Classical drama is played out on the stage. It also happens in real life.
For a birthday surprise last month, my wife took me to see Shakespeare's "The Tempest." I take it as a sign of enormous mental health that I enjoyed the performance so much, and only thought of Holly once or twice during the show. Of course, I've thought of her a dozen times a day since then.
I have always loved the idea of live theater. It seems so daring, so intense, so seemingly real yet so full of unreality. It is somehow subversive, somehow liberating. Who is the self on stage? Live theater is (to me, anyway) the submersion of one's identity on stage, a make-believe, while at the same time it is a very carefully crafted walk on a high wire. Is there a net below? Only the actors can decide. We in the audience can only watch the artists above us.
Considering my history with Holly, my love of live theater is, in itself, a sign of mental health. A weaker mind would avoid anything to do with actors or acting, but I don't. Holly was deep into acting, and all that entails -- indeed, she still is. If you watch soap operas, you know Holly. She's been the designated bad-word woman on a long-running series since the late 1970s. I'm told she's convincing. I've never watched. Mental health, as I say.
I have been on stage myself, however, exactly twice in my life. Both times I did violence to my fellow actors. And both times I felt like an idiot, but the second time had far longer lasting consequences. Falling in love with a woman already in love will do that.
In first grade I was the woodsman in the West Lee Street School production of "Little Red Riding Hood," and I rescued Red with such energy that the wolf ran howling into the audience and burrowed his head into his mother's shoulder all through the final curtain and bows. Mrs. Aldritch (the mother), Miss Sherman (my teacher), and Mr. Hinden (the principal) all had something to say about my technique. I gave up my part as the troll in "Billy Goats Gruff," the next play scheduled, and vowed not to tread before the footlights ever again.
"Ever again" lasted 13 years, which isn't a bad record for such vows. But when I was a freshman at college a track team friend of mine asked me to be an extra in his mime show. "I have a spot you're perfect for," said Robin, who, aside from being the Big 10 1,500 meters record-holder, was also famous on campus for having studied in Paris with Marcel Marceau. I was a hurdler--shorter, thicker, faster than Robin, but with none of his reserves of energy. I said, "No." He asked again. I said, "No." Robin asked again, and again, and finally I said, "All right," thinking that the show's five performances would just be like five jumps to get over and forget. What the hell, I figured, it wasn't a speaking part.
I don't really care much for pantomime, I should tell you. I'm too noisy. But Robin promised there was going to be background music, and that I wouldn't feel amazingly naked on stage when the time came. That should have been a warning to me. The program Robin had devised was based upon Moussagorsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" (not my taste, but it was noise) and it consisted of seven or eight scenes. I was only in one. When I showed up at the first rehearsal, I knew exactly why Robin had wanted me in particular.
"Tim Donahue has the face of an altar boy." I've heard that line my entire life. I suppose there are worse things to have someone say about me, but because of this fact people usually relate to me in one of two ways: either I am treated as a complete innocent, or I am suspected of being a Dorian Gray-type hypocrite and sinner. Robin had not come down on either side of the question, one of the reasons I liked him. But as the director of his own show, I think he saw so much potential for irony or humor or just plain ambiguity in my fair skin, blue eyes, reddish-blond hair, and regular features that he just couldn't resist assigning me the role of a Roman soldier who helped nail Christ (to be played by Robin) to the cross.
I confess that I was somewhat shocked to be asked to nail Christ to the cross. Part of me wanted the role, of course -- after all, I was a freshman in college and wanted to rebel as much as the next 18-year-old Catholic boy away from home for the first time; and part of me was horrified by the very idea.
But when I said something to Robin, he just smiled and introduced me to the woman playing Mary, whose role it was to stand off to the side and weep. This was Holly Austin, a petite blond woman whose ironic smile and forthright eyes pierced me like an arrow. "Listen, if I can be the mother of that big baby," she said, pointing to Robin, whose height of six foot two or so dwarfed her five foot nothing slenderness, "then you can certainly string him up. I mean, Christ, he's asking for it!"
I smiled wanly. "You'll look good in the soldier suit, too," she added.
