tagNovels and NovellasBeyond Limits Ch. 02

Beyond Limits Ch. 02


No. I had no reason to complain. Things were going amazingly well. That last soliloquy remained to be written and that would determine the final, overall cast of the play, but that was all. I was stubbornly holding onto that, having some ambiguous feelings about my characters, or maybe I just liked making everyone nervous.

The play was quite simply a phenomenon. Grehen and Bud Carlton had called in some favors and used their connections to make sure that certain critics came from Chicago and LA just to have a special dinner at Seymour's and sample his cheeky Michigan wine, and that started everyone talking. That's when college drama was a hot topic, and I didn't even have to get involved. That was all it took. Mars Rattley came out from Hollywood and despite the secrecy, people found out he was interested and that blew the lid off. Rehearsals had to be forcibly closed and campus security sent over two rent-a-cops to oust the crowds of people who'd taken to attending. They even closed down a mini-scalper business that had sprung up selling center aisle seats to the rehearsals.

Things kept on getting better between Lexi and me. The passion in our affair was at an all-time high, and for all intents and purposes, she'd pretty much moved in with me. We were something of an open secret on campus now, and everyone looked the other way simply because the play was such an impossible success that it granted me a kind of general dispensation or temporary deityhood. Alums would stop by, Dane Tipton, the college President would smile benevolently at us, I could do no wrong.

Even so, I worried. I worried about success, and I worried about what I still felt was my tenuous hold on Lexi. Yes, she loved me. She said it time and again. She gave me whatever I wanted sexually, except for submission. That she said she couldn't do because she didn't have it in her. She wasn't that way and you can't give something you don't have.

And I wondered myself. Just what was it I wanted from her? I didn't need for her to wear a leash and collar or lick my boots. I didn't want her to call me "Master" or kneel when I came into the room.

What I wanted was to know that she'd be willing to do that for me. What I wanted was a visible manifestation of all those "I adore you's" and "I've never loved anyone the way I love you's". I wanted to know that she loved me enough to put herself in my hands, to cede control to me. I admit it—I'm twisted, I'm warped. That kind of thing is important to me. It speaks to me of trust and love and deep devotion. She claimed she couldn't give that to me because it didn't speak to her in the same way it did to me. Fine. I could respect that if it were true. But since that time she pushed my hand away, her claim that she couldn't give that kind of love to me was starting to seem more like she wouldn't give it. It felt like a choice she made, maybe not consciously, but a choice nonetheless. She was denying me.

But then, I was aware too that I never came out and demanded that kind of obedience from her. I never demanded that she give me control over her. I couldn't. Were I to demand it and she were to refuse, that would be it. I'd lose her, I'd lose everything. I'd find out how little power I actually did have over her, over everything.

A master doesn't really master anyone. Other people surrender to him. If they withhold that surrender, he's nothing. What can he do? Threaten them? Leave them? We exist because of the grace other people grant us.

* * * * *

Well fed, well fucked, full of success and with things going amazingly well, I began to look around for things I could destroy, ruin, and fuck-up. That's what I do. That's how I operate. It's what happens. I began to pick at the relationship.

I started with jealousy over Grehen, logically enough. Lexi was taken with him. I started attending rehearsals to see what the story was. I thought I'd make him nervous—he was, after all, directing my play, the play I'd written, the play whose meaning I knew and he didn't.

The first day I attended, he stared at me for a while, then came over.

"Ah, so you're going to stay then, Russell?" He spoke American well. I had to remind myself that he was acting, putting on an American accent. His Irish was still recognizable beneath it if you listened. "That's fine, that's fine. I'll be interested to hear what you think, afterwards." There was the slightest emphasis on this last word.

"I have one thing to ask you, though. Here in the theater, I'm in charge. I'm the play, so to speak. So please—no second guessing. No suggestions, no objections, no deep sighs or penetrating stares. The play is out of your hands now and God knows you've done a marvelous job, a staggering piece of writing, man. But now your plays given over to the actors and you're a spectator. It's the only way we can work, if you see what I mean. I hope you're okay with that, now."

