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Whiskey Kisses

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“Honestly, Moira, I’m just not up for this tonight.”  Rosalind ran a hand through her hair, ruffling it in frustration, while drawing a long, deep breath.  Despite her protestation, she knew her objection was bound to be overridden.

“You’re never up for it, Roz—and its damn time you should be.”  Moira hooked her arm through her friend’s, patiently tugging her along, “You’ve spent too many months moping over that miserable tosser, and I consider it my personal mission to finally drag you back into the world of the living.”

“Can’t we do this another night?  I’m exhausted, Moira,” Rosalind grumbled, “We had a party of twenty-four American tourists during tonight’s dinner rush, and I ended up staying two hours past the end of my shift.”

“Well, you’ve got all day tomorrow to get some rest,” Moira promised “And with any luck, you’ll be sleeping off a well-earned hangover.”

Rosalind rolled her eyes, muttering her exasperation—but allowed her best friend to drag her through the dark oak door of The Gilded Cage anyway.

The pub looked to be near capacity, which wasn’t a surprise for a Saturday night.  Moira was scanning the room; she squeezed Roz’s arm and gave an excited little squeal when she spotted Derek near the far end of the bar.  Moira’s boyfriend grinned and raised his nearly empty pint, then waved the women to come over and join him, before draining the rest of his beer.

“Hey, babe,” he said, opening his arms to wrap them around Moira, “What the hell took you so long?”

Moira planted a heady kiss on his lips, and then wagged her head in Roz’s direction.  “My fault, Derek,” Rosalind admitted, “I begged her to come here without me, but she insisted.”

“That’s my girl,” he winked, and then leaned closer to kiss Moira again.  He turned back to the bar and flagged over the nearest bartender.  “Two more of these,” he nearly shouted, trying to top the music volume, “And?”  Derek looked to Rosalind.

“Vodka and cranberry…please.”  Rosalind felt trapped for the moment—but hoped the drink might help her to relax a bit.  The bartender nodded and went to get their drinks.

Roz looked over at the small dance floor, which was packed with gyrating bodies, the music—courtesy of a deejay—retro 90’s.  She wished (yet again) that she was home in bed with a good book (lately it was The Mists of Avalon; an escapist fantasy with a key element of unrequited love—because even her diversions these days had to contain a touch of what ailed her), or falling asleep to one of her standby favorite films.  Instead she was stuck here—albeit with a group of good friends—the only single in a gaggle of couples, expected by her dearest friend to fake it ‘til she finally felt like having an actual social life again.  She grabbed her drink from where the bartender had set it down, and followed Derek and Moira to a table near the small stage.

Kelly and Jake, and Eileen and Tom, sat waiting for them; they had pushed two small, round tables together so they could all sit together. Brilliant, Roz thought; guess that makes me lucky number seven.  The couples exchanged greetings, while the newcomers took their seats.

“You are gonna love this guy, Roz,” Moira informed her for what had to be the sixth time, “A voice like smooth, dark velvet.  And his poetry is really, really good.”

Rosalind sighed and sipped her vodka and cranberry.  “Sure, Moira.”  Whatever you say.  She watched while the others made small talk for several minutes, listening to the indistinct chatter of audience members, as one song ended and the next began.  When that number finished, the lights came up on the small stage, set with only a bar stool.  With that, Roz’s group, and the rest of the crowd around them, fell silent, visibly anticipating the scheduled performer.

He entered from the narrow wing of the stage with no ceremony at all—not even an introduction—with a maroon folder tucked under his arm, and carrying a small tray lined with several shots and a bottle of water, which he set upon the stool.  He grabbed the cordless microphone left on the stool for him, and then moved downstage center.

Rosalind hadn’t given thought as to what he might look like.  Moira, Kelly, and Eileen had raved about him; his voice, his movement, his stage presence.  His poetry, which Moira had promised Roz would fall in love with.  Rigggggght.  Still, Rosalind thought the man with the confusingly complicated name, defied any preconceived notion.

Tall and slender, straight-backed and long-limbed, he moved with an astonishing balletic grace, clearly comfortable in his skin.  He was fair-skinned, with a nest of rather unkempt dark curls as his crown (he probably aims to look casually mussed, she thought, but the effect is quite…compelling).  He wore a light gray tee beneath a scuffed, black leather jacket, a grayish-purple cashmere scarf artfully wrapped around his neck, and faded jeans frayed at the hems, atop a well-worn pair of black keds.  Nonchalantly put together, he seemed, yet lithe and quietly elegant, with a controlled tension in every line of his body which was evocative of an arrow in the bow before the archer let it fly.  Poet he might be, Roz reckoned, but in physical form, an unexpected bit of poetry himself.

