Mona’s hair is reliably matted. She wears pajamas to rehearsal. If she’s having sex that night, she’ll wear a neon dress with a low back and flower tights. Mona’s the playwright. She wears big eighties glasses, but only while she’s writing. She’s thirty. I know because I heard her inviting one of the actors to her birthday party.
Mona’s super thin and when she sits, she folds like Bambi. During rehearsals, she kneels on the floor in a ring of loose papers. Somewhere in the pile there’s a script, her computer, and a bottle of kombucha.
Mona won a huge award when she was twenty-six. Her current play is self-produced, though, which is how I got involved. I sent a message to the team through the Indiegogo page asking if I could work on the production for free. I met with Boris, the director. I didn’t know he was gay, so I wore a steamy turtleneck and flipped my hair a lot. The play’s first act is an opera adapted from Mona’s seventh-grade love letters. I explained that I’d taken voice lessons in college, and that I’d had several boyfriend pen pals.
Boris asked about my interests. I said mainly acting, but also singing. I told him I was still exploring. He asked if I was organized. I told him that I was. I sent him my CV. A couple days later, he sent me an email, subject line: ASM?
So, that’s what I do. I’m the assistant stage manager. I keep track of props; I send actors line notes; I write down the blocking. I try to be indispensable.
There were, of course, things that I didn’t tell Boris when I met him for coffee. I didn’t tell him that when I bought my IKEA bed I forgot to get slats, so I squashed my mattress into the frame, and that it’s still in there. I didn’t tell him about the things on my bedside table (a malnourished plant, a Sapporo can, some binder clips, a drill, a plate of soggy bread crusts). I didn’t tell him about all the mildewed washcloths on my floor. I didn’t tell him how I felt when I read Mona’s first play, which is about messy bedrooms.
This is how I felt when I read Mona’s first play: I felt as though Mona had reached into my backpack and picked out the clusters of loose change coated in mushed chocolate and crushed Pepto-Bismol; that she had peered inside my fifth-grade class and seen me sitting on a gym ball instead of a chair—an experimental treatment for kids who couldn’t sit still; that she’d been inside the special-ed classrooms of the early 2000s, where disappointed adults bent over me warning, If your binder looks this crazy, you will never succeed; that Mona had somehow spent time inside all of these spaces, and was now looking me in the eyes, saying, You can have a happy life. You can have anything you want.
I didn’t tell Boris that, after I finished reading Mona’s first play, I swayed my hips while picking out chickpeas at Key Foods, tipping my chin to the fluorescents like a person who is loved. I didn’t tell him Mona is my favorite, favorite playwright.
When she’s searching for words aloud, she looks at the ceiling. It’s like she’s detangling something. She is always on the brink of tears.
On the semi-rare occasion she does fully cry, she announces it first. She’s very matter-of-fact. I’m feeling myself getting emotional. I’ve started doing this as well.
On breaks, she orders wine to be delivered to her home. She shows actors cat pictures. She uses a gentle voice when she talks about sex.
Right now she’s talking to Maxwell, a projection designer turned actor who looks like Albert Einstein. He’s laughing, looking down, pushing back his wild hair. He wants badly to touch her. She’s talking about a doctor she met at a party.
“He’s really sweet, like, he is sweet, and I do like fucking him…”
“I just, I don’t know…I really like it when people are mean to me, I don’t know…”
I cut in, too loudly, “I know what you mean.”
They both look at me, then they go fill their Nalgenes.
Mona’s plays are kinky. That’s something else I like about them. Men with deer heads play games with sad genius women; the deer turn the women on then don’t let them come. People masturbate gravely while pirates make them walk the plank.
Around the time I read Mona’s first play, I was seeing a nice person. He worked to combat police brutality. We met in college, in a seminar called Justice. A couple years later, we matched on Tinder. Once, I asked him to hit me, and his palm landed like wet lox on my cheek. Then he cried for a bit. We shared microwavable tamales. After that, it was weird. We didn’t text anymore.
