The Dress Rehearsal

The Dress Rehearsal

As a pre-teen, I spent lots of time flipping through clothes in my closet. “Like, totally,” an inordinately large block of time would pass as I picked out pants and shirts and shoes and socks and belts and laid them out on my bed. I learned that the outfit would not pass muster until I tried it all on, making sure that my pudgy, imperfect body was sufficiently disguised behind pre-aspirational labels. My mother, noticing an oddly-pre-gay OCD early on, made picking out my next day’s school outfit a pre-bedtime task. Her solution merely shifted the rehearsal backwards from morning to evening, unfolded and wrapt—instead of in then-tomorrow’s newness— in the anxiety of the present day’s still-spring-fresh teasing and insecurities. To placate her, I pretended to choose in the evenings, but just woke up earlier the next day to do it all over: rehearsal and performance.

Eventually, I discovered that my mother’s protests had more to do with the laundry pile of clean clothes that grew from my cast-offs than with my own OCDs. Unable to change the ritual, I piled guilt onto that heap of laundry. She tried hard to fix me.

Versions of this cycle have played out even through the present. My spouse knows that before we go anywhere—lunch carry-out or the grocery store nowadays, or (Pre-Covid) happy hour—I cycle through several outfits and hairstyles while he sits patiently watching the progress of Covid cases or thunderstorms in our area on the headline news channel. Sometimes, he will start a load of laundry to kill the time.

We have set our routines, our cycles of rehearsals and performances: roles we play.

I can’t help but think of my grandparents who I never knew as people my current age, who had settled into their routines by the time I noticed. Gram would give Grampa a wish-list each evening, Grampa would plan out the next day’s tasks: painting, planting, weeding, mowing: reaching top shelves to fetch Gram’s long-lost treasures. As the sunrise greeted them and they went into “do” modes—he ticking off items from his list and she filling the air with the scent of sizzling bacon and the voices of Jane Pauley and Gene Shalit bantering from the small black and white tv on the counter—they knew their roles and that they were in full support of each other. They would break each day to share a mid-morning iced tea, a mayonnaise-and-fresh-fruit laden lunch, an afternoon confection, and a three course supper. Gram was the solid stage—or the director upon it—that kept cleanliness and health in the spotlight. Their performances were steady and convincing; their love was epic. He never cared about what he wore. She, of course, did.

2020 has given us, trapped in our homes, physically removed from most non-family members, an opportunity to rehearse for our Gram-n-Grampa days. No American generation has had the opportunity to practice for retirement: to test the routines over six months of how they’ll interact in the future, when they know a return-to-career isn’t imminent. Truth is, most of us have years and years—decades and score—before retirement-age routines become reality. And here we are, trying out new recipes, trying out new wall colors, trying out new sex positions, and new TV programs. Here we are running lines in full costume and checking our blocks and our experimenting with scoop gels.

We have crammed a full practice year—perhaps decades— into this six months: Saints Valentine and Patty Days and Cinco de Mayo, Easter, Independence Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving feasts for two, birthdays and anniversaries. We put up Christmas lights and have a four foot inflatable Santa on our hearth even as the thermometer outside pushes 100. We have crammed half a lifetime into this interregnum year.

So, here we are, rehearsing for the roles of the rest of our lifetimes. Here we are, rehearsing for an uncertain future, one which may not include spouses: much can—cancer, Covid, car crashes— intervene between now and then. He’s making lists as am I. We hand them back and forth, lovingly. We cross things off, less ambitiously, perhaps, than we did half a year ago.

I wonder if there will come a time when the actual performance is ever quite as good as this rehearsal has been. Uncertainty swirls outside of our third walls: giggle fits and stage stumbles, culinary miscues (no, cilantro can’t fix overcooked salmon). Our audience of each other will eventually give way to expectant strangers. And on the other side of the resumption of our first act, we will always have this dress rehearsal to draw upon.

Dig deep, into those piles of clean clothes, into the discarded insecurities, into those completed lists, into the lessons from dress rehearsal.

Remember 2020, my love. It was the best year that nobody ever saw.
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