Soporific By T.

Alex Miller

Jeff had been writing theatre and film reviews for the newspaper in his small town for — what was it? — five or six years now. He was driven by what he told himself was a true love of theatre, but there were other reasons. At $35 a pop for a ticket, being on the press list was a real savings – especially if he brought a date, which he nearly always did. He’d lost track of how many different women he’d surprised by asking them to “the theatre,” the phrase rolling off his tongue with the suggestion not of one particular venue, but of a magical place where everyone is smart, dressed nicely and somehow more polished than those attending the tractor pulls, the bingo tournaments, the drown nights at the local bars. It took about 90 minutes to drive from his mountain town to most of the Denver theatres; more if it was snowing. That gave him plenty of time to acquaint his new date with his vast experience with the theatre. He never laid it on too thick; just enough background to fill in the picture for them. Implied beneath it all was the fact that, not only was he taking her to the theatre while other local suitors were plying their dates with Jell-O shots, he was then going to write about it, critique the show, and the review would appear in the local paper. And not to mention that, when they arrived at the theatre, the PR person would treat him and his date like royalty. He’d get the folder with the tickets, the press release, the CD full of production photos. They’d be given excellent seats, and the flak would seek him out after for a quick reaction: How did you like the show? Sometimes, wise theatres even gave him drink tickets. But not always. You couldn’t count on it, so he always had to bring some cash for drinks and, at the bigger venues, parking. He chafed at the expense, but smiled to himself when he watched all the other schmucks paying top-dollar for tickets.

Miller/Soporific/2 Even if the show sucked, which it seemed to do about half the time, he was only out 10, maybe 15 bucks. His current theatre date was a leggy waitress new to Elmo’s Brewery. Jeff was in there at least once a week after work, so he noticed her immediately. Usually he sat at the bar and had the beer-and-burger special ($5 on Tuesday nights), but when he spotted her, he asked Rick at the host stand to seat him in her section. “Good luck,” Rick said, leading him to his table through a spring-break crowd of college kids powering down pints and burgers. “She’s kind of a cold fish.” No problemo thought Jeff, warming up his spiel in his head. He was a master at effecting transitions between unrelated topics and the theatre. He could move from a question about fries or slaw to the new Stoppard at the Denver Center with practiced ease; effortlessly make the leap from a comment about the Broncos latest losing season to the Gurney revival at the Curious. And he’d done it with how many waitresses from Elmo’s? He did a quick calculation as he sat down: It must be at least five, maybe six. He’d literally never been turned down. Her nametag said “Kathy,” her manner said don’t even think about asking me out. Jeff skipped the transitional phase and jumped right in. Track records don’t lie, so why wait? “I’ll have the beer-and-burger special please, medium-well with Swiss and a pint of the wheat,” he said. “And I’d like to know if you’d accompany me to the theatre Thursday night. In Denver.” She stopped scribbling and looked down at him. “What?” He smiled up at her, very much the rake in form. “The theatre. In Denver. I’m the entertainment editor for the Journal and I have to go review a play at the Arvada Center. I’d like you to come with me.” She wrinkled her nose, narrowed her eyes and flipped to a new page in her book.

Miller/Soporific/3 “Here,” she said, dropping a page on the table. “Call me tomorrow.” When she delivered his meal, she made it clear that there would be no further discussion on the matter, and Jeff went along with it. After all, why mess with success? All he need do is utter that magic phrase, “the theatre” and they dropped their guard — and often their pants — like autumn leaves. It was pretty rare to bed his theatre dates on the first try – after all, it was usually a weeknight, they’d get back to the mountains pretty late and the drinking was confined to a glass of red at intermission – but it usually happened pretty soon after. He figured Kathy was the second-best-looking woman he’d ever gone out with (after Jennifer, of course, his junior-year prom date who, he’d found out later, had gone with him on a dare). Kathy had reddish-blonde hair, a slightly upturned button nose and a light spray of freckles visible from just below her neck and descending down her blouse. He imagined following that trail – maybe in a week or two? – and seeing where it led. He smiled at the thought, sipping at his pint and watching her move around her tables with the grace of a veteran stage actress.