During the days, I babysit for a yoga teacher named Kristy. In her ad, she said the sitter MUST BE A HAPPY PERSON!! I make sure to pitch my voice up when I’m in her home. She always apologizes for pigging out on dried currants. Her fridge only has things like mashed peas and goat yogurt, so I don’t eat a meal there. She pays me twenty-five dollars an hour. She has a camera in the living room that connects to her phone. She watches us build block towers and texts me corrections. He’s clearly not into the green ones right now—maybe grab some more red ones??? We go to the playground, even when it’s super cold.
Mona loves the word rigor. Also, generosity. She’s always asking, Does including this tidbit from my life make the piece more generous? If it doesn’t, she trashes it.
When someone starts flirting with a boy Mona likes, or a boy who likes her, she becomes unforgiving. There’s this guy named Nico who’s best friends with her. They’re both only in one scene. During the scene, they play themselves, and Nico pressures Mona to sit on his face. (Or that’s what I’m told, I’ve never watched the scene: One of my responsibilities is occupying a twelve-year-old actor while the face-sitting occurs.) Nico started making out with a girl named Francesca, who sings in the opera, and now Mona ignores her.
Many of the performers are also playwrights. They went to grad school together. They aspire to surprise and hate sentimentality. They despise on-the-nose choices and derivative works. They revere innovation. They feel the highest praise is I haven’t seen this done before.
There’s an older actor named Arthur. Once, I lent him a pencil, and he called me a “special helper.” When I beat him to the bathroom during the break, I heard him say, “The special helper’s in there giving herself special help,” and a couple of people laughed.
After rehearsal, while I’m waiting for the train at Broadway Junction, I make a list of the things I’ve learned so far:
- Dialogue sounds more lifelike when people don’t finish sentences.
- If someone says something embarrassing, put it in your play verbatim.
- If a scene doesn’t make the play work exactly how you want, throw it out, even if it’s good. Good writers generate endless solutions.
- You are not the only one who feels seen by Mona’s plays. She shares intimate details about her life. This makes people feel like she’s writing about them.
- Exceptional writing involves manipulation. Mona often says, I want the audience to feel X, then she figures out which of her experiences she should include to achieve that effect.
- When you put a naturalistic scene right after a spectacle (like a parade or an opera), all the quiet business in the naturalistic scene will make your neck tingle.
- Turn the audience on. Then, while they’re still turned on, have one of the characters do something violating. The audience’s bodies won’t be able to catch up, and they’ll watch, still turned on, while the bad thing occurs. This is how you make people feel culpable. Adventurous theatergoers love to feel culpable.
I’m still at Broadway Junction. The platform has cleared out, though the train hasn’t come. I walk past a man playing “Edelweiss” on the guitar. Then, I hear that the trains have been halted indefinitely, and I take a Lyft home for $18.08.
In Mona’s opera-play, there’s a monologue I love about how we use our days. For the most part, it’s a list of things Mona does when she feels very alone, though she never mentions feelings, just things that she does, like sitting half-naked on the edge of her bed, dipping her toes in dirty shirts. After hard rehearsals, I’ll read this text into a recording on Photo Booth. I have fourteen videos of myself reading the monologue, crying into the camera.
When I think of Mona, I often want to empty myself, become a kind of hollowed gourd. When I’m alone, I sit upright and breathe very deep. I unclench my asshole. I try to think cogently about my desires. I want to help Mona make her best play. And I want her to see me working hard, to thank me. But I know this is selfish. I know that it’s best to work silently, ceaselessly, so Mona never has to consider logistics.
Word has gotten out that I’m a very helpful person. The set designer calls. She asks if I can assist her by buying some props. She sends me a list of four thrift stores in Bushwick. She texts me photos of backpacks she wants in the show—backpacks with patches and groovy flowers. I go to the first thrift store. Mostly it’s chairs. I go to the second. Llama leggings distract me, and I decide to try them on. My thighs are pockmarked in the changing-room mirror and my stomach’s making noise. The leggings have a dull gray spot, which I’m pretty sure is gum someone put through the wash.
As I’m digging out my card to pay for the leggings, I spot the perfect backpack. It’s got lots of patches. It doesn’t have flowers, but there are tons of fun rainbows. I text the set designer. She agrees that it’s terrific. I tell her it’s $42. She says she’ll pay me back and to keep the receipt. I check my bank account to make sure I have enough. I put the leggings back. I charge the backpack to my card, then get a slice of dollar pizza.
