Eight months after my boyfriend of three years dumped me for no longer being twenty-two, I shaved off all my hair, became a vegetarian, and took the advice of the guys in my dressing when they said the only way to win that boyfriend back was to get myself ready.
By ready, they meant I should be willing to sleep with anyone in possession of a gym membership. They meant I should be willing to sacrifice a meal so that if my clothes came off at two a.m. there’d be an audible “wow” directed at my torso from the guy taking off my clothes. They meant that I should give up all other ambitions—like preparing for auditions or maintaining friendships—in order to get serious about becoming snatched. So I started going to the gym seven days a week, eating nothing but bananas and raw almonds, and taking blood-red Hydroxycut diet pills three times a day. Hearing words like ripped, shredded, and cut in reference to my body became the sole focus of my waking hours; I’d search those words out in conversation with a sweaty desperation, like a fat kid hunting Cadbury Easter eggs.
All that effort to win back my ex-boyfriend culminated in a friend suggesting that I sign up to perform in Broadway Bares, an annual benefit produced by Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. I had been looking at pictures and videos of almost-naked dancers participating in Bares since my days as a freshman Musical Theater major in football-and-frat-centric Ann Arbor. But when I moved to New York, I could never quite bring myself to sign up for the fundraiser. I’d start sweating at the thought of it; my insides would liquefy and gurgle, a voice in my head would say that performing in Bares was reserved for hot chorus boys, not Jewish boys from the D.C. suburbs who had shopped in the “husky” section of department stores until they were twelve. I had even avoided going to see the show year after year, feeling sure that my childhood rabbi would be standing at the theater entrance, shaking his head and muttering, get back to eating your kugel, boychik as he rocked back and forth on his heels, pounding his chest and rolling his eyes toward God.
But that summer, my fifth in New York, I decided there was no better way to incite a furious jealousy, and subsequent longing, in my ex than by stripping for thousands of people in the very show that he and I had always classified as just so not us. So I signed up. It was for a good cause, after all.
As my friends performing with me in the fundraiser began actually raising funds, I contributed to the effort by upping my dosage of Hydroxycut from nine to twelve pills a day. May turned to June, my muscles weakened, I could no longer lift the women I was contracted to lift in Chicago, and the manufacturers of Hydroxycut pulled their pills from the market because about half a dozen people had died from its side effects. But, still in possession of a two month supply myself, I soldiered on in the name of charity and of winning back a man who I was sure would see the error of his ways once my body fat count had dropped below two-percent.
The day of the Bares performances, I leapt out of bed at the sound of my 7 a.m. alarm. I sat on the floor for twenty minutes, chanting the mantra my meditation teacher had given me, then popped four Hydroxycut pills into my mouth. I got in the shower and, without turning on the water, shaved all my body hair off using an electric clipper whose metal razor got so hot I scarred a patch of skin on my right forearm. I dressed and sat down for a breakfast of one banana and five almonds. I stuffed sweatpants, jazz shoes, and a dance belt into my backpack, my fingers visibly shaking from the Hydroxycut-enhanced adrenaline rush. Before heading out the door, I lifted my T-shirt to assess the reflection of my torso in the bathroom mirror. Tears burned my eyes: my torso was very nearly flawless.
I arrived at Roseland Ballroom at nine, ready for the tech rehearsal and looking like a hairless, malnourished Pekingese puppy. I was performing in the finale of the show, so while I waited for my turn to rehearse, I got to sit and watch the other performers. But instead of watching the rehearsal and enjoying the fact that I was in the company of performers my husky ten-year-old self would have given his entire Jem and the Holograms doll collection to be near, I was busy watching the performers who were not on stage. Congregated in clumps around the seat-less, concrete-floored venue, dancers were laughing and chatting, their fingers suspiciously un-shaky as they bit into egg sandwiches and the cream cheese-slathered bagels provided by the Bares producers.
During the rehearsals leading up to Bares, I had been under the impression that everyone was engaging in the kind of self-deprivation I was; everyone looked hungry, I’d thought, just no one wanted to talk about it. The choreography for the finale was intentionally simplistic—no big turning sequences, no leaps or intricate partnering work—so being hungry and slightly dizzy hadn’t been a problem. The focus of the number was not the choreography, anyway. It was all about the costumes, which made the eight dancers—four boys, four girls—into crossbreeds of various types of flora, fauna, and disco balls. We were instructed to parade around the stage, moving our limbs however our given characters might organically express themselves. My character was moss. I did my best to look fuzzy and slow moving.
Chicago was scheduled to perform two shows that Sunday, so after going through the light cues for the Bares finale, I arrived at the Ambassador Theater on 49th Street at one-thirty p.m., performed the Chicago matinee, ran back to Roseland on 51st for a Bares dress rehearsal, then sprinted back to the Ambassador for another show at 7. The first Bares performance was to begin at 9:30, so when the curtain came down on the second show at Chicago, I ran to the stage door of Roseland for the third time that day. I was directed up three flights of stairs to a room marked MAKEUP. I could hear from the monitors piping music throughout the backstage area that the show had already begun.
I peeked my head into the makeup room and a group of five people dressed all in black stepped toward me, each holding a tub in one hand and a large paintbrush in the other. “Well?” one person said. “Strip!”
