Forty-five seconds is all I have, maybe sixty if I stretch. I pace the green room beforehand, get my heart rate as high as it will go without running. If you run backstage, the audience can hear your footfalls.
I start my entrance as far out as I can. There’s a window onstage, and I have to pass it just as the lead says “Dammit” for the third time.
Not the second. The third.
Then my forty-five seconds begin, and I’m onstage, frantic, looking for my cheating husband. He’s hiding behind the bar, but I don’t know that. My name is Helen, though not in the script. In the script, I’m just “Angry Wife” but I’m Helen, really, and I am pissed. My husband was supposed to be home hours ago. This isn’t the first time he’s done this. He does it every night except Mondays, and will continue to do it through the run of the show. Stays out late all the time. Cheating, lying bastard.
I’ve only got forty-five seconds.
I make as much noise with my heels as I can, stomping like a madwoman. I always get some laughs. I’m pretty good at playing flustered, I guess — I always feel hot, the burn of cold feet in a hot bath. It’s exhausting, actually, the best workout I’ve ever had. We jump up and down before shows, rub our hands together and ease them apart, feeling the magnetic pull between them. Some actors put on this thick, black cloak and go outside to smoke between scenes, but I can’t imagine what that would do to me. Cigarettes already make me jittery, and I’m pretty sure they’re supposed to do the opposite.
But back to my forty-five seconds.
I always get laughs, some of the biggest laughs of the show. Sometimes they applaud as I storm off the stage, not having found my cheating husband. I threaten the bartender, the patrons. I take one of them by the collar and shake him pretty good — I mean, I don’t hurt him or anything, but he’s really good at physical comedy so it looks like I do, and I’m pretty good at physical comedy, too. I hope we do another show together soon, one where I have a few minutes of stage time, at least.
He’s probably the nicest person in the cast, too. He always makes sure to ask me to cast parties, invites me when they go to Denny’s or the bar. I haven’t gotten to know most of them so I don’t usually go — when you have a forty-five second part, you can mostly rehearse on your own — but since we have this scene together, I’ve gotten to know him pretty well. I call him George. I have a hard time remembering his real name because we always call each other by our characters’ names — except they don’t call me Helen. They call me Angry Wife.
I know his favorite soda is Dr. Pepper. I know he likes pepper on his fries.
The one time I went to Denny’s with them after rehearsal, he gave me a ride in his car. There was a bunch of junk on the passenger’s seat, but he cleared it off for me, which I thought was sweet. I didn’t let him clear it all. I didn’t mind having fast food wrappers at my feet. I kind of liked it, like I was a part of his mess. Like he didn’t have to hide things from me.
He didn’t sit next to me when we got to Denny’s, I think because he didn’t want me to feel pathetic. I sat next to the girl my husband is cheating with. My play husband, I mean. The one who hides behind the bar. In real life I’m not married, or else I wouldn’t feel right about riding in George’s car with his fast food wrappers. In real life, I’ve got a Pekingese named Jeepers. He stays at my mother’s house when I’m at the theater, or else he’ll poop on the rug. He’d prefer me to stay home all the time, but I’ve told him I can’t do that. He likes to sit on my lap while I memorize lines, likes to make me play catch with him in the living room. He’s a bit possessive, really. I think he misses watching me rehearse by myself: evening shows daily and matinees on weekends. I think he liked when I came back from auditions, sad and ready to cuddle on the couch for hours, to feel his little wet nose on my neck, and then to buck myself up and rehearse again. His whole life it was like that, practically. He was a good audience, but I’ve got a real audience now, and blocking and everything, even if only for forty-five seconds.
But this girl I sat next to, she’s really pretty. And I asked her, when we were at Denny’s, what kind of magazines she reads. And she said she didn’t read magazines, just books. Plays, mostly. She said she reads a play a week, even when she isn’t in them, which I wasn’t quite sure I believed. She asked me how much theater I’d done and I said only this and she looked like she smelled something foul, but I couldn’t smell it, just her perfume and pancakes. I didn’t say much after that, but I watched George put pepper on his fries and drink his Dr. Pepper, and I smiled at how peppery it all was.
George drove me back to the theater after Denny’s, but we didn’t talk, really. He asked if I had fun and I said yes, because it seemed like the right thing to say. Mostly when I talk to him, it’s scripted, and he doesn’t have to say anything back.
Onstage, I shake him by the collar and he stares at me, open-mouthed, like I’ve got snakes growing out of my head. And I toss him back into his chair, because he hasn’t told me what I want to know, and I take his empty martini glass and throw it on the floor as I leave. Which gives the barkeep something to do with his hands during the next scene. I watch from the wings as the scene continues and George tells my husband about women in a way that’s hilarious and heartbreaking. That’s what one reviewer called him: “hilarious and heartbreaking.” I think it fits.
There’s about an hour after my scene until it’s time for curtain call, and George stays onstage most of that time. I know his lines by heart but I have to keep myself from saying them aloud because they might be able to hear that onstage.
If I were really Helen, I’d tear apart a few more bars, then go home with the butcher. I’d drink whiskey and enjoy the smell of blood in the butcher’s hair, and make him eggs afterward, right in the kitchen where my husband could see. I’d go back to the bar where I hassled George, see if he wanted to buy me a drink to calm me down. I’d put my hand on his knee under the table, and he wouldn’t try to shake it off.
But George would be off with some floozy, probably one of the miscellaneous hookers from act two, scene four, the one who always rubs his shoulders during notes.
But really, he’d be lined up for curtain call. He’d be taking his bows.
I’m one of the first to bow, and I have to bow with three other people. The principles bow one by one. And when the whole cast is on the stage and everyone’s clapping, George ends up next to me. He takes my hand and lifts it in the air, and I listen as hard as I can, feel his sweat on my fingers. It’s more thrilling than I ever hoped it could be, standing onstage with people clapping, smiling at me through the stage lights, a few of them rising to their feet. I like to imagine what it will be like when I’m the star, when I get to stand out there by myself for a few seconds and take all the applause for myself, when I have pages and pages of lines and I read a play a week and get every part I audition for. That’s almost my favorite part about curtain call, being under the lights with my future in front of me, but the best part is standing next to George, whether he squeezes my hand or keeps his hand loose and smiles at the audience when we all bow together.