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Do You Mean It?
The hypnotist was young. barely twenty-five at the time and already a master of his craft. Pendulums and spiral illusions were for amateurs; he’d gone pro. The hypnotist had been born with his tools; two hazel eyes, a voice that could go from lulling monotone to a captivating alto, and a rhythm in his step, a sort of jump-kick-skip that propelled his feet and sent him gliding through the air. Awkward movements were beneath him.
The crowd looked up.
The crowd noticed.
He had a brilliant grin that shined over fears of being pulled from the audience and paraded to center stage, a victim of the classic sideshow act.
The audience smiled back.
The hypnotist glided beneath the spotlight, and let his eyes scan the crowd. Each expression clicked into place, watching him and him alone, anxious for the next move, the next tremor behind the curtain that would reveal the entire feat as an illusion, and ruin this metaphor of a man.
Summer Solstice had crashed into the city earlier that morning, and between spotlights and sunburn the audience blazed. One member in particular.
The hypnotist’s eyes stopped on a woman in red, sitting in the front row of the theatre, eyes turned toward him, the rest of her fading into the darkness.
He knows her well.
The solstice has faded, but even on this February evening, cold seeping into every surface, the hypnotist can remember an old flame. It isn’t very hard. She’s walking right next to him.
The woman is growing older. Twenty-three now and all she has are theories. Her name is Sophia. She lifts her hand up and pulls off a blonde streaked wig to reveal tangles of dark curly hair. The hypnotist smiles at her.
“And the crowd is in awe! Sophie takes the cake, yet again.”
“Thanks,” she says, and grabs a jean jacket from the coat rack in the closet.
The hypnotist, who has taken a seat on a leather recliner, flips through the pages of a book with a brilliant blue cover. She stands up to leave.
“Where are you going?” he asks her.
“You seem to know so much. You can answer that yourself.”
“And why would you think that?”
“You ask too many questions for someone who knows so much. But I guess that’s just a part of it.”
“A part of what?”
“A part of knowing everything. You’ve got some kind of black magic thing going on. It’s secretive. I get it.”
“I’m not sure what you’re getting at.”
“Oh, so that’s how it is. You’re not sure. You don’t know. You don’t have to lie to me. It’s been five months.”
“Four and a half.” he says, standing up.
“So fifteen more days, huh? I’ll mark it on the calendar. The day I finally found out what the hell was going on with my life…”
“Ah, but it’s February,” he smiles and says, “So make that thirteen.” His smile fades as she walks away.
“Is something wrong?” he takes her hand. He saw this in a movie once. “I love you,” he says. “The show was great tonight. The Red Dress strikes again.”
“I love you too.” She stops. “I think.”
“You think?” He lets go of her hand.
“I wish you’d stop interrogating me.”
“I’m sorry,” he sighs. “But shouldn’t you know a thing like that? For sure? One hundred percent?”
“Of course you should.”
“Then do you?”
“On what? What do you want to know?”
“I want to know-“ she steps away, “I want to know, do I love you?”
“You tell me.”
“You tell me.”
“Well how should I know?” The hypnotist turns around, takes a seat in a scarlet armchair.
“I’ll make it easy for you. You are a hypnotist, are you not?”
“Am I the hypnotized?”
“It’s not a hard word to understand.”
“Are you the hypnotized?”
“I just asked you that.”
“Do you mean—”
“You know what I mean, now answer my question.”
“In the act? Of course you are. You stunned the crowd tonight, you know that?”
“I meant right now.”
The hypnotist stands up. He crosses the room with his jump-kick-skip, but misses a step and his shoes hit the floor with a thud. They leave a dark streak on the glossy hardwood. The room has a single window, blue bordered with foggy panes and rusty golden hinges. He steps toward it, leaving a path of greasy shoe streaks behind him. He says:
“You know I wouldn’t do a thing like that.”
“Hey, I can’t blame you. It’s what you do. You hypnotize.”
He looks at her.
“But not you.”
“Oh, so I’m special?”
“I love you.”
“So I’m special?”
“I don’t know what you want me to tell you.”
“Do I love you?”
“I’m not a psychic.”
“And I’m not talking about the future. I’m talking about now. Yes or no.”
“I can’t tell you that.”
“So it’s true.”
He moves towards her. He glides. His bright eyes focus on hers, but she is looking out the window now, past the faded windowpanes, through to the single streetlamp that flickers like a dying flame. She doesn’t seem to care. He snaps.
“Don’t,” she says.
“You don’t mean that.” She counts the seconds. “You like to manipulate people.”
“I’m a performer. I like to entertain people. You should understand that.”
