Opening night, at last. The theater is bustling from the box office to the bar, teeming with subscribers in their in their Wednesday’s best. I dress more quickly than usual and bolt into the lobby, sinking into a desperately demure stance the first time my eyes meet a real patron. It’s an involuntary reaction, a sort of shy restlessness on my part. I am simultaneously brimming with desire to pull off the gag and almost totally convinced that everyone is already in on the joke. It’s hard not to feel that I am giving off some obvious signal, spoiling the joke before I’ve told it. Am I glowing, or blinking, or grinning too broadly? What?
I loiter for as long as possible tonight before tiptoeing down to B9, having been told a few nights before by a Rep staffer that I “was an obvious plant” because I was one of the first people seated, and sitting alone to boot. It’s an unnecessary precaution today, though. People have taken their seats early.
The lobby lights blink nervously. Five minutes until show, they warn, which typically means fifteen. When I get to my row, B9 is the only unoccupied seat down the line, like an empty socket in a row of perfect teeth. It’s the photo negative of my earliest nights in this theater, when I was alone in that row, checking my watch ten or fifteen times, proofreading the program for the third or fourth. I step on a few toes pushing my way down the line, finally past two large women ornately outfitted in copious folds of a gleaming bronze fabric. One is wearing a large hat, some kind of cornucopia of fake flowers and twists of an earthy fabric. The other has twisted her hair into tight braids. They are smiling and gushing boisterously about their fondness for grand theaters.
I sit down, settle in, and fold my coat into neat thirds. I pull a deep breath. The room is alive with energy, anticipation, and camaraderie.
But what’s this? Have I forgotten something? I think so…
I pat myself down. Pants pockets? Not there. Coat? Nothing. I slide forward to peer at the floor. The light is low; it’s difficult to see. One of the women takes an immediate interest.
“What’s the matter, honey?”
“My wallet,” I whisper. “I can’t find it.”
“Oh my goodness, you do not want to lose that.”
“It might have fallen out in the cab,” I say.
“Your whole life could be in there….”
“Yeah. Just about.”
The second woman leans in, hovering.
“Call the cab company,” she says. “That’s what you gotta do.”
“Mm mm, that’s the smart thing,” the first lady repeats.
Just then, the lights fade. Timed perfectly. The first woman pats my knee. “It’s gonna be okay.”
Capping my performance with a drawn out sigh, I slide back into my seat, and remain miserable with fidgets and quiet curses for the next few minutes. But some of my grief is real, just the smallest drop. In light of the genuine concern these women have shown me, I can’t help but feel callously fraudulent. I want to stay this time, to enjoy my time in the theater with this marvelous audience, to bask in the glee and horror of others experiencing the show. What would happen if I just … didn’t move?
Again, I pat myself down. Thom Pain digresses into a diverting story. There’s my cue. I clear my throat.
My new friends are instantly accommodating, as kind as I could have hoped. They angle their knees and pull themselves back into their seats and usher me out with whispered words of encouragement: “Good luck!” and “It’s gonna be okay!” I hear acrid murmurs float in from elsewhere, disapproving, aghast. I can only nod my thanks before I am well past the women, into the aisle, and out the door.
“Au revoir, cunt!”
An instant after the door to the booth has clicked behind me, I exhale the breath I’ve been holding for almost a minute. “Not bad, eh!” I whisper.
But no one is impressed. Nobody else is breathing so freely as me. Jerry—standing at the back of the booth in a pocket of shadow—is horrified:
“What the hell did you just do?”
My first instinct is to play dumb, to act as if my embellishments had always operated on a separate, non-overlapping plane of discourse. But a bold voice from the audience, broadcast over the house monitors into the booth, erases this misconception with a boom.
“He lost his wallet!”
I push forward to get a good view of the theater through the one-way glass. Todd is standing at the foot of the stage, staring into the audience, his pose too casual and too conversational to belong to Thom Pain. What’s happened? He should be halfway through a rant about me right now.
“What’s that?” Todd asks, squinting into the crowd.
“He lost his wallet. That’s all.”
It’s her, coming to my defense. Todd is befuddled:
“There’s no reason to get nasty.”
“Thanks for your…”
“He went to go find it.”
Then a pause. Todd and the woman stare at one another, neither having anything to add to the confusion. The audience doesn’t stir. It just sort of hangs there. And that’s the end of it. Todd steps back, an officious move to return him to his proper mark, lambasting me as written, picking up the monologue right where he left off—a rant that finishes with Thom suggesting that the audience might have more fun if they follow me out.
Everyone in the booth exhales and begins to breathe again, a collective expulsion that fills the room with the sound of rattling lungs. The play is back on track and the audience is rapt. Tonight Todd will be electrifying. Jerry bolts for the door, fishing through his jacket pockets for his cigarettes. I sit heavily in an empty chair beside the stage manager’s desk, too shocked to get up and leave. Amy looks up from her large script full of lighting cues. I hang my head and rub an aching temple, ready to receive another round of Strange Man references. Instead, she’s circumspect: “Could have been worse,” she says, shrugging, and turns her attention back to the play, licking her thumb and dragging another page of the script to a close.
Return to Part VI