I was in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, for an undergrad’s thesis shoot. Or, I was somewhere near Lancaster. Already a farm town where one could drive acres seeing more livestock than people. So I was on the edge of an almost-town, where someone believed that if they kept driving toward the horizon, they’d reach a promising bustling somewhere that isn’t a used car lot, a fast food chain, a strip mall where half the shops are boarded up. I lost track of the number of silos we passed. A late winter sun bloomed and retracted behind frail tree branches. People, a few years younger, were talking about a movie I hadn’t seen. “Have you seen it?” the assistant director asked me. “No. I haven’t.” She turned away from me. She played a game on her phone. My body was growing accustomed to the car’s silence, the air particles doing a slow dance around my head. I kept thinking, I am person, I am person, I am person.
Everything was paid for by the producers (the director’s parents, so it goes): the meals, the hotel room with two double beds that I jumped between in the Days Inn, the Amtrak train. All of it together was more than I could’ve ever afforded on my own. At the time, the Amtrak alone would’ve been a luxury. Though I had graduated college, I was still working on my thesis film, a science-fiction short narrative, and all of my money was going towards post-production: special effects, small animations. I couldn’t believe my savings were being drained to have a VFX designer paint pixels with his mouse on a single frame for many hours of the day. I was living in a shitty West Philly apartment, relying on groceries from my parents, and waiting, waiting, waiting.
My role: the older sister of a young man who was on suicide watch, who cried a lot in the film, which is hard to do when you’re constantly thinking about wanting to make money and how you seem physically unable to make money. We were shooting in a recently closed hospice, which doubled as a psych ward. The location came to us the way all film locations come to indie productions: an actor’s relative knew someone who happened to be the manager of the property, and did not really understand what a film set entailed.
The first day, my call time was five in the morning. It was 10 degrees and the sky was diluting into a grey so filmy and lucent, I thought I could puncture its seal. I dressed in the one non-costume outfit I brought with me and waited downstairs at the continental breakfast buffet where it seemed like they wanted you to choose between hard-boiled eggs or waffles. Around me, members of the crew scrolled on their phones and blew on their coffees. I went over lines in my head. I wanted someone to ask me how I was feeling, if I was nervous, but no one did.
When the crew relit sets or dressed new rooms in which I was to look very solemn or have an anxiety attack, I walked up and down the carpeted halls, finding small artifacts of the old lodgers’ lives: a very realistic stuffed cat in a permanent half-yawn, revealing a sweet pink mouth, a moth-eaten cardigan with fake pearl buttons, hand-written notes in careful all-caps letters: “TURN OFF THE FAUCET.” “SOCKS BEFORE PANTS.” “8:00 AM: BREAKFAST. 12:00 PM: LUNCH. 5:00 PM: SUPPER.” I love that word “supper,” I thought. That man is dead now, I thought. It felt very disrespectful to be storming down the halls pretending to be upset and so scared for my screen brother, whose wrists were bandaged and Sharpied with red, who didn’t really look like me.
“Do you think this place is haunted?” I asked. Everyone around me sort of shrugged or laughed like it was a joke and not a serious inquiry. I forgot how much people on sets did not like talking to the “talent.” At the time, the crew’s nonchalance towards me made me feel like I was doing a bad job, and everyone was afraid to tell me. Only one person, who was pulling focus, made banter with me, and when I laughed with them, it was inappropriately loud because I had not spoken for so long.
When I’m on long trips with people, they’ll say, “I can’t wait to go home.” They will be sick of the taupe sheets, the multiple decorative pillows they throw off the bed before sleep, the small slippery bars of soap that smell of nothing but cleanness. But I don’t mind. I say, “I could stay here for a while.” And everyone will reply, “I like my things too much.” What things? I think. I like waiting rooms. Microwaveable meals sealed in plastic. Fluorescent lights. Anonymous neighbors, or no neighbors at all. Vending machines. Functional design found in dorm rooms and Airbnbs and office spaces. Local news channels. Ghosts. The smell of laundry detergent wafting through industrial vents. That ubiquitous green vine in that terra cotta pot. My things are everywhere. What are these special things people need so badly?
I went up to my hotel room to wipe off my make-up and relax. I said, “Honey, I’m home,” to confront the emptiness. I didn’t mind it, I just wanted to address it. I was a little tired, but mostly content. I enjoy the days when I am silent till spoken to, watched over, and can spend the night in a sterile, clean space and take off my one outfit, lay my one outfit on my spare double bed, and read or write or watch some television show I’ve seen so many times, or just watch the dark indigo of the sky stay itself, see my own obscured reflection shift in the glass and think, Honey I’m home, Honey I’m home, Honey I’m home.
