I like to think of the applause as rain. The end of the stage is a window. Behind glass, none of it can touch me. I am safe from it and it is safe from me.
"But doesn't it thrill you," someone asks backstage one day "seeing the audience like that?"
"Sure it does," I laugh, but the truth is, it’s a page turn, rushed and dry. I've never properly seen the audience. A mouth here; an arm there; everything blends into a human-coloured blur of emotion.
When I was 14 and theatre was just a bad idea on a sign-up sheet, the drama teacher had to pull me on-stage. I said my lines to the floor, and while they were well-said, the floor was not a paying audience. She lifted my chin with a rolled-up script and pointed me out toward the sea of empty seats. She jabbed toward a light fixture on the back wall, challenging it to a duel. “Find a point in front of you and focus on it,” she had said. “They won’t know you’re not looking at them. Theatre is all about approximation. That’s the magic of it.”
I tried on hope, slipped into easy-going. Put on a smile I’d have to grow into. Maybe I could uncross the wires of myself into something manageable. Maybe I didn’t need feelings at all, but a close approximation.
To this day I can still feel the drama teacher’s gentle squeeze on my shoulder. It struck down into the centre of my chest.
Now, I try on the smile again. It’s a little worn, an ever-so-slight ripple at its tightest point.
"It’s glamorous, you know? I get to put on a nice dress and square up for a fight.” I tap a heel twice, like someone shaking out a cigarette from a pack. “Every night.”
The joke's a bad one, if it's a joke at all. She laughs anyway. Backstage, I think, isn't too far removed from an office. It doesn't matter if I'm funny, it matters that we get along. "God, it's so late already," I say just to the left of her. "I'd better go. See you tomorrow?"
My peacoat is somewhere in a pile of chaos, costume pieces and props, but digging it up is only a matter of sliding in the right way. I’ve got good hands for chaos. Glitter falls from the coat as I walk. Stage dust. Everything in this world is blessed by it.
There are two responses when I tell people I’m an actress. One is a double-take, a sudden scrambling to fit my face to the word. When all of me is processed--the blemishes, my talent for dropping things five times before they actually hit the ground, the way my voice gets carried off into the wind, the way my laugh is too loud for a room --their mouths always slip into that same flat line.
The second response is always about money.
Where do I get it? How often do I get it? How do I feel about not having any? I concentrate on that flat line whenever I answer, watching it like a heart monitor, hoping for signs of life. Two jobs. Bi-monthly, usually. Fine-ish.
There’s a rare third response. It trips me up every time . Why?
When I am fumbling for an explanation, I tell them what backstage feels like. Like the back end of a street festival. Like the Union Square Market at night. Like a house about to burn down. Everything buzzes, even now, upon exit. I shout an extra “see you tomorrow” to everyone staying late, which is about half the room.
I throw all my weight into the heavy back door and breathe in the night. It’s cold, but not cold enough to scare off the street vendors.
“Can I have a hot dog,” I say, more to the pretzels on the cart than anything else. “With ketchupmustardandsaurkraut?”
When I get to 34 th street station, the hot dog has a pinched-in centre where I gripped too tight. I toss the bun into the nearest trash can (carbs), scrape off some of the ketchup and saurkraut, and find a corner by the escalator that’s hidden by a support beam. I start to play my favorite game, How Long Can I Take to Eat This? . The rules are simple: stretch out the meal into as many bites as you can, chewing each bite thirty times. For a hot dog, fourteen bites is impressive. Today I’m aiming for twenty. Wildcard: if the train arrives mid-game, you have to either finish the hot dog or throw it away. One of these results used to mean I was having a good day.
I’m murky on what counts as a victory.
Across the platform, a girl of about fifteen is staring into the eyes of a boy a foot taller. She laughs and chatters and reaches up to kiss him. Just like a movie. He leans down to bridge the height gap, but it’s too fast and too far. He smashes into her nose and teeth, snags her lip on his braces.
“Crap, crap, are you bleeding?” he says, wiping what he must know is her blood from his nose with the back of his hand and desperately stretching his hoodie to try and clean her face. She pushes away, bloody-mouthed like someone who’s lost a fight, eyes wet with tears. And she’s laughing so hard. She doubles over laughing.
Now he’s laughing too. Everything about them makes reality look so crisp.
