You’ve been out two weeks when you audition for a revival of A Hatful of Rain. One of those cloudy late fall afternoons. You come from the Lower East Side in a royal blue blouse with large lapels, the top three buttons undone. From a flea market: five dollars. A slinky black skirt. Your sister says you look like a bruise, all black and blue. The skirt falls below your knees, slit on one side, high up a thigh. Cranberry-colored tights with black platform pumps. A black 1960s-era sweater—again from a street fair. It is deliberately tight fitting, with delicate pearl buttons and a sequined flower design on the chest.
You look like you’re playing dress up. You feel like that. You have nice cheekbones, big eyes—but you are not pretty so much as odd looking. Strange. You are young enough that it’s attractive. Something about the deadly expression, almost always there: your face, large eyes, a small mouth. No upper lip. Often comical.
“You have a Swoosie Kurtz quality,” a director remarks, “there’s definitely something off-balance about you.”
It’s too much to be spoken of this way. How hungry you are to be seen, to be spoken of.
Your hair: long and straight, never pulled back with a barrette. In your face. Bright red lipstick but no other makeup. Almost always a small patch of acne on your chin, around your mouth.
It is standard: long hours waiting in predesignated waiting spaces—say, a stairwell.
An open call listed in Back Stage.
You sit for what feels like hours in the lobby of the small theater, the Samuel Beckett. Forty-Second Street between 10th and 11th. It isn’t a part of town you visit often, though later you date a man who lives in a co-op around the block, next door to Angela Lansbury. One day, visiting the man, you see someone delivering a balloon bouquet to Angela Lansbury. You are living on 53rd then, just ten blocks up from the man—your lover, your teacher. Acting Chekhov. You played Masha. What you will remember of the affair: those walks up and down Ninth Avenue. That empty feeling. The way men would look at you and you learned something about yourself.
The man tells you that you wear the wrong expression on your face as you walk: you are too open, too vulnerable, he will say. It will get you in trouble—that look with the big eyes and the sad mouth.
The man will eventually disappoint you, in that way that men do.
You will come to hate it, to find this habit of yours grotesque: that you expect them to be something else. How your head fills up. Those prosy dreams.
You read for the lead. Celia Pope. The director likes you. Maybe. The way he smiles—you can’t tell if he is laughing at you or with you. You’ll get used to it.
In one of your first acting classes you play a woman who puts her head in the oven. When her sister finds her there and asks, “Why did you do it?” she answers,
“I was just having a bad day.”
It got a big laugh, that line.
“I was just having a bad day.”
You don’t really understand why it is so funny but you like it. The laughter.
Maybe later you’ll understand.
A bad day is surely reason enough, you might think.
Dymphna will tell you to find meaning.
She talks about a man named Viktor Frankl who wrote about concentration camp survivors: disillusioned and bitter, looking for a reason to live. You can’t imagine this sort of despair.
“Is it meant to comfort me?”
“Frankl’s meaning in life became about helping others find theirs.”
“I can’t help anyone.”
Dymphna’s talk of concentration camp survivors reminds you that you are super privileged and self-absorbed and that really your suffering doesn’t mean much by comparison.
“You have to choose how you respond to your own suffering. Everyone has to find meaning.”
“Everyone is full of shit,” you want to say, but you don’t. You are learning not to say such things. This is what is meant by well-adjusted.
It is on your way to this first, post-discharge audition, in that tight blue blouse with the black skirt, the black sweater buttoned up (because it is fall now and chilly in the evening), with the pumps, that it happens. The platform pumps you wore to your cousin’s wedding, downtown Chicago. You got a long pass. You remember the cold and the way your relatives looked at you, at your body, your chest in particular—sizing you up, considering the freak you’d become—and saying things like: “You look just like your mother!” with a certain restrained but happy twist to their mouths.
Which you don’t know if you did but they all have a way of looking at your breasts, and then making the pronouncement:
“Just like your mother.”
So you guessed it was probably true but still the linking seemed pretty morbid. You took a lot of Mellaril the night of the wedding, slurred your speech and possibly drooled. Everyone greeted you but mostly tried very hard to keep a distance, which you found amusing. That you’d become scary. That what was broken inside of you had rendered you an outsider.
These memories are alive in each step you take with a platform pump, steps through this city of great promise and great disappointment, this city that was meant to welcome young women like you. Though it never did, or would. You are in costume. Your costume in the hospital had been a variation of your costume in college: big T-shirts, sweatshirts torn at the neck Flashdance-style, ripped jeans, Doc Martens. Your long reddish-brown hair was the same then as now, cut bluntly, falling around your un-made-up face.
You need a new costume.
The great thing about New York City is that you can dress up as you please—you could wear the craziest thing—and no one cares. There is always someone wearing something crazier. There is no need to fall in line, to become a part of the one defined thing—because New York is never one thing. It is everything. All of it. All that you aren’t but might be.
It was hard to get out of the house. You feel amazed having done it, and then, once outside, amazed again by what you see. All of those people. All of those lives. That way of New York. So many other lives that have nothing to do with your own, and yet are all right here so near to your own.
You feel alone. Is a young woman’s loneliness a cliché or does it stand for the world? You once thought your loneliness was special in its intensity. It’s possible that everyone thinks her loneliness is special. It all makes you sick. A desire to puke. This remaining defining feeling in your now postinpatient life. You’ve been cured. That thing so heavy and intractable that you believe it might swallow you whole. Soon. It isn’t so much the feeling itself that is nauseating rather the sense that it will not cease. That it will expand. As it expands, endurance becomes less likely.
