• Birdbath

    Annabel Graham

    Summer 2023

    The class is a Scene Study. Method technique. Tuesday evenings; seven to eleven officially, though I never once leave before midnight. The studio sits on a vague blank eastern stretch of Melrose, walking distance from the Paramount lot. It takes me an hour to drive there from our canyon—the PCH to the 10 and off at Crenshaw, crosstown through Mid-Wilshire; past the faded billboards and treeless concrete of Koreatown, past the manicured lawns on Rossmore. By the end of the summer, this commute will be second nature to me, but this first time, I follow my mother’s directions vigilantly, clutching the orange Post-it she gave me between one damp palm and the steering wheel. Its ink begins to blur.

    June, 2009. A year and a half since the accident. I have been studying philosophy and art history and French in historic Greenwich Village buildings; writing my papers in a library that overlooks Washington Square Park. From its floor-to-ceiling windows I can see the spire of the Empire State Building, track the changing colors of the elms. Nineteen years old in downtown New York City, my nights a fast blur of rooftops and undergrounds. I have fallen in love with cobblestones and streetlamps, with new buds trembling on trees. Lights sputtering on in the distance at dusk and late-night taxis with the windows cracked and even the screech of a subway car pulling into a station, even the biting cold and melting heat, even the smells—ripe garbage, exhaust, cigarettes, street meat. In New York it is easy to forget where I came from; become someone else.

    But it has to end, this feeling—and it does, with a blunt sick thud. Back to California for the summer, back to the house on the hill. It all comes back: the past seventeen months. The coma, the needles, the wires and tubes. The seven stitches, the spider-shaped scar. Hot cars, cold hospitals, hushed voices of doctors like snowfall. My father’s body—his head—changing shape and size and color with each passing day. The rehabilitation center in the Valley, its walls the color of chewed bubblegum, game-show applause echoing through each room. All that is over now—and yet it persists, a spectral haze. Here is our front door, the yellow rosebush—the wooden wheelchair ramp built after our father came home from the hospital. Here is the hallway, and the stairs; the dining-room table no longer a mess of screenplays, receipts, and recipes. There are the French doors, and beyond them, the mountains.

    Here is our living room. Stone fireplace, faded red couch. Rocking chair, grand piano. Art books, oil paintings, photographs. All those photographs. There I am at five, at the helm of my father’s sailboat, squinting—no glasses, yet—salt-bleached hair French-braided by my mother; yellow life jacket zipped up to my chin. My father smiling proud behind me. There is my mother at twenty-seven, scowling in a suit and tie—he used to tell her not to smile in photographs. Artier that way; or maybe it was just because she hadn’t yet had her teeth fixed. There are my parents, nose-to-nose. Their wedding day. She’s eight months pregnant, dark hair full and feathered in that late-eighties way, bulging in blue velvet. She refused to wear white—of course she did. He’s in his New York Yacht Club blazer, the one with the gold buttons. The one we kept. Hair combed neatly, blue eyes blazing. Old enough to be her father.

    Turn right at the archway. Parked beneath it, in the space where my father and I used to practice violin: the hydraulic lift, like some poorly-designed torture device. The finger-smudged metal, the too-bright blue of the polyester sling. Across from that is the mahogany music stand, and splayed across it, still, the yellowed pages of Vivaldi’s “Concerto for Two Violins in A Minor.” I quit after his accident. Haven’t touched my violin since. Walk through the arch and into the room that used to be our den. My father’s desk—where he sat when, at eight years old, I peered over his shoulder and read the email that told me he was having an affair—is gone, moved upstairs, and in its place a plain table, its surface congested with jumbo boxes of rubber gloves. Baby wipes, adult diapers, rows and rows of orange pill bottles. There is the green leather couch where I fell asleep watching movies on so many Friday nights, and on it, always, a stranger who now knows my father’s body more intimately than my mother does. There is the hospital bed—and in it, the man who used to be my father.

    It was my mother who suggested the acting class. Marina was a friend of a friend from years ago. They’d reconnected after my father’s accident.

    There’s something special about her, my mother told me, over the phone, as I packed up my dorm room for summer. She really sees people.

    It is all I want—to be seen. And also the last thing I want.

    I find parking on a side street, the roots of trees swelling under the sidewalk. I snag the toe of my sneaker on a crack, stumble, right myself. On Melrose, traffic whips past. It’s midday, the sun dazzling, the air thick with smog. A siren whines in the distance, fades out. Over the tops of the billboards I can just make out the Hollywood sign, its white block letters crowded sloppily together against the parched hillside like something accidental.

    I shut the door behind me, climb the narrow stairs. It’s cool and dark inside, dust motes spinning in a slanted sunbeam from the single window overhead. My footsteps echo. From the hallway above comes a burst of noise, and two boys emerge at the landing, laughing, seeming to refract off one another like light. They’re older than me by at least a few years, I can tell, and both have that actor-y quality about them. Good posture, unabashed eye contact. A certain loose freedom about their bodies. I flatten myself against the wall to let them pass, flicking my gaze toward my feet.

    Hey, says one, and they stop. You looking for Marina? He’s standing close, gazing down at me with sleepy hazel eyes, his shoulder-length hair an incongruous shade of jet-black. Dyed. I can see the fine golden hairs on his forearm. His fingernails bitten to the quick.

    Yeah, I say, my voice catching in my throat.

    The other boy jumps in. He has a kind face, tiny sun-kissed dreads. When you get to the top of the stairs, walk all the way down the hallway. First door on your left is her office. 

    I watch them go—wrists slack, shoulders knocking against each other. The door swings open, and the black-haired boy turns. He salutes me with one hand, grinning.