I was hooked. If I was going to get to rehearse a scene with Holly Austin every night for three weeks, well, then, the chance of going to hell would be worth it, I thought.
But the first four days of rehearsing, I found, were enormously hard work. This was no longer first grade--at Northwestern University liv,e theater was taken very seriously indeed.
Robin spent nearly every minute blocking out each scene, telling us exactly where to stand and when to move. The first thing I learned was that a stage, although it looks large from the audience's point of view, and maybe is large when it's empty, is a very small place when a scene is being acted. The trick is to get the appearance of spontaneity, of real life in real time, without the messy freedom of reality. People have to stay in their places, or else they smash into each other and cause chain reactions of comic chaos all across the proscenium.
I had trouble with that. I either moved too slow to the right place, or too fast to the wrong place -- when I wasn't moving too slow to the wrong place, or moving out of the right place at the wrong time. Robin called me a moron more times than I would usually allow, but I accepted his censure as the price of being near Holly. I kept promising to get it right just as soon as I could.
Holly, of course, got it right the first time, and stayed right every time through. It was as if she had a bat's sonic measuring skills and a ballerina's timing.
"Watch her," Robin said to me. "She's got it down pat. It's not just fun, Tim," he said to me with a look that meant, I thought, that if it hadn't been for my altar boy's face he would have found another centurion.
"I'll get better, Robin," I answered. "Maybe Holly can give me some advice."
"You don't need advice from Holly," he answered. "You just need to hit your marks." That was Friday, the fourth day of rehearsals. Holly and I had not, as a matter of fact, exchanged a single word since the first night. But I could see that to her, like to Robin, this was serious work, not a lark in costume. She spoke to no one. She listened to Robin, nodded gravely, and then just did her part perfectly.
I truly marveled at it, and wondered how they did their magic. It was the strangest thing, but while I stayed a thick-set, angelic-looking Irishman, the straw-blond Holly and the tall thin Robin instantly turned themselves into ancient suffering Jews carrying the woes of humanity on their shoulders. When they were on stage they even looked alike, as if they could be mother and child, and Robin looked half Holly's age.
As we left the theater that night I heard Holly say to a friend that she would not be going out that weekend. The junior she was seeing was going to Ann Arbor with the football team.
I walked over to the dining hall and got some dinner. I remember the choices were fish cakes or chicken, and I took the fish cakes. I might have been nailing Jesus to the cross, thought I, but there I was six years after Vatican II still abstaining from meat on Fridays. While I ate, I thought about Holly. There was no reason in the world why she would talk to me, I thought, except that there was no reason why she wouldn't. I was going to call her, I decided, except that I knew I wasn't. Well, I wanted to call her--probably, at any rate, except I wasn't sure. I went round and round in my mind and actually ate the red Jell-O, which shows you how preoccupied I was.
Back in my room I grabbed the phone and dialed Holly's number (which I had already written on the pad on my desk) too quickly to change my mind. She answered on the first ring, saying "Hello?" in a way that made it seem she was open for whatever adventure the world might offer her. That her "hello" was so welcoming made me enormously confident.
"Hi," I said, "You know me, except that you don't really. I mean, we've spoken, except not very much. Damn, listen, I'm Tim Donahue, the guy who's supposed to nail Jesus to the cross..."
"Except that you don't, most of the time."
"Yeah, true," I said, "I suppose I'll get it right someday, except maybe not quite by the time the show starts."
"You want my advice, Tim?" she asked.
"You heard me," I said, "Which is all right, except Robin said I wasn't supposed to ask for your advice..."
"Except that my advice is the same as Robin's advice, which is: hit your marks."
"Well, yeah, I guess, except that's not easy for me."
"It's always easy," she said, "except when it's hard."
"Are you making fun of me? I take exception to that," I replied.
"Except that you love it," she said.
"Well, at least you're talking to me," I said. "I expected almost anything except that."
"Why shouldn't I talk to you, except for the obvious?"
"If I were smart, except that I'm stupid, I'd know what the obvious was, except that I do, so maybe I am smart," I said.