I ball up the hot dog napkin in my hand. Nine bites. The train speeds in and I hold my breath until it starts to move.
I thought I was getting better at this.
I was eight when the rattling started. Something in the center of the sternum, like breathing in with a cough. It was just a thing that happened. Like girls who’d popped their cherries horseback riding. No big deal. Everyone probably rattles anyway. They’re just prudes about it.
On the way to school, I saw a kitten outside of my apartment building and had big plans. I had those plans drawn out in crayon by the time I got home. Incredible plans that all ended in me owning that cat, and though each one was just a bright doodle, I knew what every stroke of Crayola meant in terms of strategy.
My problem, like many entrepreneurs, was that I was overeager. I promised myself that I would wait until after dinner to broach the subject, get a feeler for my dad’s mood. Instead, I dropped my sales pitch mid-meal, promising that if we just stepped outside “right now now before it goes away” we could have an entire cat for the low, low price of free .
So when, suddenly, he was holding a fistful of my hair instead of his fork, I can honestly say it wasn’t a surprise. My mother, pulling him off me, was.
“Who’s gonna take care of a fucking cat, huh?” he snarled into my ear then released me with a shove. “Me, that’s who’s gonna have to take care of that fucking animal, not you.”
“Okay, Eric, no one said we’re getting the cat. You could just say no. Just say no like a normal person! She’s eight. ”
He upended the table at eight , having missed his cue at normal .
The scene ends with my dad storming out and my mother on the kitchen floor by the garbage cans.
I picked up fragments of porcelain and, not wanting to disturb mom’s vacant staring into space, started stacking them in a corner. Flecks of mashed potatoes and peas made the walls a culinary crime scene. If we had just gotten the cat, I thought, this wouldn’t even be a problem. He could have licked the walls clean. A pet and a vacuum. It would have paid for itself.
My insides, having processed everything before my brain, huddled painfully together. I swallowed and it was a gross mixture of saline and snot.
“Sophie,” came my mother’s voice from the darkness. “This,” she said slow, measured, flicking a pea off the nearby stove, “isn’t love.”
She turned, the right side of her face a purple sunset, and held me in a stare. Her eyes welled. My vision blurred like Vaseline smeared on a lens. I concentrated on the shards of a plate, once whole now jagged and white. When I turned back, everything had adjusted too far. The edges of reality were too sharp.
Nothing in that room was safe.
I slow-walked to my room before I overflowed. Catching myself in the dresser mirror, nothing matched up. My face should have looked like a crumbling building; instead it just looked tired.
I inhaled to sigh and thought: empty coke can with the pull tab inside. Old toy with a broken gear. Beer bottle kicked down an empty street.
“My family’s coming to this one,” the girl from yesterday says, smoothing the edges of her mouth with a finger. Red lipstick is tricky. It requires shaping.
“That’s great,” I reply to the mirror in front of us. I should know her name. She’s someone’s second understudy. She plays someone named Claudia. Claudia #3 is here because Claudia #1 and #2 have landed something off Broadway, instead of off-off-Broadway. It’s not that we’re bad, I like to tell people, it’s just that we’ve got a really lucky streak of Claudias.
“My dad’s like, you can’t hide from us forever, Denise! ” she laughs. My face, unwilled, cracks into a smile. “They think I’m a big shot New York actress. Wait’ll they see.” She gestures around us.
“It’s not the worst,” I pick at a tray of Ben Nye colors. Pale white and bright primaries stare up in various degrees of wear. We use the same brand of make-up that clowns do.
“Well,” she does elementary school-level exercises in the mirror. She makes her face a small mouse, then a roaring lion. “You’re way better than this.”
“I don’t know,” I open.
“I do,” she closes, “I’ve seen you.” She meets my eye. I try to catch her gaze, but miss. After a silence, she turns to me, slow. She constructs a balance beam between us and hops on.
“Promise you won’t get mad if I ask you this?”
“Nope,” I say too fast, taking a brush to smooth on layer one of foundation. When I move I can feel her slipping, so I stop at the eyebrow. I wait for her to finish. “There’s a rumour, that you used to know Emily Cunning.”
I keep brushing.
“Not that I judge,” she adds. “It’s just…how? She’s the biggest Disney Diva anyone’s heard of. And you’re so…nice?”
