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Last week, I awoke in the middle of the night. I gasped for air as if I had been told that I hadn't used my quota, and if I didn't use it now I'd lose it forever. I felt a distinct hole somewhere in the pit of my being, a foreign feeling I couldn't pinpoint that had been decidedly absent the lifetime of days before. It was as if I had been split down the middle and left unaware of which side was the real me. As a person in my early twenties, I had been in that mystical period where I felt self-aware and almost immovable, roots firmly planted within myself. As an actor, this feeling was multiplied thousandfold. My classmates and I had been through too many exercises in finding the self, trusting every instinct, moving in the manner that felt right. It was no surprise, then, that when I awoke with the feeling that a piece of my emotional inventory was unaccounted for, I skipped my classes the next day and called in sick to work. This small, begging feeling would take over my being until I placed it, squashed it, and returned to myself.
I can admit that sometimes I am a tad dramatic, and though I'd love to place all the blame on my chosen path, that would not be true. A dramatic edge garners the attention that playing it straight simply does not. Though the feeling still nagged at me from within, after giving myself one day to sulk and spend an entire day in bed feeling shaken, I felt worse. I decided to peel myself off the mattress and carry on as normal. I had to consider it my latest acting challenge, or run the risk of being swallowed whole. There were other things that needed my attention, and I had put them off long enough. I had ignored an assignment that had the potential to change my life, when I really should have been throwing myself into that, instead. I'm currently attending my dream college, the acting program I reached and pushed for all through high school, far away from my hometown and my parents, finally to get that acceptance letter. Three years and some change later, I'm graduating in a few months, and I can feel the real world steadily approaching, breathing down my neck. In order to prepare us while simultaneously terrifying us, all acting seniors are sent to New York to perform in front of dozens of agents and directors. If we're impressive enough, the real world breathes a little quieter, and our potential isn't lost in casting rooms among hundreds who look and feel just like us. It's called showcase, and it's basically the capstone of our college careers, the stepping stone between student and real actor.
“Cat? You ready?”
My professor's voice shook me out of my thoughts. I flashed a brave smile, rose to my feet, and faced my scene partner, Josh. “Let's do it!”
I closed my eyes and began my process of aligning my thoughts with my character's. Sam was several years younger, and smack in the middle of both her teenage years and choosing a side in her parents' divorce. Sam felt scorned by the hand she had been dealt in life and responded in turn by being a defiant little bitch—protecting her mushy, vulnerable insides behind a hard shell of sarcasm. Her character was fun to slip into because I'd never acted out that way in my real life, even when I myself was a teenager (the time where you basically have the excuse to). I looked at Josh, playing my older brother Wyatt, hard in the face.
“You can't keep doing this, Sam. You can't. I know you're trying to take this shit out on Mom and Dad, and I get it, but—”
“Do you get it?” I charged towards him, getting a little too close, making him feel visibly uncomfortable. “Because it seems like you're never fucking here. It seems like I'm always here, all the time, listening to them fight, and you're off working, or fixing your car, or trying to impress some girl. So I don't think you get it.” I turned my back towards him, trying to control the anger I felt, trying to ration it out as needed for the rest of the scene.
“Sam, I...I'm sorry.” He came up behind me and put a hand on my shoulder. “It's hard, okay? I've never seen them like this. I hardly saw them apart my entire life. I don't know how to deal with them like this. I know—I'm going off to college soon and I don't have to put up with this as much as you. I'm sorry. Sam? I feel terrible. Say something?”
This was the part where the hairline crack in Sam's hard shell was supposed to form, to run the length of her and disrupt the front. It was my shell. I knew what I needed, but part of me didn't want it broken, so I decided to go with my gut. “I know you're sorry, Wyatt.” As soon as the words fled my mouth, I knew they were wrong. They felt hard, all consonants, practically spit at my brother while he's making this effort and really trying. This is where I was supposed to waver. You're sad, goddammit, I thought. “I'm sorry too. I just don't know how to deal with them being apart. Who's going to help me get into college? Even get through the rest of high school? All they do is fight. They can't even see me.”
