I contemplated her, from the dark. The light illuminated her white, silk shift, giving radiance to her smooth olive skin. To the man opposite her, she screamed and cursed. Then she was tender, and apologetic, and pleading. They held each other’s gaze, her desperation communing with his conflict, petrifying their bodies.
Darkness collapsed upon the stage, and above me, lights burst into brightness. I, along with hundreds of others, applauded; then the sound was subsumed in the smacks of shutting chairs, the shuffling of feet, and enquiring chatter.
I leaned my back further into my seat, and thought. Turning my head, I peered at the man two rows up from me, several seats away. He was dressed in a sharp, black suit, with a pristine white shirt, black trousers and a black tie. He appeared to have based his style on a 50s movie character, and his slicked-back hair corroborated this notion. It was apt, in a way: theatre had always had a special relationship with eye-catching costumes, and he was in possession of this theatre; his retro look was a reflection of his profession.
Something tugged the man’s idle gaze to his left, and he smiled. She was darting up towards him, her bare feet moving in cute, petite steps, her white shift trailing slightly in her wake. She bent forward, wrapped both her arms around his neck, and whispered in his ear. His smile opened, he replied, he kissed her cheek. She laughed and stood up straight, beaming. But the indiscriminate light of the auditorium had washed away much of the lustre she had captured on stage. And she no longer held the centre of attention. Were it not for her incongruous clothing, she could have disappeared in the crowd. I pulled my sight back to the empty stage.
A gradual series of memories and imaginings wandered aimlessly through my mind. I remembered how I first met her, in that red French café, sheltered from the gloom of the rain, her features wet and fresh. I recalled the sensation of my hand curled around hers, from when we sat in the cinema, hidden from the outside world. And I envisaged where my decision tonight would take me: happiness? Rejection? Did she even truly care about me? Her performance offstage concerned me far more than her onstage one, to the point that I considered foregoing my intentions. But thoughts of her persisted. They were a long line of patients, and I was their doctor; but I didn’t know the cure to make them go away.
In want of a distraction, my eyes settled on a golden engraving embedded in one of the theatre’s walls, above the steps on the far right. The face of a goblin, or an imp, or a devil, stared at me: sharp angles delineated its features; its ears were large and pointed, and pressed between them was a flat, scalp-tight cap; its eyes were narrow and malevolent, piercing and knowing; its gaping rictus was filled with long thin lines, like corrupted harp strings that would produce its mocking laughter, and which spread outward to form the background of the image; bars that had let their prisoner loose. It was repulsive, inane. Unsettling.
By now, she had left him, and returned backstage. He seemed content; his play was a critical success, and his girlfriend adored him. At least she acted as if she did.
Without warning, he brought his eyes to bear upon mine. My chest tightened. I didn’t flick my gaze aside, out of a strange guilt and defiance. I hoped it was intuitive, that he had merely sensed my interest in him. But I could not be certain that she would not betray me. And he would not drop his gaze. The golden imp sprang in my mind: knowing. Knows. He knows.
Then the man just smiled. Politely, not malevolently. I replied, but my lips were resistant, my muscles still tense. I turned face forward again, and listened to the slowing beat of my heart.
Several minutes later, the lights above were extinguished, unashamedly stolen by those ahead. The actors had retaken their positions. She was beautiful again, her earlier flaws effaced in the drama. Halfway through, I glanced at the watchful goblin: in the light it had been grotesque and unnerving, but in the dimness it was as if its sight had been deadened; a childhood fear put back in its box.