If I’m going to be honest, I didn’t want to go to the “show” in the first place, and I wouldn’t have gone if I wasn’t so sure that Dan was using it as a fun and casual way to break up with me. But the tickets were obscenely expensive, seventy-five bucks a pop (which I assumed was to ease his guilt), so I went.
I showed up in full costume. The link Dan sent me said this was interactive theater. And unbeknownst to him, I loved Hamlet. I’d loved it ever since my senior year English teacher, a woman who had gone to Yale and still chosen to teach high school through some saintly grace I would never achieve, drew a big heart around the title on the board on the first day of class. I loved Ophelia and the way she went out on her own terms, but also hated the paintings we looked at that showed her pale-faced and floating. Women, I remember learning, were supposed to stay beautiful even when they died. It was even on the poster for the show – a pale face half-covered by flowing water, mouth open in a tiny gasp. That pissed me off, which is half the reason I chose the costume I did: Ophelia post-pond. I powdered my face pale and overlined my lips bloated blue, moussed my hair down wet and stringy and painted my nail beds and fingertips a suffocated purple. I got more than one strange look on the subway. Once I got to the hotel I settled on a bench outside, gathering my coat around the thin white lace dress and knee-high stocking that completed the getup. It was fucking freezing and Dan was always late.
When he did show up, I could tell that for just a second he thought about pretending not to know me. His eyebrows, the most luscious thing about him, squinched up on his forehead, a bristled peak above heavy lids. They rest of his face didn’t match at all – heart-shaped, no jawbone, just smooth foothills of cheeks permanently cold-flushed from growing up in one of the Dakotas (I realized that I’d forgotten which). We’d only been together three months. Besides some basic dinner dates, pizza and movies, I could tell the relationship wasn’t going anywhere. He had asked me out in the elevator at work, which would have been really creepy if we weren’t friends with the same security desk agent. We’d both gotten her presents for her birthday, although his was better, probably because he tried harder – vegan donuts from Blackbird. How was I supposed to know she couldn’t eat chocolate?
“Hey,” he said once he’d gotten close enough that he couldn’t pretend not to see me. “You wanna head in?”
No comment about my limp hair or bloodshot contacts. That was something I liked about Dan from the start. Just focused on the task at hand, whether that was studying to the beat of strange ambient music (“it’s about the soundscape”) or doing his laundry in crisp folds that but the taste of starch in my mouth just to see. He really could be good for me, I thought as we passed through the circular door, if we had anything in common besides the building where we worked.
We stepped into an overly-heated lobby where everything smelled like toffee and bleach. This part of the hotel still looked normal, since the “performance” only took up two floors, but I felt strange looking at the empty benches and brown leather chairs, like I had walked into somebody’s living room uninvited. I could never relax in hotels. They fell into the uncanny valley of home and not-home for me, somewhere I was welcomed but didn’t belong. Scandalized guests stared at us as we approached one of the four gilded elevators. I caught a glimpse of my refraction in the spit-shine doors – red eyed, blue-lipped, white-faced. A bloated, nationalistic corpse.
We stepped into the elevator and I took Dan’s hand with my purple fingers to warm them up. I tried to breathe and open myself up to the experience I was about to have, one that, according to the brochures, “totally reimagines Shakespeare as an aether”.
“So I think we’re not supposed to talk to the actors,” Dan said. He was examining the program under the overly-bright elevator lights.
“Not very interactive.” I tried to pout prettily but my eyelashes were already coming loose. Dan was too busy reading to notice.
The floor was set up so that each room was one scene. Audience members flitted in and out while dozens of identically-dressed Hamlets and Horatios and Poloniuses argued and dueled and chatted on beds. It was impossible to tell how many audience members there were, just a constant slipstream of people crisscrossing the hallway between cracked doors. The rooms were labeled for those who wanted a “more direct experience”, but they also encouraged people to flit around aimlessly in order to “immerse themselves in the world”. To my annoyance, nobody else was dressed up. It was mostly couples, our age or younger, wrapped in sweaters and holding coats they were too cheap to check. The stares were only now starting to bother me, and I patted my hair down so it would lay flatter to my scalp. I was in support of a free-wheeling experience, but Dan insisted that we start at the beginning. He opened the first door and gestured me through like a fucking gentleman.
