The author of 'Almost Romance' met the man of her dreams in college—a playwright she wouldn't marry for years. In this excerpt, she recounts the moment she realized her best friend was her true love.
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“You should be doing comedy,” my college friend Howie Morris told me after seeing me perform as the vixenish boss-lady “Madame,” in an ill-advised NYU student production of The Maids. I was standing in the pathetic aftermath, still wearing my FABULOUS costume, Howie in his ginormous parka, while crew members and stragglers milled about. “You’re funny,” he said.
Funny? I internally fumed. Comedy? Does he not understand that I AM A SERIOUS ACTRESS WHO WILL HAVE A SERIOUS CAREER IN WHICH I ROUTINELY BREAK PEOPLE’S HEARTS WITH MY SHATTERING PERFORMANCES IN ALL MANNER OF SERIOUS ACTRESS ROLES?!
Perturbed though I was by his assessment, I could never be too-too mad at Howie because I am too-too mad about him. We were students together at NYU, where I was a junior now and he was a senior. It has been two years since I first handed him a note behind the Brittany message desk—now he is one of my most cherished friends. We see each other’s performances; we prize each other’s feedback and encouragement. Our conversations are funny, fiery meditations on anything and everything—a dialogue perpetually in progress, with no beginning and no end, only a giddy middle that is so intoxicating, so gratifying, I almost forget how bad I want to fuck him.
So I thanked him for coming and we hugged for the first time ever, a hug that, I must say, lasted an awfully long time for a guy supposedly in a “serious” relationship with Talia, the Canadian RA. We stood wrapped around each other, first completely frozen, then awkwardly shifting weight from one foot to the other, as if we were sixth-graders at a school dance gamely braving their first “Stairway to Heaven.”
“I dig your parka,” I said, not because I really cared for it or about it, but because it seemed like a less pervy declaration than “I dig how your jeans are ever so slightly faded at the crotch.”
“It’s . . . uh . . . an ‘irregular’ from, uh . . . Marshalls,” Howie mumbled into my Evelyn Nesbit “Gibson Girl” hairdo. “But, you know, very warm . . .”
Pleeeease don’t let this feeling end; it’s everything I am, everything I want to be, I thought to myself, my lust not only off the charts but apparently cribbing lyrics from the “Theme from Ice Castles.”
“The irregularity does not diminish the, uh, warmth,” Howie continued.
“Like, at all.”
“I can feel . . .”
“It can actually get too hot sometimes.”
“I bet,” I said, sliding my arms inside his sleeves so that we were chest to chest.
“I HAVE A DISEASE,” Howie said, suddenly pulling back and holding me at arm’s length.
“You mean the Crohn’s?” I asked.
“And a girlfriend—”
“Well,” I said, “Crohn’s seems manageable, but I hear girlfriends can kill you . . .”
Howie laughed and then so did I, and then we stood there laughing until the laughter died down and we were suspended in that weird space of nothing to say and everything to say, just sorta staring at each other. Finally, Howie came to enough to pierce the weirdness.
“Comedy,” he said, shaking his rolled-up program at me. “That’s your thing. Trust me.”
“Trust me,” he had said then.
“Trust me,” he is saying now, “you are perfect to play this girl in my play.”
I had vowed, after my experience with The Maids, to never again participate in a student production; I will stick with the mainstage productions directed by honest-to-god theater professionals, who, even if they can’t always tell me what it’s about, at least, I told myself, know what they are doing. But almost immediately after making this promise to myself, I will break it.
“I wrote a play. You gotta read it . . .,” Howie said to me.
And on a rainy afternoon over Christmas break, as I sit in a rental car in the parking lot of a Winn-Dixie supermarket in Key Largo, Florida, I begin to read the pages that by the time I finish I know signify the beginning of the rest of his life. I laugh, I cry, just like those tourists in those dumb commercials when they’re interviewed outside Broadway shows, because I know, I just know.
He has done it.
Howie has been writing plays for pretty much the whole time he’s been an acting student and he’s put on quite a few, and they were good. But this? This is different. This is on a whole ‘nother level. And suddenly, I can’t think of anything else but this play called Almost Romance. Howie’s play. Howie’s fucking beautiful, amazing, hysterically funny, heartbreaking play about a boy who loves a girl who doesn’t love him back even though he believes that, in her heart of hearts, she really does. The play takes the audience—occasionally addressing them directly—through the relationship the girl maintains is strictly one of “just friends,” and concludes with the boy seeing that, in the end, the girl was right. Or at least accepting that this is the true way she felt. “Maybe she wasn’t the girl of my dreams,” the boy tells the audience in the denouement, “she was the girl in my dreams, a girl I dreamed about . . .”
I need to do this play.
I need to do this part.
I’m not quite sure, at this point, how to play a contemporary young woman, someone not unlike myself, conflicted about love and relationships and how best to navigate them while at the same time being a paragon of feminism. It would be, in many ways, my scariest, most challenging role yet: What would I do without the facade of the fat suit, without the cloak of the cartoon character, without the smoke-screened self?
