What’s shocking isn’t that it happened—that’s weird enough, and I’m still trying to wrap my brain around it. No, what really gave me a heart attack was that it happened on stage.
I was already going nuts as I paced in the wings, waiting for my entrance. I was chewing the edge of my thumb, one ear cocked to the dialog onstage, while my fevered brain mentally replayed a different conversation in my head, over and over. Not my dialog for the next scene. What was churning through my little brain was the conversation two months prior where my agent Gary, who had always cursed the twisted fate that gave him the snappy looks of Justin Timberlake and the disposall-with-a-spoon-in-it voice like Jack Klugman, somehow convinced me I really needed to spend two weeks in front of actual, live, possibly booing audiences doing this damned play.
“You’re overexposed,” he said, seeming to realize as he said it that I was dressed in nothing but a towel—I’d just gotten out of a shower I’d very much needed after a long flight home from wrapping on my latest Tommy Hart romantic comedy/spy thriller, Hart and Seoul. The production had been right on the heels of a 30-day crunch of a shoot for an indie thriller, which had come right after the endless weeks green-screening for the epic Saturn Five reboot, which came right after the previous Tommy Hart production, Hart Strings, where on top of four months with a crabby director and a handsy co-star (who got bitchy when I told her to knock it off) I had had to learn to play the fucking cello.
I was exhausted. To Gary, that meant I was vulnerable. He eyed me proprietarily as I dropped onto my dark brown leather couch and fell back against the cushions, the white towel a stark contrast against the warm latte coloring of my perfect skin.
“Your movies are doing great,” he was saying with more than a hint of pride. “And the critics say you’re brilliant. But on the blogs all anyone can talk about is how gorgeous you are, and how they go to your movies just to see—well, this,” he said, gesturing at the recumbent “six-foot-four zero-body-fat gym-hardened more-gorgeous-with-every-movie epitome of transcendent, unattainable male pulchritude” (to quote the Entertainment Weekly article my not-so-bad-himself kid brother never stops razzing me about, to the point of asking me every time he saw me, with mock sincerity, “Hey Corey—did you just finish a movie? Because I think you’re even more gorgeous!”).
I sighed. “I’m trying,” I said. “I’m working my ass off. And I took that indie with the explicit understanding I wouldn’t so much as open a single shirt button.” I absently rested a hand on my abs, only to be distracted by how hard and tight my seven-pack felt, as if I’d just done a hundred crunches. I hadn’t worked out in days. I snorted. Maybe I am getting more gorgeous every time I wrap a gig, I thought snidely.
“So they kept you in that skintight henley for the whole movie,” Gary said with a roll of his eyes. “I know.”
“And that fuck of a producer Rolly Eisen put it in my Tommy Hart contract that I have to be shirtless as much as possible,” I went on in exasperation. “I didn’t ask for that.” I remembered with chagrin the one-line review in some paper for Hart Strings: “Corey Harddwick, naked in his apartment, practicing cello. And that’s just the first scene. What more need we say?”
“I know,” Gary agreed again. “So we need to do something constructive in the four-week break you’ve got after this guest spot on Med School Nights. Something to remind people you’re an actor. And I have just the thing,” he added, sounding for all the world like he had the perfect fix for my “problem” of being too beautiful.
“What is it?” I said flatly, looking down with a small sigh. I was pretty much resigned to doing whatever hoop-jumping he had for me, if it made for a change from the kind of grind I’d been doing. I watched my finger idly tracing a crevice in my abs.
Gary leaned forward, his arms crossed over his thin chest—always a sign he’d decided everything already. “Seattle Rep is doing a two-week engagement of an all-male Romeo & Juliet,” he said. “I sold them on you as the Romeo.”
“What?!” I said sharply, my eyes flipping up to his. “Gary, you know I’ve never acted on stage. Ever!”
“So what? Neither had Gwyneth Paltrow.”
I started to sputter a rejoinder to this baffling non sequitur, but he put up a hand and spoke over me. “It’s perfect,” he said. “They get publicity for their season, you get props for being a serious thespian, and it’s all over in a month!” Then he added, casting a shrewd glance at me, “Just don’t forget to keep up your cello practice while you’re up there. You’re going to need it again for all the next Hart movie, and I’ll bet you’re already rusty.”
I ignored the dig about my mad cello skillz. “But—Shakespeare? Romeo?” I said in dismay.
“It’s perfect,” he said again. “You’re the only actor I know never blows a line. And you’re twenty-four—”
“Twenty-seven,” I corrected.
“—twenty-four,” he insisted, again talking over me, “but I swear you still look like you’re not a day over seventeen. Two words: Per. Fect.”
