She arrived late, without embarrassment. She had left Brooklyn with plenty of time, both in the hope of finding coffee and curbing anxiety. This was exactly the type of situation she was in the habit of getting herself into: a bit of danger, approached alone, quietly cloaked in the hope that whatever was about to happen might change her life.
He had arrived before she did, thank God. He was standing in the middle of the apartment, seeing her before she saw him as the director received her in the doorway. She looked up at him over the director’s shoulder and something in him went quiet. She crossed the room toward him, embracing him while telling him she was going to embrace him at the same time.
The director offered her coffee, which she exultingly received. She’d hardly slept the night before, and she could feel herself beginning to expand in the apartment the way she often did when she was nervous, being as much of herself as she could in the smallest amount of time possible. It was not something she necessarily did on purpose, but she was always aware when it happened.
They both drank their coffee black, and as he told her why he was also in town, she wondered what it would be like to kiss him knowing they would taste the same. In the middle of his sentence her contact lens began to twitch, which she tried to correct but couldn’t. The director didn’t have eye drops but did have individual lenses, so she opened one and plopped her own lens in, saying something about seasonal allergies from her place at the sink. He stayed by the windowsill sipping his coffee, watching her as she never blinked.
That settled, the director unceremoniously said it was time to begin. She changed into a dress, though she was immediately self-conscious about moving around because of how short it was. She tried to think of a friend she could pretend to be for whom such a thing wouldn't be a problem. The director instructed them both to lie on the ground, which was somewhat limited since the apartment was a studio, and to do that stretch that required both actors to put their arms out in a T-shape while folding their legs over to one side, creating space in the lower back. He was aware that he chose to turn his body toward her, and was relieved to have his head turning the other way.
They stood up. The director instructed them to perform the physical gestures they had prepared in their homes, and encouraged their gestures to be in conversation with one another. This was his favorite thing about acting—the possibility to communicate with his body, which felt so limited in his actual life. She liked the way this sort of exercise inherently manifested a challenge; she unequivocally trusted her own instinct to never back down. They began to circle one another, breathing in the air that the other exhaled.
This was the first honest-to-God chance she’d had to really look at him, and even if she had not been preternaturally gifted with eye contact, she would not have looked away. He was haggard in that way that intimates genius, with deeply set green eyes. Tall. She guessed he probably considered himself ugly by virtue of how thin his frame was and the clothes he chose to cover it, and because his nails were incredibly short, which she always assumed communicated a lack of love for oneself. She liked men to look exactly this way: beautiful like a wild animal. In her experience it meant they had been forced to learn how to listen.
She was struggling to remember her gestures, distracted by the other conversation they were having. She would not let it show. As the director called out different prompts, she would breathe in his exhale then calmly say, “I don’t remember.” He waited and held her gaze. He would begin to forget things soon, too.
The three of them left the apartment together in search of lunch. They kept accidentally forming a strange triad, a flight pattern that inhibited him from reading her. He fell behind, unsure of how best to insert himself into conversation. He felt overwhelmed at being back in New York, and was attempting to reorient himself after so many hours in the car. His father had driven him in from the hotel in South Orange that morning, which was emasculating if convenient. He had been here years before for his undergraduate showcase, buoyed along by people who understood the geography better. The director had been there then, too. But she had not.
He had forgotten his lines multiple times during the second half of rehearsal, which was embarrassing, and he felt that she knew why. He appreciated that she never looked away, even when the director was setting up the next shot, even when he felt his own limitations closing in around him. He had played Astrov once before in grad school, but his Yelena had been much more quixotic. They could never get past the moment just before he was supposed to grab her. Earlier in the apartment, he had pulled the director aside to ask if they could stop the scene at that same moment. He didn’t want to explain why. He wasn’t sure he could.
