The idea of dating an actor has always made me feel wary, uneasy: the same feeling you’d get if someone got onto an elevator and, instead of looking at the door, chose to face toward the back. Whenever I see Actor on a guy’s Tinder profile, I swipe left reflexively. I’ve got to wonder how anyone so good at faking emotion, at crying or laughing on cue, at fooling the audience perfectly, can be trusted in a relationship. Any excitement or joy could easily be false, pulled out of the virtual suitcase of practiced emotions they carry around with them everywhere. If they hurt me and then apologize, there will be no way of knowing whether their words are genuine. And even if they do seem happy with me, I’ll always find myself wondering if that happiness is real or a manufactured illusion, a mask that slithers off the second I’m out of the room.
On Wednesday night my friend Allegra manages to get me out of my apartment and to a dive bar a few blocks away. It’s the first time I’ve been out in weeks, other than to go to work and the grocery store. My scalp smarts from the intense brushing I’ve given my hair, and the flesh on my arms goosebumps in the light breeze.
Jax and Ella are there too, as well as a guy I haven’t seen before. With something like pride, Allegra introduces him as Darren, and if it weren’t for the fact that Allegra is currently engaged to a guy whose picture is wallpapered on her phone, I’d wonder if they were dating. But Darren is nondescript, dark hair and eyes and average height; he looks like any background character I’ve passed on the street a thousand times. Only after I shake his hand does he tell me he’s studying acting, at some school I immediately forget the name of.
“He can do anyone,” Allegra brags. “I’m serious. It’s spooky. Name anyone—any famous person, right—and he can look and speak just like them.”
“Even a woman?” Jax asks.
“Especially a woman.” Allegra smirks.
“Not especially,” Darren says, and there’s a forced laxity to his voice, like he’s trying not to say something ruder. I clock this with quiet pride. Not so good of an actor after all, are you, I think. There are little bowls full of hard candies at the bar, and I take a handful, digging to get the ones at the bottom that haven’t been touched or breathed on yet. A second after I put them in my mouth I realize that everyone else has surely been trying to get the ones at the bottom, too, mixing and reshuffling the candies every few minutes. I suck on my gross breathed-on candies with dismay. They taste like artificial bursts of color: corn syrup and citric acid and Yellow 5, performing fruit.
Allegra brags Darren up a bit more, and I can’t shake the feeling that it’s for my benefit. Her eyes keep latching onto mine, her grin growing slippery. Finally he says, “All right, I’ll be a trick pony for a while. You say a name and if I recognize it, if I know the person or the character, I’ll do it.”
Immediately, Jax commands: “Marilyn Monroe.”
And like a trick of the light, Darren becomes Marilyn. He takes on her bedroom eyes, the sensuous droop of her mouth, and her throaty voice, only a few notes below where it would have been in life.
“I don’t want you to think I’m a drinker.” He tips back his glass, swallows—delicately, like a woman, like Marilyn would have. “I can stop if I want to. Only I don’t want to.”
He pauses to think, and then: “Imperfection is beauty, madness is genius, and it’s better to be absolutely ridiculous than absolutely boring.” He delivers the line without sounding comical or mocking, the way men so often do when imitating women, especially the breathy, ultra-feminine movie stars of the 1950s. No, he really sounds like Marilyn. And for a few moments looks like her, too.
Jax’s jaw has unhinged. Ella’s eyebrows have shot up. Only Allegra looks unsurprised. “Told you,” she sing-songs, mouth smug.
Jax recovers enough to suggest that he do Lucille Ball next. Darren acquiesces and becomes Lucy as easily as he did Marilyn.
Ella crosses her arms, frowns, and finally names Elvis and Michael Jackson —ridiculously easy choices, given the number of impersonators out there. Darren becomes them without hesitation, as if slipping into a carapace that fits him exactly, before discarding it in favor of the next, even more perfect fit.
I suggest Donald Trump and Greta Thunberg, if for no other reason than to watch the dichotomy play out in front of me. He becomes Greta first: her young-sounding voice, accent at once clipped and rounded, her stern eyes—before sliding into Trump: feverishly pursing mouth, sagging arrogance like something melting off his face.
When he goes to the restroom, Ella says, “How did he get his face to do that…” She widens her mouth and juts her jaw forward, but it doesn’t come close to Darren’s imitation of Trump. “That expression? It’s like his skin is made of clay or something.”
None of us have an answer. The others look wowed, but I’m beginning to wish I’d given him a more difficult prompt than Thunberg and Trump. Everyone knows how they look and speak by now; in the end, I wasn’t any more on the ball than Ella was. A real challenge would have been someone less well-known. Someone whose traits can’t be condensed down to a few infamous soundbites.
Eventually Ella has to go home to walk her dog or feed her fish or something, and then Jax leaves too, citing an early morning. Half an hour later, Allegra exits too, shooting me a glance I pretend not to understand, and then it’s just me and Darren at the bar.
