it is no desert
[The audience arrives to find a dimly lit stage. Bare, except for three units: UR, a wheelchair; UL, a bed and a nightstand with a phone on it; DC, a desk chair and a table with a closed journal and a pen on it. LIGHTS up on the bare stage. From UC, DAN STROEH enters. He is thin, clean-cut. He uses a cane, and throughout the play he walks with a slight limp that comes both from pain and weakness, but cannot be attributed necessarily to either leg. He also wears braces on both legs, just below his knees, supporting his ankles. These are mostly hidden underneath his pants. He walks slowly forward to the table, deposits his cane, where it remains for the length of the play, sits, opens the journal, and leans forward a bit, addressing the audience.]
DAN. Every night I dream of running. One of those spirit-propelled sprints that I remember from my childhood. Wind rushing past my face, the trees around me blurring into green streaks. One of those childlike runs that is really half-falling, which is the beautiful part, because you’re on that delicate line of losing control. I’m half-falling down a hill at speeds only a little boy could achieve and I’m gleeful and glorious and angelic and unstoppable.
I wish I could share that feeling. The only way I can describe it is this: I have a friend who drives an Acura Integra—a sportscar with a sunroof—and in High School I used to climb up and sit on the roof, my legs dangling down into the car being held by the other passengers. Kraig would start her up and we would tear through the vacant streets of his neighborhood. I swear he’d hit speeds of sixty or more and my eyes would water and I’d have spit spilling out the sides of my mouth creeping back towards my ears, the rushing wind forcing my face into a contortion of joy, spit and tears streaming backward on my face, laughing and screaming…. That’s almost the way it feels to run in my dreams.
When I first started having this dream it surprised me. It wasn’t so much the fact that I was having a dream about running, which, in truth, even when I was healthy I despised. It was the utter simplicity of it. Just me, hurling down a grassy hill. I think, at the time, I expected myself to be having a more interesting, visceral dream. I was very aware of my condition, and relatively comfortable with it. At the same time, I was aware of my limitations and all the things that I could no longer do. I suppose I expected myself to dream of stage combat, say, or hiking… or soccer. Now there you go. If I was going to dream of running, I should have been dreaming of soccer.
I was captain of the soccer team in high school. I played stopper. I ran the tightest defense in Cincinnati. We called it the HURT-MAIM-KILL defense. One season we went EIGHT GAMES without a shot on goal.
Now, I loved the game and I played year round, but there was one thing about it I absolutely hated. And that was the running. Pre-season conditioning, laps before practice, the sprints before games. I could have done without ‘em. Now I’m not saying that if a striker from the other team broke loose toward our goal I’d stop and say, “Aw, man, now I gotta run to catch this piece of crap.” No, that wasn’t the case at all. That made sense. That had a goal. Run. Catch up to the guy. Stop him. There you go. Makes sense. But lap after lap of huffing and puffing just pissed me off. I did it anyway, of course, but I grumbled through every minute of it. The worst thing about it was the fact that I could never get ahead. No matter how early in the summer I started running, or how hard I worked on my own, or how well I thought I’d kept myself in shape, when that first day of pre-season conditioning came I was worthless. I was crap. Coach would say,
COACH. Come on, Stroeh! Step it up! What kinda captain finishes runs back with the goddamn freshmen, huh?
DAN. [to COACH.] I just don’t want them to feel left out, Coach. I’m an INCLUSIVE captain.
COACH. Screw that, Stroeh. You get your ass in gear.
DAN. [to the audience.] And I tried. I tried to get my ass in gear. But it didn’t work. I never understood it. I always figured I just wasn’t a runner.
I decided to change all that junior year. Our coach had implemented a new policy: Each day, before “official” conditioning started, we were to meet at the High School track and run a mile and a half. We were to do this mile and half in eight minutes. Once we achieved this time we could stop coming to these morning runs and just meet the team for regular conditioning. Now, a mile and half in eight minutes for a bunch of high school soccer players is not easy. In fact, it’s close to impossible. So essentially what Coach was doing was insuring that each of us ran an extra mile and half at full sprint for him every single day. The only guys who had a chance of actually achieving the feat were the fastest guys we had who really didn’t need to be running to keep in shape anyway and who were probably running cross country as well, so a mile and a half in eight seemed like nothing.
