Center Stage – 1

Disturbed’s haunting cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” filled the empty bar with anything but silence as Alejando Marquez stepped through the door and looked around immediately impressed. The only person in sight wore faded Levis and a vintage Elvis Costello t-shirt accentuating well defined biceps and showing a hint of a tattoo; his sandy colored hair was damp from a recent shower while in his hand he held a towel he was using to dry a pint glass; all the while completely oblivious to the intruder as he passionately sang along. Alex couldn’t help but grin at the whole scene, noting some things never changed. He took a step forward, still completely undetected.

“Holy shit, depressed much?” Alex finally shouted over the music, raising an eyebrow at the man working diligently behind the mahogany bar.

Startled, Jared Grey broke into a huge smile as he recognized his old friend. “No fuckin’ way!” he tossed his towel over his shoulder. “Alejandro Marquez! What the fuck are you doing in my bar?” He picked up a remote and turned down the music.

Alex grinned slyly. “Technically, I think I’m standing in Marina’s half of it.” He glanced around nervously, knowing that Jared’s business partner could appear at any moment and fully aware that he was not prepared for that. “I heard my sister-in-law opened up a bar with some alcoholic actor,” he winked.

“Asshat,” Jared smirked, coming around from behind the bar to give Alex a warm hug. “Man, it’s good to see you. What are you doing on this side of the pond? I mean, shit, how long has it been?”

Alex gave him a hearty clap on the back. “Too long…” he replied with self-conscious shrug. “I might actually be back permanently.”

“Great! Does Marina know?” Jared’s brow furrowed as he studied the handsome Puerto Rican. “Or are you just skulking about the City?”

“No,” Alex frowned, taking a long slow breath. “I haven’t told her. Hell, man, I don’t know how. So for the moment, definitely skulking.”

“Oh, come on, you guys are family. It’ll be fine,” Jared assured him.

“Jared, you know Marina Zarley better than anyone,” Alex replied, a genuine look of anguish on his face. “She hates me.”

“She doesn’t hate you,” Jared replied a bit too quickly, earning himself a raised eyebrow from Alex, challenging him to deny it. “Okay, you may have a point, but I’m fairly certain the only person she actively hates is her bastard ex-husband, the lying cheating Shawn Walker, but we are not allowed to speak of him.”

Alex smirked. “And Shawn deserved every ounce of that hatred, but I may be a close second. And I don’t blame her.”

“Okay, okay… well, when was the last time you talked to her?”

“What kind of alcoholic opens a bar?” he muttered, dropping his gaze, suddenly very interested in the pile of cocktail napkins on the bar in hopes of changing the subject. Talking about Marina, even to her best friend, was physically painful for Alex.

When you are an alcoholic, it is generally advised to avoid situations that may trigger your involuntary need for a drink. That did nothing to deter Jared Gray from opening Curtain Call, located in the theatre district, a few blocks west of Broadway with his best friend, Marina Zarley. It was part cabaret, part pub and catered to both Broadway patrons and performers before and after shows. While Broadway was dark on Mondays, Curtain Call had found a niche, hosting open mic night that often showcased performers who walked the boards, thanks to Jared and Marina’s long standing careers in the New York theatre scene. Best friends for over twenty years; from everything Alex had heard during his time in London, Jared and Marina had built a thriving business together.

“The kind of alcoholic who offers his friends drinks on the house,” Jared retorted, not the least bit offended at the jab. He winked at Alex. “What’ll you have?”

“Tequila? Straight, no chaser. Por favor,” he replied, taking a seat at the bar, suddenly feeling exhausted.

“You got it,” Jared nodded, returning behind the bar and pulling down a glass. “Seriously, Alex, when was the last time you two spoke?” He poured the shot and placed it in front of Alex.

His reply began with a heavy sigh. “In person? Danny’s funeral?”

“Jesus,” Jared shook his head. “No wonder she hates you.”

“Helpful, amigo,” he raised the shot in salute. “That was the last time I saw her. Since then we’ve spoken when I call Mollie to wish her a happy birthday or a Merry Christmas. My parents brought Mollie to London every summer but when was the last time Marina and I had any sort of meaningful conversation? When was Mollie born again?”

