Times Square blinks menacingly in the distance, that deathly conflagration of badly dressed tourists and burning neon. I’m waiting outside of a recently reopened theater at dusk, standing between a group of women with Chanel bags and floor-length chiffon gowns and a confused family of four, the dad having just procured a piece of wretched-looking Sbarro pizza, bloodied sauce on an albino crust. “Best I ever had!” he exclaims stupidly, breaking up the girls’ anxious conversation about the evening’s future entertainment (“It’s just like Sleep No More, I think, only, I dunno…”) But who am I to judge? I’m the one waiting outside of a boarded-up building, about to see an interactive play by myself.
Once inside, I hand my coat to a woman and am handed back a ticket in turn, which I will lose, characteristically, along with my credit card in less than thirty minutes. A waiter sporting Jared Leto-approved eyeliner gifts me a vodka drink with a sprig of rosemary that tastes like lemonade from Hot Dog on a Stick, that iconic California food court staple that subjected young women to public displays of vigorous breast bouncing while they macerated lemons by the force of their upper arm strength. How no one ever called this company out as Hooter’s for pre-teens is completely beyond me.
We wait in the dark, hugging on to the walls of a spiraling staircase while performers in black and white peel us away from one another one by one, splitting couples in twain. “Is this your girlfriend?” an actor asks the elfin, ineffectual-looking young man in front of me, before handing him her purse and stealing her away into the black pit of the basement beneath us. I wait awkwardly for someone to take me from the line of strangers, contemplating emergency exit strategies in case of a building fire and sipping on my drink that reminds me of confused middle school perversions, until finally, a boy who looks like the spitting image of Rickie Vasquez in My So-Called Life, one of television’s pioneering queers, grabs me by his sweaty, loving hand and leads me into the bowels of this hotel, past more men holding more platters of booze and a topless babe wearing a wedding veil, prancing anonymously amongst a plastic landscape behind glass.
“What’s your name?”
“With a ‘y’?” he asks, though this alphabetical detail is merely small talk, the time that fills the space between entering the double doors of the glittering theater and the moment he removes the beverage from my hand and tells me to close my eyes before pulling me into another room beyond the bar, his damp hands becoming ever the more damp from the closeness of touch and labored softness of his efforts.
“Okay,” he starts, whispering closely into my ear. “I want you to think of the moment you were most happy.”
Immediately my mind goes to January 2011, somewhere within a trip to Paris, but no real point in particular. Though, if I had given it some more thought, it would be the precise instant the American Airlines representative told me I could get on the flight from New York a day earlier, beating a storm that would have cancelled the spontaneous, gorgeously irrational trip entirely. Yes, here, I was my happiest… and my most willingly stupid. I think this is what people call love.
“Do you have that moment?”
Just as quickly, the memory reveals its other face, because it is the precursor to a life that never materialized. “Happiest” moments should never be analyzed, never defined as such individually, because utter happiness is inherently unsustainable. Happiness, like everything else, battles up against the fleeting impermanence of everything else. Asking me what my happiest moment ever is forces me to look at the violent sinusoidal wave of my history of emotions—good, bad, good, bad, good—utter happiness leading to utter sadness, my heart and body and head all begrudgingly along for the ride. Either everyone is like this or I am an undiagnosed manic depressive, in which case, I’ll also blame this play for illuminating said point.
“I want you to think of all the colors of that moment,” he says, still thinking he’s holding my hand on a skip towards Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory singing “I’ve got the golden ticket!” The colors of this forced-upon memory shift from Technicolor to the equivalent of Munich in March, drab and gray, empty as a Coke can. But I don’t tell my accidental spiritual guide/ Broadway dancer that he is essentially dragging me towards the mouth of hell. Instead, I eek out an agreeable “mmm hmm.” The room has slowly erupted into a chorus of whispers, bouncing off the walls and into my ear. He tells me to take that moment and put it in my hand, close my fingers around it. “Open your eyes,” he commands gently, and then peels open my grasp to pluck up my imaginary, bittersweet pill and put it in a cup or something. I can’t remember, because all I’m focusing on is the naked girl laying on a table in front of me.
Released and alone, I wander around the bar, an experience I can best compare to attending a high school dance at a neighboring school where you know no one. I bounce aimlessly between the walls of this small theater, trying to avoid eye contact with anyone lest they engage with me in an uncomfortable conversation. I spend some time in the bathroom admiring the wallpaper. I used to do this same sort of things at parties in middle school, disappearing into a far-away corner when I felt the suffocating squeeze of social anxieties, or inexplicably beginning to clean up around the party, putting beer cans and cigarette butts into garbage bags, disguising my utter awkwardness with the auspice of being helpful.
On the center stage a woman makes miniature, calculated movements within the heavy drape of a glittering cloak. A countdown proceeds overhead. 45… 44… 43. The bathroom attendant told me this was for the performers. By the time it gets to 37, I’d want to be near the stage.
Around 39, I’m walking through a darker, abandoned hallway when I make eye contact with one of the more twee performers with ginger hair and red eyeliner, heralding an image of all my past junkie lovers, strung out and greedy. He pins me up against a wall, his eyes nearest my nose.
“What’s your name?”
Everyone here wants to know your name.
“When’s the last time you had sex, Jenny?”
“Two weeks ago.”
“How was it?”
“When’s the next time you’re going to have sex?”
“I don’t know.”
Because I’m single?
“Because I don’t plan those things,” I say, smiling awkwardly, like a kid who’s just chopped off three of his friend’s fingers during recess and is forced to come back to the classroom and sing the National Anthem.
“Are you nervous?” he asks.
“What are you feeling right now?”
Stupid, silly, forced upon…
Yes, I just used “nonplussed” in a faux sexualized conversation with a Broadway performer.
“What’s your biggest sexual fantasy?”
And here, I laugh. “I’m not telling.” This whole thing is preposterous.
“Why?” His pressing brevity is similar to the shtick I used to get from Nate, the aged casting director and father of one I dated for 60 some odd days during the summer of 2011, those hot months following that happy winter week in Paris. Nate’s was a short and semisweet analog form of communication, well-honed on many young women over the course of many single years. It was manipulative and relatively successful… until the chip on his shoulder revealed itself to be a great black hole, filled with bitterness at his career failures and a massive distrust of women. There’s a window in which to find an unspoiled man; late 40s isn’t in it.
“Why won’t you tell me?” he presses.
“It’s more a repeat performance. You need context.”
“No, I don’t.”
“Alright, so, like, this tattooed yogi.”
“Tattooed yogi, huh? That’s what you’re into?”
I avoid going into how that person has since gotten engaged and moved to Jersey City and that it’s probably for the best it never worked out but I figure these trivial details aren’t what you’re supposed to include in “biggest sexual fantasy” stories. The fact that I have just uttered the words “tattooed yogi” to a total stranger and not over gossipy drinks with an agreeable girlfriend is enough to make me want to crawl into a hole and die.
“Well, Jenny. I hope to see you soon,” he lies, before dramatically pressing himself off of me. And, in true New York dating fashion, I won’t ever interact with him again. Instead, I’ll spend the next two hours watching him from afar, grinding into some girl on stage in the way he pretended to do with me just moments before.
You and me. Actors all.