Authors: Suanne Laqueur
THE MAN I LOVE
To My Favorite
Some seek the limelight and some hold the light in place.
Erik Fiskare didn’t like being the center of attention, but he liked situations where he had to keep the attention centered.
He was the son of a builder and a musician. He grew up around his father’s workbench, watching how things were made. Or around his mother’s piano, listening to how things were composed. The smoky smell of cut wood and the dizzy odor of turpentine wreathed his childhood days, along with the strains of Bach and Mozart. He played with scrap wood on the saw-dusty floor, pattering along to the ring of hammer on nail and the dissonant squeal of a power saw. Or he lay on the rug beneath the piano, listening to hammers striking strings, nattering to himself as his mother gave lessons to neighborhood kids.
“Erik is happiest when he’s underfoot,” she always said.
In the dark of a night when he was eight years old, Erik awoke to the sound of wheels crunching over gravel in the driveway. From his bedroom window he stared as his father’s pickup truck backed out. It gleamed white in the moonlight, the blue letters crisp on the driver’s side door—
arching over a fleet of blue fish. Fiskare was Swedish for “fisherman.”
Erik watched the red taillights pull further and further down the street, then turn a corner and disappear.
He never saw his father again.
It was a cruel and unexplained desertion which left in its wake a little boy soothed by routine and structure, calmed when things went to according plan. He grew into a teenager with an insatiable need to know how things worked and why. He took everything apart and put it back together, usually successfully. Anything refusing to reassemble was jerry-rigged, and anything that wouldn’t jerry-rig was recycled. Any guy with half a brain knew to have a plan B. Erik had a plan C and D, minimum.
In youth sports he was continually elected captain, for not only was he a natural athlete, but also a natural rallying point. He knew just enough about all his teammates’ personalities to figure out how the team worked best. The team had its superstars, its weak links and its filler. And the self-effacing guy who had his finger on the pulse of it all, the oil keeping the gears in motion, the unifying force making the many into one—that was Erik.
He dialed into basketball in elementary school. An early growth spurt had him at a promising five-eleven by the start of junior high. But to his disappointment, later adolescence only granted him another three-quarters of an inch. He would never break the six-foot ceiling so beloved to boys.
Despite his height he’d been a talented, scrappy point guard on the junior varsity team, possessing a lethal three-point shot and a reputation as an elegant thug on defense. He held the league record in steals until he was benched with an ankle injury his sophomore year. Christine Fiskare allowed her oldest son a three-day pity party. It was all she could afford. She had sold the piano and now worked two jobs while pursuing a nursing degree. The bulk of her worry was allocated to her younger son, Peter, who was profoundly deaf after a childhood illness and stubbornly uncommunicative since his father had left.
Three days was also the limit of her patience. Even before the desertion, Christine had never coddled either of her sons. Nor had public hand-wringing ever been in her nature. Her pain as an abandoned wife was suffered in private, far from the boys’ eyes. As a single mother, she set the past aside and made plans. Shrewdness and self-sufficiency were the bedrock beneath her little family. Once Erik was in a walking cast and maneuvering easily on his crutches, she challenged him to find a new hobby, something to fill up the hours between dismissal and five-thirty. “Something accountable, Mister,” Christine said. “I need to know where you are. And no hanging around street corners, or I’ll find you a job.”
She ruffled his short blond hair, teasing. Erik wasn’t a troublemaker. He’d been making his own pocket money since he was eleven, when he became familiar with such terms as “willful desertion” and “child support,” and the need to check the “divorced” box on forms. He knew his Fiskare grandparents contributed to his and Pete’s upbringing. They lived far upstate near the Canadian border, a modest and self-sufficient couple full of Scandinavian reserve. They pledged support to their two grandsons, but it was a stoic assurance. Erik could never tell if they helped out of love, obligation or shame. They expressed appreciation through deeds, not words. No loving sentiments or warm embraces had ever marked Erik’s visits with the Fiskare elders. He got his fill of physical mush from Christine’s family, a close-knit Italian clan with no money to spare but affection on tap.