“Dude, Mollie is fifteen years old!”

“Yes, I know. The last question was rhetorical. I know how old my niece is. It’s okay though, I admit it. I am a horrible person. Or at least a horrible brother-in-law.” Alex tossed back the tequila and set the glass down with a thud. “So… how is Marina?”

“She’s Marina… She’s an amazing mom, raising four kids on her own. And they’re amazing kids. Zach is actually dating my daughter.,” he momentarily scowled. “She has a successful career. This place turns a profit. She’s the strongest person I’ve ever met.”

“Is she happy?” Alex asked earnestly, signaling for another shot and Jared obliged.

“I think so. She’s strong and fiercely independent. Most people would have given up or crawled into the bottom of a bottle after everything she’s been through – I speak from experience, I honestly don’t know how she does it. She’s formidable.”

“She has you,” Alex replied softly.

“True,” Jared shrugged. “Living through the death of the person you love is like being in a club you never signed up for. Marina was there for me when Kelly died… I had to reciprocate. I owed her that much, she’s my best friend.”

“I can’t tell you how glad I’ve been that she has you. After Danny was killed… I should have been there for her and Mollie.” He met Jared’s gaze. “I mean, we all knew being a cop that Danny put his life on the line, but to die like that… with a new wife and baby. It just wasn’t fair, you know. I should have tried harder and not run away. I’ll always regret it.”

“I won’t argue with you on that, but you lost Danny too. And really, no one was in the right frame of mind after 9/11.”

Alex slammed the second shot, sending a shiver down his spine. “That’s no excuse, J. Danny was my big brother. He would hate that I practically abandoned his wife and newborn after his death. I hate myself for that. I honestly don’t blame Marina for hating me.”

Jared poured him another shot.

“Gracias. So, how is Mollie?”

Jared smiled broadly. “She is a spitfire. Fearless. Beautiful.”

He nodded, staring into his glass, searching for solutions. “We text and tweet and Facetime and Facebook and Instagram. She’s been trying to get me to Snapchat, but I eventually drew the line. I am grateful that Marina has let us develop a relationship, as unconventional as it is.”

“Mollie’s a great kid, Alex. Top of her class smart. I see both of her parents in her. She’s got Marina’s spunk and Danny’s sense of justice and oh man, his twisted sense of humor. She has his eyes and Marina’s smile. More than anything, she knows she’s so incredibly loved.”

Alex smiled, simultaneously grateful and cognoscente that he was monopolizing the conversation. “What about you, man? You look well. How’s everything? How’s the family?” He left the questions vague and open ended, allowing Jared to be as forthright as he felt comfortable with.

Jared paused before answering to look around his sanctuary. Alex certainly wasn’t the first to question the wisdom of a recovering alcoholic owning his own bar, most of the vocal concern came from his AA sponsor, Garrett, usually from his favorite end barstool, but Jared absolutely loved it. During his years of working as a waiter while waiting for his big break, he had learned how to run a successful establishment, and with Marina’s financial backing due to her handsome divorce settlement from the aforementioned bastard, Shawn, it made sense for them. It had also given him the flexibility he desired to raise his family on his terms while still being able to perform whenever the urge struck him. Knowing that Alex’s inquiry came sincerely, Jared was torn between his standard answer and the truth, but it seemed a bit much for an impromptu reunion to delve into.

“I’m okay,” he assured Alex. “Kids are okay. Dylan and Riley are juniors in college. Ben is making his way as a performer; some days it’s more like he’s fumbling his way through. Sometimes he’s so like me it’s scary.” Jared shrugged. “The poor kid got screwed in the parent department – a brief fling between a drug addict and bi-polar alcoholic. It’s like winning the genetic lottery there. I worry about him. The one thing he has going for him is his deep desire to not be like me or Cara, so there’s that I guess. Dylan is hoping to go to med school in addition to dating Zach. Riley wants to go into theatre. Crazy kids.”

“Wow… I can’t believe the kids are that old. How the hell did that happen? When I left, Ben was just beginning guitar lessons and Dylan and Riley were in Kindergarten.”

