Improv was an impossible thing. Seeing it on late night TV–my middle school brain rattled by a confluence of bullying, the incessant College Is Coming drumbeat, and the starry Texas sky–was a new dimension to what humans were capable of. I was captivated, entranced. Monty Python could challenge my bladder control, but those guys wrote and polished and had second takes. These people leaped up and were Nixon, Schoolhouse Rock characters, heartbroken squirrels with vodka and a gun. How could anyone do this? An inner voice–the strongest we all have–said it was magic beyond mere mortals. Or had to do with drugs, that great Eighties boogieman. No way I could ever do that. No way.
2011 finds me nearly thirty years older. I had taken an Acting I class, which was all right but lacking romance. The next quarter offered an improv class. A friend said it was amazing. As my marriage headed for the cliff I pushed it toward, I remembered those middle school late Friday nights and thought, what’s one more chance? Two hours before my first class, I sat in our counselor’s office and said I wanted out. She stormed out. The counselor, pushing on her own fourth wall a little, said…I don’t remember exactly, but something like that was a very brave choice. I walked into the thick night shocked and alone in the silent explosion’s held echo and knew, in a way I never had before, everything was different now. Two hours later I was living a different life.
I think you oughta keep doing this. The instructor is a kind man with the face of an old captain, exuding fatigue from the quarter just done. He suggests classes at a storied local outfit, one he was with in years past. They have a whole curriculum: 100 to 500, just like college. Everything joins together.
Elle appears in my 200 level class. Gangly and beautiful in the Midwest fashion, she hangs back like I do, not quite sure what to do with yes-and, raising stakes, walking backwards into the future. But she tries and keeps trying, like I do. Her energy is sustained, not frenetic. (Mine is lower, grownup that I am, and sometimes is sheer will.) As we go on her bravery grows. She develops funny characters with squeaky voices, funny walks, clever comebacks. We never talk much, but I learn she’s from Minnesota. The inevitable Garrison Keillor and Fargo storylines emerge: for example, a scene where poor Mom worries about all the blood in the tuna hotdish. Or I think them. Improv is all about being in the moment, and when the story goes somewhere else drop my brilliant plan and flow.
We exchange a handful of emails; in the modern fashion we become Facebook…friends seems so gauche, but that is the species of relationship. But there’s a gulf between the older students and the younger: we keep to our ages. That’s fine. Like the Steely Dan song, we don’t really have much to talk about.
I see her from time to time around town: volunteering taking tickets, her and a lantern-jawed male accompaniment exiting a show as I wait for the next one. She asks how I’m doing and I enjoy her earnest interest that I don’t expect to be sustained. She and I are in different places. We are both starting things but she’s doing it for the very first time.
We meet again in July, in a longform intensive class: once a week for a month. She’s fully formed now, whereas I’m rusty and thinking too much. She takes a story and moves it forward, plays off others, reincorporates what’s appeared earlier in jokes later. Her fearlessness helps me remember my own: I leap up as a demon, crawl around on the floor, listen with that high-voltage intensity that cements a character’s name but allows the easy not-thinking that drives the story ahead. She has more perceptive notes after an exercise than I do. I appreciate that when a scene calls for us to embrace crazily, she takes the initiative and grabs me first, and doesn’t reject my grabbing back. Sorry for grabbing at you, she says. No, don’t apologize, I’m grateful you committed. And I am. She’s sharp, and play is fun.
Mid-August I receive a Facebook event invite: Bye Bye Elle. She is taking a chance, moving to big-time LA. Because you only live once, you know? Showing the extent of my own change, I have no inner dialog on no one I know being there or the invite not really meant for me: of course I’m going. She’s taking the chance I thought I always wanted and good sense kept me from.