The crowd—predominantly female–remained hushed in expectation, eyes riveted on the lone figure on stage.  He bowed his head and drew several breaths, as though centering himself, and when he raised his face to the waiting audience, he had changed somehow.  Had become the Shakespearean character whose verse was soon to flow from…well, the center of his chest.  That’s how it looked to Rosalind, anyway–the passage from The Comedy of Errors familiar to her, yet spoken as she had never heard it before.

Sweet mistress, what your name is else I know not,
Nor by what wonder you do hit of mine;
Less in your knowledge and your grace you show not
Than our earth’s wonder, more than earth divine.
Teach me, dear creature, how to think and speak;
Lay open to my earthly gross conceit,
Smother’d in errors, feeble, shallow, weak,
The folded meaning of your words’ deceit.
Against my soul’s pure truth, why labour you
To make it wander in an unknown field?
Are you a god? Would you create me new?
Transform me then, and to your power I’ll yield.
But if that I am I, then well I know
Your weeping sister is no wife of mine,
Nor to her bed no homage do I owe;
Far more, far more to you do I decline;
O, train me not, sweet mermaid, with thy note
To drown me in thy sister’s flood of tears;
Sing, siren, for thyself, and I will dote;
Spread o’er the silver waves thy golden hairs,
And as a bed I’ll take thee, and there lie,
And in that glorious supposition think
He gains by death that hath such means to die;
Let love, being light, be drowned if she sink.

Moira had been right about one thing, at least.  The guy’s voice was golden; a rich, deep baritone that seemed to penetrate Rosalind’s mind and body swiftly, decisively, and without a touch of pretense.  Whatever else he was, this man knew how to wield his god given gift with rare skill, and even the timing of his breathing reinforced the picture that his words painted.  And there was a helluva lot of heart coming through in his recitation—as though Antipholus lived within his skin, and this man…this Actor…was connected intimately, soul to soul, with the character.

The last word of his oration lingered on the air, the audience suspended in awe for several seconds before applause began to build.  Yet the actor remained in character; he bowed his head again, the character still—but when he looked up to acknowledge the resounding acclimation of the crowd, he had become himself again, smiling diffidently, the slight crookedness of it absolutely natural and indelibly endearing.  He’s not doing this for the  applause, Roz told herself, recognizing something kindred to her spirit, in his own; it’s the work that fulfills him, gives him satisfaction.  Whatever Muse he serves, Rosalind understood the gratification of it—though her own attempts at poetry fell too often short of such success.

Still grinning, he bowed at the waist, bobbing his head a bit in reply to the crowd before straightening.  He turned and downed a shot (eliciting scattered bursts of amiable laughter throughout the audience), and followed that with several swigs of water.  His eyes, bright with amusement, raked across the patrons seated near the stage, and for a couple of heartbeats, Rosalind felt fixed in their beautiful regard.

“Beautiful regard”?  Well, there’s some poetry right there, she realized; I could use that line sometime, if I write it down right now.  But Rosalind couldn’t do that at the moment; she couldn’t rifle through her bag for her notepad and pen; she couldn’t even break from his bold gaze, overcome with the ridiculous notion that this beautiful stranger saw her—and somehow—oh somehow!–understood her sorrows and her failed aspirations in a single, anonymous glance.  This is too much…too soon, she thought; and please, don’t look at me that way, she begged him silently; no one gets to look at me that way…and goddammit…it hurts…

His pale skin was now flushed, likely more from his performance and the crowd’s enthusiastic reception, than from the heat of the stage lights.  The remarkable geography of his face–the well-defined cheekbones, the peerless arch of his brows, his perfect mouth (which struck Roz as being made in equal measure for long, deep kisses as for the art he had embraced)—put her in mind of a Bernini sculpture. But no work of marble had the vibrancy and warmth of his sincere smile; no statue, such poise when he was still–or such kinetic elegance as he moved.

“Thank you,” he grinned, covering his heart with his hand, touched by the reception of the crowd, “Thank you!”  His voice was far less formal, though clearly trained–a silken pleasure for the ears.  “I’m Benedict, and in case you didn’t guess already, that was just a bit of the Bard—and one of my favorites.”