Inside, two men in vaguely military jackets were walking in a slow-step march around the room, a standard two-bed suite with the mattresses pushed to the center in the suggestion of a turret. “Have you had a quiet watch?” one asked, and the other replied, “Not a mouse stirring.”
I followed Dan to two chairs with their backs at the window, placed so we had to walk through the whole scene to sit down. Dan rested his hand on my shoulders, then my thigh. It occurred to me that maybe I had made my own hands unholdable with violet staining.
“Have you seen the play before?” I asked softly, as Horatio and Marcellus entered the scene. They seemed to be going for an emo revival look – Horatio’s hair was spiked up but his bangs hadn’t gotten the memo, while Marcellus wore a kind of Black-Parade-esque marching band uniform. Emo Hamlet: not the most original take, but more imaginative than putting everyone in tunics and calling it a day.
“We did it in high school,” he said, a little louder than I had been. “I was Laertes.”
“No shit. I bet you looked great in tights.”
“It was great,” he said with a kind of earnestness that made me squirm. “My best friend was Hamlet and this kid of our basketball team played Horatio cause he wanted to look diverse on his college apps.”
“Who played Ophelia?”
His beautiful brow furrowed. “I don’t remember, honestly.”
The ghost appeared, entering through what I could guess was a hidden door connecting the room to its neighbor. It looked a lot like Kurt Cobain. The men shoved Horatio forward and tried to communicate with the silent specter as we watched, feeling the room heat up slowly from all the bodies.
The scene began again. “Come on, that’s the first one done,” I said.
“Yeah, I’m sure.” I stood up and wove my way out of the room.
Across the hall, a woman who had to be Ophelia sat on a bed with her legs hanging off the side in a proper sidesaddle. She wore a pink and black corseted dress with fishnet tights and a pair of absolutely delectable creepers. Laertes and Polonius paced around her, assuming and draped in black. Polonius gave Laertes the “to thine own self be true” spiel and the two of them turned on Ophelia, the men discussing matters of war and love in the way Shakespeare intended. Their voices were deadened by carpeting. They instructed Ophelia not to trust Hamlet’s advances while Laertes was gone. After a few lines, Laertes kissed her hand and set off for France, leaving a waft of aftershave behind him.
She turned to Polonius, eyes wide and soft. “He hath, my lord, of late made many tenders of his affection to me.”
“Affection pooh!” cried Polonius, causing her to shrink back into the pillows. “You speak like a green girl, unsifted in such perilous circumstance. Do you believe his tenders, as you call them?”
Ophelia lowered her eyes. “I do not know, my lord, what I should think.”
Dan was whispering something about the logistics of Danish naval trade. I tuned him out. I was focused on Ophelia, who had slowly but surely shifted herself into the center of the bed. Even with her head down, she stretched her legs forward and crossed them, looking far more at ease than the dialogue suggested. I realized that bringing up the wooing at all, that talking back, had been an act of bravery. I caught her eye and she betrayed no shock at my face, just radiating calm, chipped black fingernails stroking the pillow next to her.
Polonius continued to lecture her like a small child, and I caught Dan surreptitiously nodding. I decided I didn’t like their comradery. I got up and left the room, waiting at the door to make sure he was following.
Back in the hall, the lights were buzzing. Somewhere over the intercom they were playing sounds of water lapping against something solid. A woman a few doors down was pushing a cart of coolers and snacks. I decided, on the spot, to get very drunk.
I smiled as I approached her to try and offset my appearance. “Do you have any whiskey?”
“Yes, all out of Coke though,” she said.
