Carol and Adolfo were out walking when they saw the sandwich board blocking the sidewalk in front of a local theatre. The sign said ONE NIGHT ONLY, FREE ADMISSION, with an arrow pointing toward the theatre entrance.
Other couples were already making their way inside, and even though she had tied her hair up in a scarf and was wearing sweatpants and running shoes, Carol convinced Adolfo to follow.
They found two seats near the middle of the theatre. Almost as soon as they were settled, the lights dimmed and the curtain opened.
The set looked remarkably like a cross-section of their house, with the living room at center stage. It was flanked by the bedroom, on the left, and the kitchen on the right. The only thing missing was the bathroom. Carol had never thought about how small the house was, really.
An actress entered from the back door into the kitchen. The woman’s coloring and build were similar to Carol’s, though of course she was wearing a short white tennis dress and had her hair in a loose ponytail. She was quite a bit younger than Carol, too, and prettier. She left her shoes at the door, then opened the refrigerator and bent down toward the bottom shelf.
Adolfo was smiling, Carol saw, leaning back in his seat. Already she regretted her impulsive decision to come inside.
A man walked onto the stage from the other side, carrying a newspaper under his arm, and she saw with satisfaction that Adolfo no longer looked pleased.
The man was also younger, quite muscular, and significantly taller than Adolfo. Though Adolfo rarely brought it up, his height had always been a sore spot.
“Carol,” the man called from the living room, and the woman in the tennis dress closed the refrigerator and walked toward him.
“Where have you been?” he asked.
She pursed her lips, pointedly gesturing toward the dress.
“Most people take a racket,” he said. “Odd that yours is still in its case, in the hall closet.”
“How would you know that, unless you were spying on me?”
“I wasn’t spying on you. I was looking for my umbrella.”
“It hasn’t rained in weeks. Why in the world would you need an umbrella?”
“Stop making this about me.”
In the audience, two rows in front of Carol and Adolfo, a woman took out a large cellophane bag filled with Swedish fish. She rooted around inside it, picking out just the right fish, then folded the bag up again and placed it back in her purse.
On stage, the couple continued arguing. The Carol character claimed that she had forgotten the racket and had to borrow one at the club. She stalked past the man and into the bedroom.
“That’s what you said about lunch,” the man said. “That you forgot it.”
“What are talking about?” she snapped.
“Your wallet, the other day, or don’t you remember?”
The young Carol tore off the tennis dress and threw it on the stage floor. (In the audience, Carol winced, thinking about having to bleach stains out of that pristine white fabric.)
They went on arguing for quite some time, the young actress pacing back and forth across the bedroom in only a bra and panties.
“You’re so irresponsible,” the man said, slamming the newspaper on the bedside table for emphasis.
“Oh, no,” the young Carol said. “Mustn’t be ir-responsible.” She rolled her eyes.
“You’re such a child.”
“Mustn’t be childish, either. Heaven knows, that wouldn’t please A-dol-fo.” (She sang out his name in a most unpleasant way, and this time, Adolfo was the one who winced.)
At his side, Carol was uncomfortably aware that they had had this argument in the not-too-distant past. They had been fully clothed, and the phrasing had been less dramatic, but she too had forgotten her keys, another time her bag, and Adolfo had accused her of subconsciously expecting him to take care of everything for her. Couldn’t she just be forgetful, Carol had argued. Did it always have to mean something?
Adolfo had taken some college intro class and was still convinced, a million years later, that there were no accidents. Carol found this idea ludicrous.
When they were first dating, she had brought up a recent news item, saying, “So the driver intended to fall asleep and kill all those innocent people, I suppose,” and they had argued so bitterly that she swore she would never speak to him again. Carol had forgotten until just this moment how angry she had been about it.
The actor Adolfo ordered the young Carol to get dressed. What he actually said was, “Stop walking around in your underwear. The neighbors will see,” and she said, “Seriously? Are you ordering me to get dressed now?”
In his impatient sigh, Carol could hear something of her Adolfo. This made Carol both annoyed and, oddly, sympathetic.
“I didn’t order you to do anything.”
“That’s good, because I’ll do whatever I want.”
The actress removed her bra, slowly, as if she were performing a striptease. “Do you like that?” she said flirtatiously, teasingly. “The curtains are open. Everyone can see.”
Her breasts were larger than Carol had expected, with areolas the size of silver dollars. Adolfo, who had been shifting in his seat, was now perfectly still.
The actress crawled onto the bed.
The young Adolfo said, “Fine, if that’s the way you want to be.” Methodically, he stripped down to a pair of boxer shorts.
Carol began to worry that this was not a typical play, after all, but some type of live action pornography, but once the young Adolfo had removed his clothes, he merely went on haranguing the girl, who was by turns outraged and petulant. Even Adolfo lost interest in her magnificent breasts and began to fidget again.
