“Is she going to get naked?” the old man up front asks, adjusting himself on his blue metal stool. Charcoal falls from his fingertips, lightly crushed, to the lap of his pants. A few students laugh, readying themselves at their easels. I stand at the front of classroom on the tiled floor around the stage.
“She doesn’t look old enough,” a woman near the back says, looking up at me sharply. I’m not sure if she speaks out of concern for me or for herself: is my body some sort of affront to hers or is she just trying to protect me? Motion has left my muscles. I can’t decide on an answer: should I be afraid or proud?
Either way, I was old enough. Newly twenty-one and home for the summer from college, I’d been offered the figure modeling gig through my mother’s friend who was an art teacher and heard I’d taken up acting. Months earlier, I’d been home for winter break, and I’d felt bored and uninspired, like I was regressing back to my teenage self. Unwilling to sit around and become more frustrated with my current state — recounting a recent breakup to as many childhood friends as I could find, falling into a steady routine of tv-watching, sleeping away the afternoons — I used my savings to take an acting class with a theater company in Manhattan. At least once a week, I would be forced to step outside of what was become my new normalcy: despair, apathy.
On Saturday mornings, I took the forty minute train ride into the city to spend my day in a small black box theater with retired bankers, bartenders, men who claimed they modeled but were vague on the details so I assumed they meant porn. Our instructor worked mostly with improv techniques which I took to quickly. The improv process was like writing — invention, follow-through, terrible ways it could quickly unfurl. Still, whatever I did, whatever I said, my partner would have to react. I would be seen, responded to. I would try to see them too. Together, we would make a story.
My scene partner for our final performance was a bearded middle-aged man named Will who worked as a real estate agent in midtown. We exchanged numbers and emails as he asked me to pick the scene. I already knew that I wanted to perform Chekhov, to be homely, hopeful Sonya surrounded by the fury of tedious depression and uneventfulness in Uncle Vanya. My own winter lull likely drew me to the role, but probably too I saw in Sonya a girl who let herself be rejected time and again for a big romantic love, a girl whose naivety was both hardened and pure. The small moments of life, the little bits of themselves that people gave, meant something grand to her. I wanted to learn how to be floored by life in such a way, though I wasn’t sure if I could.
I sent Will the script, and he replied hours later in an oversized typeface leftover from an era of strange AOL presets, saying that he loved Chekhov. There was no punctuation. He signed his name in lowercase: will.
I step onto the stage, sliding off my flip flops and drop them to the floor. There is a chair where I can sit, but I want to stand for the first pose. I look to the instructor, a fully animated woman who borders on insincere, and ask her what she wants me to do first.
Examining my brown paisley tank top and black leggings, I loosen my shoulders and stretch my arms overhead. I can’t remember how to place any part of my body. Every way feels awkward and strange. My joints are hypermobile. My limbs often land in strange angles that look broken and wrong. I want to move in ways that will avoid this. But how? What is the move?
“Three minutes a pose for the first 10 minutes, then two long fifteen minute poses at the end. I’ll call time.”
Unsure, I am frozen. I watch as the students grow impatient. They hold their charcoal above a blank page.
I stretch my legs into a standing split, loop my hands together, and bend forward into what really isn’t a legible pose at all.
A few days before the final performance for the acting class, I got another message from Will. He’d booked us a room to rehearse at the theater. He could pick me up at Grand Central if I came in early.
The night before we performed our scene, I studied my lines in the living room of my childhood home, the six dollar translation of the play I’d ordered online folded in my hands. I stumbled through the scene I’d picked, the one where Sonya confesses her love for Astrov to herself before he enters the room. I only had two big speeches to memorize, but the rhythm of the words kept getting lost. I substituted, I rearranged. My questioning inflection at the end of each line was hard to undo. A feminine trait that didn’t translate to femininity on stage, only uncertainty, unwillingness to commit.
“You love no one?” Sonya asks Astrov when he finds her.
As I read the question to my empty living room, I whispered Astrov’s reply, “Not a soul.” The surface of my chest pounded a rhythm only I could hear: I hurt, I hurt, I hurt. I hated that I had nobody to love. I hated that it hurt me to be alone. I hated that this was a part of myself that I could not change.
Not a soul. I twisted and rolled the words around in my mouth. This line was not meant for me to speak. It was Astrov’s. Watching my body move across the glass — move as Sonya on the wide window overlooking our porch, look like Sonya would out at the glimmering lights of the Tappan Zee Bridge, I started to become entranced, wondered if the lights meant something.
Quickly, my wonderment faded: I was still me. I was walking like me, not her. I wanted to give up the challenge of the performance. Cancel. I picked up the acting handbook the instructor had given us, and looked for something to keep going. “Cross in order to do something,” the author writes. Don’t just cross the stage in anger to show your frustration. Cross with intention, cross to do something. Anything. Put on your shoes. Take a beer out of the fridge. Animate your action. Give your emotions life. Anticipate what comes next.
Sonya held little inside of her. Her naivety, her unabashed attraction to what might be seen as grotesque and repulsive, her draw to boundless depression and sadness and self-indulgence as the source of life rather than the brunt of it. Her bravery was in making herself vulnerable to an emotion’s take over — each and every part of it.
“Time,” the instructor yells, jolting me. I stumble again for a pose, hoping that some of my movement seems elegant, like the model I am supposed to be.
“She’s very beautiful,” the man says to someone, but I’m not sure who. I keep my face tight and frozen. I hope he can sense my annoyance.
