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Excerpt

We Play Ourselves

Jen Silverman

February 5, 2021 
The following is excerpted from Jen Silverman's debut novel, We Play Ourselves, about a young writer who flees to the West Coast, where she is drawn into the morally ambiguous orbit of a charismatic filmmaker and the teenage girls who are her next subjects. Silverman is the author of the story collection The Island Dwellers, which was longlisted for a PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for debut fiction. Her plays have been produced across the U.S. and internationally, and she also writes for television and film.

My first week in L.A. is long and strange—simultaneously a repeat of certain basic activities (wake up, make coffee, drink it on the patio, check email, shower in the light-filled downstairs bathroom) and a barrage of smells and shapes that I have no context for. Fruit trees so overburdened with fruit that the sidewalks are littered with it; big squashy-blossomed shrubs; armor-plated cacti; homeless encampments comprised of dust-encrusted outdoor tents, shopping carts piled high with garbage bags.

In New York it gets too cold to be outside all the time, you can’t build yourself a city of tents and shopping carts. In L.A., whole private lives are happening in public spaces: cooking, sleeping, laughing, talking, hanging out laundry, reading battered paperbacks. The homeless people ignore me and I try to ignore them, but part of me feels like they’re ignoring me because they’ve all heard about me, and they’re signaling to each other: Don’t look at her, failure like that is contagious.

Daniel isn’t around in the daytime. I learn from Dylan that he works a regular nine-to-five for a company doing something called “risk management.” I don’t know what risk management is, other than a tidy summation of everything I’m bad at. Dylan was an English major in college, which means that he works at a restaurant in Los Feliz. But the thing that Dylan really devotes himself to, with the determination that other people bring to their jobs, is lounging. He’s always in the sun on the patio with his shirt off, throwing his surfboard into the back of the van, returning from the beach with his wetsuit peeled down to his hip bones and his shaggy hair damp and salt crusted.

I gather that this—like the cigarettes—is a subject of contention between the two of them. It seems that there are a number of these, but I have entered at a time of tenuous détente, so I try not to ask questions that they will then have to try not to answer. This is a state of affairs with which I’m well acquainted.

On the afternoon of my third day, I call my agent. Before I left New York, Marisa had said, “Don’t call me again,” in the same conversation in which she’d used the phrase “appalling and unprofessional.” I think it was also the conversation in which she said something about me being lucky I wasn’t getting sued, and also something about this sort of bad-boy behavior not being cute anymore post–Sam Shepard. I don’t remember the conversation entirely, because I was drunk at the time—I hadn’t planned to be, I had only happened to be drinking heavily when Marisa decided to call me back. And now that it’s already sort of fuzzy, I try to maintain as much fuzziness as possible, because I can’t be responsible for knowing I don’t remember. Maybe in the light of day, in the light of L.A., we can have a new conversation. America loves a comeback story. Think of Britney. I know I’ve only been gone a few days, but who says how long you have to be gone before you’re ready to come back?

So I call Marisa. Her assistant picks up immediately: “Creative Content Associates, how may I help you?”

“Hey,” I say, trying to sound very casual. “Uh, is Marisa in?”

“Who’s calling, please?”

“It’s Cass.”

In New York it gets too cold to be outside all the time, you can’t build yourself a city of tents and shopping carts.

And: a beat, wherein the assistant tries to figure out what to do. Here is what you need to know about this assistant: Jocelyn / twenty-two / ironic polka dots / parents on the UWS / scarlet lipstick / first job out of Barnard.

After a moment, Jocelyn says, her tone slightly cooler: “One moment, please, let me see if I have her.” This means: She’s here, but which will she kill me for: hanging up on you, or transferring you over?

Silence, and then Jocelyn returns. “I’m so sorry, I don’t have her at the moment. Can we return?”

“Yeah, please . . . uh, return.”

“Okay, thank you so much for calling.”

Jocelyn is about to hang up when I hear myself blurt: “I moved to L.A., will you let her know that I moved to L.A.?”

Jocelyn draws breath, but before she can answer, I amend my request: “Actually don’t say I moved, just tell her I’m in L.A.”

