The Cost of the Show

Jessica Lee Richardson

Geoff showed me the shark habitat but not until after I’d tumbled down a waterslide into the harbor. Geoff went to Harvard and enjoyed pointing things out. Bay water streamed from my nose. The sharks’ side fins were easy to spot once you knew the depth to look for, he assured me. People scan for top fins, but those are submerged far below the surface. What you’re looking for is a dark mass shaped like a cross, but with a whipping tail to stun fish. Stunned fish are easier to eat.

I was bleeding from my ankle. A seam on the slide? I probably shouldn’t tempt the mostly docile sharks with blood. I slapped my wet feet up, dripping on the dock. I’d tempt the humans with my charm. “What about an amusement park?” I asked, folding my soaked self back into the group. Behind me well-educated Geoff and his fashionista buddy Sy traded travel tidbits. It wasn’t long before they smelled fresh meat. Geoff’s sparkling eyes shot my way. Sy was dating my friend and manager, Yaelle. She trailed behind.

Yaelle and Sy the fashionista were difficult to recommend things to. They’d visited every tourist trap this side of the Mississippi. I squeegeed my shorts out. They didn’t want to fly. They were avoiding emissions. They didn’t want to stay in a hotel and support corporations, but they didn’t want to stay in an Airbnb and support increasing homelessness. They didn’t want an itinerary that was boring or expected.

They nodded at me, like aren’t you cute, and pretended to consider amusement parks.

“Try again, Bloodmuffin,” Geoff said.

I met Geoff moving chairs in a study room in the library. They were historic chairs, expensive historic chairs, and he pushed them around like matchbox cars, while he talked, endlessly, about his taste. He seemed to think his taste is what constituted his identity. I was charmed by this oddness, and we exchanged numbers. I don’t know if he was charmed, but he was a theatre person and at least mildly curious about every character bio he brushed against.

When I went out with Geoff and Sy the fashionista and their group of self-admiring friends, they did things like wrap me in strappy gold heels. I’ll admit my legs looked fabulous in them. But no way was I wobbling on those pain blades at a dance club. Clomping around in the torture chambers for our little fashion show last night is probably why I was bleeding now, with swarms of sharks swimming six to eight feet beneath my feet and nothing but a warm plank between us. Seeing their shapes switch and thrash dizzied me and I shivered. Beyond us the sea roared a sinister hush.

This stake-raising predator setup was status quo for Geoff and Sy. They had subtly bullied me since I met them. They subtly bullied everyone. It was just their personalities. The long hot boardwalk splintered both feet. I slowed down and walked alongside them, grabbing Yaelle’s hand, and pulling her forward.

At the car Geoff handed me a towel. “Ew, but don’t bloody it with those sausage feet!” The others laughed. I dried off smiling, breathing in the broken minerals of the day, content to not to be shark lunch. I didn’t ask myself if I should have higher standards.

By then our friend groups had merged, and Patrice, Delanne, and R.C. were candidates for this biting teasing too. But Geoff and Sy had located in me a susceptibility level that pleased them. I wouldn’t wobble through town in their gold heels of horror, but I’d model them. I’d even do a little catwalk hip thing. It was a perfect arrangement. They could have an impact but wouldn’t break me. Maybe maim, but they enjoyed a good maiming.

Then they paid a visit. They were supposed to be picking me up for some casual ax throwing. “I’ll be right down,” I said into the phone.

“No need,” they said giggling. “We’re coming up.”

Avoiding it would’ve been too awkward, so I opened the door. They didn’t arrive on a particularly bad day. No one who needed their meds was off them and no one who shouldn’t be taking meds was on them. No one drank themselves into a stupor, or fought, or OD’d on the couch or cracked mean jokes. Just laying eyes on the small, state subsidized housing my family members stuffed ourselves into was enough to fell them. The attention deficit disorder of the home upset their sensibilities. Neglected corners visibly broke their tiny try-hard hearts as they asked them to enter what they could not account for.

Geoff feigned an allergy attack and Sy took him home. No axes thrown.

