You Move, I Move
A Short Story by Jeremy Benjamin
Written using the suggestion "Tame"
Originally featured on 09-08-2008
As part of our series "The Ancient Trappings of Humanity’s Endless Summer (Age-Old Traps)"

Day eight of preparation:

Just past Seven PM:

What made Seth nervous — despite the smell of the theater going up in flames to his back — was the silent pause before Rowena Stilz posed the question, “What do you think this is about?”

A slew of commandments (what he had come to jokingly refer to as “culture lessons”) splattered the back of his tongue — things like ‘never turn your back to an audience’ and ‘acting is reacting’ — before he could respond. He had to dig beneath his training (which was all fairly recent, as he was embarrassed to admit).

Rowena Stilz was not known for her patience. “That’s what I thought.” She draped herself onto a folding chair and sipped her coffee.

Did she not smell smoke? Was it possible that she did and was above mentioning it?

They had been running Scene Nine over and over (the piece was technically all one scene, but the director had divided the script into sixteen distinct segments, or, beats, as theater people liked to say), and Seth was relieved that Rowena too felt it was going flat. She would know what to do, how to breathe life into it.

They had reached the moment in every rehearsal where a director would typically say, “Everybody stop what you’re doing and jump up and down for the next fifteen seconds, dance and get silly — energy infusion, get set, go.” The director was not present due to last minute family logistics, and Seth was glad for the rare learning opportunity of working with Rowena Stilz alone.

Seth’s first line was, “Hey, wait. Do you smell something?,” the implication being, more specifically, the smell of something burning. It was after he said “something” and forced the word to rise in inflection, stopping himself from saying anything more, that he began to smell it. The odor was not strong enough or close enough to make him cough, but when they ran the dialogue and he sniffed, the smell was unmistakable.

He did not smell it anymore. It must have been fumes from her coffee that he had mistaken for smoke, his overactive senses duped by the power of suggestion- some combination of that and the thrill of Rowena’s tutelage.

This was a scene of prime importance. Seth knew so because there was a star penned over it in the director’s dissection graph. The scene was pivotal to their relationship, because it was the first acknowledgment that they are in imminent physical danger (the fire being both real and metaphorical, according to the director’s interpretation), despite having already resigned to being trapped in a claustrophobic space.

Watching Rowena balance her coffee on her knee with a dancer’s grace and a thespian’s boredom, all at once he knew what the scene was about. “Let’s do it one more time, but I’m going to do something different, I’ve got an idea, I mean- let’s just…”

This time, running the scene, it did not feel like the same scene. It raced with tension. When Seth sniffed the air, the smell of smoke was alarmingly more potent. It was not her coffee. He hesitated on his next line, conspicuously distracted.

Rowena — not her character, but Rowena — looked at him and for a moment he feared she would ask him if she made him nervous. The thought of answering that question made him nervous.

She had to have smelled it too. She did not sniff or make any acknowledgement. Seth understood now; it was her professionalism. This, he surmised, was a prank, and a common one. The coincidence was inconceivable. Somebody with an immature sense of humor had to have been lurking backstage with a chemistry set. Rowena must have endured so many of these cheap hazing customs over time that she wore her capacity to ignore them like a badge. That made sense; actors were supposed to suspend reality.

He decided never to mention it to her. Not mentioning it felt professional.

Two weeks earlier:

Not quite midnight:

(Culture lesson One: try not to be mysterious if there’s no particular advantage thereof.)

Rowena was telling an anecdote. Or it may have been a joke. Before she could finish the last bit, everyone at the table was laughing. Some beer actually spilled.

Seth did not hear it because Rowena was wearing her black shirt with the glitter and those layers of sewed on rose pedals around the V-neck that secured her breasts like straps holding a boat to the roof of a car. Her skin was not perfect — always on the verge of perspiring, and just a little too tan for the time of year — but her fragrance was an infusion of jasmine and coconut oil, and her hair… Seth heard only the vibrations of her voice itself and forgot to process them into words.

