(This is the fourth part in a series, the third part is here)
I liked the apartment at Fenner. It was light and airy, with wide third-floor windows and views that made Asheville look like an actual, real deal city in the distance. Dad kept birds, two striped finches, in a cage by the kitchen, and continued to feed and water an escaped hamster, Hamlet, out of a couple of antique Spode saucers by the washing machine long after Hamlet escaped his own cage. I related a bit to Hamlet. After all, I once ran away from that apartment, but that had nothing to do with the place itself.
Dad moved in early in the spring, but I always associate Fenner with summer. I spent hours reading on the balcony, and if rain forced me in, I’d sit in front of the open French doors and listen to the storms rumble over North Asheville. There didn’t feel like much separation between inside and outside, up on the edge of the hillside, on the verge of everything.
We only lived in the apartment on Fenner for about seven months, but the place felt like the wings of the stage between a bunch of big productions . Being a teenager, especially during a period of personal and familial transition, can feel an awful lot like doing a season of reparatory theater. You take a bunch of different roles—sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, often, over-the-top–in a bunch of wildly different shows all while trying to maintain a sense of self and a functional working relationship with the rest of the company between performances.
In early July of 1991, I starred in a new show, Furious Teenage Runaway Spectacular. It only ran for one night, but it was a hell of a production. I suspected it would make waves, so I’d accepted the demands of the role, including a dramatic self-administered haircut and the threat of real punishment. The latter hadn’t come to fruition, but the former was a cross I had to bear for the rest of the season. It had been a convincing look for a runaway, but it lacked the casually glamorous, feminine, effortless aesthetic I’d imagined bringing to my upcoming parts in, New to Prep School, and Holy Shit, y’all, High School!
Mom’s hairdresser had tried to sort me at an emergency salon visit a couple of days after I closed out Teenage Runaway. Afterwards, I sat in the chair, traumatized by my reflection. I worried I looked like a boy (I didn’t). I worried I looked fat (probably). I worried I looked even less like the cross-between-Ione-Skye-and-Helena-Bonham-Carter that struck me as Ideal at the time (impossible standard). The hairdresser who was both nicer and more honest than most hairdressers, put her hands on my shoulders while my eyes welled up at the seeming ugliness own bullshit theatrics had wrought and said, “I know you don’t want to hear this right now, but short hair suits you much better than long hair. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”
She wasn’t wrong, though it took me decades to realize it. And I never would have admitted it at the time but I liked the way short hair felt in the late summer. And the way it made me feel–cool and brave, like I didn’t have any baggage or any secrets–even though, especially though, none of that true. I remember sitting on top of the table on the Fenner apartment balcony in the aftermath, my head against the porch column, while a warm wisp of breeze unsettled the collar of my blouse and grazed the short hairs on my nape.
It was one of those evenings that makes you feel electric all over, brink of miracles electric. I put down my book and stared out over the hillside below to the downtown skyline just starting to light up against the slow, rosy twilight of mid-July. I figured anything could happen. After all, I’d just had my third real driving lesson and the old R.E.M. song on the Walkman made me breathless. I was not quite fifteen and a half, which is maybe the right age for anything to happen and exactly the right age for believing it will.
I’ve always enjoyed waiting in the wings. I like watching the action before I arrive and the feeling of being between the velvet curtains, close enough to the stage to feel the glancing warmth of the stage lights, to hear the rise and fall of the audience’s emotions but hidden enough to still be yourself. I like the tangle of ropes and ceaseless activity and the constant business of people scurrying about. It reminds me of being on a sailboat. Stepping on stage can give you the same heady, weightless feeling as cresting a wave on a blustery day. You might sink. Or you might fly.
No wonder they call it the wings.
By the time Sophomore Year opened (to mixed reviews, if I’m being fair), Dad had started to look for a new place. He wanted a house, something that felt less temporary, less of a green room, more of a main stage. I didn’t blame him, but I was sad to go.
I don’t think anyone missed that apartment on Fenner except for me.
Sometimes, out of nowhere, I still feel the electric of that summer on the balcony. It’s the most miraculous feeling, like a memory and a promise all at once, heady and weightless. I treat it as a chance to stop and breathe and run my lines. The curtain is up. The lights are burning. And you never know when you might be called to the stage.