by Pam Munter
I seldom travel alone these days. As I settle into my first-class window seat on the direct flight to LAX, it’s oddly quiet. No clever palaver from my understudy, no exchange of notes from my director, no script to memorize. Nice, really. At the same time, the isolation is almost anxiety producing, as if I only exist in the presence of others. Well, that’s precisely what my last boyfriend said and he wasn’t around long enough to know anything about me. He was an egotistical jerk, anyway. He was wrong. So wrong.
New York is a wonderfully distracting city. There’s always movement, noise, activity, challenge. It keeps my synapses firing without having to do much of the work. Since moving there ten years ago from San Diego, my life has morphed into a world of the theater, what I always wanted. Talent has paid off. Definitely.
Jeez, they let anyone on the plane these days. Glad that woman with her two fussy kids isn’t sitting anywhere near me. They’re probably all germ factories. I wonder if I can take a nap. Uh oh. Here comes an old lady. She’s reaching up to put her carry-on in the overhead. Should I help? Oh, good. The guy across the aisle is doing it.
“Hello,” she says, warmly, as she carefully lowers herself in the seat next to me. I nod. Oh, no. Hope it’s not a talker. I don’t want to be interviewed again. Since losing that Obie nomination to Agnes Purcell, I really haven’t wanted to be around anyone. What were they thinking? It was clear my performance was better than anybody else’s this season. Shit.
“Traveling alone?” Already she’s invading my boundaries. Why does she care? Maybe she’ll shut up once we take off.
“Yeah. You?” Gotta be polite. For now.
“Yes. I live in San Diego and my son is meeting me at the airport.”
She looks to be about 65-70 but it’s hard to tell. Those old-lady clothes make her look like she belongs to another generation, that’s for sure. Not much make-up, either. Why don’t women realize just a little attention to themselves pays off? That face lift I had a few years ago was such a good decision.
“Would either of you like a glass of champagne?”
I love traveling first class.
“Thanks. For sure.”
To my surprise, the old lady takes one, too. Doesn’t look like the type who’d drink anything other than Martinelli’s.
“Had a taste last week of Armand de Brignac Brut Gold. Ever try that?”
How would she know about one of the best bottles of the bubbly around? Don’t they run around six thou?
“Uh, no. I prefer fine wines. Italian reds.”
Wait. I should have said, “Yes” and it would have shut her up. Maybe if I just open my Kindle she’ll take the hint.
“I’m Clara. Clara Shostic.”
Oh, no. Can’t be. What do I say now? I know this woman. She doesn’t recognize me. How long has it been? Eighteen-twenty years? Oh, God. It’s all coming back. She was the only drama teacher in that crappy little podunk high school. What did she have against me, anyway? She put me in the chorus for “Pajama Game” when I should have been cast as Babe. What a bitch.
“Hello. I’m Janice.” She won’t know my new name or my new face. Why doesn’t she leave me alone?
Ah, we’re taking off. I’ll just keep my eyes on the window, transfixed by the clouds. I guess I’m lucky to have been considered for that Obie award after the shitty experiences I had in high school. All her fault. Once I got from under all that, I was on my way. What’ll I have for lunch?
“Hello, ladies. Would you like the roast beef tostada or the chicken salad this afternoon? Oh. Excuse me, but you’re Janice Sherman, aren’t you? I saw your performance in ‘Life Without’ a few weeks ago and you were quite wonderful.”
Shit. Shit. Shit. Outed by a stew.
“Thanks. I’ll have the salad, please.”
“Me, too. Are you an actress?”
Oh, jeez. Now what do I do? If we were near an exit door, I’d be tempted to push her out. She has no idea the damage she did. Some days I feel like I’m still picking up the pieces.
“Yeah, I am.”
“I taught drama in high school for years. You look familiar to me.”
Dear God. No. Does this window open?
Even as I peered into my Kindle I knew it was too late to save myself. Again. But, hold it. Get a grip. You’re grown up now. Not a kid. She doesn’t have any power over you any more. She can’t insult you, make you feel like a nobody. You’re not a nobody. You almost had an Obie nomination. You’ve been on off-Broadway for a few years now. You’re on the way up, aren’t you? You know Angela Lansbury. You’ve…
“I had a student years ago who looked a little like you. It couldn’t have been you, though. Shelley was mousy and you’re very glamorous.”
Mousy? Mousy? Did she say mousy? Who was mousy? Is there any way I can stop this? I had wanted to avoid an interview but this feels like an interrogation.
“Funny thing about Shelley, though.” She was looking at me more carefully now, turning sideways in her seat to get a better view. “She had talent.”
What? Now she tells me. I’ll bet she knows. Dammit. She knows. What’s happening here? Why do I feel caught? I decided to keep up the façade. It seemed safer.
“Yes, she did. I think she wanted me to tell her how good she was and I decided that wasn’t the best thing to do for…her.”
Here comes the rationalization for being such a destructive bitch.
“People like that with lots of talent, you know, can get too comfortable. They’re young and they get dependent on others instead of relying on their own….well, on themselves.”
How can I find out more without getting in too deep here? And why the hell do I want to know more? Wish the restroom was empty.
“What do you mean, dependent on others?”
“She had to find out for herself how good she was. Now, of course, I can admit I was probably too critical of her in class.”
Aha! She admits it. Well, that’s something.
“Too critical?” I tried not to smile or look smug.
“Yes. But she had to learn how to be her own critic, not be so vulnerable to others’ opinions. I wonder if she ever learned how to do that.”
“Here you go, ladies. Two salads. Would you like a glass of wine with that?”
Almost as one, we both chimed, “Yes, please.” It was the first time I didn’t feel a sense of high altitude rage at the teacher I thought had been way too eager to plough me under.
As we worked on our food, I wanted to hear more. Until now, I hadn’t realized how much this – she – had bothered me, affected me all these years. I decided to take a chance.
“What would you say to…Shelley… if you were to run into her today?” I can’t believe I asked that. Careful here.
“You know,” she said, buttering her last piece of the tiny roll, “teachers are a lot like parents. We want the best for our kids but we make mistakes, too.” She was looking right at me now.
I could feel something inside of me give way. Was it my anger at her? The defensive wall I had constructed years ago? I still felt protective of that frightened teenage girl who wanted so much, too much maybe.
“I understand.” I was beginning to rewind that old movie in my head. The pimply-faced, overweight kid who wanted to be on the stage, the kid nobody liked. The kid who wanted the acceptance she never got at home. The kid who felt rejected by this teacher. She was right. She did make a mistake with me but she was also right about making me stronger. Did I imagine it or did I see her face lose some of its tension?
Trays removed, we both settled back into our seats. I picked up my Kindle and began to feel as if I’m on a different kind of trip than I had envisioned, like finding the solution to a long unsolved puzzle and uncovering a more interesting and complicated pattern.
Pam Munter has authored several books including When Teens Were Keen: Freddie Stewart and The Teen Agers of Monogram and Almost Famous. She’s a retired clinical psychologist, former performer and film historian. Her essays and short stories have appeared in The Rumpus, Manifest-Station, The Coachella Review, The Creative Truth, Adelaide, Litro, Angels Flight—Literary West, TreeHouse Arts, Persephone’s Daughters, Fourth and Sycamore, Nixes Mate, Scarlet Leaf Review, Cold Creek Review, and many others. She was recently awarded an MFA in creative writing and writing for the performing arts.