The first note left Roman’s lips.
The world within the Metropolitan Opera House watched as Roman’s foreign words waltzed with the melody in the space above them. They watched as the rising crescendo bound him in shackles, tortured him, and split him apart second by second. He tried to remind himself that faces peered at him through the dark where the bright stage lights couldn’t reach but he saw nothing but white button downs and the reflection of his intoxication in the audience’s faces.
They had dressed him as a Greek soldier with silk robes draping over him, black on the outside and a pale blue stitched on the inside. A band of gold chain wrapped around his torso, catching the lights overhead. They had stripped away his skin, took his measurements and sewed on some new flesh so Roman had died and Jason of the Argonauts took his place. Jason faced the army before him, the impressive legion dressed in robes of burnished browns and reds and holding staffs and weapons like warriors of the past. Then, he sang his threats.
He took a dramatic stance and pointed to the man playing King Aegeus of Athens, whose intended, the princess of Corinth, Jason had stolen for himself. Aegeus stood on the other side of the stage, dressed in pale blue robes that were thrown over his bare shoulder, his face bearded and regal with distaste. His voice rose with the tide of violins and his treachery echoed through the colossal room as he bade Jason and his followers to beware the mighty sorceress Medea. Aegeus scowled at his foe and cursed him to all eternity for taking his betrothed for his own. With his scorn still ringing through the air, the second act of the opera ended and the performers moved gracefully to the wings of the stage, the curtain closing and the lights illuminating the room as intermission set in.
Roman stretched his arms backstage with a contented smile. Dancers quickly ran past to get started on their costume change, stage hands weaved through the narrow spaces speaking into headsets with clipboards in their hands. He knew nearly every employee in the opera house stood only a few feet away and took comfort in their proximity. Getting lost within the maze of halls inside the theatre occurred frequently so everyone chose to stay close by instead when the curtain went up.
He watched as stage-hands quickly cleared the stage and changed the backdrop for the next act. The stage had been transformed into grey stone with a large crevice running through the middle. To the audience, the crevice looked like an abyss waiting between two cliffs of stone, a crack in the Earth for evil to crawl out and the hopeless to wander in. To the actors, it merely became a passage down to the stage door on the left. Other than the stone floor, the stage sported a massive backdrop of old-fashioned houses standing side by side with a palace far off into the distance.
“Still kicking, Jason?” a voice like silver that could only be his co-star Emma Forrester’s spoke against the shell of his ear and interrupted his thoughts. Roman kept his eyes closed and smiled, enjoying the thrill that ran through him at the sound of her calling him by the lead role he played in the Italian opera Medea en Corinto. He had sweat dripping into the blue eyeshadow painted across his eyelids and he felt sure that the dark curls of his hair had risen from the humidity already but not a single cell within him cared or ached with fatigue. On the contrary, he felt like he could lift the entire opera house onto his shoulders and run a mile. He conjured up the image in his mind, his fingers digging into the ground as if it contained only sand and lifting the whole building up past his head. Cracks would run through the floor like spiderwebs and the fountain in the middle of the Lincoln Center of Performing Arts would cave in. His own disaster movie in the heart of New York.
Roman opened his eyes as the thought turned dark and shook his head. He looked to Emma who had been watching him unabashedly with a hand on his left shoulder blade, the warmth of the contact nearly burning him.
“Still kicking, Medea,” his voice mimicked the whisper the hem of her black dress made as it slithered against the floor. She smiled with a glint in her eye as if he had divulged some sort of secret but before he could question her, she slipped away and disappeared into the light of the stage as intermission ended and Act III began.
Roman watched her with unrestrained fascination. He loved to witness the metamorphoses involved in theatre. The second Emma stepped onto the stage, all remnants of who she used to be vanished and the role she played took its place. Emma had died and Medea had risen from the ashes, singing about her decision to take vengeance on her ex-husband by killing her children. Fissures of energy rippled through Roman as his time for transformation came as well and with a wipe of his sweaty forehead, he ran onto the stage and let Jason take over.
