Middle of the first act. Well, act was a big word for this travesty of a theater play. A succession of disconnected scenes with no rhythm or talent, disappointing. Charles took a look at the rest of the spectators, he did that often to diminish his boredom and forget the uncomfortable wooden chair he sat on, so painful he had to move every two minutes and couldn’t even pretend to sleep.
The philistines around him had a blast of course, such a small scene in a forgotten village could only lure uneducated peasants whose culture revolved around cows and corns. Why did he sit in the front row? He was lost in this place, white and cold, built in a rush and with a questionable budget. Nothing for the man of refined taste he was.
With closed eyes, Charles tried to forget the unending flow of stupidity besieging his ears, to no avail. Here came the joke of the husband reminding his neighbor that he wasn’t home when he saw him shagging his wife. They even lacked the basic decency of writing their own crass jokes instead of hijacking the ones they heard on television the night prior.
Sad, because it seemed promising on paper. Sophie had noticed a series of article praising tonight’s representation, he usually restricted himself to the main theaters of Grenoble, it guaranteed a modicum of quality, but he decided to satisfy his curiosity and check this oddity out. Bad move. The cuckold husband sketch was over, now came a comedian dressed as a tree and others… he didn’t care what the others looked like, it was awful and would stay that way for the rest of the evening.
A few critics came to his mind: “successfully parodies politics with a touch of finesse”, there was no trace of politics, be it national or local, it couldn’t even pass as an allegory of some sort. “Masterfully acted”, “hilarious”, either none of the journalists had seen this public humiliation of French culture, or, they loved it and reveled in the same stupidity that worked wonders in the countryside. The nobility of theater had been desecrated with piss tonight.
Unable to withstand it anymore, Charles nudged to the right with his elbow. Sophie feigned not to notice and kept focus. He did it again, stronger. She replied, stepping with her heel on his finely polished shoes. His darling wouldn’t get away so easily. Two fingers between the ribs did the job, she shrieked and expertly faked a cough to avoid probing looks from neighbors, a gesture born from years of experience as Charles’s wife.
She had always been weak on the tickling side. One amused look between the two sufficed to make her husband understand he would have to wait for the entr’acte. They practiced this often, whenever the evening was boring, they embellished it with some childish sparring. The light went off and on again, it was another sketch with an apple seller and some butcher. Charles sighed and whispered to Sophie:
“I say, we leave at the entr’acte, no come on, it will be better, we simply go and leave it at that.”
“Maybe it’ll be better in the second part, come on my angel, make an effort.”
“What did I just say”
“Bullshit like always, it can only get better from here on out.”
It was the one reproach Charles had towards Sophie, she was naively convinced there was an inborn talent in everybody. He silently prayed to the god of art and theater, humbly asking him to burn the place down, comedians and spectators included, and put some skepticism in his wife’s mind.
She was smart, smarter than him without doubt, but that intelligence lacked a sense of critic, a vision to differentiate what was worthy from manure. Yet despite the disagreement, Charles knew he would stay politely until the end, because he loved her, because there were things he couldn’t refuse her.
It went on and on, until the much needed pause came. The curtain had fallen, the lights went back on, people got up to buy drinks and a young women, twenty years old at best, went on scene and played on an electric piano.
What was that? Strange, a smooth wind went by Charles’s left ear, yet the place should have been locked tight, the winter outside wasn’t just pretending to be freezing, it did so with gusto. he shook his head and put his hair back into place, someone opened a door and didn’t close it properly.
He was about to leave, to see something else for a moment, eat his fill, stretch his legs and avoid thinking too much, but once upright, he couldn’t move. He wasn’t locked in place by an opposing force, he simply couldn’t muster the will to start walking since the music started. Of all things Charles wanted to do, sitting down and focusing on the tribune was on the far end of the list, he did so anyway.
It was occupied by that woman, young enough to be his child, and her electric piano. Sophie had left to get some refreshment, he was alone trying to understand what was happening. Incapable of looking away, all his senses were kept in alert.