"I followed that, except for the parts about you being stupid," she said. "The obvious reason I wouldn't talk to you is that we're in a mime show, which is totally silent, except for the parts when it's mute or dumb."
"It's not dumb at all," I protested, "except for the parts I'm in."
"Well, then, it's not dumb at all, from what I can see, because you're not really in it at all, except for your body lurching all over the stage."
"Wow, you really know how to make a guy feel good, except for when you make him feel lousy."
"Well, I would worry about your feelings, except that you're not my guy..."
"Oh, yes," I said, "That's right, I could be your guy, except I'm not on the football team."
"That's interesting, except neither is Dean. He's just the manager."
"Oh," I said, smiling.
"What does 'Oh' mean?" she asked.
"It means, 'Oh,'" I said.
"Except when it doesn't," she said.
"Except when it doesn't," I agreed. "Listen, do you drink coffee?"
"All the time," Holly said, "except when I'm not, like right now."
Well, we spoke more drivel like that for a while, until I finally asked Holly if she would meet me in the campus coffee shop and let me buy her a cup of coffee and we could maybe talk.
We seemed to like each other, and Holly told me that Dean was nothing serious, just an old friend from home (which was a suburb of Milwaukee), and that if I wanted to make a play for her, I was welcome to try.
"You have such a beautiful face," she said (I winced), "That it would improve my reputation just to be seen with you."
"Is your reputation that bad?" I asked.
"Oh, Tim, I'm an actress! Don't you know what that means? Why, in the old Queen's day, we wouldn't be invited to reputable people's houses. If you were a married man," she said.
"Except that I'm not," I interrupted.
"Don't start," she warned. "If you were a married man, why, just having this cup of coffee with me would be grounds for divorce."
"Except I'm having Coke," I said.
"You see? One date with me and I've driven you to drugs! But no one would believe it of you, not with that altar boy's face."
"I actually was an altar boy," I said.
"My mother is going to hate you," Holly said. "She hates all the boys I date, but especially Catholics and Irish guys. This is going to be fun."
"Irish and Catholics? What are you?"
"We're DAR. My mother can trace her lineage all the way back to the first settlers in New England. She's still trying to make her way onto the Mayflower," Holly said in all seriousness, though with a touch of amused and tolerant disdain, "but she hasn't made it yet. I don't suppose you can claim ancestors like that."
"Nope," I said. "My folks came over at the turn of the century. My great-grandmother still has a brogue."
"Oh, Christ," said Holly, "introducing you to Mummy is going to be such fun!"
That was October, 30 years ago now. Holly and I became a couple, one of many pairs on campus. We rehearsed together until I actually was able to passably pretend to be a soldier of ancient Rome, stationed in far Judea, following orders to execute another troublemaker. I thought about that role, and the man I was playing. There must have been such a soldier, nearly 2,000 years ago, whose name is lost through time and inattention, whose deed had far more life than he had, and whose thoughts can only be guessed at. "What was he like?" I asked Holly one night at dinner (we had taken to having dinner together, arriving at 5:30 and taking a table in the middle of the dining room, where we would sit, the center of a circle of friends who came and ate and went--while we acted as the host and hostess of a dining hall salon).
"What was who like?" she asked.
"The centurion I play, the poor shouted-at, ordered-about, probably uneducated, underpaid, maybe unfeeling soldier who really did drive the nails through Christ's arms."
She made a face and a clicking noise at me. "Don't go getting all method on me, Tim."
I laughed. "Unlikely. But don't you ever wonder? Don't you think about what Mary really thought as she watched her son dying?"
"You're so Catholic," she said. "I never think that stuff, because it just doesn't matter. What matters, dear Tim, is what the playwright and the director think the character thinks. There's no relationship between reality and art."
"And no relationship between art and acting," said Robin, who was eating with us.
Holly made a face at Robin, too, but one with more tolerance than she'd shown me. "Especially not when Tim is the actor," she said.
"Which reminds me, Tim," Robin said to me, "when you're using that mallet, go easy. I have bruises from where you hit me last night."
