Archive for April, 2020

Sophie and Jack

Friday, April 24th, 2020—Film

© 2020 Amanda Sage

[Author’s Note: I finished writing Sophie and Jack on January 24, 2020—exactly two months before the beloved playwright Terrence McNally passed away, on March 24, from COVID-19 complications. Because my story pivots around Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, one of McNally’s best-known plays, I had hoped he might read it one day. Since he can’t, it’s my honour to share it in tribute to him. If you like Sophie and Jack, please consider donating to Broadway Cares or the Actors’ Fund of Canada, in support of theatre workers impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. I dedicate this story to the great Terrence McNally, who inspired so many; to magnificent New York City, which is hurting so badly right now; and to Canada and the world. May we all heal together.]

Those early days in New York City, Sophie was lonely. That might have been why it started.

She kept busy at the acting school where she studied, and there were plenty of classmates eager to be her friend—she was petite and blond and pretty, and accustomed to that sort of attention. (It also helped that she spoke with the trace of a French-Canadian accent, courtesy of her francophone mother and Quebec education, which people found winsome.) Still, none of that filled the hollowness she felt each day, going from voice lessons to dialect classes to movement sessions. She missed her home in Sherbrooke, and much of what she’d left behind before these nine months of study had begun.

That included running. She was nursing an overtraining injury in her hip, which kept her from using her body for the sport she loved most. Fortunately, she was perfectly able to walk, even for hours at a time. And so, she explored. When she wasn’t at school or in her cramped room in the women’s residence, she took solace in the city. There, she was content—more than that: fully alive. The giant buildings aching up to reach clear light, the villages like something from a fable, the magnificence embedded in every neighbourhood. The golden Prometheus at Rockefeller Centre. All those parks with their wrought iron railings and wistful lampposts, their worn-wood or deep-green benches. To Sophie, even the pigeon shit gave them character: splattered marbles from a sepia painting, each abstract imprint a Rorschach test for the denizens. And the city’s musk, like hair gone unwashed too long. Blasts of heat from subway grates, endless throngs and busyness, the near-eternal trumpet of honking cars—these things, she would have disliked anywhere else. In Manhattan, she loved them.

Sophie didn’t know how it all fit on the island, in such tight quarters. It was as if New York existed in a perpetual state of mid-explosion, kinetic and potential energy bumping constantly against one another, absorbing so much air yet still leaving space for her to gasp in wonder.

When Jack showed up in Sophie’s core acting class, it was a few weeks into the fall term. He had ebony hair and the sort of eyes that looked like they’d been naturally adorned with liner and mascara. Even obscured under glasses, his thick lashes and amber orbs made an impression. She was immediately struck. That long, dark overcoat. The air of something heavy hanging over his shoulders—not in his posture; in his manner. The British accent, which made itself known when he introduced himself to Dan, the instructor, excusing himself for being late. (There had been a hold-up with his student Visa and he’d had to delay his departure.)

“Glad you finally made it,” Dan said. “Ladies and gentlemen, Jack joins us fresh from treading the boards in London, England.” He glanced sportingly at his newest pupil, whose reputation evidently preceded him. “Welcome. You’re in time for one of my favourite exercises. Everyone, grab a partner and a chair and let’s begin!”

The students spilled from the bleachers and scattered toward the folding chairs stacked behind black velvet curtains that bordered the room on three sides. Sophie held back, observing how her classmates moved. Some were quite natural, others self-conscious and exaggerated, as if they felt that their very walk would reveal whether or not they had acting talent.

“All around the room—spread out, make the space yours,” Dan said, fanning his arms to indicate the studio’s vastness. A tall, slim man, his movements were loose and large, as if he were maximally flexible and double-jointed everywhere.

Sophie wanted to avoid being thrust together with an uncommitted partner—she was serious about her craft and a career as an actor. She surveyed the room to see who was still available, and saw that Dan was striding in her general direction, steering Jack by the shoulders. She positioned herself in their path and made sure to catch Dan’s eye. “Ah!” he said. “Now, this could work.” He spread his arm wide as he made the introduction. “Sophie, Jack just finished a run of Splendor in the Grass.” He glanced at Jack. “Where did you say it played?”