Was it the girl? She wore a red robe and a black turtleneck, her visage was smooth and pale, cute, but not exceptionally so, Charles would have noticed it before she started playing. Was it her music? The melody was neither original nor helped by the old instrument, her fingers were decently agile, but he had seen better. What was it then?
He gathered enough strength to look away, he was in the theater no more. He stood in the middle of a colorless landscape, devoid of forms and borders. Further away, in levitation, she played. Charles wanted to panic, but couldn’t, the fear of being lost in this great nowhere vanished too fast, thinking required a tremendous effort from his paralyzed mind. His will left him, sucked away by a malevolent genius wearing a red robe and a black turtleneck. Charles could only listen.
A little finger under the armpit dragged him out of the dream. Taken aback by this treacherous assault, he gasped, loudly enough to surprise even the pianist. She missed a note.
“If I didn’t know your tendency to put as much distance between you and whatever hurts your artistic sensibility, I’d think you just stood there for 20 minutes.”
Sophie, back with with a cup of smoking coffee.
“I think I’m sick.”
“I’m certain of it, it’s why I married you.”
He felt exhausted. The public went back to its place as the pianist disappeared behind the scene, out of sight but still in his mind. The lights went off, the talking ceased, a smaller light shone on the scene and the comedy resumed its course.
Charles struggled to recover from the trip, did he just hallucinate? His Cartesian spirit failed to find an explanation. He slumped on his chair, letting questionable wordplay and laughing fill his ears, anything to forget what just happened.
“The second part doesn’t save the first one,” she whispered.
“What was I saying before?”
“Bullshit, as usual,” she answered, grabbing his kneecap so brutally he kicked the seat in front of his by reflex.
Comedians gathered together on the scene to start a song, certainly a boring one with bad timing and even worse inspiration. Charles sighed, before realizing the young woman was also part of the crew. He stood up to leave the room, too late, she pressed the first key and transported him to the white plain with nothing to see but her.
In rhythm with the music, Charles’s body vibrated. First with slight tremors tickling the skin, like a fresh breeze in a hot summer day. It was sweet, it was calming, but it wasn’t enough, Charles needed more.
A spasm hit him, contracting all his muscles at once and letting go just as suddenly as it came. He pulsed in rhythm, he felt his flesh tear under the strain, bones broke and skin became porous, leaking blood. Charles should have panicked, he wanted too, but an insidious peace overtook his sense of self-preservation, there was no fear, only serenity. He was dying, he didn’t care, it felt good. It would feel perfect if a little something wasn’t missing, a piece preventing him from reaching ecstasy. It had to do with...
“Calm down Charles, just stay calm!”
Sophie grabbed him by the shoulders a moment before he collapsed to the ground.
“Straighten up, we’re going to the bathroom.”
Too weak to complain, Charles only understood that the music had stopped. A splash of cold water to the face put his ideas back in place.
“I think you really are sick my angel.”
It made sense, that face in the mirror was worn out, in shock, desperate.
“Yeah, let’s take off, no objection?”
“I can’t make you suffer the rest of this nonsense any longer in that state of yours.”
“How nice of you.”
Sophie left to get the car, leaving a ruin of man with the head under water. Who was she? Why not invite her to dinner, her and that piano? Nothing sexual, just understanding what happened would be enough. Charles gripped the tap, he needed a name, an address, a history… a tingling sensation jolted him out of his thoughts.
Another song had started, muffled by the walls and bad microphone calibration. He couldn’t hear the piano but knew it was being played, Its vibrations went from the scene to the floor to the iron tap he held, running along Charles’s arms, hungry to pull him into the dance. They wrestled control from him in a second, he took a step in direction of the music like an automaton, to hear more, to hear better.
Saved by Sophie, she grabbed his arm, more out of support than love and dragged him to the car. He was content letting someone else decide in his place while he was lost in his mind. He was sick in a strange way, it reminded him of his younger years when drugs and strange visions walked hand in hand. Sophie hid her worry with casual conversation.
“We should have left during the break.”
Wrong, they had been right to stay, this curiosity was worth keeping in memory.