i might as well admit that i got my hair cut yesterday so that it would behave when i walked up to the public tonight for the second installment of the experimental theatre thing i did over the phone last month. this time i was to arrive at the public's physical space on lafayette at 8:20, and lurk until someone told me what to do next. i knew that i would be sitting at a table bisected with a piece of glass and interacting with another participant through a deck of cards with written instructions, and that's about it. i was told to turn my phone off and drop my bag at my feet when i sat down at the table. a few other people trickled into the lobby after i did, and i tried to avoid checking them out until i was escorted to an empty theater, which didn't prevent me from getting a glimpse of the guy who would end up across from me a few minutes later. the staffer who'd checked me in and told me the phone stuff led me a black curtain and told me to make a left, and that was it.

the table's spotlight was so focused that i couldn't really tell how large the space we shared was, though i looked around a few times and caught the glint of gilded plaster pillars a dozen feet away. 20 feet away? i took a seat across from a man who looked younger than i am (a card would eventually ask me to think about the decade in which he was born; the '80s, i figured), with a short-sleeved, black-and-white-patterned button-down shirt. a black-on-white mask that paired nicely with it. short hair with soft curls. large, expressive eyes. a silver band on his right ring finger, big, nice-looking headphones around his neck. a white card in front of each of us told us to turn over cards from the stack between us, in a little slot in the partition, according to the direction in which the black arrow on their faces pointed. we were to say the things in regular type and silently do the boldface things.

i'm terrible at hearing things people say through masks (and am probably also losing my hearing a bit), so i panicked at first at the thought of missing something he said and having to deviate from our strict instructions in order to catch up; eventually i started cupping my ear when i needed him to repeat something. this encounter was described as your chance to reconsider what you think you know about a person – including yourself. we didn't choose a person A or B tonight, as i did in my phone call with a different stranger for the first part of the triptych; the questions i would ask and answer landed on me as soon as i sat down across from him. i might have been imagining things, but i feel like they got more intense more quickly this time. was anyone proud of him? no. (we were to answer yes or no unless explicitly instructed to do otherwise, and we stuck to that, for the most part.) did he know how an engine worked? no. could he remember the last time he was drunk? his eyes crinkled in a laugh: yes. he can read music, and he's been to the opera. he doesn't like the way he looks. he can't remember the last time he felt joy. he can't talk about that. he has fallen asleep next to a weapon. he showed me one side of his face: "this is my face." he turned: "this is the other side of my face."

a card instructed me to trace the route to my home on the glass, and to instruct him to follow my finger on his side; i pulled us both down and along the side of the partition until our hands fell off (the partition was manhattan, i reckoned, and i live on the east river.) the cards led us into pantomimes: make an S. make a bowl. make a mountain. make a family. make a forest. we planted our elbows on the table, scraggled our fingers at each other like branches, and laughed. we made fists and unclenched them, bit by bit, for what we imagined was thirty seconds. i was told to imagine his mouth. he was told to imagine my mouth.

one of us should shout as loudly as we could, a card said, so i waggled my eyebrows, took a deep breath, and bellowed until my voice gave out. do you think anyone heard that? the pillars glinted at the edge of our vision. we sat silently and listened to the space. another card asked us to come up with a not-happy-birthday song we both knew ("the national anthem?" "i don't know all of it," he whispered, but neither of us said anything else, so i pulled the next card and tonight was the night i sang all of "the star-spangled banner" to a stranger and buried my head in my hands; he laughed with delight). i have not broken a bone. i have broken a heart. he told me he was on a boat, and we swayed back and forth in time with one another. i don't like dancing. i imagined something that keeps him awake at night. i imagined him arriving home and someone greeting him at the door, i imagined that someone embracing him. i imagined the person he knows best in the world.

the partygoers have gone outside to watch the end of the meteor shower, i told him. no, we are gazing at the full moon. we are in our party shoes, i am slipping and he is putting out his arm to catch me. thank you, i say. do i think we have a mutual friend? i do. do i think there is music both of us would like? i do. what would happen if we saw each other again somewhere else? what happens to the him that has developed in my mind tonight? those are things i wondered, but they are more explicitly things i wondered aloud to him, cards in my hand. i was to quietly imagine a question i would ask him if i could. would you want to be my friend? my side of the partition had a pencil and a tape dispenser, and i was to write my name, or a made-up name, on the back of a card, and i taped it to the glass.

a quarter of the cards remained between us when i turned over the one that told me, in bold print, that the encounter was over. i was to gather my things, turn around, and walk out of the room without looking back, and a fat tear slipped into my mask. i thought of a mentor's lines, abrasion, absence:
Winter; the woods
Empty; the axe
Sunk in a stump;
Its thud a sob
Startling the sleep
Of the dreamer
Waking, calling
Where am I? Who
Is there?


LPC said...

Falling in love, I suppose, is the easy way to see this.

lauren said...

it is deeply platonic for me - deeply, individually platonic, ha ha - but no less love for that. i've been talking with a friend about how the first exercise in this triptych, the phone call, hit me a lot harder than it did him, and i think it's partially because some elements of my isolation here in new york city have been so extreme (my friend lives on grand cayman, and he's had something much closer to Regular Life for some time now). though i am very much an introvert in a lot of ways, i'm also a secret pack animal, and empathy for and then separation from these strangers just tore me apart.