"Sorry," I said, "I've always been dangerous to my fellow actors." I told them the story of "Little Red Riding Hood," and the table convulsed in laughter. It made me feel so alive, to be the center of this group of talented, happy people, and to be envied because I sat with Holly and walked her back to her dorm each night after dinner.
Holly, ah, Holly. I have a picture of her somewhere, but I don't need to find it. I remember it clearly. She was wearing a dark turtleneck and a single string of beads--possibly pearls, possibly plastic. Her head is tilted upward, not much, but enough to indicate that her family came over (probably) on the Mayflower. She's looking off to one side, "stage right," I'd guess, with a serene, somewhat arrogant smile on her lips. She was not, I have to admit, beautiful. Certainly my wife, whose classic bone structure and dark laughing eyes still take my breath away, is far lovelier. But Holly had a certain presence, a fire in her yellowish eyes, a bearing that made her noticeable everywhere.
"Pictures at an Exhibition" went off well, as such things go. Robin got rave reviews in the college newspaper, and the drama department chairman noticed Holly. I hit Robin too hard on his left arm on the first night, drawing a wince (though no sound--Marceau would have been proud of his mute pupil), but I pulled my blows sufficiently through the other performances. Nonetheless, I was so wooden that even my altar boy looks never got me another role, not even as an extra.
I felt like an idiot again, this time because of my costume, which I had only found out about the night before in dress rehearsal. I was given a cardboard breastplate and backpiece, both painted silver, a helmet with a plume, and a short skirt. "Your sprinter's legs will look good in that," Robin told me. He, himself, for this scene, would be wearing a loincloth and nothing else. On the day of our opening, Holly gave me a pair of light brown dancer's pants, the kind that go under cheerleader's skirts. "What's this?" I asked.
"Well, you can't wear boxer shorts on stage, Tim. Everyone will notice. I suppose the ancients wore nothing under their skirts, but I don't think my altar boy could go that far for accuracy, so wear these."
Actually, I wore briefs, not boxers, but Holly didn't know that. I was thinking that my white underwear would be noticeable, so I took Holly's advice.
We did the five performances, Friday, Saturday, a Sunday matinee, and then the following Friday and Saturday again. Perhaps a thousand people saw my legs and maybe got a brief flash of my dancer's panties. Mother Mary wept on cue. Robin clung to the stout nails we had driven into the heavy wooden cross, and I and another athlete lifted the cross to the vertical position where Robin as Christ hung for thirty seconds while Moussagorsky played a dirge for him. Then the lights came down, Robin leapt off his martyr's perch and scurried to change into another costume, and I was done. Holly had parts in two other scenes.
I liked being in Robin's show. My parents even drove up and saw it, but Holly, somehow, disappeared before I could introduce her. I was proud of my girlfriend, and wanted them to like her, but all they could say was that she was pretty.
Holly and I were a settled couple by then, well known to all in the freshman class. Dean had faded away, and there was no other girl in my life. I had decided already--though I kept this to myself--that I would marry Holly and we would live happily ever after.
When I look back now on the end of that October, I am amazed at how little I really knew about life and love and sex--all of which seemed inseparable and simple to me then. But, in fact, they were three distinct things, and though I was undoubtedly living, and I thought I was both loving and the object of love, sex was still a shadowy unreality. As I said, Holly didn't know that I wore briefs instead of boxers because we had not made love. Not that we had all that many opportunities. Evanston, in 1967, was still a relatively conservative place, where men were allowed only in the lounges of the women's dorms, and women were allowed to visit the men's dorms only for an hour on Sundays, and the door to the room must stay open at all times for those 60 minutes.
Holly and I were both virgins, but she obviously knew much more than I did. We found places to be left alone to kiss and grope, but no place comfortable or private enough to do much more than that. I, however, felt we were making enormous progress. I timed our kisses, and felt that the longer we were locked mouth to mouth the closer we were getting to the happily ever after.