At the intermission, Carol and Adolfo could barely look at each other. The play had lasted two hours already, and still, she had no idea what it was about.
“Would you like a drink?” Adolfo asked, and Carol nodded. He had barely returned when the usher herded everyone back into the house.
Inside, the crowd had thinned out, and Carol realized too late that she and Adolfo could have left, too. Now they were trapped for the second half of the play.
“Why is there so much nudity?” a man sitting behind them asked as the lights dimmed briefly and went back up, and his partner said, “They’re showing their true selves.”
“I agree that it’s symbolic,” someone else chimed in, “but I think it represents everything they’ve wasted in their lives—time, for example, and their youth and health.”
The lights went down fully and silenced the speakers.
Ordinarily, Carol might have tapped Adolfo’s hand, sharing a private smile in the dark, but instead she stared straight in front of her.
“You forgot my drink,” the young Carol said, pouting, when the curtain opened. She was still lying on the bed in her panties.
Without thinking, Carol looked at the plastic cup in her hand. She had already finished the soda, and all that was left was ice.
“Not that drink,” the young Carol said. “When we were at that club, in 1972. You offered to get me a rum and Coke, but you stopped to talk to another girl at the bar, and when you came back, you had forgotten my drink.”
“Are you kidding me?” the young Adolfo said. “Now you want to dredge up something that happened more than forty years ago? You’re unbelievable.”
The young Adolfo sighed again. He grabbed fistfuls of his hair and pretended to pull it out. “I’ve told you so many times, I knew that girl. She was dating my friend Tom. I was just being friendly.”
“Well, you did seem friendly, that’s for sure.”
“Oh, Carol, let it go already.”
It was exhausting to listen to them bicker back and forth, especially over such minor items. Adolfo had forgotten a drink once, yes, but what was the statute of limitations on such things? Had she really brought it up again and again? Carol could no longer remember. And the racket, the umbrella, what did it all mean? She knew that she had never played tennis, but there had been a time, many years ago now, when she had flirted with a golf instructor who was twice her age and married. She had flirted energetically, shamelessly, but nothing had come of it.
The bag of Swedish fish was dragged out again, and over the rattle of cellophane, in spite of herself, Carol strained to hear the dialogue, all those mundane bits of conversation. Adolfo was sniping about the laundry, now, and Carol suggested quite unkindly that if he didn’t like the way she washed his drawers, he could get off his high horse and do it himself.
Quite unexpectedly, the young Adolfo walked to the forefront and delivered an interior monologue. He explored in some detail the early death of his mother, and the feeling that no woman would ever take care of him again.
The girl had a lengthy speech as well, the bulk of it about trying to please her father. He was an emergency surgeon who valued precision and control. She joined the young Adolfo at the front of the stage, with her breasts exposed, wearing only a pair of underpants, and talked about her father.
All her life, she felt he had never understood her. Had never seen her.
Carol squirmed with embarrassment. Her father had been a surgeon, but she had never talked to anyone about it, especially in such an obvious, self-pitying way.
She was successful in her own right, wasn’t she? She didn’t need anyone feeling sorry for her.
Adolfo glanced in her direction, and she looked at him and shrugged, shaking her head no. That wasn’t her up there.
To her surprise, he took her hand.
On stage, the couple finished speaking and returned to the bedroom. The young Carol lay back down on the bed. “You’re always telling me what to do,” she said petulantly.
It was quite late by the time the play ended. Adolfo was holding Carol’s hand again as they left the theatre. Most everyone else in the audience had given the actors a standing ovation, but they had remained in their seats, clapping without enthusiasm.
“Smythe is a genius,” someone said as they left the theatre, and Carol heard a man say, “I agree. No other playwright can imbue dialogue with such depth.”
“But what was the significance of the Swedish fish?” another man said. “It could have been any candy. I didn’t understand why he chose that one.”
A woman in a fur coat asked, “Why isn’t anyone discussing the political subtext?”
There was a break in the traffic, and she and her companions crossed the street.
Carol felt glum, but Adolfo said, “Would you like to go to that pub for dinner?” and pointed toward a sign in the distance.
When they were much younger, when they could afford to splurge, they had gone out for wood-fired pizza and two tall glasses of beer. She had forgotten how much she looked forward to those nights.
The crowd was dissipating. Soon they were alone again, outside on the sidewalk. It was a relief to be standing there, just the two of them.
“Well, what do you think?” he said, and smiled.
Leah Browning is the author of three nonfiction books for teens and pre-teens and four chapbooks. Her fiction and poetry have previously appeared in publications including Glassworks Magazine, 300 Days of Sun, Fiction Southeast, Toad, and The Blue Hour Magazine. Browning’s work has also appeared on materials from Broadsided Press and Poetry Jumps Off the Shelf, with audio and video recordings in The Poetry Storehouse, and in several anthologies. Her website is located at www.leahbrowning.com.
Photo credit: Matt Tran