I threw my T-shirt, shorts, and boxer briefs into a corner and cupped my hands over my freshly shorn nether region. As the five makeup artists began slathering green paint onto every area of me, my mind groped for justifications. It’s for charity, I told myself. My ex will see this and die. I have abs. I have great abs.
One of the makeup people told me to stand with my legs further apart as a reporter from Paper magazine asked me my name, what Broadway show I was in, and how it felt to be painted green. “It tickles,” I said, just when I thought I couldn’t sink any lower into self-loathing.
When I was green from the tips of my hair to the cracks between my toes, the makeup artists began throwing handfuls of green glitter over the still-wet paint. I could hear through the monitors that we were two numbers away from the finale. I was instructed to close my eyes as glitter was lobbed at my face, and my body began to sway. I forced a smile, hoping that they would all think I was enjoying the sensation of being glittered, which felt vaguely akin to being trapped in a cloud of egg-laying gnats. With my eyes closed, the room had begun to spin, and though I knew my feet were indeed on the floor, I had the distinct impression that I was falling. I wasn’t sure when the last time I’d eaten had been, and I didn’t want to think about it. I snapped my eyes open, saying, “I have to be on stage. I have to go.” I pulled on the moss-covered g-string that was my costume, ran down the three flights of stairs, past a blur of bare-skinned dancers, through a tunnel of lights, into total darkness, and out onto the stage.
If I had fallen down or passed out, I might have learned a nice, neat lesson about self-respect and the virtues of moderation and the perils of pill popping. But it didn’t happen that way. According to friends who were on stage with me that night, I executed the choreography without incident; I funneled my twenty-something years of dance training into a convincing portrayal of glittery, naked moss, and, after the show, joined the other dancers bumping and grinding at the edge of the stage, allowing audience members to stuff wads of cash into our g-strings to be later counted towards the $808,819 raised that night. But I didn’t remember a thing about the two performances I gave at Roseland, and certainly had no concept at the time of there being a greater good of the event beyond the condition of my torso.
What I did remember was that I had expected the backstage scene between the 9:30 and midnight shows to mirror a ‘70s sex party, complete with whips, chains, and lines of coke being snorted off butt cracks and boobs. Instead, I found myself in the middle of something that felt like a summer camp reunion. Two hundred dancers milled around, exclaiming at how wonderful everyone looked, snapping pictures with the celebrity presenters, primly fixing a snapped g-string or unstable headpiece. I was only able to mingle with the other performers for a moment or two before being ushered back up to the third floor to have my body paint touched up and wonder what I had been so worked up about.
The show that had begun at midnight ended around 2 a.m., and while the other performers put on street clothes and headed to the cast party, I spent an hour in the shower of a friend’s nearby apartment trying to scrub myself clean of green paint and thoroughly staining the white tiles and towel he’d lent me. By the time I got to the after party, strips of paint still covered swaths of my neck and legs, and the bouncer at the door of the bar said it was last call and they weren’t letting anyone else in.
Somewhat relieved and suddenly feeling like I was wearing a T-shirt made of lead, I hailed a cab and headed back to my Astoria apartment. There, I made myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and had to pound half of it out of my esophagus before I realized I was swallowing the thing without chewing. I watched the sky outside my bedroom window turn grey then pink as the hour neared five-thirty. Stretching out on my bed, I could feel just how sore and exhausted my body was, but my mind was a screaming toddler, unwilling to settle into sleep after so much stimulation. Without really intending to, I began sifting through every sidelong look and conversation I’d had that day, checking for any scraps of validating praise for my body I might have missed. When I realized that really no one had cared what I looked like—aside from the attention-grabbing green body paint—I was furious and thought seriously about making myself a second sandwich.
That was the summer I turned twenty-seven. It had not been all that long since I moved to New York, turned twenty-two, and met my now ex-boyfriend. But it certainly felt like an eternity at the time. That summer, my twenty-seventh, was the summer I came to acknowledge that I had told my ex-boyfriend a fairly long list of lies, all of which had seemed harmless at the time, but had piled up, and, in the end, mattered. I had told him I didn’t mind dampening my own ambitions to make him more comfortable and that I enjoyed not knowing what New York was like without him and that I never wondered if there was someone other than him who could make me happy. They were all lies, and even at twenty-two, I had known enough to resent him, and myself, for wanting to believe them; but at the time, resentment hadn’t seemed to matter any more than the lies themselves.
That was also the summer I realized my genetics, which had been passed down from peasants in the shtetls of Ukraine, were ultimately going to win; it gets cold in Ukraine and my people are meant to carry around extra padding on their stomachs for warmth. Thinking about my great- and great-great grandparents after performing in Bares, I also had to acknowledge that if being one of the hot Broadway chorus boys meant being unrecognizable beneath green paint and a malnourished body, then there might be other goals worth setting my mind on achieving.
But lying in bed as the sun came up over the low-slung row homes of Queens, I poked at my stomach to see if the sandwich I’d just eaten had betrayed me by showing itself beneath my skin. It hadn’t. Feeling grateful, I tried to count backwards from one hundred to coax my mind into shutting down for the night, but instead started to plan. I’d wake up after a few hours of sleep, meditate, take my three diet pills, and eat my five almonds. I would still be twenty-six for another month. There was still time to stay up all night, to starve myself into perfection, to try to win back an ex I wasn’t so sure I actually wanted, and still, none of it would matter. At least not for another month or so. For another month, I’d stay snatched—and a little lightheaded—and ready.