A mother caught up in semantics excised can’t from my vocabulary early; a daughter dependent on passivity to numb her self-loathing learned late to replace it with won’t. Between them, where stasis proves itself to be a version of equilibrium, is a play about a girl who is more like a bureaucratic phenomenon – her stage directions a checklist of milestones that can just pass for life, provided the audience remains distant in their seats.
But as any first act will, the show begins to break down when the audience excuses itself as one, amid mutters of a new virus that – so sorry, but you understand, – will be only a brief intermission. Left alone in the theater, our star knows enough to stay on script, so proof of her brilliant performance might be made available later upon request.
She continues to hit her marks, half-wondering why a girl with her face has appeared, crying, in the third row. Her real-life father joins her onstage carrying a seam ripper, and begins hacking away at the costume mama sewed so lovingly. He is not really there, of course – her parents live together all the way across the country – but moving across set, she stumbles over her shredded costume that is really her life, hitting her line a beat too late, never quite recovering.
She doesn’t notice yet that she is bleeding, she won’t until she slips in a puddle that has collected itself like rainwater on the floor.
She gives up and goes backstage. Her dressing room is barren, because nobody else goes in there, and she doesn’t like to be alone with herself anyways.
What would she fill it with? She’s been in others’ rooms, who invariably seem to have chosen from a catalog she didn’t know to look for.
A latent worry that she resides outside the core of creative energy needed to form a sense of self strong enough to withstand solitude emerges from the empty walls and closes in, as it always does backstage – she rushes out, tripping again, to finish the act.
Eventually, her costume that is really her life comes apart all the way, which isn’t entirely her dad’s fault at this point, you have to admit, and she is bared to her own image in the audience. the play is over, she knows, though she hasn’t made it to the end of the script.
Can’t or won’t go on?
The girl in the third row nods.
“Stopping before the written end feels like failure”, the starlet says, “because I can’t be sure it was a choice.”
Her walls of terror rush in, crashing through her like waves; would atlas choose to set the heavens down?
“Who shapes a play?” the girl asks. “The intention of the playwright, as the creation comes to her? The performers, embodying the second dimension? Or is it their audience, reacting to what they’re shown?”
I look down at my bare skin and understand the holy trinity, an individual existing in relation to itself. Passivity is hollow, the act of living split apart, offered up to a creator who will never accept.
I return to my dressing room to find a sewing machine in the corner. Beside it lies the final pages of script. These are the inklings of my future, time widening without linearity. Lists soften into patchwork as I embark on quilting pieces of who I want to be into beautiful things to adorn the walls and the girl from the audience with.
Finally, we are the watcher and the watched, a closed system to interpret the self.
I shave my head.
Aesthetic choices take on substance because I say so.
At some infinitely smaller point, small enough as to not matter where it happens, our new, improvised performance grows so weighty that it sags and bursts into the third dimension, and a burgeoning life emerges.
The next morning, I wake up in the girl’s head & I know the rest is up to us.
Tallulah Brannigan (she/her) is a queer poet living and studying in New York. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in Anti Heroin Chic, Resurrection Lit, and the Harvard Persephone Journal. She tweets at @vaguelytallulah.
image: MM Kaufman