Rowena folded her hands on the table as she would on her lap. Any surface she laid her hands on seemed to become her body. She was looking ahead unilaterally in a way that made everybody certain she was watching them.

She saw Seth look at her — the same way every young man who had ever played Hamlet in tenth grade looked at her — and knew that he was upset that he had missed it. She also knew that he was pretending to laugh because everybody else was laughing, and that he would later hate himself for pretending to laugh, not because he was deceiving his company at the table, but because every time one fakes laughter, one robs one’s self of a hundred genuine laughs: that was one of Marvin Hoskin’s favorite sayings.

Marvin Hoskin was the second-generation owner of the Trajcomm Theater (and was rumored to be rehearsing the role of King Lear for an as yet unannounced production). Marvin had gray hair and a carpenter’s face — and posture — beset with soft eyes, and reminded everybody of their father, grandfather or some uncle. Marvin had gambled on a rookie by casting Seth in the role, and for that Seth owed him the debt of figuring out what relative Marvin reminded him of. For now, Rowena swallowed his attention whole.

Her hair… Her shoulders tapered eggplant-like into wispy arms that surprised people with a grip that was like a steel trap — one quick squeeze followed by a slight curtsy of the eyebrows was her introduction. She never had to speak her name aloud; she had been performing long enough that there were no strangers to her reputation. Seth wondered if — in the course of what he hoped would become a friendship — he would ever hear her speak her name.

“Seth.”

He smelled her coconut jasmine fragrance and every muscle in his upper body retracted from her voice. She shook her lead slightly, mollifying his shock. Her hair…

“Are you okay, Seth?”

He could not figure out why she would ask him that. He nodded.

“You look perplexed.”

Seth was sad that he missed the joke or whatever it was she told. Knowing that it would never be repeated, his sadness would later turn to spicy anger.

“No, I’m not perplexed.” Seth wondered then if he was or was not perplexed.

“Then why don’t you show me- show us what perplexed would look like on that handsome face. Give me perplexed. Two, one, go.”

(Culture lesson Two: Do not make of thyself an audience. When someone says something reaction-worthy, do not react. Take it to the next level or shut the hell up.)

Seth let his jaw sag, curled his eyes toward the center of his face and flattened his nostrils. Everyone laughed in response to his comedic timing — everyone except for Rowena. She said softly, in the manner of a psychotherapist (Seth reasoned she had played at least one in her career), “Is that perplexed? Or was that a farce on perplexed?”

Seth shakily scanned the air betwixt them for a smile to catch, but it was barren.

For the first time, her hand touched his shoulder. Her touch was lighter than nothing; its gravity interrupted his bloodstream.

“You’re a fine actor, Seth. I look forward to working with you.”

Her hair looked like what might grow from the tip of a carrot given infinite time.

Day nine of preparation:

Five forty-eight PM:

The play opens with the male and female leads entering from either sides of the stage — dressed “business casual” — and walking across until they nearly collide with each other at center stage. They might be in an airport, an office building, a mall or anywhere that has hallways; the playwright does not specify. What is specified is that they are strangers. They chuckle and both move to their left, and then both to their right and chuckle harder. They square off for and then both dart the same direction once again. This continues to outlandish proportions, both opening their mouths in perfect synchronization to say, “You go left, I- you go right- I…” The humor fades to irritation, which soon escalates to rage. They remain in this stalemate throughout the entire play.

Seth sat in the hallway at just enough distance from Marvin Hoskin’s office to allow him to pretend that he was not waiting to speak to the man. He was early. His script was spread open on the floor, alongside the page of graph paper containing the director’s notes. Seth would seize Marvin’s attention when he came out the door.

The graph page showed a graphical representation of the emotional arc of the play, with sixteen evenly spaced dots of ink along the horizontal, representing all the major plot points (or, beats). There was only one location and two characters.

  • Point one: indifference — establishing two fast-paced modern people with schedules.
  • Point two: nobody bumps into each other three times consecutively. Never. Nowhere. Doesn’t happen. The challenge this poses to the actors notwithstanding, the incredible nature of this awkward blunder is hilarious. The humor of this moment is paramount to the play’s success.

