Thirty-five

“Name.”

“Willem. De Ruiter.” It comes out a whisper.

“Come again.”

I clear my throat. Try again. “Willem de Ruiter.”

Silence. I can feel my heartbeat, in my chest, my temple, my throat. I can’t remember ever being nervous like this before and I don’t quite understand it. I’ve never had stage fright. Not even that first time with the acrobats, not even going on with Guerrilla Will, in French. Not even the first time Faruk shouted action and the cameras rolled and I had to speak Lars Von Gelder’s lines, in Hindi.

But now, I can barely say my name out loud. It’s as if, unbeknownst to me, there is a volume switch on me and someone has turned it all the way down. I squint my eyes and try to peer into the audience, but the bright lights are rendering whoever is out there invisible.

I wonder what they’re doing. Are they looking at the ridiculous headshot I scrambled to put together? Daniel took it of me in the Sarphatipark. And then we’d printed my Guerrilla Will stats on the back. It doesn’t look half bad from a distance. I have several plays to my credit, all of them Shakespearian. It’s only if you inspect it closely you see that the picture is shitty quality, pixelated to the extreme, taken on a phone and printed at home. And my acting credentials, well, Guerrilla Will isn’t exactly repertory theatre. I’d seen some of the headshots of the other actors. They came from all over Europe—the Czech Republic, Germany, France and the UK, as well as here—and had real plays under their belts. Better photos, too.

I take a deep breath. At least I have a head shot. Thanks to Kate Roebling. I called her at the last minute for advice because I’ve never auditioned before. With Guerrilla Will, Tor decided what role you’d play. There was some sniping about this, but I didn’t care. The money was split equally, no matter how many lines you had.

“Ahh, yes, Willem,” a disembodied voice says. It sounds bored before I’ve even begun. “What will you be reading for us today?”

The play being produced this summer is As You Like It, one I’ve never seen or heard much about. When I stopped in the theater last week, they told me I could prepare any Shakespearian monologue. In English. Obviously. Kate had told me to take a look at As You Like It. That I might find something really meaty in it.

“Sebastian, from Twelfth Night,” I say. I decided to put together three shorter Sebastian speeches. Easiest to do that. It was the last part I played. And I still remembered most of the lines.

“Whenever you’re ready.”

I try to remember Kate’s words, but they swirl in my head like a foreign language I barely know. Choose something you feel? Be who you are, not who they want you to be? Go big or go home? And there was something else, something she told me before she rang off. It was important. But I can’t remember it now. At this point, it’ll be enough to remember my lines.

A throat clears. “Whenever you’re ready.” It’s a woman’s voice this time, in a tone that says: Get on with it.

Breathe. Kate said to breathe. That much I remember. So I breathe. And then I begin:

“By your patience, no. My stars shine darkly over me: the malignancy of my fate might perhaps distemper yours.”

The first lines come out. Not too bad. I continue.

“Therefore I shall crave of you your leave that I may bear my evils alone.”

The words start to flow out of me. Not as they did last summer in that endless array of parks and squares and plazas. Not haltingly, as they did in Daniel’s bathroom, where I practiced them all weekend, to the mirror, to the tiles, and on occasion, to Daniel himself.

“If the heavens had been pleased, would we had so ended!”

The words come differently now. Understood in a fresh way. Sebastian is not just some aimless drifter, going where the wind blows him. He’s someone recovering, rubbed raw and unsure by his spate of bad fortune, by the malignancy of his fate.

“She bore a mind that envy could not but call fair,” I say and it’s Lulu I see, on that hot English night, the last time I spoke these words in front of an audience. The faint smile on her lips.

“She is drowned already sir, with salt water, though I seem to drown her remembrance again with more.”

And then it’s over. There’s no applause, only a loud silence. I can hear my breathing, my heartbeat, still hammering. Aren’t the nerves supposed to go away once you are on stage? Once you’ve finished?

“Thank you,” the woman says. Her words are clipped, generic, no actual gratitude in them. For a second, I think perhaps I should thank them.

But I don’t. I leave the stage in a bit of a daze wondering what just happened. As I walk up the aisle, I see the director and producer and stage manager (Kate told me whom to expect) already conferring about someone else’s headshot. Then I’m squinting in the bright light of the lobby. I rub my eyes. I’m unsure of what to do next.

“Glad that’s over?” a skinny guy asks me in English.

“Yeah,” I say reflexively. Only it’s not true. Already, I’m starting to feel this melancholy set in, like the first cold fall day after a hot summer.

“What brought about the change of mind?” Kate had asked me on the phone. We hadn’t been in any kind of contact since Mexico, and when I told her my plans, she sounded surprised.

“Oh, I don’t know.” I’d explained to her about finding Twelfth Night and then being told about the auditions, about being in the right place at the right time.

“So how’d it go?” the skinny guy asks me now. He has a copy of As You Like It in his hand, and his knee is thumping, up-down-up-down.

I shrug. I have no idea. Truly. I don’t.

“I’m going for Jaques. What about you?”

I look at the play, which I haven’t even read. I just figured I’d get what they gave me, as it always was with Tor. With a sinking feeling, I begin to suspect that wasn’t the right way to go.

And it’s then I remember what Kate said on the phone, after I explained the roundabout way I’d come to audition.

Commit, Willem. You have to commit. To something.”

Like so many of the important things these days, the memory comes too late.

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