On their way to a matinee of the San Francisco Ballet, Roger and Susan must stand for the entire journey in a crowded subway car. They are wearing heavy coats on this chilly November day, though inside the slow moving train it is a veritable sauna—the air conditioning having failed.
Susan is twenty-six, a fetching brunette, and Roger is forty-nine, a strikingly beautiful former ballet dancer turned fashion designer. They have known each other for exactly one year, Susan and her two young children having moved from homelessness into the collective household where Roger and his lover Paul have been mainstays for more than a decade.
Paul and Roger were friendly and cordial with Susan for the first few months after she moved in, but they did not become close friends with her until they undertook their annual production of the community musical and Susan became their indefatigable assistant—Paul directing, Roger the choreographer and costume designer.
Rehearsals for the play—Guys and Dolls—proceeded splendidly until a week before opening night when the lead actress—with three big songs and two extravagant dance numbers—fell seriously ill. Paul was about to cancel the show when Susan shyly suggested she could play the part.
“I was a pom-pom girl in high school,” she told them, blushing at her confession. “Back in Tennessee? And I’ve been singing since I was a little kid. Mostly in the shower. But I can sing on key, and I know all the lines, so…”
To their great relief and astonishment, Susan was not only good in the part, she was fantastic. The play, which traditionally ran for two weekends, played to sold out houses for five weekends, and Susan became both a local star and the apple of Roger’s show business eye.
Susan was not as awed by her success as Roger and Paul were, and she returned without complaint to being a breakfast waitress in a nearby café and a mom afternoons and evenings.
Roger, however, was eager for Susan to pursue a show business career, for he saw her as a modern hero triumphing against all odds—with talent worthy of the professional stage.
Paul cautioned Roger about transferring his own frustrated ambition onto Susan, but Roger waved the warning aside, saying, “Oh, I’m just having fun. I just want her to see things so she can get a feel for the magic of it all.”
A voice crackles over the train’s public address system. “We apologize for the delay. We will be traveling at half-speed due to construction work. The air conditioning outage is due to an electrical problem. We apologize for the crowding. Two trains ahead of us went out of service unexpectedly. Thank you for your patience. Have a nice day.”
Roger, sweating profusely, shakes his head in dismay. “And they want to encourage the use of public transportation? Ha! This is a farce.”
Susan takes off her coat revealing her newly created dress, a svelte blue sheath designed and sewn by Roger. The train screeches to a halt and Susan is thrown against a burly man in a gray business suit. “Sorry about that,” she says, righting herself. “Did I hurt you? I’m so sorry.”
“Not at all.” The man smiles wearily and wipes his brow with a white handkerchief. “This is insane.”
“I’ve never been on the subway before.” She grins at him. “I think it’s wonderful.”
“This is not wonderful,” says Roger, running a hand through his perfectly coifed silver hair. “This is hell.”
“At least we’re moving again,” says Susan, nodding hopefully as the train lurches forward. “I’m not at work. And I don’t have the kids, much as I love them. And it’s my birthday. I’m going to the ballet. What could be better than that?”
“We could be sitting in an air conditioned train going fast.” Roger closes his eyes. “This is a nightmare.”
They detrain an hour later in downtown San Francisco, Susan following Roger through the bustling throng to an escalator blockaded with a big Out Of Order sign.
“This is too much,” says Roger, starting up the stairs. “A four-story climb after sweating like pigs for an hour? This is criminal.”
“Yeah, but we’re here!” Susan tugs at his coattails. “I’m so excited, Roger. This is just so great.”
The automatic turnstile won’t let Susan exit the underground. So while Roger waits impatiently on the other side of the barrier, Susan approaches the station attendant in the big glass cubicle to find out why her ticket has been rejected. The attendant—a woman with sad brown eyes and silver fingernails—is talking on her mobile phone, oblivious to Susan.
Roger shouts, “Hurry up! We’ll miss the opening piece!”
The attendant doodles on a notepad and says into her phone, “No, baby, we went there yesterday. I’m tired of Chinese. Let‘s do Mexican today. Chile rellenos sound real good to me right about now.”
“Excuse me.” Susan nods politely to the attendant. “I’m late for a ballet show and my ticket…”
The attendant snatches the card from Susan and sticks it into a slot on her computer console. “Not Maria’s,” she says, continuing her phone conversation. “Let’s go to Cha Cha’s. Better margaritas. Hold on.” She hands the card back to Susan. “There’s no credit on this. You need to add three dollars and seventy cents at the Add Credit machine.”
“But I paid ten dollars in Berkeley,” says Susan, her eyes filling with tears. “And I don’t have any more money with me.”
“Sorry,” says the attendant, yawning. “Machine says that card is dead.”
“Jesus!” cries Roger, waving his arms at Susan. “What the hell’s going on?”
Susan shrugs helplessly. “She says my ticket doesn’t have any credit. And I didn’t bring any more money.”
Roger storms up to the cubicle and shouts through the glass. “Now wait just a god damn minute. We put ten dollars on that card in Berkeley. Our train was a half hour late, the air conditioning didn’t work, the escalators are broken, and now…”
“You want to talk to my supervisor?” The attendant glares out at Roger. “You want to file a complaint?”
“No, ma’am,” says Susan, speaking softly. “None of this is your fault. We know that. But the thing is, it’s my birthday and Roger is taking me to my first ballet. I just love to dance. And he was a ballet dancer. And we’re awful late, so…”
“Okay, go on,” says the attendant, buzzing open the gate. “And teach your friend some manners.”
They race along the crowded sidewalks, arriving at the theater just as the performance is about to begin, and despite Roger’s anguished protests, they are compelled to wait in the lobby until the first piece is completed.
Roger falls onto a sofa and buries his face in his hands. “But this was the piece we wanted you to see. This is the main reason we came. This dance is about you, about your life.”
Susan sits beside him and puts her arms around him. “Roger. It’s okay, honey. There’s four more dances after this one. And this is the most beautiful theater I’ve ever seen. Look at those stairways and those chandeliers. Isn’t this amazing?”
He looks up at her, his cheeks streaked with tears. “But we wanted so much for you to see this piece. Paul will be crushed. We wanted this day to be perfect for you.”
“It is,” she says, smiling at the usher, a grim little man in a gray uniform barring their way to seats in the seventh row. “It is perfect. I love everything about it.”
The door behind the usher opens a crack and a wizened face appears, its twinkling eyes meeting Susan’s, its lips communicating something that causes the usher to beckon to Susan and Roger.
“Come in,” says the usher. “There’s been a slight delay. You have just enough time to get to your seats.”
(This story is from Todd’s collection of short stories Buddha In A Teacup. Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com)