“Hey, Willem, how are you feeling today?”

“I’m fine, Jeroen. How are you?”

“Oh, you know, the gout is acting up.” Jeroen pounds his chest and heaves a cough.

“Gout is in your leg, you twat,” Max says, sliding into the seat next to me.

“Oh, right.” Jeroen flashes her his most charming smile as he limps away, laughing.

“What a tosser!” Max says, dropping her bag at my feet. “If I have to kiss him, I swear, I might puke on the stage.”

“Pray for Marina’s health then.”

“Wouldn’t mind kissing her though.” Max grins and looks at Marina, the actress who plays Rosalind opposite Jeroen’s Orlando. “Ahh, lovely Marina, self-serving though it is, wouldn’t want her to fall ill. She’s so lovely. And, besides if she couldn’t go on, I’d have to kiss that git. He’s the one who I want to get sick.”

“But he doesn’t get sick,” I tell Max, as though she needs reminding. Since being cast as his understudy, I have heard, endlessly, relentlessly, how in his dozen years of doing theater, Jeroen Gosslers has never, ever missed a performance, not even when he was throwing up with the flu, not even when he had lost his voice, not even when his girlfriend went into labor with their daughter hours before curtain. In fact, Jeroen’s spotless record is apparently why I was given this shot in the first place, after the actor originally cast as an understudy booked a Mentos ad that would’ve required him missing three rehearsals to shoot the commercial. Three rehearsals, for an understudy who will never go on. Petra demands everything of her understudies, while at the same time demanding nothing of them.

As required, I’ve been at the theater every day since that very first table read, when the cast sat around a long wooden scuffed table on the stage, going through the text line by line, parsing meaning, deconstructing what this word meant, how that line should be interpreted. Petra was surprisingly egalitarian, open to almost anyone’s opinions about what Sad Lucretia meant or why Rosalind persisted on keeping up her disguise for so long. If one of Duke Frederick’s men wanted to interpret an exchange between Celia and Rosalind, Petra would entertain it. “If you are at this table, you have a right to be heard,” she said, magnanimously.

Max and I, however, were conspicuously not at the table, but rather seated a few paces away, near enough to hear, but far enough that for us to participate in the discussion made us feel like interlopers. At first, I wondered if this was unintentional. But after hearing Petra repeat, several times, that “performing is so much more than speaking lines. It’s about communicating with your audience through every gesture, every word unsaid,” I understood it was completely intentional.

It seems almost quaint now, that I worried about it being too easy. Though it has turned out to be easy, only not in the way I thought. Max and I are the only understudies who don’t have any actual roles in the play. We occupy a strange place in the cast. Semi-cast members. Shadow-cast members. Seat-warmers. Very few people in the cast speak to us. Vincent does. He got his Jaques after all. And Marina, who plays Rosalind, does as well, because she is uniquely gracious. And of course Jeroen makes it a point to talk to me every day, though I wish he wouldn’t.

“So, what we got on today?” Max asks in her London cockney. Like me, she’s a mutt; her father is Dutch from Surinam and her mother is from London. The cockney gets stronger when she drinks too much, though when she reads Rosalind, her English goes silky as the British Queen’s.

“They’re going over the fight scene choreography,” I tell her.

“Oh, good. Maybe that ponce will actually get hurt.” She laughs and runs a hand through her spiky hair. “Wanna run lines later? Won’t be much of a chance once we start tech.”

Soon, we move the set out of the theater for the final five days of tech rehearsals and dress rehearsals at the amphitheater in Vondelpark where the show will go up for six weekends. In two Fridays, we’ll have our soft opening, and then Saturday, the hard opening. For the rest of the cast, this is the payoff for all the work. For Max and me, it’s when we cash out, when any semblance of us being in the cast disappears. Linus has told us to make sure we know the entire play, all the blocking, by heart, and we’re to trail Jeroen and Marina through the first tech rehearsal. This is as close to the action as we get. Not once has Linus or Petra given us any direction or asked us to run lines or gone over any aspect of the play. Max and I run lines incessantly, the two of us. I think it’s how we make ourselves feel like we’re actually a part of the production.