There were strange and radical things happening, protests against the Vietnam War and intensely fierce struggles for personal freedom by the college kids of the day. In France (which seems far from Evanston, I know--but I was a French major, so I paid attention), the students were preparing to rebel again, and before my freshman year was out I would see on TV the barricades going up around the Sorbonne. But Holly, who went to Paris that Christmas, never noticed. She was in a world of her own, and she drew me completely into it.
We developed a routine with each other. Holly, never an early riser, skipped breakfast, while I worked in the cafeteria during those hours. Then we both had classes, but we would catch up at lunch, sitting together in the dining room, chattering with friends and each other. Afternoons we would sit near each other in the library, studying, catching up on our work. Usually around three, Holly would yawn and stretch, and come over to me and kiss me on the forehead and tell me she was heading back to her dorm. That meant, in our code, that she was taking a nap. I let her go, and then I would either go to my room to nap as well, or continue studying. If it was a fair day outside (and that season, I seem to recall, had many fair days) I would join the touch football games on the lawn. If it was rainy, I'd stay snug in the library.
At 5:30 she and I would meet once more by the dining hall, and then hold court at our table until the workers chased us out at 7:30. Holly, I noticed, was a fastidious eater, taking small bites and chewing them carefully, swallowing with hardly a movement of her throat. I tried my poor best to imitate her, to change my shanty Irish manners to fit her Mayflower form. After dinner we would again study together, and then, around 10, we would walk to her dorm slowly, hand-in-hand, stopping frequently beneath trees or in the shadow of buildings to kiss and caress each other through the layers of clothing an Evanston night required.
For me that next month, November 1967, was one of the best I had ever lived. I've had better months, years, decades since--but then I was very young, and I had been sheltered and lonely, thinking that by reading Sartre and Zola in French I was somehow worldly. Holly, I realized, truly was sophisticated. If I knew French, well, she knew French kissing, which (for a while, at least) seemed much more useful. Holly seemed to me to have come from an entirely different world than I had, even if we had grown up less than 50 miles apart.
My family lived in Beloit, a small town on the border of Illinois, halfway across the state. Beloit was the kind of place where the one Chinese restaurant served white bread with every meal, and the local paper (The Beloit Daily News, which I delivered every day from the time I was 12 until I left for Northwestern) reported as front page news the building of a new dentist's office. The small house I grew up in on Grant Street was noisy and crowded and untidy. My father worked across the state line in Rockford as a journeyman printer, and moonlighted on the weekends in a bar. I never saw Dad drunk, but I never saw him in a suit, either, except when someone in the family got married or died.
Holly's father was a vice-chairman (or something) of the Wausau Insurance Company, a CPA and an attorney. "Wallace Stevens was vice president of Hartford Insurance," I said one day, having learned this bit of literary trivia in a freshman lit course that week.
"Yes," Holly replied, "Daddy has met him at industry conventions and so on. He's a nice man, Daddy says, but his poems are foolish muddle."
"Is that what you think?" I asked. I had always had trouble with Stevens's imagery myself.
"That's what Daddy thinks. We have an autographed copy of one of his books at home, but I've never read it." What Daddy thought was much more important to Holly. She was his youngest, his special pet. He gave her an allowance of $200 a week--which was possibly equal to what my father was making in those days.
Holly's mother was a different story. She worried about Holly constantly. It was a source of irritation, if not shame, that Holly loved acting so much. To Mrs. Austin (to this day I do not know that woman's first name--Bob Austin called his wife "Mother") appearance and conduct were everything.
I got to meet the Austins at the end of Christmas vacation freshman year. Holly, as I said, had so much money from her allowance that she decided to go to Paris for Christmas, to visit her older sister, who was married to an American diplomat stationed there. (Claudia, the oldest of the Austin children, had her mother's full approval, as did Bob, Jr., their only son, who was a senior at Yale that year.)
But she wrote me to come visit her when she returned. I made an adventure of the trip. Since I had no car of my own, and neither my father nor my mother could spare their cars, I took a train from Rockford down into Chicago, where I spent the morning at the Art Institute and looking at the Picasso sculpture in front of the courthouse. It was December 29th and very cold. Finally, I went back to the Chicago and Northwestern station on Evanston Street, and took one of their double-decker green-and-yellow trains north along Lake Michigan through the wealthy towns of Glencoe and Winnetka and Lake Forest and on into Wisconsin to Whitefish Bay.