He had piercing green eyes, totally free of guile, as cool and compelling as pools of glacial melt. He was a very handsome man, very well put together. There was a sense of order about him. You could tell he'd always lived in clean and orderly spaces.

"Of course, Cormac," I said. "I only want to observe."

"Fine then. That's fine. I suggest you go with April then. She can help you get settled and explain what we're up to. April, why don't you take Russell up to the good seats?"

I knew April—April Louterbeck. She was in my fiction class, a very attractive, lissome blonde who did everything in her power to look decadent and bohemian, including having her nostril and lower lip pierced, but despite the black teeshirt and oversized cardigan against the chill of the theater, she still looked fresh and starkly innocent, with straight blonde hair that framed an elfin face with intelligent blue eyes, a swanlike neck, and flawless skin that reminded me of rose petals. She appeared to be another one of Cormac's protégés, of whom there seemed to be an army, all of them with stopwatches and clipboards. I liked her from class though, and liked the way she always seemed to be shyly flirting with me.

She smiled conspiratorially to me now and led me back about ten rows to a seat on the aisle and we chatted while Cormac worked with the crew over some lighting cues. They had a new head electrician that day and he wanted to get things right.

"I'm so glad you finally came down here." She turned in her chair, framing her tits in her arms. As I say, she was always boyishly flirty toward me and I found it charming, possibly because she wasn't all that good at it and I felt I could handle it easily enough.

"The rehearsals are going well?"

"Well it's brilliant, It just really is, Russell." I made my students call me by my first name. I know it's corny, but Mr, Backuss is worse. "Reading it is one thing, but seeing it performed and watching Cormac work out the parts is just so incredible. You realize how much depth there is and how many ways there are to play it. It's like a ballet, a mystery, and they're not even trying yet! The actors aren't really even putting themselves into it yet. Mr. Carlton really made the right decision in getting Cormac, he really did. He's just awesome! This is a whole education right here and the play was just made for him, he has such insight into these characters."

I nodded. I hadn't realized there were "so many ways to play it". To me there was just one way, the way I'd written it, with Max being exploited by a scheming, conniving Allison who destroys his true love with Jessica.

But April seemed very much taken with Grehen too. In fact, they all were, and watching him work I soon saw why. The man was very good at what he did, highly professional and thoroughly experienced, clever and creative on the fly and very adept at drafting people into working with him and getting them on his side. He was an expert manager, a people handler, delegating responsibility and making others believe he trusted them. He was, in a word, slick—eminently slick.

I've heard it said that there are actors who immerse themselves in their roles until they're saturated with their characters, and then there are actors who take a different approach and actually fool us into believing that they're who they're pretending to be. The former convince us with a mass of detail; the latter by weaving some magic spell that defines the essence of what that character is, the hypostasis of the character. Cormac Grehen did this latter, but not with the characters in the play, rather he did it with the actors themselves. That was his management style. Cormac Grehen had found what kind of person each of the actors responded to, and he provided them with that kind of person. How he figured out what they each needed, I have no idea, but that was the way he interacted, as if he made a negative mold of what they wanted and then insinuated himself like a wedge between the actor and the harsh reality of this world, twisting around and adjusting himself until he found the perfect fit.

Maybe you had to be a playwright to see it, how well his characters fit with the actors' personalities, or maybe I was paranoid and it was no more than good management technique, but it seemed to me that Cormac was a master.

I already knew Sean Delinn and Suzy Jonas-Feldman who played Max and Jessica from the early read-throughs and dinners at Bud's house. For the tightly wound and histrionic Sean, Cormac was relaxed and easy going—no threat whatsoever. For Suzy, who'd been some sort of child prodigy, Cormac was a star-struck admirer who guided her around the stage with a series of helpful, deferential suggestions.

I wasn't ready for the way he treated Lexi, though. I wasn't ready at all, and I should have taken notice. I really should have, because I was marveling at how well he'd read Sean and Suzy, and I don't know why I thought he was wrong about Lexi, but I did, and so I didn't see the significance.

He dominated her. He just dominated her. He didn't really belittle her as much as he ignored her suggestions and ignored her as a person so that she had no purchase on him, no effect, and he used his intellect and his presence to dominate her, to order her around and make her obey him, and she didn't seem to mind it all. In fact, she didn't even seem to notice it. No one did.