Allegra’s gone, but the look she sent me lingers: it snakes between my ribs, turns my tongue ponderous in my mouth. I wish, not for the first time, that I hadn’t told her quite so much about what happened with Eric. Immediately after a breakup, with the hole in my chest gaping red and ugly, it’s always been so easy for me to throw myself on the mercy of whoever is closest, to tell them everything—and when the hole has closed up again, or at least closed most of the way, I’m left wondering what the hell I was doing exposing myself like that. Now I’ve become a pity friend, just one more item Allegra can check off her to-do list so she can feel like a good person.
“You’re the first actor I’ve spoken to in a long time,” I tell Darren. My smile feels heavy on my face, like it’s sinking. I squeeze my cheeks, trying to breathe some life into the expression, and instantly get the mental image of someone trying to prop up a drooping tent on two skinny twigs.
“Really? In the middle of New York City? This city is swarming with actors.”
“Yes, that’s exactly the problem.”
I regret the words soon as they’re out of my mouth. But Darren doesn’t seem offended. In fact, a smile has taken shape on his face, appearing so subtly that I didn’t notice it forming until it was already there.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean it like that. I just—I don’t date actors. And in my line of work, I don’t run across you guys very often.”
He doesn’t ask what my line of work is, saying instead, “Why don’t you date actors? Did one of us break your heart?”
Eric wasn’t an actor, though he probably could have been.
“I don’t like dating people who can change up their emotions and expressions so quickly and easily. Something about trust.”
I expect him to good-naturedly push back on this, maybe give an uneasy laugh, but he doesn’t. Instead he looks at me with a face wiped of all emotion and expression and says, “You’re right about that.”
I take half a step backward. Darren doesn’t say anything else, just watches me, eyes like cool eclipses. Apprehension builds in my stomach, a bubble rising under pressure. I taste the lemon candy from earlier that night—fake sunburst, sharp rind of citrus—and I realize I’ve taken another step, but this one forward, leaning into Darren’s space, close enough to smell him, except he seems to have no smell. And right on cue, like a perfectly trained actor, he kisses me.
Back in my apartment, the lights are out and I don’t bother turning them on. The dimness paints everything hazy, dreamlike, a charcoal drawing of the outlines of our faces. Darren sits down on the bed next to me, which sinks slightly under his weight. I can feel my heartbeat juddering in my stomach, my throat, the soles of my feet. I put a hand on his jacket, which feels warm, like it’s soaked up the heat from his body.
I realized a long time ago that I can have intimacy without sex, or sex without intimacy, but there’s no way I can have both. This is something I’ve discovered both with Eric and without him, through the dizzying shuffle of dating apps, the rotation of men, bedrooms, condoms full and sagging and sad, I should be getting home now, everything interchangeable. There were guys who looked into my eyes over dinner and told me about their dreams and childhoods but didn’t want to have sex. More often: guys who deigned to fuck me but whose last names I didn’t know, couldn’t know. And the filthier the sex, the less the expectation of intimacy. Men cringing away from me when I reached for them afterward, my stinging ass cheeks feeling like they were glowing red in the darkness. Sorry, I’m not a great cuddler. Men avoiding my eyes when I tried to make pillow talk, the ghosts of their hands still lacing my throat. Uh, yeah, I’m actually flying back home tomorrow.
I lean towards Darren, but he pulls away. His smile has returned, and I can just barely make it out in the darkness: the elusive, fugitive curl of it. “I can give you something better,” he says.
“Better than what?” I ask.
“Than just sex.”
What could be better? I think, and then: What couldn’t be better? For a moment I wonder if he’s read my mind somehow, if he sensed the disjunction between intimacy and sex and decided to give me the former rather than the latter.
He flicks on the lamp by my bed. He looks even more nondescript than he did at the bar, less a background character than simply an outline unfinished, unfilled in. I start to feel apprehensive again, but at the same time I feel an even stronger pull towards him. Now he’s gazing at me gently, with an expression partially doubt, partially anticipation, partially soft longing.
And with a shiver that goes straight to the core of me, like clammy hands reaching through my stomach to brush my spinal cord, I realize it’s the same expression I’m wearing right now. It’s me, he’s performing me, a living mirror. He’s got it all, layers and layers of emotion: the skepticism, the shyness, even the quiet sense of flattery that I feel at being performed like this.
His expression changes. Now he is doing me looking happy, unbelievably happy, but terrified too. It takes me a second to recognize the expression I wore when Eric proposed to me: adrenaline-laced joy cut with the thought, like a cold river running through my brain, that this wouldn’t last, couldn’t, because something bad would surge up to break everything. I can’t remember ever looking in a mirror and noticing this expression, but I recognize it immediately from the outside, can feel how it was to inhabit it, back then, all those years ago.
Now I’m mourning, I’m at my grandmother’s funeral 17 years ago, my face wet with tears yet also scrunched, telling of my childish unknowing of death. The shameful half-enjoyment of the drama before it would become just another ordinary event, another aging relative checked off the gradually shortening list.
Over and over again it’s me before me, painted in shapes hyperreal and hallucinogenic, stuttering in glossy neon colors across Darren’s face like the hard candy slowly disintegrating in my stomach. I can pinpoint every expression, locate it perfectly on the scuffed film roll of my life.
But soon the faces change, melt, turn ugly. And I realize Darren is performing me as I hate to remember myself.