I arrive at the bar a little late on an hour early, depending. The Ballard Smoke Shop is a bar out of my childhood, the kind of place I remember from East Coast grandparent visits, or The Deer Hunter. An older guy in a black hat smiles his sliding face back up his skull, the much younger woman he’s with listening closely as he describes how Yakima used to be. A big white guy with a bad hip leans far over the bar, waving at the football game on the largest screen: yah, I dohn believe it, I jus dohn, because why would you make that kynna play? Dust bulges from the ceiling tiles, and the connected restaurant leaks the smell of hot water and bacon. A woman with the voice of a parrot who has smoked far too much flashes her gold rings and asks what I want. Non-alcoholic? At least the tone is of contempt for the ludicrous, instead of offense I told her to do something with those rings. Well, juice, you know, pineapple, cranberry, you know, juice. And pop. And O’Douls if you want that.
O’Douls is fine. I ask if the reserved tables are for a girl named Elle. The what? Three-fifty. They’re reserved. Somebody’s leaving town, young kid. Well, if that’s her name I bet that’s her.
I sit at the table a bar: the heart of night excitement I so fantasized about in middle school. It is quiet and run-down comfortable. Outside, everyone is younger.
Promptly at eight, three people come in. They are Elle people: tallish and slender, their earnest faces so far untouched by the world’s cruelty. The slender girl with the perfect porcelain face assures me I was early. She asks about improv, what classes Elle and I took; her presumptive boyfriend, all dark hair and glasses, is open with his not saying much. He is nothing at all like me. The other girl across the table is hard to see around a column. Elle just texted, the porcelain girl in the black dress says. She’s sorry to be late to her own going-away.
The bar woman takes the RESERVED signs away and other people gravitate over: can they sit here? I chase some away, but others are allowed at the table nearest the door. Hey, I’m no trouble, insists a plaid-shirt guy with his edge taken off. Just ask my wife. The woman nearest the door laughs with beautiful teeth, blond hair falling over her tattooed arms. Yeah, whatever. Everybody in their black or plaid button-up shirt crams in off the street, and the plaid shirt guy feeds the jukebox. The perfect porcelain girl asks for Scotch tape to put up some going-away banners. Strung on ribbon, the foil letters spell out GOODBYE SEATT-ELLE and HELLO ELLE-AY.
I am useless in helping. I am the much older guy with the non-alcoholic beer who doesn’t belong. I came anyway. It was important, somehow, for me to come.
Elle shows with the birdish lack of grace her line naturally counteracts, a quality of female youth. She flows smoothly into hugs with the curly-haired girl I can’t see, the porcelain girl, Mr. Glasses, and me. Hugging her is like hugging a warm broom. Hey, I’m glad you came.
I realize I give very strong hugs.
She talks to her friends: people her age with a past like hers, all in the same strong current pushing them out of the nest. Eight is the witching hour for this bar, the ten minutes after filling it with people and their happy noise, and she and the others raise their voices to order drinks that sound out of this bar’s league. She is presented with going away cards. She has gifts too: a wine bottle opener and something else to return. Sorry, Derek, I didn’t steal anything from you to give back, she says. It’s the thought that counts, I say.
In these spaces it’s hard for me to find my place, and I know this is not for me, or about me. Elle is twenty years younger than me. This is about the bonds with her friends, the porcelain-faced one she’s known since school, the others she’s met out here, her going away from them all. I’m a guy from improv class, it seems to me. Conversation breaks up into groups by audible distance, and I talk with the porcelain-faced girl. Someone else interviewed for a copywriter job, and the porcelain-faced girl knows the boss, did copywriting. We talk about my first job as a copywriter for Radio Shack, which sustains about two minutes. More kids come, more hugs. It’s early, and it’s time to go.
I tell the porcelain-faced girl and the girl squeezed in next to her goodbye, thanks for the talk, nice to meet you. Elle sees me rise and she matches my universal making-my-way-out move.
A purity comes, the quiet inside the noise. I do not remember exactly what happened in that brief minute, but it was something like this:
- Elle stands, tall and too svelte to be lanky, her plain dress with the buttons down the front. It fits her, yet somehow she swims inside it, is disconnected from it. She is wearing white Minnetonka moccasins.
