Part One: Step on a Crack
(True story. Wish it wasn’t. Then again…)
There were signs early on, but I was too young to know what they meant. When I was in primary school I heard the phrase, “Step on a crack and break your mother’s back.” I laughed. Then started avoiding cracks. But I didn’t like how obsessive that felt, so I started stepping on cracks to prove that I wasn’t obsessive. Then I felt guilty about breaking my mother’s back, so I returned to avoiding cracks. This practice continued all the way into my college years.
Nevertheless, I was a fearless high schooler, running for student body president against our hunky heartthrob football quarterback (and nearly winning), starring in school plays, and happily stuffing myself on ego-chow. I told my best friend Marc, “I’ll don’t think I’ll ever be happier than I am now!”
I was right.
My ego took a hit freshman year in college. Jonnie, a bruised reed of a beauty and a fellow theatre major, refused to date me because I was “shallow.” “Oh, you’re fun to hang out with,” she said, “but you’re all jokes and laughs. You need to suffer a little, or you’ll never be deep.”
Jonnie and all of the other non-lesbian theatre girls were hot for Darren, the department’s broody 19 year old Mr. Darcy. Darren told me at a cast party one night, “I don’t care whether I live or die.” And I thought, Catch 22: being depressed would get me Jonnie, but then I wouldn’t care.
A year after college, my girlfriend dumped me. Then I lost my job. Then my father died. I started listening to blues music and drinking whiskey while typing angry stream-of-consciousness poetry. And I thought bitterly, Jonnie would go out with me now.
I bounced back. For a while.
But the storm that had been brewing ever since I’d avoided that first crack was about to break, and I didn’t see it coming.
After a failed attempt at running a school of the arts in Newport Beach, California (another story), I went back to college. As a theatre major I was expected to perform in plays. One of which was an odd little one-act by some broody Darren-ish European existentialist guy. I was obligated, but my heart was elsewhere.
So I applied this patently stupid solution: I only half-memorized my lines. The result? On opening night, as I plowed into the first of several long abstract monologues, my mind went scrub-hard-drive blank. When my thoughts reemerged from wherever they’d been, I saw an audience of 250 nervously coughing at me.
I couldn’t remember who my character was or even what the play was. It was the classic actor’s nightmare, only it was happening in real time. And then, instead of improvising something, anything, I began to meditate on the absurdity of pretending to be someone I wasn’t for people who’d paid money to sit in the dark and watch me do it.*
I finally laid hold of a tattered strand of memory, barked out some vague approximation of the monologue, and wandered offstage. In a haze of fear, I made my way through the rest of the show with the words “What do I say next? What do I say next?” running around screaming inside my brain.
I guzzled a gallon of whiskey at the cast party, trying to drown the voice in my head, while distractedly dialoguing with a Jonnie-like beauty named Diane.
Then I stumbled home to my cave of an apartment and disappeared down the sleep drain.
But at 3 o’clock in the morning, I sat up, instantly sober, my mouth full of cotton wool, and whispered, “What if I go insane?”
The storm had broken.
To read Part Two: Into the Darkness, click here.
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*I stole my experience and cursed an anxious 14-year old girl with it in my fantasy novel The Wishing Map