-Seth’s eyes jumped anxiously to Marvin’s office door.

  • Point three: frustration sets in. They analyze the situation, hash out an exit strategy.

MAN — Okay, let’s be smart about this. If one of us opens our mouth to name a direction, we’ll just speak over each other, right, left, floor, whatever, and get all tangled up again. But what if we let our bodies collide and keep pushing, like a slow motion football play. Theoretically, one of us has to be stronger than the other-

WOMAN — Don’t be cute.

MAN — What?

WOMAN — Theoretically? You’re a man, the weight advantage obviously goes to you, congratulations. So, in this circus act you’re proposing, we, what, head-butt each other and wrestle around in a circle until we’re facing-

MAN — It’s crude, but I don’t see how it can fail. Laws of inertia-

WOMAN — Okay, Einstein, I get it. What are you waiting for?

(they stare at each other, trying to take the situation seriously, and proceed to attempt his idea, which results in chaos and leaves them both doubled over, panting)

MAN — I can’t fathom that we’re still here, but perhaps we could try a more cerebral approach to solving this.

WOMAN — Um, yeah, okay. Like one of those math riddles where you’ve got two gatekeepers who say different things, and you’ve got to formulate a question they would both answer the same way, or something like that, right?

MAN — There is a mathematical way out of this, I know there is, and I know it’s so simple that once it clicks, we’ll both be reevaluating how smart we think-

(WOMAN introduces herself by name. MAN looks at her outstretched hand dumbly)

MAN — I’m sorry, this is just, too weird. I know I’m being rude-

WOMAN — Don’t sweat it. Since we’re facing each other, we could always both turn around and retreat, backtrack until we’re out of each other’s sight and then start over.

MAN — Then we’ll just meet at this same spot, like before when we tried backing up.

WOMAN — You could pretend to physically abuse me until the police come and arrest you, and I’ll pinky swear to pay half your bail.

(MAN rolls his eyes and then sarcastically introduces himself. They shake hands)

  • Point four: both turn their backs to each other — disassociation, disbelief, whatever (the playwright probably modeled it after the Twelve Step, or some such pretentious thing).
  • Point five: they take stock of reality and pull out their cell phones to cancel dinner plans and so forth. Overhearing the fabricated excuses they give for their respective absence, they heckle each other. This leads to a bonding moment.

-On second thought, this was stupid; there was no need to bother Marvin. He could wait for Rowena outside on the lawn. His feet slid in toward his butt indecisively.

At around the halfway point on the graph was a star sketched in pink highlighter, which was probably the typical notation directors used to indicate what was of emphatic importance. The label on the star read:

“The man and woman both smell the burning and know what it means for them.”

  • Point six: the getting-to-know-each-other conversation — the only part of the play that Seth felt to be dragging.
  • Point seven: romance. Physical romance. Kissing, desperate groping, undressing…

Seth heard a door open and his back dissolved into shivers. It was not Marvin’s door.

  • Point eight: tension — Seth’s favorite scene. The thought of having a heated confrontation with Rowena was more exciting than the thought of kissing her.

MAN — What’s wrong?

WOMAN — Do you love me?

(MAN is silent)

WOMAN — Think about it.

MAN — Think about loving you?

WOMAN — No, think about the fact that we never should have met. Because we never should have-

MAN — Stop saying that.

(Seth cursed the playwright for placing this scene before the romantic gratification and not the other way around. In his dramatic rationalizations, he needed to witness the extent of a woman’s mega-bitch potential before tenderness was possible.)

WOMAN — This is a coincidence, a sick, grotesque coincidence. The byproduct — and by ‘byproduct’ I’m referring to our newfound friendship — of such a coincidence is superficial at best. To put it in uglier terms, the coincidence is out of our control, and if there’s anything you and I coincidently have in common, it’s that we are always in control. (much of the scripted dialogue — here in particular — felt wooden to Seth, but Rowena’s adlibbing was different every time and worked beautifully every time) So yes, think. Because I don’t love randomness, and I most definitely am not in love with you.

