By Terri Lively
It’s 2 am. My children and husband are barely stirring as our home is blanketed in the thick quiet of peaceful sleep. I know this because I am wide-awake, mind-racing, toes curled under the covers wrestling with my what-ifs again.
The story of my present insomnia begins when I was 8 years old. I auditioned for my big brother’s high school production of The Miracle Worker. I was cast as the “Little Blind Girl”. I had five lines and four of them were exactly the same. But they were mine and I made the most of them. From then on, I knew what I wanted to do.
Over the next 18 years, I worked in all parts of the theatre, set building, costume design and construction, stage management --you name it…I did it. My favorite, by far, was performing. The explosive roar of applause during curtain calls was more addictive than chocolate, nicotine, or heroin. Okay, heroin is probably a little more addicting. But the point is I loved it. I blame the look-at-me gene.
The look-at-me gene was named after a Christmas morning somewhere in my mid-twenties when in the spirit of trying to move things along, I would call out “look at me” when it was my turn to open presents. Unfortunately, the moment has been recorded on video and distorted amongst my family to be desperate plea for validation on my part. Regardless of its origins or intents, the name of the gene stuck. And I got stuck with it.
I also blame the look-at-me gene for my choice to major in Theatre at college. I made my announcement from the back seat of my parent’s car one afternoon. My parents were flabbergasted but I had this covered. “Don’t worry,” I explained. “My minor is music.” I’m sure that neither of them worried any more after that.
So I took some headshots, went to some cattle call auditions, and started my arduous climb to the top. During summer breaks and after graduation, I was a working actress. The contracts were all pretty crummy in retrospect, but the best the Midwest had to offer.
Each job was a victory but they also created challenges both emotionally and financially. For instance, everything I owned could fit in the trunk of my car, aiding the success of my nomadic existence. Husbands, kids, health insurance, 401k plans -- they were all the stuff you had to sacrifice to be a star. So I toiled on convinced that I was paying my dues and could overcome adversity if I loved it enough.
In spite of my youthful optimism, I had moments of pragmatism. I decided that while I loved the art of theatre, rent isn’t paid by art and you can’t eat rainbows and sunshine. The money was in commercials, television, and film. I could see that my geography was holding me back. If I wanted to take the next step, I needed to move. West.
I had no job in California, no place to live, no agent, and no idea of how Hollywood worked. So when I announced to my parents that I was moving to Hollywood to live with my unemployed best friend to work on being “discovered”, they were so overjoyed that they couldn’t speak. “But don’t worry,” I explained. “I have a savings account.” I’m sure they didn’t worry any more after that either.
I didn’t last long. Four months to be exact.
There were a myriad of reasons why I quit acting. One reason was my dwindling bank account as my expenses continued but my income did not. Another reason stemmed from a nagging feeling that I was not as unique as I had once felt riding high in the summer-stock circuits of the Midwest. Nearly everyday I met a girl who looked like a different version of me who had just moved out from East Bumble, Flyover State, to pursue an acting career in Hollywood. But the reason I usually give to people is the poop tunnel.
When I wasn’t submitting headshots to casting calls from Backstage Magazine, I was an office temp, my answer to the need for a day job. Thankfully Mom had at least convinced me to take typing class in high school. On a good day, I could type 75 words a minute. Bad days I could still type 75 but 55 of them would have typos. Sadly since this wasn’t the 1950s, I’m not sure why this skill was so important but it looked good on my application anyway.
I worked at an architecture firm in downtown Los Angeles in one of the famous skyscrapers pictured in countless films and movies. Parking in the building was exorbitant, however, costing easily half my take-home pay for the day. So, like all the other smart (poor) people I parked across the 101 Freeway from downtown and hoofed it a mile or so to my job everyday.
The entrance ramp from downtown to the 101 North is 6 lanes of treacherous asphalt that was intermittently vacant or frenzied with the rhythm of traffic. Only a fool would try to cross the actual freeway on foot. All that was missing were floating logs and boing-boing noises as you try to scamper across to safety. My Darwinian instincts always directed me down the steps that led to a dank and gloomy tunnel. Of as I refer to it, the poop tunnel.
Named for a revolting pile left at the entrance by something or someone, the poop tunnel takes you safely under the human Frogger game above. Everyday, I averted my eyes, held my breath and fought my gag reflex as I scurried down the tunnel to the other side. This was not part the glamorous life I imagined when I was 8 to say the least. My look-at-me gene had not prepared me for the reality of my poop tunnel path.
And one day it occurred to me that I didn’t have to do this. I could move back home, fall back on my outdated typing skills, have health insurance and everything else that I had postponed to be a successful actress. I decided that if this was what it meant to love what I did for a living, then I didn’t love it enough. So I quit the architecture firm, quit submitting my head shots, and quit California.
Over the next two years I assimilated into traditional society. I got a real job with health insurance selling radio time for 100% commission on a terribly ranked radio station in Kansas City. I picked a primary care physician, signed a lease on an apartment for a whole year and bought furniture that would not fit in my trunk. All the time ignoring the feelings of failure that gnawed at me.
Then I met my husband. He was funny, charming, and a permanent resident of California. So I moved West again. But this time we needed a moving van for all that furniture. We bought a house, got a dog and a cat, had three kids, and a happy life. All about 60 miles south of the poop tunnel. And in spite of the fact that my life is now happy and full of love, I still wonder what might have been.
What might have been would probably have been depressing. Poverty, desperation, and compromises that make me uncomfortable even speculating about would more than likely have been my reality. But even knowing that I still ask, what if?
When you are young, there is nothing you can’t do, no problem you can’t solve, no insurmountable task you can’t overcome without hard work and determination. When you are older, you know that sometimes love is not enough, that the trade-off can be dear for the prize and choices must be made. Second-guessing is a habit for the mature missing the potential of our youth.
All the choices in our lives make us the people we are today, not just the ones of which we are certain. Insight gained from honest analysis of our choices and life consequences can be the most important thing that we share with our children, husbands, and ourselves.
Happiness can come in many forms, and success in acting was just one of many ways I would have been content with my life. The life I chose is more ordinary to be sure, but it is happy in its own ways as well.
I pin the what ifs for tonight. The wrestling match is called in favor of sleep. One by one my toes uncurl, letting go of my worries for now. I am content with my choices. My mind slows with the pace of my breath. As I drift off, I am reminded that sleeping around me is the career that I have fallen-back on. While there is no curtain call in my new career, their love is my applause.