In the absence of anger, my words had fallen flat, as if they had died as soon my mouth opened. Josh had tears in his eyes, and I sounded like I was giving a lecture to bored seventh-graders about World War II. This was it. This line was the kicker. Josh's eyes threatened to spill over as he said, “We'll always be a family, Sam. Always. I'll never be far.”
It was Sam's breaking point, where the shell was supposed to completely, irreparably fracture, and I could feel my face remain stoic. Inside I was panicking, but even if I let that show it wouldn't be the right emotion. It was fucked anyway. I felt nothing like Sam. After all of it, I still felt like me.
As we ended, there was a tangible awkwardness. My professor cleared his throat. “Okay. I think you both know that could have gone better. Josh, nice emotion. Cat...you're not really giving anything back. You've been assigned this piece for over a week now, and with each rehearsal I don't feel like you've taken it anywhere. Honestly, I feel like it regressed this time around. Have you been working on it at all?”
His words stung, and I tried to overcompensate for the utter failure I felt within by being terribly positive, as if the botched rehearsal hadn't shaken me one bit. “Yes! I promise, I'm taking it completely seriously. I'm just having some trouble with this one. I'm sorry.”
“Okay.” He lowered his head and rubbed his temples, seeming unsure of what else to give me. I can't really blame him, after having me for a student for the past three years I should really have been better than this. “I know that showcase adds a layer of stress to the scene. But don't sell yourself short. Really let us have it. Show us that fearless side.”
With that, he stood and class broke for the day. I felt defeated by the words on the page. I noticed that Josh was staring over at me, concerned. “Wanna get lunch and talk it out?” He asked. Josh and I had dated about a year back, but had ended because he had professed his love and I hadn't reciprocated. It wouldn't have been fair to him to act through the motions that he truly felt. He had cried during the breakup, and I hadn't. Things had been awkward since, but the invitation didn't come out of the blue. If I had been carrying such an important scene, I'd want to get to the bottom of it, too. “Sure thing.”
We sat in the corner booth of one of our old haunts. As the waiter brought our food and I began unconsciously dousing my meal in salt, I noticed him shaking his head and smirking. “What?”
“You're still doing that?” He cocked his head towards the shaker, white-knuckle grasped in my hand.
“It makes everything better!” I laughed, he laughed. A slight wave of nostalgia washed over the two of us, almost making it better.
“So what's going on?” He finally asked, avoiding the subject at hand long enough. “I've never seen you hold back so much in a scene.”
“I'm not trying to!” I defended. “I don't usually have trouble getting into character. Maybe I just don't like the scene.”
“Maybe you're just not connecting with it! Okay, it's a scene about divorce. Are your parents divorced?” He paused and narrowed his eyes. “I can't believe I don't know that. So Cat, I guess. So aloof.” He chuckled and looked up at me, brown eyes clear and honest.
I smiled and pushed the food around my plate with my fork. “Uh, yeah. They are. Isn't that pretty much par for the course in this day and age?” I asked rhetorically. “I mean, think about all your friends. Aren't all of their parents divorced?”
“Damn. Yeah, I guess. Well, can't you use that?”
“Uh, well, that's not really my thing. I subscribe to the method, remember?” Method acting. You wholly become the character, and act the way you do because it's truly what they would do. I loved the idea of slipping into a character like a disguise. Besides, it's what Meryl does, and you can't go wrong with the queen's style.
“I know, I know. But if you've been through it, the scene probably could mean a lot to you, Cat. The method works, okay? There are too many Oscars and Tonys around to dispute that. But it works to a point, and it surely has a tendency to fall short sometimes. Maybe this is that point. Maybe you need to bring in some personal stuff for Sam. And hey, maybe it'll help out with some you stuff, too. A good sense memory never hurt anyone. Besides, it'll definitely help us when we inevitably kill it at showcase!” He smiled, and it was so goddamn genuine. “Do you remember their divorce or were you too young?”
That's the thing about Josh. We could never work out because he always thought he knew me better. He deserved a more traditional girl who loved to discuss feelings, especially her own. It's apparent he never knew me at all because that's never been me, and it would never become me. I held a strange sort of resentment towards him for thinking he could change me. I didn't really respond to his question. Instead, I shoved a huge bite into my mouth and gestured towards it, blaming my silence on my trademark unladylike behavior. Josh looked unsurprised, and turned inward into his own thoughts. The nice thing about spending time with artists is that if you're not in the mood to talk, they usually are perfectly content simply contemplating themselves.
