I remember watching a theater performance at a small college in West Virginia where I spent a year drinking, not going to class (and failing), dating a black woman, and writing anti-war 'protest' pamphlets (I thought they were hot, but nothing ever changed in the world the next day).But like a lot of things that seemed unworthy of my full attention at the time, I have never forgotten that play. Who wrote it or what the actual story was about didn't matter then, and doesn't matter now.
What matters is that the plot had it where all the players would enter onto the stage from the left-hand side, or Stage Left.. They would do and say what the script called for, and then they would move as if to exit 'Stage Right. But this is where it got interesting. Exit Stage Right meant Death. The basic gist of the story — as I recall — depicted a time of great social change and upheaval, like some of Chekov's stuff — and it revealed that Death really was waiting out there with its soft, slimy jaws. and the question was, who would go to It and when? The play was thus stocked with dramatic tension and no small amount of irony. Some of the cast, drawing gasps from the audience, would waltz perilously near the point of no return– smiling, suspecting nothing — and then, at the last moment change their minds and come come spinning back into the center circle of the room. Back into Life. (I guess this is what is meant by"cheating" death.) Others, especially the unsuspecting Young With Their Futures In Front Of Them, would grin and shout "See ya later!" and sally forth into the Never Ever Wherever. More gasps and groans from the audience.
It was great stuff because it showed how unpredictable life is. Death can snatch us bald-headed at any time. (Which is why I don't stress too much over some of my unhealthy bad habits.) We just hope that we have made a bit of sense of ourselves in the end, and, I for one, would like a couple of hours to prepare a final speech to the world. I fancy myself one of those guys who could rescue a somewhat qyestionable life-performance by giving one hell of soliloquoy just before the executioners kicked the chair out from under my legs.
But I don't want to snuff it by slipping on a bar of soap, or zigging when I should have zagged.
So today in the metro I remembered that play. I was on a long ride, and plenty of people got on and off. So I suppose you could say — to reconfigure Shakespeare — that the train from Baumanskaya to Mitino was a (hurtling) stage and "all its men and women merely.players". As such, they came and went. On here, off there. As usual, I lost three or four potential wives (O what might have been !)) to the exigencies of their destinations. So many of my make-believe destinies slip away each day that way and go to other men..
But there is always a story, a slice of life, as it were, as in Chaucer or Boccaccio, that unfolds on those trains. So three people were sitting beside each other for a number of stops. There was a middle-aged Russian woman, a bit heavy but with a pleasant face on which her bifocals rested easily, and a narrow, bony middle aged Russian man in a cheap suit whose long feet stretched out from his equally dismal — but business-like (going out of business, maybe) — black shoes. He wore a wedding ring, so someone must have liked him at some point., but the expression on his face (it never changed) could best be described as how you might feel when you suddenly realize that you have food poisoning. Or that the harmless gas you thought you had expelled was, in fact, expressing itself in liquid form. Directly into the seat of your trousers.
Yet what was really of the moment was the half-inebriated Asian man sitting between them. His clothes were…rudimentary…and bore the stains and spots of that day's adventures. It wasn't so much that he was seriously wasted as that he was just very, VERY sleepy. We have all seen those kinds of people in the metro, haven't we? It's not that they get drowsy and close their eyes, but that they appear to sink, or dissolve, into some kind of irretrievable trance from which they cannot escape, and this ever-deepening stupor induces them to topple and sway, their long-gone minds jolting back to semi-life every so often…but mostly they are looking for their Mother, and before long their heads will seek out someone else's shoulder. Usually a shoulder that would prefer not to have a stranger's head come to rest upon it.
The woman was very much aware of this Asian dreamer's presence and seemed to occupy herself with just hoping for the best. What she WASN'T going to do was cave in and Get Up. She wanted her damned seat. The office man in the tattered suit and battered shoes, seemed to draw special expression from the makeshift fortress of his thin, repugnant nostrils, as if thinking that if he could only stop smelling whatever it was he smelled, all evil would evaporate.. But the dreambound Asian kept lurching from one to the other, depending on what the train did. Whichever one of them he happened to land on responded with the predictable grimace. But finally, he rallied, woke up, apologized to the woman (but not the man), even attempted a bit of flirting with this patient lady (who was neither hostile nor amused), and promptly dropped off again. Like a palm tree in a Florida hurricane. Together they made me think of Jean-Paul Sartre's play "No Exit," — which is about three people (a man and two ladies) who find themselves waiting in Hell's ante-room (they know they are hellbound) for the usher to arrive and convey them to their destination. But in the end, by which time they thoroughly despise one another, it dawns on them that there will be no guide and no delivery. They are already in Hell. And Hell — and this Sartre's punchline– is "other people."
Eventually he rose and disappeared Stage Right along the platform. "Кошмар", declared the woman, and we exchanged the conspiratorial smiles that sometimes pass between strangers when they have shared a moment of Blissful Absurdity. Then she too departed Stage Left and so did the narrow man, who bore a resemblance to a person severely undernourished by the fasting demands of some extreme religion. But he wavered, looking in both directions….
An old woman and her sister (maybe) sat down. This dry old dear had very short gray hair and bony fingers, fingers of the cemetery. But what was interesting was that she spent the next ten stops working and reworking one of those Rubric block something-or-others, where you turn them and swivel them round and round until you get all the squares to come up the same color. I once saw someone on YouTube who could do it in 30 seconds. This old woman never managed it, not even once, but her intensity was unwavering. Sallow and gaunt, her scowling face never looked at anything else. It was as if she were trying to bring a dead cat back to life.
As she and the other old woman departed Stage Right for the former and Stage Left for the latter, a crowd of noisy children came clambering on — an excursion, I guess — as raucous as a flock of birds in the spring morning, and also a girl who looked like a prositute or a massage-and-masturbate cabin girl. She just had that look. in her face, in her hands, and even in her toes that her shoes exposed. Her face was simultaneously sensuous and stony.
My theory is that you can tell a lot about a woman by the condition of her hands and feet, just as you can tell the quality of a restaurant from the sanitation of its toilets, and the quality of a country by the way it treats its animals.
That girl had something that could draw a man near her, and probably there would be money involved, but she had no tenderness. Her face was rigid under the syrup of the ingredients she had applied. Her hands belonged in a cheap hotel kitchen, her feet were stubby and hard.
Anyway, the singing, shouting children exited Stage Left to go on living. The cabin girl, her eyes like costume jewelry in a naval base honky-tonk, burned without glowing of life. She stayed aboard when my stop came. Who knows which direction she went, and which exit she chose.
I can't remember which exit I took either. But it must have been the right one, for today I am still alive.
===Eric Richard Le Roy===