Erik was his mother’s apt pupil. He earned his degree in shrewdness and adjusted quickly. He learned to stay out of trouble and always let Christine know where he was. He knew how hard she worked, knew the basics were covered, and knew Peter’s needs took priority. If he wanted luxuries, either material or spiritual, he had to get them himself.
With sports out of the equation, though, Erik had no idea what to do with his time. Out of loyalty he presented himself at basketball practices and games, continuing to rally his mates and picking up some skills as an unspoken assistant coach. But his soul was lost, and his inner compass whirled in a desperate search for another True North he could align to.
He had a creative streak, an inherent desire for expression, one not easily channeled into the obvious mediums. He already played piano and a little guitar, taking lessons at the local Y for the former and banging away by ear on the latter. But neither of those were for public consumption. He played for himself, or in a small jamming group at most. His voice was legitimate, but he didn’t like to sing in front of people, and he most definitely didn’t dance. Truth was he was a much better tinkerer than creator, although it all felt like the same thing to him.
It was Mrs. Jerome, wisest in the school’s cadre of wise teachers and faculty adviser to the drama club, who casually suggested Erik come by the auditorium where
The Man Who Came to Dinner
was in rehearsal. As show time loomed, something always needed doing behind the scenes.
Erik liked Mindy Meredith, one of the drama club starlets. And he liked the sound of behind the scenes. It seemed the defense of the performing arts team. Curious, he loped into the auditorium, took a good look around at the pandemonium and immediately dialed into the current of purposeful action beneath it, and the big picture around it. Things had to get done here. The show was on the stage, true, but a second show was going on backstage, in front of the stage, even over the stage. And without
shows, there was no show.
He started low on the totem pole: manning a follow spotlight, keeping its powerful beam centered on Mindy. He caught the technical theater bug like a chronic flu. Wiring up the lanterns and organizing their light into cues was satisfying work. Building sets—immersed in the cacophony of hammering, sawing drilling—reminded him of childhood days at the legs of his father’s workbench, but not enough to hurt. Later musical theater productions appealed to both his eyes and ears. Everything about being a stagehand felt right to him.
He returned to basketball his junior year, but his ankle would always trouble him, and from compensating, he developed a dodgy knee. He would play one game then be out for two. Younger and fitter players soon eclipsed him, yet Erik didn’t mourn the glory days too badly. By that time, Mrs. Jerome had entrusted him with the keys to the auditorium and he had the run of the place.
Until he graduated, he owned the same bit of square inch real estate in every program of every school production: Erik Fiskare, stage manager. The greatest tree houses of the world had nothing on the small concrete bunker built into the balcony, his command central, his crows’ nest, his throne. From this perch he ran the lights and called the shows. With his privileged keys he let himself in during off hours. He hung there alone. He hung there with friends. He even got laid there once, with Mindy. And though it wasn’t anything close to true love, or even false love, the encounter seemed to fix the coordinates for Erik’s place in the universe.
His relationships with girls weren’t meaningless, yet they were always brief, and none left him deeply hurt or changed. Like most his age, he was rabidly curious about sex and sought it out in the juvenile way of boys who yearn to find what it means for them, rather than thinking of themselves as lovers intent on someone else’s pleasure. He was usually taken on as the pet project of older girls who were feeling their own wings. Nice girls, all of them, but not one moved him to make plans. He wasn’t sure why. Whether out of shyness or idealized romanticism, he didn’t get scrappy with love, and rarely applied any of his mechanical curiosity to the inner workings of women. Some in the know would say this was the inevitable result of his father’s abandonment, impressing love’s cruel nature upon the young Erik Fiskare. Giving your heart only made you more vulnerable to pain. Anyone you loved could and would only hurt you in the end, likely without explanation. It was best you figured out an escape plan from the get-go, and always eject first.
Erik was indeed a guarded boy, struggling to grow into a guarded man. His father had scarred him. He pushed the experience into a far corner of his heart and made every attempt to forget about it. Still, he was young, with his moments of uncontrollable rage, inconsolable despair and forsaken agony.
