wives of the emperor

I hadn’t intended to be out so late, but we run into people we know at the bar that we choose specifically because we think we won’t, and they stand around our chairs chit chatting about beekeeping and hiking trails and the degrees of separation between the people in this state. The beekeeper buys us drinks.

Gradually they disperse, blaming their wives. “My wife will kill me,” each says, and for a moment I imagine their wives at home, going about their evenings, wishing only for another hour of quiet before the men stumble in, drunk and loud, and armed with excuses. I keep this thought to myself.

We go back to our conversation, S. and me, but it is getting late and I am tired and two drinks, it turns out, is one too many. I sleep fitfully, wake often, have disturbing, anxious dreams.

My mother’s drink of choice, for Saturday evening “Happy Hour,” was vodka and seven up in a heavy-bottomed glass that was narrower at its base than at its mouth. If she ordered it out – which occurred only on rare occasions – it would come with a wedge of lime and a swizzle stick. At home, we never had fresh limes. She and my father when he was there – and my aunt, later, when he was not – would sit on the living room sofa, feet up on the edge of the coffee table and sip their drinks. If there were serious matters to discuss, they would instead gather at the kitchen table. There was a long bench seat at the table, and I would lounge on that, stretch myself out across the length of it and contemplate the fake leather seat cushion or the way the hinges attached the table to its extension leaf. Drinks were accompanied by a bowl of chips or popcorn, so once the bowl was set down, I’d fill up a napkin like a little satchel with snacks before retiring beneath the table and out of sight of the adults.

My sister and I were performers. Dance lessons, auditions for local theatre productions, and later, trips to midtown New York to be paraded in front of television commercial directors and producers who sat staring vacantly at us from behind a folding card table as we sang or danced or recited a line of text, our hair stiff with spray to freeze it in bouncy curls, our cheeks aching from wide smiles.

We had become friendly with another family in this odd little world of talent agents and cattle calls – their daughters the same age as my sister and me, and on weekends sometimes, they would invite us out to their neat suburban home with the wooden swing set in their high-fenced yard.

On one of these afternoons, the adults spent a long time standing near a tree, speaking in hushed tones. The girl my age was named Jamie and she stood off to the side a bit, and the adults would look over at her and then back to each other, shaking their heads slowly, their eyes cast down.

It is not as though – at their cocktail hour sessions – they forgot I was there, really, but perhaps the fact that I was not in their immediate line of vision, coupled with the vodka’s own work, made them speak a bit more freely than the might otherwise. That night, after the visit to Jamie’s, they talk about this:

Leukemia. Much of what they say eludes me, but I hear them talk of blood and radiation and a puncture to the spine. “The poor child,” my mother says, over and over, and I can hear the ice in her glass, can picture the motion she is making, swirling it around. “That poor, poor child is going to die.”

I am fourteen when I am called for one of my last auditions. It’s for a film about China. They need several teenaged girls to play the wives of the emperor. We are in a rented beach house in Lavallette, New Jersey, when we get the call. But it’s a film and the part could be a good one, so we leave early one morning to drive back into the city. “They know I am not Chinese?” I ask my mother on the drive in. “They know. I am sure it doesn’t matter.”

The room is packed when we get there. There is nowhere to sit, hardly anywhere to stand. In all my years growing up in the working-class suburbs of New York, I have never seen so many Asian girls in one place. Some are holding scripts. A few are sitting on the floor in leotards and tights, stretching like before a dance class. I feel sick and hot. I want desperately to leave.

My mother urges me forward, toward the tiny sign-in desk, partially obscured by purses and coats. I step gingerly through the clusters of girls and put my name on the list. We stand in that room waiting, for hours.

When I am finally called in, the room is small. A man and a woman sit on folding chairs in front of a metal table. They hand me a page from the script, ask me to read a few lines. They ask me to walk across the room and back. To frown. To hold up my hair with one hand. “Like this,” the woman says as she gets up from her chair, walks over to me, and pulls my hair up in a pony tail then twists it, and sets it on top of my head. “A bun.” She looks at the man at the desk. He nods.

We learn that Jamie is remission. The family had moved out of state, but the news comes through her agent to mine. For now, she is well, back in school, in fourth grade. We don’t hear any more news of her after that.

I am called back for the film. Once, twice, and a third time. I am asked to wear my hair in a bun. To wear red lipstick. A long dress that reaches to the floor. I am asked to be angry. To respond when I am yelled at. To appear frightened. I am asked to fall to the ground in tears.

In the end, I am not cast. It is hard to know whether what I feel at the time is disappointment or relief. “It’s a difficult age range,” the agent tells my mother. “There aren’t a lot of calls for this age.”

When my mother gives me the news, she tells me I should not feel badly about it. “It’s a very competitive world,” she says. “You were lucky to have made it as far as you did. You came so close,” she says. “You can be proud of that.”

She talks a bit about the long hours that actors and performers must have. About the sacrifices they make for their work. That so many are not able to have families or children or to keep friends, because they are always moving around, always working. “It’s only glamorous for the ones who make it really big,” she says, “but for most of them, they are probably just struggling all the time.”

“It’s a constant struggle,” she says. She reaches out, tucks a bit of hair back behind my ear. Involuntarily, I reach up and untuck it, let it fall forward again across my cheek. My mother sighs. “It’s not an easy life.”