A couple months back my buddy and I went to a bar. We were friends of acquaintances, and, upon arrival, my initial scan beget a bevy of not-acknowledgements and sorta-knows. The guy who gathered the gathering was in a reading of mine two years ago, and in our brief game of catch-up I discovered he’d gotten married, lost his job, and learned to make paella. Then I inadvertently spoiled the end of the third season of Battlestar Galactica, so he went to “get a drink.”
We debated leaving. We didn’t. We drank PBR and felt like assholes. I saw a girl I’d gone out with once avoiding eye contact two tables away. My friend and I talked about our jobs. I laughed a lot to show her how great my life was. It was fine. We were drinking.
Then, something horrible happened. My friend saw an older friend.
He said he’d “be right back.”
He left me.
And I stood alone, surrounded by people I either didn’t know or knew in a way where it would be a mite too awkward to stumble into their circles. Everything slowed. I stood there, texting. Everything was slow. Texting. Reading texts.
Then, a voice: “Randall, how are you?”
That girl from two tables over.
60 horrible seconds followed. I know it was around 60 seconds because “Absolutely Cuckoo” came on the juke (only 90 seconds long) and I sang along with the last bit once she’d walked away.
See, I’d told her things. Big things. About my life. Embarrassing, revealing, soul-scouring things that I tell people when I like them. Why do I tell people things? Because I like telling people things. It’s why I write plays. To tell people things. And I told her things: I told her about all those vulnerable things that can sometimes feel natural when you’re laying in bed with someone, when the future is ahead of you, when you’re blithely swimming in a dizzy sea of champagne and salsa.
She never called me again. Of course.
And I thought of Turgenev. Not really. I thought of Brian Friel adapting Turgenev:
“You regret it later. All that inflated language, the emotional palpitations, the heaving passions. I’ve done it so often myself–in my foolishness. It occurred to me a while ago that we regret most of the things we say and we regret even more all the things we don’t say; so that our lives just dribble away in remorse.”
How was I?
“So good. Oh my god. I am so good.”
She nodded a moment, staring at me sorta cock-eyed. I thought of how I’d expressed my insecurities that night, how awkward I felt all the time, how I hated inflection and hated myself for using it.
“Cool,” she said.
“How are you?” I asked.
“Oh, fine. Doing this show…”
“Oh, what show?”
She looked at me, her eyes these curious little furrows. She knew I knew what show. She’d told me several times. She knew I knew that she knew I knew what show.
She told me again.
She laughed a little. I don’t know why. I totally know why. I didn’t laugh. I remembered how I told her how I’d gotten saved, how I’d found God, lost God, found love, lost love, failed and triumphed and failed again. I probably cried. I think I cried. It was absurd. She tried to get the bartender’s attention. It didn’t happen. She pursed her lips, drummed the bar, looked at me.
“How’s that play going? What play are you doing…?”
I told her. And remembered how I’d expressed my fear that it sucked, how it needed more work, how they always need more work and will it ever be good enough?
“It’s really good,” I told her.
I went on to talk about other projects, other plays, so on and so on. It went on forever. I thought I’d been talking for minutes. But when she finally got her drink, Stephin Merritt was still singing and she was walking backwards, smiling with thin lips:
And my friend came back, singing along: “It’s only fair to tell you, I’m absolutely cuckoo.”
We clinked. “How was that?” he asked, casting a furtive glance in her direction.
“Awkward,” I said. We left a few minutes later.
The weight behind that word. The secrets it shields. The regrets it carries. It’s dangerous to scour an awkward conversation for the source of that unease, for the things that aren’t being said, the things that are painting a sick pallor over every other word.
All in a minute.
As I rattled out these pieces, I decided to focus on what wasn’t being said, adorning each play with empty, surface language while reveling in the brief, but potent pauses it would be easy to think there aren’t room for in a one-minute play.
What isn’t being said every minute? And how do we react to those pauses? How do we change in those pauses, as the truth of our discourse hangs unshrouded before us, an eyesore, a canker, a reminder of our desire to connect but inability to do so properly, a haunting manifestation of Turgenev’s regret: what we said, what we didn’t, and how it’s all affecting us in this single minute of interaction.
And I’m aware I’m being sorta silly. The one-minute munchkins I wrote are sorta silly. But they’re awkward and honest, too. Because sometimes seconds change like seasons, carrying with them a lifetime’s worth of the quiet things no one wants to know.
100 Plays. 50 Playwrights. 1 Minute. The Chicago One-Minute Play Festival with Victory Gardens Theater will be presented on May 15th and 16th, 2011. Tickets are available here.