I was by then no great fan of the stage, in fact as a rule I found theater tiresome. The plays had grown too much like films, with their preposterous budgets, their every hair and smile and bit of dialogue glued into place and buffed beyond recognition. Or else they had grown too much like television, their sound and fury crescendoing predictably to overwrought moments of pregnant silence, stuffing pathos and catharsis, meaning and theme into us like feed down a duck’s mouth. These were, so to speak, the two meals on the menu for which we were supposed to pay increasingly preposterous sums at the black boxes and the grand gilded palaces alike. And the applause had grown out of control. There was hardly a play, hardly an actor, hardly a bluffly extended arm from the cast in the direction of the lighting crew that did not meet a standing ovation, and not merely a dutiful ovation, but one born of deep and rapturous passion. In short, the audiences had grown worse than the theater itself, with their clapping and barking, their hooting and whistling going on and on in gratitude for the slop the players hurled at us, for minutes and minutes and minutes on end, convincing ourselves of the nobility of what we had witnessed, cheering the breadth of the pathos, the height of the catharsis, the novelty of the meaning, and the depth of the theme.
Maybe it was just my growing awareness of every moment spent as a moment never regained, but it seemed to me these rounds of applause had grown longer and longer with every season. During one such interminable curtain call I rested my cupped hand on Lucy’s shoulder, which was our sign to one another to regroup in the mezzanine. She was clapping along even harder than the rest, her green eyes glassy with pathos and meaning in the reflected light of the stage. On nights like this I liked to relieve myself before the rush got underway, but this time the ovation had gone on so long that quite a number of us had evidently arrived at the same idea. I therefore encountered a sizable line for the restroom, whose heavy brass fixtures spoke to the theater’s age, as did its dark wood doors along with its ancient porcelain toilets and well-scrubbed seafoam tile. Men gave one another significant looks, as if not only the theater but also we had lived past our apotheosis and remained here only on borrowed time. We unfolded our hands and gestured open-palmed, insisting one another go ahead, no really, please, making quite a show out of little acts of consideration, reminded as we were of our common humanity by the play’s generosity of spirit. All of this seemed to take a very long time, and moreover I had a significant amount of material from which to unburden myself, but even so, it was only as I emerged from my stall that I heard the applause that had filled the building recede and fizzle out.
When I finally made my way from the restroom, following a burly, besuited man who held the door open for me with his enormous wet hand, I spotted Lucy on the mezzanine, chatting in a tight little conversation circle with a married couple a number of years our senior who had nevertheless become good friends of ours, at least to the extent that we lingered with them for some time in crowded in-between places of the theater before proceeding to the exit. They were quite the influential couple in our circle, Lucy frequently reminded me, though you wouldn’t know it from how gracious they were, she always added.
I advanced on the three of them, side-stepping and ever-so-gently elbowing my way through the thick crowd of dazzled eyes and open hearts. And yet when I arrived, I found Lucy and the older couple had formed such a tight conversation circle that there was neither a place nor a pause for me to insert myself gracefully into it. Oh, I could have loomed obviously over Lucy’s shoulder, or cleared my throat with willful ostentation, or I could have gone so far as to simply barge in, talking over one or the other of them until they acknowledged me and made minor adjustments to their posture, turned their torsos slightly in order to open a small space for me in the circle, but I find these gestures humiliating. To engage in such conversational tactics is to surrender the battle before arriving at the field, and by that evening I was in no mood to debase myself further, given how this influential older couple had repeatedly ignored our past invitations to engage in conversation beyond the confines of the theater lobby. Whether a post-show dinner or a pre-show cocktail, an intimate soiree with a few key players, or even a simple cup of coffee, they had ignored each and every one of them, had not rejected them but actually ignored them, regardless of the degree to which our invitations prioritized their convenience over our own, made it as easy to accept as could be. Despite the fact that in many cases it would have been more convenient to say yes than anything else, and arguably more enjoyable for all involved than unduly crowding ourselves into one nook or cranny or another in the theater for a few fleeting moments, time and again they ignored these invitations, failed even to throw us a polite lie about a previous engagement or an upcoming early morning the way you toss the fat bits of steak to a dog.