At dinner time, some people ordered in food to the hospice. Others went out to diners and food courts in nearby malls and I would not be invited. I knew I was a discouraging presence. If they were to talk shit about the director, it would compromise the integrity of the production. And maybe they wanted to talk shit about me. That day, before warm coffee and breakfast were delivered, we had shot a serious scene and my stomach kept rumbling during takes. I had felt my whole abdomen vibrate against the wire of my lav mic. I would blow hot air out from between my lips and roll my eyes and say, “Let me reset.” I was sure I had come off as a diva, but I also knew that the takes would be unusable if my stomach were rumbling. Someone handed me a banana that I shoved in my mouth in a few bites, and as I chewed everyone stood around me in silence, watching with a solemn presence meant to imply, We are not rushing you. Please take your time. I felt like I was a sacred animal accepting an offering before allowing anyone to pet me.
I ordered a car from the hotel to the nearest Bar and Grille. The car would be there in 15 minutes. I walked around the perimeter of the hotel, admiring the crisp imprint my boot made in the snow, thinking that someone could drive up and grab me and throw me in the car and I would be gone forever. I had these thoughts to test the goodness of the world. It was me saying, Hey world, I think you are evil. Prove me wrong. The universe was a consistently exciting playmate, because there was no guarantee that one day it wouldn’t want to prove me wrong and abduct me.
“Why are you here?” The driver asked me. “I’m here for a film shoot. We’re shooting at the old hospice. I think it’s haunted.” “Are you anyone I would know?” The driver asked. I laughed a little, and shook my head. “No. I wish.” I thought that there must be something about being alone and self-assured and on a film set that made someone come off as famous or needing to be known. The car looped through empty roads lined with evergreens, into darkness.
At the restaurant, I ordered meatloaf with mushroom sauce, steamed broccoli and mashed potatoes, with red wine. I read a book and looked at my phone. Friends texted me about set, but I didn’t have anything interesting to say, so I sent them pictures I took of the moon with many exclamation points. Around me, people were watching an Eagles game and screaming loudly, and no one approached me and I did not approach anyone. I felt like a ghost visiting all my favorite places one last time. I paid my bill and called a car. It was the same driver as before. We laughed at the coincidence, then fell into blissful silence as we rode. There was nothing more about me that needed to be known.
The next day was the big scene, where I was to sob and sob as I confronted my brother about the abuse he suffered that led to his self-harm. I ate a stale croissant, drank Keurig coffee I strained through two pods, and joked with the focus guy about something we both established to be funny the first day of set. I think my lack of passion before shooting worried everyone. I was not taking things seriously. I was not prepping. But that’s what I loved about acting: One minute I could be numb, feeling nothing, half-person, half-vessel waiting to be filled, and then in a second I could be heaving, sobbing, overflowing with compassion, looking into the eyes of someone I did not know and could not see clearly and think, If you were to die, I would die too, for how you have filled me up.
I did cry when necessary, and I did feel love and showed it, and everyone was very pleased at how I did so. I wiped snot from my nose, fanned my salty, tear-stained face, and my scene partner, my screen brother who I suppose shared the same eye shape, the same curve in the lips, hugged me. We wrapped. The crew rolled up different colored gels and broke down lights, and as I walked past, they congratulated me and told me how great I’d been, and we exchanged contact info and promised to stay in touch, though we had barely spoken during the shoot. I guess all along they thought they had gotten to know me through the scenes, during which I wasn’t me, but some version of someone I could be. I felt tired and ready to go back to my hotel room. I had exhausted my capacity to connect. I waited in the parking lot for a car to come get me.
I have heard the expression “the lonely mountain,” or “lonely as a mountain,” especially in relation to Mount Fuji, because it stands alone, snow-capped, so much taller than everything around it. But it is a metaphor I have difficulty grasping. Because when I think of Mount Fuji, or some other generic mountain from a nature magazine photo, or a typical children’s book’s rendition, it is not unacknowledged. It is touched by wisps of clouds, petted by gusts of wind, kissed by sacred air no one else gets to breathe. Perhaps the mountain is not completely seen, obscured by fog and mist, unvisited because of location and landscape. But it is not untouched. It is not undepicted. It is not forgotten. Its only home is where it is, and will be, forever. So don’t worry about the mountain. It is not lonely.
Featured image shows Kit Zauhar in Actual People. All images courtesy Kit Zauhar.