“By manipulating other people, on stage.”
“I’ve never hurt anyone,” he says. “It’s like a game, you know. It’s not serious.” He pauses. “I wouldn’t call it manipulation.”
“What would you call it?”
“I’d call it what it is.”
“Which is hypnotism! You make it sound so unethical. It’s not. It’s, uh, therapeutic.”
“So you’re saying you’ve used it to help someone?” She counts the seconds as they pass. “You don’t. You use it for money. You manipulate for money. You should join the mob.”
“I don’t kill people with baseball bats, I entertain them.”
“With baseball bats?”
“Oh, so with manipulation?”
“I’ve used it to help you.”
“Don’t make me your charity case. A career choice is a career choice and this is one I chose. You offered and I accepted. The end.”
“And that’s all this is?” he says, taking his seat again in the armchair. She doesn’t follow him, feet cemented, hand plastered to the aging windowsill.
“Of course not, I just…they tell stories about us you know? People talk. They say it was June when we met. That I was an out of work actress, and you were lonely. That after the show you found me in the audience. They say you took me off the streets and gave me a paying act, they say it was…what’s it called. Love at first sight. The lady behind the concession stand said she gives it another month, tops.” Sophie walks across the room. “They say for once you weren’t in control. They say it was me who did the hypnotizing. I hypnotized the hypnotist.”
“That’s not so bad as far as gossip goes.”
“Some of them say that…and some say other things.”
“That it’s the other way around.”
“You don’t believe that.” he says, leaving a puddle of black streaks beneath his boots.
“A person wonders things,” she says.
“And people talk, and none of it is true. This isn’t grade school Sophie. This is us and I’m hoping some lady behind the concession stand isn’t the cause for all of your questions.”
“Then what is it?” he asks, exasperated.
“This hypnotism show…it makes me feel like part of a traveling carnival. Do you know what I mean? On the outside everything’s cotton candy and Ferris wheels, but really I’m wrapped up in some kind of gypsy freak show; pendulums and checkerboard walls and mirrored halls ‘cause nothing’s what it seems. I feel sick, and dizzy and confused, and I don’t know if this gig is worth the money.”
“What about me?” he asks.
“What about me!” is her reply, and she looks around her. At the dusty, feathered table lamps, peeling, patterned wall paper and crooked chandelier.
“This isn’t a place for an actress,” she says, “any chance of anything is going down the drain.”
“Sophia…Sophie. You’ve got something much better than any actress I know.”
“What’s that? You?”
“Forget about me, Soph. You’ve got a stage to yourself! You think they’re looking at me when you step on the stage? Never. You have them captivated from the very first step and you don’t even have to say a word. Have you ever seen an actress capable of something so spectacular? I certainly haven’t.”
“Not even Audrey Hepburn? Or Kathryn? Not even Vivien Leigh or Elizabeth Taylor? Not even Marilyn?”
“Not even her.”
“Then it’s a shame I can’t even know my act.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean when the lights go down and they’re all looking at you, and you ask for a volunteer. Whoever’s sitting in the second row, six seats from the end. Which is always me.”
“Anyway… you walk me to the stage, and you look at me, and you tell me to countdown from 100, and you’re snapping your fingers, and the audience is leaning forward in their seats…”
“Then what happens?”
“The act starts.”
“But what is the act? It’s strange, but I never remember. Isn’t it strange? And it’s the same act every time.”
“But I never seem to remember. It’s like I’m daydreaming or something. Then I remember you snapping your fingers again, the audience applauds and I take my seat in the crowd.”
“So what happens?”
“We’ve been over this Soph, there’s a science behind—”
“Behind lying to me? It’s an art now, is it?”
“It’s an agreement, Sophia. A contract. You agreed, and I agreed and that’s all there is to it.”
“I know, but can’t we forget that?”
“Honestly, Sophie, I’m surprised. You mean you don’t like the mystery? Isn’t it so much more exciting to leave a little bit of your life…unknown? A little spice, a little secret and you don’t even know what it is? I always thought that’s what you liked the most. It gives you personality. Everyone could use a little personality.”
“I’ve got plenty. And I’d really like to know. What good is a secret if you can’t know it? It’ll kill me, this will. It’ll torture me, day in, day out. And picture me, an old frail woman, crumbling bones, single strands of silver hair, on my dying day, stuck with a secret, my secret, that millions probably know—”
“I doubt that many come to my shows…”
“By then it’ll be millions. Millions who will know my secret and I won’t and it’ll kill me.”
“You’re such an actress, aren’t you? I can’t imagine why you haven’t gotten a starring role yet. With that performance…”
“Embellished maybe, but still the truth. I’ll always wonder.”
