Authors: Adrienne Stoltz,Ron Bass
Jerome is teaching Jade how to trot like a model in five-inch Louboutins. As I watch her spindly spider legs pump and the red soles clomp, I resist the urge to scoop her up and huggle her. (
: verb. A brilliant word Jade made up when she was two that exists somewhere between “to snuggle” and “to hug”; e.g., “Hey Maggie, want to huggle me?”) Usually I’d be worried about her breaking an ankle in those shoes, but after the day we’ve had, that feels like peanuts.
Nicole comes up behind me and kisses the top of my head, which I hate.
“She’s fine, Maggie,” she says, trying to convince herself and me. I open my mouth to argue and decide better. Nicole is right:
Jade is fine. What I’d really be arguing about is the fact that I think a mother should be concerned, should be the one to show up to the nurse’s office and hold her daughter’s hand at the doctor’s even if her daughter is fine. But having that argument is like going to an empty well looking for water. So I just walk away.
Class that night is frustrating because we’re doing group work and I had been hoping for some individual focus before tomorrow’s big audition. Particularly since the afternoon adventure with Jade gobbled up all my prep time. I’m more nervous than usual, and doing my best to pretend I’m not.
After class, I turn down an urgent invitation from Andrea and Jason to hit Rose Bar. They’re both over twenty-one, and I never mention that I’m not. Knowing someone’s real age always seems to add to the already competitive nature of friendships with fellow thespians. Not that getting into Rose Bar would be a problem for me. I don’t know if my face is showing premature signs of aging or if walking in like you own the place really works, but I rarely get carded.
Instead, I wander down to Union Square Café, which is my go-to spot for dinner when Nicole is working late. Nicole is almost never home for dinner, so they know me there by now. The place is packed as always, but Jimmy gives me an inconspicuous table, and I order my usual chicken Caesar, dressing on the side, no croutons or anchovies, a pot of green tea, and don’t have to mention no bread on the table because I know I’ll have no problem resisting it. Jimmy likes to leave it on the other place mat when he collects the silverware from the empty spot. As though Bread were my dinner partner.
I settle back to watch the crowd. It’s funny; I always have my Kindle with me just in case, but I never touch it. Ever since I can
remember, my favorite game when I’m alone is to imagine the lives of strangers. When I was younger, the noodle shop was filled with deposed royalty, secret agents, circus stars in the off-season. Now I’m less creative.
For example, that couple on their second bottle of wine just met this afternoon. She’s a ventriloquist and lip reader. He’s been mute since birth. The prospect of a future together is mutually irresistible. However, she’s mourning the loss of her beloved dummy Chester, who recently leapt from a truck and was crushed by an Escalade, driven by a past-his-prime power forward for the Knicks. She has his finger in her pocket. Chester’s, not the forward’s. Unfortunately, the mute is allergic to the eau de toilette of the aging blonde nearby who has never learned how to properly eat her spaghetti. She thinks the scent is attracting the retired detective she met on eHarmony, who is sitting across from her, wolfing down his pasta and trying to remember if he saw her face on the
America’s Most Wanted
list. Meanwhile their waiter is so preoccupied with his mother’s Alzheimer’s…well, you get the idea.
I notice very few other diners are solo, but the ones that are have something to read propped up on the table. A paperback, a magazine, a newspaper. Something to help them forget that they’re eating alone. I just think that’s sad.
Sometimes, someone comes over and says,
Aren’t you the girl who was in such and such
? Tonight it’s a cute guy, maybe ten years too old for me.
“Hi. I’m totally not hitting on you…”
Totally. That’s why you are standing inappropriately too close and your hand is still on my shoulder.
“But I swear I saw you in an off-Broadway Ibsen I caught last fall. You were heart-stirring. Will you sign this? I know it will be worth a lot one of these days.”
Once a guy said something similar and then having learned my name, Facebook-stalked me, which was creepy. Even though I’m no longer even on Facebook, when this guy hands me his napkin, I sign
“Your girlfriend will be more impressed when you show that to her and tell her you met an actress. She’s lucky to have such a handsome, polite guy.”