By now the crowd had dwindled significantly, but the place where Lucy and the couple had stationed themselves, wedged as it was in a corner between the ornate brass water fountain and the dark, heavy wood counter of the coat check, continued to prevent me from gracefully entering their circle. In fact, when the older couple saw me orbiting nearby, they seemed to take my presence as their cue to proceed to the exit, for now they were all cheery goodbyes and half-sincere promises to finally get together soon—promises they had repeatedly offered before and which seemed intended to shield them from any of our more concrete entreaties. The man, who, truth be told, was a bit dull and ponderous for my taste, was now peeling off from the conversation circle to exchange his chit for their coats while avoiding opening any new front of conversation with me that might force them away from this tactical retreat and into lingering longer in the pleasantly lit and ornately decorated mezzanine. He merely nodded in my direction as he turned to face the coat check, and soon the couple took their leave, and then Lucy said she needed to use the restroom, and so, alone, I exchanged my own chit with the red-eyed coat attendant, who had been counting his tips and waiting for me to come along and claim the last of the coats in his care. As soon as he handed me the coats and I fingered a folded bill his way and he added it to a respectable wad he had collected and proceeded now to stuff into his pocket, he flipped the coat check lights off and disappeared without a word through a door in the back wall of the little room.
Only then did I realize that the mezzanine had grown entirely empty. We had not, I thought, lingered long, and yet there wasn’t a soul to be seen, except now here was Lucy, her face satisfied and refreshed, advancing on me from the direction of the restrooms. I admit it was a tad unsettling that the staff had neglected their duty to usher us out before exiting themselves, but all in all this was a relatively trivial concern. It was merely a matter of making our way from the mezzanine down the marble staircase, and from there proceeding to the exit. In fact, I could hear the gentle bubbling of voices below us, reassuring me that we hadn’t been remiss, at least not exceedingly remiss, in our to-my-mind quite normal but in fact apparently languid pace at making our way toward the exit.
Lucy put her arm through mine and sighed, and I sighed too, a light and loving sigh of satisfaction. I may have been no great fan of the stage nor of the older couple who were quite influential in our circle, but I was still deeply enamored of Lucy, and these moments of radiant attention, rays of affection beaming from her eyes when she turned their gaze on me made almost any activity worthwhile, as did the feather-light tenderness of her touch, and so by the time we descended the stairs I was, I’m not too churlish to admit, feeling a bit of the glow myself, sensing reality stretch out, making everything look somehow both gauzy and unnaturally clear.
The lobby below us was tastefully ornate as ever as I surveyed it from the middle of the staircase. The marble floor and the amber lights created an impression of milk and honey, while the polished wood fixtures only added to the sturdy sense of eternity. Several dozen people remained in the lower lobby, and even here on the staircase, together in their own conversation circles. There was, however, a general feeling of leave-taking, a vague orientation in the direction of the exit. Indeed, I looked with a smile into Lucy’s eyes, and by the time I surveyed the lobby once more from the foot of the stairs, noticeably fewer members of the audience remained.
Should we head out, I said redundantly, since at this point there was nowhere left to go but towards the exit. This was the kind of thing I always said, asking Lucy if we should do what we were plainly already doing. We had a way of rehearsing things, repeating them to ourselves or one another and looking for ways to tighten them up and smooth them out. The suggestion was, however, well met, because now it was not only the mezzanine and the staircase but also the lobby that stood empty. The lobby was broad and shallow, running parallel to the street, with not much room all told between the sidewalk and the staircase, which, I speculated, explained the somewhat unusual location of the coat check. It struck me as odd to find the lobby entirely empty, in fact it was even more unsettling than were the cases of the mezzanine and the stairs. I deduced that Lucy found it unsettling as well, because her feather-light touch had turned into the grip of a claw as her fingernails pressed harder into my skin. It was, no doubt, unusual that no one at all should remain in the lobby, that we, in our leisurely but by no means dilatory progress toward the exit, would not only be the last of the audience to leave, but would evidently so exasperate the staff that they simply gave up waiting for us—and without so much as a word about it. In any event, we had already agreed on the staircase to make our way towards the exit, and strange as the staff’s behavior was, there was no one left to whom we might register a complaint, as all of the managers, at least any who might have been expected to mill about the lobby, had also evidently proceeded to the exit. The best thing to do in a situation like this was to do what we had already agreed to do, to quickly and without further drama or delay simply cross the palatial lobby with its marble floors and its glass chandeliers, its intricately carved wood accents and its amber-hued lights and make our way to the exit. Yet much to my consternation, when we had crossed the polished floor, impressively devoid as it was of scuffs or grease marks, we found ourselves quite unable to locate the exit.
That’s strange, I said, as Lucy gripped my arm tighter, wasn’t this where we came in?