“It’s not important,” Jack said, casting his eyes about the studio.

“Off-off-West End?” Dan said lightly.

“Something like that,” Jack said.

“This is Sophie, from Canada,” Dan said. “French Canada, isn’t it?”

“Sherbrooke, in Quebec,” Sophie said. “It’s near Montreal.”

“Sophie is a wonderful actor,” Dan said. “I think you two will make fine partners for this exercise.”

Jack stepped away from Dan. Especially in contrast to Dan’s easy gestures, he seemed rigid. But he softened somewhat once Dan moved onto the next set of students.

“Pleasure to meet you, Sophie,” Jack said. He stared hard, even as he smiled at her, and it brought an uneasy feeling to her stomach. He was much taller than she was.

“Likewise,” Sophie said.

“Your English is perfect. Is French your first language?”

“We grew up with both. My father mostly speaks English.”

“Too bad. French is so much more romantic. Would make a beautiful mother tongue.”

Sophie wasn’t sure why, but her cheeks began to flush.

“So—wonderful, huh?” Jack said. “Hope I can keep up.”

“Oh, I don’t know. I’m just starting out.”

“I’m teasing.” He nudged her arm, and the touch went straight to the centre of her. She caught herself lowering her eyes and forced herself not to; she wanted to be confident. She raised her chin and set back her shoulders. Then she took a breath and hoisted a chair from the stack.

“I’ve got that,” Jack said, taking her chair from her. He held it, along with his own chair, in one hand and carried them to a corner of the room. He and Sophie sat opposite one another.

“Alright!” Dan called out, clapping his hands together in a full-body movement that sent ripples through his straggly, shoulder-length hair. “The exercise is this: Think of someone close to you, someone you love and miss. It could be a person you lost, someone you left behind to come here—whatever hits home for you. Fixate on that person. Recall how they make you feel.” He walked the room as he spoke, weaving around the pairs in their chairs. “And with that in mind, I want you to look deeply into your partner’s eyes and project everything you’re feeling onto them. Study their face and imagine you’re looking at the person dear to you. See their eyes, their limbs, their shape morph into one you’ve looked at countless times. And… begin.”

Sophie picked her sister, Charlotte. Charlotte was much younger and had a way of softening Sophie’s already tender heart to the point that she would do almost anything for her. Memories of their years and hours together—with Sophie doting on her, first as a child and gradually as a friend—flowed through her and out of her, emerging as tears that ran down her smiling cheeks.

As she faced Jack, she wondered for the briefest moment whom he had chosen for the exercise. He looked on her so fiercely, with such intent, that it was hard to believe he was thinking of someone platonic. But she quickly chastised herself for not being present, and pulled herself back to where she needed to be.

The longer they stared at one another, each face a canvas for the other’s emotions, the stronger the association grew, until an invisible connection bound the two, like threads stitching together the space between them. After going through the meditation for what felt like 15 minutes, Dan told the class to rise and greet their partners. Sophie flew at Jack, her head to his chest, arms around his waist. He cradled her and nuzzled her head. Then she looked up, still embracing him, and he took her face in his hands and gazed down at her, and it seemed to her that he poured all his love into the empty spaces within her.

There wasn’t much to consider after that. He asked her to be his scene partner for the class, and she eagerly agreed. He chose a scene from Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune by Terrence McNally—“A classic,” Jack said. Sophie hadn’t read the play. But she was willing to defer to his judgment. At 25, he was a professional actor, with significant experience onstage and in television. Sophie, 18, had come to New York straight out of high school, the only place she’d ever acted.

