A Beautiful Pretending

I was taught to perform, an interesting occupation for an introvert.

We all were. My voice was in compliance. It ran clear and crystal in its range.

My body was acceptable. I knew how to smile when I didn’t feel happy. I was looking for love, so acceptance in the form of applause worked well.

I loved being different characters. I could be anyone, channel the essence of another person so completely it was like having them in the room. I could make other people laugh or cry with my skill and intention. But eventually I began to lose track of myself, of my central character. I lost track of the essence of me.

Ray, the man who built our costumes, picked me up in the theater company’s dirty van each morning, the one that said, Storefront Theater on the side. Ray was a rotund gay man who could build a stunning wardrobe out of cast-off clothing in seconds. Ray would study me for a moment when I walked from the house, wondering not so subtly just who he was picking up that morning.

Would it be Anna, the man-hater who made a life in men’s clothes and hiking boots? Or maybe Olga, the Swede, who wore her golden braids wrapped around her head, a rayon dress below and a shawl thrown across her shoulders. Maybe it was the ditsy Energy Godmother, who appeared in roller skates and felt good about everyone and everything. She was all sunshine and love.

I put on new characters each day, the way most people select different clothes from the closet. It wasn’t, What do I feel like wearing today, but who do I feel like being?

I once met a man at Harvard when I was pretending to be a woman from France. He was a third generation attorney named Percevial Harkness Granger the Third. What began as a simple conversation in a coffee shop turned into much more than I intended. Each time we went out, I thought I’d tell him the truth, but he was so captivated by everything about her, this ideal exotic perfect woman, that I could not bring myself to do it. Finally after a full year, I revealed the truth of my pretending. I simply had to stop it, because he was falling in love with her, and she was not me, not even close. He was appalled when I told him.

“Sorry! Didn’t mean for this to go on so long! I just did not know how to stop it.”

Theater companies loved my work, but I was shy, the audition process painful and tense. I didn’t want my characters to be judged and evaluated. I didn’t want other people’s words coming out of their mouths. I just wanted to give them life. It’s been a challenge to choose a central character and be her, to let her be all that I am. It’s also a little boring. When you’re the same person for too long, life gets stale.

I once had a party where we all came as our over-seeing angels. We addressed one another that way and stayed in character the whole evening.

So, how is it going with Karen? someone would ask.

Oh you know, the usual. She’s doing really well on many fronts, but I still have to give her a kick in the butt to get her out of the house. How’s it going with yours?

John’s been a problem lately. He’s stuck in that same job, you know and still dating those unavailable women. Maybe you could come by some time and take a look. Give me some new ideas.

I used to live next to my friend B’Lou, short for Betty Lou. We had a community of houses on 11th and Thompson in NE Portland, all occupied by artists. B’Lou was a tall thin dancer who smoked long brown cigarettes and found it hard to smile. She covered her dining room walls with mirrors, polished the hardwood floors and made it a dance studio, then turned her pantry into a costume closet. A piano greeted you when the door opened; a piano, her art work and a hand carved chair from Belgium.

B’Lou and I gave great parties together with lots of theater, music and dance. The neighborhood kids wore ivy crowns, dressed in long gowns and handed out programs. When you walked into B’Lou’s house, you stopped being yourself, went immediately to the pantry and became whatever character you felt like being.

B’Lou was an exercise nut who lived on the edge. Those long brown cigarettes finally did her in. Her funeral was the same as her parties, with one difference. This time there was a sign on the front door with her photograph. The sign said, Come in and play. Be somebody else for awhile and smile. I only died.

written July 26, 2008