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I looked at him, surveying him, trying to see into his soul if I could. He didn’t say much, at least not to me. It was like that sometimes. We weren’t the most talkative couple. Oh, we had long conversations sometimes, but most of the time, we just sat together. You don’t have to talk to somebody to have a connection with them.
“Pay attention!” said the director. He wasn’t talking to me—not exclusively, anyway. The whole cast had been goofing around for much of the read-through. It was understandable. We were genuinely excited about the show, many of us were great friends already, and those that weren’t, we were eager to get to know.
Joss didn’t say anything, although he did scribble a few things down in his notebook. He would not be sticking around for very much longer. Some playwrights sat in on every rehearsal, essentially functioning as an assistant director. Joss didn’t work that way. He dropped in occasionally to give people pointers and consult with the director, but for the most part, he took a very hands-off approach. This was his second show with Mel directing. Mel, like most directors, was a control freak, which contrasted nicely with Joss’s low-key nature. Some writers are fascists, insisting that every aspect of their creation match the vision that is in their heads. Joss just liked to write.
The rest of the read-through went smoothly. Stanecia was surprisingly convincing as a Southern churchgoing woman, her Brooklyn accent disappearing entirely into the performance. There were bound to be whispered accusations of nepotism behind my back, but I like to think that I acquitted myself admirably. (Joss had had almost no say in the casting process anyway. He even told me point blank that he’d written the part with someone else in mind, although he wouldn’t say who.) It’s always hard to tell how a show will turn out when you’re working on it. The ones that are the most fun to work on are not necessarily the best, and there are some great shows out there where the cast and crew don’t like each other all that much. But generally, I get along with actors. They’re mostly supportive people, and doing a show with somebody usually takes just long enough to learn all of their best qualities without having to experience their worst ones.
Every good cast develops a sense of family after a while. That’s a cliché, but it’s also true. I came home the night after the read-through and found that half a dozen of my new friends had added me on Facebook. I spent a few minutes looking at their profiles. One had just come back from a semester at a seminary in Russia, another was a feminist blogger and anthropology major, and yet another was a singer-songwriter in addition to being an actor. (That last one was unsurprising, as his character had to play a guitar and sing in one scene. Perhaps he would compose the music himself?) The song, “On an Autumnal Chilly Morning”, was a melancholy ballad about life before the construction of the Great City and the character’s subsequent banishment to the Undercity. Wait, I haven’t told you what the show is about. Let me backtrack.
“Under the City”, by my boyfriend Joss Wiegand, was an expressionistic play set in a post-apocalyptic future. The whole of North America has been reduced to a mostly-uninhabitable wasteland by an unspecified event known as the Burning. What remained of the citizenry and the government after the Burning banded together and constructed a massive city consisting of skyscrapers and roads many miles high. The Uppercity has jails and slums and the like, but the worst punishment of all is to be banished to the Undercity, a struggling ground-level community that scrapes out a living beneath the skyscrapers and highways where rays of sun rarely penetrate. To top it off, the Undercity is constantly besieged by Underlings (basically zombies that were created by the Burning) and the Leviathan, a massive, possibly-blind beast that roams the land and constantly menaces the Undercity in much the same way that a dragon would menace a medieval village (minus the kidnapping of damsels). Joss’s play was a multi-layered, novelistic drama featuring people from all walks of life in the Undercity as they struggle to make a better life for themselves. My character, Sirius Hanley, was a ne’er-do-well who got wrapped up in a political conspiracy that threatened to embroil the Undercity in a massive civil war. It was the most exciting part I’d ever had.
I had known the play was going to be something special when I met Joss for the first time. My friend Jamie was having a dorm party and her roommate brought along a friend from her Milton discussion section. We hit it off immediately. Eventually, he took me out to the woods behind our dorms where he had, of all things, an easel and canvas set up. We weren’t in the woods, technically, just a grassy field in front of them where some of the other guys played touch football even when it was rainy and they were rolling around in mud. I liked it when they played shirtless. Anyway, Joss’s painting, the more I looked at it, didn’t seem like a painting at all so much as a window to the world beyond it. I sat on the grass. I could see the woods, the hill, the buildings, and the trails leading off into the woods through the canvas. As if it wasn’t there at all, just an empty frame floating in midair. Except something seemed…different. Like a funhouse mirror. It was the annoying thing about being gay. Every time you meet somebody, you wonder how they’re going to react. I tried to just let it roll off my back, but that took practice.
When Joss was asked if he was a gay writer or a writer who happened to be gay, he said, “What’s the difference?” I liked that about him. His father hadn’t taken it too well, had had a bit of NIMBY reaction, if you know the term, but then again, maybe he was just tired of being held at arm’s length. Maybe he just felt like he would have been able to process it better if he had found out a little sooner. They hadn’t talked in a while, but that could change soon enough.
That night, Joss drew something out of his pocket: a small pouch. He emptied it into his hand, then sprinkled it across the night sky. Then I realized what the painting had been lacking: stars. He reached out to me. “Come on in,” he said. I took his hand. Entering a painting was like diving into a lake that was so still you could see your own reflection disappear into the surface of the water. An earlier version of this was called “The Other Side of the Mirror”, but I think this title’s better.