- I move out of the tables, in the space between them and the bar. There is a pause in people passing. We can be still there in all the motion. We face each other and her face is unlined and smooth, her eyes open and bright, shining.
- I say things like just wanted to see you off, was glad to have met you, learned a lot about myself so thanks for the help, good luck. I am pretty sure I say these things.
- Time splits: the living half, where we breathe and work and watch for traffic crossing the street, continues. But an inner half inhales itself around our little distance. I feel the embrace of this set-aside space, how it holds by letting go.
- She speaks in her voice, the voice of a young woman: no older woman’s reverb and still some teenage chirp. She says things like I’m so glad for the experience, getting to know you and all the others, you taught me so much, gave me the courage to think I could do this.
- I do not remember exactly what she says. The clean gush of her thankfulness and gratefulness, the shine in her eyes of such a clear earnestness–it makes me uncomfortable. Now I realize it is because I once just like her, but haven’t been for a while.
An aside: yes, I’ll admit to being a little attracted to her. A friend my age asked me about it after one of our class performances. What is it that attracts you? Those brown eyes, probably. The lankiness, her sharp wit, her growing courage, an intensity I wanted when I was her age, desperately so, but never found because I was afraid to look. I never knew exactly how old she was until tonight, when she joked that soon she’ll be old enough to rent a car–22, 23, 24. She gravitated toward classmates her own age, just as I did. I never pursued anything, because a moment’s pause revealed that’s how it should be. She’s old enough to be my daughter, had I overachieved in that area. We are in different places. Neither of us needs to confuse things.
- I am surprised by what she says, but not taken aback. She is so earnest she can’t be making it up, and she has no reason to. I had no idea I had such an effect.
- Some logistical smalltalk: she’s leaving tomorrow, first back to Minnesota, then on to LA. She’s driving. I projected myself into her upcoming trip from the vantage of my past cross-country drives, imaging me in my new 1990 Civic heading out to LA. That was a dream then, too.
- I say a wise thing. Remember that no matter what happens, you can’t fail. You may not end up where you thought, but you’ll never fail. Okay? Something like that.
- She seems both surprised and gratified. I can almost hear the wheels turning. She stammers a little. I don’t remember what either of us said here beside okay.
- I wonder if older people are really wise, or just remember wise things people older than them have told them.
- Thank you, she says.
- We hug again. She is solid, warm and strong.
- Good luck. I’m glad you’re being brave now instead of waiting twenty years.
- She smiles and backs away. I smile and back away. Time merges back into its single stream and the bar is one bar, filled with one realm of sound.
Walking past the table with the blond tattooed woman and the guy in the plaid shirt, I pass through the threshold. Outside is cooler than I thought, and I put on the jacket I’ve had slung over my bag. People in upscale dress-down walk past, their hats canted. Cars hiss up and down Market Street. The neon and light and compressed space make me think of New York. It’s early yet, and I think of how I will get home at a decent time, make up some lost sleep, be ready to finish the chapter I’m determined to finish tomorrow. I feel fine.
Past habit would have sent me ruminating on my own past, how at 24 I had already failed so many things, had screwed everything up, was still running from everything I had screwed up. But I don’t do that now. I think about Elle’s adventure to come and am happy for her fear and excitement and courage, the long drive through the late summer sun. But it is her adventure. I don’t need to be a vampire.
I wonder what she’s had to fight to get to this launching point. Has her family filled her with doubt, questioned her motives? Do they point out the expense of college and how catering jobs and theatre is not what they expected? Does her mother roll her eyes and ask when she’s going to grow up and get married? Maybe she hasn’t had to fight anything besides her own fear. Maybe she didn’t even have that.
We all have tapes that play in the background: old messages about who we are, what we’re capable of, what we’ve done. Mine are not playing so much any more. It’s easier to not give them to others.
Driving through the bright city, the last sun glints over the mountains. Your goal now is to learn to trust yourself. Part of that must be trusting others too, folding it back on ourselves, accepting we have our own strength. None of us can fail.