Amanda Filipacchi

Vapor

For their advice and encouragement, I am very grateful to Sondra Peterson, Melanie Jackson, Martine Bellen, Randy Dwenger, And Rasmussen, and Giulia Melucci.

I would also like to thank Yaddo, where part of this book was written.

For my parents, Sondra and Daniel and in memory of my teacher and friend Ed Levy

Chapter One

For months I had been trying to be less myself. This effort extended to every aspect of my life, including my personal tastes and opinions. I wanted to be pliable like warm wax. I began to admire vague people, even weak and spineless ones, and ones who could be easily influenced, or better yet, who had not much of an opinion to start with, on anything.

My acting professor, Aaron Smith, had repeated to me many times that my problem with acting was that my personality was too strong, and that therefore I was unable to adopt a different one, or even a variety of emotions.

I took his words seriously. I believe the reason I followed Aaron Smith’s advice with so much tenacity was partly out of stubbornness. He had provoked me, in a sense, and it was a challenge I was determined to meet, even though I had almost lost sight of the original and ultimate goal: it just so happened the only thing I cared about in life was becoming a great actress. Let me say right off that it was not necessarily for the fame and the glamour, but for more noble and worthwhile reasons that had to do with art and a fascination with, and love of, human behavior.

Today, like every month, I was having a meeting with this same professor in his office in school. But this time he was crushing me to bits. I listened to him, shocked.

“Anna,” he was saying, “I advise you to switch career goals, and I’ll be very blunt as to why. You’re twenty-seven years old, you have a cute face, but it’s by no means ravishing, and let’s just say that the rest of your body does not make up for it. You could not be a leading lady.”

I needed a cigarette, but the large No Smoking sign behind his desk stopped me from reaching into my bag for one.

Aaron then reiterated his usual criticism of me: I was myself too much. Or: I was too much myself. Same thing, but he always varied the wording a little, as if it would help me understand his concept better and I would do something about it.

As he continued talking, he got harsher and blunter. He went to the extreme this time. No ambiguity. It was a nightmare. He then made a strange request that was so unexpected and stupid, yet so humiliating despite its stupidity, that I tried to forget about it as soon as I left his office.

Chiara Mastroianni was standing outside the door, waiting to see him. I briefly said hi to her and hurried off. This particular student was a very good actor, which might have been partly due to the fact that she happened to be the daughter of Catherine Deneuve and Marcello Mastroianni, and therefore had acting in her genes. And it probably also helped to have been raised in that kind of actor’s atmosphere.

I was not fortunate that way. My parents were fencers. My mother was a champion fencer and gave lessons. My father fenced well too, but he wasn’t a champion, he was the super of an apartment building. My brother and I had been subjected to fencing since we were born, so we had no choice but to end up quite good at it. To my annoyance, communication in our family was achieved principally through this medium. We fenced to express anger, to play pranks, to tease, to irritate, to persuade, and even, in the most convoluted way, to express inexpressible love. (In addition, it was pretty obvious my parents had their own, private uses for fencing, not shared by the rest of the family: seduction and foreplay.) But I don’t think it could be said, by any stretch of the imagination, that fencing was helpful to my acting. Except, I could play Zorro.

I walked in the street feeling annihilated and powerless. I bought myself a pair of sunglasses from a street vendor, to hide my crying.

Chiara was probably enjoying a splendid conference with Aaron Smith at this very moment. As for me, I never imagined conferences could get as bad as mine had.

Evidently my efforts at erasing my personality hadn’t been successful. I hadn’t tried hard enough. But how was that possible? I recalled numerous attempts at selferasement, many of which occurred at my job at the Xerox shop, and also in my uncle’s jewelry store, where I pierced ears part-time to help him out. My natural tendency was to have a rather bad temper when I was even just slightly provoked, and in my six years of ear piercing, I had endured many dramas, many scenes, many fights. Ear piercing is a field rich in possible conflicts; there are an infinite number of potential causes for problems, and I had experienced a large number of them, ranging from clients hesitating, asking infinite questions, fainting, wanting to do it themselves, to the ear stapler breaking, puncturing the ear at the wrong place, holes being not even, holes getting infected, clients hitting you when you pierce them.

