Disclaimer: although written in the style of a memoir, the following story is a complete work of fiction, and any resemblance of the characters or situations in said story to any real individuals, famous or not famous, are purely coincidental.
After every performance, Joan & Stu like to go to a diner with the rest of their cast. I don’t like to be in groups that big, ever, so I usually just go home and feed my dog. Sometimes I’ll go to a bar with Jenni if she’s free and vent about whatever show I’m in.
…but in this production of Guys & Dolls, with Joan’s abysmal choreography and Stu’s half-assed lead performance, all I wanted to do after the show was vent. Joan would circle the dimly-lit walkways backstage, informing everyone, “We’re going to Denny’s after the show,” and I would either ignore her, make an excuse, or lie and say I was coming. Then Roxanna & I would go to a bar somewhere, knowing that the rest of the theatre was at Denny’s and that it was safe to rant about them.
We weren’t trying to make anyone feel rejected. Actually, since the incident with my ex-husband, I’d become closer with Joan & Stu and was beginning to consider them friends. That didn’t mean I liked working with them, though. I was dying for another theatre to notice me so I could get experience working somewhere more professional.
“More professional?” Roxanna asked me over her second Ginger Cosmo and my third Sapphire & Tonic. “Shiela, it’s community theatre. We’re all volunteers. Del Paso Players are all volunteers. SNC are all volunteers. Foothill Stage is all volunteers. Why do we always expect everyone to be professional?”
“Because it’s still money,” I mumbled.
“I mean, you’re right: no, we aren’t getting paid, but other people are paying to see us! Other people, people we don’t even know, are donating thousands of dollars to make sure we have a place to act, even if it’s for free. I don’t want to let those people down.”
Roxanna looked distraught, like she had never thought of this and was now reevaluating her entire contribution to the theatre community. It’s funny, because even if she hadn’t thought about the money that the community invested in her performances, Roxanna did take theatre seriously. It was SYCE who half-assed their productions.
She began fidgeting with her phone, not texting or surfing social media, just closing the apps she’d left open and then reopening them without using them.
“You all right there?” I asked.
“Just checking the time,” she lied, turning off the screen and throwing the phone back in her purse. Just as the phone landed face-up in her purse, I saw it light up and heard it vibrate. It was a text from “Dog Trainer.” Who saves their dog trainer’s number in their phone but doesn’t bother to learn their name? I had a dog trainer when I first rescued Sonic, my doberman. The trainer’s name was Jeff Winslow, so I saved him in my phone as “Jeff Winslow.” Just because he was my dog trainer doesn’t mean I didn’t care to know his name, or that if his name came up in my phone I would forget he was my dog trainer. My housekeeper is also saved in my phone as “Talia Dzieduszycki.” I made sure to get the spelling exactly right. I could have saved her in my phone as just “Talia” or “Talia D,” but that would be rude.
What kind of woman has such a distant relationship with her hired help that she doesn’t even learn their names?
Too curious to let it go, I asked, “What does your dog trainer want?”
Her hand jolted into her purse, and while her phone was still inside, she unlocked the screen, deleted the text, and turned it over so the screen faced downward.
I had seen what the text said, though. This illustrious “Dog Trainer” had asked, “Are you still out with Shiela or are you on your way?”
On her way where, Mr. Dog Trainer?
“You know,” I confessed, “We never talk about anything but the theatre, do we? We just complain all the time about Joan & Stu and Mama June and Sofie & Beck and all the people in the ensemble who don’t bother to learn their harmonies or their dance moves…but I feel like I don’t really know anything about you.”
She sighed, “There’s not much to know. Theatre is really my whole life, honestly.”
“Well for starters, what kind of dog do you have?”
“It’s a Basset Hound-Pitbull mix.”
“Oh my God, that sounds adorable.”
“I guess,” she shrugged. “I don’t really like dogs. Toby got it one day, without even telling me. Can you believe that? Who just adopts a dog without telling their spouse? And a big dog, too. A big, aggressive dog in a small home.”