The world beyond the painting was wonderful, but I’m not going to tell you too much about it. Some things are best left hidden.
Rehearals went okay. Mainly, I just had to find ways to balance the play with all of my other commitments. Joss was talented, but no overachiever—I was always the type who needed to be involved in eight different things at once just to keep from getting bored. This semester, I was writing for the A&E section of the campus paper as well as playing competitive ultimate Frisbee. In high school, I had been involved in student government, but that was a whole new ballgame here. It was practically a career, the way that candidates would stop going to class and park their asses out in some well-travelled part of campus during election season so that they could accost anyone who passed by. I didn’t have the patience for that, so I didn’t get involved.
Fall semester is always busier than spring, isn’t it? The hard part is making the back half interesting. I like fall, don’t much care for spring. It’s too pleasant. I like cool weather. Also, I like The Decemberists. Their music always makes me think of fall for some reason.
Something about the part of Sirius was giving me trouble. The central relationship in the play was between him and his roommate, Holden (the musician). My costar, Ben, was a nice enough guy, but I wasn’t quite sure if he was getting it. He hadn’t done much acting before, and as much as I hated to say it, I kind of felt like he got the part just because it called for a musician. But that wasn’t what was bugging me. Sirius was supposed to be obnoxious, at least in the early scenes. How are you supposed to make a character annoying without annoying the audience?
“You’re overthinking it,” said Joss one night as we went out for burritos together. “Just play it like it’s written.”
“But, like, I can feel people pulling away from me when I do it,” I said. “It’s really uncomfortable.”
“That’s good,” he said. “They’re not supposed to like you.”
“Okay, I guess you’re right,” I said. “I’m just not used to this, that’s all.”
“Yeah, you’re always the hero,” he said. “But I like redemptive arcs.”
We sat for a while, watching people go by. This was a pretty popular off-campus hangout spot, mainly because there were so many cheap restaurants. There was a doughnut place in particular that made the best glazed doughnuts I’d ever had, but you had to arrive on the hour to get them hot out of the oven.
“You know, I don’t really get it when people portray childhood as idyllic,” said Joss. “Children aren’t happy, not most of them. I think they really do mean it when they say it gets better.”
I smiled. Every time I talked to Joss, he always had some deep thought for me to think about. I’m not like that. I just like doing things. Before I met Joss, I never would have sat around while I ate just people-watching. But I guess he needed me just so he didn’t sit around doing that kind of thing all day.
“You wanna get going?” Joss said. We were meeting Colleen for drinks and Doctor Who. I wasn’t as into it as Joss was, but it was always fun to hang with Colleen. I could tell already that I was going to be drunk by the end of the night. I don’t have Joss’s constitution.
There was another scene that was giving me trouble. About three-fourths of the way through the show, I had to give a bit monologue about how bad everything was in the Undercity and how bad I’d fucked everything up. Basically, I was telling the audience (because all of my friends had abandoned me) that we could see our way through if we just kept going. “I don’t believe in God,” Holden said. “But it’s not all totally random. There is something out there. I just don’t know what it is.”
The spotlight shuts off so abruptly that you can hear the switch being flipped. I am plunged into darkness. This is the cruelest moment in the show. In a Shakespeare play, this would be Act IV. At this point, there doesn’t seem to be much hope. I think back on my musical theater days, like when I played Marius in Les Mis or Antony in Sweeney. I was always a loverboy. This is my first time playing an antihero.
I go backstage. Everyone is shuffling to get into place for the city council scene. I’m not in it, so I take a seat and a sip from my water bottle. Through the curtain, I can barely make out Joss in the back of our tiny theater. I know it would be unprofessional to wave, but I try to make eye contact with him anyway. He won’t let it show, but he totally thinks the play is going well. I can just tell.
We had a bit of a fight during tech week. See, I’m thinking of moving to New York after graduation, but he wants to go to some tiny school in the Midwest to get his MFA. He doesn’t find out if he’s in for a while yet, but he’s already gotten in good with one of the professors and one of the admissions directors is a really good friend of his mother’s. It’s a really good school, it’s just in the middle of nowhere, and I don’t want to have to do the whole long distance thing for two years.
“But I won’t be leaving until next fall!” he texted. “We have all this time together until then.”
“IF you get in,” I replied. “Besides there are plenty of other places you can apply you just wanna go to Isherwood cause your mom grew up there”
The minute I sent it, I knew it was a mistake. He did have a bit of a co-dependent relationship with his mother, but it’s not like they were the same person. I just wanted to get out of the house and start a whole new life for myself, but he wanted to stay as close to home as possible.
“Look, I know I’m a mama’s boy,” he wrote me in an email. “But it’s not like I’m fucking Oedipus. You leave me alone now. I have to focus on the play.”
