I try to brush the wrinkles from my bright orange blouse, creased with lines from its eight-hour shift spent balled up and thrown into my designated locker in the changing room shared by five of us. Since moving back to New York City, I’ve been cast in my very first movie for the role of a character so insignificant I often feel like a much less fictitious, much more pitiful Joey Tribbiani from Friends. Of course, this ego-crushing initiation into the acting world would all be worth it if, for instance, I actually enjoyed acting.
And I once did. From the moment I could make decisions for myself, I was told I had a huge personality, from the unconventional shows I loved, the incorrigible amount I talked, and the eccentric clothes I nearly always wore. The only place I was able to funnel my character–which I was often told was “too much”-- was on the stage. When I was ridiculed for being a theater kid, I simply felt sorry that no one else could experience what I was blessed to. Even more important than that, I knew that it was the only place I was accepted as myself.
Mom always tells me that I get this from her, and I know she’s right. When it’s just the two of us, we can be unapologetically ourselves, probably scaring off any bystanders, but joyful nonetheless. She always said that my loser dad's decision to walk out on her before I was born was a great way to stop caring what people think. Luckily for me, I never needed someone to tell me not to care.
As I grew older, moving to North Carolina with Mom at age twelve, I was inevitably forced to take acting more seriously. To society, my love for the stage translated into my desire for a career in television. Naive and inexperienced in the real world, I followed along.
Somewhere during the transition, the various costumes and diverse characters no longer allowed me to experience the myriad walks of life of which I could not choose to confine myself to one, and the microphone no longer provided a place for me to channel my creative energy. If anything, I began to lose myself within the constant criticism and dictation that extinguished any freedom to be myself upon the stage.
But it provided something even more. A ticket back to New York City. An excuse to move my life back to the last place I remember happiness, six years ago.
When my phone buzzes in my pocket, I reach for it, once again reminding myself that a failure to pick up the phone could either make or break my career. Tedious, arbitrary rules. I roll my eyes as I answer the phone.
“Hello, this is Marla Leroy.” I try my best not to let my exasperation show. Sometimes, I fear that I lose pieces of my personality every day. First, I equalized my appearance by wearing at least one item of neutral clothing each day, a change I would have blanched at as a twelve-year old whose goal was to one day never own an item of black. Now my optimism seems to be taking a serious hit, too.
“Marla, hello,” the friendly yet professional voice on the other end greets. “This is Vivian Lemon from the University of Central Florida. You recently inquired about withdrawing your application for our Elementary Education program?”
“Yes, I did.”
“If you don’t mind me asking, what is your reason for withdrawal?”
Hesitation tugs at my throat. “I-I moved to New York City. Breaking into the acting industry and all that,” I finally explain with the usual bubbliness gracing my voice once again.
“That sounds incredibly fun.” It isn’t. “Would you like to confirm the withdrawal of your application?”
Words escape me and I can’t seem to form “YES” with my tongue. Suddenly, I panic that I’m having a stroke because of course the answer is yes! For some reason, it just won’t leave my lips. Closing the door on elementary education, a career in which bright colors and lame jokes, singing and dancing, will never be out of the question, feels like an admittance that I’ve officially fallen victim to directors and superiority complexes of the entertainment industry.
“I’ll have to get back to you on that,” I blurt into the phone before hanging up.
Flopping onto the nearest bench, I let out a sound somewhere between a sigh and a sob. The solid tan color of my coat traps me, and the pockets become mouths of ridicule, mocking me for taking further steps each day to suppress my true self. Red seeps into my vision and I can’t tell if I’m feeling frustrated, angry, or dejected, but regardless, I rip the coat from my shoulders and throw it to the other side of the bench.
Through eyes blurred by the beginnings of tears, I notice the bulldozer across the street, enclosed within a construction fence surrounding a building.
Like a punch to the gut, I realize it is not just any building, but the tower that holds the apartment in which Mom raised me as the amazing single mother that she is. How had I missed this on my way to work this morning?
I count four floors from the top, three windows from the left, and I can see the chubby face of a seven-year old squished against the window. My face. Mom towers over me, brushing my hair into a ponytail in preparation for my third musical, Peter Pan, in which I’m playing Tinkerbell in the school play. I’m so eager to find my place on the stage, it’s nearly impossible to sit still during the process of getting ready. Luckily, Mom knows I take comfort in the bustling environment of the city, where everyone seems to be living out their dream and no one seems to be holding back any portion of their personality.
Where did that city full of opportunity go? Those streets where I skipped along, Mom and I hand in hand? That apartment where we’d dance while she cooked dinner, high on life?
A deafening crash sounds, and I whip my gaze back to the top of that apartment building, counting four floors-
Except that the four floors at the top of the building seem to be nothing but rubble falling from the sky.
Within seconds, the last place I found happiness vanishes, and with it goes any sliver of hope I’ve been holding onto that becoming an actress in New York City once again will bring back the life I loved.
It is with no small emotion that I realize happiness cannot be found where I left it; it can only be found where I create it.
“Ma’am, are you okay?” A panicked voice brings me back to the bench I’ve apparently stood from, and through tear-soaked eyes, I turn to see a woman who bears an uncanny resemblance to Mom. “Why are you crying?”
Though it’s impossible to explain to a stranger, I know exactly the words I’ll speak to her. “I’m moving to Florida.”