Love & Sex

True Stories: I Fell For a Fictional Character in My Own Play

Pin it

The brown-eyed guy who played him was, however, quite real.

by Eva Holland

I should have seen it coming.

I've always been a sucker for John Updike's early stories. You know the ones: "Friends From Philadelphia," "In Football Season." English class standards. They're safe, clean, classroom-friendly. But at the same time, they nail the experience of youth: that lingering innocence, the intensity of emotion, those rippling longings, and the warp-speed transitions between them all. Updike's characters in those early years — usually earnest, well-intentioned boys in Rust Belt towns — have always been the sorts of boys I wish I'd met in high school.

Updike's characters have always been the sorts of boys I wish I'd met in high school.

So I suppose, when I had the chance to adapt my favorite of those old stories, "A&P," for the college fringe festival I was coordinating, I shouldn't have been so surprised to find myself falling for my main character.

"A&P" is the title piece in a 1962 collection. It's a simple story about a teenage cashier, Sammy, who works at the local supermarket. One quiet afternoon, three girls walk in, wearing nothing but bathing suits.

The bulk of the text is filled by Sammy's descriptions of the girls as they wander the aisles, their feet "paddling along naked over our rubber-tile floor." The girls — one in particular — seem damn-near-perfect to the young cashier, so when I decided to adapt the piece for the stage, I knew no real live actress was ever going to fit the bill. Instead, I had Sammy and Stokesie, the other cashier, stand alone on the stage, looking out at the audience and following the imaginary girls' progress with steady play-by-play commentary. I hardly had to provide any dialogue myself; it's all vintage Updike, basically a seven-minute monologue about Sammy's dream woman.

Casting the girls would have been impossible, but casting Sammy was bad enough. I wanted someone who was soft-spoken, gentle, innocent — but who could carry the eroticism of the moment as well. I needed someone who could express the keenness of adolescent lust, while still seeming pure. After an endless series of auditions with a string of talented guys, none of whom felt quite right, I finally thought of Adam.

Adam was not an actor. He was a freshman, the star of the rugby team, and I knew him only as a casual drinking acquaintance. But he had a gentleness to him, and a pair of enormous, soft brown eyes. I might have found him a little effeminate, for my taste, if I hadn't seen him coming off the rugby pitch covered in mud and blood more often than not. He came across as sensitive but masculine, boy-next-door with just a hint of trouble. Kind of a Mark Ruffalo type — tough but lovable. 

One afternoon I climbed several flights of stairs to his dorm room, script in hand, for an impromptu audition. And he nailed it. "There was one of them," he read from the early part of the story, "the tallest one, that I noticed first. She was the queen. She kind of led them, the other two peeking out from behind her and making their shoulders round." Adam read the lines with a half-smile, a bemused, wondering tone, and just the right amount of longing: "She didn't look around, not this queen, she just walked straight on slowly, on those long white prima donna legs." He drew out the vowels on "long" and "white," and twisted the word "legs" with satisfaction. I was sold.

Since the other two actors had just a handful of lines between them, we only rehearsed as a group every couple of days. Instead, most times, it was just Adam and me. We'd sit in his dorm room with the winter sun streaming in, facing each other on hard wooden chairs in that tiny space, and he'd read Updike's perfect phrases, over and over again, looking into my eyes the whole time.

"She had on a kind of dirty-pink — beige, maybe, I don't know — bathing suit with a little nubble all over it and, what got me, the straps were down," Sammy says of his queen.

"They were off her shoulders looped loose around the cool tops of her arms, and I guess as a result the suit had slipped a little on her, so all around the top of the cloth there was this shining rim. If it hadn't been there you wouldn't have known there could have been anything whiter than those shoulders."

Adam tasted each word, his big brown eyes wide with youthful wonder at the female body he was describing.

