An Audience of One
We’re on the second drink at the night’s second bar, a jazz club on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Will* downs the last of his beer, looks me in the eye and says, “Come home with me.”
He’s not like the scruffy intellectuals I’m used to. With his close shave and short blond hair, he reminds me of the aging frat boys I avoided when I lived in San Francisco during the tech bubble. I’ve enjoyed his efforts to reel me in since he spotted me on the next barstool a few hours ago. His job as an investment banker has given him confidence with women and a few extra pounds from nights out at expensive restaurants, both of which I find more appealing with each vodka tonic. He tosses me questions about my family and my travels, turning the spark of our mutual curiosity into a flame. I cock my head like a flirty five-year-old as I spin stories of my childhood in the German countryside. I hope it’s my accent that’s charmed him and not the lies I’ve been telling.
Will’s proposal — which he said more like a command — is appealing. I’ve been sleeping alone since my last boyfriend left a year ago. I’m leery of one-night stands, though. I haven’t had one since college, when I stumbled home after a cast party with a muscly Jersey boy who’d overdosed on too many Method acting classes and kept asking me what animal I was as we writhed on his futon.
My real hesitation, however, is that after hours of swapping stories with Will, I have a pretty good idea of who I’d be spending the night with. He can’t say the same. I told him that I’m a Harvard theology PhD student in town for research. But really I’m a pope from the ninth century.
Let me explain.
I hadn’t planned on going out. I had planned on being in rehearsal for what I feared was becoming the world’s worst production of Top Girls, Caryl Churchill’s brilliant feminist play about Thatcher’s England in which I’d been cast as Pope Joan, an apocryphal female pope from ninth century Germany.
I knew to keep my expectations low when the director told me under which Central Park tree to meet her for my audition. But a year out of a competitive MFA program, opportunities to act in great plays were few and far between. I was happy to slog it out in another far Off-Broadway black box for a chance to tackle this one. With only a week before opening, though, rehearsal had been cancelled. The official explanation: an over-flowing toilet in the rehearsal space. I suspected the season premier of American Idol was the real culprit.
I was sick of sitting on the sidelines of the New York theater, watching other young actors land the roles that catapulted them onto casting directors’ short lists. I had done all that I could to prepare my role in my apartment: lines learned, text analyzed, German accent CD played and practiced. To grow my performance I needed to embody Joan in all dimensions — the way she moved, how she spoke, how she saw the world. I’d never left the confines of my apartment or the rehearsal room before “in character,” but I decided to head to a fancy neighborhood bar as Joan. If I couldn’t rehearse with the cast, I would rehearse with the city.
An hour into nursing a $12 Chardonnay amidst the marble tables and palm fronds, the evening looks like a bust. I run Joan’s lines in my head and take stabs at Thomas Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem (I can never get past chapter three, but I’m hoping Joan can). Will rescues me when, after a few side-long glances, he asks if I have siblings. Any other night, I would have muttered a shy “no” and gone back to my book. But as Joan, I act like I’ve never heard such a seductive question and launch into stories of my rural childhood.
“Zere vas a lot to do on ze farm, yes…but ze solityude and ze freedom to explore nature made me realize zat ve all versheep god in different vays.”
I’m connected to my surroundings, drinking in the lights and sounds as I tell stories. My gestures are more expansive; I’m quicker to laugh and smile. My accent seems to be loosening me up — it’s hard to take yourself too seriously vhen all your w’s have become v’s. Will’s eyes don’t wander from mine. I’m not surprised he finds me fascinating — I’m finding this new version of me rather fascinating as well. I hang on his every word too. Sure he’s a good conversationalist, but in this long form improvisation I have to stay on my toes to avoid telling conflicting lies. The level of attention I’m giving him must read as adoration, if not awe.
When the talk turns to relationships I say that I was widowed, just like Joan. I feel guilty for making him sympathize with a non-existent loss, but he simply narrows his eyes and looks more deeply into mine. He’s sizing me up again, assessing my value as a conquest. When he then asks me how I pay the bills, I’m surprised, and a touch impressed, by his forwardness.
“I have my research stipend, I do some consulteeng, and, vell, vehn my husband died I inherited… I am independently vealthy.” This time his eyes ever-so-slightly widen. Value verified, he pays our tab and says there’s a jazz club uptown that’s not to be missed.
