Please Help Yourself
by Lindsay Lynch
2018 Art of Prose Contest Honorable Mention
Sometimes when I visit a new house, the animals go feral. “They’re not usually like this,” the owner will plead as their two Corgis begin snarling at one another. Or it’s a boxer eyeing me as it mounts the black lab— “for God’s sake, Lucy, you’re a girl, stop that!”— I reassure them that I’ve seen it all, no need to worry
There’s always a walk-through with the pet owners. Sometimes it takes fifteen minutes, sometimes it takes an hour because Mopsy has three different kinds of dog food, or the lock on the back door is a bit tricky to figure out. When they ask if I’d like the check now, I try to nod calmly: if it’s not an issue, now would be great.
It is difficult to make ends meet working in set design. I was recently hired on as a creative consultant for an interactive production of Sophocles’s Antigone. The play will be staged in an old warehouse where audience members can walk freely through different rooms while actors perform loose interpretations of scenes. It’s my job to make sure each of the rooms tell a story. The director is a big-shot who previously worked in television. This is his pet project. He has insisted: “Everything must be taboo.” He wants nothing less than Baroque decadence. According to him, the entire set ought to be a work of beauty created from contradiction and despair.
Over the last few weeks I’ve driven around the city limits visiting antique shop after antique shop. I barter with the shopkeepers— lower prices, renting deals, credits in the playbill. They give me strange looks, wondering why I’m desperate to rent a taxidermy boar’s head. I fall in love with every piece I buy or rent. The mounted heads are particularly endearing in their tortured way: the beady black eyes, the perpetual grimace on their faces. When I stroll through antique malls, I find myself wondering if a velvet-upholstered footstool feels more Antigone or her sister Ismene. I’m not searching for props for Ismene, but Ismene doesn’t seem like the kind of woman who puts her feet up at the end of the day anyway. Antigone, then. Back in the warehouse, I assign my findings to scenes and rooms.
My own small bedroom is barren. A double mattress on the floor, a rolling rack of clothing, an olive green dresser. The most essential parts of my life are in my car— a backpack with toiletries, a makeup bag, a change of clothing, an extra sweater, a pair of heels, just in case. Sometimes various antiques sit in the backseat for days waiting to be carted to production. It’s not unusual to see a stuffed bobcat or a deer staring out the back window.
My nights are spent in an apartment downtown with a blind chihuahua and too much high end liquor, or maybe it’s a country house in the suburbs with two loud beagles and a locked room for their owner’s hunting equipment. Each day, I email the owners a photo of their pet curled up on the couch or getting ready for a walk. In every house, there’s a note on the kitchen counter. Food in the fridge, please help yourself.
And I do. To their food, their drinks, their lives. In the home of a divorcée with a Pomeranian named Sparkle, I drink her wine and play John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. I stir a pot of fettuccini with one hand and hold an Ann Carson collection in the other, taking in a few lines each time the wooden spoon dips into the boiling water. I speak French to the Pomeranian. Before bed, I slip into the divorcée’s walk-in closet and run my hand over her patterned silk blouses, the Diane von Furstenburg wrap dresses. After I pet-sit for her a few times, I become more brazen— draw myself a bath in her tub, crack open a window and blow smoke out of it, half-drunk on her chardonnay.
The actor playing Haemon sends me messages too late at night. I figured he was sleeping with the lithe brunette dancer who plays Antigone, but during rehearsals the other week, he placed his hand on my wrist and pulled me into Antigone’s room. I wondered if he grabbed the right person until he whispered my name into my ear and kissed my neck.
He picks up the things I’ve placed in Antigone’s room— the main conceit of the play is that audience members will be allowed to touch and interact with anything and anyone on set— and he asks why they’re there. I tell him Antigone would have a large mirror above her dresser, that despite her self-loathing, she is, above all things, deeply proud. A plain white dress must hang by her door for the wedding that never was. She isn’t nostalgic. There are no trinkets by her bed or dresser because she has no interest in the past.
He asks what is going to be in Ismene’s room. I don’t have an answer—Antigone’s sister doesn’t have a room in the warehouse. She is the one who breaks my heart. I had to read the play three times before I realized she doesn’t die at the end. A few lines midway through and then she simply leaves. Isn’t that the most tragic ending of them all, not having one?
The actor shrugs and returns to rehearse his suicide in the next room.
I once saw a posting on social media that told me to grab the nearest book and turn to page 209— the first sentence will be a summary of my love life. The dog-eared copy of Oedipus Rex that lives in my bag says: You’d rule a desert beautifully alone.
I crave the reassurance of being in another person’s home and knowing that no one will walk through the door. No one will talk to me, no one will look at me, no one will touch me. In the houses I watch, it takes a few hours— a walk through each room, a peek into the closet— to believe that there really is no one else there. In the absence of people, each home has its own unique sound. The scratching of dog claws against a wood floor, the hum of an old refrigerator, rattling air conditioners.
A bathroom with a shut door and a large mirror is my favorite place to rehearse being a person. An article once told me that I could fall in love with anyone just by staring into their eyes for four minutes. I am not so sure about this, but I do know that my toothbrush automatically buzzes after two minutes, so I try to stare deeply into my eyes each time I brush my teeth.
