I don't know why I keep coming here. I kill time by toying idly with the sugar packets, jiggle the swizzle stick in my drink, or just stare into the small table candle. Partly this is to avoid eye contact with the people around me, not that there's much danger of that. Singles like me are rare in this club - live entertainment and no dancing makes it a popular choice for couples, and the muted lighting and small tables encourage a private, intimate atmosphere. But the stage is empty for the moment, leaving most patrons to focus on their companions, and me to my own thoughts.
I can't help peeking at the others occasionally. I feel a constant low-level jealousy at their casual happiness. Or what looks like it anyway - I try to make myself believe that everyone else has as many dying dreams and unfulfilled longings as I do, even when I'm in a relationship. I make the effort, but it's never very effective. Even when I can convince myself, schadenfreude rarely perks me up, I'm not quite that vindictive.
The stage lights brighten, and a man steps out from behind the curtain, the moderate hum of conversation dying down to a hushed murmur of occasional whispers and clinking glasses. The man is dressed in an impeccable grey suit. It's the modern equivalent of top-hat and tails, though without quite so many obvious hiding-places.
He pulls out a cigarette and lights it. It's weird to see - real smoking has been so gradually pushed out of public view, I can't remember when I'd last seen someone in person performing the simple ritual, at least outside of this stage. After a couple of puffs, he holds the cigarette a few inches from his face, studying it for a moment. He drops his hand, but releases the cigarette, which hangs in midair. There's scattered applause. The man shrugs, as if he's not sure he deserves the praise...as if it's the cigarette that's special, not him.
He flicks the unlit end with a finger and the cigarette begins spinning end-over-end, strange spirals of smoke rising in the wake of the glowing tip. He flicks it again and it stops dead. A bit of ash flies off, but doesn't dirty the stage...it hovers near the cigarette, a dirty little satellite in an unstable orbit. More applause. The man smiles a little. He knows this is impressive. I don't know how this one is done. Hair-thin wires or miniature fans, maybe. I applaud more out of respect than appreciation. I've seen it before, and it's not why I've come anyway.
He pulls out a sheet of paper from an inside pocket of his suit and begins a rapid series of folds and twists. His gestures are sure, practiced. In no time at all, the paper has taken on the recognizable shape of a bird. More applause. He shakes his head and raises a finger, then lifts the paper bird with his other hand, bringing it into contact with the still-floating cigarette. There's a bright flash of orange-yellow flame, and when my eyes adjust, the cigarette and ash are nowhere to be seen, and the paper bird has been replaced with a white dove of similar size. Louder applause, which I add to only minimally. That was an easy one, the rapid origami was actually more impressive than the trick itself.
The magician - his profession is abundantly clear to everyone by this point - turns and walks back to the curtain, which opens before him, revealing the empty stage beyond. He steps offstage to the left for a moment, coming back into view as he pushes a tall box on a rolling platform to the center of the stage. It has three obvious holes in the front, one large oval near the top, a small one at the middle, and a wide but short one at the bottom. A small table stands to the left of the box, about half as tall.
He opens a pair of doors, one atop the other, at the side of the box, then looks around the stage. He peers theatrically off the stage in one direction then the other, then behind the box. There's no assistant to be seen, and there are quiet laughs from the audience - they know his confusion isn't real. The magician steps forward to the edge of the stage and shrugs, then raises one of his hands, using the other to point at it, then back at the box. His expression is casually hopeful.
Nervous murmurs from the audience, as they gradually realize he's asking for a volunteer. My hand is in the air immediately, and I lock my eyes on him, willing him to look at me. Other hands go up. Mostly women, a couple men. The magician's eyes scan over the supplicants, one hand at his forehead to shield them from the stage lights. He turns past me to point at a blonde woman.
She rises, uncertain, but moves quickly enough when he gestures, urging her forward. As she reaches the stage, he leans forward to shake her hand, then keeps it, guiding her to the side and up a short flight of stairs to the stage. He turns to the audience and holds his hands out to his side, presenting her, and the audience agreeably applauds. She's wearing a teal blouse and a black skirt, and smiles nervously. He takes her hand and leads her back to the box. She begins to step inside, uncertainly, but stops as he waves his hands. He points at her pumps, and after she steps out of them, the man moves them underneath the table.
