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Existential Dread


On Sunday I had a previously-taken-for-granted treat: a day hanging out with Sister Virginia. It was Pride Day, but we didn't have terribly exciting plans. Just a little browsing around SoHo, visiting old haunts and generally enjoying one another's company. It was sweltering day, humid as it gets up here in NYC, and we were deep into conversation as we got on the subway platform at my stop, Astoria Boulevard. Can't recall what we were discussing. What I can recall, is being insistently spoken to by a stranger. You know that feeling, when you've recognized somebody wants somebody else's attention, but of course it couldn't be you, because you don't just run into people, but then - oh, wait - yes. Yes, that person is talking to you. And what they're saying, is this:

"Excuse me. Excuse me. Woman in the orange? Yes, I just want you both to know that I don't appreciate you following me."
"What?"
"I don't appreciate you following me onto the subway platform."
"...Okay."

And she marches past us, down to the far end of the platform.

So: Fine. Another New York crazy person. True, she didn't exactly bear the marks of the typical NYC loon -- she was very clean, small, well-dressed (as though for yoga or the park) -- but she did have that sheen to her glare that suggested a certain intensely unkempt morale. So: All right then. Jenny and I continue our conversation, veering only momentarily into "that was odd" territory.

And then, a few minutes later, our sudden enemy crosses back the other way.

"I guess you must be Team Shawna, but I'm Team Natalie, and you better stop bothering me." (Ed. - I can't remember what she said verbatim, but I'm pretty sure the name Shawna was mentioned.)
"I'm sorry. We don't know what you're talking about."

And she was gone again, this time the other way up the platform. So now I'm keeping a bit of an eye on her, because I'm fascinated, and she's got my fight-or-flight instinct up. I'm suddenly aware - for no particular reason - that we're on a platform suspended twenty-five feet over traffic and surrounded on either side by electrified metal rails. But, this woman walks on up in the other direction, beyond the bench and entrance stairwell at the middle of the platform, to where I can no longer see her. Me: "That is so strange." Jenny: "I just figure - crazy people, New York." And we try to move on in the conversation, but I have to admit that I'm now utterly puzzled and intrigued and somewhat scared. Chalk it up to reading too much Kafka and Pirandello. But the train comes, and there's no more sign of our little tormentor, so we gratefully garnish ourselves with air conditioning and grab a seat.

From there our conversation continues into more personal, important stuff than it had been, and I get engrossed enough to let go of trying to wrap my head around what is apparently the most dire "Team _______" conflict since Twilight. The benches on the N train run along either wall, and I'm turned facing the direction in which the train is running so I can talk to Jenny on that side. It's a fairly crowded train, but not jam-packed as yet. We proceed a few stops, nearing the tunnel that swoops us underground and into Manhattan, and I happen to turn to my left for a moment.

And there she is again. Staring daggers. In our car, not five feet from us. She was not, to be perfectly clear, NOT in our car to begin with. She was not, as far as I can tell, in fact able to monitor us from where she had been positioned on the platform when the train arrived. No, the woman who was accusing us of following her had seemingly traversed moving train cars to find the one in which we sat.

All this I realized as I instantaneously swirled back into Jenny's eye contact, not wanting to give Ms. Antagonist any (further?) reason to suspect we were passive-aggressively pursuing her whereabouts. She momentarily thereafter strode past us on down the car. I'm not even sure Jenny noticed she was ever there. And I never saw her again, for the rest of the day.

But I sure as hell kept looking for her. How could I not? I was half-convinced that I would run into her again, totally randomly, thereby inadvertently providing her with the final evidence she needed in order to prove her theory of our antagonism. I even - of course, though I tried to resist it - wondered if she might not be following us. That is to say, I resisted this thought because it would essentially mean that she had successfully transmitted her disease to me, the germs of her paranoia turned airborne and plague-like. The terrible likelihood is that I will indeed see our mysterious interloper again soon. She probably lives off the same subway stop as me, and will mistake Megan for Jenny some coincidental day and presume the whole espionage has begun all over again. To be totally frank . . . she didn't look unfamiliar. Maybe it was just the openness of her naked hostility, but I thought, maybe, I knew her somehow.