“So Toby takes care of the dog all on his own?”
“I wish. He doesn’t know the first thing about training a dog, so I found a trainer who’s really great.”
I paused, not sure if I should bring it up or not, but too curious and full of alcohol to just let it go.
“And now the trainer texts you at 11:30 on a Saturday night to see what you’re up to?”
Roxanna looked confused. She wasn’t pretending to look confused. She was actually confused, which then made me confused, and when we both figured out what was going on, we opened our mouths at the same time.
“That wasn’t really a dog trainer, was it?” I asked.
“My dog trainer is a woman,” she said. “I have her saved in my phone as ‘Wendy’ because that’s her name.”
I could tell she was excited to finally share this with someone.
“So the person saved in your phone as ‘Dog Trainer’ is your secret lover?”
“Shhhhh!” she dug her burgundy-polished nails into my shoulder and then whispered, “Want to tell the whole world I’m having an affair?”
I whispered back, “Roxanna, you know I used to be married?”
“Yeah, to Todd Tsukamoto, before he was with Tess.”
“No, while he was with Tess.”
“I knew it!” Roxanna laughed, and then immediately looked guilty. “I’m sorry. I know it’s not funny. But that is not the story he tells, or that Tess tells for that matter. They sell everyone this crap about how you got bored of Todd and ran off to Vegas with all his money trying to be a Showgirl, and Tess rescued him in that dark moment and they lived happily ever after.”
“He ran off to Vegas! He said he was going to Salt Lake City for a dentist’s conference, but a friend of mine saw them in a nightclub and texted me the photos. Then I went on his computer and found the secret credit card where he was booking all the hotels. $10,000 on secret skiing trips…and now he was in Vegas with her! He never took me skiing, but once he started messing around with Tess, he practically lived in Tahoe. He lied and told me he was working weekends. That’s when I should have known something was up. What kind of dentist sees patients on a #@$%ing Sunday?”
“I can’t even get a dentist to see me after 4:00 on a weekday!”
We both laughed. I never laughed like this with Jenni. I always felt like Jenni was secretly judging me, like I couldn’t drink too much around her or let myself get too goofy, and I never trusted her, except when I needed to vent about her mortal enemies, Joan & Stu.
“So wait,” Roxanna wondered out loud. “That means you never went out to Vegas and tried to be a Showgirl?”
“No, I did,” I confessed. “I had my friend follow him to his hotel room and tell me where they were staying, took a Red Eye out there, printed out the photo of them at the bar, slid it under the door while they were sleeping. On the back of the photo I wrote, and I’ll never forget this, I wrote, ‘I’m not leaving you. You already left me. Hope she was worth it.’ ”
“It was surreal, getting on a last-minute flight and walking through that hotel. At first I wanted to just kick down the door and beat the crap out of them both. I mean Tess had been over to our house with her first husband. I made them dinner, like a real dinner, with our wedding china. We shared $80 bottles of wine. Now she was in Vegas with my husband. Instead, I got my anger out on some prick in the elevator who thought I was a hooker.”
“But I couldn’t confront him. I never confronted him. I didn’t fly back right away because I was scared I’d run into them on the plane, so I stayed in Vegas for another week, did my copy-editing via e-mail from a hotel room, and had to miss closing weekend of the show I was in.”
“What show was it?”
“Oliver. I was playing Nancy. It was the only big role SYCE ever cast me in, and I missed closing weekend. They had to cancel performances because they couldn’t find anyone to replace me on such short notice.”
“They cancelled the show?”
“I know! What happened to ‘The show must go on,’ right?”
“They just…cancelled…the whole show.” Roxanna was practically in shock.
“It gets worse. They sent out an e-mail to all their season ticketholders apologizing, and in the e-mail, they said the reason they were cancelling is because a lead cast member had run off to Vegas without warning and was now getting divorced.”