A sharp soprano cut through the heart of the gilded walls of the theatre, stopping everyone in their tracks. Performers and audience alike looked up to see Medea herself leaning out of a window from the houses behind them. Her eyes glittered with malice as she sang and turned to look at Jason from above, her chest inflated with pride but even from the distance, the trembling of her body drew everyone’s attention.
“Mark me: a crime of deeper dye
In me thou hast to punish yet,” she sang in Italian.
Jason grimaced and paled at his ex-wife’s words. She already took his beloved, what else could she have done? What else? Then Jason turned, and as if being pulled awake from a deep sleep, he asked in a thundering voice where his children were, the children he had had with the witch herself.
Medea laughed wickedly, her lip curling. Her brilliant voice went straight through Jason and the crowd of noblemen behind him as she cried in her cruel song that their children were dead, that she had killed them just as Jason had killed any love or softness that had ever existed in her heart.
The chorus cried in horror, their voices reaching a blinding crescendo. In the back, a small flame started to erupt and crawl up the front of the houses, drawing everyone back in terror, but Jason paid them no mind. He staggered to his knees as a procession began and he witnessed his only two children, the only blood he had in the world, being carried down the crevice, their limp bodies covered in a billowing white shroud. Medea only continued to scorn Jason as the last shred of her sanity moved down that crevice, into the abyss of the unknown. Jason slumped on the ground, clutching his chest and with all of the strength left in him, sang his woes.
Medea might have cut through the heart of the theatre with her voice, but Jason dissected it. He took the heart into his bare hands and spread each chamber and ventricle open, letting the blood and passion within drip and stain his skin. He let his grief swell and wash over any living creature around him with his singing. He bathed them in it. He baptised them with his voice.
And as he knelt there, on the stone floor with the flames rearing up behind him and the cries of the chorus swelling with the violins, Jason felt his soul die. Death came to him as the chorus sang its final song amidst the destruction:
"Gods what a scene, what desolation!
Oh day of blood of horror and dismay!”
Roman counted the seconds in the awaiting silence that came afterward. Centuries passed in a span of a heartbeat. The lights had gone on the stage and he languidly moved backstage. His body felt fresh and powerful, as if he had transformed into a brand-spanking-new machine just put together and oiled generously. He watched with a smile as the chorus lined up on stage, hand-in-hand, their chins held high. The lights suddenly illuminated the atmosphere and applause rolled through the theatre like unapologetic thunder. They bowed once and then once more as the conductor of the orchestra joined them onstage. Next came the dancers moving quickly with a natural and fluid grace through the passageway in the middle of the stage to circle round to the front. They were all bare chested with long, flowing blueish grey skirts and a single red rose clutched in their hands.
Roman grinned as the rest of the cast hurried onstage to the onslaught of applause and whistles, their feet treading over long-stemmed flowers. Each performer bowed with grace and moved to the side to make room for everyone else. The two young performers who played Jason and Medea’s twin children moved forward, their greenness plain and endearing. The twins were more like exact copies of Medea herself, with albino white dreadlocks, black skirts and dark makeup. But whether it be the performers themselves or the fantastic makeup crew, the twins shared a rounded look of innocence that could never be applied to Medea.
Roman eye’s caught Emma waiting in the wings on the other side of the stage, her albino wig stark against the darkness. The makeup team had paid close attention to the bones under her unblemished skin so her high cheekbones, sharp chin and deep-set eyes were emphasized. They coloured her sockets and painted her lips a dark purple. They had intended to make her look menacing as the sorceress Medea with demons at her beck and call, but Roman thought she looked stunningly regal. Emma’s smile broadened, her teeth as white as her wig. Within that darkness, he caught her wink and they both stepped forward. They walked to each other, meeting in the middle to the melody of praise on stage. In the blinding light overhead, their hands found each other. Roman and Emma stood side by side with their fellow cast and bowed, concluding their service to the people.