The nice hangs in the air. Emily Cunning, née Emily Belafonte, lifetime member and crown jewel of the Holy Trinity Baptist church, had been in both Aladdin and The Lion King. Even for Disney’s incestuous casting, it’s a big deal. Nice hung next to Emily’s Big Deal like a cardboard sign in Time Square.
“That was just high school,” I say. I’m used to this bit. I know the lines. “We were different. Things changed.” I lose track of how much make-up I’ve applied. It feels so heavy on my skin. I wonder if it will fall off, a solid mask, white and horrified. I try to visualize the face underneath, its smooth blank texture.
“It was a phase,” I add, hopefully. People usually stop asking questions when I say that. Men I’m dating relax, their confusing jealousy melting into intrigue. A sexy phase , they catalogue.
“How did things change?”
Denise is unusual.
A stage manager walks through, emphatically holding up a hand at us. It’s a gesture that translates into “five minutes to curtain”, but I want someone, anyone, to press their hand to his for once. Someone please, I beg, slap this man a five. He’s been left hanging for years.
“Mmn After,” I say.
At 14, my dad finally made his way off the stage. Emily stomped straight on, chasing a spotlight that darted as far away from her as it could go. I’m not sure what triggered Emily imprinting on me like a duckling, but there she was, staring at me in French and following me to a Health class she wasn’t even on the roster for.
After a painful bout of small talk, I found my friend Sam, a stalk of celery that had floated into my life almost by accident, and yanked her by the arm so that she was my height. “What is her problem!” I asked.
“Oh, Em? She likes you. She thinks your ring is cool.” The ring was a snake with little pink jewel eyes, whose tail circled around into a bracelet. It was also five dollars at Claire’s . “Does she want it?”
Sam let out a mean chuckle. “Sister,” she grinned, “she wants you.”
Emily was hard to avoid. She hung out with the same nerds that gravitated toward my silence, my taste for comic books, movies, stand-up comedy and Harry Potter. Her last name came directly after mine in three classes, making me her seat-mate. Emily, her huge eyes, and her incredible ability to say every single thing she was thinking, followed me for months. Her favorite colour: magenta. Favorite food: potato mayo (a potato salad consisting of just potatoes and mayonnaise). Ultimate dream: to marry a pastor. When I asked her why she wouldn’t want to be a pastor herself, she looked at me as if I’d suggested becoming a mermaid or a park bench or a blonde. She was trying to get me to join the Drama Club with her the day I nearly snapped.
That day, I was early to Religion, where two of the nerds who’d absorbed me into their group sat talking comedy.
“Hey Sophie, you like George Carlin, right?”
My jaw cracked into what I hoped was a smile.
“Yeah. Did you know he was the train conductor on Thomas the Ta—”
Emily, in her eagerness to be in the classroom and part of The Thing, slammed directly into me from behind.
“Whoa, okay, are you guys talking about comedy? Because you won’t believe this.” Emily’s skinny arms raked the air as she floated to the centre of the room. I walked to my seat and put my books and bag down. She jiggled her own books in the hopes that I would come back for them. Her audience looked at me expectantly, and because I too was curious, I took them from her, placed them down next to my things, and took a seat.
“My little brother Dexter told me the best joke the other day, okay? Here it goes.” She was centrestage, the whole room’s eyes on her yet looked squarely at me.
“Okay. Knock knock.”
“Who’s there?” we participated, familiar with the setup.
“Banana,” she replied, smile wide as an open door.
She snickered. Stragglers started drifting into the room.
“Banana. Knock knock,” she circled back. It couldn’t be.
But it was.
“Banana.” Her curls bounced with suppressed laughter. The elastic holding my pony tail up felt suddenly tight--this was the joke that was going to bury George Carlin.
I wanted to stop her. Save her. Save myself. The tightness vibrated.
Banana, banana, banana.
My shoulders sank and I stared down at my textbook, seeking help from Jesus. I could feel people glaring at me. Stop your fucking friend , they screeched telepathically.
The banana joke looped again and again, until finally:
“ Orange you glad I didn’t say ‘banana?'
She roared with laughter. The sun shone on her bronze skin. Her braces, set in charming purple flecked with glitter, glinted against the light. The sound of a small animal wheezing emerged from the back of the room. People turned.
It was me.
