I tell people now that I left New York after one post-college year because it's not an entry-level city, at least not for those of us who aren't burning with ambition and focus. One of the people I always think of when I say that was this actress I who was in a play that I'd somehow ended up on the backstage crew for, a small Off-Off-Broadway lesbian-written production called "Minus One."
She was about my age, but unlike me, she seemed to know exactly what she wanted to do. She was a good actress, and from backstage conversations you could tell she was smart, and impatient with self-indulgence, and confident and driven in the way you have to be to get somewhere in the arts, especially in that most grinding and competitive of arts cities. She was already working her contacts in the New York theater world. Of all the actors and crew members who worked on that play, she’s the only one I remember by name. I thought maybe she'd be famous in five or ten years, and I could say I knew her when.
A year or two ago, in the throes of middle aged regret at not being more famous or ambitious myself, I Googled her, idly curious about that focused and talented actress from my knocking-around year in New York. It looked like she'd worked onstage in DC for a while, and then I wasn't quite sure what had happened. A few different people had the same name. One of them seemed to be narrating recorded books, but I couldn't imagine it was the same person; she'd been so determined to be a stage actress. I shrugged it off, content to keep wondering.
Then, this morning, driving in to work, I heard a promo for an NPR story about a local resident, an audio-book narrator, who was killed in the storm last Thursday. "Hmm," I thought, hearing the preview, "Audio books." I listen to a lot of those, going back and forth across the bridge every day. I wondered if I'd ever heard the reader.
It was her. The biographical facts--41 years old, started as a stage actress, lived with her female partner--match up, and the picture on her website shows the a middle-aged version of the young woman I remember. Unbeknownst to me, she'd moved to Seattle too, and had channeled her passion for acting to become a star of recorded books, narrating books by Joyce Carol Oates and Louise Erdrich. They played an excerpt from one of the books she recorded on the radio this morning, and I could easily imagine it as her voice from the play, almost 20 years later.
She drowned in her basement in the storm; her partner tried to break through to save her, but couldn't. It sounded like she was in her studio, trying to save her audio equipment.
I don't know what to do with how I feel about this. It’s a heartbreaking story even if she’d been a complete stranger, and really she was. I didn't know her at all, at least not the 41-year-old version of her. The one I remember from that brief acquaintance was young and fired-up and a little full of herself, the way confident and talented young people can be, maybe have to be. In an interview I found today that was published on her online alumni magazine, she said that she and New York hadn't gotten along, so she'd left after a couple of years. It sounds like she mellowed, and like she found a vehicle for her talents, and like she was happy in her work and her life.
So, she was famous after all. And I knew her when. But I'm not glad to be able to say it; I wish I'd never had occasion to find out.