He felt the room swell along with his heart and knew that if he took a step off stage at that exact moment, he’d float away and dissolve into the air that passed between the audience’s lips. Despite his efforts, he felt tears line his eyes and he closed them, knowing the curtain would sever the connection any second now and take away this high until the next performance. He focused on the feel of Emma’s hand clasping his own and the collective beat of everyone’s heart, the sensations reminding him that life began in these moments.
He suddenly experience a surge of desperation as the seconds ticked away. A beast within him scratched at the surface, dreading the moment when it would become caged again.
One more second, one more second, he chanted inside his head where no one could hear him. But life had always been fleeting and so when the heavy velvet curtain drew to a close, he continued to keep his eyes closed and tried not to mourn. He felt the loss of the hands held in his own and the loss of body heat all around him but his own body continued to burn like a furnace within.
The sound of someone clearing their throat explosively broke the trance of the stage.
"You gonna keep standing there all day? I’m starvin’,” his best friend John’s nasally voice spoke out.
Another voice spoke in Russian.
"Yeah, just give him a moment. He’ll snap out of it in a second,” John replied.
Roman shook against the surge of strength he felt within himself and turned towards them, smiling. “So glad you guys could make it.”
His eyes went to John’s side where Roman’s mother stood, red-faced with pride. She grinned uncharacteristically as he embraced her thin body in his tall one. He could feel the rapid percussion of her heart against his own chest. “Vonc er?” he asked her in Armenian. She beamed and Roman felt emotion well up within him once more at the sight. Arevik Sargsyan had the disposition of a hawk. Sharp brown eyes sat atop a hooked nose she liked to peer over like spectacles when suspicion took hold of her. She looked wispy in form with a slight slump to her narrow shoulders but the force and constant focus in her eyes overshadowed the signs of her age. Her default visage of quiet curiosity shifted and disappeared like a ripple in a pool of water when her lips spread wide into a beaming smile.
She touched his cheek with her sweaty palm and tried to contain her smile but it kept breaking free, her crooked bottom teeth showing. She could only manage to say, “Bravo,” in response to his question.
Overcome, he embraced her once more and breathed in the scent of fresh sheets and her favorite J’adore Dior perfume from Macy’s. He pulled away once he felt her pat his back chastely and they gathered their composure.
"Where’s everyone else?” Roman asked, turning to John with a smile. God, he couldn’t remember when he had smiled this much in his life. All his life he had waited to perform at the Met Opera and here he stood, on the verge of success and close to ending a season.
"Your hoard of relatives are on their way back to your parents’ place for the party and your dad’s out back in the car waiting to take your mom home. You know — get the food started and everything.”
“Right,” he ran a hand through his drenched black curls and laughed at his mother’s wrinkled nose and her remarks about him catching a cold. “Okay, you guys go on ahead. I’ll get dressed and cleaned up and meet you back at home. Here, I’ll walk you.” Roman put his arm around his mother’s shoulders and took her around to the side entrance of the theatre where Nina the security guard stood broad and ready.
“Hey Nina, mind if we get through?”
“Sure thing, superstar,” Nina smiled, her dark face brightening from the usual serious countenance. She had her black hair tied back in a fierce ponytail that stretched the skin of her forehead and temple, leaving her skin smooth and blemish free. She opened the side entrance and Roman kissed his mother on the cheek goodbye and watched as she exited briskly and made her way to the car waiting in the parking lot. He started to turn away when Nina spoke up.
“Oh, by the way, Roman, is there someone you’re supposed to see tonight?”
Roman turned towards her with a bemused frown. “No, why do you ask?”
“Cause there was a guy waitin’ for you by this entrance.”
He and John exchanged bewildered glances before turning back to Nina. “Did he say what he wanted?”
Nina frowned, her shiny forehead wrinkling with consternation. “Yeah, he said he wanted to talk to you.” She opened the metal door and peeked outside before turning back to him with a shake of her head and a scowl deep enough to embed itself in her dusty brown skin forever. “He was here a second ago… ah well, must have got tired of waiting. It’s alright, he’ll be back tomorrow.”
