Never mind that you’ve pulled your muffler up over your nose, by the time you get where you’re going it will be red and runny and your hair will be flat with the cold, New York City cold, the kind that creeps up through the pavement and into the soles of your shoes, numbs your cramped second toes which happen to be longer than the big ones, a sign, they say, of royalty, although how you could be royal is beyond you, not when you live on the sixth floor of a walk-up on Second Avenue, not when you can’t even consider taking a cab, last night’s tips being what they were. And this cold, you feel it between your thighs, even though you’re wearing tights, black, snagged just above the knee, which doesn’t matter since it’s 1979 and the hems are long. You favor dresses and Capezio flats, you with the broad shoulders and the big feet, all five-feet-eight of you, trying to be an actor in New York City and everyone knows actors are diminutive, but you will not be dissuaded. It’s one of those dresses that’s twisting about your shins as you walk, sticking with static, a print on fine-whaled corduroy, vines and flowers in the middle of February, which is miserable as always, but you’ve got your umbrella in case, and your book bag over one shoulder, the contents of which being a manila envelope full of 8X10 headshots stapled to resumes, a toothbrush with the head wound up in toilet paper, a Mason-Pearson hairbrush, a copy of Studs Terkel’s American Dreams Lost and Found, your music — a ballad and an uptempo — transposed and transcribed in the key of Bb, three tampons held together with a red rubber band, a pot of cherry lipgloss, last week’s “Back Stage” highlighted in fluorescent yellow and a box of honey-filled cough drops.
You decide you cannot take another step. You look up at the street sign from half a block away — 67th — you’ve walked just ten blocks, twenty to go and the cold is a sharp pain between your shoulders. Your larynx will freeze, you think, you won’t be able to sing those twelve bars anyway. You’ll give your ballad to the accompanist with a whispered, “Skip the verse, please,” you’ll pick a point on the wall over their heads, the directors and producers, nodding towards the piano when you’re ready to begin, and nothing will come out.
You’re twenty-two years old and you’ve wanted to be an actress since you were five and you’re looking for signs and finding them all the time. Didn’t Patti Lupone gaze directly at you sitting between your parents in the fifth row when they took you to see Evita last month? Didn’t somebody recently tell you your eyebrows are reminiscent of Joan Crawford’s? You’re fulfilling your destiny, anyone can see you’re on your way. Today specifically you’re on your way to an open call at Actors’ Equity on 46th Street to sing your heart out for thirty seconds for a chorus job in August in Wisconsin, wherever that is, but you’re freezing and your feet hurt and you’re not certain you should sing “Hello Young Lovers” anymore, come to think of it, seeing as you’re not especially old, nor are you especially versed in the ways of love.
At this point a sign – any sign – would be a good thing and it comes sure enough, in the form of the Fifth Avenue bus, suddenly lurching from a block away and then overtaking you. You run, flat-footed, slippers slapping the pavement and you catch it, it’s kismet, it’s your life in your face, you’re in the doors just before they close.
Not a single coin in the change purse of your wallet, but you find a lone token deep in the corner of your book bag, there’s another sign! Good that you didn’t turn around and go home, good you didn’t duck into that diner with the fogged windows at 68th and Madison, good you didn’t eat a bran muffin, toasted on the griddle with a lump of butter melting between the halves, you’ll make the audition, you’ll get a number, they’ll see 150 people before 3:00 and you’ll be one of them. The bus is warm and nearly empty and you plop down in the first of three seats behind the driver facing three across on the other side, placing your bag on your knees and pulling your right foot out of your shoe to rub it against the opposite ankle, hoping to massage it back to life. The woman directly across from you smiles with sympathy and goes back to her thoughts.
But you’re caught. You’re caught in that face. She’s beautiful. Movie star beautiful. Her skin is pale and lined but her eyes are enormous, sorrowful, set above high, wide bones; her hair is no-color and her neck has all but disappeared into her shoulders, into the folds of her overcoat, but she’s beautiful in spite of her age. The most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen. It’s as though you’ve seen this face before, this face like no other, this face that doesn’t belong on the Fifth Avenue bus. She catches you staring, not perturbed in the least, but you’re embarrassed and you look away. The bus groans to a stop and a fat man waddles on and stands between you, fishing for change in his pockets, all you can see between his legs, set in a straddle, are hers, thin and pressed together at the knees, almost lost in gray wool pants. The fat man moves down the aisle and your gaze moves upward and you notice the beautiful woman is holding a carpet bag in her lap, clasping brown-leather handles with black gloved fingers; the bag is beautiful too, needle-pointed squares sewn together, each a different color, letters stitched into each background, letters making words, now you’re squinting to pick them out, they are titles, book titles you realize, titles of books you have read! Books you’ve read over and over again! Books you have loved.
It comes to you then, two stops away from 46th Street when you figure it out, she looks like a movie star because she is one, you have seen her before, you do recognize her, this comes under the list of things you know but don’t know how you know them, she’s the famous actress, the wife of the famous writer! You want to tell her who she is — that’s how delighted you are with yourself – as if she didn’t know.
What are the chances? What are the chances you’d share this bus, you’d make this connection, and what is this if not a sign? You pull the wire above you for your stop, put your foot back in your shoe, hoist your bag over your shoulder and stand, preparing to descend. All you need is a word, a moment of mutuality, and you will be able to step down into the cold. The beautiful woman regards you patiently and you grin back at her for all your worth.
“Are you an actress, dear?”
“Yes! I am!”
The bus driver pulls the lever and the doors open with a hiss.
“Good luck to you then,” says the beautiful woman.
“Forty-sixth Street,” says the bus driver, challenging you in his big rear-view mirror.
“Thank you,” you say to the woman.
“Thank you,” you say to the driver.
This time you run on your toes down the long block towards Sixth Avenue, your scarf loose and whipping in the wind behind you, as if this were a scene from a movie musical, as if you could hear the orchestra tuning up behind that dumpster over there. It hardly matters that you’ll spend August right here in Manhattan, that all these years later you still haven’t been to Wisconsin. For the moment, anyway, the signs point to a singularly charmed sort of life.