It only stood to reason that the entrance would also function as the exit, but we examined very closely the marble wall opposite the grand staircase, and we found that while it was impressively cool and white and solid, and in possession of a notably graceful and subtle grain, there was no sign of anything that might reasonably have been deemed the exit.
This way, Lucy said, it must be.
We walked at an anxious clip from the well-lit grand lobby toward the box office, which stood in a sort of cave off to the side, and which, in my many past visits to the theater, I had always considered a bit grim and grubby in contrast to the serene elegance of the lobby and the staircase. It did, to its credit, have a separate entrance from the street, divided as it was from the grand lobby by a set of brass doors with large glass windows, which, it stood to reason, meant it certainly ought to have an exit. We pushed open the heavy brass doors with their thick glass panes and made our way into the box office. Here, the lights were off and only the light from the lobby behind us illuminated the dark wood ticket boxes to our right, all gated up now as they had evidently closed for the night. Eager though both of us were to take our leave, when we turned to the left, away from the ticket boxes, we were once again vexed in our attempt to find the exit.
Oh for God’s sake! Lucy cried as we stood, trying in vain to locate anything along the wood-paneled wall facing the street that could be used in a pinch as the exit. For God’s sake, she enunciated, removing her arm from mine.
It isn’t my fault, I said, taking minor umbrage at her sudden chill, let’s just try and stay calm.
If we’d stuck together this wouldn’t have happened, Lucy spat, pounding the wood wall. If you weren’t in such a rush to get to the “facilities,” if you could just applaud the performance like everyone else, we wouldn’t be tangled up in this mess. But no, you and your don’t stand on ceremony, you and your I’ll save us a few minutes if I go now. If you’d simply stood by my side and tried to enjoy the glow, you would have been part of the conversation circle, and all four of us could have proceeded together towards the exit.
You wait just a minute, I said, taking now moderate or even heavy umbrage. You know I’m no great fan of the stage. I attend the theater precisely to be by your side, and gladly do I do it, Lucy, gladly do I do it! But enough is enough at a certain point, isn’t it? The actors can only take so much applause and the audience can only give so much applause, and besides which, as much as I love you (I said with bitterness) I don’t need you patrolling the pace of my bowel movements, in fact I’d just as soon you pretend they don’t exist. I know full well how capable you are of pretending I don’t exist!
What’s that supposed to mean, Lucy demanded.
You could have easily allowed me into your precious conversation circle, I said, all it takes is a small shift of the shoulders, a very minor turn of the torso to allow me to stand by your side—very minor, Lucy! One would think when one is your husband such a courtesy wouldn’t be too much to ask.
But Lucy had stopped listening. She had her phone out and the speaker function turned on so that the ringing on the other end of the line reverberated against the wood walls and the brass doors and the glass panes of the box office.
What are you doing, I said.
Calling the older couple, Lucy said, he didn’t have any trouble leading his wife to the exit.
Don’t be ridiculous, I shouted, ham-faced now with rage, they are the last—but I cut myself short at the gruff and sleepy hello that emerged just then from the speaker phone.
Hello, it’s Lucy.
Lucy? Oh, yes. Lucy. It’s—do you know what time it is?
I’m very sorry to bother you, Lucy said, I’m here with my husband.
Hello there! I said with the affected brio everyone uses on speaker phone.
Listen, Lucy went on, we’re in a bit of a jam here.
Yes, quite the pickle, I chuffed.
Could you remind us exactly how to get to the exit, Lucy continued.
The exit, the man’s voice demanded, yes, that’s what they said, he grumbled to someone beside him, presumably his wife. I don’t know anything about any special exit.
No, no special exit, I said, catching a note of pleading in my voice and lowering it to deliver my next line in a deliberate, authoritative tone, just the regular exit.
The regular exit? he demanded
The regular exit? his wife demanded, addressing us directly after picking up another telephone somewhere in the house.
Yes, that’s right, Lucy said, just the regular exit.
Just regular, I said.
Listen, we enjoyed the glow, the husband said with a sigh, his voice weary.
We really did, his wife chimed in.
But you have to understand there’s a certain amount we can tolerate, he continued, a certain amount of novelty, and this is well beyond it.
First your husband refuses to join our conversation circle, the wife said haughtily.
First he refuses to join the conversation circle, her husband echoed, and now this—this bizarre call asking how to proceed to the exit.
It’s bizarre, she said.
It’s beyond the pale, he said.
We’d never bother you ordinarily, Lucy pleaded, but we didn’t know where else to turn, and we’re having a terrible time finding the exit. You’ve always been so gracious.
Well beyond the pale, the wife said.
Well beyond, the husband said.