“Okay,” Jocelyn says. “Well, thank you—”

“—and tell her I don’t remember what she—on the phone, what she said? What we said? So if she thinks I remember all of it, maybe tell her that actually isn’t the case, so I’d love to sort of . . . reconnect and reexamine . . . Hello?”

Click. Jocelyn and her scarlet lipstick have hung up.

*

The Lansing Award was what put me on the radar. And it went like this. Pre-Lansing, I was nobody. I grew up in small-town New Hampshire, went to a college that was affordable instead of fancy, and moved to New York, where I was immediately broke as balls. I paid my bills by grant writing, dog walking, and cater-waitering, in various combinations. I made weird downtown plays and got my friends to put them up in black-box theatres, basements, or found spaces. I had an unshakable conviction that someday I would hit the “tipping point” (this was something a psychic on West Fourth once told me), after which my career would take off. Everything up to the tipping point would be the story I could tell once things had worked out. My unshakable conviction could be seen as either ambition or delusion, depending who you were (the psychic referred to it as a calling), but either way, it made it easier to work three jobs and self-produce experimental plays.

And then one day, in my tenth year of this New York life, a man called and told me I’d won fifty thousand dollars and I had to show up to the Harvard Club for a ceremony, after which I could collect it.

At first I thought this was a scam, but the man kept going. He told me that it was an inaugural award for emerging playwrights. Two others had also won, and he named them, so I googled them. Tara-Jean Slater was finishing her last year of undergrad at Yale, and she seemed to have already won most of the awards that Yale itself had to offer. In the pictures, she looked very young and blank, and pretty in a prepubescent way. Carter Maxwell was straight out of grad school at Juilliard (he’d done his undergrad at Yale), and his mother was an accomplished interior designer on the Upper East Side. He had recently attended his sister’s wedding in Hyannis Port, and he looked dashing in a suit—both in the wedding pictures and in a recent New York Times profile that called him “possibly the next Arthur Miller.”

The Lansing Award was what put me on the radar. And it went like this. Pre-Lansing, I was nobody.

I called my roommate at work and asked if I could borrow his suit.

Nico was taller than me, but equally skinny. We’d lived together for the last four years, and neither of us were ever home, which made our situation work well. Nico was a choreographer. His dad was from El Salvador, his mom was a New York Jew, and both were musicians. Although they’d divorced while he was young, they still lived down the street from each other in Berkeley, and regularly reconvened for family Thanksgiving. Nico was well-adjusted in a way that defied belief; he did his laundry weekly, he saved money, he paid his taxes on time, and he was always lending me clothes.

The day of the ceremony, I borrowed Nico’s blue suit jacket and I put it over skinny black jeans and black Chucks, and I took the subway from 168th Street down to Forty-fourth, then walked east toward Fifth Avenue. I walked around the block three or four times before I got up the courage to go in. After the final lap, I took a deep breath, held it until I felt a little high, and then marched over to the entrance. A woman with a clipboard got my name: “Oh! You’re one of the honorees! There’s a table over there, please get your name tag and then, if you wouldn’t mind, there’s a step-and-repeat by the—”

I didn’t make it to either the name tag table or the step-and-repeat. There were crowds. There were cocktails. Open bar. Small glasses of wine circulating on trays. I’d fallen into a blur of dark wood and elegant fabric and chardonnay. I realized that nobody was wearing what I was wearing. I realized that everyone had a plus-one, and I should have brought Nico as well as his suit. I caught a glimpse of Carter Maxwell, who had a girl in a silk dress on his arm. Carter was shaking hands with a series of older men, also in suits, and saying things like “Such a pleasure” and “You know, that’s a good question” and “Well, thank you sir, I appreciate that” and “Very recently, but it’s nice to be out of school.” He held his drink effortlessly, and when the time came to put the empty glasses on a tray and receive another drink, he did that effortlessly as well. I was having trouble just standing in the room. It seemed that either everybody was staring at me or I was completely invisible. I had wanted this forever, to be in a room like this, and now that I was here, I felt light-headed and nauseous.