Perfect, I said to myself bitterly as I fretted backstage, biting a thumbnail. I was so fucked, and in ways I couldn’t even have anticipated in all my creative self-deprecation.
I spared an angry glance down at a glistening bare arm. Apparently the costume designer (who’d been arguing, I heard later, for the whole two weeks of rehearsal that my authentic period costume was too “encumbering”) had, without telling anyone, finally taken matters into her own hands and carefully removed the sleeves from my already snug tunic at the last minute, with just a couple hours to go before curtain. And calmly hung it back up on the rack with no one the wiser, the sleeves gone (and they weren’t ever found—had they been squirreled away to prevent a treacherous reattachment, or maybe burned, to be absolutely certain?), so that when I pulled the thing on right before curtain I was taken aback when my hands immediately popped right back out into the open air.
Where the fuck are the sleeves? I asked plaintively. No one knew. Or seemed that worried. It was like a missing kid where everyone just said he was probably at the mall.
I glanced at the bunching muscle of my bare arm again, pacing in agitation. I was about to go out in front of what someone had shouted gleefully was a sold-out audience. I’d googled the Wright’s capacity: 842 seats, all probably filled with people waiting to see if the big Hollywood movie star fell flat on his face when forced to engage in actual, real acting.
I was fucked. I was sure I looked ridiculous. Who the fuck ever heard of Romeo in a muscle shirt, showing off his guns like some shithead from Jersey Shore? Sure, if it was in modern dress, maybe. But we were all in fine Italian velvets and my bare arms stuck out like I’d been mugged in the green room and they’d ripped off half my costume.
I was nervous before, but I was really dreading going on stage now. I was sure my brawny arms sticking out of my tailored-trim velvets looked as out of place as a VW minibus heading a presidential motorcade.
I had no idea.
Maybe I could convince everyone to just switch over to Midsummer Night’s Dream, right now, before things went any further. This was a Rep, right? They already knew it, right?
Suddenly my cue came, before I was expecting it. My stomach roiled and, sparing a last silent curse for Gary, I hurried on stage, passing Old Montague and his “wife” exiting. They seemed to do a double take, but I ignored them.
There was a hush, as I took center stage next to cousin Benvolio, and the audience was gaping at me. And the actor playing Benvolio, a handsome local stripling named Lucas Knudsen, was gaping at me. Everything went still as 843 people stared mercilessly at my arms.
Just as abruptly the hush ended and the house’s warm applause washed and surged over us, cleansing me of fear.
I felt myself blushing, which seemed very out of character, and half-raised my right arm in an abortive “hi,” which felt even more wrong. But there was nothing I could do—it was Benvolio’s line, and he was still staring, his mouth closed now but his eyes wide, at my arms.
Maybe because they were the object of such bald, mass scrutiny? Without really meaning to I glanced down at my left arm, which was facing the audience. And time stopped for a moment.
The first thing I saw was the round firm caps of my delts,—both of them. I had two creamy latte-colored delts emerging from the shoulders of my tight blue tunic. At some submerged, irrational level of my brain I wondered whether, if I were to look over at my right side, there’d be none at all. But I couldn’t tear my eyes away from what I was seeing. My eyes slid down past the shoulders to twin upper arms round and flush with hard muscle. I moved my left arms very slightly, closing the slight gap between them, and shivered as I registered the sensation of chiseled biceps, to the back, brushing chiseled triceps in front. I more than shivered, actually: that small, brief sensation—that iron brush of muscle on muscle—was electrifying. And, I realized with the faintest of premonitions of future sensual discoveries, not a little erotic.
Below the matching upper arms I had a quick glimpse of thick, hair-dusted forearms and two of my big, long-fingered left hands, but I’d already snapped my eyes up—the applause had drained away fast, the audience now watching us raptly, and “Benvolio” was speaking. My self-examination must have lasted all of two seconds of frozen time, but in that heartbeat’s time Lucas had moved closer and, as he said his first line to me bidding me a good morrow, was doing something we hadn’t rehearsed, so that for a split second I was a bit thrown and, as a consequence, my mind was derailed away from what had happened to me into the immediate moment.
What he did was this: instead of staying a few feet apart, as I’d expected, he was now right in front of me and had grabbed the right arm I’d half-raised and taken it up in one of those Roman handshakes where you grip the other fellow’s forearm. He was gently squeezing what I abstractly realized was the closer of my right forearms, and so I had no choice but to do the same as I finally found my way into saying my first line, “Is the day so young?” Just in time I remembered not to smile my most dazzling smile at him, as had become reflexive for me when shaking hands: Romeo, after all, was supposed to be depressed and preoccupied in this scene.