“Tell me about it.” Jared placed the top on the tequila bottle and set it back on the shelf. The time for drinking was over. He knew Alex didn’t want to be drunk, he just needed something to take the edge off the all-consuming guilt he felt. “Time keeps marching on. The twins are roughly the age Marina was when I met her but it seems like yesterday that they were just learning how to walk in the common room at Everhouse.” He smiled a small, thoughtful smile. “It’s nineteen years since Kelly died, and hell, I still talk to her every night before I go to sleep.”

Alex wished he had known Kelly Ramsey, but he felt like he did from spending time with Jared and Marina and their families. It amazed him that Jared had never found anyone he loved as much as the girl he fell in love with when he was twenty-five. In some ways, it was almost tragic, but in others, it proved to Alex that there was such a thing as true love and to never settle for anything less.

“I’m glad Marina has you,” Alex confided. “Not that it’s any real consolation, but I knew she would be okay. I knew she had you and in some ways, I figured that meant she didn’t need me.”

“That’s bullshit, but we all have to tell ourselves things to get through the night.”

Alex was taken aback. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, if you’re here for good, for whatever reason, you need to make peace with Marina. I get that. But I don’t think making peace with her is going to be half as difficult as it is for you to make peace with yourself.”

“Right. I shouldn’t have fled. I regret that.”

“You’re right you shouldn’t have. But I know you had no choice.”

“No choice?”

Jared smiled knowingly. “You were in love with her. You went to London to serve some self-imposed act of penance.”

“That’s insane!” Alex protested vehemently.

“Perhaps, but it’s accurate. I don’t judge. Honest. But you forget, I was there all those weeks of rehearsals. I watched you fall in love with her. And then I watched her fall in love with your brother. That had to suck.”

Alex laughed bitterly. “I don’t get to complain about a broken heart, J, not when Danny lost his life, Marina lost her husband and Mollie never got to know how amazing her dad was. I have no right.”

“Hence your warped sense of duty, moving to London… to escape? To punish yourself? To forget? To solidify your reputation as an asshole? All of the above?”

Alex shook his head. “I don’t know.” He sighed, adjusting his scarf. “I just –“ He was interrupted by the front door opening and in an instant he felt his breath taken away. The possibility of running into Marina hadn’t deterred him from coming to see Jared, but he wasn’t prepared for the rush of emotions he felt seeing her again.

With her lustrous dark hair and contrasting green eyes, she was more beautiful than he remembered. He knew her whole history; how her mother died in childbirth, then her hardworking father was killed in a fire during his shift at a warehouse which led her to be raised by her Grandma Bea in Saratoga, New York where she was exposed to the arts in a variety of ways. Grandma Bea had been her greatest champion and benefactor, encouraging Marina to move to New York and try to make her mark on Broadway. Marina met Jared in a workshop the summer she arrived in New York and it was an instant connection, albeit a platonic one. Then, that fall, she landed a lead in her first Broadway show, Class Reunion. It was a huge turning point in Marina’s life, both professionally and personally. She introduced Jared to his soulmate in her costar, Kelly Ramsey; she met her future ex-husband Shawn Walker, lost Grandma Bea and in her vulnerable state had a one night stand with her costar and friend, Kyle Masterson – all before the age of twenty. The dalliance with Kyle produced Zachary Zane Zarley, the oldest of her four children. Eventually, she and Shawn married and had two children of their own, Zoe and Zander, but Shawn had never given up his playboy ways and Marina caught him cheating on her. Without a moment’s hesitation, she filed for divorce and full custody which she easily won, along with a substantial settlement and child support package that left the girl born to a working class family wealthier than she could have imagined. When she was twenty-five, she met a handsome Puerto Rican NYPD detective named Danny Marquez. Alex watched them fall in love, get married and have a beautiful baby girl named Mollie Jane. He also watched the agony and grief Marina experienced, holding her two week old daughter, knowing that Danny had been killed in the collapse of the North Tower on the morning of September 11th.

“Uncle Alѐ!” Mollie squealed, pushing past her stunned mother and launching herself into her uncle’s arms.

