Going public. (part four of an in-progress series)

(Refresh your memory: Click here for part three.)

 

I blame Sofie.

I was nervous about sitting in the backseat of the Honda CRV. It was a two-hour drive from the Albany train station to the artists center. Sitting in the front passenger seat would isolate me from the two fellow residents in the backseat, and allow them to bond, become friends, and exclude me. The backseat was a risk too. If my backseat companion was boring, smelly, or creepy, I was stuck. The backseat was roomy, though, and I decided “Fuck it.” I would pretend to sleep if things got bad back there.

Sofie climbed into the backseat. She looked the artist, with her leopard print pants and wrist tattoos. It was because of her that I figured the small group she formed with the other two women was the group I sought, all of us headed to the artists center. It was also because of her that I’d been intimidated to approach. She was a tall, commanding red head. Sitting next to her in the backseat, I saw how brilliant her blue eyes were. She was beautiful and cool. My personal style hadn’t changed since seventh grade, so utilitarian in my lavender rain jacket (the on-sale color that had saved me money and made me look like a granny), tee shirt, thrift shop jeans (not cool vintage, just happened to be my size and two bucks), and hiking boots. I was nervous less because of what Sofie might say, but rather what I might. What if I said something dumb or made a joke that was not funny? I was afraid of saying something that would prove I was as dull as I looked.

The sound of rain on the windows and the swish of the wipers was steady as the car moved north on I-87. Sofie turned and rested her right shoulder and cheek against the seat so she could face me as we talked. Everything she said was as brilliant as her eyes. She was not just a musician but a composer. She planned to spend the month working on an album, the concept of which was brilliant. We drove past lodges with old gondolas decorating the front lawns. Sofie remarked they reminded her of skiing as a child. She skied. She played music. She painted. She traveled. What didn’t she do?

She didn’t laugh when I said I was a writer. That seemed to impress her.

“I feel intimidated by writers. They’re so smart,” she said.

I didn’t tell her to not be impressed. She’d see me the way I saw myself soon enough: a small woman, wet, frizzy haired, with smudged glasses, dressed like a nerdy preteen, and still uncomfortable calling myself a writer.

“Are you working on something?” she asked.

Thousands of dollars of therapy taught me it was not a good idea to tell her I was the biggest project I had going, and the work was going nowhere. I was managing to hold a conversation with this woman who impressed the hell out of me, and she seemed genuinely interested in what I said. I didn’t want to blow it by revealing I was a basket case diagnosed with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, and had spent the past eight years struggling to manage the paranoia that made me believe the police were out to arrest me for killing my baby and the explosive anger that manifested itself in broken cabinet doors and bloody fingers. I still managed to tell Sofie something crazy.

“I’m working on a one-woman show.”

Her eyes opened.

“Wow. That’s so cool.”

She was impressed. I was mortified. My defenses were down because this artist was talking to me and taking me seriously. I opened my big mouth and said the script was my project for the residency, like it was a thing.

Sofie lived in California, but had also lived in New York City. We talked about the Lower East Side, places she’d worked and visited that I had also frequented. Back in our day, the Lower East Side was still on the fringe, a place where we could feel like there was a place for us. This beautiful woman whose life stories were keeping me awake and hoping the car ride wouldn’t end, she of all people felt like an outsider. Sofie  admitted she was anxious about the month at the center, and wondered whether she was established or good enough as an artist.

I had been anxious about sitting in the backseat with Sofie when I first got into the car. As we approached the artists center, I was anxious about leaving that sanctuary. We drove through the hamlet of Blue Mountain Lake. The place was not even a town. What the hell was a hamlet? I couldn’t look it up on my smartphone because we were deep in the Adirondacks, beyond the reach of any signal. We drove past a gas station with an attached general store, a post office, two churches, and a roadside sign that advertised fishing bait.

Sofie and I looked at each other as the Honda turned right onto an unpaved road with no homes. Trees lined and loomed over the road that led to the center. I thought of deer, ticks, bears, and toothless hermit serial killers. Mila, the young woman who drove us, mentioned that there were two buildings where resident artists stayed. We drove first to a grey house, and Mila said it was where I’d stay for the month. I brightened when she said she’d help me and Sofie retrieve our bags from the back of the car because we’d both be staying in the “Grey Cottage.” Sofie smiled at me.

“That’s so cool.”

It was so cool to hear her say what I was thinking.

***

The first dinner at residencies is always the let’s-get-to-know-each-other meal where each person introduces her or himself and provides information about what she or he will work on during the time. Fourteen artists of all genres and the center’s director and two staff members sat around the long wood table in the dining area. Everyone was so accomplished: the woman I recognized because her social justice project had been featured in the NYT Sunday magazine; the visual artist whose photos chronicled the effects of lynching in America; the artist activist who provided support at demonstrations and traveled to conflict areas abroad. Sofie gave a brief description of the process she planned for immersing herself into the space she needed to develop the album.

And there I was, about to announce that I would work on a one-woman show. If I threw up before my turn, I would not have to introduce myself or speak about my work, but then I’d be known as the puker. Who would want to sit next to the puker? The staff would have to set up a table for me outside to eat alone for the whole month.

If I puked, it was Sofie’s fault. I had told her I’d be working on a one-woman show. She’d reacted enthusiastically and said it sounded cool, and I had believed her. If the people at the table threw food at me or laughed when I announced my project, Sofie would realize the idea wasn’t cool and be mad that she’d ever thought it was. I’d lose the one friend I’d made.

It got closer to my turn. I could hear my heart beat in my ears so loudly that I couldn’t hear what the illustrator next to me was saying about his project.

Suddenly, it was my turn.

I gave my name. That was easy. So was saying that I lived in New Jersey, which I always follow quickly with the fact that I’m a born and bred New Yorker. I just live in New Jersey. There’s a big difference. I said I was a writer, which is not an easy thing to say, but not a lie. That’s what it says on my tax returns because I’ve received (meager) paychecks for things I’ve written. Then it was time.

“I’m going to work on a project that scares me: I’m completing the script for a one-woman show.”

No food thrown, but a few sincere-sounding Wows and earnest head nods. I said it. And once I say something out loud, I have to do it. No matter how embarrassing the actual thing is, it is mortifying to not live up to what I said I was going to do and prove to the world that I am a failure.

So my one-woman show was public knowledge. It was a small public, but these people would be my only community for a whole month. I couldn’t hide. I’m a hungry woman, and would have to emerge for meals. I reminded myself these people were strangers. They didn’t know my project was something I had no experience with, and that I could very easily fuck up. It was out there, and that first meal felt like a fresh start. I was Nancy Méndez-Booth, a writer, and I was going to work on my first one-woman show for a whole month.

(End of the fourth in a series of related posts.)

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