Vapor, page 4
“How were you not yourself? And why?”
At that point it seemed I had no choice but to tell him about my depressing meeting with my acting professor. So I gave him a summarized version of it (including Aaron’s weird request). But in doing so, I had to relive in my mind the painful, unabridged version of that meeting, which was:
After telling me I should switch career goals, and that neither my body nor my face were that impressive, and after I had an urge to smoke but was stopped by the No Smoking sign behind his desk, Aaron Smith said, “If your acting were exceptional you could be a character actress, but it isn’t. The reason I’m telling you this is that I feel you could be very successful at something else. You’re motivated and persistent, and you have so much potential, but I just don’t think you’re going to make it as an actress. I’m sure you’ll be able to get little acting jobs, here and there, but they’ll be mediocre. Your career will be mediocre and unsatisfying and, ultimately, disappointing to you. You will be moderately happy, at best. I’ve seen people like you, and they all end up the same way.”
I reached inside my bag for a cigarette, but was again stopped midway by the sight of the No Smoking sign.
“I think you should drop my class,” he said. “If you want to finish the semester, that’s fine. But in any case, I strongly urge you not to take it again next semester, because I can’t bear to see you wasting your time in this field, which will have no rewards for you. You are a strong woman, Anna. I’ve observed you now, over the months, and I’ve noticed the power you hold over people. In a way it’s surprising that you don’t hold this same power on the stage or in front of the camera, but you don’t. And it’s precisely this strength of yours that works against you in acting. As I’ve been telling you for months, your identity is too strong for you to be able to become someone else convincingly. You are too much yourself. I think you are caged within yourself. You are incapable of being affected, much less of becoming someone else. You are genuine and true to a fault.”
He really loved to hear himself talk, it seemed. As for me, I think I was in some sort of denial of the pain I was in.
“Now, not to seem insensitive,” Aaron said, “but there is a pressing matter that I would like to discuss with you.” (Here it came, the request.) “One of the students in the class has an ugly name. It’s Esmeralda. I was wondering if you would mind if I told her to change her name to yours, for career purposes. I feel she has great promise. I think she’s the next Meryl Streep. Or a mixture of Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Jodie Foster, and/or Michelle Pfeiffer.”
I took a cigarette out of my bag and lit it.
Aaron continued: “Your name would be an amazing screen name for an actress, so if you decide to follow my advice and change careers, would you mind it if a very promising actress wore your name?”
After taking a few drags, I took the cigarette out of my mouth, and a long string of mucus hung between my upper lip and the filter. I looked at it with puzzlement, and touched my face. My cheeks were wet.
Aaron continued: “You do understand that names are not copyrighted property, and she could take it if she wanted to, but I thought as a courtesy I would ask you first, before I suggest the idea to her.”
I was carefully wiping my face with my sleeve.
“Come now, no need for tears,” he said. “To be frank, Esmeralda will succeed no matter what name she has, because remember, as Shakespeare said, ‘A rose, by any other name, would smell as sweet.’ But then again, Gertrude Stein was also right when she said ‘A rose is a rose is a rose.’ That word certainly is beautiful and pleasant to repeat. So is Anna Graham. An anagram is the actor of words.”
And that was the end of my meeting with Aaron.
Damon’s first reaction was: “He thinks you should give up acting because you are yourself too much? What utter nonsense! How amusing. I hope you’re not telling me you listened to a word of it.”
“He’s well respected.”
Damon thoughtfully peeled wax from the candlestick and kneaded it between his fingers. “Influence. You have allowed yourself to be influenced. All good things have the capacity to be influenced. Evil things and dead things do not. But influence is strange and complex. One must know which kind to accept.”
He played with the wax as he continued speaking of influence.
When the check arrived, he paid it. He asked if I wanted to go to the park by the river for a few minutes. I agreed.
When we got up from the table, I noticed again the fluid manner in which he moved. As we left the restaurant I couldn’t resist asking him if he did any sports.
“No,” he replied. “I stretch, but I’m not sure that counts.”
The air outside was cold. This was a perfect opportunity for me to pierce the mystery of his transparent clothes.
I shivered and said, “It’s so cold out. How come you wear clothes made of such thin material?”
He didn’t answer immediately, so I looked at him, and he replied softly, without looking at me, “It is punishing.”
We walked to the river, and stood at the railing, looking down at the water in silence.
He spoke first. “The greatest actor is right here in front of us.”
“What do you mean?”
“Water. You should study it. You might learn a lot about your craft.”
“How is water the greatest actor?”
“If you observe it and search through it, you’ll see.”
“Okay, I’ll do that, but in the meantime you could also just tell me?”
His eyelids fluttered wearily, and he said, “It has the capacity, through influence, for pronounced reversible change, without ever ceasing to be itself.”
For some reason, this reminded me of my previous curiosity. “Can you tell me, now, what kind of scientist you are?”
“As in the weather?”
“In what capacity?”
“I’m sorry, but that’s too personal.”
How personal could anything involving the weather be? I was annoyed. So then I asked him why my act of saving him had disturbed him so much.
