The Dark Lady

By

Ava brought bubbles just when I needed them: champagne smiles, frothy laughter, and a lathering of thoughts as she stroked the arm of our red velvet settee. “William,” she said to my husband one early spring evening at sherry hour, pointing to a silver dish of cashews. “I want to do something different on the stage.”

Ava had arrived at sherry hour that autumn, go-go boots stamping out the cold, cheeks pink, dark liquid eyes. Like a heroine out of a Jane Austen novel, but Jewish. As always, she spilled over the sofa like a genie let out of the lamp, oozing some kind of potion I didn’t have, and I was swept into her aura of pretention and mystery. I watched Ava as I did a mischievous cousin growing up: eager to see what she’d try to pull off next, part of me hoping she’d get caught.

“I had an audition for Ann Bogart today. Have you seen her? A tiny thing but very commanding.” I passed her the silver-plated clamshell dish. It was a gift from Will’s mother. His family in Wisconsin loved the idea of sherry hour and sent supplies: crystal decanters, tiny cotton-printed cocktail napkins, an olive trough shaped like a single propeller. They could hardly believe that every Thursday evening from 5 to 7 we rolled out a sherry cart and entertained.

We’d found the cart at a junk shop soon after moving to Allston. We’d been walking around the neighborhood and I’d wanted to go in despite our lack of funds, “just to look.” He found a Jeffersonian captain’s chair he liked, which would become the coat chair at sherry hour, and I found the two-shelved glass-topped cart with a faux bamboo handle, badly in need of a polish.

Will was skeptical. “What would we do with it?”

“Serve sherry!” I said, trying out the wheels.

All the way home, he harped on the subject. “Serve sherry to who?”

The living room décor was crying out for sherry hour. The walls were covered with gold and black velvet wallpaper that the Chinese landlord wouldn’t let us change. Red velvet and white satin divans set up a formal feel, which we added to with Victorian lace curtains and hand-dyed Japanese prints. Floor to ceiling bookshelves we stained by hand were crammed with scholarly books on Japan, theater, novels, and a shelf of poetry I insisted on but never read.

The neighborhood, on a green train line convenient to Will’s work, we called “Saigon.” On weekends, people shot across the street drunk, rolled kegs down the sidewalk, and whooped at passing cars who honked back. Cabs vroomed down the road, a shortcut to the Mass Pike. Our driveway became host to an assortment of found objects: a bent spoon, a crutch, and once, a pair of men’s underwear. At every sherry hour, I was revisited by the tale told by the previous tenant (a gay actor), of someone lobbing a brick through the living room window.

Sherry hour would be a perfect solution to isolation. Steady and brief interludes, with minimum commitment, it would get people in the house. We went back the next day and wheeled the cart home, up Harvard Avenue and over a side street with rooming houses with names like Bacon Chambers. In the kitchen Will laid out lots of newspaper and proceeded to take it apart, emptying a jar of brass polish on it and rubbing with old tee shirts until all the fittings, bars, spokes, and the glass top gleamed. Then we tucked it into place at the end of the bookcases.

Every Thursday at 4:30 p.m., I hauled out the vacuum. People were coming! I took off the attachment and got on my knees to suck the dirt out of the carpet. I wanted to make sherry hour shoeless but it never worked. I plumped pillows, cleaned the coffee table, and tidied up the sliding stacks of glossy playbills and scripts. Then I attended to the cart. It never left the living room. I used trays to shuttle the decanters, newly topped off with our stash of gallon jars in the pantry secured on trips to liquor stores in New Hampshire. We offered three varieties: sweet (red), dry (gold), and cream (amber).

Then I’d towel out the glasses that had gathered dust through the week. In the kitchen I washed a cluster of cherry tomatoes, cut some cheese on a marble cheese board with the broken wire cutter, and threw some fancy crackers into a straw basket lined with a paper napkin. I shook some honey-roasted cashews into the silver clamshells, and hummus into a bowl with an antique silver spoon with Mt. Fuji painted on the handle. Then I’d bring it all out on trays and unload it, adding a stack of printed flower paper plates from the Christmas Tree Shops and fan a handful of matching paper napkins.

Will always glided in just before five, out of breath, slamming the door good-naturedly, like a big friendly wind. Dramatic. He tossed his coat in the captain’s chair, rubbed his hands together and went to the CD tower. Will’s contribution was music. He had a knack for picking just the right kind of music for the mood. He was a director, and perhaps as in one of his plays, saw a set before him, with players in the room, and knew what music would bring out the stories, the dramas.