Holly met me at the train station. She had on a Loden coat and a brand new Parisian beret. She had brought me leather-bound French editions of Hugo and Dumas, the only two French authors she had ever heard of, I believe.
Holly drove us down to Milwaukee's art museum, and we wandered hand-in-hand looking at 18th and 19th century Americana. Then we drove back to her house. Her parents were out for the evening, so we made our own dinner--fondue, believe it or not--and we necked in her den until 10, when her dog, a very ugly little dachshund, began whining at the front door.
"They're home," Holly said, pushing my hand off her breast and straightening her hair. We both stood up and went to the living room, where I discovered that her parents were small, very well-groomed people (no surprise there), and that they called Holly "Buttons." That was a revelation.
"Buttons?" I said softly, and Holly kicked me in the ankle.
"Daddy, Mummy, this is Tim Donahue, the boy I've told you so much about."
I gravely shook hands, aware that the hand I extended had just been under this man's daughter's blouse, and tried to say "How do you do," as clearly and sincerely as I could. My mouth was dry.
Bob Austin said, "Welcome, I hope your drive was not too bad in this cold weather."
"Um," I said, "I took the train."
"From Beloit? Well, that's a surprise. I didn't know anything ran from those parts to here."
"No," I replied, "I had some business to do in Chicago this morning, so I left from there." I felt very sophisticated saying I had had business in Chicago.
"I see," he answered. "Well, welcome, welcome. Buttons always has the run of our garage, so I'm sure you'll be able to get around just fine while you're here."
There had been a new Buick along with the Oldsmobile station wagon we had used in the three car garage, and now they were home, so I expected that what he said was true.
Mrs. Austin just looked me over from head to toe while I had that car chat with Bob Sr.
Holly said, "Doesn't he just look like an altar boy, Mummy? You should have seen him nailing Christ to the cross!"
Mrs. Austin's eyes, already an icy blue, became absolutely glacial. "Are you an actor, also?" she asked in a tone as distant as 1620.
"No," I denied. "They just picked me for my looks."
An eyebrow raised a millimeter. Evidently one didn't boast in the Austin household, nor did one make jokes.
"I am glad to meet you," she lied. "Holly, put Tim in the blue lake room. I'm sure if he was in Chicago on business this morning he must be tired by now. I know we are," she said.
"Yes, Mummy," Holly replied meekly. But when Mrs. Austin turned to go up the stairs, Holly stuck her tongue out at her mother's back. Bob Austin saw this, and winked at his daughter. "Good night, Buttons. Good night, Tim," he said, following his wife.
The blue lake room turned out to be a guest room on the third floor, under the eaves of the big Victorian house. The ceiling was high, but slanted. Out a wide double window I could see the dark mass of Lake Michigan disappearing toward the east. The furnishings were polished oak, and included a chest of drawers, a desk and chair, and a wide double bed.
"Are you staying here with me?" I asked with a grin.
"Calm down, young altar boy. I'm sure Mummy is just at the bottom of the stairs waiting, oh, so innocently for me."
"I think you were right," I said. "She does hate me."
"Not yet," said Holly. "But I'm sure she will." She kissed the air between us and was gone. I sighed and unpacked my small suitcase. Although I had gotten it new before heading off to Evanston in September, the thing looked shabby and cheap to me. That was, of course, in comparison. As I looked around the room all I saw was wealth and what I took for good taste. The colors were muted blues and light grays, with blond wood and a multi-colored quilt. On the walls hung framed photographs of ducks, eagles, wood grouse, and a sunset over a wide lake. I looked closely at that one, it could have been a sunrise, I supposed. It was peaceful and beautiful, either way.
Looking for a closet, I opened a door and discovered an entire bathroom at my disposal. This was wealth, I thought; in my house there were two bathrooms for the eight of us. The tub was an old-fashioned monster on legs with lion's paws. Although it was already 10:15, I filled the tub, took a paperback book from my jacket pocket (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold), and settled into the hot water.