On Thursday, Jeff filed a profile about some other no-name jam band playing at the Bighorn Bistro and left the newsroom early. He was already concerned about the evening for a number of reasons. For one, Kathy had been less-than-warm on the phone when he’d called to make the arrangements. “Please don’t think of this as a date,” she’d said. “I have a boyfriend back in Minnesota and … I just don’t know where that’s going.” But she had said she was “happy to accompany him,” adding that she had a BFA in Theatre from NYU. That was bad enough: who knew what kind of theatre knowledge – or lack thereof – she would call him on during the course of the night? He also hated to think he was wasting an evening of theatre with a woman who had no intention of sleeping with him (he’d felt similar misgivings when he’d taken his cousin, visiting from out of town, to a plum freebie:

Miller/Soporific/4 Phantom of the Opera at the Buell). And then there was the added problem he was having these days: theatrical somnolence. For some reason, he just couldn’t keep his eyes open more than halfway through the first act. It was a relatively new phenomenon, occurring (he thought) for the first time the previous summer during a production of Lear in Boulder. It was outdoors in the Mary Rippon Theatre, and he was in the third row with a hardware store clerk named Alice (he’d impressed her with the theatre as well as his knowledge of dowel rods). She poked fun at him on the way home, then admitted that she’d “maybe dozed off a little too,” which made him feel a little better at the same time he was near-despondent at his lapse. When it happened again (at the Bas Bleu in Fort Collins, a physical therapist from Avon, during a production of Krapp’s Last Tape), he explained it away as what most modern theatregoers do during Beckett. Indeed, he had identified one other man nodding off and at least three others in the audience with very heavy-looking eyes. But when he told the short brunette (she did something in planning at the Town of Vail) that his favorite comedic playwright was Larry Shue, then slept through almost the entire first act of a Rattlebrain Theatre production of The Foreigner, he determined drastic action was needed. The woman had actually laughed half of the way home, recalling how she’d had to poke him several times to keep him from snoring so loud as to distract the players. “And that was a pretty funny play,” she said. “I don’t know how you could have fallen asleep during it.” It wasn’t for lack of trying. He’d feel like he was being drawn inexorably off the side of a cliff, try though he may to dig in his heels and stay in the light. But there was this gray area between sleep and awake he could no longer effectively negotiate. Helpless, he was drawn into it as if by tractor beam, and it mattered not how good or bad the show was. Lively, modern musicals and comedies were just as likely to put him under as Ibsen or

Miller/Soporific/5 Shakespeare. Million-dollar extravaganzas in big halls were just as effective at knocking him out as bare-bones productions in 50-seat venues. So Jeff amazed the theatre flaks by showing up at the next several press nights sans date. Until he could get the problem corrected, he couldn’t bear to suffer any more slings and arrows about “conking out” from these women on the way up the hill; didn’t want to be laughed at, or asked if he was “OK” to drive. He called it his “testing period.” For starters, he left work early and tried and failed to take a nap. He tried No-Doz, Red Bull, triple shots of espresso from the theatre bar. He would sit ramrod straight in his seat, pinching himself in the thigh repeatedly and holding his eyes open as wide as he could as the house lights went down. For his efforts, he was rewarded over the course of three months’ worth of theatre with twice being awakened by the applause at the end of the act; another couple of times by ushers alarmed by the volume of his snoring; and once by a blue-haired old woman who actually poked at him with her umbrella from two seats over. The rest of the time, his efforts to stay conscious took up so much of his attention that he could barely focus on the play itself. Moving in and out of sleep during performances, he was left with huge gaps in his understanding of the material – like someone trying to follow a complex movie plot while supervising a roomful of preschoolers. And he still had to write about them. While the simple fact of his physical presence at a play gave him some idea of the overall vibe, he was nonetheless compelled to include details about the plot that gave readers some indication of what the play was actually about. For this, he turned to the press releases and program descriptions, as well as to reading other reviews of the same works he found online. It worked well enough, he told himself, to get by with, but he felt like a dork turning in such warmed-over reviews.

Miller/Soporific/6 Kathy was the first date he had after enjoying a modest success during a Boulder Dinner Theatre revival of The Scarlet Pimpernel (never mind that going to a musical alone was tantamount to having one’s balls lopped off). He’d chased some diet pills with four cans of Red Bull and managed to sit through the entire show with only one episode of sleepiness toward the end of the first act. But he’d fought through it and won, clapping like a madman at the curtain not so much for the performers but for himself. Yeah baby, I’m back! Now he was ready for Kathy, the BFA. He popped the pills and downed three of the Red Bulls before he picked her up; he figured he’d chug the fourth and swallow two more pills in the men’s room just before the show. No reason to tip his hand or invite inquiries from the cold fish, he figured. Besides, what man could fall asleep in the presence of such a hot babe, unless it was a post-coital kind of thing? When she got in his Subaru, she seemed to cower against the door, staying as far from him as possible. He tried to ask her a little about her theatre background, but got responses so perfunctory that he gave up and turned up the radio. They were past Idaho Springs before she offered anything by way of conversation. “I’m sorry. I probably shouldn’t even be here.” “Huh?” He reached over and turned the music down. The signal was fading in and out anyway, like his brain at the theatre. “It’s not fair to you, I mean, to let you take me out when I’m not, you know, really available.” “S’okay. Let’s just have fun, enjoy the show. It’s no big deal.” He could feel her twisting there in the seat, wanting to say something more, but she remained silent. Probably trying to figure out if she wanted to continue dating this guy she mentioned, when a thousand miles separated them. Maybe she’d moved here to get away