I recite Shakespeare when no one is around. Most dogs respond well to soliloquies— What light through yonder window breaks? I ask them. They don’t know that Juliet is the sun, but jump in place anyways. Back in high school, I did competitions. I had entire scenes memorized. Helena’s Act 1, Scene 1 soliloquy won me a state championship. They wrote about it in the school paper.
When I performed in the school play, everyone said I stole the show— here was a bitter Helena who could overshadow a far more likable Hermia. At the cast party after closing night, I got too drunk and said something mean. I passed out on a couch in the basement and the boy who played Puck climbed on top of me. I only remember his hand grasping under my shirt, the way he hiked my skirt up to my stomach and didn’t bother to cover me back up when he was done.
Soliloquies became a parlor trick. Late nights strolling across my college campus with a bottle of Jim Beam in hand, telling people in a voice that was not my own that the world was an unweeded garden.
I’ve heard about people who constantly recite prayers to achieve calmness of mind. I prefer iambic pentameter.
I drifted behind the stage, got a degree in visual arts. I graduated magna cum laude with highest honors for constructing miniature dioramas of homes where famous murders had been committed. Someone bought the tiny home of JonBenet Ramsey for five hundred dollars.
The director has seen the dioramas, but on set I’ve kept my monologues and soliloquies to myself. Actors have a way of assuming they are the only true practitioners of their craft. There’s no need to give them an excuse to be petty— or worse, benevolent.
The actor asks if he can come over. I’m watching a King Charles spaniel in the townhouse of a single father. I think the dog was purchased to bait his young daughter. It’s endearing, in a way. What ought to be a bachelor pad has been reworked for a little girl. He even has a tiny toilet and sink installed in a separate bathroom. Her photograph is plastered across the fridge, bangs and gap teeth.
I’m sitting on the couch with the spaniel curled against my side, snoring quietly and twitching her feet every so often. The single dad left a six pack and I’m four in. There’s a marathon detective show about sexual assault on the television. So far, a girl was found naked in a suitcase, a reality television producer was arrested for drugging the talent, and a woman in a hijab attempted to prove her assault was a hate crime.
I enjoy watching these small tragedies because, after an hour, they end.
I send the address to the actor, tell him I’m only here for the night. He says he’ll be there in twenty.
I turn the television off. I turn the television back on. I wander through the apartment, opening doors and peering into closets, the spaniel trotting close behind. In the kitchen, I practice leaning casually against the counter and saying hello. I open drawers just to have something to do with my hands. Eventually I get to the random shit drawer— I love random shit drawers, the things that people consider essential to have at arm’s length, but don’t want to display.
This one contains: scissors, screwdriver, Chinese food menus, a box of toothpicks, No. 2 pencils, Sharpies, and a large bag of individually wrapped candies. I eat three tootsie rolls in rapid succession.
The doorbells rings and the spaniel barks and the actor comes in. I’ve never seen him outside of production. It’s a relief to know he’s not a doomed prince, but a thirty-something man with a receding hairline and dimples. I offer him a beer— it turns out he doesn’t drink. My mistake. It should feel awkward to host someone in a home that isn’t mine.
I make up the facts as I give him a tour of the apartment. The little girl’s name is Angie and she was adopted from Romania. The dog’s an import, too— but only from Connecticut. I hook my finger around the actor’s belt loop, pull him closer, and tell him the man’s name is Stephen-with-a-ph. Stephen-with-a-ph and I have lived here for three years, ever since his wife left him for some asshole on Wall Street. He takes too many business trips— god, it’s so lonely here!
The actor laughs. It’s clumsy, it works.
I shut the bedroom door and the spaniel scratches at it the entire time, whimpering incessantly.
Around three in the morning, I’m washing the actor off my thighs in the daughter’s too-small bathroom. He’s fallen fast asleep, and I’ve spent the last two hours staring at the ceiling.
I don’t want to get back into the bed with him. Instead, I lower myself down into the empty bathtub. I think about Antigone in her tomb. The director won’t show her hanging herself in the production. He has hired an aerial dancer to slowly drop from the ceiling, working her way around two maroon lengths of silk. She’ll die two or three times each night. It could be beautiful and it could be ridiculous.
I don’t know where Ismene goes when her sister dies. I like to imagine that she walks out the side door and into the night, unseen.
Published June 3rd, 2018
Lindsay Lynch is a writer from Washington, DC. Her work has appeared in Electric Lit, The Atlantic, and Lit Hub, among other places. She currently lives in Laramie, WY, where she is studying for her MFA in Fiction. More of her work is available online at lindsaylynch.net.
From The Museum of Modern Art: In the fall of 1966, The Chelsea Girls, Andy Warhol’s double-screen masterpiece, began its unprecedented journey from its birthplace downtown to uptown commercial success. In celebration of the new publication, Andy Warhol’s The Chelsea Girls and the ongoing Warhol film digitization project, The Andy Warhol Museum and The Museum of Modern Art present the premiere of a new high-quality digital scan, alongside related films and all the never-before-seen material Warhol shot to create his epic vision of the New York underground scene.