Last night I was dancing in a Warren Street loft and then in a club for 30-somethings, and I finally took a cab that got me home at 3:23. AM. What is wrong with this fixture—that’s what I asked of myself, by myself, and for myself. What am I doing here, and why are these famous people, some of whom are named Mandy, doing it with me?
It’s a long story, brace yourself. Once upon a time I was married to a woman who wanted desperately to be an actress. Or to be a movie star. Either way, she had outsized ambition and no way to make it actionable. She was beautiful, of course, she had the kind of physical presence that would make any sentient being, man or woman, turn and look, just to make the astonishment, the pleasure, and the envy last. And she could make you believe almost anything. She had the uncanny gifts that will make people stars, in other words, but she lacked a theater where they could be realized. She was a scientist in search of a laboratory. Until she left for Los Angeles.
Her father was a Dutch military officer, her mother was an Indonesian woman who came of age during the Second World War. The formative moment in her life came when she was five years old and spotted herself in the wedding album of the couple she knew as her parents. What am I doing there, she asked, and her future was scripted accordingly. Her life became that question.
Most of us don’t have to ask it unless—until—we’re in therapy, and that’s probably a good thing. Otherwise we’d all be explaining our origins to each other, as if no one could understand us without the back story. But then again, that’s all we do outside of professional exchange. Think about it, it’s pretty much what we do, as strangers, lovers, parents, and children—we make sense of ourselves by producing narratives that order the random sequence of our waking lives. In scripting ourselves, we hope our listeners become characters in the story we’re telling, so that it now it unfolds as a collaboration: everybody writes her own dialogue, but we all know where this thing is headed, how this story ends.
My first wife did have to keep asking the originary question (what am I doing here?), and it turned her stunning beauty into stage talent. Most of her colleagues on the theatrical scene didn’t ask because they didn’t have to—they were gorgeous or charismatic, they knew exactly why they’d stolen the scene, wherever it had been set. All the available attention was rightfully theirs.
She wasn’t like that. It made her a better performer.
I thought of this woman, my first wife, late last night in this loft crammed with theater memorabilia, working actors, and movie stars. All the requisite clichés kicked in, of course, as I contemplated the small crowd, and conversed with the strays who, in their perverse way, insisted on dancing with me—yikes, these people are just like us after all, I thought, or, yikes, these people are nothing like us.
After all, they are very much like us. Still, they know better than we do how not to be like us. That’s what makes them so attractive—that’s why we pay attention.
I danced with everybody who insisted, including the shoeless hooligan who just landed a part in a new AMC series, the guy awkwardly but aggressively dressed in a vintage (1960s!) wool suit that made him look significantly larger than the minimal self he brought to this place
Sure, that’s why he wore it, this outsized ambition. That’s why we all wear it, whatever it is, whatever it takes.