Here on the spring street, she fell back beside him and asked if he missed California. She mentioned she had been living there too before everything shut down, that she had been Yelena before the theater closed its doors. He liked the chance to see her this way, not so straightforward, less to take in at once. She was smaller than she’d appeared in the virtual rehearsals, and she kept whipping her hair over her head while she spoke. He wanted to touch the base of her neck, just between her collar bones, and imagined if he did he would feel the steady thrum of whatever it was that kept her in perpetual motion. He imagined himself powerful enough to hold all of that force in stillness, but the feeling left as quickly as it arrived.
He told her whenever he was in California all he wanted was to leave, but he had felt much the same in Louisville all of the past year. He was aware of his own tendency to overshare, to speak honestly without inventory, and asked why she had gone to California.
“I was following a myth,” she said.
He had followed myths before. He rather belatedly lost his virginity by following a girl to Belgium, whom he’d met during the period of his life where he would leave his ascetic apartment solely in the pursuit of having conversations with real women. He had met the Belgian girl in a night club, where she approached him and asked why his shoes were worn through the toe. Their connection had been immediate, overwhelming. He had found the girl’s accent exotic (which embarrassed him in retrospect) and would have followed any instruction given him while using it, thus the virginal quest to Belgium. When he’d arrived, the girl was in bed with another man. But he had come all that way, so the girl kicked her lover out and convinced him to come inside.
They arrived at the park, and the director informed them that the second location he had hoped to acquire was under construction. She asked if they were anywhere near the fountain, the one with the angel, and mentioned that that was where her own favorite play ended. The director conceded it was as good a place as any.
A natural silence fell as they trekked toward the other side of the park, now three across, and she asked if either of them had a favorite play. The director bemusedly replied, “This one.” He said he loved The Seagull, that it had saved his life, then named playwrights who had been similarly important. He hadn’t seen Angels in America, which surprised her, but assured her he would once he returned home. She wanted to watch it with him, or rather, wanted to watch him watching it. He said he loved It’s A Wonderful Life, which surprised her more, since he had said earlier that the goal of his own writing was to punish the reader.
At the mention of his writing, she asked what his one man show had been about, which is how she found out about Belgium. Normally she would have been irritated by a man talking so cavalierly so early in meeting her, but he wasn’t bragging. If anything, he was sharing something embarrassing, which she loved, and he didn’t seem embarrassed, which she loved even more.
He hadn’t wanted to perform the entire scene earlier, which made her feel ugly, which then made her feel ridiculous for allowing someone she’d just met to make her feel ugly. But there it was, the familiar tidal wave of her life: You are not wanted by what you want. She had worn the wrong dress, she had done the wrong thing. Her throat constricted briefly at the memory of the last man who had made her feel ugly, a guitarist who’d written her a song but mixed it so she couldn’t understand the lyrics.
She had known this guitarist for years, loved him the way she assumed could only happen once. In retrospect, that couldn’t be true, because that man had never touched her. Whenever they were in the same room, no matter where she was, if she looked up he was already looking back at her, but his hands never followed. He was her Orpheus—always looking back, never learning what it cost her. This had the peculiar effect of making her doubt she was real at all when she was with him; she was a thought that could be dismissed or summoned at will. And it made her feel ugly because it made her a secret, something left alone to sit in the dark where the song was for her but the singer never would be. Breathe in, breathe out. You are real. That man is gone. And this man is here. This man is afraid, but not of you.
She would not take it personally; she would remain professional. To her surprise, in spite of feeling rejected, she was overwhelmed by a compulsion to make him feel comfortable. The impulse was new, as in, she was not in the business of making men feel comfortable. It was surprising to her in a fleeting sort of way. She simply found him interesting.
It was so hot out he could hardly think. He wondered if his lightheadedness had anything to do with how much he was telling her about himself. He considered himself an open person, and felt somewhat bolstered by having the director there, who had known him forever and seen him in painfully vulnerable conditions. If anything he didn’t understand why she wanted to know about him, but for everything he said she had another question waiting. The more they talked, the less careful he had to be about her eyes. Whenever she walked in front of him, he watched the sunlight go up and down the length of her legs. The dress was short, thank God.
