Act 4: A Birthday Party

The next part of this story is my favorite part to tell, if not because of the disjointed and half-remembered parts of it but for the reactions that I get when I tell it. Most people think that I’m bullshitting, or at least somewhat exaggerating.

I’m really not.

Act 4: A Birthday Party.

This is a story that pends on the understanding of a very specific timeline:

I flew into the Dulles airport, which is about 3 hours away from Staunton. I had rented a car, which was located off-property from the airport. I was told to leave at least half an hour between car return time and getting to the airport time, to allow time for their service shuttle to pick me up. My flight was leaving at 8:01AM. I needed to be at the airport no later than 7AM, meaning that I HAD to be out of Staunton by 3:30AM, 4:00AM at the latest.

This becomes incredibly important later on.

So Saturday night passed without incident. I was exhausted from the day, and had grand plans to go find a rowdy bar to pass the time, but instead spent the evening with a hot date of a Subway sandwich in my hotel room.

Sunday was going to be my wrap-up day. I had tickets for the matinee of Romeo and Juliet, so I planned on wandering down to the coffee place with the extraordinary lattes and hanging out. I had already packed, so I put my suitcase in my rental car, checked out of my hotel and headed into town.

On my way there, I happened to get a text from Nora asking me if I wanted to hang out for a while before the show. We met up for coffee, and then went on an impromptu adventure around town, including a brief stop to the MFA rehearsal space, where Nora handed me a red postcard with website details for the MFA Shakespeare Program. I stuck it in my purse. Remember that, it becomes important later on.

We continued around town, where she clued me in to the fantastic vintage store hidden in an upstairs shopping complex. I bought an orange dress and dinosaur earrings to commemorate the day, and Nora thoughtfully invited me over for dinner again after the show, and I readily accepted.

So, I saw Romeo and Juliet at the ASC and it was fantastic. I mean, the thing with Romeo and Juliet is that a bunch of semi-literate mutants could stand there, and once you hit the speeches, it’s just…pure magic. I can’t imagine what I must have looked like from the stage— this wide-eyed doofus sitting and grinning during the sad parts because they were just SO GOOD (and, because I directed Complete Works, “call me but love and I’ll be new baptized” is ruined for me. Forever.) but I was just…really impressed.

After the show, I wound up back again at Nora’s place, where we ate dinner. During the meal, Nora casually mentioned that she was headed to a birthday party that night with a great band she thought I would enjoy, and would I be interested in going. I protested—I didn’t know anyone, I hadn’t been invited, I didn’t want to impose, but Nora assured me that it would be fine. I was about to protest again that I had an early flight and needed to get some sleep, but I figured that I’d stop by for awhile, stand around awkwardly and leave by 10, giving me plenty of sleep before I had to leave at the ass-crack of dawn.

Oh, and it was a black and white party, so not only did Nora invite me, she also let me raid her closet. There is hospitality, and then there is Nora. Good lord, she deserves a medal.

Anyway, so dressed in some semblance of a black and white outfit, I left my clothes and possessions at Nora’s caught a ride with her to the party. (remember this, it becomes important later on).

For the sake of the timeline, we’ll say that it was 9:00pm.

I thought we were headed to a bar, but I quickly found out we were headed to a house party—the best kind, one of those hot, sweaty, sort of squished together and too loud parties with jello shots and crazy outfits—the difference, however, was that three seconds into the party, I ran, literally, face-first into their impossibly good-looking Romeo, and stumbled backwards, only to be caught and steadied by their equally dashingly handsome Lord Montague.

Fuck me, this was an ACTOR party, and here I was, an awkward theatre geek from Iowa standing amongst the Shakespearean Asguardians, wide eyed, terrified and too nervous to make eye contact.

I realized that I had two options: make friends, or bail, and goddamn it, this was an adventure.

I started chatting with some of the actors, and it turned out that the timing of the celebration coincided with three happenings: the return of the touring company for a brief stop in town, the final performance of a band comprised of actors from the company, and two birthdays being celebrated at one party.