    Good luck in there, he calls out.

    Marina moves through the studio like a shark cutting water. She is tall and elegant, vaguely feline, with wild hair and a whiskey-and-cigarettes voice. She wears a flowing floral dress, several layers of necklaces and rings. She guides me through each room—a small kitchen, a foyer lined with mismatched chairs, a rehearsal room crammed with props and costumes. The theatre itself has a cocoon-like feeling: red velvet seats, wooden stage, the low hum of cars moving past on the street below. Onstage, a bearded boy and a redheaded girl are rehearsing a scene. The girl sits on a roll-out cot, elbows on her knees, head dangling. The boy paces the length of the stage.

    May, look, he pleads, a slight twang in his voice. May? I'm not goin’ anywhere. See? I’m right here. I’m not gone. I don’t know why you won’t just look at me. You know it’s me. Who else do you think it is.

    In the dark, Marina smiles at me. Sam Shepard, she whispers. I smile back. I know Shepard—Paris, Texas was a favorite film of my father’s—and this play, Fool for Love. I saw it on the West End in London with my parents last summer, five months before my father’s accident. How long ago that feels. Juliette Lewis played May, and I found myself riveted. Her red dress, her anguish, her heart nearly visible beneath her chest; pulsing, bruised. Why wouldn’t Eddie leave her alone—why wouldn’t he stay? I still have the Playbill in my desk drawer at home.

    In Marina’s office, the leather couch creaks beneath me. I try to sit as still as I can. She watches me closely.

    Tell me about yourself, she says. What brings you here? 

    I have a speech prepared. Well, I grew up here, I hear myself saying, and my dad is—was a director, so I kind of grew up around the business, and—a nervous laugh, here—I acted in all the school plays, and I’m home for the summer for about three months. As I speak, my gaze flits around the room, from the factory windows to the bookcase crammed with plays to the framed portraits of Sam Shepard, Neil LaBute, Lillian Hellman, Tennessee Williams. I look at Marina’s hands, her rings, the layers of beads around her neck, the floral print of her dress—anywhere but her eyes—and my mom mentioned your class, and spoke so highly of you—another nervous laugh—so I guess I just wanted something to—

    I’m going to stop you, Marina says, gently. Uncross your legs.

    I do.

    Both feet flat on the floor. Hands away from your hair.

    My heels dig into the carpet; my fingers fall from where they’ve been nervously twisting the ends of my long hair.

    Breathe, she says, and it’s not until then that I realize I haven’t been, not really. I take a long, shaky inhale. Release.

    Look me in the eyes, she commands, and I do. Almost immediately, I want to look away. She sees too much. I let out another nervous laugh.

    What’s funny? she asks.

    Nothing, I say. It’s . . . sometimes when I’m nervous, I laugh a lot.

    I’ve noticed that, she says. Why do you think that is?

    I don’t know. Maybe it’s . . . maybe I want the other person to feel comfortable?

    You don’t have much control, she says, over what another person feels. What another person thinks of you.

    Yeah. I guess you’re right.

    A pause that seems to go on forever. Then: What are you feeling right now?

    I start to laugh again, catch myself midway. A little weird. Nervous, I guess.

    Can you look me in the eyes?

    I do. Hers are blindingly green.

    I lost both my parents, she says, then. When I was about your age.

    My mother has told me this story. They were legendary acting teachers, Marina’s parents. They coached a certain set of eighties and nineties stars—and they died within a few years of each other. Her mother was narcoleptic; fell asleep behind the wheel. At twenty-two, Marina nursed her father through the virus that eventually killed him. I want to look away again.

    Stay with it, says Marina, softly. Stay with that emotion. 

    What emotion, I start to say, and suddenly I’m sobbing. It’s jagged and violent, like sudden nausea. There’s a tautness to it, an abbreviation; my entire body shaking with the effort of holding it back. The more I try to force it down, the faster and harder it floods me.

    That’s it, says Marina. Let it flow through you.

    I—can’t, I choke out, between gasps.

    What are you afraid of?

    The thing I was most afraid of has already happened—Daddy had an accident—and now, I think, it’s me I fear. My own grief. Its wildness; its capacity for destruction.

    When I look up, Marina’s eyes are wet, too. She smiles. How do you feel? she asks.

    Embarrassed, I say. I wasn’t planning on crying in front of you.

    I want you to understand, she says, that the depth of your emotions is a good thing. A beautiful thing. What you did just now—that was real. Half the battle, in acting, is being able to access that kind of emotion. I can’t tell you how many students of mine have to work tirelessly to even come close to experiencing what you just did. I have to dig so deep to get them to feel anything at all onstage. But with you, it’s all right there. Just beneath the surface. She beams at me. What a gift.

    Something loosens within me, considering this. That the thing I’ve spent the past seventeen months trying to conceal about myself might, in truth, be something beautiful or useful—something with a purpose beyond suffering.

    Your voice, your body, your emotions, Marina continues, these are the qualities that make up your instrument. And what an instrument you have. If you choose to study with me—and I hope you do—I can help you learn to tune it. We can work together to harness that emotion. To control it, so it no longer has the power to control you.  

    My mother was right—again. I want to fall at Marina’s feet, to kiss her many rings, to wrap my arms around her knees.

    Thank you, I say. I’d like that. 

    Annabel Graham is a writer, editor, and photographer from Malibu, California. Her work has appeared in Bookforum, Vogue, the Paris Review Daily, The Believer, and BOMB, among others. She earned her MFA in fiction from NYU, and she serves as fiction editor of No Tokens. She is the co-founder of Something Something, a Los Angeles-based reading series.

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