On our day off, there’s a snowstorm and I French toast a PB&J. I’m supposed to babysit later. My phone is ringing but my hands are covered in egg. The person calls again.
“Hey sweetie, it’s Mona!”
My heart clogs my throat. “Hi, Mona!”
“How are you doing?”
“I’m…yeah! I’m good.”
“It’s so snowy.”
“It is, yeah.”
“What’re you up to?”
“Um not much. Right now I’m French toasting a PB&J.”
“Wow…you just dip the whole sandwich in eggs? Or?”
“That sounds really good.”
“Well, cool! Listen, I wanted to thank you for being so helpful in rehearsal. It’s been a godsend to have you. I’m so glad Boris found you.”
“It’s honestly been the fucking pleasure of my life—er, the pleasure of my life. I’m learning so much!”
“Oh, well, good! Listen, there’s something I’m trying to figure out. I’m kind of in a bind. The printer— ”
“Yeah, the printer in the rehearsal room is running out of ink. I need to do a ton of printing before our next rehearsal, but I have to finish this pitch draft for my show.”
“For this show?”
“For the TV show I’m writing.”
“So I don’t really have time to go get the ink and neither does Boris. Do you think you can help me? I’ll of course pay you back—the production has a pretty big budget for printing. When the producer comes to town, he’ll reimburse you.”
“Or, if you want to stop by my place, I can give you some cash…”
“I can stop by your place!”
“Okay, although, fuck, I’ll only be here for the next fifteen minutes. Where do you live?”
“I live in Bed Stuy, but I can—”
“Well, fuck, that won’t work then—okay, can I just pay you back?”
“I have a flip phone, otherwise I’d Venmo. It’s HP ink 91. I need both black and multicolored. If they have the black in the extra-big size that would be really helpful.”
“Thank you so much, you’re so special. We should hang out when this is all—”
“I’d love that.”
“Okay sweetie, I have to run.”
“I just wanted to um—sorry, I know you have to go—I just wanted to say, um, it’s really been an honor to work on this show. Like, your plays really…really mean a lot to me. They, like, they’ve honestly changed me.”
“Oh, thank you. That’s so sweet.”
“Like, they resonate with me on a personal level.”
“Uh-huh—sorry, sweetie, my cat’s eating something he knows he’s not supposed to eat.”
“But I’ll see you tomorrow. Can you drop the ink off at the theater after you get it?”
“Thank you so much. I hope you get some time to rest.”
I cancel on Kristy to go get the ink. I take the A to the R. The R’s stuck at Atlantic, so I walk to Gowanus. Ira Glass meditates on the theme of mistaken identity as sleet blasts up my nose. I spend $86.76 on printer ink and also buy some cat erasers. I take the G to the L to drop the ink off at the theater.
I realize that I’ve locked myself out of my apartment. My roommate’s camping in Joshua Tree. She won’t be home for two days.
In the basement of my building, there are wine bottles cemented into the walls and the floor. I knock on the super’s door to ask if he has a spare key. He pretends not to know what I’m talking about. When he finally stops joking, he checks his roomful of key hooks, where a string of corks hangs over the security monitor.
He doesn’t have an extra key. A locksmith costs sixty dollars.
For the next couple days, I sleep on my friend Justin’s couch. It’s like a mouse is using a chain to whip the radiator’s insides. I sleep with a couch pillow over my head. I don’t have a change of underwear, so I steal panty liners from Justin’s roommate so that I don’t get a yeast infection. They don’t have a spare key for their apartment either, so if nobody’s home, I do laps around the block until someone arrives. I go into a bodega and pretend that I’m searching for a super-niche candy. When my roommate gets back, I make three copies of the key.
Kristy calls to discuss her disappointment in me. The day that I bailed, she had to cancel her class. She wants a hiatus. She says she’ll check in next week.
On the night of the dress rehearsal, the producer comes into town. He’s been living with his sculptor boyfriend in L.A. He hands me a reimbursement check for $128.76.
We open the show.
