The way it started was, he met Knox's cousin's roommate Spencer at a New Year's party at the Overstreets, almost a year ago now. Bored by the ostentatious display of wealth and lack of entertainment, after making the obligatory rounds they hid out in the cloakroom with a pilfered platter of hors d'oeuvres. Knox, obligated to remain at the party and circulate among his parents' friends, gave them a covetous look when they snuck away but Neil knew he wouldn't bust them.
It was after a couple of cups of eggnog, and following the sharing of personal secrets for mutually assured destruction, that he told Neil about the Twilight Cabaret. "Only on Saturdays," he said, "and you need to know how to get in. Anything goes at the cabaret. You'll see acts there you only dreamed of. Dreams, maybe nightmares. You never know what you're going to see."
There was no place called the Twilight Cabaret in town, at least on paper or up in lights.
"Well?" said Neil. "Are you going to tell me?"
It was another cup of eggnog and a confession about his most deeply buried childhood memory before he got the details. The basement of a milliner's, entry through the side at a door marked 'Deliveries'. The kind of place Neil thought only existed in New York or maybe California. A place, Spencer said, for people who... don't fit in.
Neil had never been a misfit, not on the outside, but the world he'd been thrust into had never fit him quite right, as hard as he worked for it.
So it was almost a year before he managed to find his way out there. No, that wasn't true. Generations of boys had found it unexpectedly easy to sneak out of Welton, and Neil was pretty sure that was by design. They wanted their boys to become men, and they knew the way they became men was ninety percent discipline and ten percent boys-will-be-boys. It was almost a year before Neil had the guts to go ahead and do it. That was the truth.
And alone because he wasn't sure his friends would get this scene, Dead Poets Society aside, apart from Charlie, and he was pretty sure Charlie didn't know how to keep his mouth shut. He wanted to ask Todd, but that was maybe a conversation for another day.
After all this time, he had to go on faith that the Twilight Cabaret was still there. He hadn't heard any scandals about police raids, anyway, and that was the kind of thing that would've spread through Welton like wildfire.
Neil walked his bike off the grounds under the waxing moon and once he was far enough away he hopped on it for the couple miles' ride into town. Welton might've been easy to get away from, but the golden rule was still not to get caught. Sowing your wild oats was one thing. Embarrassing the school was quite another.
He parked his bicycle in an alley a block away, and hoped it would still be there when he left.
The door was plain, wood, no window, the word 'Deliveries' clearly stencilled onto it, though a bit worse for wear now. He knocked three times and it opened for him. No pass phrase. No namedropping. The woman at the door looked him up and down, squinted, then angled her head towards the stairs.
"Enjoy the birthday party," she said. "I hope you brought a present."
Neil hesitated only a moment before following her unspoken directions, unbuttoning his coat as he went. There was another door at the bottom of the stairs, and beyond that was exactly the kind of place he imagined when Spencer first told him about it: loud, smoky, and bustling with a dizzying variety of people, a kind of energy that made his skin buzz. There was a stage in the corner, a microphone, and just enough room for a band if you were all real good friends.
He smiled and people, strangers, smiled back at him.
When he leaned against the bar and too casually asked for a scotch and soda, he only got a single look up and down before it was being offered to him. "You must be one of Peter's boys," the bartender says to him.
"Who?" said Neil. He didn't remember Knox's cousin's friend's last name but he was sure it wasn't Peters. Pretty sure. He had to admit, there were some details of that night that were fuzzier than he'd like. At least the way to get to this place wasn't one of them.
"Sure," the bartender said, and left him with his drink.
The plan was, Neil would sit in a corner and get a feel for the place. Figure out if he was comfortable enough here. Figure out if he was even going to stay. But the room had other ideas. Before he could get up with his drink and move somewhere else, there was a woman by his shoulder. Maybe ten years older than him, long silver dress, red hair down to her shoulders and crimson lips to match. No, wait. No, it wasn't a woman after all.
Neil stared for a moment, but he was an actor now and this was his world and this was totally fine.
"Hi," he said, "I'm..."
"Can't remember your own name?" the redhead said with a wry smile.
"Neil," he said finally. He was planning to give another name, but the only thing on the tip of his tongue was Todd.
"Kitty," she introduced herself and offered Neil a hand. Neil just looked at it for a moment then figured, in for a penny, in for a pound, and lifted it to his lips and kissed it gallantly. "Oh, a gentleman. It's been a long time since we had one of those in here."
"I do what I can," said Neil.
"You're just not old enough to know any better yet," she said. "I'd love to hear the story of what brought you to darken our doorway tonight, but now that my face is on, it's time for me to earn my keep. I do hope you're here for the show."
"Wouldn't miss it for the world," said Neil, and leaned on his elbow on the bar and watched as Kitty - undoubtedly Miss Kitty right now no matter what anatomy Neil spotted before she introduced herself - made her way up to the stage. It was why he came, after all, and he's hardly going to leave now.
