“Flight” by Jennifer Jacobson

Maura starts at the top of the balcony, the highest point in the theater. Every night, before the stage manager calls places and the hawk handlers settle in, she touches the first seat in each row, marking her territory. She knows the number of steps from the last row to the edge of the balcony; and in the small private boxes as well, the loges, she’s memorized the number of steps from the door to the seats and from the seats to the edge of the half-wall, built to allow patrons to view all the action on stage and to keep them—agents, press, family, lovers, producers—from falling into the audience.

The stage left loge is where the more experienced bird handler is stationed. Of course, Maura had to fight with the producers to include the Red-tailed hawks in the production. It costs a fortune to insure two wild birds in a Broadway house. But her instincts had paid off: once word got around about the hawks, the play had sold out and the producers had extended the run.

The loge door opens and a man in a knee-length, camel hair coat steps onto the private balcony. Maura recognizes his broad shoulders, takes stock of his large hands. She makes her way up the stairs to the nearest exit.

In the loge Pierce finds three seats covered in crushed red velvet, old world and elegant. The one next to the wall is marked reserved, but that’s not the seat he’s been assigned. His ticket places him closest to the balcony with a sweeping view of the stage. Below him is a wooden deck that juts into the audience. The deck has been stained to appear weathered, yet he can smell the tang of new pine. Across from him, she’s built a watchtower. Pierce puts on his glasses and grins when he reads the hand-painted sign, Poet’s Seat, a reference to a field trip in his English class, how exquisite to be included. He settles his expensive coat across the back of the seat, the cloth pooling out across the floor of the intimate space, its creamy silk lining exposed; a gift from a student that he only wears on important occasions.

The murmur of the audience floats up to him like starlings on a summer evening and when the door to the loge opens he feels his heart take flight. “This is a surprise,” he says. “I always considered you an experimental, counter-culture playwright. I thought Broadway was too bourgeois for you.” He’s been imagining this moment since her agent called.  He wants to put his hands on her shoulders, hold her close enough to kiss each cheek, inhale her.

“I wasn’t sure you’d come.” Maura squares the velvet seats between them. His hair, no longer chestnut, rumples over the damp crown of his head and his face is as round as a dinner plate. He’s wearing a white shirt and a tailored pinstriped suit, nothing like the corduroys and button downs he wore in the classroom. The word dapper might apply, but its old fashioned and void of malice.

“I hear there are rumors of a Tony Award,” he says.

She can’t reconcile this face with the one in her memory and the breach makes her unsteady. Only his voice is familiar: musical and self-assured. The sound is not comforting.

She is lithe, graceful. She wears her ginger hair short, sassy rather than turbulent, and it reminds him of crushed velvet.

“I like the way you force the audience to be part of the action with the watchtower and observation deck thrusting into the seats.”  Her lips press together and he hopes she might smile, pleased with his praise after all these years. “Your designer’s done an excellent job with the diamond-patterned arches of the French King’s Bridge, and the choice to use silk for the river really makes the water come alive.”

For the audience, the set establishes a sense of place and allows them to be grounded in the action of the play. For her, the bridge acts as a portal moving her from the present to the past, and though she’s become deft at this time travelling she has to be careful, especially tonight. But she can already smell the leafy wet ravine and the river brine from the first time he took her hiking. They passed under the French King’s Bridge, steel stretching from one side of the Connecticut River to the other and later, they stopped in the shade to watch a team of divers explore King Phillip’s Abyss, a buoy and red flag indicating the deep underwater hole. He settled his jacket over her shoulders. The wool smelled yeasty and wild. The memory raises bile in her throat.

“A bridge is full of possibilities: a liminal place, a threshold, a journey,” he says.

“The first time I saw someone die was jumping off that bridge,” Maura says. “We were drinking champagne on the observation deck, far enough away that I believed you when you told me the falling body was a bird. You were sure it was a hawk and you said October was the best time of year to see birds of prey because they take advantage of the avian migration. When we got back to the Academy and found out about Louise, I felt horrible. If you’d have told me the truth we might have gone to her.”

“A tragedy for the Academy.” Pierce resents being reminded of Louise. He wants tonight to be about pleasure—a private box at the theater, Maura’s success, and her acknowledgement of him. He’s imagined an interview with The New York Times, a conversation about her early life at school. That would be good for him, get his name back into circulation. He doesn’t want the impulsive Louise to threaten his evening. He’d rather focus on Maura in her black silk pants and flowing silver shirt. Her clothes hide the curves of her hips, but he can make out her delicate breasts.