Now hold the phone there, I said with rising umbrage, I’ll tell you what’s really beyond the pale. I’ll tell you about a certain amount we can tolerate.
What he means to say, Lucy said, cutting me off.
What we mean to say, the wife said, cutting Lucy off, is we’re going to have to find another couple for our next conversation circle, quite frankly.
Wait! Lucy pleaded.
I’m sorry this didn’t work out, the old man said, and there was a click on the line as he hung up the receiver.
For a moment Lucy stared at me with murderous eyes, and then she screamed. I thought she was going to lunge at me, but instead she merely bent forward in agony as enraged sobs bounced forth from her throat like tennis balls. Though I found this quite an uncalled for reaction, with her repeated piercing screams and the bending forward as if to vomit, I rested my palm awkwardly on the small of her back to reassure her, but instead she stomped away.
We don’t need them anyway, I said, in an attempt to make myself feel better, to tell the truth, I always liked it best when it was just you and me in the glow, it felt best that way, don’t you think? You and me?
Oh shut up, Lucy said, shut up, shut up shut up, she wailed, again pounding her palm on the wall where, based on the overall design of the room, one would have expected to find an exit.
As she did this I opened the search engine on my phone, sighing at her dramatic display. Theater exit, I finally typed into the search field, after a series of typos. The results were a jumbled mess. I scrolled through them without a lot of hope, finding a rash of sites advising against yelling fire in a crowded theater, followed eventually by a long how-to guide that began with several paragraphs of preamble emphasizing the simplicity of exiting a theater and enumerating the many valid reasons for doing so before getting to meat of the thing, step-by-step instructions which began, Rise from your seat and begin to proceed to the exit.
Lucy inhaled with audible impatience as she read the results over my shoulder before taking a frustrated step away, poking now at her own phone.
What are you doing?
I’m calling the theater, she said.
I didn’t point out that if anyone were at the theater to answer the phone, we wouldn’t be in this situation because we would simply ask a member of the staff who was still here to man the phone to direct us toward the exit. Yet my point quickly became moot, as an extensive automated message asked Lucy to press various buttons based on the reason for her call, and since none of the options entailed a query about the whereabouts of the exit, she remained on the line.
Waiting with a sense of smug superiority for Lucy to discover her folly, I wandered, arms extended, into the darkest corner of the room, beyond the last of the box office windows. Here I pulled open an oak door that, while still far more ornate than average, was far less ornate than any of the other doors in the theater. I stepped into what amounted to a dusty closet with a set of unfinished wood stairs ascending from the floor.
What are you doing, Lucy huffed, and I heard her feet against the carpet as she advanced on me, that door is clearly for staff only.
Perhaps there’s a staff exit, I said, coughing into the crook of my elbow as I made for the stairs.
This hardly seems safe, Lucy said.
Then I’ll go without you, I said, as the first stairs squeaked in protest under my weight.
Absolutely not, Lucy said, we need to stick together. She placed her palm flat against the small of my back, as if to steady herself. Not only did the stairs lack a handrail, but they were mere inches wider than our bodies. Breathing in the dust and the grease that covered the stucco walls and the ancient light bulbs, I admit that I began to feel unsteady myself. Laboriously, we turned cramped corner after cramped corner around narrow, barely lit landings. The higher we went, the fewer functional bulbs remained, so that by the time we reached the top I had to squint in the weak light to make out where I was going. At the top of the stairs was a door identical to the one in the box office and I rattled around until I succeeded in turning the knob and then had to step backwards, down a stair, awkwardly crowding Lucy, in order to pull the door open.
There’s no way this is right, we’re three or four stories up, Lucy said as I was handling the door, you’ve taken us even further from the exit.
There’s no way to know that for sure, I shot back, if you could say for sure we were further from the exit, then you would know where the exit lies, and that, I feel quite confident, you do not, I said, as I opened the little door at the top of the stairs to reveal the empty auditorium. We had stumbled, from all appearances, upon a secret entrance all the way at the back. Hundreds of plush velvet seats sat empty and there was an unsettling quiet, as if the theater were an open mouth that swallowed noise. The house lights were off, and indeed the auditorium was even darker than the stairwell. The only light in the vast shell of a room was an ominous pink glow, a belt of Venus floating low on the horizon beyond the stage, as if the sun had gone down there not terribly long before.
There was, I admit, a certain softening effect on our attitudes as the pink light lapped over us. It was coming from somewhere far beyond the confines of the stage, and yet here it was, undeniably intimate and pushing us, for that first moment we saw it at least, closer together than we could remember being. I am as convinced we shared this feeling as I am that it disappeared before either of us could grasp it.