Soon we had regulars: an Irish playwright and his fiancée; a tiny shattered-looking actress with parchment skin and dish-plate eyes; a sturdy goateed man who wrote plays about presidents; and a producer Will called our very own “Broadway Danny Rose” who always seemed to be in a casting crisis. I could not figure out why they couldn’t line things up better. As if theater wasn’t hard enough, someone always seemed to be dropping out or having a family emergency. Theater people liked drama, I concluded.

I knew this from Will. He swung from high to low, hated the darkness of autumn and winter, felt it “creeping into his soul.” He told great stories about things like staying in a capsule hotel in Tokyo, or falling off the stage and cracking his head in high school. How could he remember such vivid details? He had to be lying. I listened closely as he told the tale to someone else and if a detail was different I’d call him out and say, “You said there wasn’t a TV in the capsule,” and he’d give me a wicked eye.

Will was always remembering things from his childhood. The movie theater where his mom took him to see It’s a Wonderful Life, or the German Shepherd Fang who wouldn’t stop barking and jumping through windows, who he had to put down while his family way away.

It’s like his whole life was drama.

Drama, drama, drama.

My own life paled in comparison.

He came in from rehearsals at midnight, buzzing with energy. “I’ve solved the third act!” he’d say and plop onto the bed, waking me from a dead sleep.

I taught ESL part-time around the corner at a Brazilian-owned English school. On breaks, I got a cheese roll from a Brazilian bakery or smoked outside the McDonald’s, which was a revolving door of homeless and eccentrics, and watched a local called Mr. Butch pace back and forth with an electric guitar on his back, as if searching for a lost concert he was due to appear at.

I was also writing a book about some years I’d spent in Japan studying an obscure musical instrument. I worked on it every morning in the unheated foyer of the apartment, which no one used anymore. It was a grand entrance with a fireplace and stained glass windows. When Will popped his head in before leaving for work—“Bye!”—I’d jolt and fret over my interrupted flow.

Sherry hour was my domain. The party did not start until I rolled out the cart from its corner, bumping it along the living room carpets, glasses jiggling. Will helped with the wheels as I parked it in front of the red sofa and uncorked the decanters to pour.

Designers, producers, actors, directors. They clustered around the tiny Japanese kotatsu table every Thursday, coming in from the cold, often before an opening night that we all went to afterwards. A proper dinner never got eaten before 10. I didn’t mind. There was Ava, after all. I was like a child with a bedtime story when Ava was around, tuning in for the predictable routine and getting pleasure every time.

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Here’s where she enters!

Here’s where she crumples in a smile!

Here’s where it’s all too much!

Ava revealed her pale throat when she laughed, tipping back stiffly, tucking her chin and making a little “stop” sign with her hand. She wore ankle-length cardigans, shawls, go-go boots. When she arrived, I made way. “Over here, Ava!” and poured her a glass and watched as she raised the amber liquid to her lips. Sometimes when she was tired or in a rare moment when she was not aware of herself, her smile slackened a little and became tragic. It reminded me of one of those theater masks, one laughing, one crying.

Ava talked about things like her auditions for famous directors. “So I go in and there’s no script to read from, and she asks me to produce something ‘movement realized.’ Does anyone know what that means?”

More often than not, Ava didn’t finish her story. She either forgot where she was going or she had no idea what she was saying. She’d toss out big ideas—blah blah blah Chekhov, the blah blah myth of Venus—then get snarled halfway through and need reeling in. Will often rescued her. As a Midwesterner, he was polite that way.

I mimicked her after sherry hour while Will and I washed the sticky glasses and cocktail forks. I’d toss my head and offer my throat. “William,” I’d intone, dropping my voice as Ava did when she addressed people she knew, as if intimacy required a new register. “Have you studied Suzuki?”

I became famous for my imitations of her, Will egging me on. All I had to do was my masterpiece theater voice. I felt badly imitating Ava, but it gave me a thrill to enact her gestures—offer the throat, rear back stiffly, the little stop sign with the hand—to enter into her excess.

“She’s preposterous,” Will agreed and nodded, but I had to wonder. She was a parody and yet every note rang true. She was a role and she was Ava.

She disappointed on stage. Ava was an actress in our living room; on stage she was Ava struggling to enter a role. I went to see her in Pinter’s Betrayal and Clare Booth Luce’s The Women. I felt awkward watching her emoting, indicating, taking too long with a pause. The possibility she oozed on the sofas was now squandered in some way. I felt confident around her at sherry hour, convinced she’d succeed at being a grande actrice. On stage she was trapped in herself, too much energy spent creating her own character to create anyone else.