Now Geoff and Sy were nice to me. Too nice. I’d become a pet. My mere presence was character research, and it buoyed a cloak of progressive generosity they felt fluffed their look. I almost missed their snide remarks about my clothing, or my partner’s accent, or my dubious grasp on certain swaths of European history. Almost. Hanging out with them now required cosigning this sugar-shell of falseness. I missed joking around.

I taught at a camp for the teenaged children of billionaires once. At night we shared our collected gratitudes around a fire. They liked to thank the “maids” in long syrupy diatribes “for all they had given them. For all they had sacrificed.” I wanted to scream. They’re just doing their jobs! It isn’t for you. But I was stuck watching the kids traipse around in their sprawling, ill-fitting cloaks, tripping on themselves, then lifting their heads for my praise. It was eternal. Geoff and Sy donned those cloaks now, watching the flame of their own wonderful generosity flicker in a fire of their own making, feeling themselves to be gods, awaiting my benediction.

I seldom offered it. But I didn’t dump them, either. So, I’d better take some responsibility. I admit I was afraid to lose their party invites and marina passes. Even their weed was better than mine. Geoff had his own boat slip. That’s where we were headed again when he agreed with me, “Yeah, not when you’re bleeding, you shouldn’t. You shouldn’t swim here when you’re bleeding,” he nodded. Though not long ago, not long ago at all, he’d watched me from above, flailing in a trail of red without saying a single word. Gulls circled overhead.

The shellac of Geoff’s regard did show cracks here and there. Later at a diner he slipped the server his heavy credit card. Between milkshake sips he said, “It’s not that we don’t love you, it’s just your people are really expensive.”

            “My people?”


 Maybe I shouldn’t have longed for the days of my near devouring to return. When they did, I was unprepared. I had only recently returned from taking my father’s freshly incinerated ashes to a cliff side resort. It was a place he loved to visit as a child. No one had really given him a proper funeral. Everyone just poured one out in the grass.

I thought there should be something more, so I set out for the mountains. The hotel was chintzy and smelled comfortingly of pine and bleach washed with hints of musky cologne. I clenched my jaw, but otherwise slept fine on the clean springy mattress and the sunrise promised real closure with its placental pinks and reds. The strong coffee at breakfast spoke to a glimmer of hope too. But without proper instructions or clarity on legalities, I wound up pacing in the back of the hotel and frothing myself into a panic, eventually leaving him boxed, propped beside a stand of flowering bushes behind the air conditioning units. It didn’t seem grand enough, but after the units there was only the dizzying cliff.

Back in the city, I told the story of the simpler betrayal. As I spoke, I found even that narrative unweaving into loose and flaccid wool. Was I the unreliable pipsqueak the others thought I was? It was possible. Who truly knew themselves? My friends listened, nodding and smiling, sensing my archetypal trouble, but not yet having heard the gossip. Cress and Howell were framed by an industrial window and seated on a velvet couch. We lounged in their light drenched Harlem apartment, a refuge for underfunded artists they wiggled onto a list for, despite the lavish gifts their families lathered them in.

They lounged. I squirmed.

“I missed Geoff’s play,” I said. “That set him off. I bought tickets for opening night, but I didn’t show.”

“Why didn’t you go to the play?” They were theatre people and friends of Geoff’s. I sensed their allegiance floating toward the wounded actor of the tale.

“My father died.” I tensed against the swell that trailed words.

Their heads dropped. Cress apologized for my loss, her eyes welling up just enough to glaze them and warm her cheeks. She felt herself becoming more beautiful and it fed her magnanimity. She extended an arm.

I knew it was gestural, but the care her gentle hand represented nudged the wrongness in my chest. The ache dropped down. Her partner brought me a can of flavored seltzer. The fizzing lent contrast to my gut situation, and I tipped the can his way.

“What an asshole.” Cress enunciated the S’s in asshole to prove the depth of her feelings.

“He doesn’t know.”

“What?!?” Howell was a director. “Geoff doesn’t know?!?” He was incredulous. I got the sense he would never offer me a seltzer again.

He walked the length of the apartment. But he turned out to be as generous as Cress. He returned to hand me a plate of tuile wafers. He would block out the scene. He would offer an objective. “My Love. You’ve got to tell him!”

