When he stumbled out of the stage door at 9:35, half in costume, hair awry, unlit cigarette in his right hand, I was waiting for him. He looked at me blankly for a moment, and then I could see the understanding slink across his face, as the reality of his own life, not his character’s, settled upon him. He looked at me, then at his cigarette, then back at the door, and then he swore.
“What?” I asked as he kicked the tin stair railing half-heartedly.
“I left the lighter in the costume coat pocket,” he said. “You got one?”
“You take a lighter on stage with you?”
He shrugged easily, as he always did when he didn’t feel he had an obligation to explain. His blonde-brown curls were starting to escape from their mandated ponytail, straying at his temples.
I always thought it was funny that no one thought to check the stage door during intermission. He was a sort of celebrity now. Not a real one—hardly anyone would recognize him away from the theater, but each night after the show they hungered for him and his cast mates, encircling their exit like some sort of vicious animal. I could never tell whether he enjoyed it or not. He did it for the art, he always said, and I believed him, but I couldn’t think of anyone who wouldn’t enjoy this part of it all.
I reached into my purse, shoving aside old Metro cards and loose receipts from the times I forgot to say I didn’t want one, until I found my lighter. I flicked it open and he leaned in, holding out his cigarette, waiting. There was something so intimate about the whole thing, I couldn’t help going about it slowly, sinking into the moment when New York city was hung in night and people were laughing and shouting and crying in Times Square and I had him before me, eyes lapis blue as they reflected the golden of the little flame before them. He smelled like the sweat you only got from dance rehearsal rooms and the smoke you only got from artists in addiction and it was odd because sometimes he was both those things to me but sometimes he was something else entirely.
He let out a sigh of relief as he breathed out, the smoke obscuring his face momentarily, as though he had been on edge before and now, finally now, he was free. He looked at me again. He had a way of doing that—staring at me unabashedly for long stretches at a time. It always confounded me, how much confidence you had to have to be able to just gaze at someone like that. He was like a cat, his eyes half predatory, half wonder.
“What are you doing, after?” he asked, his back against the brick wall, the lamplight illuminating one half of his jawline, making it more pronounced. I could understand why they liked him on stage. He wasn’t handsome, necessarily, but there was a beauty about him that caught the eye, forced it to linger.
“Elise wants to go to the new club on 2nd.” I reached out for the cigarette and he handed it to me, his eyes thoughtful.
“And you will go with her?”
“I need to practice. There’s a performance for the shareholders of the company tomorrow and there’s one section of the music I can’t get right, but maybe after.”
“Perhaps I will come.”
“Perhaps I will see you there.” I handed it back. It was something different, not what he usually smoked, and I wondered which one of his cast mates had given it to him.
The house music started up again, which meant intermission was over, which meant he had exactly nine and a half minutes before he had to burst onstage again. He probably would not come, I knew that. He’d always found empty promises rather romantic, the sweetness of expectation far more sensuous than the elation of the follow through. He liked to find a girl on his way home from the theater and whisk her away, I knew that too. The thought was bitter on my tongue but I had learned to live with it.
Three minutes before he had to be onstage he took a step down, so that he was only a couple inches above me, and handed me the cigarette. “Finish it for me, yeah?” he said, and then he pulled me to him quickly, roughly, pressing his lips to mine before turning inside again.
I stared at the offending cigarette a few moments before giving up and taking the last drags from its worn carcass. When I tossed it aside, it fell upon an old playbill for his show, and I ground them both under my boot.