Satisfied, he helps the woman into the box, pointing to the holes from the inside, and she seems to understand, leaning forward in the box so her face fills the upper hole, her hand and bare toes in turn emerging from the lower ones. The magician closes the side doors, then moves around to the front. He reaches into the inside of his suit jacket and pulls out a long knife that looks like a machete, holding it in front of himself so the woman in the box can't see, and raising a finger to his lips conspiratorially. The audience titters, and laughs louder at the look of confusion their amusement prompts on the volunteer's face. The magician turns, and pushes the blade forward into a slot where the table meets the box, sharp edge facing the latter. The woman's face turns slightly as she tries to watch what he's doing, but it's clearly an impossible angle. He puts his hand over his heart and shakes his head at her. She looks skeptical.
He moves to the side of the table opposite the box, then turns to the audience, holding up successive fingers to three, and making a shadow-puppet motion with his other hand, held up near his mouth. He points at the audience, then holds up a finger. There's uncertain murmuring again, but someone in the audience shouts out, "One!" and he nods. He turns back and leans across the table to grasp the top of the box with both hands, then turns his head back to the audience and shakes his head encouragingly.
"Two!" says more of the audience, catching on, followed by a louder, "Three!" The magician pulls sharply on the box and the top half slides towards him until it reaches the edge of the table. The woman's hand and toes stiffen, and her mouth forms a too-perfect "o" of surprise. Again she tries to look to the side, towards the lower half of the box, and again it's clear she can't see. The magician holds up a finger to her, then directs it towards the audience as well, halting the applause which had begun. I imagine being in her place, showing my own expression of shock to the audience as they wondered what was happening to me, how it was possible. Imagination is necessary, since it's never me up there.
He pulls a small handle, and a door opens in the front of the box, allowing a fairly unrestricted view of the woman's upper-half, then quickly moves to the opposite side and opens a similar door in the lower half of the box, showing the bottom edge of her skirt and her legs from her knees down. Louder applause now, mixed with some laughter. The woman, leaning on the hand which had been visible through the hole, as well as her left forearm bent across her midsection, was leaning forward out of the box to look at her bizarrely separated lower-half. She looks back and forth between her wiggling toes and the audience, as if to ask, "Are you seeing what I'm seeing?"
The magician, in over-wrought alarm - perhaps that she will topple forward out of the box - pushes the woman's shoulders back and holds up a warning palm, then closes the doors on the front of the box as quickly as he'd opened them. In short order, he pulls the top half of the box back into its proper place, then removes the machete and places it atop the table. He moves the woman's shoes to the stage beside the box, then opens the side doors, giving her an arm to help her step out and maintain her balance as she puts them back on. The magician guides her forward and urges her to bow, prompting more applause from the audience. At his prompting, she navigates down the stairs and back to her table.
I watch the man she is with - boyfriend, I suppose, they don't have rings - as he whispers a question to her. She shrugs and shakes her head, and he shrugs as well, and turns back to the stage. I'm frustrated.
She really has to be a confederate. It's not as if she was chosen randomly, after all. I know how the illusion works - it's not that hard to figure out if you try - and it's one of the ones that a genuine volunteer might be coached through with no rehearsal. But the magician never speaks, and her reactions are too perfect...the look of surprise, "not realizing" she's supposed to remove her shoes... And her boyfriend's reaction is too mild...one question, then he shrugs it off?
And yet, I can't see how she can be a confederate. The magician performs here three times a week, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday nights. I've been here for every show since I first heard about it a month ago - this is the thirteenth performance of it I've seen. Every show has two big illusions, and he picks a different volunteer for each. He could just be using two assistants, but the volunteers are not the same women on different days. They've been largely the same height - that's sort of a requirement the way most illusions are built - but their hair color and style has varied, their ethnicity has varied, their table companions have varied. Maybe it's just ridiculously skilled use of makeup. Or he's hiring six entirely new assistants every week, for only one show each? I can't see how he could possibly afford that - the club does have a two drink minimum, but they aren't overpriced, and it isn't a very large place - they can't be paying him all that much.
So maybe they are really unknowing volunteers. The idea fills me with excitement, and yet it's full of bitter helplessness as well. Twenty-five times I've eagerly raised my hand, and twenty-five times, he's picked someone else. I'm the right height, about 5'3", and only a stubborn ten pounds away from my ideal weight, so it isn't as if I wouldn't fit. He does seem to pick only pretty women, and I'm nothing special. As I kept coming back, I did my best, though. Different hairstyles, even colors, better makeup, switched my glasses for contacts, tried different outfits...and every time his eyes pass over me as if I'm not there, he always picks someone else. Always.