We’re a New York Times Critic’s Pick. The waitlist starts two hours before, at which point the hallway is already filled with people. I come early with the stage manager to set up the space. Mainly, I open a bag of Sour Patch Kids from the bottom, insert a Swedish Fish, and tape the bag back up. I do this so that, after the opera, when the set opens up into a naturalistic teachers’ lounge, Arthur can take out the fish and say, “Swedish Fish!” while the rest of the teachers talk about death.
During the show, my primary responsibility is to get the child from upstairs and bring her into the theater after the face-sitting scene. During the set change, I turn a fog machine on. Other than that, I sit backstage and listen to the play. Sometimes I eat the Swedish Fish.
I still haven’t seen the face-sitting scene. People say that it’s sublime, but I don’t ask to see it. I don’t want to seem creepy.
An award committee comes. I forget to put the Swedish Fish in the Sour Patch bag. Arthur calls me a brainless cunt and I forget to get the child. She enters on time anyway. Afterward, she brags about how no one had to come get her. The whole cast praises her. Boris has a talk with me. Mona buys the kid a salad. I don’t go out for drinks that day.
A couple days later, during the show, I shine my phone’s flashlight into a mirror backstage to see down my throat. It’s raw and red with white spots. I drink some warm water. Nico fingers Francesca like I’m part of the wall. I fuck up the Swedish Fish thing a second time. Arthur bursts through the curtain on his way to shout at me, but I’m trying to use the garbage pail to mask my puking sounds, so I don’t disrupt the play. Arthur asks if I’m bulimic. I tell him that I’m not, that I think I have strep. He says, “Go to the doctor.” I say I don’t have money.
When I put on my coat before leaving the theater, a folded piece of paper falls out of my pocket. It’s a check from Arthur. The “for” line says strep.
As the gallant nurse practitioner jabs my bulbous, pus-fat tonsils, I realize Arthur probably doesn’t feel bad about calling me a cunt. Writing the check was an act of self-interest; he had to keep singing for the rest of the run.
After the show on closing night, Mona hands me an envelope. I open it on the toilet upstairs from the theater. On the cover of the card, a brown bird stands on a stack of dirty teacups. Inside, in Mona’s handwriting:
An Irish proverb for you—
“May you have warm words on a cold evening,
A full moon on a dark night,
And the road downhill all the way to your door.”
Thank you for your sweetness, and for all of your help.
The stage manager, who enjoys Spring Awakening and Pokémon memes, stuffs a unicorn Beanie Baby—a prop from the first act—under my bra strap. She says we should go and eat tacos at the bar. I decide to go home.
A week after we close, I take a job facilitating college-access programs for a middle school in Mott Haven. I read my phone for an hour on the train twice a day. I hide out in the teachers’ lounge drinking Pepsi, eating egg rolls, talking shit with the guidance counselor, waiting to pull seventh graders out of their classes and convince them to apply to arts-specialty high schools.
On Saturday mornings, I roll out of bed and take the A to Midtown to hear my pages read aloud in pricy playwriting classes. My pages are always the best in the class. I have sex with men who don’t believe in cunnilingus. I start calling myself a sub, which gives me a sense that the people I’m sleeping with call me mean names because that’s what I want. I feel alluring because of the violence I am willing to endure. I run a half-marathon.
I decide to apply to the graduate program that Mona attended. I need three recommendations, two of which I get from my undergrad professors. I have no idea how to get the third letter—my playwriting teacher says he’s too busy, and, when I email Mona, she doesn’t respond.
At a show in a theater with tinfoil on the walls, I flirt with a boy who used to be Mona’s roommate. They went to grad school together. He has the widow’s peak of Dracula. I go home with him. His fingers extend and contract one by one in the air when he speaks about poetry. For undergrad, he got into Stanford and Prince-ton, but, for financial reasons, he went to the University of Vermont. He holds anger about this in his upper arms. We start meeting once a week to have sex. He brings up Mona often. He talks about the sounds Mona makes when she comes, about hearing her through his wall when they lived in Clinton Hill. He talks about her writing process, which he believes to be uneven and illogical. She writes a scene, then she watches The Bachelor, then she writes another scene, then she plays with the cat. He talks about Mona as if she’s a silly girl, but Mona’s plays are beloved, and his are unknown.