Sometimes she arrived early to sherry hour and we talked alone. We were thirty-four and thirty-five at the time (I, the older), two of a generation of women unsure about marriage and commitment, and how to make a place for themselves in the world. She leaned in to listen, wrapping her long cardigan around her legs, as if wrapping me into her thoughts. I told her about the book I was struggling to write; she told me about the bit part she played in her friend’s. We talked about long-term relationships, the question of children. She made wild generalizations, which I encouraged. There was something in Ava that yearned to be serious, to work hard at something, and I felt compelled to accommodate her. She recorded her thoughts in journals, and confessed to sometimes feeling overwhelmed, her mind racing in chaos, and then she would have to remind herself of the real world, take a cup in her hand and reassure herself of its presence. “Sometimes when I wake up and see my own arm on the pillow, I jump!”

With Ava, there was always someone you should meet, some topic to lunch over. She always chose an out-of-the-way café that was hard to get to and nearly empty with soft lighting, slow-swinging overhead fans and hot spicy drinks. She left messages of lazy urgency on our machine, and I imagined her calling from her cell phone in her Toyota from somewhere out in Boston. There would be a pause and a sigh, as if she had just spied one of us across the room, then the dip into the lower register as she said our names.

She lived off a trust fund and had an apartment in Arlington, for which I could never picture a specific décor. I imagined her life in general, picturing it very much as it seemed to be—swishing from soiree to soiree, going out to dinner with friends after studying scripts all day long on the sofa.

Ava came and went at sherry hour, never a regular but never staying away long enough to be forgotten. Always she arrived with the sense of a party already started, dark eyes seizing you, offering outlandish praise. She once told me that, when driving by the house and seeing me on the porch in a black turtleneck smoking, that I looked like one of Chet Baker’s girlfriends. I cherished that comment for months. This was Ava at her best: she took you into her world, made you specific in her imagination.

I wondered if, like the champagne bubble smile, the image later went flat, or if she revived it with others. But she rarely talked of people not in the room. Vividly present, Ava played only to the audience before her.

This made her both endearing and infuriating. For she was always taking people away, sometimes one you were talking to. Her voice would carry over and capture their attention, or she would silently approach and lean her head on their shoulder and then both were lost to you. Once, she wheeled the sherry cart to the sofas from its place in the corner by the bookshelves, a gesture that always started the party, one that I looked forward to: glasses jiggling, golden sherry swaying in the heavy crystal decanters as the wheels bumped along. She had gotten there first, rolled in the cart, lit the candles, and but for Will’s hand on the decanter handing it to me, would have begun to pour.

But these moments were quickly assuaged when her attention returned to me and I felt foolish for caring. Part of me even felt sorry for Ava. I sometimes thought of her driving alone on Storrow Drive to a rehearsal dinner or charity dinner, her cell phone next to her on the seat. I wondered who her intimates were, how long she could go on before exhausting her smile, her frothy façade; wondered if she had moments of self-consciousness or if she was always case in this brightness, this outlandish drama, this absolute woman-of-the-theater persona. In my imaginings, Ava was always a woman driving at night, a face behind glass in a shiny speeding vehicle, motoring down the road.

In midwinter, I ran into her at the public library. I was job hunting and thought I would take a break by going to hear a talk on Jews and books. But the auditorium was hosting some kind of poetry reading. About to leave after realizing my mistake, I spied Ava in a row near the back and before I could turn she looked up and saw me. I knew better than to leave. Her eyes had claimed me. I took a seat behind her and she reached over to squeeze my hand.

“It’s a Sonnet-a-thon,” she whispered. “Theater Zone whipped it up. Did you get one?”

In her lap was a hardbound journal into which she’d copied her sonnet: #90.

An emcee in a red cummerbund and bowtie introduced the next sonnet, after which an actor dashed to the podium. They were on #66: “Mine eye and heart are at a mortal war…”

I recognized a few actors from sherry hour. Ava responded visibly to each poem read, taking it into her physically, attaching a moan or sigh, a shifting of the legs. A girl in a backless dress and rhinestone barrette came to greet her, and an old man kissed the top of her head. Ava studied her sonnet, lips moving silently over the lines, until at #88 she left her seat and bobbed down the aisle, hunched over, readying herself for her appearance. At her cue, she crossed the stage, head down, trying to look serious but unable to avoid flashing a smile. At the mic, she tossed her head, as if trying to shake water out of her ear, and steadied herself. I heard the voice dip:

“Then hate me when thou wilt…”

She bit each word, taking too much pleasure in each one. To be an actor was to disappear into another world. Ava was the center of any room she entered. The low dreamy voice, the dark hair drenching the light, the pale stretch of her throat.

