It’s January 10th, 2009. We are all wondering if Obama will lead us out of debt and out of Iraq when he’s sworn into office ten days from today; I’ve been dancing in Chicago for a year and a half; it’s been two months since James dumped me; the time is nearly 10:20 pm, our two-show day is finally coming to an end, and tonight, it’s Saturday night on Broadway.
We’re all moving to our places for the finale. The girls descend from their dressing rooms, having preemptively removed their fake eyelashes in preparation for leaving the theater as soon as the curtain falls. The seven of us boys surface from where we’ve been reading the Post and US Weekly in the theater’s basement, chatting about whom we are seeing after tonight’s show and where we are seeing them. As the actresses playing Roxie and Velma deliver their last lines before the finale, the ensemble clambers onto the stage, hidden from the audience by a curtain of gold tinsel that covers the onstage bandstand. I prop myself up on a girl wearing a fishnet body stocking. It’s a different girl from the one who wore the costume last week: that girl was fired or her contract was up or she’s on vacation (it’s hard to say, people come and go so quickly here).
As the gold curtain rises, the orchestra begins to play the reprise of “All That Jazz.” I lift myself into a pose that I hope passes for Fosse-esque: shoulders hunched forward, feet turned in, elbows bent, wrists attached to my hipbones. I suck in my stomach, pulling it back, away from the black mesh shirt, and become aware of the sensation that my navel is kissing my spinal cord, a feeling at once delicious and nauseating.
Though we have been directed to slither and ooze off the bandstand with the same energy and focused intention we display during the opening number of the show, I find I can’t quite muster it tonight. The surge of energy I got from taking three Hydroxycut pills at the top of the show has long since worn off.
I slink downstage toward the audience with the rest of the cast, all of us dancing in unison now, thrusting our hips back-back back-back, arms in the air, swatting our hands as if flicking wet toilet paper from our fingers—at least that’s what the choreographer has told us it should feel like—but at this moment, it feels like slamming my limbs into concrete again and again. I could swear there was a time when my feet easily left the floor, when my hamstrings were elastic, when I could ride the air as effortlessly as walking. There may have been a time when those things were true; it might have been true last night, and it might be true again tomorrow, but it isn’t true now.
I know what comes next in the choreography; I know that we spin out and then back in. But which way is out? Where are my feet? Where is the audience and where is the orchestra? Everything seems to dim and blur. I think I might be dying. If I’m dying, at least I’m dying on Broadway.
And then I see him: a handsome stranger sitting in the audience, second row, aisle seat. He must have been sitting there all along. How could I have missed him? I can see that his hair is too sculpted, his eyebrows are too plucked, his smile is too bleached. But he is smiling, and he’s smiling at me. Suddenly, I feel as though I could dance the show again from the top. This time, I could give it everything I’ve got. This time, I’d let the hunger pangs fuel me on instead of enervating and slowing me down. I am an animal; I am a god; I don’t need food, I can survive on will power and the attention of a handsome, overly groomed stranger sitting in the second row.
After the cast has bowed and we have climbed the six flights of stairs to our dressing rooms, I try to convince the boys in the ensemble to come out for a drink at Trauma, a fussy midtown gay bar we all love to hate.
“Will the bandit strike again?” one guy asks.
Since James and I broke up in November, the Chicago boys have not-so-jokingly nicknamed me “the Make-out Bandit of Ninth Avenue.” I’ve fallen into the habit of getting drunk, sloppily kissing strangers at bars and clubs, then disappearing into the crowd before my victims have the chance to ask for my name or my phone number (or worse, not ask for my name or my phone number). Most days, I’ve been waking up with debilitating hangovers and the sense that I spent the previous night acting like some seventh grade girl with low self-esteem who thinks boys will only like her if she sticks her tongue down their throats. I don’t feel great about the way I’ve been acting, but it all feels pretty harmless until I realize I’ve been trying to get the strangers I’m making out with to actually like me. “I’m thinking of applying to grad schools,” I find myself yelling over thumping music at a bar. “I’m in search of a true spiritual community,” I slur while someone soaks my chin with his tongue. “Have you read The Power of Now?”