MAN — You sound like a- I don’t even know what you sound like. I, um, like you. How about we let that be enough for now.

WOMAN — Enough for now?

MAN — We can complicate it later when we drink to our independence in the bar across the street — assuming, that is, that you’re not too busy to have a drink with me.

WOMAN — You’re sweet. You’re just so fucking sweet. This could end any moment and you’ll walk away, and I’ll remember what a sweet fucking gentleman you were.

MAN — What are you talking about?

WOMAN — Tell me you would walk away if you could. You would be criminally insane not to.

MAN — This is ins- I think we’re past insane.

WOMAN — No. Insane would be if an hour from now one of us confessed to have been doing all this on purpose the whole time, just to seduce the other.

(They have a loaded staring contest)

MAN — Are you- come on, for Chrissakes. Why are you angry at me?

(she glares at him condescendingly)

MAN — I, um, don’t want to go anywhere. How can I prove it to you?

WOMAN — If you can’t figure that out, don’t bother saying-

MAN — Okay, I don’t love you. But I wouldn’t leave you.

WOMAN — I call bullshit on both counts.

MAN — Look, I know this is a stressful situation. No, it’s not even that, it’s abnormal-

WOMAN — You can’t trust your feelings, is that what you’re trying to say? A minute ago you kissed me like my husband’s never kissed me before, while rationally you’re merely stuck with me and making the best of it. I’m sorry I’m not better looking. You probably prefer brunettes. I’m sorry I haven’t put out yet, like the whore you want-

MAN — Shut up. I love you. (he speaks her name) I’ll love you even more if you shut the fuck up.

WOMAN — We can always pass the time with our backs to each other.

MAN — Eventually we’ll have to eat.

WOMAN — Yeah, and go to the bathroom too. Then we’ll find out who’s really in love.

MAN — This can’t go on forever. Security guards will come around.

WOMAN — (gives him a piercing look) I could have done better than you. I mean that.

MAN — Hey, wait. Do you smell something?

Seth looked up and saw Marvin’s back, already several paces away. He scrambled to his feet, gathered his script and caught up to Marvin in a feigned sprightly manner.

  • Point ten: denial. Someone will rescue them. Fight-or-flight will present an escape. The phenomenon will run its course — cannot possibly place them in physical danger.
  • Points eleven through curtain: panic — anger, shouted insults — climax segues to tears, possibility of sexual union (wherever the actors spontaneously take it — the interaction is expected to be different each night of performance). They are both growing delirious from smoke inhalation, and in her disorientation, WOMAN wanders offstage as if the entire play never happened. MAN, baffled, stands and watches her as the lights fade.

(Culture lesson Three: Never take it personally. Another way of stating Culture lesson Three would be, always take it personally.)

Seth asked Marvin if there were certain classic jokes actors play on each other. “Like planting weird stuff in the pockets of costumes? Or, like, say if you’re rehearsing a scene where a guy’s making out with a hot chick with his eyes closed, do you have her stealthily switch places with the gay stage manager mid-kiss and see how long it takes the actor to notice? Y’know, stuff like that?”

Marvin tipped his head from side to side like a vessel at sea — that was how he pondered matters. “I had a supporting role in a film-”

“A movie? Have I seen it?”

“It never went anywhere. Anyway, I played a novelist, and in one scene I was typing intensely at a computer for, Christ, a minute and a half. They alternated between my face and a close-up of my hands. He told me to just type gibberish, because you couldn’t see the screen in that shot, only the keyboard, which was unplugged. As it turns out, the previous night we all went out drinking and the director made a pass at my fiancée, not knowing I was in earshot. Now I highly doubt anybody in the editing room noticed, but watching the finished product, if you look very closely at my hands, you can see me typing over and over the phrase: the director of this movie likes it up the ass.”

Seth frowned.

Marvin looked concerned. Seth felt especially guilty right then that he could not match Marvin’s look of concern with a particular relative’s appearance. “If you stick around, you’ll learn that you can’t be shy with me — I have the intuition of a doorknob and the patience of battery acid, and if you make any sense out of half the things I say, I’m frightened for you. What are you really asking? Did someone do something?”

