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I met Tim in class at an improvisational acting retreat. He was a stocky guy, with a rubber-mask face that could only be described as Howdy Doody-like and Bassett Hound eyes that made him look sad. A few days into the workshop, a classmate had confided in me that while Tim seemed nice, she just couldn’t “get past that clown face.”
I didn’t think any more about it, though, as I reflected on what had brought me to this old Upstate resort. A few years earlier, my two beloved eighteen-year-old cats—my children—had died, my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and my father died of Alzheimer’s. Soon after, my mother died, I found a suspicious lump that required surgery, and my husband of twenty-three years moved out.
I was forty-six and life was kicking my sorry ass.
Without a role—no longer a wife, a daughter, not even a “mother to cats”—I was firmly entrenched in a cycle of peri-menopausal grief, trying to adapt to living alone and being an orphan.
Looking for an escape from my pain and some answers, I’d signed up for a week-long improvisational acting camp held at an upstate New York resort well beyond its glory days. (Think Kellerman’s Resort from Dirty Dancing.) I wasn’t new to improvisation and acting, but I’d been looking to ramp up my efforts to become a working playwright and actor. I’d performed stand-up comedy. I’d founded an improv troupe in Knoxville, Tennessee and worked in local theater there, where I was living at the time. And I’d recently learned that writing and performing seemed to be the only things that could pull me through my grief and give me a reason to get up in the morning.
The resort grounds Upstate were quaint and homey, and the evenings were dark, except for the sky full of stars. Only the sound of crickets broke the silence. There were evening campfires with singing and legions of creative people to play with. But I was an open wound, full of feelings that, while useful to an actor and improviser, left me anxious in the solitude of my grief and worry over my impending future. I was also anxious about being creative.
After all, before our separation, my husband had not appreciated my increased efforts to drown my grief in writing and performing and had pronounced me “self-absorbed.”
Outside of improvisation class, I saw Tim only as we passed in the hall and we never spoke beyond hello. I was completely immersed in my classes -- voice, playwriting, improvisation, scene work. I was re-learning to be fearless and trust my fellow performers. I realized that despite a fuzzy head from the trauma of recent events, I was stronger than I thought and could still count on my instincts, be in the moment, and trust myself while performing -- which were basic improv principles, after all. Improvising helped me hone the qualities I needed if I was to survive the next half of my life.
On the last afternoon of the retreat, after leaving the dining room with its knotty pine walls and worn wooden tables, I headed to the paneled ballroom where my improvisation class met. I stopped to admire some jewelry a local artisan was selling in the hallway. The rings were handcrafted silver — my favorite kind. I decided to buy one. I chose one with a simple setting and a tiny purple stone. Before I realized what I was doing, I’d removed my wedding ring and replaced it with the new ring.
This small act, which happened almost unconsciously, changed something in me. I realized my marriage truly was over. I dropped my wedding ring in my backpack and went on to class.
Then I saw Tim.
We hadn’t worked together in improvised scenes in class, but today, this last day, when I saw him gathering his things at the end of class, I didn’t want him to leave and I didn’t want to leave, either. When he saw me, I waved from across the large room and I could tell in an instant that something was wrong. I saw myself reflected in his face. He clearly was hurting, like me.
We walked toward each other and fell into an embrace. We didn’t speak. Instead, we held each other as our classmates exited around us. Before long, we were alone in the room, two wounded souls who’d acknowledged each other without so much as a word exchanged. It wasn’t sexual; it wasn’t romantic. His meaty arms encircled me and I just buried my head in his chest and held on. Finally, after a few minutes he mumbled something about returning home to see whether his wife had put his belongings outside the front door while he was away. We smiled at each other and parted. We didn’t trade addresses or phone numbers and I never saw him again.

Tim and I had connected. It was brief and it was simple, but it wasn’t meaningless, and it helped me to heal just a little it.

As I left the classroom, I looked at my new ring and felt the future was open, unknown. A few days later when I returned to Tennessee, I knew what I had to do: file for divorce and move to New York.

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