Lucas, it seemed, did not want to let go. We had the whole rest of scene one together, talking of Cupid’s arrow and fair beauty and all, and we clasped forearms the entire time as if my amorous talk referred not to a Capulet but my fair cousin Benvolio before me. Certainly Lucas was game for such a rewrite. His eyes held mine fiercely, but I could tell he wanted them to ravage me, and it wasn’t just my exposed and beautiful limb quartet that had captured his fevered lust: my whole costume, what was left of it after the afternoon’s brutal sleevectomy, flattered my supposedly gorgeous form to an unseemly degree from stem to (ahem) stern, and I realized as we traded observations on that “madness most discreet,” gazing deep and hard into each other’s eyes and holding and caressing each other’s meaty firearms, that my new extremities were not the focus of his ardor or the audience’s awed response to my arrival onstage: it was that by gaining them I was now more alluring, more arousing, more magnetic than I’d been. Some force of nature had been driving me into the rarified, impossible realm of a perfect 10, a man of idealized beauty; and now—somehow now I was more.
I realized I was abashed at the kind of look Lucas was giving me, frank admiration, and I was starting to sense just the edge of alarm growing in my mind at what I might have become, or was becoming. Then the scene was over and Lucas smiled at me and, not letting go of the forearm he held in his right hand, he turned us and, placing his other hand on the small of my back, guided us offstage.
We had a few moments together offstage as Capulet, Paris, and the clown went on and blathered a while before he and I were to go back on. On stage I’d said all my lines with glib ease in a kind of automatic professionalism, but now, unscripted and inexperienced at being what I was becoming, I was nervous and unsure of my speech. I swallowed.
Lucas faced me, eyes shining in the darkness of the wings, still holding my forearm (and I his). “That was amazing,” he breathed. He was still keeping his eyes on mine in a way that made me certain he wanted license to scope me all over, inch by inch, but that he was refraining out of respect.
“Yeah, it was,” I said softly. It was all I could say.
He moved his face closer to mine. “I’m shocked I remembered my lines,” he whispered frankly.
“You were great,” I assured him, truthfully.
“You’re just so—” he started to say, but instead of supplying an adjective he moved on: “It was—distracting. Especially—” And again he trailed off, as if there weren’t really words, but he now moved his hand for the first time, not off my arm but slowly up it, along my forearm, along my elbow, the hand now sliding gently, tentatively, between my upper arms. I flexed them ever so gently, a little muscular caress of his warm, sweet hand, and he drew his breath in, as he did so cupping the front triceps just a shade more firmly. “So distracting,” he breathed.
“Sorry,” I said, chagrined, gratified, and charmed, all at once. I wondered how much trouble these things would cause as the play progressed and other eyes were drawn to them. “Maybe I should cover these guys up,” I whispered seriously.
“Never,” Lucas said in his low voice, quite firmly. His thumb slid appreciatively along my tricep, and I pulsed my upper arms again for him, enjoying the feeling of his fingers between my arms, and he sucked in his breath again. “Never,” he repeated, with considerable conviction.
With great difficulty I had been just barely managing to follow the onstage dialog with some part of my brain, and it abruptly recognized where they’d gotten to. “That’s our cue,” I whispered awkwardly. Lucas grinned and, brushing my lips in a quick, affectionate kiss, turned us toward the stage again and guided me back into the strangest performance of my life.
In a way it was a lucky chance I was playing Romeo when the changes took place. My earliest scenes with Benvolio called upon me to be distracted, Romeo having fallen unrewardingly for a cold beauty… and distracted I certainly was. My analytical mind was struck dumb, and I was reduced almost to my physical being, to muscle and blood, bone and sinew. I was present in the moment, it was all that existed, and my detachment from anything beyond my senses served Romeo’s indifference to Benvolio’s plans to find him new love. I existed in the steady, rhythmic pounding of my heart, and the automatic drawing in of breath, and the recitation of Romeo’s words belonging to that moment. I could almost feel my blood coursing through my veins, feeding my flesh. My skin seemed preternaturally alive, flooding me with every sensation. Soft fabric snug across my chest and ass, enveloping my torso and my well-honed thighs in a smart-looking costume designed to flatter me and me alone. Soft leather embraced my feet as I stood on the lighting-warmed boards. And on either side, bare, hard arms brushed minutely against each other, craving fleeting contact with more tight, skin-clad brawn, ready to act, sparse-haired forearms faintly tickling each other as they shifted. Inexplicable… and yet the increased intensity of my physical being told me how impossibly normal they were, how much they were a part of me. My own hot blood raced through them as surely as it did the rest of me, chest, ass, legs, and brain; and my hands twitched, waiting for my commands, exactly as they always had. Only now there was more of me. More of me to draw the eyes that were already the measure of my existence and the substance and sustenance of my work as an actor.