Young, but not jaded. He was neither cagey, nor unapproachable, but what he gave forth was carefully chosen to give, and what he kept back was off limits. Girls were drawn to his good looks and his sunny nature. They grew quickly frustrated with him because he always seemed slightly aloof, holding back some essential key to the workings of his heart.
Yet Erik Fiskare’s heart was good, and it secretly yearned to be told so. He thought a lot about love, dissected and deconstructed it as a concept to the best of his abilities. And with these dismantled parts he tinkered, constructing dreams of a girl for him. Somewhere out there was a girl who would know him inside-out. A girl who would never leave. Watching a performance of
Guys and Dolls
, he rather agreed with Sky Masterson—he would leave things to chance and chemistry, and when the girl came along, he would simply know.
Until then, he would wait.
Erik had never entertained big college dreams. His record was good, his grades were impressive. Money was the killer. He assumed he’d attend community college at least, or one of the state universities at most. But his grandfather Fiskare had died during Erik’s junior year of high school, leaving an unexpected inheritance for Erik and his brother. The windfall allowed Erik to look beyond the borders of New York to a fine arts university outside Philadelphia. An academic scholarship won through his community service at the Y brought the tuition down to an even more manageable level. And a letter of recommendation from Mrs. Jerome clinched it: fall of 1989, Erik was a business major at Lancaster University, and a technical theater minor in their prestigious conservatory program.
Low on the totem pole again, he was enrolled in Stagecraft 100, Professor Leo Graham’s required introductory course. Leo was a paradox: while he looked and acted like a stoner—some swore he was Jerry Garcia’s twin brother—he ran his shop and his productions with almost military zeal. He was laconic and laid-back, rarely raising his voice unless he was directing someone in the catwalk, yet his soft-spoken words were law. He built manpower from the bottom up and let knowledge cascade from the top down. He shepherded his students through a four-year program that took them from servitude to artist. Freshmen toiled for him, their resentment quickly turning to respect. Sophomores would follow him anywhere. Juniors revered him. Seniors would kill for him.
Erik loved his classwork in the subterranean shops in the basements of Mallory Hall. The first half of the semester he had built sets for the one-act plays in the black box theater. Leo believed in a small task force—you worked harder, but you learned faster. Erik and three other underclassmen took direction from two seniors, for whom the one-acts were a last hurrah, their graduating project. Leo provided guidance from a distance and divine intervention when necessary. Subjects of this unholy trinity, Erik and his mates worked like sled dogs, soon with Erik as their unspoken lead musher. A wartime camaraderie in the warm, windowless shops beneath Mallory. Long hours of philosophical conversation as they painted sets and backdrops. Raucous bonding as they hammered and sawed. And punchy horseplay while sinking countless numbers of screws into crossbeams and struts. Erik drove one comrade to the campus health center for stitches after a slight mishap with the power saw, and another who tripped over a poorly-taped lighting cable and broke his wrist.
When performance week arrived, the sets were brought to the black box via the service elevator. Load-in started at seven in the morning with coffee and bagels, and went into the wee hours with pizza and beers. In the wee-est of those hours, a red-haired ingénue lured Erik into one of the dressing rooms and showed him the meaning of “casting couch.” She never called afterward.
He never had so much fun in his life.
Now, on a Sunday in November, he walked into the vast main auditorium of Mallory Hall, taking on his second assignment for the semester: running lights for the conservatory’s fall dance concert.
He wasn’t sure what to expect. Leo had said the dance division of the conservatory was one of the top programs on the East Coast, but Erik had no frame of reference. Other than musical theater numbers, dance was utterly foreign to him, though he had enough brains to figure out “Born to Hand Jive” from
was decidedly not what was going down today.
Nice scenery here, however, especially if one was a leg man. He moved aside as a trio of girls in leotards chattered their way up the aisle. They smiled at him in passing, six eyes sweeping him head to toe in a frank once-over. He smiled back, resisting the urge to turn and keep checking them out.
Erik was definitely a leg man.