“Can we do the Ganymede parts? You know I like those best,” Max says.

“Only because you get to be a boy.”

“Well, natch. I prefer Rosalind when she’s channeling her man. She’s such a simp in the beginning.”

“She’s not a simp. She’s in love.”

“At first sight.” She rolls her eyes. “A simp. She’s ballsier when she’s pretending to have balls.”

“Sometimes it’s easier to be someone else,” I say.

“I should think so. It’s why I became a bleeding actor.” And then she looks at me and snorts with laughter. We may memorize the lines. We may know the blocking. We may show up. But neither one of us is an actor. We are seat warmers.

Max sighs and kicks her feet up onto the chair, daring a wordless reprimand from Petra and a follow-up telling off from Linus, or, as Max calls him, the Flunky.

Up on stage, Jeroen is arguing with the choreographer. “That’s not really working for me. It doesn’t feel authentic,” he says. Max rolls her eyes again but I sit up to listen. This happened about every other day during the blocking, Jeroen not “feeling” the movements and Petra changing them, but Jeroen not feeling the new blocking either, so most of the time, she changed it back. My script is a crosshatch of scribbles and erasures, a road map of Jeroen’s quest for authenticity.

Marina is sitting on the cement pilings on the stage next to Nikki, the actress playing Celia. They both look bored as they watch the fight choreography. For a second Marina catches my eye and we exchange a sympathetic smile.

“I saw that,” Max says.

“Saw what?”

“Marina. She wants you.”

“She doesn’t even know me.”

“That may be the case, but she was giving you fuck-me eyes at the bar last night.”

Every night after rehearsal, most of the cast goes to a bar around the corner. Because we are either provocative or masochistic, Max and I go along with them. Usually we wind up sitting at the long wooden bar on our own or at a table with Vincent. There never seems to be room at the big table for Max and me.

“She was not giving me fuck-me eyes.”

“She was giving one of us fuck-me eyes. I haven’t gotten any Sapphic vibes off her, though you never can tell with Dutch girls.”

I look at Marina. She’s laughing at something Nikki said, as Jeroen and the actor playing Charles the wrestler work some fake punches with the fight choreographer.

“Unless you don’t like girls,” Max continues, “but I’m not getting that vibe off you either.”

“I like girls just fine.”

“Then why do you leave the bar with me every night?”

“Are you not a girl?”

Max rolls her eyes. “I am sorry, Willem, but charming as you are, it’s not going to happen with us.”

I laugh and give Max a wet kiss on the cheek, which she wipes off, with excess drama. Up on stage, Jeroen attempts a false punch at Charles and stumbles over himself. Max claps. “Mind that gout,” she calls.

Petra swerves around, her sharp eyes full of disapproval. Max pretends to be absorbed in her script.

“Fuck running lines,” Max whispers when Petra’s attention is safely returned to the stage. “Let’s get drunk.”

• • •

That night, over drinks at the bar, Max asks me, “So why don’t you?”

“Why don’t I what?”

“Get off with a girl. If not Marina, one of the civilians at the bar.”

“Why don’t you?” I ask.

“Who’s to say I don’t?”

“You leave with me every night, Max.”

She sighs, a big deep sigh that seems a lot older than Max, who is only a year older than me. Which is why she doesn’t mind seat-warming, she says. My time will come. She makes a slash mark over her chest. “Broken heart,” she says. “Dykes take dog-years to heal.”

I nod.

“So what about you?” Max says. “Broken heart?”

At times, I’d thought it was something like that—after all, I’d never been quite so strung out about a girl. But it’s a funny thing because since that day with Lulu in Paris, I’ve reconnected with Broodje and the boys, I’ve visited my mother and have been talking to her again, and now I’m living with Uncle Daniel. And I’m acting. Okay, perhaps not acting, exactly. But not accidentally acting, either. And just in general, I’m better. Better than I’ve been since Bram died, and in some ways, better than I was even before that. No, Lulu didn’t break my heart. But I’m beginning to wonder if in some roundabout way, she fixed it.

I shake my head.

“So what are you waiting for?” Max asks me.

“I don’t know,” I answer.

But one thing I do know: Next time, I’ll know it when I find it.