The world as I knew it didn’t seem any less implausible the evening that mom died. No, I never really questioned what “real” was until about a month later, the day the stranger showed up on our doorstep. That may sound like the beginning of a second-rate cliche, but I prefer to think of it as an homage. The story actually begins a lot earlier though.
It had never occurred to me before to ask what truth was because, frankly, the concept held no weight in my family. And anyway, the truth is simply that which is, right? The truth is malleable, not some obelisk standing sacrosanct in the garden. I say this because the question of reality, never popular among my elders, was held in high regard by guests to the household–or “audiences,” as my family referred to them behind closed doors. I come from a long line of actors, see, only our performances had no beginning or end. The play was ongoing, and rehearsal an interwoven part of my everyday life. I knew that our family was different–I wasn’t a fool–but our way of conducting ourselves was familiar to me. There was a method to it, a pattern that I could rely upon. Our ways were reasonable.
To say that I was an actor aloud would have been gauche, on the level of vulgarity. Our lives were those of implicit performance. And there was no greater performance than the annual dinner party. All the lies that were my life–my relatives–gathered with their friends in our home once every September. It was our cherished annual gala, always a reliable setting for drama. But I looked forward to them as opportunities to witness the craft of master thespians, each of whom had honed their roles to sharp perfection.
The dinner party was my family’s metier, settings of choice because they allowed for exposition on several levels, in a controlled environment. Yet, while these matters of logistics reached an easy consensus, other more basic things kept my family at odds: namely, the application of acting itself.
Mom was a strong proponent of the physical Chekov system of acting, her slight frame contorting like punctuation marks around a flood of words. On this she lost points by my father, who saw her physicality as a liability. Mannerisms were, to him, frivolous wastes of energy. But that’s because he was a Strasberg man.
I remember the last good party our family had, now twenty odd years past. We’d all spent a month prior in focused rehearsal, and we wore tension like wet sweaters. Hours before the arrival of the first guests Mom was already pacing. This was characteristic, and I could forecast that night’s proceedings as accurately as a meteorologist watching a cloud bank pulling in from the sea. “Always late,” she grumbled, and that’s all she would say. The rest was a frenzied blur of arms and elbows, slammed cupboard doors, and a single dropped martini glass, inconspicuously anointed an hour before curtain call.
“Don’t do this to yourself, Margaret,” Dad said, but he knew she wasn’t listening. “You need to relax,” he said toward the kitchen. “You need to think.” He was frustrated with her, but it was something he would use. It wouldn’t be evident until after the guests had left, by which time his blood would have turned to acid, and his words would press drapes to glass.
My grandmother was a purist who didn’t cotton to the “canned techniques,” as she called them. She was a self-taught improvisor, and wielded a particularly keen intuitive sense. Her terse rejoinders were lethal. Where Dad was prone to fishing around in his past to summon the emotions for a given scene, grandma liked to roll into a situation cold. “What’s it going to be today, Waldo?” she would ask, though my father’s name was Walter.
“Resentment,” my father said, and then he looked up at her from the dog-eared pages of his bible. “And I think you’re to blame.”
She flicked her cigarette at him from across the room and belted, “Don’t I know it!” Only it was funny when she did it.