When I revealed my “widowhood,” years of insecurity about my spotty relationship history disappeared in an instant. Since that was so fantastic, I thought, why not push the envelope even further with my “independent vealth” and erase the money worries that consume my waitress/personal assistant/debt-riddled life? I’d seen the opulence of the city up close as a cater-waiter at countless galas. Tonight, as a twenty-seven-year-old rich European widow cabbing it uptown with my new suitor, I’m starting to feel like the guest of honor.
At the club, we inch closer, fingertips grazing each other’s shoulders as we discuss Pope John Paul II and Muslim extremism — things that tend to come up when you say you’re a theology PhD student (I worried “pope” might land me in the psych ward). But when he puts his hand on my cheek and says, “When I get back from the bathroom I want to talk about transubstantiation,” I think the jig is up.
“You vant to know if ze wine and ze bread are really ze blood and body of Christ? Uh, no!” I tease upon his return. He laughs. I’ve passed the test he didn’t even know he was giving me, and that’s when he asks me to come home with him.
“Ohhh, Maybe anozer time…vy dohn’t you give me your card and I’ll call you…?”
He’s attractive, smart, easy to talk to, and the first non-artist who’s been interested in me, ever. What a relief to talk about books and politics and not be asked my opinion on his screenplay or agent situation. It’s even more of a relief not to talk about my agent situation.
In the last year I’d gone from feeling like one of The Chosen in a graduate program that takes three percent of its applicants, reveling in a steady stream of work and visits from famous actors (who earnestly told us how to navigate a professional life that few of us would ever have), to being dirt-poor and exhausted from cobbling together menial jobs to pay student loans and New York rent. Things nose-dived when my actor boyfriend walked out one night saying he resented the attention I gave my career. Getting a crack at Top Girls is a chance to dive back into the art my life has been missing since leaving school; and playing Joan in a crowded bar is connecting my creativity to my sexuality, a connection I’ve been denying myself since losing my boyfriend to my ambition. In Will’s eyes I see he wants to give me the passion I’ve been missing. He looks like he can deliver.
He kisses me. I kiss back.
He has a bedroom and living room that are not the same room. This alone puts his apartment several steps up from the actor shares I’m used to. Dog-eared copies of the New Yorker cover the coffee table, his I-have-a-real-job briefcase sits in the corner, and, I can scarcely believe it, Playbills pile high on an end table — all the plays I’ve been auditioning for or hoping to see all season. Maybe there’s more to this frantic hook-up than I thought. I want to talk to about Edward Albee and Mary Louise Parker, but if we go down that road I’ll for sure end up blowing my cover.
Of course I’m worried that I’ll trip up at some point, that he’ll discover my lies and be angry. But the snippets of the relationship history I’ve heard so far reveal a decade as a done-it-and seen-it-all Manhattan bachelor. If he finds me out, he’ll at least have an amazing story, something all singles in the city trade like currency.
I take my shirt off to hurry things along. As he unbuttons my pants I see something I’ve never seen up close: a man sucking in his stomach. Never before has a man bothered to try to hide his fat for me.
Not only am I more desirable as Joan, but she gives me permission to get it on like a rockstar auditioning groupies for the tour bus. Tonight I revel in a man going down on me instead of my usual worries that he’s bored. I arch my back, push my body into his mouth, and whisper throaty requests (“a leetle to ze right”). When he turns me over and maneuvers his frontside too close to my backside, I have no problem saying a firm “no.” When I’m ready to finish, I swiftly mount him, squeezing his chest between my thighs and grinding into him until I come. Afterwards, I lay my head on his chest when I’d usually scoot to the edge of the bed, not wanting to seem needy. I fall asleep in his arms, staring at the pattern on the ceiling and with the unfamiliar feeling of winning coursing through me, though I don’t know exactly what I’ve won.
Oh, no, I’m still German.
This is my first thought when I wake a few hours later in that good, warm bed. Will is already up making breakfast. Of course Joan gets breakfast; I’m used to a head barely raised from the pillow, “Hey, you don’t mind if I don’t walk you to the door?” Will tells me about his upcoming vacation to France as I push my grapefruit around and wonder how this all happened.
“Oh, yes, Lake Geneva is ahbsolutely beautiful zis time of year.” I’m still nailing the accent, but my voice sounds hollow. Joan’s soul has left the building.
It’s one thing to have sex as another person. That’s hot. But to have the morning after as another person is a whole other level of crazy. There’s no artistic justification for eating someone’s grapefruit under false pretenses. As we walk to Columbus Avenue I look for the right moment to come clean. Before I find it, Will says he’d like to see me again and asks for my number.