I laid down on my bed and considered Josh's words. I hadn't been too young to remember. When my dad had moved out, my mother had sent me to my room. “Now don't turn back,” she whispered, “or you'll be turned into a pillar of salt!” She had marked each word with a poke to my ribs. She was joking, trying to protect me from seeing him leave, but at nine my religious upbringing—though spotty—affected my every move, and a fate like Lot's wife was nothing to joke about. I had never turned back, fear wracking my bones, but I had decided it wasn't really cheating if I only took forward steps. My bedroom window faced the front yard, and I pressed my nose up against the glass. I couldn't hear anything, but I could see them as they packed the last of his things into his beat-up Honda. She was shaking her head as he was gesturing wildly, flailing his hands about in every direction. I'll never know what he said to her, but whatever it was caused her to slap him hard across the face. I fled the window and flung myself face-down on the bed. I had never seen my mother so much as kill a bug, but it didn't take me long to understand what had made her lash out at him.
It felt foreign, reliving that moment. If I had held the memories back this long, what good would come of pulling them forth now? Besides, as Josh had suggested, for sense memory—the most personal of acting methods. A sound, scent, taste could trigger a memory of the past, which could then be stored and used for a character. A dedicated actor dredged up old love letters from the one that got away in order to bring those feelings forth in a monologue that required genuine tears. It's all in the way you were taught, I guess. Several professors had tried to dissuade me from using the method over the years—one actually called me selfish as the class came to a close—but it had always worked for me. I was a good actor, strong and sometimes even great, so I never really took their suggestions to heart. I tried to delve into other methods, but at the end of the day I felt the most comfortable when I was onstage feeling, thinking, moving as a completely different person. I think my ability to disappear into another so seamlessly was the main reason I was even allowed to go to acting school, rather than something more practical. It was going to be difficult, that part was never sugar-coated, but it seemed if anyone could play parts for a living, it was me. I felt as though the method defined me, and now, when it counted, it was letting me down. I felt a sense of dread as I realized Josh was right—I needed those memories. I needed to strip away each band-aid I had placed over them and see if the wound had healed. It would have to be worth it, if only for the slim chance that I would find what I needed for the scene. I didn't want to remember any further. But this is what I had chosen to do with my life at the ripe old age of eighteen, and I didn't want to give anyone the satisfaction of my failure, so I decided to search.
I looked for the feelings in the restaurant in my hometown where they told me. I ordered a grilled cheese and picked at the cracked leather booth, waiting for tears that would never come. I drove by the pathetic Extended Stay America that my dad and other losers lived in when they were at some most likely self-induced crossroads. I distinctly remember thinking I was too old to sleep in that bed with him when I visited, but was old enough to know you can't rub salt in the wounds in situations like that. I didn't feel what I needed to feel for the scene. I knew how to get there, I knew in the deepest, most hidden part of my being, but I just couldn't. Those feelings had been buried in my fifth-grade time capsule in the backyard next to our dog, Lucky. I sat in my car and hated myself for being so afraid. I knew that the feelings were at the beach, left stationary in the humid, stagnant air during our last vacation as a family. My shot at impressing the directors and becoming who I was, the self I thought I knew, waited in the shallow surf.
I drove as fast as I could and barely parked before I ran out of the car, leaving my shoes on the sidewalk. As a kid I used to fear splinters from the boardwalk, before I knew there were greater things to fear. The memories I kept at bay flooded like high tide the minute my toes hit the sand. They had tried to keep it together for me, for one last long weekend, but on the beach that day both of my role models had separately discouraged me of becoming like the other.
“Cat, honey? Come here a second?” My mom beckoned me towards the shore where she was unwittingly sifting sand through her fingers. “I know Daddy seems like he's a lot of fun. He is, isn't he?”
I nodded and smiled. I looked over at Dad in his chair a ways down the beach and waved. He smiled, his lips closed, and nodded. “Here's the thing. You can't have fun all the time, right?”
“I guess not. I wish you could though!”
“No, trust me, you don't. After awhile fun always wears off. And then where do you go? Doesn't it feel good when you do well in school? It's not always fun, but it's rewarding in a different way. It feels good to be responsible.”
