He chose me to ghostwrite. Eight months ago, when his agent contacted me, he’d warned—Thomas Stroud, although extremely well-known, was hard to know. So now, as I did thrice weekly, I sat outside his dressing room in the Barrymore Theater. Waiting. The hallway was lit with dim sconces, making it seem like the 1920s rather than the 2020s. So many of these old Broadway houses had never been modernized. The chill of the air surrounded me. The old theater was also drafty as hell.
He summoned me. I could feel each fragment of his being thrumming restlessly as I entered. Yearning. Reaching for something he could not seem to obtain—no less name. His emotions rattled around the room—calling to me. I sat and remained silent. Waiting. Always waiting.
He sat before the arched makeup mirror, turning a magnifying glass in his large hands. In the silence, I could hear the applause he’d received for the performance he’d given tonight; it echoed in my head as it had in the theater, for the performance that had netted him his long-coveted Tony Award earlier in the Spring.
A prop, the magnifying glass came from his role in an award-winning television series he’d starred in for nearly a decade. It was part of a small collection of objects that traveled with him from dressing room to dressing room. Talismans? Tokens? Superstitions? He insisted he simply enjoyed the memories associated with the items he’d quietly purloined. He’d asked me what he should keep from this show, knowing I’d seen it half a dozen times in service to the writing process. There were other secret viewings in service of my starstruck crush.
I, recalling our first meeting, imagined his hand on my cheek, his lips on mine after he praised my talent. That part was real. The praise, I mean. Serendipitously, he’d chosen me after reading an article I’d had in GQ titled Secrets. I am still waiting for him to touch me, to notice me. To witness my feelings... to realize that I am a woman.
He sighed and rubbed his face with one hand. Tired, not in the sense that he needed sleep; performing was exhilarating for him, I’d learned, but he’d told me he was tired of the ouroboros of his life. I’d been impressed with his vocabulary, despite his Hasty Pudding cred. As a young man, he dreamed of this success, wealth, awards, a happy marriage, and a family. His secret? Now it all felt routine, a dense jungle he couldn’t escape, no matter what route he took. He once told me, “When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers. It seemed Oscar Wilde knew the truth of it.” He hadn’t been looking for pity, nor did he indulge in wallowing. Not ungrateful, just unhappy.
He looked up into the mirror, anguished, his eyes cut to mine. I saw a man in his early sixties who looked nearly two decades younger through luck, healthy living, and good genes. Dark curly hair, just now beginning to show a hint of gray at the temples, distinguished. Dark brown eyes that could be soft, piercing, sad, or full of good humor. Olive skin, lined, but not overly. For his current role, salt and pepper facial hair made him something the trade rags were calling “a dilf” or “middle-age-sexy.” I agreed. He railed about that one evening after many glasses from a brilliant bottle of Meritage we’d shared. “How would I even know if I’m still sexy? Or…” even inebriated, he was a gentleman and edited the profanity, “f*able?” I giggled at the verbal edit as he deferred to my lady-like sensibilities and his absurd worry. He was most definitely….
That night, he told me he and his wife hadn’t done the deed in at least seven years. It was of no matter, he confided; he’d been busy, preoccupied, and, honestly, disinterested. Their lives were bound up together in their children, their dogs, their many homes, and vows they’d made three decades prior, but they were separate, more roommates than soulmates. Quite the revelation. The diligent effort to remain present in his own life was becoming all he actually worked at anymore. He sighed deeply after he told me, stood, and looked around as if he didn’t recognize the room he’d been using for most of the year. Possibly he felt shaken by his confession and what it meant.
He was not a man bent to hyperbole unless scripted, but his therapist had asked him to look at himself more closely. Who was Thomas Stroud? Not the characters he’d played, the accents he’d affected, the costumes he wore, the men he’d portrayed. Those were his disguises, where he ran to leave Thomas and Thomas’ life behind.
When he fought to answer the question his therapist posed, he realized he had no idea, so he thought about writing an autobiography. He was indeed famous enough for it to spark publisher interest. However, he didn’t have the inclination to actually write. Instead, he wanted to talk it through. So I had become some odd mixture of writer, friend, confidante… extension of his therapist.
Lately, he’d said, he’d developed this inner life quite different from his exterior life. Little by little, it started taking over a more significant part of his thoughts each day. Like a bad habit running like a film in the back of his mind even as he conversed with others, ate, shopped, performed his lines... every single thing he did in real life ran concurrently with the daydream life. “Just another disguise,” his therapist admonished. He needed to stop. He turned to me. After eight months of spilling his secrets and his truths to me, it was as if he was looking at me for the first time. I felt like I was drowning; he was the oxygen I needed to live.
“I have a confession,” he said.
I knew what he was going to say before he said it. I knew who he was, he had become mine, and I, his… the disguises dropped as he reached for my hand.