My body was doing something horrifying all on its own. I was laughing. Emily beamed. Somewhere, George Carlin, still alive, buried his face in his hands. He’d been sunk. It was over. She sat down.
I joined the Drama Club.
Our last goodbye is a memory that catches me on my downtime. In bathrooms, in laundromats, on trains stalled for sick passengers. Leave anyone alone with their brain and they are at the mercy of synapses fired years ago. Of old sounds, old smells, the way skin once brushed against skin. Directors like me, my eagerness to imitate life, but they really love me for death scenes, for big goodbyes because I’m obsessed with them and you can’t teach obsession.
Emily broke up with me our sophomore year of college, where most first relationships die. We were already exhausted. My father, a strange woman’s voice told me, had passed away, the cancer that’s always been in him finally bursting free into the light of the world as he slipped into darkness.
Emily’s mother, bless her God-fearing heart, could no longer turn a blind eye to the searing intensity of her daughter’s sisterly love for me. What was cute when we were in youth group was now suspicious, a suspicion that doubled when she eavesdropped on the sad, angry phone calls Emily and I made to one another in the shadow of death. Had I been smarter, I would have heard danger breathing on the line.
I was not smarter.
“I’m just going to take a break,” I breathed into the phone line. “I have to make sure everything’s settled, that his kids are okay or whatever.”
“Fu--screw his other kids, like they’d do the same for you!” Her voice reached a dangerous zone between angry and sad. She brought it down to a whisper. “Fuck his dumb girlfriend and fuck their ugly kids.”
“You don’t mean that.” I flinched. In all of the years I’d known her she’d never let me say any baby, no matter how inarguably hideous, was ugly. And there she stood, firing shots directly into six semi-orphaned brats.
“Em, Three months. Then I’ll be back.”
I was alone with the dial tone.
Four months later, it was official. In the beautiful brightness of a winter day, she took in all of me, or what was left. Her eyes skimmed my surface. I let her. I was thinner than usual, which would have been enough to start a fight on a different day.
“You look so tired,” I said, trying to cushion the fall. She looked exhausted, eyes misting already as I breathed out the words. When I moved to save a curl of hers from being carried off by the wind, she took a step back. My hand hung mid-air, graceful at the worst time. I looked like I’d released a bird.
“I’m seeing someone,” she blurted out, ripping the band-aid off.
“Oh.” Something in me tightened.
“We,” she gestured toward me. Stopped. Swallowed. I stared at her for a long time. As long as I could before she became a blur.
I looked away from her, concentrating on concrete speckled white with snow.
“Maybe we mistook what this was, you know?”
My one big kindness, filling in the lie.
I cleared my throat. Delivered my lines: “We were just...such close friends for so long.”
“Yeah,” I hear, a thin rasp on the wind.
Tonight, I replay the scene again. My character waves a tearful goodbye to her husband before the second act, off to fight in a war. By the third act, he’s killed in action. At the finale, she has committed a respectable widow’s suicide.
It’s not a great play.
I piece together what Emily looks like from memories. Some days she looks happier, some days taller. Some days too young. She is 14 sometimes, and I, at 14, take her hand and look only at her. Some nights, I rewrite an ending for us.
When the curtains rise for final bows, I am smiling something full and long. Denise, who has taken a hand at my side, seems surprised. We glance at the actors flanking us and a bow ripples along the line like a wave. Tonight I have smiled like a person. I have reached out and held hands, the shared energy pulsing through my veins. I look down at the crowd. It isn’t a packed room, but for the first time in a long time, I feel engulfed in something. The applause is a downpour, soaking me through.
I turn to exit, left, and the stage lights must blind me, because I swear for a second I see, through the rain, bronze hands clapping a fraction faster than the rest.
Backstage, we pick through a fruit and cookie basket left unattended, and I clean up.
“Well,” Denise says, startling me. She’s leaning against the wall as casually as anyone with an armful of shortbread cookies can. Every scalloped edge gleamed with victory. She ate one in two bites, wiping her fingers off on one of the curtains.
“How’d it change?”
I open my mouth. There are three starts and stops before I find the right words. I pick them up, sharp and white, like shards of something I can’t quite remember.
“We just didn’t really see each other like we used to,” I lay them out, palms upward. I don’t know who this final small kindness is for.
I decide, maybe, it’s for me.