I called Will as I got off the train and walked through the main corridor of Grand Central Station, then out to the city streets. He instructed me to look for a grey car, and as I turned the corner, I saw him stretching halfway out of the driver’s seat of a Jaguar. He had on a three piece suit with a matching tie.
“I’m in costume,” he called to me. I looked at the long green skirt I carried and hoped it would be enough. As I got in his car, his cologne overtook me. I coughed. The carpet looked freshly vacuumed. My heart sank.
“Thanks for the ride,” I said, staring at the line of traffic we would soon be apart of. The theater was only a few blocks down and I probably could have gotten there faster if I’d just walked.
“Are you ready for our big day? I booked us a room for two hours.” He smiled and he pulled away from the curb. “Don’t worry, I’ll pay.”
We got to the theater and took the stairs up to the rehearsal space. I followed him inside, and we pulled props out from behind a black curtain at the back of the room. He stepped close to me as often as he could, shadowing my body as I set up his drink and my plate of cheese. I refused to look up at him, arranging the bread I’d brought from home on a plate.
“Shall we?” He closed the door, and I gulped. Stage time in plays doesn’t correspond to minutes in life. There are unspoken moments, lulls in between.
“Let’s start from the line I have before you enter.” He paused, then walked off stage. I studied my script before placing it down on the floor. My gaze fell on the scene before ours.
“When real life is wanting, one must create an illusion. It is better than nothing,” Sonya’s uncle tells her.
“Ready,” I said. I slipped into my illusion, pretending I wasn’t afraid, that I didn’t know exactly what he was doing, what he hoped might happen. I felt more distant from my normal body than I had through all the weeks of rehearsing. Quickly, we took on our new roles. No longer was I a hopeless, lonely girl, but one deeply afraid of what a man could do.
When we finished rehearsing, Will offered to take me to lunch. I went silent, embodying the likeness of someone who could move forward. He could take me to lunch. Maybe I’d misinterpreted what had happened before, had judged him too quickly, read the signs wrong. But I told him that I wasn’t hungry. He went off by himself, returning late to class and taking the seat next to mine. After each performance, he nudged me. On the final nudge, he let his hand dangle by my thigh.
“Our scene is better than that,” he said, smelling of whiskey. The light clapping of our classmates’ hands barely drowned him out. He didn’t seem to care if others heard.
“Broad strokes, broad strokes,” the instructor says, whirling around the classroom. The students move in unison, like a room full of conductors.
Time. I move into another pose. I arch my back and stretch one arm overhead. My feet slip on the slick surface of the stage.
I don’t remember much about how our scene went, just after. Will came up to me in the hall during break and whispered, “You know how in our acting book we are told to pretend like we are getting caught in the act of something? Like, that you should create a fantasy to inform your performance.”
“Yeah,” I said, nodding. The whiskey smell was stronger, made me nauseous.
“Well, I thought of what my girlfriend would think if she found out we were having an affair.”
I nodded, fully and completely aware of my body, my every curve, my every bulge of fat. I felt like his eyes were on all of me at once. I looked off to the other students and moved quickly towards them, away from the heat his words had left in my ear.
My fantasy would have been becoming enraged, that by taking an acting course I could become someone else, someone who would say something back, do something more than nod and walk away. I wished that I would have pushed at the walls that tethered us, he with the audacity and me with the passivity, and the constraints of the moment we were in would collapse back on us. I wished that I would have unraveled every strand of me that accepted the way he took what I saw as a chance for me to grow and reminded me how stuck I was, how little and small I would always be to those who wanted me to be that way.
I was quick to get a train home. New York winters are cold and I shivered the whole ride back. When I arrived, I waved to my mother who was sitting on the couch, eager to hear how my performance had gone. I told her I felt sick and needed to shower. She tried to talk more, but I kept moving past her.
That winter, I often took showers at night to keep my body warm. The heat in our house seemed to never be enough, especially that night. I turned the water on and dropped my clothes to the ground. I faced the wall and let out a long, muffled cry as I moved under the stream of water. This is who I am. I cried louder. It was a line I’d written for myself and had been reciting on the train.
The water felt good on my face. New pimples were pushing their way through my skin and I imagined the heat would burn them off before they could truly begin. Who will I be? I asked as the warmth of the water took over me. The possibility of a new way of being in the world, one where an unwanted advance wouldn’t crush me, one where I knew how to handle such a thing, soothed me for a moment, but then I started to cry again. Again, I had no answer. No way to be.
“Now for a long pose,” she instructs me. I take to the chair, my legs quivering with nerves. I turn so my profile faces the class, and put my hair up into a bun.
When I studied art in high school, I would get together with a few of my classmates and go to the live drawings up the street at Edward Hopper’s childhood home, the Hopper House. We would sit in a circle around a nude woman, and she would move elegantly in her skin, folds of fat and breast and muscle mixing together into a beautiful form. There was nothing eager or needy in the way she moved. There were no boundaries between her and us. She exposed her most private spaces, and we followed along, preserving her gestures on the page.
When pressed, Hopper had said that “the only real influence I’ve ever had was myself.” What good are models, what good are books, what good are people, if the limitations of our interactions with them are shaped always and only by oneself? Beauty, love, understanding could be right in front of you, but you can only accept as much as you can see. You can only accept what is available for you to see. You can only look past so much. What bounds our bodies is what binds our meanings. Every act, a performance.
“Final pose,” she calls. I breathe in, stand, pull at air gracefully, reach for the sky.
Image provided by Juliana Roth.