I had quickly gotten bored of the conversation, and essentially forgotten about it until later in the day when my dad took me aside. “Wanna go look for seashells? I know you love to collect them.”
“Sure! Mom, do you wanna go?”
Before she could answer, Dad said, “No, Mom just wants to read her book,” then took my hand and led me down the beach. “Don't you wish we could live here? It would be like we were always on vacation!”
“Yeah, that would be pretty fun!”
“Maybe when you get done with school, you could move here! Or Europe. Or wherever you wanna go, Cat. I never want you to feel held back.”
I had a vague concept of Europe, and knew that it sounded very exotic. “Okay. Mom says I have to go to college, though, so maybe after that?”
His face hardened. “No, Cat. After that you have to start real life, where you work 9 to 5 every day and there isn't time to move to Europe. You have to do it while you're young. Trust me, after you have responsibilities Europe will seem like the farthest place imaginable.”
I had thought that outer space was the farthest place imaginable. “Caitlin!” My mom called. I hated when she called me by my full name. She smiled and waved me over. “Caitlin, look at me.” My dad crouched down and grasped me by the shoulders. “Don't ever get tied down.”
It took a few years, but once he realized that I wasn't going to become like him—a drifter, a dreamer—he drifted on, evaporating into a postcard on my birthday.
It was that day they had both begun the constant mental strip searching, each looking to eliminate anything in me that reminded them of the other, and the pain they had caused. This conversation occurred countless times through my adolescence, one throttling me towards adulthood and the other towards the world. There was no middle ground, and there was no right answer. It was the numbness towards judgement that had led me to acting. They could tell me I was too short, too fat, too plain—it always rolled off. In the absence of knowing who to become I became a blank canvas, willing to tell the stories of others over my own. I would never become my parents because I had the urge to protect, though at times I confused it with the urge to avoid. I protected myself for years from the memories of their subconscious harm. They had never realized what they had done because I never let them. I protected them from knowing what they made me: a shell, a leech, absorbing the feelings from my braver classmates and friends rather than opening up enough to feel them myself. The horrific realization dawned on me in that moment that my parents had unwillingly shoved me straight into the arms of the theatre. My future was borne out of a pattern of emotional abuse, which is a terrible thing, but what's worse is that I fucking love what I do. It's pushed me further than I knew possible, even here to the beach, and for that I am grateful. Grateful is never a word I would have used to describe my attitude towards my parents, but there I was. That was probably the most foreign feeling of all.
I sprinted into the surf, not bothering to guard my face against the spray. I waded further and further out until I felt entirely isolated, free to be at my most vulnerable. The aching hole within me gaped open, allowing the flood of feelings to fill it and spill over, overreaching my fear of failure. I stood there facing an endless blue horizon, and before I could realize what I was doing, I screamed out into the open air, “I know you're sorry, Wyatt! I know you're sorry.” The tears flowed naturally, meeting the waves as they spilled past my cheeks. The slow roll of the tide matched the rhythm of my heaving sobs. My Sam shell was cracked, and I hated my mushy, full-of-feelings insides, but they were part of me, and staying open. As I waded back towards the shore, I felt a deepened understanding. I had done what I promised my nine-year-old self I would never do—I had turned back, and I felt myself slowly turning into a pillar of salt, only to dissolve into the waves. I emerged, renewed, from the sea. It was unrecognizable from the surface, but a different, stronger self pulsed underneath. It was terrifying and exhilarating all at once, as I finally felt prepared to bare my true soul through my acting. The hole within began to close, as if the two sides of myself were gluing themselves back together, and I felt a specific sense of satisfaction in the knowledge that I had done it myself. I had followed neither path, but I was going to be okay. With the aid of a little salt, I had made everything better.
Amy Flint enjoys eating too much Indian food, planning unaffordable trips around the globe, and writing stories with lovable yet fucked-up protagonists. She (finally) finished up her undergraduate degrees in English and French from VCU and still hasn't mastered writing about herself in third-person without feeling awkward.
#Unreal #Fiction #ShortStory #CreativeWriting #ContemporaryLiterature #Parents #Family #Divorce #TheatreStories #Drama