6x6c6e6r6t6: Deception of Surfaces
The beginning of chapter 12.
The rooms of the second floor of The Retreat opened on to the balcony that enclosed the Assembly Room on three sides. Above the lobby and facing American Street was the biggest room: the rehearsal room, which had been two offices before the Retreaters had knocked down a dividing wall. Forty-five feet long and twenty feet from the doors to the windows, it was a room in great demand, since it was The Retreat’s lone classroom and rehearsal room.
Stretching across the long wall above the kitchen and facing the stage were the row of rooms which comprised the Fallon’s home and office. Each of these rooms had windows that looked out on to the yard of the old factory, which Maya had converted into a large garden and patio. These rooms too were twenty feet deep and anywhere between twenty and thirty feet across, depending on the room. From left to right there were Andy and Maya’s bedroom (which also doubled as the Retreat’s “office”), then a large bathroom with three doors – one opening into the master bedroom, one opening onto the balcony, and one opening into the third room in the line, Bella and Sandro’s bedroom. The fourth room, above the doors to the smelter room, was multi-purpose, used as a guest bedroom, playroom for the kids, costume shop for the Retreat and library.
Facing the rehearsal room from across the length of the Assembly Room were two final rooms. With no windows, they functioned in two ways: as storerooms for theatrical props and equipment, and as shrines.
As this May evening in 2020 moved slowly in its transformation from becoming night to becoming day, Alice sat on the antique toilet in the large bathroom with her mobile pressed to her ear and Jason’s voice everywhere. She had the most curious image sitting there: that the pee leaving her was being replaced by some other substance. She was emptying and filling at the same time. She looked up at the strange tank above her with the pull chain hanging down, at the giant claw-tooth bathtub with the pipes all exposed, at the mildewed shower curtain and the assortment of bath toys laying in a basket next to the tub, at the small, octagonal black and white tiles of the bathroom floor, and she wondered, is this what a room for love looks like?
There was so much to say that she sat there long after the peeing was over, feeling self-conscious of how loud her voice sounded in the echo-chamber of the bathroom, and worried that at any moment, one of the three doors would pop open and there would be Sandro, or worse, Pee-U, or worse, Andy. It had been so long since she had lived with other people, it hadn’t even occurred to her to lock the doors. The contradiction of her work at Exhale and this modest anxiety flitted through her consciousness and vanished. As Jason told her about the litter of piglets, she stood and pulled her pants up with one hand, then turned and looked for a handle to flush. She had to interrupt her brother and describe her dilemma of the handle-less toilet. He talked her through the pull-chain, and laughed when he heard the roar it made all the way out in the evening of his quiet bedroom in Jackson Hole.
They had communicated over the last two years with emails and text messages. It was a functional communication: this happened, then that happened, and now this is happening. They had been playing that game of the mutually wounded: who can stay aloof the longest. But now on this strange day, Alice knew the dam had burst for both of them, and why not? It seemed to be the kind of day when life turns at ninety degree angles, instead of puttering along in its ordinary, straight-ish line. Resting against the large porcelain sink now, Alice listened as Jason covered an old girlfriend, a new girlfriend, learning how to make goat’s milk yogurt, the bar band he was playing in, the piglets and now the controversy over the new computer the farm was buying. Alice had covered Gene’s class, Exhale and just a little about the Retreat, mostly about Uma. They had arrived at that moment: now what? Someone knocked at the door. It was Fatima.
“Alice dear. We’re waiting.”
“Be right there.”
Be right there, Alice thought. For the first time in years, saying goodbye was overtly painful. She wasn’t sure, but she thought Jason might be crying. They said I love you, and they hung up. Alice rinsed her hands out of habit, and felt how much she missed him. She wondered at the French words on the faucets, and resisted going through the Fallon’s medicine chest: a home-made, wall-hung shelve unit to her right. She left through the door to the balcony and walked to her right to the rehearsal room, passing the spiral stairs in the corner going down, and wondering how Pee-U made it up them.