“Straight is fine.” I turned to Dan. “You want anything?”
“You know I don’t drink,” he said, frowning.
“I know, but maybe a soda or something?”
“We’re out of Coke,” the woman repeated.
“You’re not helping,” I said. She gave me my whiskey on a napkin with a pattern I recognized. “The curtains! This looks like the curtains!” I was momentarily delighted. This was interaction! This was theater!
“That’ll be eight dollars,” she said, ruining the moment. I handed her a wad of cash from my purse and told her to keep the change. Dan followed a half a step behind me into the next room, saying nothing but allowing me to shove the door free from its rubber stopper with my own shoulder.
We entered in the middle of “to be or not to be”. There was another couple there, two women with hair in different shades of green, watching Hamlet kneeling on the bed as he waned poetic and talked about dust. “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,” he intoned, and Dan put his arm around the back of my chair. “And thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought…” I let the words wash over me and set my drink down on a side table. There were no coasters in sight.
Ophelia entered, wearing the same corseted pink-and-black number as before but this time without the shoes—I could see that she was at least half a foot shorter than Hamlet. She was carrying packets of letters wrapped up in black ribbons. They exchanged pleasantries and then Ophelia, fake lashes feathering sweetly, tried to give Hamlet back the letters.
“My lord, I have remembrances of yours that I have longed long to redeliver. I pray you now, receive them.
Hamlet threw up leather-gloved hands. “No, not I, I never gave you aught,” he said, leaping backwards onto the bed and tilting his head at her like a spiked dog.
“My honored lord, you know right well you did,” she said carefully. They began circling the bed, sparring.
“Get thee to a nunnery!” he shouted, making us jump.
“Fucking gaslighter,” I said, perhaps a little too loudly. The other couple looked over at us and quickly glanced away. I felt heat rising in my face and picked a blue chip off of my nail.
“I really don’t think we’re supposed to talk,” Dan admonished when we stepped back out into the hallway.
“Then how are we supposed to feel like we’re a part of anything!” I was so frustrated I was close to tears. I realized I left my eight-dollar drink, complete with patterned handkerchief, in the last scene.
“The idea is to feel part of the scene by being physically present,” Dan was reading from the booklet again. “Allowing the world of the Bard to come to you.”
I wished he would say one original thing. “Right. Let’s keep going.”
The next room looked like a college frat party. Red solo cops, a ping pong table balanced on a single cot. Someone had taken the pillows off the couch and spread them over the floor, where people sat and knelt and tripped over them. I grabbed an opened beer from the mini fridge and put a five-dollar bill in its place. It tasted like piss but it was cold. I took Dan by the arm and wove our way over to the bare-bones couch. We sat on barely concealed wire springs and watched the play-within-a-play rehearse. Somebody – an actor playing an actor – drew his sword and started a drunken duel.
“It’s a soundscape,” I heard Dan say as their swords clashed. There was a primitive crack and the actor-playing-an-actor’s leg collapsed underneath him and he fell gracefully onto the pillowed floor. He lay there, lame-ducked and bewildered, chewing ice. The audience that was not an audience cheered.
We went to the next room. Dan and I settled into chairs. I was still running hot and almost feverish from the last scene and Gertrude’s rapid movements were making me sick. I opened the mini fridge in the room and cracked the lid of a wine cooler.
“How now? A rat? Dead for a ducat, dead!” Hamlet slid his collapsible sword into the figure behind the curtain and Polonius fell with a crash.
I realized that the figure on the poster hadn’t been Ophelia curtained in water but actual window-dressings, wrapping Polonius’ death gasp in velvet.
The scene warped, shifted: I was losing track of scale. Polonius’ body seemed tiny, tucking the edges of the curtains inwards and down in a ready-made funeral shroud. He was being swallowed. It struck me that the power of immersion was not in cheap patterned napkins but here in this room of identical rooms, where I was tugging at the edges of a story that had unfolded in the same way a million times over but threatened at each turn to unravel. There was a world where Claudius died here under Hamlet’s knife and Ophelia didn’t, where my dead version of her never existed. There was a world where I was not at the end of something but just the beginning, if only if only.