And then there is the knowledge that enduring is possibly the worse option.
You are still on a lot of drugs. When you cross the street, it is in the way that you’ve discovered New Yorkers cross streets—without much regard for oncoming traffic. It is in the middle of First Avenue that you are hit by a car, a driver not able or willing to stop for a distracted-looking young woman, even one in platform pumps. A driver who assumes that you will get yourself out of the way, which is something, when it comes down to it, that pedestrians crossing New York City streets are very good at doing.
But you’ve taken so many drugs. And you have a head so full-up with ideas about how nice it would be to get out of all this—that you do not notice the car. And the driver, noticing but assuming you’d haul ass when it came time, hits you. You feel the twak of metal at your calf. The driver is not going too fast so you just barely tumble, falling onto the hood of his car, folding over down onto the wet road. Your skirt slides up to just below your butt; your hands onto the car’s hood until you let go of that, too. You can’t get up. You wonder if you are alive. A woman jumps out of the passenger side of the car screaming questions your way and you don’t move. Just lie there, your hands in your lap now. A kind of prayer. New York becomes something else from down here, you notice.
There is a lot of noise and movement over you now; you can hear your heart beating. It is all legs and feet and movement. Someone is on her knees, asking, “Are you okay?” and someone else is behind you, offering to help you up.
You might start crying. That simple “Can I help you up?” will remind you of a nurse who rubbed your back or an orderly who told you it was going to be okay. You were in hell but there were these angels. The woman whose car hit you puts her arm around your back and tries to help you up. It has something to do with being touched, you know this. It is too much, to be touched.
You shake your head no and stand up. Someone helps you to the corner. Someone asks if you need to call someone. There is a pay phone nearby, he tells you. He will take you there. You hear all of the voices, but you don’t look into a single face. You don’t make eye contact.
“I have to go now,” you say as you begin walking.
You’ll walk for a long time. You’ll walk uptown, past hospitals and theaters, past restaurants and parks, past schools and parking lots. You’ll walk just to walk—aimlessly if generally to the west, the way this is possible in New York. Walking without it mattering at all. Without a destination.
It will seem like hours later that you find yourself outside of a train station and you remember the audition.
It is maybe as you grab the cold handrail and see your platform pumped toe touch the first stair leading down into the subway station that you think about your own ridiculousness but also have the sense that, if you actually got your ass to this audition, somehow, and then if you maybe even got the part, somehow, and then maybe if you stood on the stage in front of people and even if the show closed and you then sunk into another postplay depression, and even if that depression was the one that finally killed you or landed you in another state psych ward—maybe a less nice one and maybe for the rest of your life—or even if you didn’t get the part but still got there, to the audition—well, there is a part of you, a small part but the part Roger maybe saw that first day when he invited you to come aboard the Long Term Ward for Promising Young Women—that knew it would still mean something, and even maybe a lot that you, who just days ago was certifiable as they can now say about you or any of the women of the SS. Roger, it would mean something that today you got your drugged-up ass to an audition. Even if you almost died on the way.
You got there. It was something.
And it was something even if no one in New York City—except maybe Dymphna and even Roger in his own weird way—gave a shit about you, or where you were at any given moment. That tiny part of you knew that it meant something, knew that, like Viktor Frankl, you—who hardly had to endure anything even remotely like a concentration camp—would create meaning. That part of you that believed in something or nothing was maybe larger than the black sun feeling itself and that something got you here—now up and out of the station at 42nd Street.
The way the wind feels on your face as you stand at the top of the stairs; the way no one knows who you are, or who anyone is; the way everyone is rushing somewhere, must be somewhere: that could be your meaning.
The way the energy of New York City reminds you that you are alive.
The way something comes alive as you walk west toward the theater.
Celia Pope is the female lead, the part Shelly Winters played on Broadway.
“Elizabeth.” The director smiles.
“We’d like you to read Putski.”
Reading for Putski, a prostitute, doesn’t involve much. You stand on the stage in your slinky bruised outfit, your hair in your face. You read the lines. Something about someone taking a cigarette. Putski is drunk. You don’t try not to slur her speech.
Your face is red from wind and tears.
Your eyes are hidden in deep black eyeliner.
You slink around the stage. You find a chair and slide down into it. It is such a relief to be someone else. To be observed. You listen to two actors speak their lines. You close your eyes. You are nearly asleep when you hear the director shout,
He shakes your hand, and then knowingly, approvingly looks to the other two men, producers, who sit in the audience.
The next week, a producer calls. A callback. You wear the same black skirt but now with a tight button-down shiny polyester red blouse. You wear a black leotard underneath the blouse, for warmth, but also because the shirt pops open occasionally.
The director offers some direction to the other actors and then, before the scene begins, looks at you.
“Elizabeth,” he smiles, “just don’t act.”
He winks at his assistant director.
“Just be yourself.”
You nod. Not a problem. You took an extra Klonopin before the audition; you were having trouble staying awake.
You might get the part. You might not. There will always be a gap between the life you have and the one you want. You’ll get a few but there will be so many that you won’t get. It doesn’t really matter. That’s what no one tells you. It doesn’t matter at all.
If you were the one who didn’t know how to live, if you needed to be taught, we’d look away, too. We wouldn’t want to know.
—Suzanne Scanlon lives in Chicago. “All That You Aren’t but Might Possibly Be” is an excerpt from Promising Young Women, forthcoming from Dorothy Project this fall.