Maura presses her fingers into the seat tracing the ruts made by the hawk’s cage strapped against the back of the chair during their extended rehearsals. The birds won’t be in their cages tonight; they’ll be with their handlers: John at the top of the house and Ebba, in the loge with Pierce. “Are you still teaching?” she asks.

Her nails are painted black and she wears a gold band on each finger like a pirate.  How he enjoys a good round of dress up. “Not for ten years,” he says.

“Did somebody find out you were fucking your students?”

He leans away from her, the back of his brown shoe knocks against the half-wall of the balcony and he has to steady himself. She must be nervous, she’s forgotten the rules of their game: no insults in the first round and certainly never any in a public place. She should take care of business: she’ll be more relaxed after the play. “I’m sure you have a million things to tend to,” he says.

“I do. But here you are. In the flesh.”

Flesh brings them back to the game. The first time she’d walked into his classroom she was wearing a black t-shirt with the collar ripped into a jagged v.  She had no visible tan lines and he’d imagined her topless at one of the beaches on the Canary Islands or Cannes. Most of his students were from Fortune 500 families, feted with care packages once a month, but for the most part left on their own. For their first assignment in freshman English she’d stood in front of the class and recited Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis: “Graze at my lips, and if those hills be dry,/ stray lower, where the pleasant fountains lie.”

She was fearless. That’s why he’d chosen her.

Across the theater, John takes his seat in the last row of the balcony. He handles the smaller bird, the one with a three-foot wingspan, rich brown feathers and a cinnamon-red tail. “When the play starts, we release two hawks. One’s trained to fly to a handler seated over there.” Pierce follows her gaze. “The hawks set the mood better than anything I could have written.”

“Can you count on the birds?” he asks.

Maura’s teeth are the color of bleached bones. “They’re trained, but they’re wild. Didn’t you drill into us that predictability is death? The hawks terrify the audience. They circle above and never fly the same pattern twice so every show is different. When they hunt they surprise their prey. ” There’s a confidence in her voice that’s vicious. Pierce wants to pull her close and kiss her.

“The other handler will be here.” She taps the velvet chair with the reserved sign.  He imagines Maura’s lips touching his skin. It’s been such a long time since he’s been with a woman he knows.

Now that she is used to his face, she sees his navy-blue eyes have not changed as much as the rest of him. They could applaud or disparage or dismiss you as quickly as a thin blade might cut your skin. “Do you remember the year I started at the Academy?”

“You’re asking me to recall ancient history.” Twenty Questions. Ah, back to games. He laughs and slaps the Playbill against the palm of his hand recalling the leather whip he hid in the back of his desk drawer. Had she ever asked for it?

“You said my writing wasn’t up to par, and if I didn’t want to fail your class I needed tutoring.”

“As I recall, the admissions department was concerned about your academics, Metta.”

Metta was his nickname for her: one more way to claim her. “It’s a wonder I survived,” she says.

The first time she’d read Louise’s journal she had to stop on the second page. In small, fierce lettering was written: P has given me a name. He calls me Lily and has sworn me to secrecy. With this name he has made a place for our love, so that we can be in the world and keep it a secret.

Maura looks at the stage and the iron colored bridge with its cantilevered arches extending from the front of the proscenium to the back of the theater. She’d asked the designer to paint lilies at the base of the stanchions closest to the audience. The set is breathtaking. All the clues are there. She wonders how long it will take him to put them together.

Fourteen years ago, Maura found Louise’s sister, Roxy, on Facebook and since they were both working in New York, Roxy agreed to meet her at a café on Bleecker Street. They drank espresso from tiny brown cups and spent the afternoon leaning across a marble table talking about Louise. They met again at the Metropolitan Museum and one more time at a dance party after a show at the Kitchen. Then, they started sleeping together. When Roxy gave Maura her sister’s diary she said, “My mother found the journal in a box of Louise’s things from the Academy. No one in my family can bear to read it.”

* * *

“Are you married?” He rests his knee on the seat to hide an erection that’s disrupting the crease in his pants. If he chose to, he could touch her cheek.

“We’re a family here.” She makes a sweeping gesture with her arm but she won’t tell him about Roxy and their beautiful eighteen-month old daughter. The play’s the thing. “We look after each other,” she says. “And you?”

“My ex lives in New Jersey with our daughter.”

“Do you see them?”

“The ex doesn’t want me involved,” he says.

“No. Of course not.”

Her comment is meant to hurt him. Oh, the game! Maybe he’ll take her for drinks afterwards. Maybe she’ll invite a friend.

Maura checks her watch. “Do you remember the Writer’s Cabin at school?”

The tenderness in her voice makes him courageous. “Metta, you were glorious and incomparable. There were times I thought I’d incinerate before I could touch you again. With you I had passion, intellect, creativity—everything I wanted.”

