The Uses of Sorrow

Simone was once my closest friend. Her drama continues to lap around my consciousness. The red velvet curtain closed before the last act concluded.

Simone and I were drama students at The Settlement Music School in Philadelphia. Together, we rehearsed lines from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Anton Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard, Ferenc Molnar’s Liliom, Ah, Wilderness by Eugene O’Neill and other plays.

Our teachers, Michael Kahn and Marvin Stevens, were professional actors who performed at Hedgerow theater. One Saturday afternoon, Simone and I rode the train to the Hedgerow and watched Michael and Marvin perform in Julius Caesar. Michael played beautiful Mark Anthony. Marvin played treacherous Cassius.

Simone and I stumbled out of the performance in a daze, then went home and ran through our lines. We trusted each other and our feelings through the characters we played. After we memorized our lines, we rummaged through our interpretations of fear, passion, love, yearning, and grief. I was 15 and Simone was 16, too young to realize we didn’t have enough life experience to dramatize most of these feelings. Still, we tried.

Simone is in tenth grade at Olney High, a grade ahead of me. We rehearse scenes in her house. Her bedroom is our imaginary stage. Her mother and sister are never home, and there is enough space for us to walk around and practice. During those afternoons when we practice at her house, I gaze at Simone. Her expressive amber eyes catch silver and gold flecks of daylight. Wavy brunette hair cascades around her high cheekbones. Her curvaceous body moves freely, effortlessly. My body feels stiff, inhibited, shy. I envy Simone’s body and sinuousness, her emotional freedom. I don’t recognize it at the time, but what I feel is longing—a longing to look and move and act like her, to be her.

We study lines from Letters to Lucerne by Fritz Rotter and Alan Vincent, a play about a girls' boarding school in Switzerland that takes place on the eve of World War II.

I play Marion Curwood, a refined English girl. Simone plays Felice Renoir, a flamboyant French girl . I do not summon my emotions as easily as Simone does. She can sprint from the spirited happiness of Juliet to the angry rage of Iago in an instant. After we finish rehearsing our lines, Simone motions to me. “I want to show you my mother’s bedroom,” she says. My pulse quickens. Simone ushers me into a quiet, neat room. The four-poster romantic-bed is covered with a snowy white chenille bedspread that flows to the floor. Outside the double window are branches of emerald green leaves fluttering from Sycamore trees. On top of a colonial bureau sits a large black-and-white photograph of a handsome man’s face, set inside a silver frame. He’s dressed in a crisp Army uniform set with double rows of brass buttons. A flat military hat, complete with leather brim, sits on his head. I study the shape of his smile, the curve of his lips. "That's a picture of my father," Simone says. "I don't remember him.” She pauses. “He died when I was two.”

The man’s face reminds me of my father's kind expression. His eyes transmitted the words, “You are loved.”

I want to talk to Simone about what it feels like to grow up without a father. My father died when I was eleven. Simone says she doesn't miss her father because she has no memory of him. Should I share my feelings? Since she doesn't long for a father, there is no reason to unburden my feelings about how sad I am. She probably doesn’t have the same aching desire to bring her father back to life.

I want to be like Simone: smoldering, sexy, blase about being fatherless.

Simone points to a closed door leading to another bedroom. "This is my sister Barbara’s room."

"It must be nice to have an older sister," I say. “I wish I had an older sister instead of a younger brother.”

"I love her,” Simone says. "She's a lot older, twenty-one, and very pretty. She’s engaged and will be married soon."

When I leave Simone’s home, I walk along the sidewalk carrying the image of the man in the silver frame. Wouldn't it be nice if my mother had a beautiful portrait of Daddy on her vanity? I want to ask her to put Daddy’s photograph in a frame, although my father was the one who photographed my brother, mother and me. There are no large 8X10 photographs of him.

A few days later, while turning pages through my favorite magazine, LIFE, I discover a poem called Rescue by Dorothy Parker.


“Razors pain you;

Rivers are damp;

Acids stain you;

And drugs cause cramps.

Guns aren’t lawful;

Nooses give;

Gas smells awful;

You might as well live.

I cut the poem out and fold it into a small square to fit inside my wallet. Who was this funny lady, Dorothy Parker, to joke about suicide? I reread the poem and conclude that if all those dreadful things happen when you try to commit suicide, then Dorothy Parker is right: “You might as well live.”