Eventually I stumbled down a series of hallways and a woman pointed me to the ladies’ room, where I hid in a stall and texted Nico.

I said: This is awful, I’m gonna puke.

Nico said: Get that monayyy. Nico in person is innate elegance, but Nico over text is a whole different story.

I said: Nobody is talking to me
I think maybe I’m dead and/ or dreaming this
I dunno how to get the food off the trays
like, with your fingers? or like
also nobody is wearing jeans
Carter’s girlfriend looks expensive
Can I go home early do you think?

Nico said: This is your TIME to SHINE.

I said: I’m gonna puke on your suit.

Nico said: Get my money get my cash get my math everything’s funny til that ass gettin trashed—which I stared at for a few minutes, trying to decipher, until I realized it was Nicki Minaj lyrics.

I exited the bathroom stall, flagged down a caterer, and drank two glasses of wine in the span of ten minutes, and a relaxed curiosity unspooled itself inside me. I bobbed along, now just a pair of eyes. If people glanced at me, I looked back, friendly but noncommittal. Carter was near the bar now. He was laughing as a middle-aged man slapped him jocularly on the back—I couldn’t hear them, but I could tell that he was deflecting a compliment with expertise. His girlfriend had clearly gotten tired of this; her mouth was fixed in a smile, but her eyes had traveled over their heads, across the crowd, out and away. Her heels were hurting and the room was hot, and Carter was no longer introducing her to people, because they were happening to him so fast he didn’t even know their names. He didn’t seem overwhelmed or nervous, though. Maybe he’d always expected to be in a situation where he was being rewarded for his promise, and so he was prepared. I had imagined a Big Break for so long but hadn’t known that it would have the power to undo me when it arrived.

I didn’t make it to either the name tag table or the step-and-repeat. There were crowds. There were cocktails. Open bar. Small glasses of wine circulating on trays.

I drifted over to the bar. Carter glanced up, took me in.

“You must be Cass,” he said.

I glanced down at the front of Nico’s jacket, found it blank, and then remembered I’d never visited the name tag table. “How’d you know?”

“You look like a Cass,” Carter deadpanned, and then he grinned. “I googled you.”

“You did?”

“Yeah, I’d never heard of you.” He said it like it could be either an insult or a compliment.

“I’d never heard of you either,” I said.

Carter grinned again. “Congrats are in order for all of us,” he said. “We’re emerging.” He lifted his glass, then saw I didn’t have one. The bartender was at the other end of the bar, a situation that had baffled me—does one wave a hand in an establishment like this? Do you shout louder than the ambient noise?—but Carter reached out languidly and snagged a glass of white wine off a passing tray that I hadn’t even clocked. He sniffed it, shrugged, handed it to me. “Bad pinot, I think? Cheers.”

We toasted, we drank. I studied Carter over my wineglass. The room had gotten overfilled, and you had to lean in and yell to be heard. He was scanning the crowd with mild interest, but he included me in it—“Oh, Playbill is here.” And then a moment later, “Oh, Tony Kushner is here.” And then: “Oh, Marsha Norman is here.” I risked a glance at the room, but it threatened to become a blurred mass again, so I focused on my glass.

“Have you met Tara-Jean Slater yet?” Carter asked.

“No,” I said.

“Me neither, but I’m looking forward to it. I keep hearing about her.”

“You do?”

“Yeah, she’s like—a big deal in New Haven.” Carter laughed. “The Yale network, you know.”

I didn’t know. Instead, I asked: “How does this kind of thing go?”

Carter glanced at me. “You mean like big picture? You should talk to your agent about that.”

“No, I mean, like—right now. Like, what’s gonna happen?”

Carter shrugged. “There’ll be a bunch of speeches, then we go up and say some words, and they give us a check.” He turned to scout out the far corner for more people of note, then turned back to me: “You’ve done this before, it’s like all of them.”

“I haven’t,” I said. “Actually.”

We toasted, we drank. I studied Carter over my wineglass. The room had gotten overfilled, and you had to lean in and yell to be heard.