Miller/Soporific/7 from him, then was tortured by his absence. Jeff was the first guy she’d gone out with after however many years with what’s-his-name, and it was hard, blah blah blah. He wasn’t the most patient suitor, considering that six weeks was the usual timeline between first date and “the talk,” but for this one he could devote a couple of months. She was a hottie, there was no doubt about it. For the theatre, she’d put on all kinds of makeup, done up her hair and worn a clinging black dress that showed beautifully sculpted legs that went right up to a perfect ass. He couldn’t wait to see the look on the Arvada Center flak’s face when he walked in with Kathy; they were often the only people who ever met his girlfriends, and he’d sometimes e-mail them the next day to get their reaction on some of his hotter dates. They arrived a bit early, and she lightened up once they were in the lobby outside the theatre. There was some kind of art exhibit, halfway decent stuff, and they had fun walking around commenting on the pieces before entering the theatre. She’d let him buy her a Diet Coke, then excused herself to go to the ladies’ room while Jeff found a stall in the men’s to slam his energy drink with a couple more diet pills. The show was Master Class, something about an old opera star who was nuts – nuts but really talented. The stimulants got him about halfway through the first act, but then he felt it coming: the pull toward the cliff, the tractor beam to the Land of Nod. He fought it with everything he had, did the super-erect posture thing, the eyeballs wide open trick, the thigh pinches. When the house lights came up for intermission, he thought maybe he’d pulled it off without doing anything too obvious – like snoring, or, god forbid, drooling (Twelfth Night, Denver Civic Theatre). But he couldn’t be sure. At intermission, Kathy accepted a glass of insipid merlot (drink tickets!) and bubbled about the play. She was a mezzo-soprano herself, loved the opera and fairly worshipped

Miller/Soporific/8 Maria Callas. Grabbing Jeff by the arm, she looked him in the eye and thanked him for taking her. She’d never be able to afford theatre on the pay she received at Elmo’s. “You’re welcome,” he said, wondering if some kind of comment about his falling asleep would come next. But she moved on. “I had teachers at NYU who told me I was good enough to pursue opera, but god, I don’t know,” she said. “It’s a hard life, practically impossible. But theatre’s not much easier, I mean. Look at me, waiting tables in a ski town when I should be … elsewhere.” Not a word about me! He felt he should make a comment about pursuing her dream, how this was just a parenthesis in her theatre career – but he just smiled and took a sip of his wine. Maybe he hadn’t fallen, visibly, asleep. He’d been drowsy, sure, but had he kept it together? It was hard to be sure, although he seemed to recall little of the play itself. He usually didn’t have trouble with the second act. Somehow, intermission seemed to perk him up, or maybe he’d just gotten his nap in during Act I. Back in the car on the way up the hill, it was as if he’d exchanged the terse, nervous woman he drove down with for a chatty, hyper chick on the verge of going home with him. Ah, the theatre! It was like Viagra for women, powdered black rhino horn in two acts (or maybe that was just musicals). At her condo complex, she thanked him again and made to get out, then turned back and planted one on his cheek. He was pretty sure she had “why don’t you come in?” in her eyes, on her lips, but she let it hang there, backed out and closed the door with celibate finality. Still, this was progress.