Afterwards, in the lobby, she left me as she circled the room, crumpling into embraces and squeezing arms as if they were clay models she was shaping with her touch. “Larry is my favorite oceanographer…” Ava had once been an actress in one of those traveling Renaissance Faires, and I think this might have been a good place for her: a forest grove inhabited by players in peasant blouses, where there was no stage, no separation between the role and the fictive universe.

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That spring, Ava’s desire to make a serious effort in the theater—and at life, I imagine—swelled. At sherry hour she stabbed an olive and rolled it around on her tongue. “I really want to go deeper…”

We began to talk about acting and writing and exploring the interaction between the two. I made a computer file of ideas but the talks never happened. By then she’d moved on to the idea of writing herself.

Ava invited the goateed playwright and Will to join her in creating an original work. Ava wasn’t sure what it would be but spoke of “trusting the process.” They met at various cafes or discussed it at sherry hour. I came home once to find the goateed playwright on all fours, Will holding a chair over him and Ava intoning something behind them. Ava rarely wrote lines. She was an inciter. “What if…?” She’d say, tossing an idea back into the mix. It was soon clear that Ava only wanted to act, that she was searching for her next role and had engaged people to help her find it.

In late spring she arrived at sherry hour, out of breath as usual, a cape swirling around her, which she laid on the captain’s chair and then joined us on the sofas. “I have only one word,” she said. “Etty.” She had just read the diary of Etty Hillesum, an ardent woman who had been taken by the Nazis. She wanted to adapt her story for the stage. For the next weeks, she arrived with bits of news: she’d secured a lawyer to discuss stage rights. She was soon engrossed in plotting her way along to her great plan, for it was clear by now that she would play the role of Etty: a dark tragic figure, a passionate woman whose passion didn’t save her. One got the impression that this was to be the role of her life. A culmination of her talent and a great humanitarian mission.

I feared for Etty. Ava would overdramatize and make the woman a parody. There was no worse woman to play Etty, and somehow no one better than Ava, who was devoted to shining her light on this dark trapped soul. When she talked of Etty she became quiet and a look of terror crept over her features that was more articulate than any of her thoughts on the piece just yet. In Etty, she found the direness, the realness, the urgency she was seeking. She toted the diary with her everywhere, quoting from it, journaling her own thoughts alongside, and quite possible transforming into her already before our eyes.

In the summer, she assembled a new team of playwrights and actors (again, including Will) and shuttled them to meetings at cabins in the Berkshires, or apartments in Greenwich Village, retreats away from home where they could work together undisturbed, for she seemed to believe that in this circle of people something magical would happen. She brought sandwiches and coffee, Michael Chekhov acting techniques and a producer from Austin, Texas. She sat at the head of the charmed circle around the table with her copy of Etty’s diary underlined, dog-eared, and bookmarked.

The question was how to approach the material. They had to be careful not to sensationalize or be melodramatic. Ava sat in her shawl, listening to each one speak, nodding at their ideas but revealing dissatisfaction at her turn. She tried to articulate what she wanted, talked low and soft of respecting Etty, this noble woman who countered death with a life of the flesh. Who moved freely at the center of her life, defying the Nazis with her lovers and spies and plots. Amidst a table strewn with empty coffee cups and takeout bags, she pressed them to keep going, sure that through collective effort they would find their way in to a ‘sincere emotional response.’

“My God, Ava, it’s not a biopic for HBO,” Will said. “We have to be theatrical.”

At this I can see her frowning. It was too much theater for her perhaps, too much drama to rival her own. She pressed them further, to another retreat, another chance to assemble pages of thought and text, to save Etty from obscurity.

After half a year of jaunts to the country and city, of trains and cars and airplanes, people started calling to say they couldn’t make it, other projects had come up, they were out of town for a while. Etty was in danger of stalling out. I feared for Ava, for her obsession was now the subject of every sherry hour conversation. Theater was, if anything, I’d learned, brisk, sometimes going from script to opening in four weeks. Ava had not yet found the person to create the role for her. She continued to search. She could not write it herself. She was for the first time since I’d known her without a role. It was painful to see her there, in a place where she might sink not swim.