The band was squished into the living room and surrounded on three sides by theatre people rocking out. At one point, I turned to my side and noticed a guy in a horrific 80’s jacket. I said some smart ass thing like “hey, nice jacket”, and he sort stared at me and skulked away. Great. I’d offended one of the Asguardians. Keep 80’s jacket guy in mind, he’s going to be really important later on.

Really, really important.

I hit it off with some of the touring troupe actors, and suddenly, from behind me, this great behemoth of a man with a giant beard and a giant smile clapped me on the back, handed me a pair of plastic sunglasses and roared at me to take a Jello shot. I complied. He handed me three more.

And that was how at a birthday party I wasn’t invited to, I did Jello shots with Falstaff.

I talked to anyone who came in a four foot radius. I made jokes. I talked Shakespeare. I danced. We argued about the best Slings and Arrows character. I drank cheap beer and had a few jello shots. I was. So. Happy. I went for a walk with one of the actors and had one of those deep introspective and slightly embarrassing looking back conversations about how much I admire him for getting to do this for his JOB. He didn’t get it.

I realize that going to a house party isn’t like, the greatest achievement, but for me it was…meaningful. It was an unplanned adventure, a chance to talk to people who got to work in Shakespeare for their jobs, and, for the first time in a very long time, I felt like I had found the land of my people. It was proof that I could, even when terrified to open my mouth and embarrass myself, make friends, meet people, and talk probably way too much about what makes Titus a great show.

11:00 pm.

We returned from our walk to find the party still in swing, if not slightly less intense—the band had finished, so the living room had cleared out enough to allow some room for conversation. I found myself talking with a couple touring actors and then, suddenly, 80’s jacket guy reappeared and joined the conversation. Turns out, his skulking away was more of an awkward not knowing what to say and less of a being terribly offended sort of thing, so that worked out for me.

Somehow, we started talking about Halloween decorations, which led to a discussion of
building props, which led to me playing the “I Make Armor” card (which, you know, is…mostly kind of true, but it sounds more impressive than “I’m totally learning at how not to suck at making armor”), which led to him asking me, perhaps, the single greatest question I’ve ever been asked.

“Do…do you want to see the armory?”

I thought he was kidding. Yeah right, we can just up and go check out the damn armor supply store to while we’re at it.

“No”, he said, “ You don’t get it— I’m the props master for the ASC…the armory is literally my office. Do you want to go check it out?”

I can only imagine my face at this moment, but apparently, I didn’t embarrass myself enough for him to change his mind. I excused myself to go ask Nora if she mind if I checked it out, and she assured me it was fine, that 80’s jacket guy wasn’t a serial killer, and that if it got too late, she’d leave the door unlocked so I could return and get my stuff.

So I went off with another complete stranger, this one in a bad 80’s tuxedo (honestly, I swear I’m smarter than this story makes me sound) and suddenly, after a lot of giggling and awkward conversation, found myself at the stage door for the ASC.

He opened the door for me (southern gentleman: confirmed) and gestured me inside.

Midnight.

I have always believed in the kindness of strangers. I believe, fully, with my whole heart, that people are intrinsically good, and that there is far more good in the world than bad. I believe that everyone has a story, and I most assuredly believe that the only way to experience life and the extraordinary moments it has the possibility to bring is by talking to people. Because sometimes, you’ll talk to the right person two years before you talk to the right person at a birthday party, and suddenly you’ll be handed, once again, proof that true, real good exists, in many ways—and my proof, that night, was a complete stranger taking a girl from the Midwest unsolicited and unprovoked to see the swords because he knew how much it would mean to her.

There was no motive or reward in it for him, no reason at all to offer to leave a party for some girl to ogle hilts and thumb blade edges, but he offered. Out of just…kindness. And yes, I realize that some might read this and be very quick to cry “motive”, but it just—it wasn’t a pick-up line, it was just…an offer from a good heart, because somehow, I think he sort of understood the chance I was taking, and returned it, in kind, with good-natured kindness. Just…because.