But Pasqual was walking home now, having eaten two-thirds of the cheesesteak, the other third being put away by Allesandro Fallon. Turning left at Poplar Street, the Mexican giant did his breathing exercises as he walked through the cool May night. This was the beginning of his preparation for sleep, a long ritual he had developed with Maya and Kate, the Retreat’s yoga instructor. Because sleep for Pasqual was elusive. As the Retreaters got to know him better, it had become impossible to ignore the distress signals: the shaking hands, the lack of personal hygiene, the sudden narcoleptic naps and the way alcohol oozed from his pores.
“He smells like medicine,” Bella had said.
With Henry as a translator, Andy had 12-Stepped Pasqual. Finding a bi-lingual A.A. meeting had not been hard, and Andy had acted as Pee-U’s temporary sponsor as the gentle giant navigated the crumbling of his denial and the slow acquisition of a new way to live. Having become suddenly rich through the sale of his invention, the high-yield photovoltaic tape and the accompanying power system (which The Retreat allowed him to test and refine), Pasqual had bought a small brownstone on Poplar Street around the corner from his newly adoptive family. Andy’s first visit there in 2018 had been devastating. It was an alcoholic’s hell-hole. Pasqual had done only just enough to make sure it had heat, electricity and water. The rest was chaos: a mattress on the floor, old clothes and books strewn around, bugs picking at scraps of food, and a small entertainment system featuring a computer and a large hi-def monitor. When Pee-U hadn’t shown up for a meeting at The Retreat, Andy had let himself in with the spare key he had been entrusted with, and found the mad genius splayed out on the floor, a bottle of tequila clutched in one hand, and Exhale videos streaming through the TV. Though he didn’t know it then, that was the first time Andy laid eyes on Alice Robbins, bent over a saddle-horse in Exhale’s Wild West Room.
Pasqual slowly got sober. At first he thought it was okay to drink beer and go to meetings. But gradually he felt his life changing and a weight lifting. He finally had a safe place to go and confess. He confessed about failure: to succeed in graduate school, to succeed as a technician for mobile devices in Mexico, to succeed in any kind of human relationship. He confessed about the violent home he grew up in, and the sick people who lived there. He confessed about his homelessness, wandering like a blasted vagrant to El Paso, eating garbage, stealing whatever he could find, submitting to beatings in the homeless shelters in Houston. He confessed to his voyeurism, peeping into the windows of suburban homes to watch the scenes of family life unfold, and to watch the women undress, feeding both the fantasy of a life he dreamed of, and devastating him with the reality: that he was sitting in some bush somewhere covered in filth, a drunken peeping-tom. “Sometimes,” he said in Spanish at one of those early meetings, “the thing you think will make feel closest, is actually making you farthest away.”
With six months free of the drink, his stories evolved from the tearful confessions – stories so sad he frequently brought many others in the room to tears too – to stories of gratitude. Gratitude for the young volunteer in the shelter in Houston who discovered Pasqual’s latent genius for electrical engineering. Gratitude for the subsistence job this young man had found for him, working in a pawn shop where Pasqual hungrily dissected any electronic device which was deemed too damaged to sell. Gratitude for the way his talent evolved to the point where more people were coming to the pawn shop to have him fix their cell phones and computers, than to fence items for cash in those lean years around 2015. Gratitude for the tip he received from one of those customers, about a lab in Philadelphia working on green technology, looking for cheap labor. And finally, gratitude for the gringos miraculosos who had brought light into his life with their art, purpose for his genius and now, hope for his disease. As well as his nickname, Pee-U.
Before meeting the Retreaters, he had managed to control his drinking just enough so that he could bear down on his work. Pasqual became a binge drinker, staying dry enough during the week and then holing himself up in his small apartment at the YMCA and drinking through the weekend. Once his fortune was made though, there was nothing left to keep him in check, and he descended to the private hell Andy found him in that day. Once Andy had roused him he began repeating the same frightened Spanish phrase over and over. Later, Henry was able to piece it together: “I’m in the wrong play.” Thus it was that the special connection between Sandro and Pasqual began, as Pasqual had heard and understood Sandro’s first great lazzo as the key to understanding his own existential pain.