When Spencer told him about the cabaret he couldn't tell him entirely what to expect, because it was never the same from one week to the next. Sometimes it was musical performers, sometimes poetry, sometimes comedy, sometimes even rabble-rousing speeches, and most often a combination of all of these.
Neil didn't just want to watch, he wanted to be a part of it, somehow. But tonight-- tonight was for feeling it out. Tonight was for finding out if it was something he could even dream of doing.
"Another of Miss Kitty's harem?"
"Oh," said Neil as a man moved in next to him, leaned across the bar and motioned for a drink. "Oh, no, we just met."
"With Kitty, that doesn't even matter," he said, flashing Neil a knowing smile as he waited.
"I'm just here to... I'm a student," he said, the last thing he really should have been admitting here and now.
"A student of what?" he said. "Life?"
"Theatre," said Neil. "Poetry."
To his surprise, the man scoffed. "Poetry," he said, his drink in his hand now and taking a long sip. "How can you study poetry when Howl is in the world? You don't study poetry, you experience it. You create it."
"My friend Todd is a poet," said Neil, sipping his own drink. "He doesn't think he is, but he is. He will be."
"Ah, you have a friend Todd," the man said. "Shame."
Neil didn't know what he meant, until he did. "Oh, no, I didn't mean--" he began, stammering the words out. But he didn't finish the sentence.
"Listen to Sarah here," the man went on smoothly, though, gesturing at the corner with his drink, at the young woman at the mike. "She's obsessed with Langston Hughes. You can hear it in her words. But she's... angrier. You can feel that."
Neil did feel that. He felt a lot of things, first among them a sense that he could stay here and just be himself and no one would expect anything else of him. There were vanishingly few places that was true in the world outside those doors.
Part of him wished Todd were here, if this weren't the kind of place that would scare Todd all the way back into his brother's shadow. For all his protestations, for all his shyness, if Todd could let it all go the way he did that one day, that one time, he really would be something to see. He would fit in almost more than Neil did.
When Miss Kitty went up it was clear Miss Kitty was a star of this little corner of the world, no matter what other performers preceded or followed her. Neil soaked it in, and felt the world get bigger around him, even if his own bubble was still very, very small.
He was on his third drink when Kitty came back, alone again, sitting quietly in a shadow while Kitty ordered herself a martini and perched herself right next to him as she sipped it.
"You're still here," she said.
"Of course I am," said Neil. "I need you to tell me how I get to perform on that stage."
She laughed a little and ate an olive with her fingers. "You audition for the manager," she said, "and don't worry, honey, that's not a euphemism." That hadn't even occurred to him until she said it. "I can put in a good word, if you're interested."
"You haven't even seen me perform," he said. "You don't even know what I do."
"You have a fresh face," she said. "You look honest. And besides, if you bomb, that's on you."
Well, that was fair enough, he supposed. And he wanted to do it. He wanted to get up there and do a monologue, or read a poem, or something. He wanted to perform for an audience that would care for what he was putting into it and not just about whether it was right or not.
"I'm just here for tonight," he said.
"Ah," she said. "A tourist."
He shook his head. "I just..." he started, but he didn't know how to explain. He didn't know how to explain to someone who has probably had to burn every bridge they ever crossed just to live their own life that he couldn't stand up to his father, that there was something deep inside him that still wanted to please him even when it went against everything that he really wanted for his own life.
"You're young. Take your time."
"It's not..." he tried again, but the explanation still didn't come. "I'm a student," he said finally, and it was the truth, just not the one he should have been giving. "It's hard to get away."
"A Welton boy," she says. "You're not the first, honey. Won't be the last."
Neil had no doubt, but he was still curious about who had come before him, who also wanted so badly to tear down those walls but couldn't quite find his way. Or maybe they could, and did. And maybe he could too.
"I meant it, though. I want to perform."
She reached into her handbag, pulled out a typewritten card that she handed over. "When you decide to call, tell him Danny sent you," she said. "That's how he'll know it's for real."
Neil couldn't map the name over that face, but he nodded all the same, and he wasn't going to lose that card. He'= was going to do this. He wanted this. He was almost, almost ready for this.
"I need to be getting back," he admitted reluctantly. If he didn't, he was going to want to stay out all night and that, that would mean getting caught. That would mean explaining himself. That might cost him everything. "But it's been a pleasure, Kitty."
"See you next time?"
"I'll be here," he promised, and he meant it when he says it. He didn't know when, but he would be there. "Thank you."
"Just doing my part," she said, and before Neil could get off his stool she gave him a kiss on the cheek. "To remember me by," she said, as if Neil could forget.
He was going to leave it there, and when Todd asked how he got lipstick on his cheek, he was going to have to leave him wondering. Not because he was embarrassed, but because he wouldn't even know where to start.
"Good night," he said, and forced himself to go, or he never would. Back out the door, up the stairs and into the silence of the late fall street. His bicycle was still there, and the ride back to Welton was all the shorter for the new anticipation in him. He had the play coming up, and then maybe next month at the cabaret, and then who knows.
The world might just open up for him one day, if he let it.