“You agreed with me, Sophia, from the day you took this job. There are rules. Simple rules. Don’t talk about the act. It’ll ruin my credibility and that of the show. Both our paychecks go down the drain. My career in shambles, we are left in the gutters and on the streets. Rule two, always dress in costume. We can’t have anyone know you’ve got a re-occurring act. Lands us in the same place: the gutters. Rule three, always wear red.”
“I never understood that one.”
“You’re beautiful in red.” She smiles coyly at this, stepping away. “It’s the honest truth, you are. There’s something about it.”
“And rule four of course is…”
“Don’t worry about the act.”
“I’m not worrying, I’m wondering.”
“It might not be the same if you know.”
“Oh, come on.”
“There are rules.”
“Didn’t you say you loved me?” He turns away at this. “C’mon, you did. You said it plain and clear, ‘I love you.’”
“Because I do.”
“And doesn’t that void any previous agreements?”
“You really are a talented actress.”
“I’m headed for Broadway next.”
“I should hope not. I’d hate to lose you.”
“You don’t have to. Just tell me the truth.”
“You’ll take it the wrong way, I know you will.”
“Only if you tell it the wrong way.”
The hypnotist walks to laps around the room before easing into his glide and stopping before Sophie by the window. He says:
“It’s a simple performance, I’ve told you that before. I step up to the mike and ask for volunteers.”
“They cower in their seats.”
“Always. I step down from the stage.”
“Your eyes scan the audience, looking for a victim.”
“I wall the aisles. Past Row A, B, C…”
“Almost to the back of the theatre, but not quite.”
“And there you are, in red.”
“You look at me and I look away.”
“I smile and ask you where you’re from.”
“Sometimes Washington, sometimes Maine. I’ve always wanted to go there, you know.”
“I ask your name. Sophia, you say.”
“I think that’s when you take my hand. You crack a few jokes on the way to the stairs. Then I’m on stage.”
“I take a seat.”
“I start with the trance. Basic stuff.”
“Typical routine.” She adds.
“After that it’s as simple as a question and answer session.”
“Like an interview?”
“Then what’s the point of hypnotizing me?”
“It allows for more realistic answers.”
“So what do you ask?”
“Tell me something about yourself. You talk about acting. You tell them that you’ve wanted to act forever. It’s cute. There’s a little applause. I ask you about your family.”
“They really aren’t so interesting.”
“You’d be surprised.”
“And you’re telling me this is it? This is everything? This is worth a contract and a rule and a couple months of my emotional suffering?”
“I didn’t know you in June, Sophie. What if I told you everything and you sabotaged my show? My reputation? This is all I’ve got. I’ve got my show and I’ve got you. And if I have to lose you I don’t want to lose my show too. It’s a lot to put on the line for a girl.”
“Well, I feel thoroughly reduced to a cultural cliché. Sophia Vega in the role of A Girl. But not just any girl…no, no, the quintessential back-stabbing girlfriend assistant of a famed hypnotist. Some call it eccentric—we call it showbiz. I wonder how all that is gonna fit on the headline…”
“See that’s what I used to think, Sophie. But I just told you. I just put everything on the line for a girl, a Sophia Alexandria Vega even though it’s all I’ve got, and she’s furious with me for it.” He smiles and says, “No round of applause? Not even a single bravo? Sophie, I’m heartbroken.”
For once she returns his smile. “Is that so?”
“It is,” he says, “but you can fix it. All it takes are three words, Sophia and you can fix a broken hypnotist. So what’ll it be?”
“I’ll think about it.” She says, and walks out of the room.
The hypnotist sighs and takes his seat again, picking up his book. He’s just found his page when a man enters. Kind of short, trace of a mustache, receding hairline carefully hidden by a black fedora. They call him Rocky. He is holding a pen in one hand, a wad of rolled cash in the other, pulled together with a thick rubber band. He hands it to the hypnotist.
“Not bad,” he says. “Not bad at all. I wish I’d known a few years ago all you need to be rich is a nice voice and a pair of pretty eyes. I never had either of those things, though.”
“You aren’t too jealous, are you?” the hypnotist says with a smile.
“I got over being jealous a long time ago. Some people have got it and some people don’t. Some people have got other people to be amazing for them. That’s me. And then there’s people like you who’ve got both.”
“And what have I got that you don’t?”
“You’ve got that cash in your hand. You’ve got talent. And you’ve got that girl, although with the way she stormed out of here I’m gonna assume things are on the rocks.”
“And I was so close to a triple threat.”