Roman felt bewilderment whisper through him. “Wait, what do you mean “He’ll be back tomorrow”?”
“Well, this isn’t the first time I’ve seen this guy around here.”
Roman raised his eyebrow, which must have made him look comical since it had been filled in and elongated into a straight line with makeup to make it more dramatic. He probably looked like Jafar from Aladdin. “He’s been here before? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“He comes here every night, watches you perform or rehearse at the back of the theatre and then waits around here for you and leaves. Today, he was sitting in the best seat in the house. I figured he had business with you so I let him wait but every time you come around, he vanishes or something.” Nina shook her head again and tucked her thumbs into the belt loops of her black slacks. Roman ran a worrying hand through his sweaty, curly hair, slicking it back in the process.
“What did he look like?” John asked. “Maybe he’s someone important like a talent scout or something…?”
“Nah, I don’t think so. This guy doesn’t look like a Pavarotti, if you know what I mean. Although, he did dress snazzy. But then again, this is the Metropolitan Opera, everyone dresses snazzy here, it’s kind of the dress code —”
“Nina? Nina!” Roman interjected, cutting off her musings. She had a tendency to rattle on about whatever ran through her head and if you didn’t stop her quickly, she’d go on all day. “What are you trying to say?”
“Well, he did look like a big deal but not like some typical musical theatre people we see around here. He was a fierce lookin’ dude, I mean. Like the type of guy to uh...um…” she looked up trying to find the right words when John stepped in.
“Like the type of guy to murder his sister, bury her in his front yard and cover it up so perfectly that he becomes canonized?”
Nina didn’t reply, neither did Roman. They stared at John with identical expressions of befuddlement, the silence growing thicker amongst the three of them.
“...What?” His usually nasal voice rose higher in defense.
“You need to stop watching murder mystery shows,” Roman finally said, clapping John on the shoulder.
Nina let out a chuckle. “Not exactly the words I had in mind, though there was something...off about him. He looked like he belonged in a place like this but also didn’t. I think he was some kind of billionaire philanthropist. He certainly had the look for it. ”
Roman frowned, scratching his beard in thought but Nina cut him off before he could voice any concerns.
“Look, Roman, I could tell him to piss off next time he comes here, if you want me to. No trouble at all, it’s my job. I’ll get rid of him—”
“—No, no. It’s fine, I’ll just try to get a hold of him and see what he wants tomorrow at rehearsals.”
“All right, but you be careful now. There was something just…creepy about him. He had these blue eyes that were just…” she shook her head, rubbing her arm as if goosebumps had broken out.
“Okay, thanks for the heads up, Nina,” Roman’s frown deepened.
Nina nodded and they exchanged goodbyes before Roman and John made their way to the floor underneath the stage where the dressing rooms lay. Stage-hands, actors, dancers, makeup and costume crews all ran around, trying to wrap everything up so they could go home. Roman said his goodbyes to each passerby, attempting to smile but he couldn’t uproot the seed Nina had planted in his thoughts.
“That was weird,” John remarked as Roman sat down in front of a vanity mirror and smiled at his makeup assistant who handed him makeup wipes and took her leave. “Who do you think he is?”
“Honestly? I have no idea.”
“What if he’s a fan?” John began to move towards the costume rack behind Roman, filing through the many outfits and props worn on the stage. He picked up a ratty top hat and placed it on his blonde head slowly like a royal crown at a coronation. “Is there a — there is!” He snatched a long black cane and grinned, twirling it in his hand clumsily before saying in a shockingly bad British accent, “You’re getting famous, my lad. Sing me a song, you’re the piano man!”
“All right there, Billy Joel,” Roman snorted loudly. “I should take a picture of you right now and send it to your students.”
John dropped the cane as if it had burst into flames and hid the hat behind his back. His eyes darted around the room, expecting his students to pop out of the cracks of the floorboards. “Don’t joke about that! Some of those kids can do actual damage!”