While I was offstage (and in the bath, how's that for irony?), the high water mark of my relationship took place. Holly tiptoed up the stairs and turned down the quilt for me. She left a single poinsettia on my pillow. Finding that there when I came out of the bathroom half an hour later practically brought tears to my eyes. I vowed that Mrs. Austin would not hate me, but would, rather, embrace me far tighter than her diplomat son-in-law. I don't think I had ever wanted anything more before that moment, not even a bicycle when I was eight.
Looking back now, however, I think Holly was hoping for just the opposite. She desperately wanted her mother to loathe me, mistrust me, and hold me in contempt. I was part of Holly's rebellion, her break with Mummy. But it had to be on Holly's terms, which meant that Mummy must be the one to fire the first salvo. As I lay beneath the quilt in that attic bedroom that night, I never realized it, but I was the tethered goat, the sacrifice to flush out the lioness for a clean shot.
I did my best over the next two days. I spoke softly and respectfully to Mrs. Austin. I listened to Bob Austin's Pete Fountain records and heard about his experiences in the quartermaster corps during the war, when he had been based at Fort Sheridan just down the road in Illinois for all four years. (I despised him a bit for his smugness over that cushy post--my father had flown P-38s over the Pacific and had been shot down once. His war, I felt, gave him a right to boast--but Dad never spoke of his experiences. The only comment he ever made was that he joined the air corps in the hopes the war would end before he finished his training.)
We watched the Packers win the famous Ice Bowl game against the Dallas Cowboys on television, and the Austins took us out to a steakhouse to celebrate. The next day we took the bus to Evanston.
In January 1968, the drama department announced open auditions for the winter play, Shakespeare's "The Tempest." Holly told me she was going to try out for a part, and I kissed her and wished her great good luck.
"This doesn't take good luck," she said. "An audition takes preparation. Let's read the play together, all right?"
So for a week every night we read aloud in a corner of the coffeehouse. Our friends came by and chatted. People played "The Crystal Ship" and "How Can I Be Sure?" on the jukebox. A quartet of stuffy seniors played bridge every night from 8 until 10. Gossip flew past us. We read Shakespeare. I took the male parts one by one, while Holly read every line of the only female parts Miranda and Ariel ("sometimes played by a boy, but most often by a woman, and a really great role," she told me). But it was Miranda she wanted.
Four hours a night we read, and often at dinner or lunch Holly would dig into her bag and drag out the battered paperback to go over a line or two. I remember thinking that we were using time that could have been used for kissing and fondling, but I dismissed the thought as unworthy of undying love. I would walk her back to her dorm, but we no longer held hands. Holly was practicing gestures. Now and then I would see her with Robin and they would be blocking out a scene or two. I was not jealous--I was glad someone else (and someone who was an actor, at that) was involved with her passion. But I was left out.
The night of the audition came, and Holly asked me not to accompany her. "I'm afraid I'll be worried about you, if you're there," she said. "I love you. I'll call you later."
Robin came by before she called. "It was a cakewalk," he said, "A triumph. She blew them away. Poor Trisha, who used to get all the good roles.... She's history now. Holly was a revelation."
"She got the part of Miranda?" I asked.
"She had them eating out of her hand," Robin said.
Holly called just after, and I listened to her tell me all about it, pretending I hadn't heard it before. She gushed, she preened, she was overflowing.
Rehearsals began soon after. Holly worked every night at her part--a part I thought she already knew inside out, upside down, and backwards. But she dove into it. When I reminded her she had other work to do, she frowned. "Tim, this is my work. This is what I want to do. This isn't just fun."
I could see that. She was visibly dragging from the effort. But I could see she was also loving every minute of it. "I hope you'll have time for me, at least," I joked.
"I'll always have time for you," she said.