When they arrived at the fountain, he saw she was crying a little. He didn’t say anything about it, but he wanted to know why. He assumed it had to do with the play she had mentioned, which he felt foolish for not knowing. When he’d told her he was a recovering academic, she’d laughed. He didn’t mind. Perhaps she wasn’t crying, maybe she was sweating.
The director wanted to film them walking and talking, “like that movie with Ethan Hawke” (which he also hadn’t seen). “Stand close together—closer.” Her skin was warm but she was, in fact, not sweating. Neither was he, but of course, he rarely did. He could smell her hair, could very easily have placed his mouth where her pulse was beating in her throat. It was always the same; this was his way in. He would not forget what to say this time, her eyes now straight ahead. He knew they couldn’t use whatever footage they were capturing, it was too loud and the sun was too strong, so he spoke loudly, confidently, as though he had never done the scene before, as though it were his real life.
It was a moment she had always more or less longed for but could never have manufactured: performing Chekhov at her favorite place in the park, with a boy who was a much better actor than she was, the sun so bright she wasn’t quite sure where she was looking, unless, of course, she was looking at him. The footage surely looked terrible, she could tell by the way the director had sort of given up somewhere behind them, but she could have kept walking with him all the way to New Jersey. If they stepped in the fountain, she was convinced they would float.
It felt much easier to talk to her on the way back. He knew he had done well, which always translated back into confidence in his real life. The director fell behind as they walked this time, which he appreciated, and he attempted to make a joke about an obscene sign in the park. She laughed easily, but when she made a similar joke about a similar sign shortly after, it was somehow funnier. He scrambled to find something, anything, to ask her about, and landed in the safest and most boring possible category, her work. She grinned sort of enigmatically and said she was a gun for hire, before clarifying she was lately doing copy edit work for academic journals but was interviewing at one of the big publishing houses in town. She didn’t say which one, which he thought was sort of arbitrarily coy, and the more desperate he felt to keep her talking the less able he felt to compel her to, so instead he told her about the harm reduction center, about his own short film which suddenly sounded unwatchable. He grinned like an idiot answering her whatever she asked; he would have told her anything.
Back at the apartment, he began to feel agitated. He didn’t know how to get back to South Orange, he was dehydrated, he needed to talk to the director about the audition but wanted to keep her in the apartment. She sat in the chair instead of next to him on the couch, which he tried and failed not to read into. Perhaps all her questions had been polite, perfunctory, a habit learned in childhood that had never worn off. Perhaps she had just been acting.
As they began the shuffle of preparing to leave, the director gave him instructions for finding the train, ribbing him about his recent smartphone acquisition. She asked him if he was a luddite. “In recovery,” he replied sheepishly. “I’m sort of in the process of becoming un-afraid of my life.”
When he smiled, it felt like winning a prize.
She left the apartment first, sensing he wanted a word with the director. She wondered if the director was in love with him, if she had completely misinterpreted their dynamic and was the stupid girl who could only be aware of her own feelings in any given moment. This had happened before; she would intuit interest and assume it would compel action because, despite her best efforts, she was woefully incapable of casually romantic encounters—as in, she could not understand people who did not have a vice grip on the possibility of possibility. I’m sort of in the process of becoming un-afraid of my life. She allowed these thoughts to flow in and out of her mind like weather, like information she was passively receiving about someone she had known and loved in childhood. Then she dismissed them, and decided at the bottom of the stairs she was not ready to leave. She was not stupid. She was ready for her life to be changed.
When he came downstairs she was leaning with her leg up against the fence, sort of rocking back and forth, her back to him. She seemed like a top with no chance of ever falling over, like she absorbed everything around her without quite containing it. He veered far to the left of her as he passed so as not to startle her and once again could not think of a single thing to say. He sort of waved in her periphery, then simply said, “Bye.”
