, ten years ago, the meeting of her husband.
Howard was disappointed to hear that she had given up acting after she married. But Anna said it was writing that she had always felt more at home with.
“Yes, I remember that. You were always writing during rehearsals. What was it you used to say? That you were trying to create the world you were forever in search of. Have you found it? Or have you created it?”
Anna laughed. “Neither, I’m afraid. It still eludes me.”
“And are you still interested in theater?”
“Yes, of course.” She glanced at her watch. “As a matter of fact, my husband has tickets for tonight. Dinner, and then Chekhov. He’s picking me up here. I’m so happy you’ll be able to meet him.”
She went on to say that she had written some one-act plays and was working on a screenplay. As he listened, he observed the old air of wistfulness about her.
After two hours of talking, Howard noticed that evening had crept closer to their window. The candles on the tables and the lights outside shone brighter now, against the dark. That artful thrill of early evening filled the air, and shone from the faces of the couples filling the tables next to them, and from people hurrying by outside – the thrill that the night might hold something wonderful.
Howard knew that her husband would be there soon to take her to dinner, yet there was so much more he wanted to know. He gave a small ironic smile; she still had the power to stir up a hunger in her audience. He poured the last of the wine into their glasses and asked if she remembered William Chase.
“Of course, I do! Benvolio. Or was it Balthasar? You’d think I’d remember.” She looked above his head, scanning the stage of so long ago, squinting ever so slightly, as if the stage lights were still in her eyes.
Howard also wondered how she could forget. “Benvolio,” he said. “And so terribly in love with you.”
Anna nodded. “Benvolio. Of course.” She took a sip of wine. “Whatever became of him? Do you know?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact, I ran into him last year in Portland. He became a lawyer, of all things.”
“A lawyer?” Anna asked, surprised. “Good for him.”
Howard had always wondered if Anna was aware of the effect she had on people. He thought it unfair that beauty could so effortlessly cause pain to others. He recognized his buried resentment, mixed with admiration, for all the things she represented to him. He had never wanted to sweep her into his arms, or make love to her. Rather, he had wanted to be like her, to move through the world with such power and beauty and ease.
Howard would later blame the wine for making him press on as he did. His words came out almost accusingly. “William told me that he never really got over you.”
Anna leaned slightly back, as if in defense. Her full lips shaped her words as she spoke.
“Well, there was never anything between us. I certainly never encouraged him. I guessed he had feelings for me, but you know how that is – how often that happens in an emotionally charged cast.”
Howard nodded and looked down. The image of the beautiful Roberto filled his mind: how their eyes had met across the stage, how their love had developed, those first perfect months. With bitterness, he remembered the torch he had carried for Roberto, long years after being rejected.
“You know,” said Howard, allowing some of his resentment to creep into his tone, “William always thought it was because of his height. He thought you never took him seriously.”
This was actually Howard’s belief, but he assumed this must be the case since William had been strikingly handsome. “That was one of the reasons he went into law, he said. More weight – or height, in his case.”
Howard waited for her answer. He wanted to know whether he had been correct all these years in attributing to Anna a certain small-mindedness; or whether he had ungenerously projected onto her the reasons for his own unrequited loves.
Again, Anna squinted into the past. “Yes. I remember him saying something about that once. He invited me to dinner, but I just wasn’t interested. He asked if it was because of his height. I think I laughed out loud at such a ridiculous notion. I didn’t have the heart to tell him it was his whininess that made him unattractive. It was so off-putting. Do you remember? He complained about everything and everyone.”
Anna swirled the wine around in her glass and smiled. “Besides, I’ve always preferred short men. A better fit, you know.”
Howard snapped upright in surprise – both by her candor, and by his mistaken assumption. He had always believed that height was one of those universally desired attributes – attributes that he, for the most part, did not possess.
He responded with a simple, “Oh?” and began turning the saltshaker around again. His thoughts tripped over themselves as he attempted to reorganize them, realizing that he had indeed misjudged Anna – and perhaps his own beloved – all these years.
Anna spoke as if merely stating a fact, but a sly seductiveness played about her lips.
“Yes, whether kissing when standing, or cuddling at night, or…” Her aquamarine blouse shimmered in the candlelight as she gave a light shrug.
Howard quickly replayed the arguments with Roberto. He had always assumed that Roberto had rejected him because of his age, ethnicity, or some other quality over which he had no control. For the first time, the thought gripped him: What if Roberto had simply found him boring? Or, God forbid, whiny?
Then, as if on cue and choreographed to maximize the insight into his own failed affairs, in walked Anna’s husband – short, if not shorter, than William Chase. He was equally as handsome, though, Howard had to admit, in a more genial manner.
Anna’s whole being surged with pleasure at the sight of her husband’s flashing smile and warm eyes. She stood to embrace him – in a comfortable fit, Howard noticed – and introduced them.
As she slipped on her wrap, the three of them spoke briefly and exchanged business cards. Howard declined the invitation to join them for dinner but promised to stay in touch.
Anna and her husband waved good-bye and left the café.
Howard sat back down at the table and tried to put his ruffled thoughts back in order, tapping the saltshaker up and down. As he shook his head at life’s vanities and wretched misunderstandings, the beautiful Anna Avilov tapped on the window and blew him a kiss, her arm linked with that of her Romeo.