“You started fucking me when I was fifteen.”

The lights in the theater dim and shadows darken in the box. She says, “I’ll be curious to know what you think of the Writer’s Cabin we’ve built for the show.”

Pierce suffers his first hint of fear. “How much of your play should I expect to recognize?”

She laughs.

The balcony door opens and a woman steps into the loge. She’s close to six feet tall. Her head is shaved except for a line of black curls running down the center. Above each ear is a tattoo of a blue wing. Silver gauges decorate her earlobes. “Ebba. This is Professor Pierce.”

The hawk handler looks at Pierce and then at Maura.  She says, “The hawks are in place.”

“Thank you,” Maura says.

Ebba drags a wooden box from under the chair with the reserved sign. She withdraws a piece of leather that fits over her forearm like armor.

“How are the girls tonight?” Maura asks.

“Twitchy. Hungry,” Ebba says.

Maura helps Ebba latch the buckles of the arm-piece; the small brass prongs jingle as she works. “Do you know the difference between a hawk and a falcon, Pierce?”

“I haven’t the slightest,” he says. The leather is well worn with deep gashes from elbow to wrist.

Maura says, “The falcon’s beak is notched to break the neck of her victim. The hawk’s is smooth and like the eagle, she uses talons to rip her prey apart.”

“How did you come up with the idea of hawks?” He feels a phantom stabbing in his chest and takes short, shallow breathes.

“They’re perfect killers,” she says. “They focus and strike. There’s no suffering. That’s the mercy of their kill, the grace of it.” She steps towards the door.

Pierce is not eager to be left alone with the hawk handler. “Your agent said there would be other people from the Academy tonight. Where is everyone?”

She turns to him, steps over his pretentious coat and, for the first time in nineteen years, she touches him. Taking hold of his elbow she leans over the balcony. “See the woman in the white scarf?” She points to the orchestra and Pierce raises one hand to shield his eyes from the stage lights. “That’s Jackie Sloan and next to her is Ronny Witsom, class of ’79 and ‘80. Then Tara VanMure, class of ‘85. I’m not sure where the others are seated.”

She leaves him there to discover each of the thirty-seven women he’s assaulted.

“Break a leg, Ebba.”

“Break a leg, Maura.”

Pierce hears the door’s metal latch slip into the groove as it closes behind Maura. He imagines her taking the stairs two at a time to the stage where someone with a flashlight will escort her behind the curtains. She won’t know if he leaves now. He tries the handle, but the door is locked.

“Professor.” Ebba points to the crushed velvet seat.

The lights fade to black and a pin spot shines on the bridge. Three tenor gongs ring the way they did for Morning Song at the Academy. The bells are interrupted by a hoarse scream that is answered by a scolding call, high pitched and inhuman; the cries make the hair on Pierce’s neck stand on end.

“Take your seat. The hawks are in the air.”

Pierce thrusts the door handle up and down but the lock holds fast. In the dark theater the hawks scream again and he hears the beat of the birds’ wings as if it is his own heart. He lunges towards the safety of his seat and trips on his coat. Ebba raises her forearm for the bird. Pierce reaches for her to steady himself and the hawk, sensing confusion and fear, strikes Pierce in the chest, knocking him to the ground.

The hawk settles on Ebba’s arm as Pierce crouches on all fours, breathless.  On stage a figure rises from the blue silk river. Her wet, black hair stains the canvas body bag that’s gathered around her shoulders.

The figure lifts her face to the balcony.  “You once said a woman was a bird and I believed you. I believed so many things about the world—my dizzy language and inadequate skills, my tidal desires and ignorant heart—because you pronounced them so.” The figure wriggles out of the body bag and lets it disappear under the river.  “Fear is a weakness palpable to men and birds. Watch out, or it will be your undoing.”

As light floods the stage, Ebba sends the hawk up one more time and Pierce peers over the balcony, frantic for some way out.

Jennifer Jacobson was born in Zomba, Malawi and grew up in New York City. She is the Associate Director of the MFA for Poets and Writers at UMass Amherst where she directs the Juniper Summer Writing Institute and the Juniper Institute for Young Writers. Jennifer also teaches at Smith College’s Young Women’s Writing Workshop. She is completing a novel about forbidden love between an American and a Chinese artist on the eve of the bloody crackdown in Tiananmen Square. The novel is set in Hangzhou, China, where Jennifer taught in 1989 and witnessed the pro-democracy efforts and protests that brought the city to a standstill. Her poems, short stories, and essays have appeared in Chronogram, jubilat, MotherWriter! and in other journals.


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