Inevitably, the performances themselves become easier, and the stage time becomes less terrifying. But now my first dispatch has been published and I’m worried that there’s a reader at the Met. I look around the rehearsal room and zero in on the wisecracking female assistant director of supernumeraries, who wears striped tights and Chuck Taylors with her skirts. She sometimes gives me the fish eye. I feel like a spy. I worry over what stories I will reveal, and sometimes feel I’m stealing from William, because he’s so effortlessly funny. I worry mostly about William, because I feel I’m lying to him even as we joke together. As some soldiers tell me their stories, I silently vow I won’t betray them. I won’t write about the cell-phone picture of a stranger’s penis that was the cause of a breakup, for instance (unless you e-mail me). I actively wonder if I’ll tell William about this series of dispatches before the end of the run. I wonder what his reaction would be.
At one show, he asks me to send him something I’ve written. I quickly send him a link to a short story, so he doesn’t Google me and hit on a dispatch. That’s what a conniving turncoat I am. I was worried about saboteur spies in the regiment when all along it was me! And every move betrays me. I see another soldier tape-recording Sasha as he gives orders. I sidle up to him and ask, “Why are you recording?,” thinking maybe he’s the one who’s written a blog entry on the Met website. He says, “Just to remember the instructions.” Sure, I bet he’s a spy, too. I go see William’s one-person show, with some Army buddies. They’re talking about all the material from the run of War and Peace that William will be able to use; I nod, but say nothing. After he reads my short story, he tells me how much he loves it, and goes around the room telling everyone about it. He shows it to the dressers, pointing to me: “Watch what you say around him! He’s a writer!”
During the seventh show, I’m sneaking around the wings and hallways to see the production from other vantages and to pick up production details. When I return to the rehearsal room and tell William that I was upstairs watching the first act, he says, with a knowing smile, “Soaking it all in so you can write about it?” I almost tell him. But that’s what I’m doing. I purposely sit in the drab hallway outside stage right: plastic salmon-colored seats facing an elevator bank. But every few minutes the caution-taped stage doors disgorge a fabulous apparition from another world. The tsar, with his tall, Van Cliburn–esque blond pompadour and brilliant white outfit, knee britches, and slippers, appears. The dog handler hands him a white Shih Tzu, and then he walks onstage. A few seconds later, a woman in a cleavage-revealing wide-hipped silk dress with a harlequin pattern comes through the door sideways. The tiny hallway will only allow that dress in sideways. She’s standing right in front of me. She’s wearing a commodore’s hat, has her hands on her hips, and talks animatedly with the dog handler and to the stagehands to my right. She’s flushed from dancing in that fabulous world, at that ball just on the other side of those safety doors. The sheen on her cleavage makes me blush. I want to be in that world, rather than in this holding area.
But we are not allowed to watch from the wings. It’s a sensible rule, because there’s surprisingly little room in the wings. There’s usually a crowd waiting to go on: singers, peasants, soldiers. We don’t get to see the fabulous people from Act I. Once, I saw Natasha, in a dingy hallway in her ball gown, standing in front of a candy machine. But that was it. When I see Countess Rostov sneaking a peak from the wings of war-torn Act II, she seems unbelievably out of place in her brocaded gown. She’s trying to be invisible to the soldiers—not easy with all that cleavage.
But sitting next to me is a stagehand in T-shirt, jeans, utility belt, and work boots, and next to him is a man whose rough manner and foul mouth mark him as a teamster. If it weren’t for his 18th-century knee britches, fabulous embroidered gold tails, and powered wig, I’d be sure. The18th-century powdered-wig gentleman is complaining in David Mamet–like language about being overworked for the Met broadcasts. “How do you film this fucking thing? Everything is fucked.” He goes on: “They say GDP is up and production is up. Because everyone is working fucking 90 hours a week! How long can you expect people to sleep five fucking hours a night before someone gets fucking hurt? Just like here. They got us working day and night here. Seventeen-hour days. They don’t give a fuck. Someone’s going to get fuckin’ hurt.” The stagehand is nodding his head, but is mostly quiet. Eighteenth-century guy says, “Do you have kids?” The stagehand says yes. Eighteenth-century guy doesn’t hear him. “That’s what I’m saying. Do you have kids?” The stagehand says yes again. “That’s correct! Otherwise, all you’d have to worry about is if you have enough fucking money until you fucking die. That’s all you’d fuckin’ need.” Then the wigged man is up and out the door and back onstage, carrying a silver salver.