Now look: I'm not peering continuously over my shoulder or anything (not continuously, anyway) and I don't think there was anything profound to this woman's mistake. Odds are that she is simply going through some tough stuff in her life about now, and that has made her paranoid and/or quasi-psychotic. In fact, I feel bad about not being able to convince her that we at least were not out to get her. HOWEVER: Holy crap. Was I about to be in a Hitchcock or Fincher movie? Was I targeted for some Improv Everywhere prank, that just had yet to get joyous and un-terrifying? Was it performance art and, if so, who would think Pride Day a good day to have such a thing noticed?

All this has given me an idea that I don't think I'll get around to any time soon, so I'm putting out there for you, The World, to do with as you please. Friend Nat is frighteningly good - pun intended - at creating a sense of dread on stage, and his efforts at such effects along with some of my more hypothetical conversations with other friends about theatrical horror have me thinking that this might be a good, simple scenario for really creeping out an audience. The trouble as I see it with most staged "horror" is that it too-easily falls into a similar trap as many stage comedies do. That is, the burden of catharsis is often placed upon effects, or gags, rather than on human behavior. This results in camp, which has its place, but often doesn't know its place. It can creep in anywhere, like the annoying neighbor finding your dinner party. Before you know it, it's arguing politics and complaining about the wine and all your guests feel cheapened, like some terrible, overwrought and distended simile.

So: my behavior-based scary stage-play scenario thing: I imagine it starting with a romantic couple (A & B) meeting somewhere public, possibly a restaurant. One of them (B) is late, and by the time he or she gets there, they find their significant other (A) rattled by something. A explains that they just had the weirdest series of "coincidences" (see above) with this stranger. B listens, tries to calm down A, and gradually A relaxes to the point of laughing at him or herself a bit. B excuses him or herself to use the restroom, and as A sits there, he or she is approached by someone (C). Though seemingly relaxed, A shouts at the introduction of C: a waiter. A apologizes, making meaningless excuses, orders something, etc., and C leaves. B returns and A doesn't share what just happened. A gets a call he or she has to take, and steps away to take it. As B sits there, he or she is approached by someone he or she knows somewhat (i.e., though work - D) and D takes a seat. Of course, on A's return he or she recognizes D as his or her antagonist, and it all goes quietly haywire.

It's a sketch of a beginning (with lots of sex-generic alphabetical confusion, for which: you're welcome) but from there I see it getting more and more tense and scary, no idea of an ending yet. It starts out as a Pirandello-esque conflict between A and D, with B as something of a helpless arbiter with some interest in reaching a resolution, and C occasionally interjecting to keep the conflict from exploding into the public space. Which is to say, A and D have completely irreconcilable stories about their relationship that they each feel a growing need to convince B of. Cell phone usage should figure prominently, so long as it doesn't start to irritate; I imagine texting under the table, faking calls, etc. Personal revelations should be used sparingly, so it doesn't become all about what the audience doesn't know about their respective and interrelated pasts. That having been said, there should certainly be one or two revelatory twists, one preferably just prior to the act break. And in Act II...well...

In Act II, all are in a private space, and some time has passed. I'm imagining that our sympathies lie largely with A in Act I, and in Act II we begin to question that emotion, possibly because A forced one or more of them into this new, private space (his/her storage space?). Even if that didn't happen, A certainly turns cruel in his or her attempts to extricate him or herself from the conflict. Possibly physically cruel. Relationships change drastically, the stakes continue to mount, until it ends in a seemingly hopeful way. Seemingly, because there's also some tag moment at the very end, some bit of information that sets the whole conclusion into a teetering sense of doubt. That's what the audience leaves with: a sense of profound uncertainty.

There you go. Write me a play, The World, as close or as far from this scenario as you are so inspired. But please, The World, one request? Whichever of you was that antagonistic yogi -- stay away from me. Thanks bunches! Hugs!!!

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