Roman burst into fits of laughter as he finished cleaning his face and leaned into the mirror to make sure he got all of the junk off. John’s continued chatter blended into the background noises of the theatre as Roman looked at his reflection, the lights surrounding the mirror making his black curls glisten with sweat. The sharp angles of his pale face altered dramatically in the light. Jesus, these lights made him look demonic. Where’s the goddamn switch? He looked to the side of the mirror, sighing when he couldn’t find it.
He picked up the small towel slung over the back of his chair and began drying his hair.
He found his mind drifting back to the man Nina had mentioned and wondered just what he wanted. Why did he disappear before meeting with him? Did he change his mind? Roman shook off the suspicion left by Nina’s warning and began to change from his costume into a regular pair of jeans. He took off the gold band of chainmail around his torso.
“Hey it’s the tube top!” John laughed until Roman threw it at his head. “Ow! Dick.”
Sniggering, Roman pulled on a hooded sweatshirt even though New York City had been hit by a puzzling heat wave lately. Usually there’d be a few days of rain and a few days of a crisp chill this early in March but instead, the sun had been blazing down on the entire population for a few days now. Weathermen scratched their heads and shuffled their papers nervously as people glared at them for their false weathercasts.
Before Roman exited the room, he kissed two of his fingers and pressed them against a photo of his family attached to the side of his mirror like he always did before and after shows.
The city that never slept stayed true to its name as Roman stuffed his hands into his pockets and discreetly walked with John a few blocks away from the throng of people filing out of the theatre’s front entrance. As much as he complained about the packed crowds weaving in and out of the streets of New York, he knew he wouldn’t rather be anywhere else. Something about being around people made him feel in control, like somehow walking alongside this diverse flock of individuals validated his existence. He turned the corner into a cloud of cigarette smoke that turned his attention away from the rhythm of his feet and effectively ran into a wall. A sharp pang blazed through his shoulder.
"What the—” He looked up at the wall and realized that it hadn’t actually been a wall, just a tall man with the stoniest expression he’d ever seen. No pun intended, he thought. “Shit, I’m sorry, man. I didn’t see you there. Some idiot blew smoke in my face,” Roman apologized, literally looking up at the man. From this angle, he could see the man’s trimmed nose hairs. No boogers up there, but he looks like he had some for breakfast.
The man offered no sentiment. He just stood there, staring at Roman. His expression gave nothing away except for the slight flaring of his nostrils, as if he felt angry or displeased — Roman didn’t want to know which. An eerie air of calmness and silence around him, as if he stood in a soundproof bubble. The man looked to be in his late thirties, with a full head of black hair that went down to his chest, a neatly trimmed but thick beard, a broad chin and eyes of a ghostly blue. For some reason, Roman expected his skin to be alabaster pale but it appeared nicely tanned. His suit looked well-tailored but Roman could sense the quiet strength emanating from the man, as if he could break all of his bones with just his pinky finger. “It’s quite alright,” he said with a peculiar accent Roman couldn’t quite place, his voice as smooth as silk.
Roman nodded uneasily and apologized one more time before walking past the man down the street. “What was his problem?” Roman said, looking to his side but John no longer stood next to him.
He stopped dead in his tracks and turned around but he found no sign of his friend. What the hell? He was just walking next to me!
“John?” He called out only to be met with nothing. The crowd thickened and pushed and pulled at him like a wave the longer he stood there in confusion. He looked up and found he still stood in the Lincoln Center Plaza with the Metropolitan Opera House in front of him and West 65th street behind him. He took out his phone to call John but it met with some interference and wouldn’t turn on. Roman groaned in frustration and walked back to retrace his steps, turning the corner where he had bumped into that strange man.
“John?” He looked around once more but couldn’t find any trace of his best friend. His body felt as taut as a bow string and he desperately tried to ignore the chill of his sweat drying. Then he looked at where he stood...and realized he hadn’t moved from his original position with the opera house in front of him and West 65th street behind him. The same cafe sat across the street. Roman picked up the pace and turned a different corner than last time and started running. He ran as fast and far as he could, pushing past New Yorkers and accidentally jostling them to the side. He ran until a stitch started to grow in his side and his breaths came out in harsh puffs. Finally stopping, he slumped against a wall and closed his eyes.
