Welcome to chapter two of Bump and Grind. If you’d like to listen, rather than read, CLICK HERE.
Bruce Thompson was a dashing combo of silver-streaked brown locks and still-boyish good looks. A tsunami of queasiness swept me away. Our celebrity guest had arrived.
His warm gaze dissolved into a look of amazement. I recalled in painstaking detail the first time I’d laid eyes on him, at my first big audition after graduating.
Bruce’s acclaim as an actor and director had won him a Tony award for Eureykah Johnson’s recent Broadway smash, and now Bruce was in town with his new pal to direct her gala.
“Karen Peters?” He stepped closer, eyes shining with wonder, and all I could do was nod. “My God, it’s been ages. I can’t believe it’s you! What are you doing here?” He threw his arms open for a hug.
I stepped into him, hoping I didn’t smell like the uncle to be avoided at holiday gatherings after the night I’d had.
Bruce folded me into the crisp scent of outdoor air mingled with his own subtle, spicy fragrance.
“Well… I work here,” I said.
“You do?” He finally released me. An awkward pause sucked up all of the air in the room.
I’m sure he was wondering how I’d gone from a career-making role with the National Shakespeare Festival to shelving books in a dusty old library.
“Your hair is a darker chestnut, but otherwise you haven’t changed a bit.”
White hot shame pulsed through my body. How could he not see how much I’d changed?
“It’s really great to see you, Bruce.” I smiled as hard as my heart was beating. “Can I take your coat?”
Bruce peeled off his heavy wool overcoat and fished out the inhaler. He was put together in a perfectly unaffected way. All he needed was a forest and a dog to romp with.
“Karen, how are you? What are you up to these days? You pop into my head so often.”
He didn’t ask if I was still acting.
“I’m great. Let me go and hang this up. Can I bring you a coffee?”
“That would be lovely. Wow, Karen Peters…”
His eyes were on me as I walked back to the staff area. Each step felt like an eternity.
“Our conference room is there to the left,” I called over my shoulder. “Have a look and see if you need anything. Do you still take it black?”
“How sweet of you to remember,” Bruce said.
“Bruce Thompson has arrived,” I announced to Mrs. Henderson, my voice cracking.
She looked me over, and tucked a loose strand of hair behind my ear.
“Much better,” she said. “I’ll take him this. You brew another. You’re going to need it when those noisy teenagers get here.”
Last week my boss, Malcolm, had announced with glee that Bruce would be here, in the last place I’d ever expect to see him, to facilitate a Shakespeare workshop for local students. I’d thought about returning to bartending in that moment. The money was better, the hours flexible. Did it really matter so much that the library had been a way better move for my overall health? Malcolm was totally unaware of my past with Bruce, and I wondered how long I could keep it that way. It was nine-thirty when the boss man finally came flying in.
“Oh my God darlin’ I’m so sorry I’m late!”
As bosses go, Malcolm was my all-time favorite. He’d become the brother I never had. He was also co-parenting with my best friend Samantha, and they shared adjoining condos in the same building. I liked having all of my anchors in one bay.
“Is everything okay?” Maybe it was the lighting, but he looked like a news anchor. His brown skin seemed to have a matte finish, and his salt-and-pepper dreadlocks were tucked into a ponytail. No glasses. Was he wearing makeup?
“That fucking dog puked everywhere! Samantha insists on giving him table scraps and leaves the projectile for me to clean up. Who the hell has a Great Dane and a shag carpet under the same roof?” Malcolm threw his hands up and headed to the staff room. “Is Mr. Thompson here yet? I hope so. Hordes of teenagers are going to invade any minute.”
I slunk back to the conference room one last time to introduce Bruce to Malcolm, whose dark eyes were wide as saucers. Malcolm was definitely wearing liner.
“I hope Karen made you feel welcome,” Malcolm said.
I smiled, but my face didn’t feel like it belonged to me.
“Of course,” said Bruce, “and what a wonderful surprise it was to see her again.”
“Oh? I didn’t realize you two knew each other.”
“Bruce and I worked on a production together a long time ago,” I said.
My hands began to shake. I excused myself and chugged a mug of coffee in the now-empty staff room before grabbing a cart full of books.
On my quest for the perfect hiding spot, I passed one of our regulars, a wild-looking old man who sat in the reference section every day in front of his typewriter and an unplugged rotary phone. Professor Jones played out his former days as an academic, setting up office and preparing for lectures. I murmured a good morning, and he eyed me suspiciously.
“You’re wearing too much lipstick,” he barked in his clipped, British accent.
“Professor Jones, how are you today?”
“I’m tired of students who don’t make appointments, that’s how I am.”
He glared at me over the rim of his glasses, then turned and began pounding on his typewriter. Like a scene from The Shining, he typed the same phrase over and over again: Carpe Diem. Carpe Diem. Carpe Diem. Goosebumps prickled my flesh.
I left him to it and found a hideout in the back corner of the history section. I could hear the noisy arrival of the teenagers and after a few moments the door to the conference room clicked shut, and Bruce’s finely-honed stage voice took command.
I strained to hear him. Any task I’d set out became secondary to tracking the rise and fall of Bruce’s rich baritone. The sound was so familiar, and I was back in a place I didn’t let myself visit anymore.
“God, isn’t he gorgeous?” Malcolm startled me, and I teetered on the step stool.