Despite my attempts from the wings, I have never seen the full first act. I always get nervous about being ready and run downstairs before the ball. So, during Performance 8, I break the rules and sneak upstairs to see the first act from the wings. Now I’m standing in the audience in the dress circle with a standing-room-only ticket. I have the thrill of being in the audience of an opera that I will actually soon be in. I’m dying to tell an usher. As I try to pick out the ballet dancers on the stage with binoculars, so I can silently curse them and wish them ill, I realize how hard it is to pick out any individual person. The one person I do pick out is the 18th-century gentleman I had just seen offstage. This foulmouthed guy opens his mouth and a stupendous bass voice comes out. He’s an opera singer!
This is delightful, and I don’t want it to ever end. I know that my swipe card will soon be deactivated and I will no longer have access to the Met’s backstage. I will no longer be able to buy the delicious subsidized chocolate-chip cookies that Martha Plimpton (who’s also working at the Met) recommended in the Times. When I get on the subway under Lincoln Center, it will no longer be “after my show”—my life will lose that compression, lose that feeling that I am “inside” a production. As we approach the end, I feel that sense of “insideness” dissipating. I am by degrees a little less special, a little less connected to the Met. It will be a little depressing being back in the ordinary world, deprived of the magic of the singing and the costumes, of the orderly beauty of the performance, of bumbling, Met cookie in hand, into the dazzling apparition of Valery Gergiev in white tie and tails five seconds before he walks to the pit to rapturous applause. I’ll miss this glamour, but also I’ll miss the strictures and confines of marching that compressed and elevated my life for a short span.
Is it this nostalgia that’s started to creep into the troops? We are short-timers now, have been since the fifth performance. But that was a pre-Christmas Saturday matinee, and the afternoon performance injected novelty into what was becoming routine. When it felt like 10 p.m. to us, it was only 3 p.m. Then, the boys were thinking about being home for Christmas. Now, here in the rehearsal room for the seventh show, William says to me and Blue, a soldier who brings in homemade baked goods, “Well, boys, only three more. I’m sad. I can’t believe it’s almost over.” He sighs. There’s a sigh in his voice all night. The two-night run of his one-person show is over, so he’s at a lower key. He’s reading The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Children’s Books. He makes a joke about his pompon looking like a cat that’s been caught in a dryer vent, but there’s even a valedictory feel to his jokes. In his one-person show, he’s a real old-fashioned showman—like Bob Hope, I’ve told him. But now he’s like Bob Hope in those Vietnam USO shows, doing his bit to keep the troop morale up, but the end is near for us and we know it.
There’s some relief. And someone says with excitement that after this show there’s only two more. One way to deal with the sadness of a thing coming to an end is to be out of that thing as soon as possible. And the arc has been an especially unforgiving one: It started with the torrid pace of the run-up to the show, with its bonding fueled by fear of the unknown and the certainty that we weren’t good enough yet and there was no time to get better. Now, here we are in the last week, a performance every couple of days, and, as one soldier said, it is what it is. I hate that expression.
During the holiday run, real life intervenes. Christmas Eve morning, I get a call from a detective who wants me to look at a lineup immediately. They have a "skell"* in custody who, they let slip, has pretty much confessed to the crime. They have to charge or release him by 3 p.m. Balking, I say, “It’s a busy day. The crime was so long ago. I’m waiting for a delivery of Christmas presents.” But they’ve been through this before with reluctant victims. So, they press hard. Different detectives call back multiple times, leaving increasingly threatening messages. Unable to decide, I run (well, “go running,” I should say). I see a police cruiser on my corner. I’m sure it’s for me. Am I being paranoid? I jog by, all nonchalant-like, in dark glasses and a ball cap, looking straight ahead. They don’t detain me. But when I return home there’s another message (the fifth). “Ah, listen, sir. You said you were waiting for a delivery, and [annoyed, incredulous] now you’re not home? I don’t know what’s going on. I sent a patrol car over to pick you up. It’s out in front of your building.” I’m a hunted man, and I agree to surrender myself, to come in voluntarily on Christmas Eve for a perp walk, and it makes me feel like the perp, on the lam, and now brought to heel.
1 My skell will be arraigned in Bronx County Court. In my subsequent interviews about the robbery, the police have never ceased to call perpetrators “skells” and “crackheads.” Riding down to the courthouse, I ask Detective Kelly what a “skell” is, and he says, “A crackhead or a homeless crackhead.” After my skell committed a similar crime, he was apprehended and confessed to mine, but I disappoint the police officers yet again by not being able to definitively identify him. Luckily, his other victims can. And, despite their circular definition, I have since learned that my Bronx detectives, in their usage, were being unusually precise in calling my assailant a skell. One would expect the OED to trace its derivation to Detective Sipowicz on NYPD Blue circa 1995. But in fact, according to Wikipedia, it goes back to the seventeenth-century British slang word “skelder” (“a noun and verb which referred to a professional beggar”) or even to the Dutch “schelm” (“a word meaning a villain or rogue”). I can’t wait to tell Detective Kelly, if I’m called to the witness stand.