“Okay, okay,” he said to himself in a voice that sounded much too high to be his own. “Chill out, Roman. You’re probably having a nervous breakdown. That’s all! And John — John’s probably at mom and dad’s already. Yeah that’s right. He probably just walked too fast and made it to the subway before you. Now when you open your eyes the street is not going to say…”
He opened his eyes and felt hysteria bubble up within him.
Lincoln Center Plaza. In front of West 65th Street and behind the Opera house.
“Lost, are we?” a smooth voice remarked.
Roman jumped a few feet away, his hands braced up as if trying to ward off an attack. The man he’d run into before stood in front of him with a cool expression, twisting a ring around his thumb. He gave a smile that only seemed to mock Roman’s distress further.
“Who are you? What do you want? You — You want my wallet? Here, take it,” Roman started to get close to shouting as he took his wallet out and held it in the space between them though he should have known the gesture looked foolish. One look at the man’s clothes would let anybody know he came from money.
The man let out an abrupt laugh that halted as quickly as it started. “The last thing I would ever want from you is money.”
A vague sense of offense ran through Roman, his New York accent coming out. “What, too good for my peasant money?”
“Are you seriously feeling insulted that I won’t rob you?”
“No,” Roman blurted foolishly. “Oh, whatever!” He shook his head. “This is ridiculous! Why are you following me? Where’s John?”
“Your friend is waiting for you, don’t worry. As for why I’m following you, Mr. Sargsyan, it is because I need you to do something for me. Do excuse me for taking my leave so early after your show. I was waiting but something came up.”
Roman took a quick step back, something glittering in the man’s eyes sent warning bells ringing through his head. “You were the one Nina was talking about?”
“The very same.” Roman felt the dry wind pick up and blow through his sweaty curls, sending a chill through him. His entire body seemed to be sweating and freezing at the same time and the chilling sensation made him believe that he had left reality presently. This couldn’t be real. “Who are you?”
“Aidoneus, at your...service.”
“Aidoneus? Aidoneus, what? You got a last name, sir?”
“I have many names but Aidoneus will have to do, for now.” Not a twitch of thought or emotion flickered through the man’s face. He kept his neutral expression and neutral tone but his eyes told a different story. Roman hadn’t moved but he could feel the stranger’s eyes following him. His skin crawled as if he laid under a dissection knife. Here’s the liver, dark and moderately healthy. Here are the lungs, pink and broad in his chest. Here’s the heart, pumping its blood to the tune of the Cancan.
“Not to be rude, Aidoneus, but what the hell do you want with me?”
Aidoneus smiled finally, as if Roman had said something amusing. A queer discomfort settled within his chest at the sight, feeling as if he had pulled back the curtain and witnessed something private and forbidden to his eyes.
“See, Mr. Sargsyan, I need you to do something for me. And I know you are the perfect candidate for this task because of your...talent. I would not have approached you if you did not sing the way you do.”
“And what is it you want me to do?” Roman asked warily.
Suddenly, Aidoneus gripped Roman’s arm, pulling him close enough that their faces were almost touching. His pale eyes seemed to glow brightly as his head tilted to the side and his other arm came up. Roman tried to recoil, he tried to move but his feet never budged an inch. From the outside, he looked just as he did before, chest rising evenly up and down and muscles relaxed, but the turmoil occurring inside of him said otherwise.
He felt paralyzed.
Aidoneus raised his hand and placed it on the top of Roman’s head, his thumb resting on the space between his brows.
“Remember,” he breathed, a white puff of cold air hitting Roman square in the face in the heat of the night. He could hear anguished screaming. He could hear that dreaded death rattle.
Then images started to run through his head like a movie put on fast-forward. They started to blur together and a sharp pain erupted from his head and chest, as if he had been stabbed and struck by lightning simultaneously. The screaming continued as other sounds filled his head like the sound of someone shouting, “Anatolios!”
Then it all stopped.