Birdsong chokes me up. It's the best play I've seen so far on this London trip, and I've seen some real beauties. The man sitting next to me couldn't agree more. "It's pure poetry," he says when the lights go on at intermission. Then after a pause, "Care to get a drink?"
Pure poetry. Pretty smooth, I'm thinking. We both stand. He's quite tall with coal black skin, that really rich hue before the mixing of the races. I notice a little gray through his hair. His voice is upper crust English.
We climb up one flight to the Stalls bar. I can feel him behind me on the stairs though he keeps a proper distance. The tight bar is packed and noisy as usual. I don't smoke anymore. No one smokes indoors in this country, either. Even Paris has no-smoking laws. I miss everyone jammed in, lighting up and ruining the air.
"What is your drink?" He says this close to my ear, bending. His voice is deep and warm against my cheek.
"I'll have a gin and lemon please."
I watch him move toward the bar. Very tall men have an advantage— others move aside as if accommodating a building rising in their midst. He returns fairly quick, handing me the drink. "So are you a visiting American or do you work here?"
Sooner or later the question had to come up, be answered. I smile saying, "Visiting. Indefinitely."
His face registers surprise, but only for a moment. "Neat trick if you can pull it off."
Then he looks at me closely and I feel my lips start to go dry. "Yes, well. We'll see how it goes."
"You're staying with friends?"
"In a way."
I don't say that my friends (friend) is the hotel manager I've come to know over the years from staying at the same lovely place. A friend to both me and Jack. Or that Jack is not on this trip, nor expected to arrive any time soon, or later.
"In a way," the man repeats. His dark eyes amused. He laughs lightly. Nice sounding. Not disparaging or confrontational. Not one of those what do you mean kind of laughs. Most men are generally good at hiding things in the beginning though. When I say nothing further, he adds, "I won't probe. At least tell me your name."
"It's Paula. Paula Myles."
"Good having a drink with you, Paula. And having you as my seat-mate for Birdsong."
"It's amazing, right? It's all about war yet they've managed to keep it alive. Is that the right word, alive?"
He nods. "Oh, yes, it's alive. A great alive play."
"And you are?"
We shake hands. First we drank, now we're shaking hands. It's all backward, life is backward, I'm thinking. He's searching my face the way a doctor looks at a patient when they actually do look. Jack, my husband, is a doctor. For years I felt he looked at me through a screen, the way doctors scan graphs and xrays and computer information showing bones and lumps. Breakage. Is Peter Quimby checking me for breakage?
"Since you got to ask, now it's my turn. Are you visiting or do you work here?" The intermission bells are chiming. I picture the ice-cream girl near the stage starting to pack up the cups of chocolate and vanilla unsold on her tray. A sweet English tradition. "We don't sell ice-cream in our theatres in the States," I tell Peter Quimby.
"Yes, I know that."
Since I don't want to carry in my drink, I gulp down what's left of it and make my way toward the stairs.
When we're seated, he turns to me. "Do you think it will work out?"
"Birdsong. Do you think it will have a happy ending?"
"Honestly I have no idea."
BIO: Susan Tepper is the author of four published books of fiction and a chapbook of poetry. Her current novel 'The Merrill Diaries (Pure Slush Books) is a tale of love, lust and adventure that spans continents. Tepper is a named-finalist in storySouth Million Writers Award for 2014, and the recipient of 9 Pushcart nominations. She conducts UNCOV/rd, an author/book Interview Series on Flash Fiction Chronicles, and the monthly rant 'Let's Talk' at Black Heart Magazine. FIZZ, her reading series at KGB Bar, has been sporadically ongoing for seven years. www.susantepper.com