Seth wanted to tell Marvin that he smelled nonexistent smoke in his theater. He could only tell him what he wanted to say if he phrased it accidentally, like waiting outside his office pretending to be preoccupied. “You ever start to see and hear things your character sees- not like schizzo acid flashback or nothing, but, I mean, little things…”

Marvin opened his mouth a couple times and swallowed. “Some would say theater and sanity are incompatible. I’ve never experienced sensory hallucinations on stage, but it wouldn’t terribly surprise me. What I will say is, don’t assume it has any significance.” Seth knew then who Marvin’s face reminded him of. “An overtired imagination running low on coffee can accomplish that. I’d also say you might consider some time off.”

“Time off? I thought that’s what acting is. Being me is exhausting, theater is the break, isn’t that the point?”

Marvin did not smile, but revved the smile engine in his lips. “If you’re being profound, you should stop wasting your profundity on me and save it for some pretty gal at a nightclub in a red dress: surely you are aware that you are preaching to the choir.”

“More like to the preacher. So, what do you think I should do?”

“You should take a walk with me if you want a should.” He interrupted Seth before he could look at his watch. “Don’t worry. Rowena secretly likes to be kept waiting.” He did not wink, but started to. “I’ve known her for fourteen years, and only disliked her for three of them.” Marvin reminded Seth of himself, facially, but that was probably an illusion, just like the smell of smoke.

They walked out the door and into the courtyard that smelled of honeysuckle and the pigeon-pecked remains of a ham sandwich. “Do you belong to a health spa?”

Seth started.

“Not the question you expected. Acting is physical. The body is your most expensive prop, and as your stage manager, I want it well oiled at all times, got that? If you ever watch folks at gyms, most of them look bored, with the exception of two kinds of people; athletes and thespians. We’re emotional athletes, are we not? Keeping yourself grounded is a lifestyle ethic that begins in the body.”

Listening to Marvin, the prospect of smelling something imagined became less and less scary. Whether or not there actually had been smoke in the theater during their last rehearsal was trivial. He thought of Rowena, pacing around the lobby growing irritated waiting, or maybe stuck in traffic and calm. When he dialed his mind’s image of her face into focus, the flesh of his arms and chest trembled ticklishly as if trying to run away from her presence. She was the reason he had felt uneasy. Something about Rowena.

“From time to time, you will meet people who will look at you cynically and tell you that they used to do theater. Used to. If that isn’t a crock of shit. Working in an office is the perfection of a character, as is raising children, or anything people do; for us, it’s just a matter of variety. But I digress. When you ask them why they quit, they will break eye contact and look down so that you can’t see their pleading desperation, and they will confess in lowered tones that-” Marvin lowered his voice mockingly. “-after a while theater becomes a psychosis.” His eyes retracted comically. “The people who say this are those who failed to develop good habits. Your longevity as an actor is what I’m speaking to. What happens to an athlete who neglects to stretch their glutes?”

“Okay, so how do you stretch your emotions?”

“You know damned well I’m about to tell you, yet you shamelessly proceeded to ask.” Marvin laughed. “The mark of a true actor; even in a conversation wherein your only goal is to absorb wisdom, it is mandatory to hear yourself speak.”

“If you’re going to quiz me on the fundamental difference between actors and everybody else, I already know it. Every-”

“I’ll hear it later. After this chat, it may change. Tell me, was that pompous of me?”

“Yes, sir.”

Marvin laughed. “You catch on fast. I’d say listen closely, but I know you already are.” He paused. Seth’s heart accelerated. “Every time you’re in your car alone, I want you to cry and scream endless strings of profanity and ramble to yourself about anything and everything. You’d do it on a stage, why not do it in your car, in your bathroom? Most people save emotional extremes for extreme situations. We don’t have that luxury. If your job duty is to sprint and win races, you stay limber. If your job is to go from zero to bat-shit in an instant and then be a rational person when the director says cut…”

Seth picked up a brown, dry leaf from the ground and tore into it. “But, if outbursts are a daily routine, then how do you know when you’re upset or excited for real?”