Me: begging my college boyfriend, Please, please don’t leave. Darren’s got the desperation stretching out my voice, thinner and thinner like a strand of rubber about to snap; eyes wide with the frantic need to believe, to delude myself that this wasn’t an ending. Please don’t leave me alone.
Then his face empties. And although I try, I can detect no trace of any deep-down emotions belonging to The Real Darren, the way I noticed his false modesty at the bar—no pride, no wondering if he’s gone too far. Instead I see only friendly inquiry, an aspect open but essentially containing nothing, like an AI chatbot wanting to know if you’re pleased with its service.
He asks me, “Should I do more?”
“Yes,” I say. My throat is tight; my voice feels like wax paper.
Instantly, there’s me sniggering at a colleague’s humiliation with a hand over my mouth, eyes glinting hard like chipped marbles throwing light.
There’s the glazed, empty look in my eyes as I binge, eating without pause, my hand dipping and rising mechanically to my mouth, the entrance of that tunnel to the center to me, refilling the hollow over and over again like I can push back the darkness.
There’s the desire stringing over my face as I masturbate to a picture of my older sister’s fiancé.
The realization hits—slow relief, like sinking into a tub of warm water—that I have never been the me I wanted to be. I was never the curated photoset on Instagram, I was never the montage of feel-good memories I revisited every time I wanted to feel warm and fuzzy about myself. I was never the person I always thought of myself as: confused, yes, occasionally wavering, but more light than dark, essentially good at the core.
I’m not good at the core. I’m not anything, really, at the core. Not anything that can be described in such qualitative words. I’m a sweating, breathing female animal: heedless, impenitent, alive. As amoral as nature.
And for the first time I can remember, I don’t feel like a part of me is missing.
I tell Darren Don’t stop. I tell him Don’t you dare stop.
There’s my expression of mock concern as I ask the new girl in middle school what’s wrong, what happened to her, who spilled milk and mud all over her skin to make those cream-and-brown splotches.
There’s my exhilarated smile as I flip open the latch of the gerbil’s cage in my ninth-grade biology classroom on the last afternoon before winter break, knowing it will die, will starve to death somewhere in the emptied-out building.
I stare at Darren, entranced, hypnotized. His face is a mirror reflecting an infinity of myself, of my selves, back to me. And the worse I become in it, the more I need to watch.
“More,” I say. I swallow hard against the need. “More. More. More.”
The next morning, Allegra rings me. The sound is shrill in my empty apartment.
“So…how’d it go?” is the first thing she says. I hear her excitement, the delighted curl to her voice she gets when about to divulge or receive a particularly juicy piece of gossip. Her voice makes me feel like a hole opened up in my roof, like I could just drift up, drift away.
“It’s generally not considered super polite to call your friend the morning after she takes a guy home,” I begin. For the first time ever, I wish I had one of those old-fashioned phone cords, a length of plastic to knot around my fingers. My cell phone seems inadequate in its lightness, its lack of connection to anything.
“He could still be here,” I continue, “kissing me good morning, about to hop into the kitchen to make pancakes for us…”
“I know he’s not.”
Her certainty sets me back. “Ouch.”
“I didn’t mean it like that—I just meant…I know you guys didn’t have sex. You did something else, right?” I can hear her smiling.
“You know?” But even as I say it, I think: of course. Of course Allegra knows. She’s known this whole time. The glance at the bar: the brightness of her eyes, that knowing glitter. “Did he do…you—”
“Yeah! Oh yeah.” And now it’s clear that she’s been dying to tell me about it, has been dying to tell me about it since I met her last night, but she couldn’t, because it would have spoiled the surprise, and now the words pour out of her—
“Oh my god, it was like…it was like drugs. Girl. I literally could not believe what I was seeing when he did the—you know. When he became me, he became… someone that I wanted to look at. Someone beautiful.” She swallows, and I hear the heaviness of it, the clunk of her throat. “I felt like it was such a healing experience, you know? Like, I never really saw myself as beautiful. Okay, sometimes I did when I took a picture with the right lighting, or got a compliment, but I’d always write it off as a fluke, as a momentary departure from the way I really am. I never saw myself as inherently beautiful. Or worthy. Or admired. Or a truly good person.”
The cell phone feels even lighter. My arm does, too, and momentarily I imagine each piece of me detaching, floating away. I’m silent as Allegra describes Darren performing her generosity, her charm, her wit, her elegance. All of her superior qualities.“Did you get some kind of healing by the end of it?” she asks. “You did, right?”
“Yes,” I say. “I did.”
“I knew it would be so good for you after everything, you were literally the first person I thought of…”
She keeps talking and now it’s my turn to smile. Darren showed Allegra the best version of herself: beautiful, yes, yet flat, two-dimensional. Mine? Mine stretched to infinity.
From where I’m sitting, I can just see the edge of my bedroom mirror, hanging from ceiling to floor at the far end of the room. I haven’t seen myself in a mirror since last night, and right now I wonder what I would see if I stood up and looked. I wonder if, in the future, I’ll always be wishing to see Darren’s version of my face instead of my own.