"Allison, that's your cue!" He didn't quite shout, but his words were sharp with contempt.

"I'm sorry, Cormac." Lexi was tentative, almost frightened. "I thought you wanted me to wait a few beats there."

He didn't so much as look up at her. He looked at the stage at his feet and spoke to the air above her head. "Allison, I said that's your cue!" He spit the words at her and she hurried to her spot and began to read

"Max! I didn't see you there!" She crushed her script in her hand in her anxiety. "Why don't you go inside now? No one can see you in this light. No one can see anything in this light..." She was nervous now, rattled. I'd never seen her like this, like a frightened child.

Sitting on the back of a seat in the first row, Cormac turned his head to the side as if she'd shown him something too disgusting to look at. He exhaled through his teeth and shook his head sadly, then circled his finger in the air is the motion for "hurry up".

"I've set things out for you, baby, just the way you like," Lexi read quickly. "Everything's laid out just the way you like. At least come have a look, Max. I went through all this trouble. Come and see baby..." Her voice was wheedling, almost shrill. This wasn't the woman I knew.

Cormac lazily held up a hand indicating "stop" and the entire theater went dead quiet, the noise just stopped, then the breathing stopped. Even April sitting next to me froze. Lexi looked up from her script like a deer caught in a hunter's crosshairs and my stomach curdled in my gut. I felt a surge of adrenaline and heard my heart pumping in the silence.

"You're a seductress," Cormac said in a whisper. He spoke slowly, but he was quite audible. "You're not some wheedling granny or plantation slave. You're a woman seducing your lover. Tell me, Lexi, do you know how to seduce a man?"

He looked at her. Everyone looked at her. She didn't move.

"Well do you, dear? Yes or no?"

He already knew about Lexi and me. Everyone did. He knew I was sitting right there. He knew I'd come to see Lexi. How could he not know that?

"Yes or no, sweetheart? Do you know how to seduce a man? Do you know how to talk when you're seducing a man?"

Someone in the back coughed nervously, trying to give her some cover. It didn't work. I felt my face grow hot and flushed.

"Yes," she said

"Oh?" Cormac answer. "You do? And is that how you do it? In that tone of voice. The men you're with find that sexy? They find that appealing?"

He stood up and approached the stage.

I could see her face now. She wasn't red, she was bone white, drained of blood.

Cormac turned and faced the theater. "Everything's laid out! just the way you like...!" He drawled, trailing a limp wrist. "At least, come have a look...Max!. I went through all this... trouble! Come... and see! Baby!"

It was terrible overacting in my opinion—laughable—but no one laughed, least of all Lexi, who stood watching him with a hot glow of humiliation in her eyes, as if he'd stripped her bare, set her on fire, doused her with cold water and then lit her on fire again.

I looked at him and I looked at her and I knew by the way she was standing there looking at him her nipples were hard beneath her sweatshirt, inside her bra. She was excited. For some insane reason she was excited by what he was doing to her. I knew at the same time that we'd laugh about Cormac Grehen at dinner, at what utter bullshit he was, but sitting there looking at her, something hysterical seized me.

Yes he was bullshit, obvious bullshit. He was humiliating me and he was humiliating her, but he'd touched my woman. Something in Lexi was excited, very excited. He'd touched her in a place I couldn't touch her, a place I wouldn't dare touch her because I loved her too much. I loved her too much to touch her there, where you had no respect for her, where she wanted to be touched.

"Try it," he said, but it was obvious that Lexi was too upset to get into character now. She did a nervous imitation of Cormac's performance but she was out of it, her concentration shot, and then Sean broke the tension by imitating her and that made Suzy laugh and that was like a pipe bursting. Everyone laughed with relief and relaxed, and only then did Lexi turn red, bright red, so red she seemed to stagger a bit.

I'd seen her embarrassed before. For an actress she embarrassed easily when she was out of character, but now she looked transported, almost delirious with embarrassment, as if she'd been turned into another person. In the general confusion and goofiness on stage, she moved around laughing awkwardly and straightening props in some dim simulacrum of sudden domesticity, as if she'd been reduced to little womanhood.