But for now, if the thought of playing Howie’s heroine terrifies me, the actual process of playing her will thrill me: For almost the entire spring semester, from late January when the official casting is announced until late April, I will be spending pretty much every single day with the person I have spent over two years wanting to spend every single day with.
“I hope you’re OK with making out with Howard Morris,” Howie had said to me when he first handed me the script. “Cuz he’ll be the guy playing opposite you.”
I am more than OK with this. (I am decidedly less OK about having to also make out with the other actor in our cast, an arrogant, misogynistic jackass who will one day become very famous for, among other things, being an arrogant, misogynistic jackass.)
Now, some chicks might care that their first kiss with a guy about whom they’re cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs takes place not after dinner and a movie but instead under imaginary circumstances in front of several note-taking onlookers, but I am not that chick! I am the chick who, when she gets to deliver her first lines—“I want you. I want you more than I’ve ever wanted anything. Kiss me. Kiss me passionately.”—DOESN’T HAVE TO DO ANY ACTING AT ALL! And I have to believe Howie feels the same way, because from our very first rehearsal, from the second our stage manager, Sue “Q” Hoffmann, reads the opening stage direction, “He goes to her and gives her the most passionate kiss ever to take place between a man and a woman,” it’s more sexually charged than Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster devouring each other amid the Hawaiian surf in From Here to Eternity!
Yeah sure, we’re “actors” and this is a “play” and it’s all “make-believe,” but make-believe, shmake-believe, the fire between us is real, and I know it; Howie knows it; our director, Dave, knows it; and Sue “Q” not only knows it, she gleefully points it out whenever she can.
“Howie’s got a boner! Howie’s got a boner! Howie’s got a boner!” she sing-songs every time we “work this beat.”
Once the first rehearsal kiss has occurred, a dam has been broken, paving the way for a flood of make-out sessions outside the confines of our rehearsals on the 15th floor of the Brittany Penthouse and inside Howie’s dorm room on the ninth. Coiled limbs, swollen loins pressed into thighs, the world is a carousel, an entire amusement park full of music and spinning lights and funnel cakes and pleasure. We never even come close to doing the nasty, but still we manage to do with each other what Pablo Neruda says spring does with the cherry trees. Lest anyone wonder how it is that Howie can justify making out in his room with someone who is not his girlfriend, these sessions are, as he puts it, “legal time”; their purpose is not in the slightest for our enjoyment, you understand. They are strictly about “the audience.”
“We need to make it believable for them,” Howie tells me as we roll across his twin bed, panting, crazed with desire. “We can’t let them feel any sense of awkwardness between us . . .”
“No . . .”
“It’s about verisimilitude—”
“Yes . . .”
“And what it means to be an artist—”
“Totally . . .”
“We owe it to them—”
“Oh my god, YES . . .”
If it strikes me that “legal time” is a meaningless phrase devised by a dude with a girlfriend who wants to have his cake and fuck it too, it certainly doesn’t stop me. Why would it? The on-again, off-again thing I have with the “Young Republican” film major who’s good-in-bed-but-treats-me-like-shit is yet again in off-again mode, and the guilt I feel toward Howie’s Canadian RA is assuaged by my inherent belief that, relationship-wise, college, or more specifically “art school,” is a wild and wooly four-year free-for-all, governed by an imprecise and ephemeral code of ethics with more partner swapping than a square dance. Maybe in the sanctity of the suburban homes our teachers implore us to never visit again, lest our progress with them be ruined, we’d be scandalized by the mere thought of something as skanky and unsavory as head lice, but here at NYU, when an entire cast of Hamlet gives each other crabs, no one bats a fucking eye. All bets (and most tops) are off and being “cool” about “whatever” is where it’s at, at least until the day comes when someone’s “cool” begins to evaporate and in its place arrives a mass of complicated feelings. That day will come for me, but not yet. Because before we get to the dalliance Howie and I enact in order to delight our hormones is the one we enact in order to delight our audiences. And delight them we do: For the five shows we perform over the course of our three-day run, it is standing room only, with explosive laughter and deafening applause. Almost Romance is a smash beyond anything we could have hoped; everyone who comes to see us loves it, including a director friend of mine who is so smitten, she decides she’d like to remount it as part of a one-act comedy festival at a renowned off-Broadway theater company. Off-Broadway?! This would mean my first professional job and I’m only a junior!
“You’ll have to read for it,” my director-friend tells me, “but it’s just a formality for the producer,” she coos. There will come a time when I will replay this moment in my mind, searching every frame as if it’s the Zapruder film, for any clue of equivocation or foreboding, but now I only feel as if what we have built together, Howie and I, has taken on a life of its own. All we need to do is sit back and enjoy the ride.
If only I had remembered to wear a seat belt.
Excerpted from Almost Romance by Nancy Balbirer. © 2022 Published by Little A Books, February 1, 2022. All Rights Reserved.
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