I’m sure that when tomorrow morning comes I’ll be less than thrilled with my decision to go to Trauma tonight. But seeing a dude in the audience looking at me (me!) has gotten my blood rushing, and at this point, all reason has been obscured. I convince three of the boys to come out to the bar by lying and saying that there might be a group of guys from Wicked meeting us there as well. I lock myself in the dressing room bathroom, take two more Hydroxycut pills, just for energy, like having a late-night cup of coffee, and we walk out the stage door onto 49th Street. I look around to see if the stranger I saw smiling at me from the second row is waiting to introduce himself. He isn’t. I can feel my high begin to falter, but I quickly send a text message to Sam, a guy with whom I’ve been on exactly one (very PG) date. I tell Sam to come meet me at Trauma, he replies that he will, and my high is instantly back in place. The boys and I head west, away from Broadway, toward the nightlife of Hell’s Kitchen.
When we arrive at Trauma, we commandeer a table on the second level of the bar and start in on our first round of vodka sodas. We pretend to make conversation with one another, but really we’re just scouting the room, looking for people we know or might want to know.
Sam soon arrives at the bar and I decide that yes, without a doubt, tonight is the night I finally get over James. Sam is a Broadway dancer from somewhere out west; he never has to wear deodorant no matter how much he sweats, he can fix a wobbly chair with one smooth, efficient twist of his hands, and he has naturally broad, hairless forearms, inherited, presumably, from generations of fresh-smelling, chair-fixing farmers and cowboys. Whenever I’m near Sam, I find myself very aware of the prominent curve of my nose.
Although I haven’t slept with anyone since my break up, it has been the opinion of my co-workers that the only way to get over James is to be a man, do what men do, and have sex with as many people as possible. “Diva, you’ve got to move on,” has been an oft-repeated refrain on the sixth floor of the Ambassador Theater since November. The problem (and I haven’t yet admitted this to my castmates) is that I have never had sex with anyone I wasn’t in a long-term relationship with, and there are a number of things now holding me back. I’m scared of disease; I’m scared that my stalwart, comforting belief that I’m fantastic in bed could be proven false; I’m scared I’ll fall in love with the first person I have sex with and wind up in a new relationship before I’ve patched myself together from my last breakup; and I’m scared that if I don’t fall in love with the first person I have sex with, sex will forever be ruined for me, robbed of the significance it has always carried.
But, enumerating these fears in my head as I suck down another vodka soda and look at Sam’s pouty lower lip and broad, hairless forearms, I try to reason with myself: I’m twenty-six years old and far past the age when it’s considered either charming or appropriate to be operating under these kinds of delusions. I do still want to believe that sex is something special and intimate. I do. But I also really, really need to get laid.
Sam smiles his closed-lipped smile and slides into the booth next to me. “I can’t stay,” he yells into my ear over the blaring music. “Early audition tomorrow.” He might as well have punched me in the stomach. The hand holding my vodka soda begins to shake at the thought of going to sleep alone in my bed, yearning for James for yet another night (though the shaking may just be the result of the Hydroxycut mixing with the vodka). Still, as Sam leans in to kiss me goodbye, I notice that even after performing in two shows today, he smells like clean laundry. He really doesn’t need deodorant. If he asked me to marry him this second, I would say yes.
Once Sam has left Trauma, I look around to find that a few new guys have joined our table. They are talking in loud, animated voices—boo, I said, no, give me a nice step-touch ‘cause my twirling days are done—and ordering shots of something blue and frothy. We all consume the shots and I take a moment to assess the group. Everyone seems cute, though that could be because the lights in the bar are all colored and flashing. Everyone seems successful and witty, but I can barely make sense of a full sentence over the pounding music. I fix my eyes on one guy who is standing next to our table, grooving to the music, wearing a pinstriped newsboy hat ever so slightly askew on his head. I learn that he was on the national tour of something with a friend of a friend of mine, and is now dancing in some Broadway show or other. I lean over to a friend sitting next to me and whisper, “He’s hot, right?
“Hot,” my friend replies. “Go for it.”
I stand from the table and, as quietly as I can over the music, yell to the guy in the newsboy hat, “Come downstairs with me.”
He follows me as I push my way through the dense, coconut-scented fog. We zigzag through the wall of guys standing nuts-to-butts, all trying to get the attention of the bartender and of each other. When I reach the bathroom entrance, I lean back against the door, hoping to both look seductive and to remain upright without teetering. I pull the guy in the newsboy hat toward me and discover that he is an exemplary kisser, that his name is Caleb, that he lives two blocks from my apartment in Astoria, and that he thinks I should really go home with him tonight.