I seized on that last thought as it came to me, toward the end of my second, brief turn on stage with Benvolio setting up our incognito attendance at the forthcoming masquerade. I felt the eyes of the audience on me as potently and tangibly as I did the hot lights above. I felt my scene-partner’s wide, chestnut-brown eyes boring into mine as we stood close to each other, Lucas unconsciously reblocking our scenes together as Benvolio’s concerned attentions for his cousin became more intimate and tactile. It was my job as an actor, I realized with a sense of almost revelation, to transform that outpouring of raw attention into meaning, taking it into myself so that I could expend it outward, challenging, provoking, stimulating, driving home the immediacy and urgency of my character’s most overpowering needs and desires, all in relation to the characters around me and the context of the play. This was what an actor did. Having never acted on stage I had not had occasion to see it so clearly before, though I’d been doing it since my first commercial as a teenager, instinctively repurposing all the stares of the crew and all the love the camera had for me into communicating to everyone who saw it just how fucking delicious that burger truly was. (Afterwards my new agent told me sales had gone up nearly forty percent on the strength of that commercial and the two I did after as part of the same campaign. I’d never fully believed him, but it’s true I got signed for my first major film role almost immediately after it started running. In fact JB Shake ‘n’ Burger is still airing those commercials whenever it expands into a new overseas market, and I feel like I end up signing almost as many copies of that one picture of me in a tank-top chowing down on a juicy JB burger at cons and appearances as I do the shirtless publicity stills of my big-break role, Tommy Hart. I am the juicy JB burger god.)
I came offstage the second time feeling almost giddy. I was still self-conscious, but my perplexities were cast aside by eagerness, and I was starting to look ahead again, to feel the weave of my own performance within the context of upcoming scenes and the other actors and characters I’d be interacting with. I thought ahead as Lucas and I moved further into the wings, away from the onstage action, Lucas’s hand resting loosely around my lower back as if he wanted to claim me for as long as he could, before my attentions passed first to Mercutio, and then… and then, ultimately, to my fated, ill-starred love in this all-male production, Julio, the shrewd, capable, and heart-stoppingly beautiful scion of house Capulet.
I wasn’t ready to think about Julio yet. The man they’d cast, Laurent Bourgouin, was a real, hard-bodied teenager at barely nineteen, as opposed to someone like me who merely looked like one, though he was, like his character, shrewd, more than capable, and heart-stoppingly beautiful. Despite his apparent youth his wise, smoldering green and gold-flecked eyes seemed to possess all the fathomless, entrancing power of an ageless god of erotic pleasure. Those suckers had skewered me, from under those long, loose sandy locks of his, practically the second we met, at an informal gathering ahead of the first read-through. From that moment on my heart was a goner, and to hell with whatever the rest of me felt about it.
Laurent’s involvement complicated things for me like nobody’s business. I’m good at locking in lines and blocking, and so hadn’t expected rehearsals to be too stressful, saving my worries for the unprecedented experience of acting live on stage for an audience. But sharing a stage with him was a constant challenge to remain focused and professional, even in street clothes with no audience while the director, Alisa Stover, and her associates bantered over details of the scene, an environment that otherwise felt comfortably similar to my accustomed life on movie sets. Laurent unmoored me. My body, my hormones, my carnal being yearned to react to the intensity of his focus on me. I’d tamped it down so hard in rehearsal Alisa took me aside one afternoon and asked me about my choice to mask Romeo’s burning passion for his true love.
Now, I knew, with what had happened to me, all intensity and all attention was magnified tenfold, beyond anything I’d known on stage or set before. And most intense of all would be his eyes, his attentions. My mind shied away, and I focused on more immediate matters. Julio was not yet. Before Julio, there was—
“What happened to your sleeves, Romeo?” whispered a voice in my ear, and I surfaced from my harried thoughts to see Alex Chang, the actor cast as Mercutio, standing close enough to kiss. The scent of him filled my nose, a spicy musk with a tinge of cinnamon. His proximity made me aware of how my hands were flexing and squeezing in nervous tension, and in particular how the thumb of my rearmost hand on the right side had found its way into the fist ahead of it, the latter flexing steadily around the former. The unexpected symbolism of this, on top of the palpable warmth of Alex before me and Lucas still tight at my side, arm around my waist, made me flush in the unwanted beginnings of arousal. My heavy cock chubbed warningly in the carefully secured dance belt I wore under the cozy, skin-tight trousers of my costume. I wanted to step back, but we’d already moved close to the wall-mounted rope pulleys that operated the curtains and scrims. There was no place to go.