“It’s a shame. A couple of the guys have been talking, saying it’s got a little something to do with the way you’ve been treating her.”
“I think it’s got a little to do with those guys. Spreading rumors of who knows what around; and Sophie, she’s a sweetheart and she can’t help but believe it. She’s getting the wrong idea.”
“I’m not sure what you’ve got going on around here…”
“Don’t worry. It’s better this way,” he says. “She’ll never believe the truth. It’s too ordinary.”
“And you don’t find your methods…”
“Unorthodox? Maybe. It suits her.”
“Some might call it inhumane. Immoral in the least…as subtle as it may be…”
“People agree, people disagree…but there’s no use in degrading it. It’s an art, that’s for sure, but it isn’t just a useless statement of power…it is, truth.”
“Truth! Ultimate truth, final truth…so easily accessible and here I am, using it for a good cause and they call it manipulation.”
“And what charity case accepts this donation?”
“Love makes people do crazy things, I hear. I guess it’s true.”
“Love isn’t true in most cases. It’s a flurry of hormones, missed phone calls, pain…and you all think you’re having the time of your life. It’s being delusional until someone snaps you out of it…in most cases.
“What about the other cases?”
“Exactly. I’ve found the other case. Rocky, I’ve found it! I can’t just let that go…she means too much to me.”
“And how much do you mean to her?”
“I like to think I mean a lot.” he says, crossing the room. “It isn’t in my head, Rocky. She told me she loved me. The first night she came in here. Her in her red dress, me thinking I didn’t have a chance…”
“I guess you were wrong about that.”
“I was. When I called her to the stage…and how could I not call her to the stage Rocky? Someone beautiful and I could talk to her, I got that chance and I took it. I took her to the stage and she smiled and I made a few jokes, cause she looked nervous. She sat down and I started out with a basic trance. She was making me nervous, Rocky. I didn’t know what to do so I just asked her a few questions.”
“Questions like what?”
“Like what’s your name, what’s your family like, what’s your favorite color…”
“And so the hypnotist takes a date with a girl’s subconscious.”
“I was nervous.”
“And the audience was interested, so why not? I went with what I’d started, and at the end I asked her,”
“For her undying love?”
“Don’t make fun of it, I—”
“I didn’t! I just asked her if she loved me, just for a few laughs from the audience before I sent her to her seat, I didn’t mean it as anything, honest, I didn’t. But then she said yes.”
“And you think she meant it? She didn’t even know you?”
“But isn’t the idea enough? Of love between two strangers in times like these—or anytime at all! Isn’t the idea enough…you can’t say it wasn’t worth a chance.”
“Ideas about stuff don’t qualify as truth.”
“She told me she loves me, and what other proof do I—”
“You make it sound like I’m lying to her.”
“You’re lying to you. You know, and I know that she wasn’t in her right mind when she said those things.”
“What isn’t right about the subconscious? And released from the pressures of the everyday world, at that. Relaxed in a state of hypnosis.”
“What so pure about the subconscious? I had a dream I left my wife for Vegas last night. It sounds better, but it isn’t true. It’s just as much a lie as my wedding vows- maybe even more so. But I guess you’ve kept her around for long enough. The act is working its charms.”
“But it isn’t just an act, Rocky! She loves me, she really does. Every night I talk to her.”
“But I still talk to her Rocky! And the audience eats it up and I get to know her! Know a person like her.”
“Why not just strike up a conversation? Why do it this way?”
“She’s got too much pride…it wouldn’t work any other way. She’d never tell me that she loves me. She’s a fighter, Rocky. She won’t give in that easily.”
“So you take care of all the hard work for her?”
“But what do I care? Look,” Rocky crosses the room and shakes his hand. “Don’t worry about what I said. You’re the professional. I bet you know a lot more than me.”
“You might be surprised.”
“Anyway, if I run you out of here I can just pack my things up now and stick a ‘For Sale’ sign on the front door. You and that girl of yours have brought in about 99% of business… You’re gone… forget Vegas. Maybe a cardboard box on the outskirts of Reno, and that’s if I’m lucky.”
“I might be living next door, if things don’t work out.”
“They will. If anyone is lucky it’s you. You’re lucky and the funny thing is you wouldn’t know luck if somebody knocked on your front door and handed to you in a big blue box, tied with a ribbon and sealed with a kiss, you wouldn’t know it. You know a lot of things but luck ain’t one of em.”
“I know I’m lucky I’ve got her.”
“I’m not sure that’s luck, my friend. Snap your fingers and she’s gone.”
“It isn’t that easy.”
“Well,” Rocky says, “you had me fooled.”