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Walk-On

1

A theater. The exterior buzzes with the usual strangers and that winter’s night sensation of vibrating air. What a shame to give up on it and enter. Inside, people won’t be stepping crunchy steps. Why not keep on walking instead, walk until you reach a forest, walk until you reach the type of strangers you’ve never seen? Why not walk until you’re no longer tempted to enact a love story?

Of course, you don’t do it. Of course, you go inside.

As you enter the theater, you see that you’re at risk of enacting a love story. She is across the way, to your left. All you would need to do is move your head and her neck would feel the sting of your looking—proof of ESP.

2

You find your seat, sit, turn, and watch theater-goers filtering down the aisle. This is the beginning of the play, but you don’t know it yet. So much individual motion ending abruptly. The tumult agitates you. You prefer it when people are orderly in lines, when the number of subway seats exactly matches the number of people on the train.

A group of eight saunters in, limbs attached to hard parts, all contact and noise, wearing denim in ways that have never seemed stylish before. You suspect that they’re a unit, but there are only seven seats in their far-right row, so one has to take her own spot in front of the rest. Though she laughs with them, you feel that she is apart now.

A couple. Another couple. Scattered individuals. There are insinuations of music—it’s like the one summer when you lived outside the city and couldn’t grow accustomed to ignoring the crickets. It’s amazing how much one could write about the music of crickets. But you can’t try now. You are watching the play.

3

You chance a peek to the left, close to where she is sitting. Her aisle is completely empty. Everyone is watching the people filing in on your side—embarrassed, you continue your turn and try to play it off as a stretch. In the row behind you, a moony-eyed person is slowly spinning on his toes. You can’t tell if he is lost or dancing. At the very back of the theater a sort of phantasmagoric many-tentacled eminence is assembling. You do not want to look at it again.

You normally go to the bathroom just before plays start, but you feel that you have to stay. That’s how you realize that the play must have started. At that moment, the most handsome man you’ve ever seen walks in. Hard to say what makes him so lovely—all is clefted and in order, yes, but it’s more that he seems entirely open to experience. You aren’t trying to be egotistical when you think that he is visually reminiscent of you, but this super you, this aspirant force, doesn’t look left or right as he walks down your aisle. He ignores the still dancing man and the women who may be sarcastic. He ignores the seven who want to claim him. He doesn’t see the one apart from the seven, who now seems to burn. You get the sense that this handsome version of you is someone who would have no problem writing about the music of crickets. He could find the time.

4

The audience slowly waves its gaze toward the far entrance at the back, skipping over the now-grown phantasmagoria, which at this point still wants only to be recognized. A woman has entered.

And you are not enacting a love-story, of course. Everyone keeps telling you that it’s time to let that go.

But it’s inarguable that the beautiful woman looks quite a bit like the one you are trying not to see, the one whose neck is so susceptible to looking. You look at the improved you in the front row, gorgeous and fine, who is only now turning to look at the better her. They bob their heads in time to the arrhythmia of the crickets. The improved her slowly makes her way down her aisle, still bare, though all the theater’s seats have filled. She is a touch more like the woman who you are trying not to see than the gorgeous you in the front row is to you. This strikes you as a sort of rubbing it in.

You ache as she sits prim. The actual woman you are trying not to see has her head turned toward the non-actual woman and so you take the opportunity to look at the actual her and somehow, though she is reflecting a better version of herself, she isn’t at all diminished. There’s a tenderness there that you’d forgotten, a tenderness that you could never quite believe in.

A shutter goes off near your right ear.

5

Someone is taking a picture of your profile. The shutter goes off again, so near that you can almost feel its creaking. You don’t dare engage; to do so would be to admit self-consciousness. People are laughing in the aisle. It’s a hooting laugh, the type that is initially performed but turns into something real, though never quite achieving the best kind of loose joy. Laughs like these are only ever compromises.

The shutter clicks again. You do not turn.

You try to suck in your stomach, try not to scrunch your jowls. Even though your face is obscured, you close your eyes. You hold, and hold, and hold, and finally, when you can’t take it, you turn. The camera is gone, but on your right, you see that the phantasmagoric eminence has made its move and is trying to find a seat. The lights flicker. The second act is about to start. An overture sounds. The music is still of crickets, but a new set has joined in at a higher pitch. The curtain rises. The stage is empty. Conversation doesn’t cease, but the murmurings are more directed. Then a new sound. You’ve never heard anything like it. It is like a piano played with impossible precision, like all of its hammers are tiny diamonds.

6

The music reminds you of a field. And it’s a sort of nighttime in that field, purer than the night outside the theater. You look to your left and the woman you loved and the more extreme example of the woman you loved have closed their eyes. You look ahead and the best possible you is still bobbing to the music. You look to your right and are relieved that the phantasmagoria is temporarily at rest.

Your imagined field has a blue light that is not quite gloaming. It’s the hour when water seems mysteriously present in the air and actual water takes on a solidity that it can never obtain in the daytime. You look up at your imagined sky. Ten huge stars are shaking, each one-tenth the size of the moon, and there is no moon so the stars must be the moon, and you try to find the shocked mouth but it’s impossible. You realize that the individual pieces of the moon have rotated after splitting, that their shine reflects something previously hidden.

You aren’t sure if this is part of the play anymore. The vision fades. The play is almost half over. You’re beginning to feel lonely.