I met Alex’s eyes. They were glinting as they caught the low backstage lights, on a level with my own. Alex was very nearly my height, but instead of being powerfully built he was rangy and defined; he put me in mind of fencers and other athletes for whom having a long, tight, liber body was an advantage. Whether to underline his character’s mercurial nature or for some other reason he’d elected to dye his hair an almost incandescent crimson, and the vividness of his hair color had been taken up in his costume design as well. His blood-red tunic slashed with black and thin, black trousers hugged his long, lithe form even more snugly than mine. The fiery hair above and costume below somehow made those already vibrant eyes seem luminous with hidden fire.
For a moment I was robbed of speech, and Alex arched an eyebrow, moving fractionally closer. “You know, when I saw what you’d done I nearly did the same myself,” he pressed, his lips slightly curled in the ghost of a taunting leer. “But I realized I’d just look like a fool for trying to measure up. It’s not like anyone has anything close to what you have to offer.” He brought has hands up and gently draw his hands along the hard muscle of my upper arms on either side, palms slowly sliding along the sides of my foremost arms even as his fingers were brushing down the rearmost. A shiver shot up my spine. Both of my forward fists had been flexing around the thumbs of my rearward hands, and now all my hands froze, fists clenched, thumbs grasped tight in my front hands in some unconscious emulation of a sexual act. My cock tried to thicken and shift in its tightly arranged confines. I needed not to be doing this. The three of us would be going on soon, arriving at the masquerade. But Mercutio was in some ways an impulsive provocateur, and Alex fit that bill to a T. In him, as in most of the parts in this masculinized adaptation, the director had found almost preternaturally perfect casting. It struck me funny that he was ribbing me about my missing sleeves—he was safely clad, ready and perfect for the masquerade ball our characters were about to attend, but my arms were naked like unsheathed swords, exposed and bare, and, like a naked sword, drawing every eye.
I struggled to think what I needed to be doing. How would this fit into my new understanding, my revelation of my powers as an actor? And when I turned my mind from self-consciousness to the practicalities of work, it was obvious. The answer was always the same for an actor. Use it. Take it, own it, and—most important—bend it back. Communicate, stimulate, provoke.
I focused myself on him. His eyes, his attentions, the heat within him I could feel burning for me, hotter than it had ever been before. I released my thumbs and let all my hands relax, though they remained poised and ready to act. “My sleeves, Mercutio, were stolen from me,” I said in a low voice only the three of us could hear. “I wonder if it was you that took them? I mean, you sure try stealing all our scenes together.”
Alex’s hint of a smile bloomed into a wicked grin. “If I were to steal anything of yours,” he murmured, amused and intent, “it would be those sweet lips of yours.”
I let my grin match his. “Is that so… pilgrim?”
“Mmm,” Alex assured me confidently, moving infinitesimally closer. “You need,” he said, “to be thoroughly kissed.”
“Could be,” I said. I moved forward so that my lips were close to his ear. “Too bad you won’t be the one to do it.” Then I slid out from between him and Lucas and headed toward the wings where the harried assistant director was waiting hectically to make sure I was ready for my next entrance, Alex’s low, sexy chuckle following me as I did so.
Moments later we were on stage for act I, scene 4, which had the three of us and a party of hangers-on masked and headed for the ball.
Romeo had cold feet and was making noises about hanging back as a torchbearer, and Alex, as Mercutio, was having great fun with lines like “Nay, gentle Romeo, we must have you dance.” As I explained Romeo’s diffidence as born of ominous dreams (holding back for the moment his underlying unease over the prospect of illicitly being among the Capulets), we arrived at Mercutio’s long, ridiculous rendition of Queen Mab’s faery dream manipulations. With my bizarre transformation it reminded me again of Midsummer Night’s Dream, though I also knew that the increased dangers of infatuation brought on by my augmented beauty were definitely consonant with the play I was currently performing in. Alex was warming to the playful little speech, declaiming with gusto about the ways Mab maliciously made a dreamer’s most ardent desires seem real; and when he got to the lines “O’er lawyers’ fingers, who straight dream on fees;/O’er ladies’ lips, who straight on kisses dream,” he leaned in and planted a quick, warm smack on my own surprised and manly lips, eliciting a ripple of delighted laughter from the audience and a blush from me before twisting away and moving on to his next lines with a wink, the cocky bastard.
“Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace,/Thou talk’st of nothing,” I asserted with an edge of admonishment when it came time for me to interrupt him, smiling under my decorative royal-purple domino mask and earning my own waft of amusement through the audience. And yet, Alex/Mercutio had accomplished his purpose. Both Romeo and I were in better spirits. It was only for the moment, though, confined only to this scene. For both of us, the jape was ephemeral, and the amusement soon faded. Because in moments, the very next scene, we would be arriving at the masque, and I would be closing in on the moment I had been trying not to think about: coming face to face with Laurent Bourgouin, my Julio, the one man capable of melting all my defenses into rubble.
When the decision had first been made to mount an all-male Romeo (with the minimum of no doubt guiltily-performed revision to adjust gendered language as necessary), the plan was to use the repertory company for all the parts except the two leads. These would be stunt cast for looks, fame, or both. Originally Alisa’s intent had been to cast a sexy, young Mediterraneo as Julio, someone to set the posters on fire, opposite a name actor as Romeo. It seemed like too good an opportunity to miss. Conventionally, you cast a Juliet that looked like a Juliet; here, why not cast a Julio that looked like a Julio—a teenage boy any teenage boy would fall for, with carnal appeal in his shoulders and abs… Latin amor in his DNA… and a glint in his eyes that told of hidden depths and the possibilities beyond the callow lust of young men.
But once Gary sold Alisa and the backers on me as Romeo, despite my having never spent so much as a minute on a theater stage, my own tall, dark, and handsome shtick naturally argued for a contrasting fairness in my opposite number. Alisa still wanted a sense of the European lover, though, as an undertow to the illusory perception of Juliet/Julio’s winsome purity, and she was pretty frustrated for a few days until she happened across a demo link her assistant been sent for Laurent. The video highlighted his Gallic allure, mesmerizing eyes, and incredibly sculpted physique alongside audience-wowing acting chops that had gotten him three major touring company leads before he was even out of high school and rave reviews I would have killed for at his age.
Later she sent the link to me, along with a few more to longer chunks of productions he had been in, and I gotta admit… I was in awe before I even met him. I’ve seen a lot of hot, charismatic fuck-heads in my time, and their usual M.O. is to take over the scene they’re in and make them all about themselves, and the whole production too, if possible. Not this guy. Laurent used everything he had at his disposal to make the stage come alive, from his too-perfect loose and floppy hair to his fuck-me stare to his round, hard ass. He didn’t just lift himself up, like a lot of guys with plenty of talent and looks and way too much ambition. Laurent set about leveraging his every god-given asset to energize the whole cast, leveling up the entire show and bringing the audience to its feet over and over. Alisa was on the phone and nailing him the logistics of getting him to Seattle before the demo video had even finished playing.
But admiring him in a YouTube video was nothing compared to actually being in his presence. My pulse sped up just seeing him in beat-up jeans that hugged that hard, round ass and a loose raspberry tee shirt that clung and stretched around his shoulders and his tight pecs and hung loosely over hard, carved abs that I knew rivaled my own for sheer lickability (I don’t lick my own abs, for Pete’s sake, I’m quoting several of the steamier but very legit film-blog reviews of my mostly shirtless performance in Hart Strings). And then, when he lifted up those big, soulful, green-gold eyes and snagged my gaze from under those long, floppy, dirty-blond bangs, I very nearly forgot how to breathe.
Now imagine two weeks of rehearsals for a show that involves the two of you falling into desperate, passionate love with each other, so that every twist and tectonic shift of the play is designed to bring you closer together with this young, sweet, mind-altering, cock-hardening demigod before your ultimate tragic end. On top of that, imagine the prospect of two solid weeks of live performances, falling in star-crossed love with him over and over again before a rapt, live audience of 843 people, before the teary sundering that tears us apart after our two hours’ traffic, night after night.
And at the end of all that, after a month of heart-bruising love and death, I would walk away. I would be leaving this momentary sojourn into the strange fantasy of Shakespeare and the unaccustomed intimacy of live acting, to return to my real life as a professional movie actor who’d have these four painful, exhilarating weeks as a memory and nothing more.