Miller/Soporific/9 When he called her two days later with an invite to see a staged reading at The Bug, she was back to cool Kathy. But she said OK. It was in the car on the way down that she dropped the bomb. “So, think you can stay awake for this one, Jeff?” He continued to drive while his brain simply froze. Different answers rose to his lips, ranging from “I’m not sure what you’re talking about” to “Ya caught me, huh?” In the vacuum, she continued. “Because I’m pretty serious about theatre, and it’s kind of embarrassing when the guy you’re with starts to snore.” They were passing Georgetown, and it occurred to him to pull off, turn around and take her home if she was that “friggin’ embarrassed.” Instead, he gripped the wheel more firmly and said quietly: “Kathy, can you help me?” And he told her, told her everything. From the first time at Lear to the half-plagiarized reviews to the old lady with the umbrella. They had a laugh over that, but he shifted back to the problem. “This is killing me, Kathy. I’ve tried everything and still I can’t keep it together. And part of, maybe the worst part, is trying to hide it from the friends I take with me.” She laughed. “You mean all the different girls you take to the theatre?” How did she know about that? “It’s a small town, Jeff. It’s not like it’s a secret. But I am flattered that I got to go twice. I understand that’s not generally the case?” He didn’t answer, thinking that the only thing worse than a girl with your number was a smart girl with your number. He could feel her looking at him. Was she really expecting an answer? Really expecting him to give up secrets about his gig, his modus operandi, completely justifiable in a county with a 5-1 male-female ratio?

Miller/Soporific/10 “Look,” she continued, now staring straight ahead. “I guess all guys have some line of bullshit they use to get laid. And I’m not putting the spotlight on yours to make you feel bad …” “Really,” he said. “I couldn’t tell.” “No, Jeff, I’m not. But I need you to know that I’m different. I mean, Tom and I have broken up and so I don’t feel like I’m cheating on him anymore if I go out with another guy. And I’m not saying you and I are, like, going out or anything but, I dunno, it’s possible. So let’s do it on the same level, OK? Eyes wide open. No bullshit.” He lightened, hands relaxed on the wheel. Maybe this wasn’t a simple trip to the relationship pillory after all. It’s possible she said. “So what, in your opinion, have I been bullshitting you about?” Encouraged by her latest words, he was still deeply troubled by the implication that he was some kind of a fraud. “I really have gone to a ton of theatre and written lots of reviews. I studied some theatre in college, even acted in a few plays. Not well, I admit, but I know what it’s like to be on stage.” She leaned over to touch his arm. “I know Jeff. I’m not talking about that. It’s just the, you know, the whole ‘I’m the big theatre critic, aren’t you lucky to be with me’ gig. I’m just saying you can drop that with me; I don’t need it, not impressed.” “Oh.” “And I know I’m a total bitch for saying it like that, but you have to understand, this thing I just got out of with Tom, the guy in Minnesota? It was built on bullshit like that. He was like the son of the mayor in this little town, and whenever I went there it was all this ‘look at me, my family runs this town, you’re so lucky to be with me, I know everybody’ yadda yadda yadda.”

Miller/Soporific/11 She sat back heavily in her seat. “God, it made me fucking sick, being in the shadow of that ego.” He nodded. “Right. So no bullshit, no ego. OK. Got it.” The voice of the pulverized male plucked her Nightingale chord, and she put her hand on his thigh. “And I’m sorry, I really am. It’s not your fault. I just wanted you to know where I’m coming from. And to know that, even if I’m not even close to wanting to jump into a relationship with another guy, I could use a friend. I like you, and I’d love to go to some more shows with you. Let’s learn from each other, have fun with it. I know a lot about theatre, you know. Maybe even more than you.” She gave his leg a little squeeze. “And I think I know a way to help you stay awake during that deadly first act.”

Staged readings were usually death to Jeff. The seriousness of it all, the utter lack of movement, the shuffling pages – it all acted on him like a powerful narcotic. He generally preferred to sit in the back in the likely event he dozed off, but this time they were in the second row. It was local playwrights, and the theme was “social justice.” They might as well put out a cot for him. But Kathy was there this time, there with some kind of a cure she wouldn’t tell him about. “The surprise of it is part of my treatment,” she said with a wicked grin. Still determined to do it on his own, Jeff employed all his useless methods and lost consciousness in the first 10 pages of a mind-numbing drama about police brutality. He drifted out during some kind of disciplinary hearing, and the next thing he knew he was sitting bolt upright in pain.

Miller/Soporific/12 Watching out of the corner of his eye in the seat to the right, Kathy timed the moment perfectly, employing her “treatment” in the space of about three seconds. She put her left arm around Jeff’s neck and covered his mouth tightly while her right hand sought and found her funny little theatre critic’s closest testicle. While the sergeant was raising his voice to the beat cop about improper baton usage, she performed a sharp pincer maneuver with thumb and forefinger, waited half a beat, then did it again. She felt his body come alive, like a cardiac arrest victim responding to the defibrillator. His eyes fluttered open while his hands automatically flew to his crotch – but her hand was already gone. It had moved north to his chin, which she grabbed and turned to face her. Her lips she placed on his, gave him the briefest dart of tongue then moved her mouth close to his ear. “You’re back, baby. You’re back.”

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