He answered, “It revived my past. In addition, it destroyed a convenient lie I had erected for myself during the last few years.”
“What kind of lie?”
He hesitated. “The kind that allowed me to hate myself less than I should.”
“What was the lie?”
“A simple process, really, merely consisting in readjusting my view of the entire human race, lowering my opinion of it until it reached my shameful level, and thereby increased my sense of belonging, decreased my sense of guilt, and enabled me to spread my contempt over us all, instead of just over myself as I deserved.”
He turned away and slowly started walking along the river. I walked at his side.
After a while, he said, “I was on the verge of calling you, countless times this week, before you called. But I was afraid of contacting you, afraid of knowing you, afraid of who you might or might not be. Also, I was afraid of the risk, and I still am, for you and for myself. Part of me wants to have no part of you.”
I didn’t know what to say. I could have said, “I see,” or something of the sort, but I didn’t say it because I didn’t see. And even though I didn’t see, I was still okay, basking in a cloud of confusion, not unpleasant confusion. But then, he said something clear, something that woke me like a cold shower.
“Did you enjoy yourself this evening?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Good. Our dinner was just a small sample of my gratitude. All that matters to me now is to find a worthwhile way of paying you back for saving me. That’s all I care about, all I want. Nothing else. We should arrange to see each other again. Once I know you a little better, I’ll know how to thank you most meaningfully and usefully. For starters, of course, I could give you money. But aside from that, I want to bestow on you a favor, any favor, that is worthy of th
I made up my mind at that moment not to see him again. I was not interested in being thanked. I was hurt. I had hoped that his interest in me went a little beyond gratitude, but obviously it didn’t.
“It’s all right,” I said, stiffly. “You’ve thanked me more than enough already.” I tried to think of another platitude. “I’m glad I was able to be of service, but it was really just a matter of being at the right place at the right time.”
I was a little too moved by my own words for my own good. I was afraid tears would start welling in my eyes. I looked at my watch, claimed another engagement, and rushed out of the park before he had a chance to react. He didn’t try to stop me.
Two hours later he called me at home and asked if something was the matter. I said no. He asked if we could have dinner again. I said no. He asked why. I was cold: I said I’d rather not, that I didn’t feel like it.
Just because I felt like saving him didn’t mean I felt like having dinner with him. I felt like saying that, but didn’t. He was silent. I said good-bye, and “Thanks again, by the way,” and hung up.
He didn’t call back. Good.
The next day, as I was working in the jewelry store, Damon walked in and stood in front of me.
“Hello Anna,” he said.
“What are you doing here?”
“I’m very grateful.”
“I see. But isn’t this a little more than gratitude?”
“You’re right. I was putting it mildly.”
“No, I mean … Never mind. What is it that you want? Again to have dinner?”
“No. I want a hole.”
“I want you to pierce my ear. It’s obvious you’re upset about something. You ran off last night, and you refuse to see me again. I must have done something terribly wrong, and I must be punished.”
Strangely, instead of being struck by the fact that he was talking of being punished, when I myself had recently gone through my need to be punished (which I had assumed was very unique to my person), I said with a touch of disdain, “By getting your ear pierced?” This punishment seemed so insignificant compared to the one I had inflicted on myself.
“Is it reversible?” he asked.
“Not completely. If you take the stud out right away, the hole will close and heal, but there will always be a visible dot; a small scar.” I wasn’t sure this was true, but I wanted to discourage him.
“Well then, there you have it,” he said. “From my point of view, getting my ear pierced would be quite a substantial punishment, for there are few things in life I loathe more than irreversibility.”
I hoped he wasn’t serious. I had no desire to pierce his ear. “You’re a really nice guy, but I can’t have dinner with you because I don’t have time for your gratitude and appreciation.”
“I’m not gay. Despite what you thought at dinner. And I don’t want to appear gay, since that’s not what I am. So, do straight men get holes on the left or on the right? I can’t remember. And what kind of maintenance do holes require, and for how long? Do I get a choice of studs or is there only one kind used for piercing?”
I felt he was bluffing, so I bluffed too and answered his questions. However, he didn’t seem to be backing down, and he even made the choice of a stud, a silver one, so I finally said, “Listen, I’m not upset with you. You did nothing wrong. I had a lovely time last night. I just don’t want to see you again. So why don’t you leave now. Please just leave me alone.”
“I’m not leaving until I get pierced. I must pay for my crime, whatever it was,” he said, and sat down on the chair provided for people who got their ears pierced. “I’m getting a hole, no matter what. You can’t persuade me not to. It’s obvious I deserve it.”
His attempt at levity (if that’s what it was) irritated me. I grabbed the ear stapler and positioned myself. He had a big head, and very high, chiseled cheekbones. I couldn’t help being flustered by his beauty, up close. This was a problem. Any state short of perfect sang-froid is not advisable in the art of ear piercing. I was about to go ahead anyway, but at the last second, I paused and said, “I’m trembling. Are you sure you want this? It might not be centered.”
“Do it,” he said.
