Into the World for Zach
It was just about fifteen minutes after the intermission of Don’t Dress for Dinner that Zach and I decided that we didn’t have to be theater people after all.
We were seventeen years old and we loved our English elective, “Theater of New York,” though we were now in a position to say that, strictly speaking, we had loved it. We knew that the theater was invented to combat solitude. More to the point, we knew that the theater was invented to combat solipsism. Most important, we knew that distraction was the enemy because it was distraction that bred solipsism.
The thought had been that theater was a way out of distraction. By dramatizing a character’s interiority, the playwright would allow us to imaginatively inhabit it. By honing in on a character’s subjectivity, we would learn how it is possible to experience other selves. In so doing, we would get better at experiencing our own selves.
Does that make sense? That had once been Zach’s argument, but that night, during Don’t Dress for Dinner, he decided to reject it.
So, in another reading, it was just about fifteen minutes after the intermission of Don’t Dress for Dinner that Zach decided he didn’t much care for the play. We had just become, that’s all just to say—and this happened to be what we liked to say—small-c conservatives. We had just come to believe that you can’t fully access someone else’s consciousness; that, at the end of the day, you have to think for yourself.
That, at any rate, is the pith of what Zach whispered to me during the show, as far as I can remember. Which, in turn, is the pith of the larger arguments that Zach grew into, as far as I can understand.
The opposite of small-c conservatism is small-c communism. That’s where theater fits in, which is not at all to say that all actors are pinkos. Theater takes as a premise that communities are worth our time.
“More specifically,” Zach said as we left the theater, “it takes for granted that someone can think through someone else’s thoughts. This seems obvious until you actually try to do it.”
We wandered back towards my uncle’s apartment, where I was housesitting for the night. Zach was never a bad guy, I have to say. He was a little less smart than he thought he was. He was just about as funny as he thought he was. This is where I’m supposed to say that, for all Zach’s faults, whatever they were, “he meant well.” Who am I to say, though? But there were worse things that could’ve happened to seventeen-year-old me than spending my time trying out ideas for size with Zach.
“We all hope our friends fail a little bit,” Zach once said to me.
He said that Nietzsche said that. As far as I can tell, Nietzsche didn’t say that. I was still in the going-to-read-Nietzsche phase. Rumor has it that these sorts of phases can endure longer than you’d think. I would’ve wagered then that Zach was in that phase, too, and with whatever funds I’ve stashed since, I’d do it again. It’s unclear to me how much Zach wanted me to fail. He had already implied that he wanted me to fail a little bit, but maybe he wanted me to fail a lot.
Peculiarly, Zach didn’t have much to say that night after we left the play.
For all of the time we spent together, it was hard to tell what Zach worried about. Harder still was it to tell whether it was my fault or his. What I knew was this: Zach had been seeing a girl, on and off maybe, and her name was Christine, and she was beautiful.
I guess, in retrospect, I should’ve known that Christine would challenge Zach in a way that other girls hadn’t. She was grounded in a way other girls weren’t; she had an air of confidence whereby she didn’t feel like she had to define herself in terms of the boys who were or weren’t around her. This was all particularly unusual given that Christine attended St. Mary’s, our sister school across the street.
It was about this time when Zach began to sit out the weekend night plans of which he’d previously been the ringleader. But when our classmates and the few St. Mary’s girls I knew started asking if he was depressed—he was gaining more of a reputation at both places—it occurred to me that what was happening to Zach was something like the opposite of depression. It’s not that he wasn’t introspective anymore. It’s just that, some time when he was with Christine, he learned to put introspection to the side when that was so obviously the appropriate thing to do. He learned, in other words, to be more like Christine.
After the show, when we got to my uncle’s apartment, I made us some coffee and put on the TV. We liked news: You can talk about news seriously, but you can also make fun of news easily. And you can criticize your friend for doing one when you think he ought to be doing the other.
Zach was doing neither. He drank his coffee slowly and carefully. This wasn’t where he wanted to be. You had to wonder where he would have wanted to be—you had to wonder if he really had more serious things to do than to spend the rest of the night arguing with me.
The news cut to a Senate hearing. Zach looked up and took a swig of coffee. Surely now, finally, it was coming: Zach would squint at the TV for a few moments and prepare his stream of invectives. I would offer a measured response, in defense of the politician whom Zach had just decimated.
Instead, Zach got up to get some more coffee.
Of course, I am much older now, and my wandering days are over, and arguments don’t look the way they used to. I know now, for instance, that arguments are rarely just arguments. And I can’t confess to any special affection for the days I’ve just discussed. Really, I can’t confess to much interest in them at all. Notwithstanding that I live now where my uncle did then—when you get a really good apartment, you keep it in the family—it’s hard to see how they matter.
Here’s one way in which my life now is vastly different from my life then: I spend quite a good deal of time at the theater. There’s leisure in old age, and leisure time is theater time—as the old adage goes, although I must confess to now having trouble sorting between old adages and original thoughts. Just last week, I caught the Broadway revival of Boeing-Boeing, and something happened to me that would be entirely unacceptable were Boeing-Boeing not an exquisitely farcical piece of theater.