He laughs and opens his mouth, maybe to tell me I’m lucky because he doesn’t have a girlfriend. I cut him off. “Enjoy your dinner.” He folds up the napkin and goes away.
Emma is convinced I’m secretly a lonely person. She will not let go of that idea. It seems like it’s all we talk about. Walking home in the night air, I wonder how anybody could ever feel alone in New York. It’s like when you’re walking with someone, you’re stuck with just that one person. When you’re walking in New York alone, you’re with everyone. It’s possible Emma is lonely and she’s putting it on me. She sure is obsessed with it. She’s grasping for an easy answer. One theory fits all. That’ll be $300, please.
But the truth is, I think she doesn’t have a clue how the dreams began.
One of my favorite games while I’m walking, especially at night, is to wonder what different people would think if they knew my secret. Emma is the only person on the planet who does, and I have enough faith in our doctor-patient privilege to know she hasn’t spilled my beans. Nicole, for example, wouldn’t know what to do. So she’d
try to be my friend instead of my mother, which is what she’s comfortable doing, which is part of my ongoing list of parenting grievances. But she’d be scared. She has, for such an intelligent person, an amazingly small reality box in which to live. She needs life to be no bigger or harder to solve than the stuff she edits for the magazine. What would happen if a real crisis occurred, someone got cancer or a brain tumor or something? I think she’d handle it by reducing it to editorial size, denying its real scope and consequences, and telling herself that she’s being practical by not getting overwhelmed. But the truth is, the most important things about life are overwhelming. That may be terrifying, or tragic, but that doesn’t make it necessarily bad. And certainly, not something to run away from.
Jade, on the other hand, would be initially thrilled to learn that fairy tales are true and she’d demand to be part of it. She’d get jealous and want to be a part of the magic too—but she’d never deny it was real. And that is high on my list of reasons why I love her.
My dad. My dad would tell me not to be afraid. That I should treat it as a gift, as something precious that was mine alone. And if I ever felt lonely with it, he’d be there.
I used to tell my dad about my dreams. Sometimes the real ones, and sometimes I’d lie and tell him about dreams I didn’t have. I somehow expected that he would know the difference. But he never did. Either I’m a good liar or a good actress. Or he did know the difference, and he’s the good liar. I wish I could ask him.
I turn down Horatio, and the streetlights are illuminating the cherry blossoms like pink snow. This is our first spring on this street. We’ve moved a lot, though we keep to the West Village so Jade doesn’t have to change schools. Nicole has great luck flipping apartments.
My friends think it must be unsettling, but the nomadic thing has its virtues. I get to redecorate my room more than anyone else I know, and Jade and I have become partners in creating our personal new neighborhood from the bodegas, boutiques, and restaurants that we choose together. But more important, when you have to keep changing your environment, you are constantly aware of how wide the world is and how many choices really lie out there for you.
I quietly let myself into our darkened apartment, assuming that both Nicole and Jade are sleeping. Once in my room, I stand for a long moment, staring out the window at the Hudson. Suddenly, I feel someone standing behind me. I know who it is and what I’m going to say. Putting on my game face, I whirl around and stab my finger out as I shout:
“Who the fuck are you looking at?!”
Nicole stares back at me. The look on her face is intolerable.
“Shut up!” I keep going. “You have nothing to say to me!”
“Um, actually I do. If you don’t lower your voice, you’re going to have a seven-year-old out of bed, watching you act like a raving bitch.”
I turn from my image in the full-length mirror to see Nicole’s amused smile.
“So I’m a convincing raving bitch, huh? Wow. I wasn’t sure I had it in me.”
“Honey, believe me, you do. You’re going to nail that audition.”
She comes in and flops down on my bed. “Want me to read the other side of the scene?”
Nicole is always slightly disappointed that I need to rehearse alone. It isn’t that I don’t want her criticism and comments, which I certainly
don’t; it’s more that I have to get my head in a space where it’s my own world, completely uncontaminated by any other reality. Changing the subject is always our most comfortable way for me to refuse this.
“Great. Ever notice that kid talks a lot?”
“Never happens to me. Must be something you’re doing wrong.”
A companionable mood now established, she feels free to go on and pretend that she isn’t expressing concern that my look would not be strong enough for the audition.