As the Etty project idled, sherry hour waned. A couple of members moved. Will and I were getting increasingly busy. I missed the ritual Thursday 4:30 rush to clean the house, to fill the decanters and put out the hand-tooled toothpicks and tiny linen napkins. They were our props, I see now, for our life in Boston. Without sherry hour, we kept in touch with people on the fly, catching them at shows, improvising lunches and dinners.

I lost track of Ava for a while. Then I heard she was in a new production of Antony and Cleopatra at a small black box theater featuring live cello music. In flowing robes and hair band, Ava was a striking queen and worked hard to launch herself into the role, intoning her passion, like in the sonnet, with a little too much insistence. Basking in her halo of light, she was feeling something I was not. To be her audience was to be diminished, I realized, not expanded.

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During the run, she fell in love with Marc Antony, an actor named Beau who had come to sherry hour a few times. I heard news of them through friends: he had flown her to St. Croix, they were holed up in a B&B in Newport. I expected to soon hear of their engagement—Ava had money and will, after all. I was hoping this love affair might put an end to some unending struggle in herself. She still called and we talked of books and acting and writing. She’d entered couples’ therapy with Beau right away, as a precaution. I pictured her draped over him from behind at the kitchen table, clutching him as in a pieta, and in the heated throws of love, pausing at the height of passion, the way she did in conversation.

News of the Etty project trickled in. She had found a new group north of the city to take on the project. I pictured her traveling to and from rehearsals in her Toyota, rain pattering on the windshield, her copy of Etty on the seat next to her.

I kept expecting news of a marriage, a pregnancy, or a breakup. Beau was an actor who made a living off industrial films and TV commercials. Of his stage work he had once confessed a bit of sentimentality: he snipped a tiny piece of the curtain from each theater he’d worked in. He was exceedingly generous, giving away tickets to a Celtics playoff game or box seats at the Red Sox. He cooked five-course dinners, brought pricey ports and cigars to the house. He worked construction, too, and bought and fixed up old houses. He traveled to the Galapagos and to Kenya. He reminded me of Gatsby, a self-made man—he had grown up poor with a single mother was the rumor—and now “sucking the pap of life.” How would a man of action and adventure cope with Ava’s internality, her intimate talks, her dark low voice across the room? Where did the two of them meet, at night, in the dark? Who were they? I asked, the same way I often wondered about an actor’s identity offstage.

By the autumn of the next year, I’d heard that the Etty project was getting on its feet. There would be a reading soon. It was finally coming together. I was at the center of my own life now, working, meeting friends and colleagues at lunches and dinners. Will and I talked about reviving sherry hour from time to time but never got around to it. In the evenings, I worked quietly on my book.

The last time I saw Ava was at the theater a year or two later. It was a darkly humorous new Irish play featuring a beloved local actor. Ava spied us at intermission and came over to visit, sitting in the row below us and gazing upwards. She was plumper, more solid and settled. Love, I thought. But her gypsy eyes still flashed. There had been troubling incidents—a parent’s ill health, Beau searching for his natural father—real-life crises that had taken their toll. Her wide mouth still triumphed into smiles and light, but it was more prone to slackening into horizontal sobriety. I watched her as she talked, mesmerized again, eager to hear her next words, as I was when sitting in a darkened theater.

She winked at me, asked me a few questions that I briefly dispatched. I wanted to hear more from her, to watch her again for a moment. For to watch Ava was to watch a struggle, one that I had been vicariously aligned with all along. Her success or failure seemed connected to my own. If Ava could wrestle her life into some kind of shape or order, there was hope for me. Still giddy in the presence of her excess and by the nearness of her outlandish attempts, I needed to believe in Ava.

She was still not yet married to Beau, she was still not done with Etty. But there was progress, she said. Everything was coming along just fine.

***

Rumpus original art by Trisha Previte


Janet Pocorobba is an associate professor of writing at Lesley University and associate director of their low-residency MFA in creative writing. A former writer and contributing editor at Metropolis magazine in Tokyo, her articles, essays and reviews have appeared in The Rumpus, Harvard Review, The Writer, Kyoto Journal, Indiana Review, Provincetown Arts, American Athenaeum, and elsewhere. She lives in a cabin in Vermont, where she keeps a blog of rural life at www.onsodompond.wordpress.com and is writing a book about women, her local co-op, and community. More from this author →