In through the nose, hold it for five, out through the mouth. In through the nose, hold it for five, out through the mouth. Pasqual opened the front door to his little home and closed it behind him, taking in the simple and well ordered living room. Now began an hour-long process of changing into baggy pajamas, doing several yoga postures on a mat he unrolled in the living room, slowly cleaning himself. All this was new to him, this system of unwinding, of self-attention. All this he had learned from the wise women at The Retreat. He would end up finally in front of a little alter next to his king size bed on the second floor. He would wedge a large cushion under his bottom, and, after massaging his jaw, turn his attention to the objects and images arranged on the small table, covered in a cloth Maya had worn as a scarf in an Arabian Nights panto last year. There was a small Mexican flag on the table, a postcard announcing the opening of The Retreat, a pendant of a triangle inside a circle, a group photograph taken the day The Retreat was finally wrapped in his tape, with the Retreaters all around him and Pasqual in the middle. There was a photograph of Sandro sitting on his lap as they watched a rehearsal. And there was a small gold wedding band for a woman. Pasqual never spoke about it. He would say a prayer later that night, thanking God for his sobriety and for the many blessings of his life, then he might look at the hand-written note taped above the alter in Henry’s hand-writing:
- Se presentan y estar presentes.
- Prestar atención a lo que posee el corazón y la importancia.
- Decir la verdad sin juicio o la culpa.
- Esté abierto a los resultados, pero no unido a los resultados.
And then Pasqual Umberto del Merced de la Bellavista would lie down in his bed and close his eyes.
Back at The Retreat, Uma and Maya sat on the floor of Sandro and Bella’s bedroom. Sandro lay on top of the covers, with his pajama top pushed up to under his chin, as Maya absently stroked his tummy in a bed-time ritual he had not grown out of yet, called the Tickly Scratch. Uma leaned against Bella’s old bed across the room, next to the wall of the guest room, where Bella lay texting a friend on her mobile. The room was a comfortable press of out-grown toys, a hodge-podge of dressers and armoires for the kids, and gender-specific wall hangings: Philadelphia sports greats for him, Goth girl bands for her. It had been promised: during the summer, the guest room would be converted to Bella’s room, and she would walk down the balcony to the bathroom, and one of the shrines would become the guest room. But now, with Uma staying there, Bella was still with her brother, an indignity made bearable by the frequent late night talks she participated in with her Mom and Uma during the week of Uma’s visit. Sandro dropped off to sleep like a stone anyway, which he always did like clockwork at 11 p.m.
“Then I went off about being so poor,” said Maya quietly, filling in Uma and Bella on what had transpired after they had left the kitchen.
“How poor are you?” asked Uma.
“Poor, poor, poor,” said Bella like she was tired of hearing it, snapping shut her mobile. Maya gently pulled the sleeping Sandro’s pajama top down. She told Uma about the leap of faith she had put in Andy, about how he had a record of pulling victory from the jaws of defeat. But something was happening to her as she watched her children grow.
“It’s one thing to make compromises about your own life,” said Maya, now on Bella’s bed and playing absently with her daughter’s corkscrew hair, “but it’s something else when you begin compromising your own children.”
“Jeez Mom,” said Bella, flopping over to rest her head in Maya’s lap, “you make it sound like you’re about to sell us into slave labor.”
“That’s it!” crowed Maya quietly as Uma laughed, “Why didn’t I think of it before! I could get a pretty penny for you!” Then all three women thought about the same thing at the same time: about Alice and Exhale and money and bodies and . . . “Well,” said Maya, “maybe not . . . I just really wanted to take them to Italy, to show them where my family’s from, maybe spend a summer there, I don’t know.”
“Sounds wonderful,” said Uma.
“And expensive,” said Maya.
“What’s the most expensive part of it?” asked Uma.
And in the rehearsal room Alice said, “Emilia? Really?”
“Really,” replied Andy. Alice stared at the pages of the script in her hand, shocked at how shocked she was to have been cast as the servant.
“Oh it will be so good for you darling,” said Fatima, her voice dripping with sarcasm, “to play a commoner for once.”
Andy suggested they read it through, then work it on it’s feet, then decide if it was something they wanted to come back to later in the week. Clever, thought Alice, he’s getting me hooked through my soft spot, Shakespeare, and he’s going to cock-tease me with this scene and leave me wanting more. Then I’ll come back to work on it, and, well, at least that’s what he’s thinking.
They sat in a small triangle in the middle of the empty room, mirrors to either side of the door leading in, and an assortment of chairs, tables and Styrofoam blocks piled at either end of the room, the detritus of rehearsals past. Alice began.