Adam tasted each word, his big brown eyes wide with youthful wonder at the female body he was describing. "With the straps pushed off, there was nothing between the top of the suit and the top of her head except just her, this clean bare plane of the top of her chest down from the shoulder bones like a dented sheet of metal tilted in the light. I mean, it was more than pretty."

When I wasn't holed up in Adam's room, letting Updike's words feel me up, I was running all over campus — hanging lights, building sets, corralling props and calling in favors, postering and re-postering, making announcements in morning lectures. I put my boyfriend, Mike, to work drawing cartoons on the festival posters and helping me with the program. I worked from eight a.m. to midnight every day, squeezing in lectures and the occasional assigned reading, and collapsed into bed every night, asleep almost before Mike had a chance to ask me how my day had gone.

A few days before opening night, I sat on Mike's bed while he wondered whether I had time for him anymore. I should have been listening — should have been arguing. Instead, the memory of a pair of big brown eyes came to me, and I tuned Mike out for a moment, thinking instead, "If it hadn't been there you wouldn't have known there could have been anything whiter than those shoulders…"

He didn't give me an ultimatum — he was just worrying out loud. I doubt it ever crossed his mind that the conversation might end in a break-up. But I hit the eject button anyway. "You're right," I said. "I've been so stressed out, maybe I don't have time right now. Maybe I need a break." I walked out of the house, left him still sitting there wondering how a solid year together had unraveled so suddenly. And I felt relieved. Sammy — or was it Adam? — was my only concern now.

On opening night, Adam hit every note perfectly. The audience could feel the girls in the room; they were hanging on every well-chosen word and longing glance as we swung into the final scene. The two boys watch the girls as they make their way up and down the aisles of the store, until finally Queenie approaches Sammy's cash register and puts down a can of herring snacks. This is the moment.

Adam — or is it Sammy? — says: "Now her hands are empty, not a ring or bracelet, bare as God made them, and I wonder where the money's coming from." I was leaning out of my seat in the front row by now, mouthing along with Adam up there under the spotlights. Sammy pauses, then gives us Queenie's next move: "Still with that prim look she lifts a folded dollar bill out of the hollow at the centre of her nubbled pink top! I uncrease the bill, tenderly as you may imagine, it having just come from between the two smoothest scoops of vanilla I had ever known there were, and…"

Enter the fusty old manager, who interrupts Sammy's moment and tells the girls he expects his customers to be decent in his store.

"This isn't the beach," the manager, Lengel, says, and the girls exit, Queenie leading the way, walking out of Sammy's life with the fantasy intact. Sammy quits then, and walks out of the store too. "Outside," Adam finishes as he stands in the door frame, savoring his subtle moment of triumph, "the sunshine is skating around on the asphalt."

By the time the festival's cast party got rolling after the last show, Updike's spell was already fading. With the spotlights switched off and the perfect words no longer rolling off his tongue, Adam was just Adam again — a guy I'd served drinks to, a guy I'd sat with on a rattling school bus en route to a rugby game. Sammy, like his Queenie, was a fantasy I'd created and affixed to the person in front of me, a person who was, really, almost a stranger. During most of the time I'd spent with him, he'd been playing a role, literally reading my own script back to me. No wonder I couldn't resist.

Late into the night we and the other cast members threw our arms around each other and staggered from room to room, toasting to John Updike, to Sammy and Stokesie, to the girls, to the uptight manager, to each other. The boys brought me a bouquet of makeshift flowers made from twisted newspaper, and we took a group photo. When I went home, I knew it was over.

I was able, over the course of some tearful phone calls and visits, to patch things up with Mike. I blamed it on stress, on a fear of commitment, on stage fright. But I never told him the real reason I had tried to end things between us. I never admitted that I had almost thrown our relationship away for a fictional character, a set of big brown eyes, a seven-minute monologue that I had cut and pasted myself — for what was, in the end, nothing but a damn-near-perfect string of words.

Want to fall for a non-fictional character? Check out Nerve Dating.