“Uh, vell, give me your card and I’ll call you…”
His face falls as he gives me his card. His disappointment shocks me out of my self-absorption, reminding me that the night has consequences beyond my own. As I walk twenty blocks home in my smeared mascara and nighttime clothes, I quietly worry about my mental health — and my ethics — while showering myself with compliments on my acting. Take that Meryl Streep! Hey, Jessica Lange, ever have sex as Frances!?
But I want to see him again. The laughter, the sex, the Playbills — could he be The One? I was scared to call him, not out of guilt or fear that he’d lash out at me, but of the possibility of losing a romance that excited me. Romance and work had always been opposing forces in my life; with Will they were in harmony, for the first time. Sure it was a long shot that we’d have the same connection without “Joan,” but actors aren’t known for putting a lot of stock in the odds. I figured that if I wanted a shot at a relationship that would let me be my truest self, I would have to call him and confess. After a day of catching up on my sleep, I dialed the number on his business card.
He picked up. “Hi,” I said in the flat tones of my Florida accent. “It’s Claire. I’m the woman you slept with other night.”
Silence. Then a rueful laugh.
“I know, I know! I’m in this play, and we weren’t called to rehearsal and I really wanted to work on my character’s accent and my physicality…but I really liked spending time with you. I’d like to see you again… as Claire.”
“Wow…Well, you know I like the theater.” I can hear the smile in his voice. “When I get back from vacation I’d love to get together. We can talk about acting.”
And we did. We began dating. He taught me about arbitrage during intermissions. I taught him about Shakespeare over Cabernet. He was curious about my auditions and enjoyed hearing of my successes. I was curious about finance and respected how hard he worked to get to his position. We ate, had sex, and went to plays. I learned that the routine, having something to look forward to, was much of what I needed in a relationship. As “Joan” I was a bigger and brighter version of myself. But now I was finding happiness in being enough just as I was.
Around three months, though, things plateaued. Will cancelled our Halloween plans and became cagey when I asked him about an upcoming business trip. When I asked if he had another relationship, he said he was involved with a woman in Chicago. And one in London. And he was thinking about entering a twelve-step program for sex addiction.
Perhaps I should have been concerned that he so seamlessly made the transition from dating one “person” to another. But if I had a reckless streak, of course I’d attract a man with one too. Our odd beginning, instead of signaling an uphill battle, just meant that the fates had worked overtime to bring us together. I had always worried I was “too much” for my boyfriends: too hungry, too ambitious, too sad. Since Will seemed to accept me at my wildest, I felt — albeit mistakenly — more secure than ever before.
When he saw how glum I looked after his confession he said, “What, you didn’t think this could be serious?” His face showed no contempt, only surprise. I looked away and thought, it was for me.
And I wondered how it still could be. I desired him, and I hated feeling cast aside. A week later, I called him and said I wanted to continue our relationship, sexually. He thought it a bad idea, but not bad enough to tell me otherwise when I suggested I come over that night after my waitressing shift.
For a few months we met every couple of weeks after his late work nights on snowy afternoons before my Saturday night shifts. The passion nourished me, even when I knew it soon wouldn’t. We played with sex toys, shared take-out meals, and told stories of past assignations. The sex wasn’t full of love, but it wasn’t full of sadness or regret, either. It was full of… sex. For him, it may have been satisfying a compulsion; for me, it was creativity, play, and attention — a bright spot in weeks filled with struggle and rejection.
One morning I lifted a book I’d leant him from his nightstand and found a letter from Ms. Chicago tucked in the pages. I started to shake, a good indication I was no longer comfortable occupying a spot in the harem. Despite insisting that I’d only wanted sex, I was hurt to see evidence of being one of the many. And I was angry with myself — how could I have tricked myself into thinking he could give me real intimacy? I finally pulled away to search for the real relationship that would give me the security to go for what I wanted and the confidence to know I’m enough as I am.
Several years and a few heartbreaks later, I’m now single in a different city, Los Angeles. When I’m feeling rejected or frustrated with the transactional aspects of LA’s dating scene, I sometimes think of my night as Joan and how easy it would be to put on a show of what might make me stand out here: would borrowing a Mercedes for my date with the film producer make him try a little harder? Would casually mentioning a job in network casting make the bartender include his number with the tab? But I don’t.
Recently, after a little first date chitchat about my work in acting a man said, “So, how do I know you’re not acting right now?” After recovering from the disappointment that he’d ask something so banal, I told him the truth. “When I’m on a date, I am so fiercely committed to not acting, you don’t even know.”
- name and some identifying details have been changed.