The widow’s-peak boy and I attend a theater fundraiser at a warehouse in Red Hook. We stand in a circle with people from his MFA class. My black dress is too short and I stand smiling, quiet. The other people there don’t know that I write plays; they only know who I’m fucking.
From the chilly concrete risers, we witness a series of nonnarrative performances: a deadpan bald man integrates beatboxing into a stand-up set about dark matter; Maxwell, having done a fellowship at this theater, projects Technicolor waves onto his poet-girlfriend’s face; the literary manager plays the harp and wails.
Then, Mona steps forward. Under her arm, there’s a shoebox, and she’s holding a beer. She wears checked pajamas. My heart drops into my asshole. Her cheeks are so hollow. She puts down the shoebox, and steps up to the mic.
“Hi. I’m Mona. Um. So, when Rob first approached me about being part of this night, I said yes, of course I would do that. I’m indebted to Rob. He taught me about creating with a sense of urgency, and with a total disregard for the aesthetics in vogue. I believe with all my heart in the work of his theater.
“This was a really shitty year. I sold a series to a studio, so I moved to L.A., and I spent entire days watching home improvement shows. Every time I tried to write, I’d just stare at my computer, and nothing would come. And that went on for months. Every time my manager or a studio exec would call, I’d make something up to get my deadline extended. I pretended having food poisoning twice.
“I ordered these brightly colored index cards in bulk? I thought I would use them to write out story beats and that I’d tape them to the wall and figure out my pilot that way, but I never opened them. I ordered automatic restocks, so more cards would ship to me every other week. When the boxes showed up, I would just be reminded that half a month had passed and I hadn’t done anything.
“Sometimes I would sit with myself, being like, ‘Mona, the only thing that makes you generous is your writing. If you can’t do that, then what even are you? You’re just a very selfish person.’
“I started ignoring basically all forms of correspondence. If I ate anything, I ate Triscuits. I lived in my bed, though I mostly didn’t sleep. I bled through my sheets and didn’t bother to wash them or even put in a tampon. Sometimes, after a few days of not sleeping, I would try to write something, but when I’d come back to the pages, they wouldn’t be any good.
“I remember at one point, I had this guy over who I’d met online, and I gave him my lighter, and I told him to really hurt me. And he did. He used it on my ribs and my stomach, and by the end of the night I had a burn on my face. I canceled a lot of meetings.
“My cousin came to visit and she was like, ‘you smell like shit.’ She asked if I needed to go to the hospital, and I said that I didn’t, and she asked if I’d eaten, and I said that I hadn’t, so she went and got us Thai food. Then, we packed up my things and drove back to Brooklyn. I was 105 pounds. I still haven’t finished the script.”
She takes out a stack of neon multicolored index cards.
“I thought we could pass these around, and then take a moment together in silence to write something we want to leave behind. I’ll pass some pens around too.”
The audience murmurs in affirmation. By the time I get a card, the people around me have finished their inscriptions. I don’t know what to write, so I leave my card blank.
“Now, find someone you don’t know, and trade cards with them.”
A guy with a blonde beard makes ardent eye contact. I try to let him know that I didn’t write anything, but he keeps moving closer to see what I’m mouthing, then he takes my card and hands me his. His card says, risk-aversion. Underneath is his number.
After the presentations, people wander around. I cling on to the boy with the widow’s peak so the eager card guy won’t approach me. Men with folding bikes discuss their favorite sound installations. I pee staring down a statue of Wittgenstein in a feather boa. When I open the door, I see Mona in line. I wait for her to leave the single-stall bathroom.
“Hi, sweetie! Listen, I saw your email. I think it’s great you’re applying to schools. I’m sorry I didn’t—”
“No, no, don’t worry. I have someone else who can write a rec for me, it’s totally fine.”
“Do you really have someone else who can do it?”
“Totally. I think so.”
“Because I would be happy to do that for you, I just wanted to wait to read your play, before I committed to anything.”
“That would be—I mean, that would be amazing, if you’re still willing to—”
“Okay, amazing. Um, thank you so much. Also, if you read my play and you’re like ‘Oh, she’s not ready,’ I’ll completely understand, just let me know.”
“I don’t think that will be the case, but I’ll let you know either way. Will you email me your play?”