Sitting right there, April was embarrassed for me. There was no avoiding it.

"Sometimes he can be a real prick," she said, holding her breath.

I was afraid to speak. "It looks like it, yeah."

She glanced down at me beneath dark lashes. "He's pulled that on me too," she said. "It doesn't mean anything, Russell. It's how he works."

I didn't say anything.

She turned to me and asked, "Are you guys getting along okay? Lexi's living with you now, isn't she?"

I knew April from the creative writing class I taught and from a few parties I'd gone to that she'd been at. As I said, she'd always been friendly toward me and she was a very attractive girl in a Seventeen magazine-ish kind of way, an ingénue trying to look bad, a way that wasn't really my type but that most men find very attractive. I don't know where she got the notion that she could ask me such a thing. I just stared at her.

"I'm sorry," she said, looking down and biting her pencil. "God! I'm really sorry! What's wrong with me? I have no business asking you anything like that. Forgive me, Russell, I just wasn't thinking!"

"It's all right."

"I just feel so at ease with you, and Cormac got me so upset."

"It's all right, April. Tell me, have you known Lexi long?"

"I feel like such an idiot! Lexi? No. Just this term, just through theater. But she seems like a wonderful person."

"You say Cormac did the same thing to you?"

"Yes. Pretty much. Not in front of the whole cast and crew though, thank God."

Up by the stage Cormac was clapping his hands to restore order. Lexi was out of his range though and had escaped his line of fire. She caught my eye. She held up a finger indicating that she needed a minute to collect some things, then disappeared backstage. She didn't look devastated and I was somewhat surprised. I turned back to April who was doing something with her hair and a piece of elastic that caused her tits to arch out at me in a startling manner.

"Tell me about it," I said.

"Oh..." She was holding the elastic in her teeth. She began to wrap it around her hair and her breasts moved up and down. Her faded blue tee shirt said, "I rode the Jesus Slide at BibleLand!" "He does that with all the women. That's why we call him "Sore-Mick". "Sore-Mick Grab-on". He likes to brow beat you and make you cry. He did it to Nessa McCarthy and she dissolved into tears and then she says he came on to her."

I looked at her.

She looked back, her hands in her hair. She shrugged. "Nessa thinks everyone comes onto her so I don't know. He's a great director, but he's just a real son of a bitch sometimes. Thinks the sun rises and sets on him. With me, he just caught me in a corner the second day of rehearsal and started asking me questions till he found a weak-point. I'm prop-mistress and second assistant and hadn't read the entire script backwards to front and so he lit into me, tried to make me feel that big. Really nasty, uncalled-for stuff. He's very smart, very well-spoken and can really turn it on. I was on the verge of tears myself when Dean Tipton came through with a bunch of alums and he had to stop."

Lexi came walking out of the side door carrying her bag. She seemed happy and relaxed. There was a bounce to her step.

"Russell?" April said quickly. She finished with her hair, then wrote down a number on a piece of paper from her clipboard, biting her tongue in concentration. She tore it off and gave it to me. "I'm sorry if this is weird, but I've been wanting to talk to you about this for a while now and now it's important. A Rose of Water in the Body of the Sea? I need to talk to you about that and I waited too long and now it's urgent. Can you call me? Just you and me. Strictly confidential, I swear. I need some help, Russell. Please."

A Rose of Water in the body of the Sea was a series of poems I'd done about my experiences with heavy drugs when I'd come close to destroying myself and seen several of my friends die. Luckily, I'd never become physically addicted. I was able to avoid that, but those days were a mixture of heaven and hell that at times haunted me still and still infected my writing, and when April mentioned that title through her perfectly shaped lips and that innocent face—she couldn't have been much over twenty-one—I felt a thrill clamp down on me like I'd just taken a cold shot. What did she want to talk about?

She picked up her clipboard and held it to her chest as she stood up with a bright smile as Lexi approached. Covering her chest was a way of signaling that she wasn't a threat, I suppose. Not that she could have been, not then. The girls said hello and Lexi took my arm and April excused herself and Lexi and I walked out without a look back at Cormac.

She was smiling, walking on her toes. I was baffled.

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