Still, she was keen to see for herself what the play was all about. She headed promptly to the cramped, fourth-floor theatre bookstore near Times Square that was crammed to overflowing with tragedy and farce, and found the play amid the glut of publications, stacked haphazardly on bookcases and the floor. There, camped out under one of the store’s narrow windows, the glossy paint on its ledge chipping off, she tucked her legs beneath her to keep out of the way as other avid actors and dramatists stalked the shelves, and she read Frankie and Johnny in one go.

Sophie was mesmerized by the play—its intensity, the raw ferociousness of the characters’ passion, the ping pong of emotion. The underlying hunger driving Frankie and Johnny to salvage love, even as they feared it.

As soon as she finished reading, she stumbled onto her pins-and-needles feet, paid for the script and dashed out of the crowded shop. She was already grasping at her phone and dialing Jack’s number as she rode the rickety cage elevator down to ground level. “I love it,” she said as soon as he answered, her breath quickened in excitement. “I think I’m meant to play her.”

He chuckled. “Let’s see how it goes in the read-through. But I’m sure you’ll make a perfect Frankie.”

The part they focused on was at the end of the play, when Johnny convinces Frankie that their liaison is more than a one-night-stand. There was plenty of drama to play off. The scene was fuelled by naked vulnerability that went beyond the question of whether a lasting relationship would be possible; near the end, Frankie reveals to Johnny that the reason she can’t have children is because of how badly her ex-boyfriend beat her.

Sophie and Jack rehearsed in parks, to a soundtrack of whirring skateboards, and skittering pigeons that arrived in formation to the beat of so many wings flapping, a collective flag in the breeze. And always, to snippets of conversation in a babble of languages. Union Square Park; Washington Square Park; once, during a dreamy, sun-soaked afternoon, in Central Park among the gnarly Ramble trees.

It was sometime between Union Square and Central Park that they first slept together. Sophie was nervous; she’d only ever been with one person, her high school boyfriend. Jack hadn’t been with anyone since he’d left England a few weeks earlier—the last time he’d seen his live-in girlfriend, an economic consultant with an Oxford degree.

“I would never do anything to hurt her,” he had said. “But—oh God, Sophie, I can’t stop thinking about you.”

“Jack…” She tried to keep her feelings down.

“She doesn’t know me the way you do. She doesn’t understand our world.” He cupped the side of her face in his large palm, fingers caressing her jawline. “I could never have left you behind for nine months.”

She fell into him then, her lips melding with his. As they lay together, his ivory skin against her olive-toned limbs, she tried not to think about his other life. Instead, she gave herself over to the moments when they lived for their characters, when Frankie and Johnny overtook them and they stepped into someone else’s story. Between the lines, she breathed in those sun-dappled pauses on park benches, when they appeared to passersby as any other beautiful young couple in love.

There they stand in Gramercy Park, she upright on a bench, he on the ground. She leaning onto his shoulder, stroking his cheek with one hand, shining her gaze down on him. He with his eyes closed in ecstasy. A sprinkler goes off beside them and sends a light mist shivering in their direction, droplets catching the late-afternoon light. Sophie and Jack are aglow.

Or in lower town, on a lawn near the ferry to Staten Island. Him lying in the grass with his head on her lap as she smooths his raven hair, dusk kissing them with the last strokes of sunset, a trailing paintbrush of pink and purple, orange and blue. The only two people in the world.

Around the play’s dramatic dialogue, Jack spoke of how he wanted to one day have children with Sophie. He whispered in her ear as he nudged one bra strap down her shoulder, then the other, “You’re wonderful—the perfect woman.” He traced a finger along her spine before spinning her around to face him and dusting her modest cleavage with kisses. Then, peering intently into her eyes, “I can see my whole life with you.”

The more glowing words he offered, the more she began to feel pressure to tell him what had happened with her high school boyfriend. It was particularly hard to forget about when she was immersing herself in her character—Frankie, with her scars, no longer able to have a baby, afraid of not being who Johnny wanted. But Sophie was reluctant to risk the way Jack looked at her: as angelic, almost; pure.

Eventually, she gave in to the guilt. Because, she reasoned, he told her everything, and she wanted to give him all of her in return.