I had suspected that my ex-wife would be in the audience. It was a not uncommon coincidence by this point, and I had even grown somewhat endeared to her new beau’s outwardly refined sensibilities. No use in being bitter—good taste is hard to find these days. What I couldn’t have been expected to predict was that Christine, or some perfectly approximated representation of what seventeen-year-old Christine would look like fifty or sixty years down the road, would be sitting two rows in front of her. It couldn’t have been Christine, though, I convinced myself. In the production of my life, Zach was already a minor character, and in fact his part was set to be cut in the first round of revisions. It went without saying that Christine was a long, long ways away from the dramatis personae.
But as I’ve said, leisure time has been bountiful in these years, so I caught up to Christine, or what appeared to be Christine, after the show. She ran off to a café that’s just two blocks from the theater but is tucked away on a sidestreet—the café where you went if you had been to this theater more than enough times—where I seated myself a few tables away from her. That I happen to have composed much of my life’s work in this very café is beside the point. It is so irrelevant, really, that I hesitate to mention it in this space. And I wasn’t here to work, anyway. The woman I had followed wore her hair tied, her ears earring-less, and her sweater in muted charcoal, all of which, I’ve come to believe, is the thing to do when you’re an effortlessly gorgeous woman.
I was waiting for this gorgeous woman to be joined by a gorgeous man when what I took to be two of her grandchildren walked in. They must have been home for their colleges’ winter breaks. I understood why they didn’t accompany their grandmother to the play. The holidays are short, your list of friends to see is long, and, at that age, you can still be a good student of drama without going to every show you have the chance to. I hate speculating about other people’s happiness, but the three of them huddled over their hot drinks certainly wasn’t a sob scene.
Curiosity got the better of me, and when the older of the two grandchildren rose to go to the counter and adjust his drink, it turned out that I too needed another spot of cream.
“Were you at the show?” I asked the woman’s grandson. Disingenuous attempts at conversation are disingenuous, I reasoned, but they can also produce conversation.
“No, no, I wish. I had plans.”
It was a courteous enough response—who wanted to spend his vacation talking to an old man?—but I couldn’t help myself.
“You missed out! Camoletti was at the height of his powers when he dreamed this one up.”
“My grandmother said as much. You ought to meet her.”
I let silence intervene. I could tell I was talking to someone who could carry a conversation by himself.
“Well, actually, do you want to know what I really think?” He looked over his shoulder back towards his grandmother and sister, but they were absorbed in their conversation. For the first time in my fifteen minutes of observing him, he didn’t look composed.
Well, of course I did.
“I’m not sure if I’m wasting my time on the great satirists. It’s what I went to school to study, but it feels like I’m missing something.”
Boeing-Boeing is a brilliant farce—as is Don’t Dress for Dinner, incidentally—but he had my ear, and I think he knew it. There has always been a difficult line to walk between irony and sincerity—how to adopt the farcical without living a farce?—and this, I’m convinced, is a good reason to talk about theater.
“It’s not that they’re bad, or that they’re wrong,” he continued. “It’s just that, and you hate to think of it this way, even though it’s true, theater’s a zero-sum game. When you see one show, you miss another, or you miss something that’s not a show but is still important. When you read one play, you only have time to maybe skim the other.”
I have this theory, except that, if you look around for long enough, you’ll realize that it’s not really my theory. It’s a theory that I’m hesitant to spell out, but I think it’s important.
A very, very long time ago, I received a wedding invitation from Zach and Christine. Zach and I had gone our separate ways and lost touch, as these things go. It was a time in my life when I wasn’t attending weddings, but I was pleasantly surprised that they had thought to invite me. They made sense to me in high school, and they make sense to me now.
Some time after that, I realized that one has to think about time in a particular way.
One has to think that time doesn’t work like other objects, or even like other abstract concepts. Because time straddles the line between concept and object. It molds itself into discrete little packets. It builds upon itself, twisting itself into objects to be beheld. It exists within us and beyond us, and we stand upon it as we reach further into it. That way, our lives may be worthy of being memorialized at any old moment. At least, they ought to be.
Leaning against the counter, I got a better look at the kid. One thing you get better at noticing as you age is seriousness, and I could see that he had seriousness built into his brow. He may have been very funny, for all I know, but he was fundamentally and essentially serious. In other words, I realized, he had his grandfather’s brow.
I laughed in the way you laugh when you want to show someone that you understand. “What’s the solution?” I asked.
He paused. It occurred to me that his answer mattered more to him than I could really know. It occurred to me that this was not the first time that he’d thought this solution through.
“I’m not sure there is a solution. You just have to be aware of it.”
In the minutes after our conversation, Christine and her grandchildren looked no less happy than they did in the minutes before it.
There was a time in my life when I would’ve checked if it was really Christine. And if it was, and maybe if it somehow weren’t, I would’ve told her some of the things I have come to believe, or have come to confirm that I believe. I would’ve told her that I think true, deep empathy is strange, but that it is not fiction. I would’ve have told her that we all just have to work at it.
But that time has passed, and it is only now that I’ve seen Christine and her grandchildren that I realize Zach has passed from my life, too. So I left the coffee shop, and I walked home instead of taking the subway, because I like to think there’s something charming about the intermingling of snowfall and streetlights. And what do I know, anyway? It’s just my opinion.