He looked for Leo, and found him coiling cables at the side of the stage with a dark-haired boy in a flannel button-down shirt. Leo tossed Erik a hank of cable without preamble and made introductions. “This is David Alto, he’ll be running lights for the concert, consider him the sorcerer. David, this is Erik. Consider him the apprentice. Finish these up and take him back in the booth, show him the boards. You got about twenty minutes before the madness.”
David and Erik shook hands and after dealing with the cables, headed back up the aisle to the glassed-in booth at the back of the auditorium. It was four feet wide by eight feet long, with lighting consoles along two-thirds of the raised counter. Two captains’ chairs sat before the consoles, each with a headset hooked over one arm. Clipboards holding design schematics and cue sheets hung neatly. Mason jars of pencils, all sharpened, perched on the counter. Wires and cables, neatly taped, snaked overhead and underfoot, turning precise corners around and through things.
It was a tighter, cleaner ship than Erik had been on in high school. Clearly childish things had been put away and no one would be getting laid here. Still, a little quake of excitement touched the back of his neck and he took a pencil, spun it through his fingers as David gave him the short tour.
“Equipment’s kind of kludgy. You work boards like these before?”
“Looks sort of the same. You write out the cue sheets or is it computerized?”
“Nothing in this place is computerized, but they’re going to bat for us in the next budget, I hear. I worked a sweet system at SUNY Purchase over the summer, all computers. Coming back here is like working with candles.”
Through the glass booth Erik watched Leo Graham direct a band of techs in bringing out the boom stands—long poles with crossbars, to be hung with fixtures and set in each of the stage’s four wings. “I’ve never rigged booms.”
“Booms are key when you’re lighting dance. In fact if it came down to a choice between four lanterns on booms and forty overhead, Leo would take the four on booms.”
“The booms are the bitches, my friend,” David said. “It’s one of the sayings around here.”
“Does Leo use any overhead lighting?”
“How many bars?”
“Just two. We get to the downstage one with a cherry picker, and there’s a catwalk upstage. I’ll show you later. You access the house lanterns from the balcony. It’s a little hairy up in the ceiling, do you mind heights?”
Erik smiled. “I’d be in the wrong business, wouldn’t I?”
The noise level in the theater was rising as more and more dancers arrived. Erik hadn’t encountered them much within Mallory, for the studios were all on the third floor while the tech theater students roamed like rats in the building’s basement. Bumping occasional shoulders in the student lounge had been the extent of his contact with the dance students. Pensively he watched the full gathered company. They stretched in the aisles, limbered up at the edge of the stage or hanging on the grand piano. Girls in leotards, long-legged and sleek, their hair pulled up revealing slender necks and sculpted shoulders. The boys were just as sleek, some prettier than the girls, loud and flamboyant, indiscriminately touchy-feely.
Coming from an insular small town in upstate New York, Erik had little to no contact with gay men. Even with all his involvement in the drama club productions, he found his classmates’ sexual orientations remained veiled and vague. Nobody discussed it openly. There were hints, allusions and implications. Looks askance, rolled eyes, muttered jeers out of sheer self-protection. Being gay was an accusation, not a lifestyle, and Erik didn’t know anyone who was definitively
Here, half the male student body of the conservatory was out. Not just out but confidently out and accepted. Erik was still getting used to it. It evoked in him a confusing blend of fascination and defensiveness, which he approached the way he would anything unfamiliar: he hung back and observed until he could figure out how to take it apart and put it back together in some way that made sense.
“How long is this show?”
“Concert,” David said. “It’s a concert. They’ll fine you a dollar if you call it a show or a recital.”
“Concert,” Erik said, pretending to write it on the palm of his hand.
“It’s two acts. First act is for the ballet company, second for the contemporary dance theater. Some dancers have a foot in both camps. You’ll see them here all day.” David swiveled in his chair, looking out at the activity in the theater. “All right, a few faces you should know. Guy standing on the apron with Leo is Michael Kantz, the director of the whole department. He’s God. Woman in the long purple sweater, standing in that group over there—Marie Del'Amici. She heads the ballet division. She’s from Milan, you can barely understand a word she says but she’s a ton of fun. Then see the tall, black guy with the bald head? That’s Cornelis Justi, he runs the contemporary dance division. He’s from Amsterdam. And he’s crazy…”
Erik’s eyes had been flicking around the auditorium, following David’s brisk narrative, recording names and quick impressions on mental index cards. But then a wind was blowing through his mind, scattering the cards, drowning out David’s patter. A girl in black tights and a navy Lancaster hoodie, the neck cut into a deep V, was coming up the aisle. Her hair was pulled up loosely, a couple of thin, spiral curls dangled across one eye. She carried a paper bag in one hand and a Coke in the other.