I nodded, dropping crumbs all over my t-shirt. Though no one was talking to me at the moment. Not furious Geoff, not Sy, not my friends Patrice and Delanne. Not even sweet R.C., the young server that commuted from the Bronx and shared their hard strawberry candies when teaching tuckered me out. Yaelle was cold too. She scheduled me for poor shifts and huddled with the others. Imagining butting into closed napkin folding circles to announce my dad’s passing sent the ache barreling down. If I didn’t speak it aloud, I could suspend my grief in an almost sweet gelatin for whole hours at a time. I preferred the gelatin and quiet.

“I wasn’t that close to my father,” I said. This was a lie with a sliver of truth in it. It comforted people who did not know how to comfort me. It was easier to lead them elsewhere than to sit in their distress, or worse, pity. Pity is the ultimate power move. But these were theatre people! Born to comfort. Born for distress. Born understanding pity sucks raw ostrich. So, what was Geoff’s excuse?

In any case he was pitiless now. He donned his cloak, and not only had I not complimented his efforts, I hadn’t even watched him. His ruthlessness at being unseen would be nearly refreshing if it wasn’t such exquisite piss.

“Bish bosh,” one of them said in imitation of a baking program judge. “It’s your father. Geoff will understand why you missed the show. You’ve got to speak up, Love.”

I agreed and ducked into the night buzzing with freon and copper. Agreement was easier than honesty. Especially when I didn’t know the truth. 

The truth found me the next day as we finished up our culminating Teaching Artist visit at PS/IS 111.

The school invited elementary students to watch the middle school students’ adaptation of The Tempest. The children went wild for the storm. It was manufactured by an easy, but visually gripping, stomping. The students stood in a long line and stomped slowly at first, in perfect unison. The waves of stomping increased momentum with painful anticipation until the intensity became so hard and so fast the performers, in this case the entire 8th grade, were running in place.

Their faces were set like they had watched YouTube videos of Haka dancers. They pounded the resin varnished stage so hard and so fast that one of them inadvertently shouted their own name.

The children lost it. They chanted the name. The kid became a star and a storm unleashed. The cycle of the world.

Seeing the students after the show with their smiles and colorful backpacks lifted me. I vowed to return to my own sweetness. It was connected, somehow, to my ferocity. After the short strike, I dipped into an organic bakery and bought a lemon scone. I dropped a piece for the pigeons and looked out at Hell’s Kitchen’s transient marchers, speeding for the Port Authority, to work or home, dinner or a show. Unconsciously, did I know the marquee for Geoff’s play would beckon there in the dusk with sugar crystals crumbling from my lips?

I would be sweet, I would be sweet. I went dutifully.

Unfortunately, the house manager shook her head. “There are no seats left,” she said. “You should have come earlier.”

You should have come earlier,” I said.

Luckily, she laughed.

“Unless,” she said, curling an invisible mustache and stroking an invisible beard, “You’re willing to run on and off the stage.”

I didn’t think I was, no. I’d take the long train back to the coast. I would make better friends, or if not, I’d watch the scraggly shore birds fight for pizza crusts. I was ready to forget Geoff, forget this theatre, but the manager confused my frozen stance with assent. She asked an usher to take over her station while she led me house right. She showed me a lever on the side of the stage beside my seat.

I panicked. “What does this control?”

“The lights.”

“What lights?”

She laughed. “Don’t worry, just jump up and give it a tug when the actors go on.”

I shook my head, but either she didn’t see or pretended not to.

“And then what?”

I waved my arms, but either she didn’t feel or pretended not to.

“Audience participation,” she said.

She pivoted and walked back to her long line, leaving me to my chair in the darkest corner of the house, with terrible sightlines and all the power you could ask for. Delicious revenge was right there in my hands if I wanted it, but I didn’t.

When I tugged the lever in offering to the grand old show, believe me when I tell you the light was so glaring, I heard its filaments bristle. I stood electrically shocked, bathed in peripheral luster, and fully seen by my nemesis, who dropped his head in reverence. His next ninety-seven minutes depended entirely on my kindness and even in the throes of my sweet vow, I pitied him. His stunned legs shook. I did not know when I would be needed again in this performance, so instead of returning to my seat, I stood there beaming, tall spined and watching, my face twisting, my feet gently stomping, my hand ever on the lever of this expense.