Open seating at the university theater tonight, so my husband and I arrive early. It is a love story. They cannot begin to pack all of the actors and actresses involved in this drama onto one little stage. So they make do with those called for in the script. I realize this as my husband and I wait for the curtain to rise.
Nearby, two college men capture our attention. Surrounded by people, they are absolutely ensconced in their own little world — a world bounded by each other. The (slightly) younger of the two has a peaches-and-cream complexion and short curly red hair. In profile he reminds me of a Roman Caesar. Red waves his hands about as he talks, but hardly keeps pace with his companion whose arms fly here and there, punctuating the discussion. He wears a blue plaid shirt. He has curly blond hair — thinning on top — and a matching beard. Both are tall and lanky, but Plaid is the taller of the two. They are equally animated. They almost bounce out of their seats.
Just before the play begins, Plaid moves halfway across the auditorium, sits opposite us. He crosses his arms, remains impassive through much of the show, even the funny parts. The woman to his left leans away from him, rests her chin in her hand, elbow on her left knee. The woman to his right sits with her arms crossed. No sign of him being acquainted with either.
The lights dim, the action begins. The play has a fair proportion of women in it. I keep my eyes on the men. They have slim builds, flat stomachs, tight butts. The play calls for the men to drop to one knee with a regularity I appreciate — the fabric of their trousers pulls tight, rounds off the buttock.
At intermission, Plaid appears glum as ever. Off to his right, I see my friend Joe. As a teenager, Joe wrapped his car around a telephone pole. He barely survived. The accident left him crippled and disfigured. He walks with difficulty. He slurs his speech. He wears plaids and stripes together. When he came out in middle age, he learned first-hand how mercilessly cruel members of the gay subculture can be to people who do not fit cultural standards of physical beauty. Joe has never had an intimate relationship. He has friends but no boyfriends. Dave and I go over and chat with him until the lights dim. Then I go back to ogling sexy actors.
In Act Two, the audience must face the stage death of an endearing character. We welcome the finale, a joyous celebration of the survivors falling in love, one after another. Life will not be easy, they acknowledge, but love will see them through. Love makes life worth living.
I listen to them proclaim their love. And I wonder. I wonder about Joe. I wonder about my friend Scott, who padlocks his heart, refuses to open it to anyone. He will not share his home with a dog, a cat, a fish, a bird — a houseplant, even. He believes that if he loves anyone or anything he will get hurt. He was present when his mother died. Hearing his sister's immediate wail of grief, he said to himself, "See? See? This is what happens when you love someone. You get hurt."
Easy enough for the actors and actresses to make stirring speeches about love, proclaim its primacy, its role in saving us from ourselves — after all, they are reciting their lines. But are they feeding us one? Is this how love works? For Joe? For Scott? For Red and Plaid? For Dave and me? Does love always triumph? Does it for everyone?
Perhaps the answer is too big to fit on the little stage of my mind. Perhaps the answer envelops me, every day, enacted in the lives of those I pass. Perhaps it plays out in this season of the year as our planet turns from the dark powers of winter towards life-giving light once again. Do I have a role in this cosmic drama? Do you?
This essay appeared in the December issue of The Letter.