“Mi Boninta!” he whispered, pressing a kiss into her dark hair and hugging her tightly to him, never taking his eyes off her mother. In that instant, he remembered all of it, the long rehearsals and late night diner runs, the laughter and tears and that fateful opening night.

 

~          Alex was practically bouncing; he was so pumped as the final curtain fell on the ovations for their opening night performance. In his exuberance, he grabbed Marina around the waist and spun her, inciting a burst of giggles from his beautiful costar. Suddenly, Jared was beside them initiating a group hug.

“That was freakin’ amazing!” Alex exclaimed, not letting go of Marina once he set her back on her feet. Without thinking he planted a kiss on her lips, high on the adrenaline of performing in front of a live audience. Surprised, Marina laughed and slipped out of his arms, following Jared backstage to their dressing rooms which were already crowded with excited cast as their family and friends began streaming in.

“Alex!” a voice called out before he could follow after Marina and  immediately spun around.

“Bro!” he grinned, launching himself at the taller man.

“Man, that was fantastic! Unbelievable!” He pulled Alex into a bear hug. “You are amazing! I have the most amazingly talented little brother!” He planted a big sloppy kiss on Alex’s forehead. “I am so proud of you!”

“Danny, I want you to meet Marina,” he said, tugging on his older brother’s arm, and dragging him over to Marina and Jared and their families. “Guys, this is my brother, Danny. Danny, meet Marina Zarley and Jared Grey.”

Danny’s smile was both charming and slightly shy as he gazed down at the actress who had shared the stage with his brother. He offered his hand to her and she slipped hers into it. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. You were absolutely brilliant out there.” He gave her hand a gentle squeeze.

“Thank you,” Marina blushed. “The NYPD detective, we’ve been hearing about? It’s nice to meet you. Alex talks about you all the time.”

“Yeah, it’s tough having a little brother that worships you.” Danny shrugged nonchalantly. “It’s nice to finally meet you.” He shifted his gaze to Jared. “All of you. I was completely blown away.” He offered Jared his hand, shaking his heartily.

“Thanks,” Jared grinned, watching the apparent chemistry between Danny and Marina. He glanced curiously at Alex who seemed oblivious to what was happening before his eyes.

“Where are the folks?” Alex interjected, still riding his high.

“They’re waiting outside. Pop didn’t want to intrude, but I had to,” Danny answered, his soulful brown eyes never leaving Marina’s green ones.

A tiny toddler with dark brown curls and hazel eyes was suddenly tugging on Marina’s skirt. “Momma, up!” she demanded.

“Hi, baby,” Marina cooed, nuzzling her cheek while Jared playfully tugged on her pigtail.

“Who is this?” Danny asked curiously.

“I’s Zoey,” the little imp replied, swatting at Jared’s hand. She plopped her thump in her mouth and rested her head on her mother’s shoulder. “Stop it, Uncle J!” she whined, with her thumb still in her mouth and Jared leaned in to kiss her cheek.

Alex reached out and stroked her silky hair. “Bonita.”

Suddenly they were swarmed by Jared’s three kids and Marina’s two boys. Danny found himself smiling as he watched Marina interact with her kids and suddenly he knew what Alex saw in her. On the surface she was strikingly beautiful and unbelievably talented, but there was so much more to her.

Danny cleared his throat. “I should go. Ma and Pop are waiting.”

Alex nodded, “I’ll walk you out. I want to thank them for everything.”

His brother nodded, still watching Marina. “It was nice to meet you both.”

“You, too, man,” Jared nodded, lifting his daughter into his arms.

“We’re all going out to celebrate,” Marina said softly. “You should come with us.”

Alex looked from Marina to Danny and back again, curious as to what was occurring, a strong feeling of dread creeping over him as the realization hit him.

Danny gave Marina a winning smile. “I’d like that.”~

 

Now standing in the bar Marina owned with Jared, Alex found himself staring into her green eyes as he stroked Mollie’s silky hair. “Te amo,” he whispered to his niece.

“Hey, Munchkin,” Jared spoke up. “Tristan is going to be late because he has an audition, want to come help me in the kitchen while your mom and Uncle Alex catch up?”