That was what made it most difficult to stand there on that surreal opening night, lurking in the shadows of the masquerade and waiting to fall in love with Julio before a live audience for the first time. I was in so much trouble, and you know why. Laurent’s beauty, his sunny personality and dry wit, his game exuberance—everything about him captivated me. Me, Corey, not just Romeo. But Laurent was acting. He was acting his sweet round ass off, but he was just acting. When we weren’t working he never sought me out and barely had two words for me. Even after I mustered up my courage during a break one afternoon and sought him out in the little park beside the theater with a coffee and attempted conversation, it all felt apart in mumbled small talk and awkward silences. I ended up surrendering the field, getting to my feet and leaving him to the solitude he preferred.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. This is the old romantic melodrama trope where I mistake his true feelings—shy, uncertain love for me, say—for a lack of interest… only for the misunderstanding to comically fall away in the final reel, leaving us with a sunset to walk away into, hand in hand—after the huge, triumphant, passionate and public kiss, of course, complete with swelling score and the whole supporting cast ringed around us, cheering and applauding. I know that trope—hell, I’ve acted that trope, I’m a little ashamed to say. Yes, I’ve done my share of cheese, thank you very much. I also know that’s not how the real world works.
And in particular, I knew that that was not what was happening with Laurent. For one thing, I had the evidence of my eyes. He came alive on stage for Romeo, because he immersed himself in his role as Julio. I saw love and passion in Julio’s eyes, full of powerful emotions were aimed at Romeo; in Laurent’s eyes I saw only respect, admiration, and the kind of attraction you might have for a hot movie poster dude that’s stepped off your wall and is now standing in front of you, only you know he’s as just fake as the poster and the movie itself.
That was what broke my heart every night, that Julio fell in love with me for the length of time it took to arrive at the end of act V, scene 3, and our tragic, mutual, long-fated annihilation… after which he became Laurent again, and smiled for the cast and crew, cleaned up, changed, and walked away. He got into his hybrid and drove to the rented flat he was staying in for the duration of the production.
And as if that weren’t enough, there was this: by the time we got to opening night, everyone knew that Laurent and Alex Chang were an item. And the rumor was pretty much cemented on the night of the dress, when we’d all stepped out of the stage doors to see them share a rather steamy kiss before Laurent had climbed behind Alex on his motorcycle, donned the spare helmet, and puttered off into the night, his strong arms wrapped tight around Mercutio, not Romeo where they belonged.
So, yeah, by that point I was a little emotionally bruised, with all the anguish over Laurent on top of my anxieties about performing live on stage in such a well-known and beloved work; and at the same time I was chagrinned and ashamed that I was mooning like a butthurt kid over this guy that wasn’t into me. The worst part wasn’t that he didn’t give me the attention I craved from him, when I didn’t want all the burning stares and the room-saturating magnetism that seemed to increasingly define my interactions with everyone else. I did get it from him, all of it and more. Every look he cast my way—every movement—every touch lit up my heart and made my hands twitch and my dick throb. But every bit of it was for Romeo, not me. That killed me, every time.
And tonight it would be worse. The rapt attention, the attraction people felt for me, it was all out of control tonight, amped up to somewhere way past eleven. I was a fucking magnet. Lucas was drawn to me. And Alex, and everyone in the theater. I could feel it, the palpable effect I was having on people, the moment they saw me. And when I was on stage with Laurent I knew it would hit him too. He would be blazing with need for me. He’d be consumed with desire for this more intensely beautiful Romeo at the heart of this false world we were making, this deceptive fantasy we were spinning, like Mercutio’s Queen Mab. My cock ached, thickened and throbbing, as I skulked on the fringes of the masque, the actors churning in measured chaos at center stage while I stood back, Romeo waiting unawares for Cupid’s shaft. That sap Romeo didn’t know it was coming, but I did, and my heart thudded and my fists all started flexing again. Anticipation had taken me like a fever.
And then—there he was. Laurent. My Julio. My eyes fell upon him as he moved through fair Verona’s rarified elite, and I was Romeo, completely captivated at he who made all the others fall away, he who taught the torches to burn bright. And because I was Romeo, I could speak aloud my lightning-struck passion for all to hear, letting my emotions grow and take wings through words literally written for this moment. Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight, for I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.
His costume for the ball had been adjusted, just as mine had. Yes, his sleeves were intact, but the rich greens and browns, shot through judiciously with yellow, that so accentuated his coloring and made his eyes seem positively alight behind his dark green mask now hugged every swell and contour of his hard, athletic form so tightly he must have been sewn into it; yet the rich, well-chosen fabric moved and gave so perfectly he could move with the grace of a man born to dance like a god and fuck like a demon. His loose, flowing hair, shockingly, had been savagely cut back like jungle undergrowth in the path to the forbidden temple. In the place of a cocky-maned youth was, instead, a man, moving with tall, potent grace through a cast blurred in my eyes to nonexistence—a man I wanted more than anything I knew or could imagine. A man I was suddenly glad I had more hands to touch. I may have gasped aloud at the sight of him, though the sound was lost amid the ongoing dialog and the gentle period music accompanying the dance.
