This Thursday is the opening night of my school’s production of Hamlet and for the past few weeks, I’ve been living with Ophelia herself. She’s finally in for the night, a battered mess of blonde curls and fresh bruises stumbling through the doorway of our dorm room and into a face-down position on the fuzzy blue rug she bought before the start of the year. It’s ten thirty. She’s been in rehearsal since a little after noon and it’s left its mark. Under the long, black skirt she’s wearing, her ankles and knees are dappled with cuts and scratches, both new and newly opened. I wonder how many times she’s thrown herself across the stage, how many scuffs and marks I’ll see dotted across it when I take my seat later this week. I ask her how the run-through went and she mutters something incoherent into the carpet fibers.
Most nights have become like this, our evening routine wrapped around her Hamlet rehearsals and my essay drafts. We attend a boarding school for the arts, her focus being in drama and mine in writing. Both of us are expected to work as if we’re already out there in the real world, to write and act in a way that makes people forget we’re high school seniors. For her, it means hours of adding to her collection of bruises in the studio. For me, it’s barricading myself in our room, plotting out stanzas or trying to pin paragraphs to a page.
I’d known her for almost a year before we decided to room together. We shared an English class our junior year, but the first interaction I remember between us was in a hallway outside one of the drama studios. She’d been upset, all the color in her face concentrated in pastel clouds around her eyes and nose. It was just the two of us in the hall, so I stopped and asked her what was wrong. She told me she missed her mom. I didn’t know what else to do, so I gave her a hug and said something along the lines of you’ll see her again soon, but nothing 2 caused me to think much of it. None of us had ever lived away from home before. Of course, people were struggling. I didn’t hear until later that her mother was very sick, some kind of cancer. The year went on and I spoke with her enough in English class that when the roommate survey for the next year went out, she was my first choice.
I ask her what night she wants me to come to the show and she tells me any of them, just to get my ticket as soon as possible because seats get taken up so quickly. I’ve never actually been to a production of Hamlet, or any Shakespeare play for that matter. I know a lot of people have their definitive Ophelias, their Jean Simmonses, their Kate Winslets, their Frances Barbers. Everybody’s seen Ophelia by Millais, Waterhouse, and Cabane, always this willowy maiden in loose fabric, flowers threaded through halcyon locks trailing down her back like a cape. If anything, my roommate captures that interpretation perfectly.
You see her and the first thing you notice if her hair and how there’s just so much of it. Thousands and thousands of tiny gold corkscrews, the stuff of storybook illustrations, but there’s not much else delicate about her approach to the role. She’s bruised and bled for this role, but also read and watched and researched. Sifted through every possible interpretation of Ophelia: the innocent bystander, the static love interest, the tragic heroine whose strength is never appreciated. She went to the graveyard one evening after class to run her lines. She even sat through the Blair Witch Project in its entirety, just for the moments you hear the witch’s eerie singing reaching out of the darkness, trying to mimic that exact feel for her mad scene.
The funny thing is, the way she connects with Ophelia goes deeper than I think she realizes. In Hamlet, Ophelia is the only innocent. The only one with no agenda, no scheme, no vengeance to take. The events that swirl to life around her and sweep her away are not of her 3 making, yet she pays the ultimate price, caught in the crossfire of what she can’t control. My roommate lost her mother to the cancer last year. I’ve never met her, just seen some Facebook pictures of a woman with my roommate’s smile. We don’t talk about it and something doesn’t feel right talking about it as an outsider, but there are things I can’t help but wonder.
When my roommate is Ophelia, she has a script. She has a director and costume designers planning and plotting every aspect of events as they unfold. The lights turn on, the curtain opens. She’s someone else. She rides her role until she’s drowned, then she gets to wait backstage until out into the world she goes again. Who’s going to tell her what shades of nail polish are appropriate for college interviews, how to do her laundry, how to pick out a personal stationary or tell if the spot on her shoulder is anything she should be worried about? It’s not my business, I know, but we’ve already started hearing from colleges. I can’t help but wonder where things are going to go after she takes that final step off the stage, into a place where everything is off-book.
We don’t stay up much longer. We’re both tired, and the essay glaring at me from my laptop screen is going nowhere. Better to sleep on it. There’s a text on my phone, but I don’t answer it as I climb up into my bed, twisting the knob on my desk lamp so the room goes pitch-black. I know who it’s from, probably my mother telling me goodnight and that she loves me. I feel guilty, but it doesn’t stop me from sliding into the sheets and closing my eyes. It’ll still be there tomorrow.
MARY-BRYANT CHARLESwas born in Atlanta, Georgia, but grew up in a small town in South Carolina. She enjoys spoiling historical dramas for her friends and going on Wikipedia odysseys at two in the morning. Find her on Twitter at @marybwrites14.