“Perfect. I’m gonna go find some friends. So nice seeing you.”
The widow’s-peak boy suctions the skin on my neck while we wait for a cab. Mona walks by and looks past us, and I wonder if he’s kissing me as a performance for her.
A few weeks later Mona sends me an email, subject line: your play:
I was so swept up in my own life drama that I forgot to let you know that I read your play. It’s so rigorous and generous. I love it. I will of course write the rec. Can you send me an email attaching your CV (so I can speak a bit to your qualifications) and let me know about deadlines?
I Hula-Hoop in the living room to get out my weird energy.
On my stomach in bed, I make a list of seventh graders I have to meet with this week. I chew my pen like it’s rawhide, then fall asleep and wake up with my nose in an ink stain.
I Google how to get ink out of sheets, learn that it involves camp-stove fuel, and decide not to pursue it. Instead, I circle my room looking for something else to do. I touch my dresser, which is ejecting a pant leg, then my desk, which is covered in crumpled junk mail and free-floating vitamins. I take a picture of myself in the mirror sitting in my bra at the edge of my bed, dipping my toes in wet towels. I take another look at the stain.
I ask my roommate if she has camp-stove fuel and she does.
I strip my bed and pour the fuel to soak the stain, then rinse. I pick up two washcloths from my floor, hold one under the ink, and use the other to blot. I use baking soda to exfoliate the sheets.
In the basement, I trip over a wine bottle on the floor. The super and I ignore each other. The wash gurgles and hums.
I go see Mona’s new play with my new grad-school classmates. We take our seats, sipping overpriced red blend, squirming, gleeful about our place in the upcoming generation of theatrical innovators.
Women of many shapes and ethnicities play high-school thespians competing in a national Shakespearean monologue contest. They rehearse in flip-flops glued to cinderblocks to break shuffling habits. They recite alliterative phrases at velocities surpassed only by pig auctioneers. They practice vocal projection, thrusting their arms out while sighing noisy verse lines in empty hotel conference rooms.
There’s the exacting goth girl; the sporty ingenue; the charismatic androgyne; the butch, hetero bully; the regal horse girl; and the underdog, who wears an ill-fitting skort.
There are eccentric coach figures: a septuagenarian acting teacher with tinsel in her hair; a heavyset, ultrakinky stage-combat man; a soccer mom with a dramaturgy doctorate.
The adults make the girls play misguided warm-up games. They explore the room as different kinds of zoo animals. They play “I want, I need, I feel” (a kind of Mad Libs circle game). They close their eyes and share facts about their fathers.
The competition begins. The girls confess to countesses, they reject unfit rulers’ quid pro quos, they litigate against loan sharks, they curse the unborn children of murderous incels, they dress up in men’s clothes to berate ditzy femmes.
A nameless contender gets eliminated early for pronouncing wanton like the soup.
In a tender, naturalistic scene, the goth and the androgyne crouch backstage and discuss their favorite methods for achieving orgasm (lying beneath the faucet versus banging a hairbrush).
In a surreal moment, the ingenue breaks the fourth wall to discuss her use of visualization before competitions. She lists soothing mental images (waterfalls, soft cats, herself touching trophies), before confessing that she doesn’t picture any of these; instead, before she competes, she pictures the other girls. She pictures them trembling, choking, tripping, puking, fucking up their lines. She pictures them all, fifteen years in the future, writing grants for education nonprofits, changing bedpans, preparing low-fat pudding for their absent VC husbands, then going to the theater and clenching with envy while watching their old friend perform as Juliet.
In a climactic scene, the underdog advocates formidably for alternative marriage structures, but finds her stutter caught on the word affection, gives up, and loses the round to a slick, coked-up Brutus, who then gets pummeled by Ophelia.
Near the end of the play, after trophies have been claimed, the underdog lingers backstage reassembling her backpack, listening as the victorious ingenue brags to the horse girl about a recent fling.
“He is really sweet, like he is sweet, and I do like fucking him…”
“I don’t know, I just, I like it when people are mean to me. I don’t know…”
The underdog interrupts. She’s talking too loud.
“I kn-know what you mean.”
And the ingenue and the horse girl exchange a quick glance, before leaving the room to go fill their Nalgenes.