I watched Laurent, unable to tear my eyes away from him, as hot-blooded Tybalt went through the business of recognizing Romeo’s voice and calling for his rapier to cut me down then and there, only for Capulet to talk him down, reminding him of the ban on public violence. Fortunately, my distraction was in character; but I was also almost past caring. Only a single thread of conscious awareness remained winding through my little brain to remind me of where I was and what I was doing—that I was an actor performing in a play, with responsibilities not just to the play but to my fellow professionals on stage. Fortunately the vocational obligation to take care of the actors I was working with meant enough to me that it bled through everything I was feeling in that moment. I was starting to become aware that it might not just be the people around me that were feeling things more intensely tonight. I was burning hotter, and that was affecting my emotions and state of mind just as much as it was everyone else’s.
It was time. Julio’s partner stepped away as the music changed, and I, as Romeo, took my chance. I moved through the crowd without knowing it, and stood before him and took his hand. The dance circled silently around us. I looked up into those green-gold eyes, eyes that lit with passion for the man before him. Somehow he took me in and held my gaze all at once, just as I did with him. I could do so because I had drunk him in before I had even approached him, memorizing every gorgeous inch of him, every muscle and every curve; and if he could do the same, that meant that he had drunk me in, too, without my even knowing it. He smelled like wine and steak and something uniquely him. I stared into those uncanny eyes, bared now, like my arms, after so long half hidden by the drape of bangs. Time seemed to slow around us. My blood raced and my cock struggled to attain full, magnificent hardness… and for the first and only time in my life as an actor I forgot my lines, or even that I had lines at all. The world was still, and he, Laurent, was the only thing in it.
Laurent saved me. “What do you, dark gentleman?” he asked me with a gentle smile.
My heart, which I thought had faltered, skipped and suddenly resumed a rapid, agitated thrum. The fact that Laurent had not only rescued me, but, in an enviable access of raw professionalism, had done so in character as Julio, woke me like cold water to the face. I wanted to move closer, to draw him into my strong, bared arms and hold every part of him I could against me, but I knew what I was again. I was an actor, playing Romeo, bared extra arms and gut-wrenching infatuation be damned; and this vision before me, this exquisite creature, was a man, only a man, an actor whose job it was to pretend to love me. I was so incredibly fucked… but I used it. We moved back into the play, taking up the dance, my hand in his, his resting on my bared, doubled shoulder. I spoke my lines, flirting like a man who knows the kiss he offers, in the guise of prayer, is the most he could hope for, and more than he deserves.
The few coy lines we traded before the kiss seemed to expand to years as we stared at each other, and then it was over like it had lasted a single heartbeat. “Then move not while my prayer’s effect I take,” I said, and then our faces drew slowly together, inexorably pulled to closer and closer like two planets crashing together to make one. Our lips met, and the chaste, sweet kiss we’d rehearsed fell away, instantly deepened into something more primitive and at the same time more fraught with meaning. I felt a surge of panic well up in me. The fall into this kiss was bottomless, if I let it be. I pulled away roughly. Our eyes locked. Both of us felt the arousal that rushed out from us like a bomb, cascading through cast, audience and crew. Their hot eyes all fixed on us, tantalized, wanting more of our dance.
And as I stared into Laurent’s blazing eyes I was amazed to feel the first niggling seeds of doubt. Had I been wrong all this time? Could Laurent have been masking feelings for me? Or… was I fooling myself, leading my emotions into delusion and heartbreak?
With an ache in my chest I remembered Laurent kissing Alex after the dress, then climbing onto his motorcycle. I pulled myself together and took a half-step back, though I kept hold of the hand I held, and his continued to caress my twin delts on the other side, his little finger finding the crevice where they divided into the two bared arms hanging hard and heavy from there. My remaining hands were still, though I wanted desperately to share touch him, more than we were. His incredible eyes held mine, promising me love, but I clawed my emotions back, protecting myself from everything Laurent made me vulnerable to. We would have our two hours’ traffic, and nothing more; and accepting that left in my wounded heart a gloomy peace. At least we would both enjoy our brief time together, and that gave me, and Romeo, a wistful smile as I met green-gold eyes again without wavering even a little bit. My spoken lines, more of Romeo’s prayer/kiss banter, seemed for a moment to take on a slightly different meaning. “Thus from my lips, by thine,” I said, “my sin is purged.”
A handful of lines and a second, chaster kiss later, and then our moment was being buffeted away by the nurse, a bossy platinum-haired fellow who pulled Julio away to attend to his parents. The first act climaxed as our characters each in turn hit upon the stomach-wrenching revelation that he was a Capulet, and I was a Montague, and our love could never be. I knew the feeling.