“Begin whenever you’re ready,” comes the voice from the back of the house.
Oh, I’m ready.
After all, I’ve prepared for this day for years: The Day of the Most Important Audition of a Lifetime Day. Now that it’s finally here, I’m going to make a good impression, I’m sure of it. I might even book the job. The thought makes me smile, and I take a deep breath, head high, body alert, but relaxed. I’m ready, alright. I’m ready to speak my first line.
“Eeessssaaheeehaaa.” The sound that comes out of me is thin and high, a shrill wheezing whine, like a slowly draining balloon or a drowning cat with asthma.
Shake it off. Don’t get rattled. Try again.
I clear my throat.
“Haaaaaawwrrrblerp.” Now my tone is low and gravelly, the coarse horn of a barge coming into shore, with a weird burping sound at the end. “Hawrblerp?” That can’t be my line. I don’t think it’s even a word. Oh, God, I hope they don’t think I actually burped. It was really more of a gargle, I tell myself—although I don’t know which is worse. I can just picture the scene, post-audition: That actress? We brought her in and she positively belched all over the dialogue. Is she any good? Well, I suppose you could use her, if the part calls for lots of gargling. Sounds of cruel laughter, phones slamming into receivers, 8 × 10 glossies being folded into paper airplanes and aimed into waste paper baskets. Career over, the end.
“Franny?” I can’t see who’s speaking because the spotlight is so bright, but they’re getting impatient, I can tell. My heart is pounding and my palms are starting to sweat. I’ve got to find my voice, or they’ll ask me to leave. Or worse—they’ll drag me off stage with one of those giant hooks you see in old movies. In Elizabethan times the audience would throw rotten eggs at the actors if they didn’t like a performance. They don’t still do that, do they? This is Broadway, or at least, I think it is. They wouldn’t just throw—
The tomato bounces off my leg and onto the bare wood floor of the stage.
I open my eyes halfway. I can see from the window above my bed that it’s another gray and drizzly January day. I can see that because I took the curtains down right after Christmas in order to achieve one of my New Year’s resolutions, of becoming an earlier riser. Successful actresses are disciplined people who wake up early to focus on their craft, I told myself—even ones who still make their living as waitresses—like me. I started leaving the alarm clock on the landing between Jane’s room and mine so I’d have to actually get out of bed in order to turn it off, instead of hitting snooze over and over like I normally do. I also resolved to quit smoking again, to stop losing purses, wallets, and umbrellas, and to not eat any more cheese puffs, not even on special occasions. But I already had two cigarettes yesterday, and although the sun is obscured by the cloudy sky, I’m fairly certain it is far from my new self-appointed rising time of eight a.m. My three-day abstinence from cheese puffs and the umbrella still downstairs by the front door are my only accomplishments of the year so far.
Only half-awake, I roll over and squint down at the pitted wood floor by my bed, where I notice one black leather Reebok high-top lying on its side. That’s strange. It’s mine—one of my waitressing shoes—but I thought I’d left them outside the—thwack!—a second Reebok whizzes by, hitting the dust ruffle and disappearing underneath.
“Franny? Sorry, you didn’t respond to my knocking?” Dan’s voice is muffled and anxious from behind my bedroom door. “I didn’t hit you with the shoe, did I?”
Ahhh, it was my shoe that hit me on the leg, not a tomato. What a relief.
“I dreamed it was a tomato!” I yell at the half-open door.
“You want me to come back later?” Dan calls back anxiously.
“Come in!” I should probably get out of bed and put Dan out of his misery, but it’s so cold. I just want one more minute in bed.
“What? Sorry, Franny, I can’t quite hear you. You asked me to make sure you were up, remember?”
I suppose I did, but I’m still too groggy to focus on the details. Normally I would’ve asked our other roommate, my best friend, Jane, but she’s been working nights as a P.A. on that new Russell Blakely movie. Since Dan moved into the bedroom downstairs a few months ago, I haven’t noticed much about him except how unnecessarily tall he is, how many hours he spends writing at the computer, and the intense fear he seems to have about coming upon either of us when we’re not decent.
“Dan! Come in!
In fact, I went to sleep in an outfit that far exceeds decent, even by Dan’s prudish standards: heavy sweatpants and a down vest I grabbed last night after the radiator in my room sputtered and spat hot water on the floor, then completely died with a pathetic hiss. But that’s what you get in Park Slope Brooklyn for $500 a month each.
Jane and I had shared the top two floors of this crumbling brownstone with Bridget, our friend from college, until the day Bridget climbed on top of her desk at the investment banking firm where she worked and announced that she no longer cared about becoming a millionaire by the time she turned thirty. “Everyone here is dead inside!” she screamed. Then she fainted and they called an ambulance, and her mother flew in from Missoula to take her home.
“New York City,” Bridget’s mother clucked as she packed up the last of her daughter’s things. “It’s no place for young girls.”
Jane’s brother was friends with Dan at Princeton, and assured us that Dan was harmless: quiet and responsible and engaged to be married to his college girlfriend, Everett. “He was pre-med, but now he’s trying to be some sort of screenwriter,” Jane’s brother told us. And then, the ultimate roommate recommendation: “He comes from money.”
Neither Jane nor I had ever had a male roommate. “I think it would be very modern of us,” I told her.
“Modern?” she said, rolling her eyes. “Come one, it’s 1995. It’s retro of us. We’d be Three’s Company all over again.
“But with two Janets,” I pointed out. Jane and I are different in many ways, but we worked hard in school together, we’re both brunettes, and we’ve both read The House of Mirth more than once, just for fun.
“How true,” she sighed.
“Franny?” Dan calls out, his voice still muffled. “You didn’t go back to sleep did you? You told me you’d try if I let you. I promised I’d make sure—
I take a deep breath and I bellow, in my most diaphragmatically supported Shakespearean tone: “Daaaaaaan. Come iiiiiinnnnnnn.”
Miraculously, the left side of Dan’s face appears through a crack in the door, but it’s not until he’s confirmed my fully covered status and stepped all the way into the room, leaning his oversized frame awkwardly against the corner bookshelf, that I suddenly remember:
I have no romantic feelings toward Dan, but I do have very strong feelings about my unruly, impossibly curly hair, which I piled into a green velvet scrunchie on top of my head last night while it was still wet from the shower, a technique that experience tells me has probably transformed it from regular hair into more of a scary, frizzy hair-tower while I slept. In an attempt to assess just how bad it is, I pretend to yawn while simultaneously stretching one hand over my head, in the hopes of appearing nonchalant while also adjusting the matted pile of damage. For some reason this combination of moves causes me to choke on absolutely nothing.
“Is it . . . (cough, cough) . . . is it really late?” I sputter.
“Well, I went to the deli, so I don’t know exactly how long your alarm’s been going off,” Dan says. “But Frank’s been up for at least two hours already.”
Shit. I am late. Frank is the neighbor whose apartment we can see into from the windows in the back of our brownstone. Frank leads a mysterious, solitary life, but one you can set a clock by. He rises at eight, sits in front of a computer from nine to one, goes out and gets a sandwich, is back at the computer from two until six thirty, is gone from six thirty to eight, and then watches TV from eight until eleven p.m., after which he goes promptly to sleep. The schedule never changes. No one ever comes over. We worry about Frank in the way New Yorkers worry about strangers whose apartments they can see into. Which is to say, we made up a name for him and have theories about his life, and we’d call 911 if we saw something frightening happen while spying on him, but if I ran into him on the subway, I’d look the other way.