I felt a weight on my shoulders. Dan was draping my coat over me. “You’re shivering,” he said. I tried to focus on his face but all I could see were peaks and gaps.
“Let’s keep going,” I said, and we almost collided with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on our way out, heading into clean up the mess, their matching Sid Vicious t-shirts soaked with beer and sweat.
“I gotta use the bathroom,” I told Dan once we were back in the hallway. “Wait for me?”
The bathrooms were at the end of the hall by the elevators, what felt like a mile away. I couldn’t splash my face with water for fear of ruining my makeup, so I compromised by patting my cheeks and forehead with a damp paper towel. The sound of lapping water was still playing over speakers and in the acoustics of the bathroom I could hear a faint voice over top of it, singing or maybe crying, a-leh, a-leh.
I found Dan right where I left him, leaning against the wall, scrolling through his phone.
In the next room, Ophelia was singing her mad hyms, her corset loosened and falling out of a lacy robe.
“How long hath she been thus?” the king asked, his eyes soft.
“Sweet ladies, goodnight, goodnight,” she said, and kissed my hand on her way out.
“Follow her close; give her good watch, I pray you,” the king said, and I felt like he was speaking to me. I followed her out the door with my eyes, feeling split, the words coming to me almost as an afterthought.
“Look, if you’re going to break up with me just do it already.”
Dan stared at me. “Why would I do that?”
“Because we have nothing in common! I don’t even remember where you’re from!
He blinked. “I’m from Montana.”
I took that as my cue to exit. I went after Ophelia, treading the waters of my own deep incompetence.
The hallway seemed to have gotten brighter and I was at that phase of drunkenness where I became very warm and sleepy, which pounced at the worst times and made me less than a hit at parties. I tried summoning tears but they had dried up with the whiskey and all I wanted was a window, but there are no windows in hotel halls, only doors and doors and doors.
In the last room, Ophelia was singing. I could hear her through the cracked door, a soft soprano lilt through stale air.
“Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s day.
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.”
She sounded so lonely that I slipped in through the door without thinking. She was waiting in the bathtub, dressed in the same scanty lace robe now soaked through. Flowers drifted on top of the water, dried rose buds and leafy stems. She sat up when she saw me, her hair wet and gleaming, mascara running. Under the robe, she was wearing a white swimsuit cut low down her back.
“Fair you well, my dove?” she asked quietly. We looked at each other, the dead alive, the living dead.
“Maybe I could just stay here for a while.” I said it like a statement, like I wasn’t asking for permission.
Ophelia nodded. I pulled off my shoes and my coat.
“There’s fennel for you, and columbines,” she said. “There’s rue for you, and here’s some for me.” I could hear the rhythm of the words, the dreaded soundscape that matches human heartbeat: iambic, after an uneven tread. A language that limps even when it talks about love. I let the water pull me downwards, my slip sliding up to my waist. I felt like a kid at a sleepover. Ophelia was whispering her lines, practicing their intonations like they were a code to unlock, and I ducked further under the water, no longer wanting to be seen or heard, only looked after by this more beautiful version of me.
I wanted to say: did you know this scene never existed?
Did you know that all your beauty is pointless?
Did you know how unknowable you would turn out to be?
The water moved over our hips and knees. It rocked over the edge of the bathtub and onto the white-tiled floor, spreading over deep-cleaned linoleum. It filled our collarbones. It filled our open mouths.
Sahalie Angell Martin is an Oregon native currently residing in Columbus, OH. She received her BFA in Writing from Emerson College and is a current MFA in Fiction candidate at Ohio State University. She has work in or upcoming from Hobart After Dark, No Contact, The Offing, and Writer’s Digest. She blogs about living with chronic illness at sahalieangellmartin.com.