7

The ground shakes. Members of the audience moan. The other you looks over at the other her to see if she is alright, but the other her doesn’t look back at the other you. You wonder if you should repeat the gesture with your her but then you see that your her is looking at the other you with interest. If only you could take a faint string, tie it around your wrist, and send it gauzily floating across the room to her so that you could slowly rise together toward a summit of thread. The shaking stops. The eight in denim hum together and it makes you angry until you remember that all sound is just vibration.

And so you whistle.

Nothing happens. You do it again. No one stirs.

Then, the perfect you whistles sweet and clear and true. The lights go on. The curtain goes down. The audience applauds. Intermission.

8

The lobby is empty save for a few tentacles of the phantasmagoria clutching steaming mugs of mulled wine. You should certainly go the bathroom, but there is an undeniable risk that it would be considered part of the play. Instead you order a mulled wine and are given colorful punch in a plastic glass. There is a bug in it that you’ve never seen before. You drink it all down, expecting someone to approach: the photographer, one of the seven, or the one, or the only other person who understands that a whistle transcends vibration.

But no, you are alone.

Your drink is finished. You realize that you never noted its taste. The lights flash. When you re-enter, you see that your seat has been claimed by the now-gray phantasmagoria. Everyone else is seated. The back of her head and the back of the perfect version of her head have a pleasing symmetry. The idealized you is posing for a photo. You consider standing at the back, near where the gray phantasmagoria stood when it was young, when it still had ribbons of color and the potential for eyes and the soft touch of wet paper, but you’d miss your own seat. Finally, you look where you have learned not to look: on the far side of the stage, the entire theater is dark and reversed; all the seats are empty.

9

You slowly walk down toward the stage, passing the united seven and the lovely one. When you come to the ideal version of yourself, you worry that he is going to sink his fingers into the pocket of your dark green pants, but instead he whistles again.

Up close, it’s so beautiful.

You turn right. You’ve been spotted. The back of your neck stings again and again and again. You climb the stairs to the stage, keeping your eyes only on your own motion. You half-expect applause when you reach the stage, but none comes, so you do not turn. You walk to the back of the stage and climb down the stairs into the reflection of the theater. You approach the empty seat that the perfect you sits in, and you are sorely, sorely tempted to sit there yourself, to radiate his unique sort of light. But it’s just not you. The click of the shutter would be omnipresent. You walk up the aisle. You reach your very own seat, here unoccupied by the gray phantasmagoria. Your knees shake. There is this feeling that you are about to be caught, though you don’t know if you’re doing wrong.

You sit, raise your eyes to the seatback, then, finally, to the audience of the play, which is approaching its climax.

10

Here is what you see: They aren’t looking at you. They all seem more essentialized than when they were at oblique angles. You start on the left side, as far away from the two hers as possible, because this can’t be about them. You just won’t let it happen. You slowly skim right. The one is looking back at your old seat. You linger on the perfect you’s face, then force yourself to keep scanning. A man in the second row has closed his eyes and is moving in time to nothing but his own breathing. A woman in the back is slowly licking herself. The mass of phantasmagoria throbs. You feel pity toward those who see the phantasmagoria as god, because the skin of the devout has gone translucent and gray. So many faces are looking with need toward so many other faces. If you were still in your seat, you would likely be doing the same, and you wish that you could be any other way than the way that you are. Maybe you can still learn how. You look at the most expensive front-row seats, two of which have remained empty. A tiny rope hangs across them: the thread you wanted to tie around yourself. Finally, you look to the right. First you look at the perfect her, but she is too indescribable to bear. Then, finally, you look at her, and hers is the kind of face that doesn’t look at anyone with need. This makes you both happy and sad. You realize that she never would have felt those tiny needles of your glance. Maybe no one saw your climb onstage. Between the unyielding force of the gray phantasmagoria and the self-sufficiency of the perfect you and the charisma of both the perfect her and the imperfect her, who would bother noticing? You want to go back to your own seat, but there is something you should do here while on your own. So you stop focusing on them. Now, you are only thinking about how to write about cricket noise. You have nothing to write with, which often makes writing possible. You ignore the chaos as everyone begins to leave the seat that was their own. You ignore the laughing seven as they walk up the aisle with the one trailing lovely in their wake. You ignore the shrinking gray phantasmagoria. For just one moment, you even ignore the perfect you and the perfect her, who remain seated. You listen to the crickets in your mind. And they sound like: tshh tshhi. Tssh tshhi. Tssh tshh. Tshhi.

The perfect you and the perfect her rise and applaud. The rest of the audience bows.

11

The play is over. The perfect you and the perfect her leave together. The gray phantasmagoria is dead. You hear shouting in the lobby and you think of the genuine moon that awaits. But still, you sit until everyone has filed out. You don’t look toward where she was sitting. You won’t. This isn’t a love story.

But then, at last, when it seems like the story might be over too, you see that she’s still there. Your imperfect her. She waves and smiles like you do when you spot someone you’ve been looking forward to. You walk down the reversed aisle. You remove the gauzy string that covers the front-row seats in the theater’s reflection. The string in the theater remains unmoved. You look at her, and she looks back. Tiny pins dance on your eyes. You sit.

At some point, you will leave. You have to. At some point, you will walk up the stairs and across the stage and down the stairs and up the aisle and through the lobby and out. Soon. Soon. You very much feel that it is about to happen.

But then she crosses the stage and lifts the string and sits next to you. She begins to tell you what she thought the play was about.

Adam Dalva is a professor at Rutgers University and Marymount Manhattan College. His graphic novel, Olivia Twist, was published by Dark Horse in 2019. You can find his writing at adamdalva.com.