“Who is that,” Erik said.
David looked. “That’s Daisy.”
A daisy was a sunny little flower. A girl named Daisy should be pert and blonde, shades of yellow and white and pink. A girl named Daisy was a cheerleader, athletic and peppy. Daisy was the screwed-up chick in
The Great Gatsby.
Daisy was a stupid cartoon duck, for crying out loud.
The girl coming up the aisle, however, was none of those things. She was dark-haired and exuded a cool sexiness, moving along with the lithe grace of a cat. Waving to the left. Smiling at someone to the right. Nothing was sunny or pert about her errant curls, her dangling earrings or dark lipstick. This was not a screwed-up cartoon. Whoever this girl was, she was coming up the aisle and coming, it seemed, right toward the lighting booth.
“She your girlfriend?” Erik asked, dry-mouthed.
“I wish,” David said. “Took her on a couple dates but—” He threw out an arm, palm flat to Erik. “—she gave me the Heisman. If I’m nice she brings me lunch sometimes.” He got up from his chair and patted Erik on the shoulder. “Try not to look her in the eye. We got a lot of work to do today. Yo, baby, what’s up?”
Erik spun in his own chair, too far and banged his elbow against the console. The girl with the wrong name was in the door of the booth. He should get up. He couldn’t move. She had come in and was standing by him. He smelled her skin, a light, clean candied scent, like sugared soap. If you tasted her she would be sweet.
He abruptly spun his chair the other way, as if trying to reverse something, direction, polarity. Now his mouth was watering, imagining the sweetness of this girl so vividly, he felt his face flare with heated blood.
Daisy was handing the bag and soda over to David. “They didn’t have the chicken parm. I got you a meatball sub.”
“What are you doing walking around barefoot? Marie will kill you.”
Erik glanced down. Her tights were rolled up and her feet were indeed bare, every single toe encased neatly in what looked like surgical tape. Guiltily, she hooked one foot behind the other calf. Her legs were thin, but lusciously curved, a strong saber of quadriceps in front, and a smaller arc of hamstring opposite, both lines disappearing up under the hem of her sweatshirt. Erik swallowed and looked away, looked up at her face. Too late he remembered David’s warning.
Her eyes were astonishing. No other word sufficed. A blue he had never seen in eyes before. A blue iris shot through with green and rimmed with an even darker blue. Her lashes were a black fringe, her eyebrows two chiseled bows. Eyes like those were impossible, they just didn’t happen in real life. But there they were. There she was. She was looking at him. As if she knew him.
“This is Daisy Bianco,” David said. “Rising star and bringer of sustenance. Dais, this is Erik. He’s running your follow spot so be nice to him.”
Daisy looked at David, then took the bag and the soda from his hands and handed them to Erik.
“Shit,” David said.
Clutching his prize, Erik felt his face widen. She smiled back at him. Neither of them had said so much as hello yet she was looking at him with those eyes. Deep in the cathedral of his young being, Erik felt a bell toll, a peal of recognition. And for the rest of his life, he would swear, he would swear to anyone who asked, although nothing was said aloud, he heard Daisy Bianco speak to him. She said it with her eyes, he heard it clearly in his head, and it wasn’t hello.
It was, “Well, here you are.”
Here I am,
Her expression grew expansive. The green in her eyes deepened.
David cleared his throat. “Go put some shoes on, honey. Nails are all over the damn place.”
“See ya,” she said, looking at Erik. Her voice was soft, a secret meant only for his ears.
“Bye.” His mouth formed the word with barely a sound. It rose like a shimmering bubble and followed Daisy out the door.