Alison Fields | Longreads | October 2018 | 14 minutes (3,214 words)
My dad moved out of the house on January 1, 1990. He’d packed up his cartons of books, records, and stacks of old issues of the New Yorker from the shelves built specifically to house them. This left his study, my favorite room in the house, vacant. I’d largely accepted my parents’ separation and forthcoming divorce. I wasn’t Haley Mills. I had neither a twin nor a plan to get them back together. I don’t remember exactly how I managed his departure, except the first night he was gone — really gone — I lay in bed reading Anne Rice novels and listening to the Beatles on my Walkman, thinking my mother’s claims of “Nothing will change, everything will be the same, and we’ll be all right” had a fine whiff of bullshit about them.
Dad’s apartment was on the second story of a recently renovated building in downtown Asheville, North Carolina, full of other divorced parents and distracted weekend children. When the custodial schedule put me there, I spent a lot of time wandering our then-empty downtown. I might have stumbled into the sort of trouble that would have made me cooler in high school. But like most red-blooded American teenagers, I was really into Latin and architecture and Renaissance politics, so I spent a lot of time at the Basilica. There I pined after rosaries as jewelry, accidentally stole candles, and visited with the priest. He was a good-natured and quiet man, who perhaps recognized that even pious adolescents don’t spend whole Saturdays alone wandering around a drafty church if they’re even remotely happy. I’m sure I needed answers to a lot of the Big Metaphysical Questions life had served up the past few months, but mostly we talked about the Grand Central Oyster Bar and why my nascent atheism would be a real barrier to entry if I ever wanted to convert to Catholicism.
One Saturday, Dad took my younger sister on one of those guilt-fueled, divorced-parent shopping benders. When she returned, flush with toys, new stereo equipment, and a pair of hamsters, Dad handed me a blank check to take to the public library and pay my king’s ransom in overdue fees. I filled it out at the circulation desk under the twitching eye of the upstairs librarian. On the way out the door, I caught a glance of a yellow flyer that read AUDITIONS TODAY: YOUTH THEATER COMPANY SEEKS YOUNG ACTORS. Finally, I thought, a reason not to find God.
I might have stumbled into the sort of trouble that would have made me cooler in high school. But like most red-blooded American teenagers, I was really into Latin and architecture and Renaissance politics, so I spent a lot of time at the Basilica.
I hadn’t curled my hair, put on lip gloss, nor prepared a song from Les Miserables that was hopelessly out of my vocal range and life experience. But I needn’t have worried; I made the company in about 30 seconds. I was flattered and impressed with myself. I didn’t even have to act. They could just see the talent emanating right off of me. The director said she’d see me at orientation the next week at the theater — your new home away from home! Afterward, I stood on the sidewalk across from Dad’s apartment building, January sleet silvering down on me, and glanced up at the basilica. I thought, That poor priest is going to have to find someone else to talk to.
My mother took me to the information session. Unlike my father, who’d met news of my professional theater career with a “Great job, bud” and a nod back to the golf game, Mom found the whole turning your kids into professional actors pitch suspicious at best. I couldn’t figure out what her problem was. Sure, the audition process was unconventional. The theater, in name only, was a filthy warehouse filled with giant spiders and dingy whitewashed brick, with ancient wooden floors so bowed and worn you could pass notes through the cracks to the cellar. The next production was “an Irish play, you know, for St. Paddy’s Day” that had yet to be written seven weeks out from opening. My fellow young thespians were mostly the homeschooled children of hippie parents, and a handful of tough girls with skinhead boyfriends, lipstick the color of bruises, and pack-a-day smoking habits at 13. My closest peer was coincidentally the daughter of my father’s divorce attorney. I couldn’t exactly figure out what she was doing there, but I was glad she was around. Driving me down the derelict alley to rehearsal the first time, my mother was alarmed at the scruffy day-drunks relieving themselves against the wall across the street. I thought it was bohemian, you know, kind of punk rock. Though I would never have said that aloud because the tough girls would have punched me in the arm and called me a poser.
Mom thought it was possible the owners were running some kind of elaborate con. I was sure I was not being conned. “I mean, they haven’t asked me for a dime,” I said. “Yeah, well, they’re charging me several thousand dimes for you to be involved in all this,” she replied. I felt kind of guilty about that, but I also knew that because of the weirdness of the divorce she probably wouldn’t say no.