“Sweetie, I need you to do lunch for the workshop.” He all but batted his mascara-thickened eyelashes. “Just go in and make sure the platters are all set, and they can serve themselves, alright?”
There were levels of hell I’d rather visit than that conference room, but Malcolm was clearly not himself, and I suspected there was more to it than dog vomit. Was he nervous about the film crew? That would explain the makeover.
Bruce was giving out simple stage directions as I slipped inside the conference room and positioned myself against the back wall. The news crew was set up, filming from the perimeter.
Bruce motioned to two teenagers. They launched into the material, chewing their way through the scene from Romeo and Juliet, where the star-crossed lovers meet for the first time at the Capulets’ ball.
Of course it was Romeo and Juliet. These kids were learning how to fall in love with the stage, and I remembered that pure, sweet rush. I was desperate to get up there and show them how it was done, and when the scene abruptly ended, I let out a groan. They skipped the kiss.
Bruce thanked his volunteers and they returned to their seats. Then, to my horror, he gestured to me.
“Ms. Peters, I asked Malcolm to fetch you to help me demonstrate how proper use of text can really bring a scene to life.”
I glanced around the room and noticed Mrs. Henderson sitting in the opposite corner beside a table full of plastic-wrapped sandwich platters, waiting to help with the lunch break. The thudding in my ears was like a stampede.
I was going to kill Malcolm.
“Oh, no… I—I need to get back to my desk. I was just checking to make sure the room was warm enough.”
It was definitely warm enough. I was sweating like a linebacker. Thirty pairs of teenage eyeballs were on me, but I was stuck to my spot, doing all I could not to cry.
This was ridiculous. I’d said goodbye to theater; I wasn’t going back now, in front of a room of pimply-faced kids. Yet, part of me was already stepping into Juliet’s satin slippers. I was so tired of failing at something that had once been as natural as breathing.
“Karen, don’t be humble. Please join me up here. This will be painful for everyone if I have to act it out myself.” A few of the kids laughed at this.
I could either race out the door or into Bruce’s arms. My mouth was a desert, and the room tilted at a perverse angle. Here it was, the same sickening panic that made every audition for the last three years a shit-show.
I remembered Professor Jones’s cryptic typing.
Carpe Diem. Carpe Diem.
Bruce caught me in his hazel gaze, and I closed my eyes and took a slow, steady breath. Something roared to life under my nerves: the thrill of an audience. I made my way to the front, not trusting my legs, and took the pages that Bruce offered. The text was as vivid in my memory as it had been three years ago when we’d rehearsed it.
Bruce and I locked eyes. With a slow inhale I stepped into the scene.
“Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much…”
I was filled with the passion of new love, the butterfly electricity that comes when someone looks at you and thinks you’re beautiful.
Bruce dropped his script:
“My lips, two blushing pilgrims ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.”
I fell in love with this aging Romeo. His eyes were kind and clever, alight with tiny flecks of gold. His silvery stubble felt comforting beneath my fingertips. I spoke, clear and sure:
“For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmer’s kiss.”
Romeo took my hand and placed it on his chest. I could smell the spice of his collar. Here was a man who would slay a mouse, or at the very least, make me coffee.
“Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?” he asked in a husky stage whisper.
I sank into the poetry of the man before me, daring to imagine how his mouth would feel here, and there. “Aye pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.” I pressed my body against his. “Saints do not move, though grant for prayer’s sake.”
“Then move not while my prayer’s effect I take.” Romeo grazed my lips with his. He took my face in his hands and kissed me deeply. If my clothes could dissolve with a wish, I’d have been naked.
Bruce broke the kiss and stared. I wasn’t sure if he was just playing the moment or if he too could see the air shimmering around us. The scene dissolved. I tugged myself away from Bruce’s gorgeous eyes, breathless.
“Damn…,” someone muttered.
“For real, get a room.”
I’d completely forgotten where I was. Forgotten the film crew, and the sounds of popping gum. The layer of cheap body spray hanging in the stale air of the library. I’d abandoned Bruce’s world of passionate make-believe; this dream would never be mine.
A voice like silver thunder rolled from the back of the room. Everyone swiveled toward the door, and the videographer made a beeline for the best angle.
The one and only Eureykah Johnson, in all her infinite glory. Brown curls framed her iconic face like a halo, and a rich purple dress hugged her curves. Her dark sepia skin was flawless. That smile radiated benevolent love upon us all and our teenage audience scrambled to capture everything with their phones. She took my hands. It was like the moment when I first opened my eyes after the accident; I felt like I’d returned from some faraway place.
Eureykah smelled like fresh-baked cookies. There was nothing I could do to hold back my tears. What in the holy hell was Eureykah Johnson doing here?
“Karen Peters, I’m here to dare you to live your dream.”
Eureykah held out her arms and pulled me into her mountainous bosom. I felt like I was being held in the cradle of life.
“What?” I murmured into her boobs.
“Your friends submitted you for our contest. You’re our next winner, Karen!”
A handful of local news reporters materialized at the back of the conference room. Malcolm jumped up and down like a boy at the circus. Beside him stood my best friend Samantha, with her baby, Darnell, strapped to her front. Bruce watched with delight, using his thumb to wipe the red lipstick off his face.
I closed my eyes, wrapped my arms around the softness of Eureykah Johnson and wept hot, fat tears into her vanilla-scented breasts.
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Bump and Grind is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.