But I decide, as the captain, and as an individual who hates running, that I’m not going to put up with that crap. I’m not gonna fall into Coach’s little trap. I decide that on the first day of pre-season conditioning at that high school track, I’m gonna push my body like I’ve never pushed it before, I’m going to abuse myself, I’m going to run like there’s a Sycamore High School striker twenty yards from me charging our goal, and I am going to do that mile and a half in eight minutes. And the coach can just stand there and gawk.
So there we are. A late August Monday morning. Six AM. Dew on the football field. The all-weather track looking foreboding under a slight haze of mist. Everybody’s got their running shoes on. Gel-soles and Air-soles. I don’t own running shoes. I’m wearing Samba Classics, my favorite indoor soccer shoes. Everyone’s nervous. Some of the freshmen are puking already. The hotshot midfielders who—don’t ask me why—absolutely LOVE to run are in a circle stretching and talking and looking at us defenders with smirks on their faces. I stretch. Psyche myself up. Set my Timex Ironman Triathalon Watch. And line up with the others to await Coach’s whistle.
[DAN steps up to “the starting line.” A pause, then, from backstage, a whistle.]
And off I go. For the first few seconds I focus only on myself, my eyes fixed straight ahead of me, looking down periodically at the red track and the little white lines flying by. Then, hesitantly, I risk a look up and behind me. And, much to my surprise, I’m in the lead pack. I’m eating the midfielders’ dust, granted, but behind me the rest of the team is sort of petering out in groups of four or five down to those last few guys who either should have been working harder on their summer break or just can’t handle the pressure. And I realize, “Hey, I’m doing it! I’m actually doing it!” So I go back to focusing on myself. Trying to breathe the way my track-star friends had taught me. Trying to make my entire body move in one forward motion, no up and down, no side to side, just forward… forward… forward…. And I’m running! And I’m keeping up with those bloody midfielders and I can hardly believe it. Lap after lap, I follow them, trying to keep myself going and matching the rhythm of their feet which are slapping the track in those neon-covered shoes. And I’m running! I pass the coach and he says,
COACH. Last lap gentleman. Last lap and you boys have fifty-five seconds.
DAN. [to the audience.] Then he yells it so everyone can hear:
COACH. Fifty-five seconds!
DAN. [to the audience.] And I look down at my Timex Ironman Triathalon Watch and up at the midfielders who have taken off at this news leaving me far behind, and I’m starting to feel like myself again, and I say to myself, “Okay, Dan, you’re gonna do this. Now go!”
And for a split second I imagine myself, streaking around the track, passing that finish line a half-second before eight minutes is up, falling to the ground, my body quivering, the coach standing above me saying, “Well I’ll be damned, Stroeh, you did it!” And in that split second I envision my triumph. And I make up my mind that I am going to finish under time. Visualize and then go. If you can dream it, you can do it. And so I suck in a deep breath, gather my last bit of strength and strain forward toward victory….
And then I hear a sound I’ve never heard before, and I find myself face down on the ground, making out with the all-weather track. And I can’t move my leg. I lie there screaming and muttering as the rest of the team tromps by, and suddenly I’m looking up at my coach.
COACH. Which leg, Stroeh? Your right?
DAN. [to COACH.] Oh man, Coach, it feels like someone’s trying to rip it off.
[to the audience.] They have to carry me to the trainer. Who tells me that I’ve severely torn my quad muscle, and I’ll be off ball for at least six weeks.
As it turned out, I was off ball for the entire season, because, for some reason, no matter how hard I worked in physical therapy or how sure the trainer was that the injury had healed properly, I just couldn’t get my strength back.
In fact, I haven’t played soccer since. That was eight years ago.
But, at the time, it was no great tragedy. You see, I loved soccer, but my real passion—the passion I’d been feeding ever since childhood, the passion I wanted to dedicate my life to, the passion that seemed to eclipse everything else in my life was— [with a flourish] Acting.
Compared to theatre, soccer was really only a distraction. I spent most of my high school career hearing my teachers say,
TEACHER. Dan, you are not here to do Drama!
DAN. [to the audience.] Which was true, of course, but no matter what I did, it was on my mind. I even played Hamlet…. It was only the final scene, and it was only for a Drama class, but still, it felt wonderful; even if it was just a couple of us Theatre Geeks trying to show the Football players who were taking Intro to Drama as a blow-off course that Shakespeare really was very exciting.