I can’t risk almost dying and not succeeding. When I was six years old, I had a disease called Undulant Fever and lay in a hospital bed for seven months. Doctors didn’t know how to contain my fever. They poked and pushed painful instruments into my skin and body. They sat on my bed, long black cords dangling from their ears. They pressed cold discs on my bare chest and listened to my heart. “Heart sounds good," they’d say and walk away.

One Saturday, before drama class at Settlement Music School, Simone and I find an empty piano practice room where we rehearse our lines from a scene in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night.

I recite Viola's soliloquy.

"She made a good view of me; indeed, so much

That sure methought her eyes had lost her tongue,"

“What does the word ‘methought’ mean?” I ask.

“I thought,” Simone answers.

Simone tells me she tried out for a part in a play at Hedgerow theater.

“I’m so disappointed I didn’t get chosen,” she says.

“It’s an honor to be invited to audition at Hedgerow!” I say. “You'll get into another play, you will."

"Marvin told me, ’You can't be an actress and play the role of a woman in a drama until you have had sexual intercourse with a man.’ ” Simone looks at me. I am stunned. Why is Marvin talking to Simone about sex? Rays of yellow sunlight slide through the windows. Piano music streams from the adjoining practice room. Fur Elise, by Beethoven.

“Marvin says, ‘It takes courage to kill yourself,” Simone says.

So they are talking about sex and suicide. I don’t want Simone to know I know nothing about one and have contemplated the other. Sex seems far away, an option that will be presented in the future. Thoughts of suicide, I struggle with right now, but I’m afraid. Afraid of my mother’s response if I fail to die. She blamed me for getting sick with Undulant fever..

“You make my life miserable!” my mother said. “You purposely went out to get sick with Undulant fever. You always do things to take the joy out of my life.”

If I tried to kill myself, my mother would kill me, I’m sure.

“Marvin’s wrong! It takes even greater courage to live with pain!” I say to Simone, definitely.

“I guess so,” Simone says.

“I would miss you,” I say. “Your mother and sister would be very sad if you were not in their lives.”

“They do love me.” Simone smiles.

I love Simone's buoyant smile. Her happiness. Sometimes, she isn't happy and her face darkens. I don’t like to see that side of her. I want to be with a happy friend.

I’m chosen to study with the Star English class where we read Romantic Poets. My favorite is Robert Browning’s poem, “Rabbi Ben Ezra” and study the first three lines:

“Grow old along with me!

The best is yet to be,

The last of life, for which the first was made.”

I envision a life where Simone and I grow old together, studying scripts, performing in plays, laughing about men. Right now, living with my mother is torture. Last night I was reciting the Browning poem out loud. My mother asked me to stop and scrub the kitchen floor. “No,” I said. “No?” my mother said. Then she called me a mule. “A mule is an animal with long, funny ears. He kicks up his legs up at whatever he hears.” My mother belted this in a sing-song voice, then left my room.

Simone and I learn our teachers from Hedgerow will be performing, "Ah Wilderness," in a theater downtown.

My mother offers to drive us to the theater. Simone arrives at our house, beaming, dancing a little hop, shuffle, and jig.

“I’m so excited we’re going to see the show! Both Michael and Marvin are in the cast!”

“Now, we’ll see professionals performing this play!” Simone’s enthusiasm spills onto me. Several scenes from "Ah Wilderness" are in our acting repertory. Each of us has played Belle, the prostitute, who appears in the bar scene at the brothel.

We sing lines from the bar scene. “Bedelia, I wanna feel ya.”

Outside, twilight darkens the early evening sky. Bare brown angular branches of Sycamore trees line our sidewalks while tall yellow lamplights glow in the misty November air. Kenny, my younger brother, sits beside my mother in the front seat of the Chevrolet while Simone and I climb into the back seat, singing Belle’s lines.

My mother is uncomfortable with displays of happiness from me. “Life isn’t about fun,” she says. Simone and I continue to recite Belle’s script and giggle. We take turns singing, “Be-del-ia.”

My mother stops for a red light. She turns around and looks at Simone. "Your voice sounds like you are having a bowel movement,” she says. Her sharp voice hurls poison darts at us. We fall silent. Shame spreads its heat into my face. What just happened is not that unusual. My mother often hurls hurtful words to extinguish my happiness. This time, they landed on my friend. I hold my breath and tongue until we exit the car and shut the door. As Simone and I walk up the flat marble steps into the theater, I apologize.