“We were 16,” she said. “We’d only been together a few times… Jack, we didn’t know what to do. We couldn’t raise a baby!”

“Was it his idea?”

She shook her head. “No.” Tears welled in her eyes. “He let me decide. He was very sweet. But after… I couldn’t sleep for weeks.”

Jack took a tense breath. They were lying in bed and she felt him drawing away. Panic rose up in her but she tried to quell it. She leaned into him and reached her hand over his chest. He clamped his hand on hers—to hold it or to stop it, she didn’t quite know.

“What happened after that?” he asked. “With the boyfriend?”

“I didn’t see him again. It was too hard.”

She felt him relax, and he squeezed her hand—the one resting against him.

“Jack, it was awful. I could never do it again.”

He held her and soothed her, and told her it was all over. Then he kissed her belly and said he wished he could swallow all the fear and hurt she’d ever felt. Sophie let the words be true; she needed them to be.

“What are you? My guardian angel?” she said, borrowing from the play.

“A dark angel.”

He squeezed her tight.

The weekend before they were to present their scene to the acting class, Jack’s girlfriend, Emily, unexpectedly came to visit. Sophie might have asked him to break things off with Emily then, if he hadn’t already explained what a difficult time she was having at home—an ailing relative, to begin with, not to mention a highly stressful final quarter at work. Sophie said she understood; of course. After all, she told herself, she was the usurper. But she was wrecked.

Emily seemed to have brought the weather with her from London; it rained the entire weekend. Sophie wandered briefly through Greenwich Village on Saturday morning, trying to avoid the bigger crowds in Chinatown or midtown. By then, she was quite at home navigating the hordes that littered every sidewalk, so many bustling ants, herself a speck among them. But umbrellas in New York is an experience to be avoided. For most of the weekend, she was forced inside.

At least the deluge made it easier to avoid Jack and their mutual friends, all of whom knew about Sophie and Jack—nearly everyone at school did. On Saturday night, though, when the rain held back a bit, she went for a walk through the darkened streets near her residence. As she trudged along, unable to gauge how deep the puddles were and where the potholes lay, she found herself outside the Thai restaurant where she knew the group was dining. She couldn’t stop herself from walking in and looking on. There they were in a booth: several of their classmates, from all over the world, and Jack and Emily at the centre of it all, his arm slung over her shoulders the way it should only rest against Sophie’s. Emily was attractive, but Sophie had been prepared for that; at Sophie’s insistence, Jack had shown her a picture. Still, seeing her in person was another thing entirely. Rich, lustrous hair; bangs and a cascading mane down her back. Bright, almond eyes. Full lips that Sophie made the mistake of picturing pressed against Jack—his mouth, his body, his eyelids closed in sleep. And Jack himself—he looked so happy. She swallowed hard to choke down a sob. Their friends were smiling, playing along with the scene of Jack and Emily as the happy couple. What else could she expect? They were all actors.

Jack spotted her. She froze before she thawed, and when she did, she ran out and slumped onto the wet curb, soaking her pants while her sneakers stewed in gutter water. He came to her a few minutes later—far longer than she had hoped. He approached her from behind and squatted at her back, shielding her in his arms. “I’m sorry. So, so sorry.” He kissed her head and she leaned into him. “My Sophie.” Tears forged their way down her cheeks, leaving cold trails behind them in the late-autumn night. He wouldn’t notice, she thought; he would probably mistake them for rain.

“Jack…”

“Yes, love?”

She pressed her heel into the ground, flexing her foot before letting it splash back into the pooling water. She watched as the tip of her shoe submerged again. A fresh dose of chill ran through her.

“Did you choose Emily?” she asked. “For that first exercise in Dan’s class? Is that who you were thinking of?”

“What?”

“For the exercise.”

“Of course not! No.”

“Then who—”

“No one! A friend. A close friend who moved away.”

He pulled back a bit before pressing his lips against her hair—one final kiss in the foggy evening. “Soph, I wish I could stay with you,” he said. “But you know I have to go back in.” He tightened his arms around her. “It’s just one more day. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Then he rose and returned to the restaurant.