“Done this before?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh.” Carter seemed surprised. “I just figured . . . you know, people usually win things because

they won other things.”

“I’ve never won anything in my life,” I said.

“Oh.” Carter gave me his attention in a real way now. “Who’s your agent?”

“I don’t have one.”

Now Carter was really staring. “Like, you’re between agencies?”

“I never got one.” I shrugged. “I’ve been—you know, doing stuff downtown.”

Carter opened his mouth, but then his girlfriend appeared, smelling floral, and I let the crowd swallow me back up. I wasn’t sure whether I felt ashamed for not having and knowing the things Carter seemed to have and know, or whether I felt floaty and warm and like I didn’t give a fuck. The fourth glass of wine was nudging me much closer to floaty and warm, and I was contemplating a fifth when the crowd started moving en masse toward the hall and into a different room, as if they’d all heard a whistle that I couldn’t hear.

The ceremony itself was what Carter had predicted. I don’t remember much of it, because floaty and warm turned into definitively drunk. I didn’t absorb what was said about us in the speeches either, but later I looked it up. Carter had won because of his raw and authentic dissection of male-female relationships and his insights into how masculinity functions within shifting power dynamics. I was selected as a promising female voice, a young woman telling comedic and timely stories about young women. And Tara-Jean Slater . . .

I’m not ready to talk about Tara-Jean Slater.

We were called to the front one by one. Carter talked for a while. I remember watching his girlfriend unobtrusively check her phone a few times, before he walked offstage to thunderous applause. When he reached his seat beside her, she was beaming at him as if she’d been hanging on every word.

My memory of seeing Tara-Jean Slater for the first time is blurry. She was wearing velvet overalls and yellow shoes, and her hair was in two tight pigtails the color of rust. She had a very tiny, very clear voice, like a thimbleful of water. Sometimes I wish I could remember what she’d said, but I was drunk, and I didn’t know she mattered.

The ceremony itself was what Carter had predicted. I don’t remember much of it, because floaty and warm turned into definitively drunk.

Someone told me later that when my name was called, I walked to the front of the room, blinked at them all owlishly, said, “Thank you,” and then walked back to my seat, completely forgetting to collect the check. One of the facilitators had to chase me down the aisle and hand it to me. I don’t remember this, but I do remember that I passed Carter after the ceremony ended, and he gave me a thumbs-up and said, “Short and sweet.”

I went home and fell into bed. Woke up hungover and couldn’t remember why for a few minutes, until I found Nico’s suit jacket on my floor with a check for fifty thousand dollars in the pocket. I went to the bank, deposited it, paid my rent, and then after brief thought, paid the next month in advance. Brought Nico’s jacket to the cleaners, met him for burritos to soak up the remaining toxins. By the time I’d made it back to our apartment, my hangover was fading and the Lansing Award ceremony seemed like it had happened years ago.

The next day there were pictures of me on Playbill and on TheaterMania and in the Times. I googled myself and there I was: fragmented into frame after frame, intoxicatingly real, rendered tangible by public success. In all the photos, I looked startled, like an animal on the highway at night; Nico’s jacket was big on me, and the powder blue stood out oddly against everyone else’s sleek grays and elegant blacks. I’d never won anything like that before. I hadn’t even won spelling bees in middle school. I had assumed that someday I might win something and it would be nice, but this sensation was to “nice” as “amphetamine-fueled bender” is to “party.” I started to read all the good things being said about me online, and I felt that they must be true, and I was dazzled by how talented I had been this whole time. Despite the many years of uncertainty, despite all the dog walking and downtown-low-budget-play making, I had actually been the insightfully comedic voice of my generation. I read about myself for hours, long into the afternoon, and when I thought to check my phone, I saw that Dylan had texted me Whoa fancy, and my mother had texted me What is a Lansing Award? and Nico had texted me, from the next room, Nice suit jacket where’d you get it, and the next day Marisa called me, asking me to meet with her, and then the day after that I had an agent and a reputation and a career.

__________________________________

Excerpted from We Play Ourselves by Jen Silverman. Excerpted with the permission of Random House. Copyright © 2021 by Jen Silverman.




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