But she lied. She didn't have time for me. One day I said that to her and she blew up. We were standing on the darkened stage after the end of another long rehearsal. Everyone else had left already. Holly was swaying on her feet, ready to pass out. It seemed like torture to me, and she was suffering. But she came to life and snapped at me. "What is wrong with you, Tim? Don't you get it? I want to be somebody. This is my talent. This is what I can do, and do well. This is the me I love. You can't take that away from me."
"I wouldn't want to, Holly," I said. "I just want to be part of your life."
"I've seen you on this very stage, Tim. This isn't part of your life."
"But you are," I said.
She shook her head fiercely. "This is my life," she repeated. "I am an actress. This is what I do. I don't do fantasies of being the French teacher's little wife back home. I'm bigger than that."
She stared at me with such anger, such passion, such vehemence that I almost believed she was bigger than that, bigger than I was. I recoiled.
"Tim..." she paused, and I waited for her to say what I knew she was going to say, what I would have said to her, to say she was sorry and that she was overwrought and tired and she didn't mean it.
"Tim," she repeated, "I don't think we should see each other any more. It's no good. You're not for me. You deserve something else." She turned and exited, stage left.
I was mute, stranded without a line. After standing stock still for a while, I left also, leaping down from the stage and walking through the empty seats. I can't believe it, I thought. I went back to my room and lay awake all night.
I actually made Dean's List that term. Each night, I ate quickly and returned to my carrel in the language library. I read all of Proust and Gide and Balzac. I tried Robbe-Grillet and Malraux. I read Moliere and Racine, but I avoided Shakespeare. I didn't go see "The Tempest," though I read in the college paper that Holly was superb.
When spring came and the year ended, I took the bus back to Beloit and found a job driving a truck for a bakery. Holly, I learned later, went to New York where she and her brother shared an apartment. He started a job as an investment banker. She made the rounds of auditions for off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway shows.
Sophomore year she was gone, off in the road company of "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man in the Moon Marigolds." Robin occasionally heard from her, and now and then he'd tell me something. I got better, though less trusting. Time went on, and so on and so on.
I used to think that Holly broke my heart. But it has kept right on beating, hasn't it? I don't really have any scars--just a tender spot or two, like a bruise, maybe. But the whole episode lasted perhaps 20 weeks from start to finish. A Broadway play with so short a run would be a flop, even if not a disaster. To be realistic, "Romeo and Juliet" it wasn't. I can't even be certain that I learned any lesson at all from loving Holly, except to stop, which I did more than 30 years ago. Have the years since been kind to her? I don't know. I don't care. She is really not my concern anymore.
And so now I've seen "The Tempest," a play I had never before seen staged. It was like an old friend. I recognized the lines as they came. I noticed that Ariel was played by a woman, a slender girl of 18 or so, with hope in her eyes and a lightness to her step. Miranda seemed starchy to me, too tall and dark.
My wife clapped and clapped when it was over, as did my sons. And so did I. I'm sorry I've avoided that play for so many years. My quarrel wasn't with Shakespeare; he did nothing to me. And did Holly? I remember a conversation with Robin, just after Holly had pushed me away. "I miss her," I said.
"Go find another girl," Robin said. "You need to be more cynical; right now you're an incurable romantic."
Well, Robin was wrong. I was very curable, after all. I'm happy and in love with a beautiful, happy woman. I do teach French, and my students like me. My sons are happy and smart. Maybe it really is a matter of mental health. My oldest son turns 18 soon. He's gotten his driver's license. He's trying to choose a college. He's tall and handsome--he doesn't have the face of an altar boy. He's more Byronic, though he also seems clueless. Should I tell him the real facts of life? That there's a Holly Austin out there for everyone? Will he believe me if I say a broken heart is only a flesh wound?
MIRANDA: I am a fool to weep at what I am glad of....
Brian Quinn (email@example.com) is the chief writer and an instructor of writing at Molloy College in Rockville Centre, New York. He has been a public relations writer, a speechwriter, an advertising copywriter and television commercial script writer. He has ghostwritten two books, is a member of the National Association of Science Writers, and is a consultant to the National Hockey League and the American Lung Association. Besides writing short stories, he is currently at work on a novel of the Civil War.
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 9, Number 3 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1999 Brian Quinn.