On Sunday, once Emily had left, Jack came straight to see Sophie. He took her back to his cheap sublet—men weren’t allowed in Sophie’s residence—and they had sex twice. They’d intended to rehearse their scene one last time, but he couldn’t bear to stop touching her. “I need you, my Sophie,” he said. “Oh God, I missed you.” He told her over and over that he loved her, and she did her best to believe him. It was important to be in the moment.

On Monday, they walked together to class, hand in hand. They sat in the back row, at the top of the bleachers, and waited for Dan to announce their turn onstage. Sophie looked down at the flat-black studio floor strewn with masking tape Xs indicating marks: makeshift bandages, evidence of wounds from other scenes.

She and Jack had rehearsed well. They knew their characters intimately and had taken the time to prepare. Which made it terribly surprising to her when Jack couldn’t remember his lines. Not a single one. The words seemed to have flown off—back to London, maybe.

He sat on a chair, centre stage. Sophie stood behind, leaning over his shoulders, her chin resting against him. “What do you want from me?” she began, adopting the eastern Pennsylvanian accent she’d worked so hard to perfect for Frankie. At first, Jack said nothing. Then he tried stumbling through. She tried skipping ahead to feed him openings. (“I don’t think we’re looking for the same thing,” she offered.) None of it got them anywhere.

“Let’s try improvising,” Dan interjected. He rose from his perch on the front-row bleacher and gestured broadly with one arm, raising it toward the ceiling. “From the top.”

“I don’t remember any of the lines!” Jack barked.

“Forget the lines,” Dan said, pacing the room. “Play the scenario. Be the character.” His words reached the height of the room, all the way to the track lights that hovered over, witness to so much conflict. “Speak from what you know.”

Sophie took the lead. “What do you want?” she asked, still in Frankie’s accent. “What do you want?!”

“Nothing! Everything, I want everything.” Along with the lines, Jack appeared to have forgotten his American accent.

“You can’t have everything from nothing,” she said. “You have to give me something.”

“I told you I love you. What more do you want?”

“I want all of you. I want to stop being afraid of what will happen when… if—”

“What?! If what?”

You were the one who wanted this. Why do I have to lay it all out?”

Jack had thudded away from her, standing downstage right. Sophie walked purposefully toward him. For an instant, she was dimly aware of the class, of Dan, focusing every breath on the two of them. Then she let all of that go.

Standing so close behind Jack that she could feel his body heat, she spoke: “Was this only ever about sex for you?”

He swung around and knocked her aside, surprised to find her so close to him. “Fuck you, Sophie—Frankie!”

Sophie sharply drew in her breath. Then she regained her footing.

She crossed the studio floor in pursuit of Jack, who had stormed downstage left, closer to the exit. “I can’t believe you would lay a hand on me. After everything.”

“It was an accident.”

“How would I know that?” He didn’t say a word, so she fed him another line, attempting to steer their improvisation closer to course, if not quite where it should have been: “I thought you were weird, Johnny. I thought you were sad. I didn’t think you were cruel.”

Jack turned abruptly to face her. “Maybe you don’t know me. Maybe we never knew each other.” He was shaking, his shoulders tense, as if he were holding back a punch. “You want to know what this is? It sure as hell isn’t about building a future together.”

“Have you been lying to me all this time, then? All night? These last few weeks?”

“How could there be a future. You can’t have children. I bet you never even wanted that baby.”

“Don’t you talk about my baby!” The words erupted from deep in Sophie’s gut. “You aren’t fit to say the words.”

“You’re nuts.”

Sophie turned from Jack. She swept away tears with her fingers and rubbed her wrist under her moistened nose. She sniffed lightly before speaking. “That’s my line.”

“And—scene,” Dan said. “Okay.” Uncharacteristically, he stayed seated in the bleachers. He cleared his throat. “Well. Why don’t we save the discussion for next time.” A rush of relief seemed to blow through the audience. “Let’s break for today and revisit this on Wednesday. Thanks, everyone.”