I don’t think we’re supposed to be here, Lucy said in a hushed and nearly reverent tone, her claw once again gripping my forearm. I couldn’t help but feel tender and protective upon hearing the fear in her voice, and my residual umbrage faded appreciably. And yet I could barely muster a reaction. I felt as empty as the theater.
No, I said finally, as we made our way arm in arm down the center aisle, noticing after several steps that what little light remained from the glow behind the stage had only dimmed further. My heart rate increased in proportion with the darkness, and soon enough we were in front of the stage. No, we’re not supposed to be here at all.
I’m not going any further, Lucy said, plopping heavily onto a chair in the front row, I just want to head towards the exit.
Come on, I said coaxingly, let’s look backstage. There’s probably a stage door, or at a bare minimum, an emergency exit.
You’ve led us to and fro already, and there hasn’t been one sign of an exit, Lucy said. Now her voice was slurred and sleepy, and though the pink light was still glowing beyond the stage, it had faded even further now, so that Lucy’s face appeared to me only in dark silhouette.
Yes, I countered, climbing onto the stage with, I don’t mind admitting, a guilty thrill—
Don’t do that, Lucy drowsed, I really think we should stick together.
—If everyone has left, I continued undeterred, there has got to be an exit somewhere, and if it isn’t anywhere we’ve already looked, it must be somewhere we haven’t looked. It simply stands to reason, Lucy.
Perhaps sensing my irritation, Lucy made no reply, and by the time I righted myself onstage, the light had faded away and I found myself unable to see any feature of the auditorium at all. There were no seats, no aisles, no Lucy, and no exit. I stared into a shapeless black, or rather a black the shape of everything. I felt all the eyes that were not there upon me, the gathered force of hundreds and hundreds of eyes. I felt the residue of attention of every eye ever to watch those who strut upon the stage.
No! I cried, although it burst forth against my will, and with such vehemence, that it was the word itself and not I that was the speaker. I tried to gather my wits, yet the phone was ringing now. Disregarding it I called instead for Lucy. She wasn’t far, I thought, she couldn’t have gone very far. Let me just see if there’s an exit. I crossed stage right, moving with forced gallantry to ward off my rising anxiety, stomping my feet so that the boards echoed far into the void, but when I got to what should have been the end of the stage, it was impossible to go any further. I’d made it to the side curtains sure enough, and I could see—or rather, couldn’t see—the darkness beyond it, but from here there was no way to exit. I practically ran stage left, with the phone ringing insistently in my pocket and my heart beating nauseously in my throat, and there, again on this side, was the darkness and the total lack of an exit.
Lucy, I cried over the ringing of the phone, hearing my voice soar away from me and fill the theater, startling me with its distance from my body. I staggered slowly to the front of the stage. Lucy! I yelled again, and the darkness in front of me was stretching on and on. Now it really was out of control with its vastness, now it really was beginning to twist and turn and toss around, even as it also stood still, taunting me with its placidity, its way of being nothing and containing everything. Lucy, this isn’t funny, I said, crouching at the edge of the stage. I wanted to step down to the comfort of the luxurious seats, but I found to my surprise that at the front of the stage there was no longer any place for me to make my exit. I willed my eyes to adjust to the dark, but the longer I tried, the larger the darkness got, the more shapeless and enveloping, and it stretched further and further out even as it crept closer and closer in. Indeed, by this point the darkness had expanded so much that not only was it impossible to see beyond it, not only was it impossible to make my way toward the exit, but it had become quite impossible to go anywhere at all. I made again as if to take a step and found that I could not, and so I stood still in the silent dark.
Lucy, I screamed into the theater. Hello, I screamed into the phone, hello, yes? Through the earpiece poured a babble of voices, hello, I demanded a final time, for it sounded as if the call had been placed by mistake.
Beyond the pale, said the resigned voice of the old man, though he must have been some distance away from the phone, speaking to someone else in the room by his side.
Well beyond, his wife chorused.
Beyond the pale, I yelled back, muttering in a pique of umbrage, beyond the pale, now listen, I screamed, putting all the energy into raising my voice I could no longer put into moving my feet.
Listen, it was Lucy’s voice, so close and quiet her lips must have brushed tenderly against the mouthpiece. Listen, I’m sorry this didn’t work out. I’m sorry things ended this way.
— Ben Beckett’s work appears in Jacobin, Ligeia, Burnaway, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @brbeckett.