“So, how have you been sleeping?”
That’s a loaded question.
“Are you implying the circles under my eyes are too dark? Anything else that’s not pretty enough to win the part tomorrow?”
“Wow. So glad you’re not defensive. Kudos to Emma.”
Now I have a choice. Nicole is just being Nicole, trying to relate to me the only way I sometimes think she knows how. I could let it go or push it. True to form, I make the wrong choice…
“Sorry,” I say. “You don’t get to be passive-aggressive about my looks and then blame it on me. If you’re going to do something like that, you’re going to have to own it.”
Nicole sits up, holds out her arms for me to crawl into a hug. Which of course I do. This is our thing. We fight, then make up. We’re friends, and then she wants to be my mom.
“Baby girl, it’s not only okay for a rising actress to be insecure about her appearance, but I would think you were from another planet if you
. The only thing is, you’ve chosen a career where you’ll be picked apart daily, and you have to own that.”
She slides from the bed, pulls me toward the mirror, steps behind me, and puts her arms around my waist. Her elegant face perches on my shoulder, looking at our reflection.
“Now tell me what you see.”
I see an ordinary girl, who could, I guess, be pretty in the right light, with the right attitude. Pretty enough that my looks won’t hold me back, but they sure as hell won’t make up for any lack of talent. I study the image. A ballerina’s body, slightly too thin, certainly not appropriate for any voluptuous role. Thick black hair that can look sort of glamorous in a head shot after a good stylist has tamed it. But it is an enormous pain in my ass to manage and makes me feel like I’m walking around with an Eskimo hoodie in the summer heat. I hate to walk around in the sun anyway, hence my pale skin, which may be lacking vitamin D but at least is clear and creamy. My face has good angles for catching light, and my eyes do a nice job of popping on-camera. They are icy blue pools contained by a navy perimeter. My lips are too thin for some casting directors. Two have referred me to plastic surgeons, but there’s no chance I’m going down the collagen trail. My favorite part of me is a part that the make-up department on every set or show I’ve done considers a flaw. There is a gap in the lashes on my right eyelid, from where a tiny chicken pox, the itchiest itch you can imagine, left its scar.
All of this runs through my mind in a tenth of a second. What I actually answer is…
“Angelina Jolie with bigger boobs and much nicer lips.”
Nicole rolls her eyes at the irony. Angelina out-sizes me considerably in both departments.
“When did you see Angelina’s boobs?”
“Mom, you gotta get out more.
Of course, since I look absolutely nothing like Angelina Jolie in any way, Nicole has to tell me how much prettier, more natural, and wholesome (every girl’s favorite word) I am. After enduring fifteen minutes of Nicole praising every inch of me, I shoo her out the door, throw one last menacing glare at my image in the mirror, and get ready for bed.
Once the lights are out, my brain turns on. I hate when that happens.
In the dark, at night, before I fall asleep, my mantra is “fine.” I tell myself too many times that Jade of course is
and that Snickers are the miracle cure for narcolepsy. I tell myself the callback will go
. It’s an okay role in an intriguing indie film, but working with the director would be a dream come true—and the same goes for the hot young star already cast as the lead. As is often the case, my character is twenty-two (my look adapts easily—in life and work—to seem older, which is probably why I never get carded), and the casting director commented at my initial reading that my being underage could be a “slight problem in one scene, but not to worry.” So I lie in bed for half an hour and worry, telling myself it will be
. Nicole would say,
Don’t be a prude, don’t be afraid of your body, but draw your own boundaries
. My dad would say,
Don’t ask me a question you don’t want the answer to
. Which would indeed be giving me the answer I didn’t want to hear.
As usual, Sloane flickers through my thoughts as I drift off. I close my eyes.
n the next instant, I open them to see the same tree outside the same window I’ve been waking up to my entire life. She’s an elm, my tree. Her mood frequently reflects the weather, as if she has seasonal affect disorder. But today, despite the spring sunshine filtering through her early leaves, her branches seem weary. As if she feels like me. Even though I slept, I didn’t rest. I dreamed, as I do every night, through Maggie’s entire day in Manhattan. My bones feel tired and heavy.