Marvin stopped and looked at Seth. “It’s part of the commitment, or the psychosis: there is no pretending. It’s quite common that you may be chasing somebody around a table with a gleaming butcher knife and the intent to kill them before you know that person’s name, and twenty minutes later you two could be downing beers together and talking mundane drivel. When you wanted to kill him, you believed it. When, in your own life, you should want to kill somebody or make love to somebody, the feeling loses its uniqueness — but that’s the only thing it loses. It took me twenty years to realize that, so take my word that that is the only thing that’s lost. There’s no difference-”

Seth slowly nodded his head, and then realized that he was not nodding his head at all; he was only awakening the muscles that would be used in the hypothetical case that he did shake his head. Still, it was enough to interrupt Marvin’s sentence. “My answer is still the same: everybody else has the word self-conscious in their vocabulary. An actor is somebody who only knows how to go all the way.”

Marvin shook his head. “What did I tell you about being profound? It’s meant for getting laid, not for impressing your elders. And I’m making you late for your date.”

Seth was not sure anymore what he wanted to do to Rowena.

Performance night one:

No clock or timepiece is presently accessible:

Backstage, watching Rowena apply her makeup, Seth asked her what her technique was for efficiently memorizing lines. He already had his perfected (he read them while eating, brushing his teeth and all other manner of activity that made it an uncomfortable struggle to vocalize words), but felt no shame in knowing that his question was solely an excuse for conversation.

She did not slow down with her makeup or let her eyes stray from the mirror. “A tacky question deserves a tacky answer. I know I have free will. My character only thinks she does. She wants shit to happen the way she wants shit to happen, and lines are her only weapon, so I deliver her ammunition as quickly as I can. Why?”

She was in full costume, which consisted of a power suit and hair clips. He imagined her breasts as the heads of two kindred sea otters seen just barely poking out of the water. When he pictured her naked, he always pictured most of her body submerged in water. That was the way she played her prominent roles: with all the character’s secrets submerged just beneath her imperfect skin.

Rowena never smiled. Her face had an elegance that precluded any form of contortion; when she was happy, she probably hired somebody to smile for her.

Seth looked away from her. “No reason.”

When entertaining a crowd, her expression was a car in neutral that could at any moment roll down a hill and cause cataclysmic damage. Seth wondered how long it had taken her to cultivate her ownership of empty space.

(Culture lesson Four: Get the hell out while you still can)

He tried to picture Rowena as a teenager making her first attempt at striking a pose in front of a mirror in her high school’s drama department after all faculty and students had gone home. Seth liked to imagine Rowena spending a lot of time alone in large rooms that had echoes.

Seth could see her twirling her petit body around in a series of gymnasiums, foyers and warehouses over the course of twenty years, searching for the ability to fill up the entire space.

He had to ask. “Do you ever, um…”

“I’m not used to this,” she said.

He gulped. He had to get away from her. “What?”

“Stupid conversation. When you’re backstage, you adlib, that’s what you do. You’re more interested in exploring your character than making chitchat with actresses…aren’t you?” She rubbed his back and kissed him sensuously on the side of his face.

He wanted to smell smoke. He wanted to feel flames bite into his ankles and know that it was time to evacuate, and that evacuation was an option.

The silence outside the greenroom increased in pressure against his insides until he was certain that his heart would burst out of his stomach.

She was calm.

When the curtain opened, and the lights came up, all he wanted to do was walk past the classy lady coming toward him and keep going — her name was escaping him… — but they just kept on clashing directions. It was funny at first. Then it became odd and troublesome.

And then they were trapped and he wanted to love her but all he knew was that they were trapped and that they were not safe as long as they were trapped and (Social lesson…)

  • Point seventeen…decompress, scream at a bathroom mirror or a truck on the highway or something, maybe Rowena knew how, maybe Marvin was right he should

The next day, and throughout the next week, he could not shake the feeling.

Read More By Jeremy Benjamin

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Portland Fiction Project

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