But in the last few months I had restrained my temper remarkably, including the time when a rude and pretentious young woman entered the store and hit me, before I even pierced her, simply because she felt the cold of the stapler on her ear. I did not hit her back. All I did was pretend the stapler slipped, and I pierced her high up on the ear, far, far from the dot.

And that was just one of many little efforts, in everyday life, at being as bland as possible. I also made these efforts with my family. For instance, it was ages since I had reprimanded my parents for fencing in the lobby of the building they lived in and of which my father was supposed to be the superintendent, or gotten mad at him (he’s a hemophiliac) for not wearing his protective gear, or screamed at either of them for saying “En garde!” and drawing their swords every time I attempted to have a meaningful exchange with them.

It was clear that I had tried hard. Yet, I blamed myself, suspected that part of me had been too proud or stubborn to become warm wax. I had a sudden desire to punish that side of me, teach it a lesson, bring it to its knees, subject it to humiliation so that it would be stripped of its pride and stubbornness, and would obey my desire that it should fade.

All at once, I knew how to accomplish this; I knew how I would discipline and break myself like one broke a wild horse. I went to a costume store and rented the largest, most cumbersome and embarrassing costume they had. It was the Good Fairy Queen Costume. It consisted of a long crinoline dress (like in Gone With the Wind), made of lavender satin. That was one step in the right direction; one large step toward being not myself. When I put on the dress, it dragged on the ground a bit; it must have been made for a tall woman, which I was not. I was average.

The salesman forced on me the crown, the wand, and the wig that came with the dress. I forced myself to accept them. I placed the wig on my head. The long straight blond synthetic hair was quite a change from my own, shoulder-length, strawberry-blond, slightly curly hair. I stood in front of the mirror, holding the wand, as he stuck pins into my head to hold the wig. I felt like a martyr. He then placed the crown on my head.

I left the costume store walking stiffly, staring at the people who stared at me, hoping my acute embarrassment would traumatize me somehow, causing some sort of transformation within me, a transformation for the better; a beautiful metamorphosis, such as becoming a creature of talent.

I walked the streets all evening, thinking, and not thinking. I tried not to replay too often in my mind Aaron’s words, but I failed. I tried to come up with a new philosophy of life, or at least a new frame of mind, a new way of looking at things, a solution, anything that might make me a little more optimistic about my future in acting. I failed. No solutions, no revelations. I went into a church to get inspired by the interior architecture and the atmosphere. It didn’t work.

At 3:30 in the morning, after walking for hours, I went down into a subway station and sat on a bench on the deserted platform. I was not waiting for a train. My mind was blank, which had never happened to me before. I was actually having no thoughts. It was a little frightening. I was floating, completely lost, completely unattached to any belief, to any hope. Perhaps I had finally achieved the state of warm wax. Though somehow I doubted it. I lit a cigarette.

Three young businessmen walked in. As they passed my bench, they informed me that it was illegal to smoke in the subway. I ignored them. They inquired whether I was deaf. I ignored them. They proceeded to utter certain words such as bitch and suck. I felt at peace. I stared into space, wondering if they meant suck in a literal sense (as in “suck me”) or in a slang sense (as in “life sucks”). As they walked away I picked up bits of their musings: “Costume … insane asylum … Halloween … play … actress …”

That last word sharpened my despair. I uttered the word help in my head. I looked at the columns, at the ceiling, at my cigarette.

Suddenly, as if echoing my thought, a man screamed “Help!” at the other end of the platform. I looked.

“Help!” he screamed again, and I saw him, being attacked by two men who were pulling him down onto the tracks. He was trying to free himself, but they dragged him into the tunnel.

The three businessmen leaned over the edge of the platform and looked on.

“Should we call the cops?” asked one of them.

“You’re right. Go call,” said another.

“Yeah, but hang on a sec. I wanna see what’s going on.”

In my bag I had Red Pepper Spray that my mother had given me in case I was ever attacked. I took it out, walked to the edge of the platform, and jumped down onto the tracks.