There were several of us, including the great triumvirate, the Three Musketeers: me and my best friends, Mark and Mike. Together we had a monopoly on all the best roles in Loveland High School Drama Club Productions and held the positions of power on the Thespian Society Executive Board.
So first there is Mike, a brilliant character actor who plays the villain with such freshness I was convinced, and remain convinced, that he could rank up there with Pacino and Nicholson. He is playing Laertes in a wondrously villainous, albeit inappropriate, way. And then there’s Mark, a wholesome, red-headed pretty-boy and my best friend in the world since kindergarten. He is playing Horatio. I am the Prince, and I am on cloud nine.
With the help of some other Drama Club members we present the final scene—the fencing duel—which Mike and I have choreographed ourselves.
There we are on the stage, presenting any actor’s dream scene for a bunch of jocks, the set of The Sound of Music in pieces behind us, Mark staring on in horror, Mike foaming at the mouth and growling, myself bedecked in black and warding off his angry blows:
[as HAMLET, preparing to fence.] Give me your pardon, sir. I have done you wrong. Free me so far in your most generous thoughts that I have shot my arrow o’er the house and hurt my brother.
[to the audience.] Mike lunges. Sweeps his sword. Glares at me through those deep, dark, angry eyes:
MIKE/LAERTES. I am satisfied in nature whose motive, in this case, should stir me most to my REVENGE!
DAN. [to the audience.] He really did scream “revenge.”
I step back, stare at him with that I’m-the-Prince-of-Denmark-and-I’m-giving-you-one-last-chance look in my eyes. Mike cocks his head. I smile.
[as HAMLET.] Come on, sir.
MIKE/LAERTES. Come, my lord.
DAN. [to the audience.] And we’re off—fencing all over the stage, down into the pit toward the bored audience of athletes who are whispering to one another and drawing pictures of us with breasts to match our Elizabethan tights. Mark is playing a concerned yet confident Horatio. Claudius is an anxious and sweaty sophomore whose nerves at performing in front of the Fighting Tigers work well to duplicate the uneasiness of the adulterous and murdering king. The queen—(who played the queen?)—Oh, it doesn’t matter. We are having the time of our lives. And in the midst of all this, I notice something strange. At one point in the scene, as the king is offering me a drink from the poisoned cup of wine, Laertes sneaks over to stage left. I am down right, in the pit, next to the audience, and we had decided that I would realize that he had snuck off, sheath my rapier, sprint over to stage left and up the stairs, dramatically unsheathing my sword as I did, and charge him. I do this, but I realize, I’m not moving very quickly. I feel like I’m in slow motion. Strange…. But finally I get there and we’re off again. We’re fencing:
[He pantomimes fencing.]
DAN. [as HAMLET.] Hah! Ho! A hit! A very palpable hit!
MIKE/LAERTES. Hah! Uh! A touch, a touch, I do confess ‘t.
DAN. [to the audience.] And then Mike thrusts his poison-tipped foil, nicking my side. The queen is swooning, I’m concerned, I take Mike’s foil and slice his thigh—[as HAMLET] O villainy! Treachery! Seek it out!
[to the audience.] Mike strains up from the floor, gasping,
MIKE/LAERTES. It is here, Hamlet. Hamlet, thou art slain. The king, the king is to blame!
DAN. I kill the king, the queen dies, Mike’s Laertes falls off the edge of the stage into the orchestra pit, and I lie dying, somewhat histrionically, I’ll admit, center stage. Mark, tears in his eyes—real tears—cradles me in his arms.
[as HAMLET.] I die, Horatio. The rest is silence.
[to the audience.] And Mark looks up at our audience, who are now either asleep or making crude remarks as to the questionability of our sexual orientation. He tearfully sighs.
MARK/HORATIO. Goodnight, sweet prince. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
DAN. And that was that. My fifteen minutes—literally—as Hamlet. And as foolish as it was, I felt so alive; so completely alive. That’s how it always was for me. I mean, I was just a kid—untrained, naïve, overdramatic—but I was passionate. When I was onstage I couldn’t imagine myself being happy anywhere else.
Like right now. To be up here, sharing these stories with you. This is an exchange. A covenant. I agree to be honest. To be utterly vulnerable. And you give me a little bit of your time. Time in which I am in control. In my world, a world driven by my need for control, and plagued by my continuing loss of control, that is a real gift.
it is no desert, copyright © 2007 by Daniel Stroeh