But all the swagger and aggression I displayed in getting Caleb to come downstairs with me seems to evaporate the moment he speaks the words “my place.” I tell him I really can’t desert my friends, but maybe we can meet for coffee later in the week.
“Come on,” he says, running his hands down my torso as I notice he’s got incredibly broad, hairless forearms. “I’ve got baked ziti with homemade meat sauce in my fridge.”
I can’t remember the last time I ate pasta. Actually, I can’t remember the last time I ate anything at all. And meat sauce. At this moment, homemade meat sauce has the ring of something primal and dangerous, a call from the wild, inviting me, daring me, to go native.
After a quick cab ride to Caleb’s apartment in Queens, we are standing together, still making out, in his bedroom. Aside from a bed, some pillows on the floor, and the TV he immediately turns on, there isn’t much to the room, unless you count the heavy, chemical scent of Axe body spray as a physical presence, which I do.
Caleb asks if I want a drink. I say yes, though the phrase homemade meat sauce is pounding in my ears, muffling everything else. He brings me a pink mixture in a clear Budweiser glass, and, lightly pressing one hand to my sternum, pushes me backward onto his bed. As I try not to spill the drink on his duvet, Caleb climbs on top of me, and I wonder why he seems so much less attractive now that we are horizontal. I close my eyes to block out the sight of his eyes and nose, which are nightmarishly distorted at such close proximity. But closing my eyes makes the room lurch and heave. I snap my eyes back open and try to remember what it is I had planned on doing once I got myself beneath this person I don’t know.
“Baked ziti!” I say, trying to sit up and realizing how very much bigger he is than I am. “You got me all excited for that baked ziti.”
“I’ll get the ziti in a minute,” Caleb murmurs, pushing me back down onto his bed and inching my shirt up over my torso.
I grab his face, look him in the eye, and say, “You promised me homemade meat sauce.”
My desperation seems to startle and crack his determination, at least for a moment. He pushes himself off me and heads for the kitchen. I sit up on the bed and plant my feet on the floor, a trick I learned in college that’s supposed to make the room stop spinning. Caleb plods back into the bedroom, carrying an oversized disposable aluminum roasting pan and a fork.
“Baked ziti with homemade meat sauce,” he says, a note of resignation and annoyance in his voice. He sets the pan on my lap. I dig the fork into the dish, and shove five or six noodles, globs of melted cheese, and large chunks of beef and tomato into my mouth. I close my eyes, the room not spinning at all now. I chew and swallow.
“This is good,” I keep repeating, shoving forkful after forkful into my mouth. “This is really, really good.”
Caleb smiles, says he’s glad I like it, and attempts to get me to set the fork aside by kissing my ziti-filled mouth. I indicate with an apologetic shrug that I’m not done eating so I can’t possibly kiss him back. I dig my fork back into the dish and keep inhaling the pasta.
When I finish the entire pan of ziti—which had been more than three-quarters full when I began—Caleb levels his gaze at the empty aluminum dish and asks warily if I want some of the cookies his mom sent him at Christmas. I nod and grin. He brings out a tinfoil-covered serving tray and reveals dozens of shortbreads, sugar cookies, ginger snaps, and frosted chocolate cakes. I consider at least attempting conversation at this point, perhaps about Obama’s upcoming inauguration, perhaps about the show he’s performing in. But I forgo dialogue in favor of focusing my full concentration on the cookies in front of me.
“Feel better?” Caleb says once I’ve put down the cookies, leaving two or three on the plate with a tremendous force of will. He again begins to push me down onto the bed and lift off my shirt.
“Yeah, but ya know, I should really be going,” I say, suddenly both strong enough and clear headed enough to pry him off of me and sit up straight.
“Are you serious?” he says, his eyes wide, his eyebrows disappearing beneath his newsboy cap.
I look around the room for my shoes, which I don’t remember taking off, and start saying something about going through a really tough break-up recently and just needing some me time. I tell him I’ll find him on Facebook, I say goodbye, and I hurry out his door into the cold January night.
As I walk the two blocks from Caleb’s apartment to my own, I’m aware of a sharp embarrassment—an embarrassment that feels remarkably similar to gallons of pasta and cookies stretching my stomach to a painful distention—and a stinging guilt that demands I consider how I’ll undo what I’ve just done. Thinking about the meals I’ll skip tomorrow and the hours I’ll spend at the gym, I hardly notice that, while passing the darkened homes and late-night bodegas of Astoria, I am, for the first time in my life, completely alone.