Characters: Puking, Plane Trips, and Other Adventures

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I started my professional life in theater, specifically in the David Mamet school-of-thought, and Mamet reminded actors all the time that “character” is defined by what people do. It’s all about action. Throwing up, in my opinion, is a fabulous action. For some reason I love making my characters throw up. I’m not sure what that says about me or them, but there’s something about vomiting that appeals to me. In fiction, that is. I loathe puking in real life, but in SMALL ADMISSIONS, I made two of my characters throw up. It felt like the right thing to do. Plus throwing up can be very funny while also being dramatic; emotion and booze are such a terrific combination. If you’re not convinced, just think of Honey with her head in the “euphemism” in WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?

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Last week I flew to California and had an experience on the plane that got me thinking about throwing up, and how much fun it can be to mess with our characters, to change their endings, to raise the stakes. Here’s the airplane scene – and I won’t tell you which one was me:

Flight #703 is boarding. Woman One takes her seat on the plane next to her husband who immediately pivots his body away from her and toward the window and pretends to go to sleep. Woman One knows damn well he’s awake. She’s angry, stressed out, and sad, and she turns to her cell phone and the world of social media for comfort. Her phone distracts her from her troubles, which are many and terrible.

Woman Two comes down the aisle, stopping right next to Woman One; she looks up at the seat number, checks her boarding pass, and takes the aisle seat next to Woman One. Two is a twitchy, nervous flyer, and although she took a Xanax at the gate, she is completely convinced this plane will not make it through take off. She places her bags under the seat front of her, turns off her electronic devices as instructed, and checks her seat belt, several times. She’s not a religious woman so she doesn’t pray, but she wishes she could. She’s about to die after all.

The plane begins taxiing, and One is busy scrolling through Facebook, liking pictures, texting, sending emails, tweeting, sharing, and posting. Woman Two, nervous flyer that she is, is 100% positive that One’s use of her stupid cell phone is altering the readings of all the instruments in the cockpit, which is going to cause the pilot to use the wrong runway and crash into an incoming plane during takeoff. Two tries to be patient, certain that One will shut her phone off any second, or turn it to airplane mode. She takes another half Xanax and tries to breathe. But she keeps thinking that “airplane mode” exists for a reason. And the flight attendant specifically said to “turn off all electronic devices at this time” and “at this time” was several minutes ago already. The plane continues to taxi and finally makes that big, sharp, right-hand turn, revving up for the final, deathly sprint.

At this point, Two can’t take it anymore. “Excuse me,” she says, and she asks One to turn off her (goddamn) cell phone because the flight attendant said so, plus she’s a very skittish flyer. Woman One sighs angrily, throws her phone in her purse, and folds her arms across her chest, in a huff.  This pisses Woman Two off: “It was a reasonable request,” Two says, feeling both righteous and sorry for herself. “Well, you certainly could have asked nicely,” One says, her panties in a twist.  “I did ask nicely!” Two says, raising her voice. “I told you I’m a bad flyer, and now we’re all going to die because of your fucking phone.” The argument is about to escalate, but the plane escalates instead, racing down the runway, and the women stop talking, heads pressed back into the seats. Woman Two grips the arm rests, cutting off their circulation.

Expecting the plane to spiral out of control, Two closes her eyes, pictures her soon-to-be orphaned children and soon-to-be widowed husband, and cries until her whole face is wet and snotty. She has no tissues. But after several minutes the plane quiets and levels off, and it occurs to her — for the first time, thanks probably to the Xanax and a half — that she may just possibly survive this trip. She wipes her face off on her sleeve and inhales zenly, exhales shakily. She finally opens her eyes, blinking her way back into the world, and tries to calm down. She needs the damn drink cart to show up.

Suddenly One, overwhelmed with loathing for her husband, leans forward, head on her tray table, and sobs. Her husband is such a piece of shit and hasn’t said so much as a word to her since he got on the plane and selfishly took the window seat, leaving her stuck in the middle next to this completely unglued, crazy lady who made her turn off her phone mid-text. To make matters worse, the drink cart is apparently never, ever going to come. She has a good, long cry. Woman Two, her nose still running, sees One weeping, considers handing her a tissue, but remembers that she doesn’t have any. Plus, Ms. One was a total bitch, so why should she help her out anyway?

Thank Jesus, the drink cart arrives. Woman One orders a Bloody Mary. Two orders the same. They both, in sync, pour the vodka over the ice cubes in the plastic cups. They squeeze their lemon wedges. They simultaneously shake the cans of Mr. and Mrs. T and pour it on top. And they drink. They swallow. They lean back and exhale. It’s like they’re twins separated at birth. When the drink cart comes back, they order a second round. The flight attendant is confused: “Are you two paying together?” she asks. “No,” the women say at the same time. They hate each other, after all.

The end of the story is boring because while Woman Two considers — after the second Bloody Mary has settled into her brain and made her realize So what if the plane crashes? Whoop dee doo. Who even cares? — striking up a conversation with Woman One, she doesn’t. And even though Woman One considers — after the third Bloody Mary has settled into her brain and made her realize So what if I get a divorce? Whoop dee doo. Who even cares? — striking up a conversation with Two, she doesn’t.  They remain silent, side by side, through the whole flight, elbows touching. What a missed opportunity, they both thought. Or, one of them did anyway.

So here’s my fictionalized version: Woman One and Woman Two begin talking while they drink that first Bloody Mary – and find they have so much in common, it’s crazy. They drink the second and the third Bloody Mary together, laughing at each other’s jokes, apologizing for their earlier behavior. They hug. The descent is hideous and bumpy, and Woman One, usually a fabulous flyer, finds herself worried about so much turbulence. Two tells her pshaw, there’s nothing to worry about, planes were built for stormy weather, it’s going to be fine. Convinced she’s going to die, One confides in Two: Her husband is such a son of a bitch. He cheated not once, not twice, but a hundred and threeteen times. And he has a tiny penis and doesn’t even know it but now she’s gonna tell him because what a total asshole, right? She’s leaving him. Oh yes, she is. She’ll start dating, even at her age. “You should date!” Two says, sharing One’s anger. “He’s such a dick,” One whispers. “I hate him so much,” Two agrees.

As the plane pitches up and down violently, the women decide to exchange contact information because they want to support each other in whatever way they can, now and forever. Suddenly, when neither one expects it, the runway appears, the wheels bounce, and the brakes screech. They’re alive! Woman Two is elated, but Woman One has turned green and suddenly throws up tomato juice all over her soon-to-be ex-husband. “Oops,” One says. “Good for you,” Two tells her, handing her a cocktail napkin. “He totally deserved it.”

Scene.

(Woman One, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry I never said hello.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Amy Poeppel grew up in Dallas, Texas and left the south to attend Wellesley College. Since then, she has worked as an actor, a high school English teacher, and most recently as the Assistant Director of Admissions at a school in New York City. Her three fabulous boys are all off in Boston attending school, and she and her husband now split their time between New York and Frankfurt, Germany. A theatrical version of SMALL ADMISSIONS was workshopped at the Actors Studio Playwrights/Directors Unit. She later expanded it into her first novel.

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