I even tried coming early to talk to him, thinking maybe he picked confederates in advance somehow? But he apparently never shows up at the club until right before the show begins, and the club owner denied any knowledge of pre-arrangements. It actually seemed like the owner was going to suggest I was taking all this too seriously - his face looked that way - but he didn't. I am now a "regular", after all, why rock the boat?
Like I said at the beginning, I don't know why I keep coming. It's a kind of torture, this fascination without fulfillment. Honestly, if I'd spent this long trying to get a job as a magician's assistant I'd probably have found one by now. Or maybe responded to the wrong Craigslist ad and never made it home. Life's not fair in its particulars, and rarely even in the aggregate - karma, if it exists, seems to only manage to balance the scales when allowed more than one lifetime to work with.
By now the magician has moved the tall box off-stage, and returned with another one. This one is a large red rectangle, open in the front, about four and a half feet high, three feet wide and maybe eighteen inches deep, set into a slightly larger frame, again on rollers. The large red rectangle has a smaller red square taking up the left half of the bottom. The back of the frame is made up of alternating squares of white and black, which can be seen behind, and through the thin gaps on either side between the frame and the red rectangle. Once again he goes through his "Where has that darn assistant gone?" routine, but the laughs are more subdued and he quickly moves forward to look for volunteers.
The bitter part of me doesn't even want to raise my hand, doesn't want that strangely keen sting of impersonal rejection. I put it up anyway. He picks a stunning redhead with a pixie cut. I think uncharitable thoughts about unfortunate diseases she might contract, even as I wonder where she got her little black dress - similar to the one I now wore, but somehow cuter in every possible way.
As he leads her up to the stage, the early applause cuts off into scattered expressions of alarm - the woman is wearing four-inch heels, and misses one of the stage steps, falling forward ungracefully, only half-caught by the magician's supporting hand. She quickly tries to regain her dignity and continue onto the stage, but after a step her leg buckles and she cries out. Even if she is a confederate, this part clearly isn't staged - the look of surprise on the magician's face is far too genuine, her pain obviously real. The magician peers over the audience and uses his free hand to wave urgently - I think it's a bit odd that he doesn't speak, even now. One of the bartenders is there in moments with a small first-aid bag - he gingerly examines the redhead's ankle, then shakes his head. He cradles her in his arms and carries her to the back of the club.
I look at the magician's face, and he's obviously conflicted. It looks like he wants to go with, make sure she's ok, but maybe he doesn't want to leave the show unfinished, either. He's not miming either, as he's done so far, these are genuine emotions, harder to read. The seconds stretch into a minute, and the audience's murmuring is growing louder. He'll have to do something soon, or just write the whole thing off.
I raise my hand.
He stares at me, and I try to figure out what he's thinking. This is the first time I've been sure he's actually seen me, and he's acting at least a little bit that way - sizing me up. He clearly understands that I'm re-volunteering, trying to help him salvage his performance. If all his volunteers are confederates, there's basically no chance he can take me up on it. I recognize this illusion too, and I'm pretty sure how it's done, but he doesn't know that, and coaching an actual volunteer through it would be a lot harder than the other one. I try to make my face confident, insistent.
The audience's murmur quiets and changes as they realize what's happening. Some of them are already looking at me, and it feels very strange, to suddenly be so visible. But I also feel a bit of that thrill that I'd imagined I might, being on display, people wondering what I was thinking and feeling.
The magician glances at the stairs, and the box behind him, and back to me. His gaze is intense, he's clearly trying to communicate something to me - just me, not the audience - but I'm not sure what it is. Maybe just that he's sorry, but it's not going to work. Maybe he does remember me from all those other audiences, and feels bad, because all his volunteers are confederates. I keep my hand up. I've come too far for anything else.
He gives a tiny shrug, then walks slowly to the edge of the stage and holds a hand out towards me. My heart jumps erratically. This is happening. Is this happening? I stand, unsteadily at first, and walk to meet him, letting him guide me up the stairs - which I navigate without difficulty, having worn sensible heels. I do watch my step though, no sense in tempting fate. My black tights have thin gold threads woven through them, and they sparkle under the stage lights.