It was as if I was responding to my own cry for help. Or, who knows, perhaps it was simply a convenient excuse for, and roundabout attempt at, suicide.

The businessmen exhibited curious indignation at my behavior, as if they had been personally, and terribly, insulted. They asked what I was doing, what the fuck was I doing, and who the hell did I think I was, Super Cinderella or something?

I can’t blame them for their harshness; after all, what must I have looked like, waddling down the train tracks, cigarette in my left hand, pepper spray in my right, wand tucked under my arm, dress dragging over the garbage, sunglasses on, wig and crown still in place.

I had trouble walking because I kept tripping over the front of my dress, which my hands were too encumbered to hold up. I therefore resorted to kicking the gown forward at every step to free my feet.

My emotional state seemed to have desensitized me. I approached the danger with strange indifference and detachment, something like lassitude. The sensation of fear was present, but only vaguely, like a faint pulse in someone dying. Even though I knew it was far from true, I almost imagined that if I were to be shot or stabbed, it would not significantly add to my pain.

The inside of the tunnel was so dark that I could barely make out the three vague human shapes, and at first it didn’t occur to me to take off my sunglasses, which I hadn’t realized I was still wearing. But even when I finally did realize it, I did not take them off, because I preferred not to see my opponents’ faces; I feared that if I saw what was before me I might suddenly lose my indifference and become terrified.

The attackers stopped moving and stared as I approached. They began to threaten me. I replied something along the line of, “Please release him or I will spray you.”

Then they made fun of my spray. They were under the mistaken impression that it was Mace, so I informed them that it was worse, that it was Red Pepper Spray.

The conversation started to flag, and I unconsciously took a drag on my cigarette, which, like the sunglasses, I hadn’t realized I was still holding.

Not knowing what else to do, and feeling it was too soon to spray them without having first tried a peaceful alternative, I pulled out of my bag the literature on the red pepper spray and read to them the scariest parts regarding the effects of being sprayed.

By that time I had taken off my sunglasses and had flung them aside, to be able to see the print on the instruction sheet, and when I was done reading and looked up at the men, I was less frightened by the attackers’ faces, than strangely annoyed by the victim’s sex appeal. He was being held by one of the men. His nose and lip were bleeding.

A physical struggle began between me and the other man, during which my wig came off in his hand. I was still not shooting my pepper spray, I don’t know why; I felt okay just holding it. I cannot wholly attribute my lack of concentration to the victim’s charisma, but it probably played a part. Thankfully though, I did have enough presence of mind to use my cigarette, extinguishing it on my assailant’s bare arm.

Before things got worse, they got better for a moment. The feel of the wand in my hand must have triggered old fencing habits, because when the attacker pulled out his switchblade, my arm lashed out in a familiar, oft-repeated motion, and with a quick flick of the wand, the knife leaped from his hand, rather theatrically, and went flying a few feet away.

Things quickly degenerated to the point where I had somehow been flung over the man’s shoulder and was beating his back with the wand, from which sparkles were flying off, attesting to my energy. But the blows were useless.

In the end, however, I did manage to use my spray. The bright orange pepper juice was more effective than I had anticipated, and it quickly put an end to the whole affair, not unlike the way I imagine a machine gun might have. The men fell to their knees, screaming and throwing up, their faces against the floor. The victim had been sprayed a bit too, which was unfortunate but inevitable, since he had been held closely by one of the assailants.

I picked up my wig, grabbed the victim’s arm, and helped him climb onto the platform. I led him up the long stairway, hugging my wig to my chest, perhaps for comfort. My legs were nervously springing me up, and I was dragging the man with more energy than I knew was polite. Who knew how quickly they would recover from the spray? Judging from my companion’s agony, however, they were probably not recovering too quickly.

I informed the subway teller that we were attacked and asked him if there was a bathroom we could use to rinse the pepper spray off of my friend’s face. He said no.

We hurried out of the station.

In the street, I looked around. All the stores were closed. An all-night supermarket shone in the distance. The man’s eyes were shut, and his head was bent as I guided him, telling him when to step up or down a curb. I also asked him if he knew the attackers. He shook his head.