Right afterward, we looked at each other, both a bit stunned, I think. He averted his eyes and stared straight ahead. To my surprise, he was blushing. He finally broke the silence with a cracked voice: “Now will you have dinner with me?”
“No, I told you I wouldn’t. You’ve thanked me more than enough. You don’t need to thank me again. I don’t want to be a burden. I don’t want to be seen out of obligation.”
“So that’s what this is about?” he nearly shouted. “Then I’ve been unjustly punished! You falsely accuse me of generosity, which is a crime I didn’t commit, nor intend to commit, at least not in inviting you to dinner.” He turned to the mirror, and added crossly, “It’s unfortunate about the ear. I resent that. When in fact I was operating out of purely selfish motives.”
I made no response.
“I very selfishly want to have dinner with you again. Unless, of course, you just … don’t like me, which I could understand. I would perfectly understand if, for example, you didn’t like the way I dressed, or if you thought I was too discriminating about pH levels, or if you disliked any number of other little deviations of mine. But even if that were the case, I would not care, because you see, your inclinations don’t matter very much to me, nor your desires. I am being very selfish, I hope you notice. Please Anna, accept my invitation. I promise you I’m thinking only of myself. I’m being a selfish bastard.”
“Well, if you put it that way, I can’t refuse.”
That evening, we met at a restaurant near the one we had been to the night before. Damon was already sitting down when I arrived. I was stunned when I saw him. Over his ear, he was wearing what looked like a diaper. It was actually a big white bandage, which covered almost half of his head. I thought he must have had an accident. But he explained that he had taken the stud out of his ear, wanting the hole to close and heal, and was simply being cautious, trying to minimize the chances of infection and maximize the chances of complete reversal.
He then added: “But I want you to know that I’m only getting rid of the hole because I didn’t deserve it. If I had, I would leave it open forever.”
During the meal he asked me a lot of questions about my life and about my past. I felt he was fishing for something, but it took me a while to figure out what it was. He was fishing for a pattern; some pattern of self-sacrifice. He wanted to know if selflessness and heroism (his words) were recurring traits of mine. He asked me how many instances, comparable to the subway incident, there had been in my life. At the risk of disappointing him, I had to answer: none. In my own defense, I pointed out that opportunities for heroics of that type don’t often arise in the average life.
Then we talked about my love of acting.
After dinner we went to the same park we had gone to the night before, and walked along the river, and talked. Eventually, we stopped talking and stood side by side, looking at the water.
He asked, “After that meeting with your professor, did you consider giving up acting?”
“No. I realized I’d rather spend the rest of my life trying to become a successful actor, even if it meant failing, than succeed at anything else.”
We glanced at each other. Struck once again by the absurdity of his bandage, I almost burst out laughing, but thankfully restrained myself just in time and avoided having to do the MMO procedure. His bandage looked as though it were hiding some huge protrusion, some horrible deformity. But I was not disgusted, as he smiled softly, and leaned his head toward mine, clearly to kiss me. I could not imagine, at that moment, anything he could put on his head that would disgust me. I closed my eyes.
When I opened my eyes, his face was transformed; frozen in an expression of pain. His eyes were vacant.
With the movements of an old person, he turned away and went to sit on a bench nearby. I sat next to him and asked him if something was wrong.
His voice was faint. “I was almost happy with you this evening,” he said. “Normally, I am never happy. I sometimes try to be; I often seem to be, but I never am, and probably never will be, and undoubtedly never should be.”
“And now, you are no longer almost happy?”
He chuckled sadly and said, “No, not almost at all.”
“Are you merely not almost happy or are you actually almost not happy?”
“Neither. I am way past ‘almost.’ I’m downright unhappy.”
“Why are you suddenly not almost happy anymore?”
“Because, I just realized how to make you happy. And the thought of it makes me shudder.” He paused. “I will do it, though. Not right away, mind you. I’m not ready yet. But before long. And our relationship will change.”
“For the worse?” I asked, choosing to ignore the more obvious questions.
“I can’t say.” He got up and faced the river.
To his back, I nagged: “Would you mind clarifying why you’re not almost happy anymore? It didn’t come through clearly.”
He looked at me, seeming slightly hurt, and finally answered: “Because I will be sacrificing my happiness for yours.”
He turned away again, but before I had a chance to come up with an appropriate response, he spun back, and, with forced cheerfulness, said, “Hey, do you want to go dancing?”
“Right now? Where?”
“At a nightclub, for instance.”
I agreed. He took me to a nightclub that he said he went to—sometimes frequently. He danced. I didn’t. I suppose I shouldn’t have agreed to go if I wasn’t in the mood to dance, but I didn’t know I wasn’t until I got there.
He knew a few people, some of whom danced with him. The fluidity of his movements, which I had noticed before, was even more apparent in his dancing. I watched him for a long time. I overheard people talking about him. They referred to him as the Liquid Angel. Suddenly, a woman he was dancing with tried to kiss him and he slapped her. I think I was more shocked than she was. She merely shrugged, rolled her eyes, and danced off, apparently unfazed. He continued dancing as if nothing had happened, while I delicately touched my cut, remembering the man who had slapped me in the street.