Once I'm safely on stage, still facing away from the audience, I whisper as quietly as I can, "It's okay, I know how this works." I try to give him a confident smile. He looks surprised, and a little relieved, but hides it so quickly I'm not entirely sure I didn't imagine it. I start to focus on the trick. This is the first opportunity I've had to be so close - I'm relieved to see the faint outline of the hidden panel in the interior of the red rectangle. I'm fairly confident that I can get inside when the time comes, so I relax and try to enjoy the moment. I'm on stage, being led towards an actual illusion!
He extends an arm, inviting me to step into the odd box. I gingerly do so, bending slightly to fit, then turning to sit sideways on the small red square, which allows me to raise my head again. I'm practically vibrating with excitement, and I wave at the audience...hopefully some of my mood comes off as nervousness. I almost laugh aloud at the thought that people in the audience might be trying to decide if I am a confederate.
The magician is reaching for one of my feet, and I realize I've been distracted and he's been motioning me to lift one of my legs. I do so immediately, and nearly kick him in the head, but he plays it up, over-reacting. Laughter. I laugh too, and cover my mouth. I pray to every god I can think of that someone in the audience is recording video and I can find it later.
With exaggerated caution, he approaches again and slips off one of my shoes, putting it inside the small red square beneath me. I raise my other leg and the second shoe follows, then I rotate back so I'm entirely within the frame, my feet poised on my toes at the bottom of the frame.
The magician begins to pick up square panels from on top of the frame and set them into place at the front of the red box, concealing me bit by bit. I can't see them from where I'm sitting, but I know they're decorated with a stylized illustration of a woman, sitting much as I am now. The last square is the top left one, and I can't resist one last cheerful wave and smile at the audience, which gets another laugh. Even the magician smiles, then his face is hidden as he places the last panel.
Now I get nervous again. I hadn't imagined it would be quite so dark inside..the interior is only barely lit by thin lines and points where the panels don't match perfectly. I feel the frame being slowly rotated so the audience can see the back, and know I have a little time, but not forever. I grope forward and find the edges of the hidden panel with my fingers, then push.
I begin to panic a little...I was so sure I'd reasoned it out. I push along the top, in the center, the bottom, the edges. Nothing is giving, or opening. What can I do? I'm about to raise my voice and say "Um..." or something, when I see light at the bottom - he's lifting the lowest panel! I quickly pull my legs to my chest so my feet won't be seen, and desperately use the extra light to try to see something I'd missed, but he slides the panel in horizontally, and the light is gone again without having revealed anything useful.
I lower my feet onto the panel and test it gingerly, but it's a lot more sturdy than it looks. What am I missing? Maybe I'm supposed to climb out the back temporarily? I slide my hands over the back panels, but they don't give either. Suddenly there's light again, from behind me. I realize he's folding in the panel to my right, and it begins to press on my back. I quickly scoot forward, hoping the now-horizontal first panel is as sturdy as it seemed, and put my entire weight on it. I pull my legs up to my chest again to make myself as small as possible, but even so, the panel behind me presses further until it clicks into place.
I can barely breathe, and a hysterical thought comes that it'd be painfully ironic if I found out now that I'm claustrophobic. I scrabble with my fingers desperately on the red surface in front of me, trying to find some release I'd missed earlier, but my arms and hands have very little space to move in. I concentrate on trying to relax and control my breathing. I've clearly screwed it up, but at least he can play it for laughs, maybe? I realize I've one last chance, as he's going to slide apart the large back panels to put the rest of the square panels in place. Sure enough, light spears in, making me wince, and my left arm pops free, no longer held in place by the back panel. I gesture frantically at the red surface I'm being pinned against, and whisper as loudly as I dare, "I can't get in! How do you open it?"
The magician stares at me for a moment, confused, then shakes his head. He presses the square panel in his hands against my side until it latches, re-pinning my arm. I'm now squashed in an open box several inches too small to comfortably breathe, with my shoulders and knees sticking at least six inches above the top edge. Only the final square panel with a cloth circle inset hides my ungainly position from the audience.
I look at him pleadingly. "What do I do? What do I do?", I mouth. He pauses for a moment, and takes a deliberate deep breath in, then lets it out. Relax. Right. I close my eyes and do my best, but after my exhalation, my eyes spring open as I feel his arm reaching past my head, pulling the last panel down towards me. I try to shake my head frantically, but he's holding it up with his free hand against my cheek. The top of my head starts to push through the cloth circle, and the rest of the panel is pressing on my right knee and shoulder, harder and harder.