I have tried, many times, since that evening to explain, or at least replicate, the feeling that I had that night. It was something akin to sheer joy mixed with deep longing mixed with HOLY FUCKING SHIT mixed with “is this actually happening?”

So I got a midnight tour. I saw the swords, and the costume shop. I saw the props loft, he took me to the “heavens” where the over-stage storage lives, showed me the trap, took me to the props loft where I teased him on his organization, let me peek my head out of the tech booth… I was in heaven.

The details of this experience are both simultaneously incredibly blurred but also, somehow, seared into my memory. The bucket of gauntlets. The cluttered make-up counter. The smell of the costume shop. The whiteboard with dumb comments scribbled around the margins from smart-ass actors. It was like getting a glimpse backstage at my nerd version of Disney World—this was where the magic was made, this is where shows were built, this was where I’d dreamed of being.

It meant so much to me.

We wound up on top of the adjacent parking garage that overlooked the downtown. We stayed up there for a while, just talking, until it got too cold and we were forced back inside, but I would have stayed there all night, just talking and looking at the stars over the mountains.

1:00 AM.

When we went back inside, we took a detour to the music loft, where the instruments used by the company are stored, and then he brought me downstairs, brought me through a set of doors and through a curtain and then, suddenly, I opened my eyes and I was on stage.

There is this moment in Beauty and the Beast where the Beast gives Belle a library. As a kid, that was always one of my favorite parts because holy shit, she got a library to a soundtrack of sweeping strings.

That night, I got a theatre. Unfortunately, in life, there are no sweeping strings, but the effect was still the same. There was, perhaps, a bit of a grand reveal with a grin because he understood the significance of this hallowed ground to me, but my reaction was just as strong. And by strong, I mean humiliating. Because my reaction to this amazing moment was to burst into tears. Now, I’ve never been a crier. I cry, sure, but it’s a rare occurrence that I am very careful to keep private.

But there, in that moment, in front of this stranger in his jacket with velvet lapels, I burst into tears. I stood, I’m not sure, for how long, just…staring. The thing of it is, there is something about this particular theatre that is just…incredibly hard to explain. Most of it is, honestly, self-ascribed, I know, objectively, that it’s just a building that happens to look like a recreation of a period-accurate playhouse. I know, objectively, that all theatres tend to have high ceilings. I know, objectively, that wood is generally used to construct stages with…but all of that just…disappears there.

I am sure that once I am there for a while the novelty will wear off, but for now, since then, I’ve set foot in that space twice more, and every time, it’s almost embarrassing how excited I get. It’s just…what it stands for, I guess. What it means, personally, to me. Objectively, rationally, reasonably, it’s a very pretty building in a very pretty town. But to me, it’s like walking into a cathedral. It’s just…silly, I know, and maybe a bit over the top, but that’s just how my mind works.

Anyway, so I was told after the fact that apparently my face was delightful to witness as I stood on stage, but I don’t remember anything about that moment except sheer, utter, pure, honest joy.

2:00 AM

After generously putting up with my meltdown for the better part of what felt like eternity, we made our way to the foot of the stage, where we just…talked. You know when you meet a stranger on an airplane or a bus and somehow, by the end of the ride, you’ve gotten their entire life story? It was sort of like that. Just…talking. Easily. Freely. No pressure, no feeling of having to impress the other person, just sharing stories and talking theatre

At some point, I was looking around the theatre as we talked, and I noticed that there was a door hanging slightly ajar. I remembered, weirdly, overhearing a conversation at the party between two actors complaining about the fact that there was a door at the theatre that wouldn’t hang shut, and I asked if that door was the door in question.

It was, and I, being me, went over to examine it and wound up spotting the problem: the door had been originally hung to open the other way, and when it was turned around, the stop had been placed too close to the hinges, resulting in the hinges pressing on the wood, which popped the door back open.