He went on, but I’ll spare you the rest. One thing could be said for Joss: He was very thorough. I have learned by now to give him space. If you just apologize right away, it’s like you just want them to forgive you so you don’t have to feel bad about what you’ve done. But I did something bad, and I feel bad. Isherwood is an amazing school. It’s just in the middle of nowhere. Even after all this time, I still haven’t learned that sometimes in order to be supportive you have to accept that you’re not going to get to spend as much time with them as you want.
The lights come up. The councilors start arguing with each other. Stanecia, as the mayor, is just perfect. Part of what’s remarkable about life in the Great City is how much of life before the Burning carries over. Ethnic rivalries between various minority groups still exist, as do debates over who really belongs here. Even cultural traditions like festivals and certain regional accents remain intact. It is marvelous how Joss brings all this together and makes it work. Mel was brilliant, too. It’s a very ambitious play, but he makes it work with a cast of no more than a dozen actors and a shoestring budget. The Leviathan was depicted only by sound effects and a greenish fluorescent light. The Underlings were represented by actors dressed in all black but with freaky Halloween masks. It was an easy and cheap way for a student-run theater to portray the Apocalypse.
“Quiet!” snaps the Mayor, her fist slamming down on the table. “We will get nowhere if we all talk over one another. Now, Counselor Dunkirk, you said you might have an idea for us. Let’s hear it.”
“Madame Mayor, these are dark times,” begins Xander. I shiver. He is so good at playing villains. Dunkirk is insane and militaristic, but taken on his own terms, his ideas work. Even Ben, who likes to sit in the green room and study when he’s not onstage, stands in the wings for this. He leans forward. I glance at him. He gives me a thumbs up. I return it. He has really grown into his part over the past couple weeks. Lanky, with piercing eyes but an unassuming manner, he makes for a pretty good hero. I’m going to miss him.
“I never thought I’d see it, but on that day it happened: Sirius Hanley became a good man,” Holden narrates. I am on my knees. He shoots me in the head. This time, the lights stay up. He steps over my dead body, walks through the audience, and exits the theater. A minute later, the lights go down.
The applause is rapturous. Stanecia’s family is in the front row, and they are on their feet. Ben’s girlfriend can’t make it tonight (she goes to school across the bay), but has promised to come tomorrow. Claudia, our makeup lady, whoops and hollers. I didn’t always get along with her, but she was a big help in perfecting Dunkirk’s battle scar. We were going to go with some cheesy thing you could get from a costume shop, but she showed us how to make it scary and realistic. Xander is a really funny guy. It’s great to see him playing something so serious.
Mel and a bunch of the others are going out for drinks afterwards, but I feel like going home. Somehow, I’m just not in a partying mood tonight. I think of just sitting in my room listening to music, but I think there is somewhere else I need to go.
I’ve never been through the mirror alone before, but it’s not that hard to find if you know where to look. You just have to find the spot behind the dorms where it looks perfectly normal from eye level, but if you view it from below, it looks like there’s a window frame. Then all you have to do is step through.
The world doesn’t look quite the same once I get to the other side. There’s some red about the skyline. Even the vegetation has kind of a reddish tinge. I don’t have to go far before I find Joss. He’s standing at one of our favorite spots, a vantage point overlooking the pond and clearing below. There are so many stories to be told about this world. I hope he has time to tell them all.
He turns as I approach. “Oh, hi,” he says. “You were good.”
“So were you,” I say. He comes up to me, wraps his arms around me, and kisses me. It’s nice to be forgiven. Better yet, it’s nice to be understood. “Is it safe?” I say. “The whole place looks…weird.”
“It’ll be fine,” he says. “A little fixer-upper, that’s all it needs. Once the play’s over, I’ll have more time to focus on grades and getting my applications in. You’ll have more time for Frisbee.”
“You will apply to some schools on the East Coast, right? NYU, Juilliard—“
“If I get into one of those places but not Isherwood, I’ll go there. I promise.”
Now it’s my turn to kiss him. Being in love doesn’t solve all your problems. It just makes them more tolerable. I love to run my fingers through his hair.
“Two years,” he says.
“Two years,” I say.
We stand looking out for a minute, then leave hand-in-hand. We’re not much for PDA, but sometimes it’s okay. Everybody knows a couple that fell in love in high school and wrote love poems to each other, then broke up and acted like they were going to kill themselves. We’re not like that. We’re not that one couple everybody knows in high school that stays together and gets married long after everyone else from back then has broken up either. We took a long time to find each other.
Strike is coming up. Just like that, the whole play will be over soon. You spend months and months working on something, only to have it end and be broken apart after two weekends. Maybe I’ll get to take a piece of the set home, like one of the mirrors the Undercity uses to reflect the sunlight that peeks through from up above and light up the city. Gio will be on hand, too. He’s a big, friendly, affable guy, and he’s very patient with the actors (almost none of whom know how to use power tools). It’s gonna be sad, but we’ll get through it. And sooner or later, we’ll build up another family. Maybe that one will last a little longer than the last one.
It’s starting to rain. I have to go now. It usually doesn’t rain in Joss’s world, but this one looks like it could turn into a full-on thunderstorm. For now it’s a pleasant drizzle. We leave muddy footprints as we walk, but God willing, the rain will wash those all away as if we never were.
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