His next piece—though unfamiliar to Roz—was humorous and deftly delivered; the man displayed exceptional comic timing (surely the Actor in him, she mused), his manner clearly inviting the audience in for the full effect of the joke.  He had an appealing ease about him, as he played with the sound of the words, his facial expressions exaggerated and reinforcing the comic beats.  Pausing for another quick shot, he followed that poem with Ae Fond Kiss by Robert Burns, conveyed in a flawless Scottish brogue, while he ranged dramatically across the stage, playing directly to the closest tables.  Somehow, once again, his eyes met Roz’s—and she had only a moment to read their warmth and mirth, before he winked.  At her.  Winked at her, a pleasant enough surprise to make her cheeks flush and her heart speed its beat.  This time she wished he wouldn’t turn away–though of course he moved along, even as he finished the verse, returning to center stage, briefly acknowledging the applause, before closing his eyes and composing himself for the next poem.

Roz had already been impressed with how seamlessly he became a new character with each piece; his voice, face, even posture and body movement, uncannily suited and fully committed to his portrayals.  Now he became completely still, breathing deeply while pulling back into himself, shaking off all theatrical tricks.  When he opened his eyes he looked suddenly…vulnerable…leaving her riveted; she was certain by the third line of his recitation that this piece was his own–and that it arose from a place in his soul.  There was a naked truth to the words and phrases he put forth, and in the pauses as he drew breath, so that she swore she was seeing the poet behind the poem; a man striving, with hand on heart, to express his vision of the world—or in this case, his vision of the life he longed for, with a helpmate who would share his dreams.  The humble candor of his words, his imagery, and the cadence of his delivery, hit her with an immediacy that touched her for his sake—and that reminded her of the passions that had led to her own, best poetic attempts.  This actor…artist…poet—this Benedict—seemed to speak her language fluently, and Roz found herself wishing he might read her words aloud sometime, with the same intensity which infused his own.

The poet exhaled with his final line, and bowed his head at the conclusion, not even trying to hide his truth as he rubbed the tracks of his tears from his cheeks.  Looking back up, he smiled sheepishly—a youthful, crooked, sincere smile, that held all the power of the sun after days and days of rain—and as the applause mounted, he bowed at the waist in recognition and gratitude, before springing over to the stool, and downing two shots of whiskey in quick succession.  A ripple of laughter by the audience eased him back to center stage and his final few pieces.

He finished the set with Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale—stirringly, evocatively, beautifully voiced in his rich, velvety baritone.  Yet Rosalind decided that she still preferred the Poet’s own, unnamed work, beyond every other poem in his performance, hoping that he would present more of his own work later in the evening.  He appeared both pleased and genuinely humbled by the enthusiastic applause, grinning as he gave the crowd a deep, lingering, straight-backed bow before nodding to them and waving a farewell as he exited the stage.

The applause faded, and the stage lights dimmed once he had exited, though the energy of his performance remained, animating and warming the crowd.  Moira looked to Rosalind for her reaction, “Good, right?”

“That was…wow…” Rosalind was speechless a moment, running through a silent list of superlatives which failed to capture the essence of his performance.  “Damn.  He is good.  And…and…so much more than good…his voice alone…”  But what could she say to adequately describe the magic of that silken baritone, let alone how he used it—painting vivid pictures and creating characters that breathed with truth, both effects seeming effortless, and in less than a half-dozen lines in some cases.  “Incredible,” she said at last, unable to voice her true appreciation for his work.

Moira was laughing, enjoying the sight of her normally silver-tongued friend, tongue-tied with wonder.  “Pretty easy on the eyes, too—don’t you think?”

Rosalind rolled her eyes. “I suppose,” she smirked, reading Moira’s intention easily—she’d do anything to dislodge David from his hold on Roz’s heart.  “But with a voice like that he could look like Quasimodo, and his recitations would still be magic.  And there’s something…vaguely familiar about him.”

“Yeah, I think he’s done a bunch of stuff on television,” Kelly chimed in, “A couple of movies, too.”

“Hmmmmm,” Rosalind tried to figure out where she might have seen him before–-and laughed when she realized the answer.  Her friends looked at her perplexed, waiting for an explanation.  “Starter for 10,” she grinned, “He played that blonde prat with the stick up his arse.”

“Oh, yeah…total knobhead!” Eileen exclaimed.  “But how can that be the same guy?”

“He’s…he’s good,” Roz offered, “Really, really, good.”  An astonishingly talented chameleon, apparently; and–-as Moira had conveniently pointed out–-pretty easy on the eyes.  She glanced at her friend, who was watching her carefully.

“Mystery solved, then,” Moira smirked, “You must be ready to call it a night now, Roz.  Exhausted from that dinner shift, right?”

Rosalind sighed, and shook her head, acknowledging that her friend knew her only too well.  “I think I’m fine for now, Moira…I’m, uh…I’m sure I can manage to make it through his next set.”  At least.  She clinked her empty glass against Moira’s, “So tell me, please–whose got the next round?”