I pointed this out, and made some lame comment about how if I was correct and he managed to fix the door, he had to buy me flowers. (These become important later on). The deal made, we continued our conversation and fell, somehow, on the subject of names.

2:30AM

As we talked, I realized, suddenly, that I had absolutely no idea what this guy’s name was. At the exact moment the thought crossed through my head, either by happenstance or because it was obvious on my face, he asked me “Hey. What’s my name?”

Fuck.

I realized that there was absolutely no way out of this, so I admitted that, well, I had absolutely no idea and apologized profusely.

He offered his hand. “I’m Chris”.
I shook back. “I’m Catie”.

The thing of it was (as horribly eembarrassing as that moment happened to be)…this whole night had happened between literal strangers. I was humiliated that in my freak out of excitement I had somehow either forgotten (his insistence) or never learned (my insistence) his name. But even without knowing it, even if I had walked away without ever learning it, the thing that strikes me most is that this stranger handed me my dreams that night. For free. For the joy of giving another person joy. Out of a generosity that I am am learning to try and emulate every day.

And so the boy with the dumb jacket became a boy with a name.

2:45 AM

As my “holy shit I have to leave time” loomed closer, I realized, suddenly, that I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to end the conversation, I didn’t want to leave the theatre, I didn’t want to leave the town—I wanted to stay. I wanted, I suppose, the feeling of a perfect, perfect night to linger for just a little bit longer.

There’s this line in Romeo and Juliet that goes
“It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden,
Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be
Ere one can say “It lightens.”

Suddenly, that line made a whole fuckload more sense. This had all happened so quickly, so just…bizarrely and perfectly and magically that it didn’t seem real, and I was going to have to walk away from that feeling and back into real life.

We sat onstage until 2:58 and talked, ignoring the countdown timer on my phone, until we just…couldn’t anymore.

3:00 AM

So, finally, I just…had to go. Chris hugged me, thanked me for a wonderful evening, drove me back to Nora’s where I snuck in, changed my clothes, regretted that I had nothing to leave her a note in which to express my thanks, and was in my rental car and on the road by 3:15.

I didn’t get any sleep that night. I drove through the grey dawn and stopped only once—to watch the sunrise over the mountains, feeling slightly embarrassed at the notion of being so romantic as to watch a sunrise, but it was beautiful, and I just wanted 5 more minutes of that feeling of adventure and happiness and joy before I drove too far away to remember what that felt like.

The car drop-off and flights home were uneventful, and by 10AM I had changed into the only clean thing I had with me—the orange dress I’d bought with Nora– exhausted and at work, checking emails.

The events of the past two days seemed like, well, a dream, except that my proof was that I hadn’t slept. At all. And a bright orange dress and some dinosaur earrings.

It was a bizarre juxtaposition. Literally less than 6 hours before, I’d been in a room crammed with people who laughed at my Darren Nichols references and entered into a hot debate with me regarding the “top five” Shakespeares… and now, I was back in the office, blankly nodding through discussions about football scores and, well, everything that glaringly pointed out how much I didn’t make sense in this world. After a weekend consumed by art and creativity and the admission that I had, maybe, figured out in a strange trial by fire just what exactly my passion was, I was just as quickly back in a world of spreadsheets and data reports.

At some point, I reached into my purse to find something and I pulled out Nora’s red postcard. For some reason, I tacked it to my bulletin board. Don’t forget about the postcard, it’s still going to be important later on.

The rest of it…the party, the tour, the people…I just sort of wrote it all off as this once in a lifetime experience, a fantastical set of circumstances that aligned to create something magical, resigned myself to remembering as best I could and decided, resolutely, to remember the weekend fondly, but not to expect anything else to come of it.

4:45 PM:

Later that day, just before work ended for the day, I checked my email. In it was an email from Chris.

That is, I suppose, sort of where the rest of the story begins.
______________________

Up next: Act 5: The Choice, A Risk, and the Alignment of the Stars

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