More thoughts, comments and failed love affairs from my days in theatre school…
By Joel Fishbane
There were about sixty students in my school and most of them were girls, and by girls I mean dancers and by dancers I mean that subspecies of femininity known for their agility, athleticism and grace. There were nine other boys in the school, many of them were gay and I’m told that those who weren’t have since come out of the closet. I’m the last hold out and every now and then I get an email that’s completely blank except for a question mark. They don’t need to write the question; I already know it.
Then there was Roxy, the school’s secretary.
With so many girls to choose from, I couldn’t decide who I wanted to have a crush on. So I decided to be in love with all of them. A short list, in which the names have been changed to protect the beautiful: there was Julia, the squeaky blond whose boyfriend was not only larger then me but an annoyingly decent guy. I see-sawed between a pair of Jessicas for a time and spent many weeks in pursuit of a Perdita, a girl who, in addition to many other accomplishments, now runs a casino supply company.
Then there was Roxy, the school’s secretary. I’ve mentioned her before but it seems important I do so again, mostly because she’s the one who taught me to shave. What had happened was this: I had taken a job at a nearby restaurant as a busboy and on my first day I showed up to work with stubbled cheeks. Being one of those high class Tex-Mex joints (an oxymoron if ever there was one), the manager told me I would have to either shave or go home.
Some might have gone home, but I needed the job, so I bought a razor and shaving cream. Then I went to the school, because it was still open and because, I imagine, I considered it a safe haven. Although I was eighteen, I had only ever used an electric razor. So Roxy had to show me how to use the razor and I shaved my face and went to work and I stayed at that job for two years. As for Roxy, she got pregnant and left to take care of the baby and I never saw her again.
* * *
I learned you shouldn’t try to compete with vomit either.
It was another day in acting class and Ron was really laying into us. “Cleopatra, you’re next!” he bellowed and Cleopatra got to her feet. I wasn’t sure if she was nervous or just weak on her feet, but she tripped over her own coffee cup and the contents went spilling across the floor. The contents were certainly not coffee. They were dark and chunky and had a rancid smell.
“It’s my soup,” she said. “I’ll clean it up.”
I went up in Cleopatra’s place but the smell was pretty thick and we were all distracted. Actors have long known they shouldn’t compete with dogs or children; that day I learned you shouldn’t try to compete with vomit either. Especially not when it has been inexplicably stored in a bulimic’s Styrofoam cup.
The fact that eating disorders and performers go hand in hand has been one of the entertainment world’s uncomfortable truths for many years, but while the celebrities get all the scrutiny, the not-so-famous often struggle unobserved. Students are the most invisible: often malnourished and over-worked, it’s hard to know the line between the student who is choosing to be anorexic and the one who is driven to anorexia by poverty and / or exams.
Most of my fellow students were dancers first and everything else second; they were also beautiful young women, and while not all of them were bulimic, each of them was at war with her body. The school didn’t have a cafeteria and we often ate lunch in the halls and I remember the ways the girls would watch me as I ate. Hoping to use generosity as a means of getting a date, I always offered half my sandwich (and was known to make two sandwiches, just in case). But I almost never had to part with my smoked turkey on rye. The girls would always turn me down, even though I had seen them eat nothing but water and yogurt. I saw one girl eat three saltines and then put away the bag, claiming to be stuffed. This was after four hours of ballet and tap; and I knew full well that they would be taking private classes at night.
As for Cleopatra it took us a while to piece together exactly why she was carrying her own vomit in a cup: apparently some bulimics have been known to save their vomit in order to weigh it. Some of the girls told me that they had known about Cleopatra for a while; it was a small school, after all, and the girls only had one bathroom. When I asked them why they didn’t say anything, they all shrugged.
“I thought she had the flu,” said one girl. “She told me she just has a weak stomach,” said someone else.
* * *
...when you’re the only straight man in a school full of woman, you get the idea that getting the girl is just a matter of showing up.
During our second year, my friend Hamlet became friends with Helena and her roommate Hermia. For months I tried to make something happen with Hermia. I’m sorry to say she was never interested and I’m even sorrier to say I refused to give up. I was frustrated with the fact that I wasn’t making more conquests, because when you’re the only straight man in a school full of women, you get the idea that getting the girl is just a matter of showing up.
But I was starting to learn I had to do a lot more then just “show up”, which I suppose is a pretty good lesson when it comes to love. I remember helping Hermia find monologues for acting class and songs for her voice lessons. I think I took her to the theatre a few times and finally, when her birthday came around, I wrote her a short little play called Hermia: The Musical. It was essentially a love letter, but I played the coward and didn’t make myself a character, which I think sort of diluted the message. It’s like writing a love letter in third person: the sentiment is there, but none of it has been personalized and so I’m not surprised that it failed to sway her in any way.
Looking back on the play now, however, I see that it was one of the first good things I ever wrote for the stage. The structure is sound and the dialogue has merit. I used songs Hermia had been learning for her singing lessons (I rewrote the lyrics) and they do exactly what songs should do in a musical, which is to say they advanced both plot and character. So I suppose the play is sort of like my Henry VI, which was Shakespeare’s Freshman effort and while it should never be performed, it remains a good portrait of the Joel as a young man.
* * *
... not everyone gets to fall in love at a bar mitzvah, but I thought I would be one of the first...
But the girl I really want to tell you about is Viola, a tiny blond dancer who told me one day that she had never been to a bar mitzvah. By happy coincidence, my cousin was being bar mitzvahed the following week; by happier coincidence, I was allowed to bring a date. I believed this would be the start of some great romantic fling – not everyone gets to fall in love at a bar mitzvah, but I thought I would be one of the first, and how appropriate it would be, since my own bar mitzvah was a terrible and painful thing.
The bar mitzvah was at a country club in the suburbs but I had to drive downtown to pick Viola up. She appeared at the door in a tiny little dress. Time and the flaws of memory have probably made the dress a lot tinier then it was, but the point is it was wildly inappropriate for a bar mitzvah, something I didn’t care because in my mind she had worn that tiny little dress for me.
I had been late getting to her and Viola had been late getting ready so by the time we arrived at the club, the bar mitzvah was almost done. There was just enough time for us to get some free food and for Viola’s dress to cause a small scandal. We danced a lot and she took advantage of the open bar. I don’t think I ever spoke to my cousin, which is typical for us. Years later, I went to his wedding and because I had to fly to London that same day I left early and I didn’t ever see him or his wife.
Because Viola lived downtown, it had been agreed that she would spend the night sleeping on the couch in our basement. My parents were open-minded in this way, and they didn’t even try to chaperone us. They went to sleep and Viola and I were left alone. I remember sitting with her in my suit, watching the way her hemline crawled up the side of her leg. We were both drunk and I wanted desperately to “make a move”. But my instincts told me she was not a girl waiting to be kissed. Anyway, she was technically my guest and I recalled what the ancient Greeks believed would happen to the host who took advantage of his guest: they were always punished by the Gods. So I never made a move and said goodnight.
The next day I drove her home. We never really talked much after that and I decided that after seeing my family, she had decided against ever dating me. She had seen what she was getting into, which I imagined was why she didn’t want to be kissed.
As I write this though, it occurs to me that my instincts might have been completely wrong. Viola, after all, had agreed to come to a family event even though we barely knew each other. She had stood next to me in our family photos and had agreed to sleep at my house. Then there was the matter of that tiny little dress. So I think it’s possible that she actually did want to be kissed and I missed my chance and if this is the case, then I apologize to her now, even though I think we both know it probably wouldn’t have worked out.
Next week: the thrilling conclusion in which I am faced with a third year of theatre school and make a surprising choice….