“Yes! They not only blamed me for what Todd did, they worded it in a way that made me look like the bad guy, and they told the entire theatre community…and all their patrons!”
“So you came back and gave Joan an earful about how uncalled for that was.”
“Well, Stu wrote the e-mail,” I corrected her. “But no, when I came back, they yelled at me about it, and I cried.”
“You just sat there and cried after what she did to you!?”
“What they did to me,” I corrected her again. “Yes, just like you, there was a time when I was scared to stand up to Joan & Stu, especially during weak moments like my divorce. They treated me like a two-bit floozy, but their theatre was all I had.”
“So you’re one of their ‘Gehenna Girls’?”
“Gehenna Girls. Gehenna is like Jewish purgatory or something.”
“I never knew you were Jewish.”
“I’m not; Joan & Stu are. It’s what they call the people who are still welcome in their theatre, but only to be in the chorus.”
“Who told you that?”
Roxanna’s exhausted eyes suddenly drifted their gaze into the pinkish-brown mixture left in her martini glass. She had another secret, not a secret about an illustrious affair, but an embarrassing secret, one that she didn’t want me to figure out.
“Don’t tell me Stu is the dog trainer you’re cheating on your husband with,” I joked.
…except she didn’t laugh. She just kept staring at her drink.
She looked up at me, drink now in hand, nervously sipping what was left of it.
“Let’s drop it,” she said.
“I can’t drop that! You basically just told me you were—”
She calmly placed her hand over my mouth. I can’t believe I was about to announce to the world that my new best friend was having an affair with Stu Rudofsky. They had to be 30 years apart in age, maybe more. And he was so creepy with her, too. He was so creepy with everybody, always hitting on all the actresses, making lewd comments about us and having his wife cast him opposite the hottest upcoming community theatre actress du jour. But I never thought any of the actresses would actually do something with him.
“I need a cigarette,” Roxanna told me.
“I didn’t know you smoked.”
“I don’t, but this situation is so messed up that I literally need to close my tab, find a convenience store and get a flipping cigarette!”
Finally, she laughed again.
I walked her to a 24-hour gas station store near the bar. Some guys whistled at us as we crossed the street, and I gave them the finger. They called us bitches and sped off. Was I supposed to be upset?
It was just over 40 degrees outside, but there wasn’t a place to smoke indoors. Why does California have so many stupid laws? Why can’t we smoke indoors in the dead of winter?
“Want to sit in my car and smoke?” Roxanna asked.
“It’ll smell like cigarettes forever,” I reminded her.
“I’ll worry about that later. Right now, I want to get out of this cold and away from all the creepy guys on the street.”
Unable to resist, I took the bait, “But Roxanna, I thought you like creep—“
I tried to laugh, but she just got angrier. Then I tried to laugh about how angry she was, which didn’t help. She took out her rage on the pack of cigarettes, pounding it against her palm as it trembled in the cold. As she put the first cigarette in her mouth, I grabbed the lighter from her and blocked off the wind with my also-trembling palm.
“Pretty girls don’t light their own cigarettes,” I joked.
“@#*% you, Shiela,” she hissed.
“It was a joke.”
“Whatever, let’s just get in the car.”
We sat in the car for a minute, heater turned all the way up, window slightly cracked to let out the smoke. It took just a minute for us to realize what a terrible mistake we’d made. We rolled the windows down and stuck our heads out, coughing furiously. Suddenly, neither of us felt like smoking.
Oh, and Roxanna was laughing again, only now I was furious.
“You think I’m disgusting, don’t you?” she said.
“I mean, I’ve been infatuated with older men, too. But my husband was Japanese, and he took good care of himself and never seemed ‘old’ to me. Stu looks like he could be my grandfather, my grandfather, and you’re five years younger than me, Roxanna.”
“I know, I know.”
“How did it even happen?”
“It’s just what happens to me when I’m in a show. I become my character, and if I’m playing opposite a man, I just focus on whatever is attractive about that man, and I only see those things and force myself to be attracted to him.”