The room billowed briefly as Dan and the other actors wordlessly filtered out, trying with varying levels of success not to gawk at Jack and Sophie as they passed them.

“What the hell was that?” he said, once they were alone.

“What was what?” She stood centre stage, while he remained downstage left.

“You had to keep throwing lines in my face? Were you trying to humiliate me?”

“That’s not—”

“It was an improv—you didn’t have to do the accent.”

He wasn’t looking right at her. His eyeline was slightly above or below where it should have been. Sophie would have blamed the bright stage lights, but they weren’t on—only the uniform overhead fluorescents.

“And what was with that baby crack?” Jack said. “I’m not fit to talk about that? I mean, what the fuck.”

“How could you say that to me? You know how I feel about it.”

“I was in character.”

“So was I!”

By that point, there was more than just an eyeline mismatch. Jack no longer faced Sophie. “You know,” he said, “if you got pregnant now… I hope you know what I’d expect.”

Sophie wheezed softly as the breath went out of her. At last, she said, “I guess it really is easier to tell the truth when you’re not looking at someone.”

“The line is: It’s funny how you can talk to people better sometimes when you’re not looking at them.”

Now you remember.”

Jack grabbed his overcoat and exited stage left. Sophie stayed still, in the middle of the studio floor. It felt dark and wide, yawning its jaws around her. She filled her chest with air to see if she remembered how. When her body responded, she tried moving one arm, lifting it to her abdomen. Then she took a step forward. Her joints seemed unsteady, but she found she was able to command them.

Slowly, she gathered her things and walked back to her room in the women’s residence.

Sophie didn’t call Jack. When she didn’t see him on Wednesday morning, she assumed he had transferred to another core acting class. But that afternoon, she overheard some of the students talking about how he had withdrawn from school and returned to London. Her heart did a freefall.

The next couple of days went numb for her. Somehow, though, they managed to unfold onto the weekend, and she clung to Saturday and Sunday for the chance to revisit some of the places she’d shared with Jack—until it occurred to her how she’d spent the previous weekend: mooning about the city, as much as the rain had allowed, thinking only of Jack, and of herself and Jack, and of Emily and Jack.

She left the park bench she’d been sitting on and went west, winding up by the Hudson River, where city meets water. There, she walked out to the shallow wrought iron fence and rested her forearms against the barrier.

Gazing out on the Hudson, Sophie thought back on Dan’s exercise from so many weeks ago. She shuddered under her jacket. Then she began to replay the assignment. But instead of conjuring feelings tied to one person or another, she focused on why she’d come to New York to begin with. And on what she had to embrace, and to let fall away, to become who she wanted.

Something inside her shifted. There was a loosening, a giving. And a reopening; space again for what should have been flowing through.

The wind was picking up. She pulled her hood closer around her face, planted her hands in her pockets, and headed back into the heart of the city.

For the remainder of the term, she made a point of choosing the plays for her scene studies. Many of them featured monologues. After that first session ended in December—and after going home for the holidays—she re-committed fiercely to her craft. She was an intuitive performer with keen instincts and a natural rhythm for dialogue. It didn’t take long for her to stand out among her peers—or for agents to start buzzing around her, tipped off by her instructors.

In the final months at school, she took on as wide a range of roles as possible, gleaning everything she could from her classes. The rest of the time, to clear her mind and seek new inspiration, she continued to get to know the city on foot.

By spring, her hip had healed enough for her to take up running again, and she spent many afternoons doing laps around the Reservoir. New York is an extraordinary place to spend April and May, particularly in Central Park, where pink blossoms lend a softer hue to the fields and pathways. After a bleak winter, the city was reborn in cherry and crab-apple. It brought a freshness to the air that did away with some of the dark and dirt, so that Sophie could draw clean breaths for the first time in awhile. It felt good to fill her lungs with what she needed to propel herself forward—to be strong again in her body.