The thought of returning to the Holiday Inn in South Orange was almost crippling. He did not want to leave, he did not want her to leave, but he could not think of a single thing to say. She looked up from her phone when he spoke, and smiled equivocally. She did not speak right away. When she did, she said, “Well, I guess we’ll maybe see each other in Los Angeles, if I ever go back.”
They stayed looking at each other for a moment or two while he waited for the right thing to say. “Yeah, I guess so.” He couldn’t help but smile back at her, even though he felt somehow foolish looking at her for so long now that they were back on the street. He wanted to say many things, but every one of them sounded either crazy or stupid, i.e., “Where are you going,” “What if we,” “Please,” etc. He was still smiling vaguely as he turned and walked away from the apartment.
After exactly thirty seconds of thinking about it, she followed him. The compulsion felt more like something she was reading in a book that was acting itself out on her body in real life, like she had a bird’s eye view of herself walking up 75th Street. Her body was warm and buzzing, but she walked steadily. He was maybe one hundred feet ahead of her and she did not know what she would say when she caught up to him, if she would just indefinitely walk behind him until he arrived at a subway station or disappeared into a coffee shop. Fifty feet, thirty. She started walking faster because there was actually nothing to be afraid of. Fifteen feet, ten. Five. One.
“We must be taking the same train.”
“I’m not exactly in a hurry to spend the rest of the night in New Jersey with my parents.”
“Where would you like to go?”
“I thought I was heading back in the direction of the park.”
When they sat down they were nowhere near where they had been earlier. She sat to the right of an armrest in the middle of one of those long connected benches, which was perfect because it meant he could sit as close to her as he wanted without appearing eager by sitting to the left of it. At some point back at the apartment she had changed clothes again, traded bare legs for arms. He liked watching her shift around into a variety of poses as she spoke—legs crossed, hand at the base of her neck; arms folded, feet arched. She did not seem to do things she did not like doing.
He told her why he’d stayed back with the director earlier, how he wasn’t sure if he had a part in the next film. It was complicated; they were friends, but he was in need. “I think I’m having a crisis.”
She cocked her head to the side. “Of what variety.”
“Every time I’m presented with a part or an audition or an opportunity, whatever, my mind just goes a hundred steps ahead, to all the ways it’s going to be the thing that changes my life. Like, every time something new happens, or even a shadow of it, I immediately start wondering if it’s going to be the thing that changes my life. And so I throw myself completely at it and end up devastated when my life stays the same.”
She looked directly at him. She had extraordinarily large brown eyes. “I know exactly what you mean.”
She wondered if he had been in love with this girl in his acting cohort, if the girl had exiled him to the madness that can only be reached by intimate collaboration. She could have asked him, of course, but it only occurred to her half an hour later, as he was talking about how collaboration was inherently erotic, how prolifically actors in particular write checks they fear cashing.
There was something compulsory about his honesty that created in her an almost worshipful attentiveness. He lacked pretension or self-flagellation. While she knew he wanted to impress her, he seemed incapable of employing guile to do so. She wanted to laugh at herself, at the ridiculousness of how enthralled she felt. She did not have to guess what he was thinking. Secrets had long been the shorthand of her life, and hearing his own so artlessly proffered filled her with a kind of serious joy. A bird flew into her line of vision as he began telling her about his horrific audition for Titus Andronicus. She shifted forward, following its path, tucked her hands beneath her thighs. He paused. “May I offer you some unsolicited feedback?”
She turned her head sharply toward him. She reflexively assumed he was going to say something about her performance, which she actually would have welcomed, because his tone was so taciturn. In the breath before answering, she did her best to memorize his face. “About what?”
“Well, I...I like talking to you because you ask sort of wonderful questions, which I am clearly enjoying answering, but it makes it very difficult to know anything about you. And I’d like to know about you.”
She turned fully toward him. Close, closer. “All right, ask me anything.”
“Why did you become an actor?”
She knew that perhaps he would not understand why this mattered, but she told him as though he would. Her instincts were broken, but they had led her here. “So I can live as many times as possible.”
He grinned with abandon. She could have died with relief.