Mollie looked from her biological uncle, to her mother, to her surrogate uncle and nodded. “Okay…” She followed Jared toward the swinging door. “You’ll still be here when I get back, right?” she implored Alex.

“Promise,” he nodded, thankful as always for what a good friend Jared was. He watched Mollie leave before turning his gaze back to Marina.

“Hey, beautiful,” Alex said softly, his voice sounding uncertain to his ears.

Marina continued to stare at him.

“Surprise?” he shrugged.

“After fifteen years, that is what you have to say to me?” she murmured.

“Good point.”

“Mollie didn’t mention you were coming to New York.”

“She didn’t know. I’m staying with my folks for now.”

“How long are here for?”

“Indefinitely.”

She nodded. “Mollie will be happy to hear that. She misses you.”

“I miss her.”

The bar filled with an uncomfortable silence and Alex stared at his feet, waiting. Waiting for her to scream at him, hit him, anything. He was ready. He deserved it.

“You haven’t changed.”

He looked up startled.

“I forgot how much you look like him. He was definitely taller, but you have the same eyes and smile. I forgot that…”

Alex nodded, feeling the sting of tears coming.

“Mollie has your eyes.”

He found his voice. “She’s a beautiful girl. Inside and out.”

“She adores you.”

“The feeling is mutual.”

“I know.” Marina set her purse down on the bar and slipped out of her coat. “How are your folks?”

“They’re good. Traveling a lot when Dad’s not teaching.”

“I haven’t seen them since Mollie’s birthday last month. Things have been a little hectic around here. Mollie sees them almost every weekend. They are fantastic with her.”

“They love finally having a little girl to spoil after raising two boys.”

“I need a drink,” Marina blurted out, stepping behind the bar, a rare occurrence as it was primarily Jared’s domain but he had bailed on her. “Want one?”

Alex shook his head. “J already hooked me up. But thanks.”

She nodded, reaching for a wine glass and a bottle of merlot. She poured a glass and took a sip, savoring the taste, all while staring at Alex.

“You’re probably wondering why I’m here,” he began, nervously gesturing his hands.

“Among other things.”

“Understandable. I wrote a show. A musical. It’s going to be workshopped with a possible Off-Broadway opening to start.” He felt he was rambling but he knew he had nothing to lose. “I want you to star in it.”

Marina stared at him, her expression not revealing what she was thinking or feeling.

“I wrote it with you in mind. I think you are the only person who can bring it to life. I know it’s a lot to ask, but I am so sure of this. It could be brilliant. But it needs you. I need you.”

She continued to stare at him in an excruciating silence.

“Say something.” He groaned. “Anything.”

“Alejandro Marquez, you are a selfish son of a bitch.”

“That’s one way to go…” he conceded, never one to miss an opportunity for a witty quip.

“I can’t believe you are just waltzing in here like nothing has happened, as if the past fifteen years never happened and want to work together? Because you need me?”

“Again, a valid point,” he nodded. “But, and maybe this is the tequila talking, but you are the only person I want to do this with.”

“You have a lot of nerve…”

“To quote Han Solo, I do, I really do.”

Marina silently sipped her wine while Alex waited with baited breath.

“Okay. I’m in.”

“Wait, what?” Alex stammered.

“I’ll do it. It’s what Danny would want. I’m going to do it for him. And if Mollie ever gets wind of this, I’ll never hear the end of it. So, in order to avoid that confrontation, I’m in.”

“But…”

She raised an eyebrow. “You expected having to grovel?”

“Pretty much.”

“Yeah, I considered making that a prerequisite, but I’ve matured a little in the past fifteen years.”

“Okay then. Great.”

“Want that drink now?”

“Yes, please,” he replied sinking onto a bar stool.

“Tequila?”

He nodded. “Por favor.” She refilled his glass and he gulped it down. “I don’t get it.”

“There’s nothing to get, Alejandro. You checked out of this family, not me. Danny would want me to do this. I will do it for him because you are his family. My hope is that someday, you and I will have an honest conversation about why you left. I know that’s not going to happen today. So, today, I am taking the high road. I am saying that I will do this. Te amo mi familia.”

Alex ran his hands through his black hair. “You may change your mind when you see the script.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because it’s a tribute to Danny.”

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