My knees slip down a bit as my ankles cross and my feet curl around my butt, but that was just a couple inches, there's nowhere else to go. Even if my back was flexible enough to bend forward more, there's no room, and my shins certainly can't bend anyway. But he keeps pressing and I almost can't breathe at all, when suddenly I feel a popping sensation, like cracking a knuckle but my whole body. Not painful, but jarring. The pressure is a little less - I can breathe more easily now - but I'm feeling it everywhere evenly, like some kind of full-body hug. My head emerges completely from the slit in the cloth-covered hole, and there's a click. I look to my right and see the audience, vague black shapes behind the bright stage lights. I can't tell, but I vaguely suspect my expression is, at best, extremely confused. I do my best to smile as I hear applause from the audience, while I'm still trying to process what happened.
The magician rotates the frame again, showing them the rear side, demonstrating that in fact aside from my head I am entirely inside this too-small cube. I turn my head to the other side, to continue looking at the audience, letting them see how astonished I am. Laughter in the applause.
Crossing to the rear of the frame, he lifts the top panel, and the cloth barrier brushes over my face again. I immediately bend my neck forward, trying to see how I'm fitting in here, but I can't make sense of what I'm seeing, like one of those cross-eyed optical illusions. The magician gently pushes my head forward and down with his hand, then I feel the panel with the hole pressing on the back of my head, and not yielding this time. My face is jammed firmly between my knees and chest, the smell of nylons and the perfume I'd dabbed there is overpowering. All light and sight is gone, replaced by the muted sound of more applause - he's entirely closed the cube now.
I realize what that means - everyone who does this trick and goes this far invariably removes the cube itself next, panel by panel, leaving the frame empty. I couldn't understand what had already happened, but some part of me still thought it was some clever concept I hadn't considered, that would somehow fool even someone inside it. But making me completely vanish? If there wasn't a hidden compartment in the front of the red frame, where could I possibly go?
I realize the sounds from outside have become even more muted, then completely silent. I instinctively try to raise my head to look around, but I still can't move it, or anything else. The pressure on me is so even, it's not even greater from underneath me - like I'm weightless, floating. It keeps me relaxed somehow, even as I'm disoriented, listening to the sound of my own muffled breaths, the heat of each exhalation cascading gently up my thighs.
I wonder how long it's been. It seems like longer than it should be. But I'm content - this is not a bad place...there's a peace here, even if it's not big on lebensraum.
There's another popping sensation, like before, but stronger, as all the pressure around me vanishes. My legs and arms fly out, bracing me roughly inside the closed frame, and my back arches involuntarily. I start to cry out from the sheer pleasure of it, then desperately clamp a hand over my mouth, muffling myself to quiet mews. I dimly feel the vibrations of the frame being rotated on its wheeled base again, and mortal embarrassment allows me to slow my breathing and arrange my legs in a less...wanton posture, with less than a second to spare as the large back panels slide apart, revealing me to the audience.
I hope my face isn't too flushed, but there's no controlling my smile. The magician bends forward and pulls my shoes out from beneath my seat, leaving them in front of me. I rotate, swinging my legs out and sliding them into the shoes, fixing the heel of one with a finger, then take his offered hand to stand, straightening my dress with the other. I can't help but giggle at the loud applause. It feels even more like a dream than the black silence of wherever-I-was.
After the earlier mishap, the magician takes no chances and guides me down the stairs, then releases my hand to let me wobble back to my table, legs just a bit unsteady - as much from the overwhelming aftermath as from the cramped position that preceded it. He takes a couple of bows to more applause, then waves and steps behind the closing curtain. Animated conversation starts back up as the stage lights dim - I can tell from all the glances and outright looking around me that some of it's about me.
A cute guy approaches my table. "That was really something...if I bought you a drink, would you tell me how it's done?" I stare at him blankly for a moment, then look down at my right hand, as I realize there's a business-card in it - the magician must've passed it to me when he helped me down the stairs. One side just shows a line-drawing of a raised hand. I flip it over, and very small printing on the reverse reads: Discretion Rewarded, then a date and time a couple weeks from now, and finally an address. I can't stop my face from breaking into a grin. The guy thinks it's for him, and sits. I let him buy me a drink before I truthfully tell him I have absolutely no idea how that trick was done.
The 'yet', I keep to myself.