“But what’s attractive about Stu Rudofsky?”
“Well for one, he’s a really good husband.”
“He’s cheating on his wife with you!”
“Yeah, because she doesn’t appreciate how great he is to her. You know she doesn’t even work? She just pretends she has a job at a diner, but actually she stays home all day watching cable news and ice hockey?”
“Ice hockey? I’m pretty sure you just call it hockey.”
“Not the point!” she snapped. “The point is he hates running the theatre. But he does it all just for her, and she keeps casting him as the lead in every show so he won’t throw in the towel. So he won’t leave her.”
“You don’t really believe that?”
“Of course I do!”
“Why? Why would you believe that?” I shouted, so relieved to finally be in a car where I had a little more privacy to voice my exasperation. “That sounds like the line any married man would give when he’s trying to sleep with a younger woman he’s in a position of power over, make himself seem like the victim, make you feel sorry for him, and then…”
I didn’t even want to think about what happened next. They never kissed in the show, but apparently they kissed in real life. Apparently they did a lot more than kiss. Stu, that bald, short, lumpy man with a rug of gray fur that stuck out the back of his T-shirts. This was one of the sexiest women I knew, and that was what she found sexy?
“Roxanna, I’ve heard of ‘beauty in the eye of the beholder,’ but this is ‘beauty in the eye of the Stockholmer!’ “
She raised an eyebrow.
“You look real proud of yourself, coming up with that one, Shiela.”
“Well I didn’t want to tell you any of this. I didn’t want to tell anyone. It is embarrassing, and it is disgusting, but I do still feel sorry for him, and I can’t help it. We don’t sleep together, we just kiss and send flirty texts.”
That’s a relief.
“My husband reads through my texts and think they’re from Wendy the dog trainer. He thinks I’m flirting with a woman. Probably thinks we’re going to have a threesome. Poor guy.”
“Poor guy? Serves him right for reading your texts!”
“Stu says he deletes all of his texts from me right away. He saves them in a secret app that his wife doesn’t know about, but then he says he reads them over and over again when she’s not around.”
“Stop calling him creepy! You don’t get it. He’s worn out from giving his whole life to this woman.”
“What about all the things he’s taken from that woman?” I asked. “He made her follow him across the country. He said he had a job lined up out here, working as a Sports Writer or something, just to get her to marry him and follow him all the way out to California. The job never existed. She married this guy and followed him all across the country because of a lie.”
“Who told you that?”
Jenni Sinclair. Crap, I should get my information from a more reliable source before spewing it out like that.
“Never mind,” I said. “You hear a lot of things in the theatre community. Up until an hour ago, you thought I left my husband to be a showgirl in Vegas. Everyone makes up their own story. We’re all liars, us actors, on the stage and off.”
“I did think that about you. I heard it, and I believed it. You’d think with all the gossiping we do about each other, and all the gossiping that’s done about us, that we would question everything we hear, instead of believing everything we hear as long as it’s juicy enough.”
“That’s fine, but just remember. Stu might be just another liar. Not saying he is. Just saying to be careful.”
“I know, Shiela.”
I knew he was a liar, but I also knew there was no convincing Roxanna of it. Sometimes you just have to let someone make a mistake on their own, especially when it comes to romance.
What I couldn’t get over was the fact that Joan & Stu have a deeper, more secret list of slang terms for their inner circle. I was a “Gehenna Girl,” whatever that meant. I thought I had an in with them because I was Jewish and so were they, and let’s face it: it’s not like there were many of us in Sacramento. But they had stuck me in Jewish purgatory without ever telling me. To my face, they had told me that my divorce and the shows I’d missed because of it were all water under the bridge, but in private, they laughed at the fact that I kept coming back, taking chorus role after chorus role and foolishly thinking that if I just paid my dues long enough, I would get the lead.
…except that I was playing the lead now. I was officially out of Jewish purgatory, all because I finally stopped treating Joan & Stu like gods and told them they could go to hell.