I don’t want to brag, but I was a pretty great Murder Mystery Dinner Theater actor. It wasn’t glamorous, but it was an acting gig, it was local, it paid decent money, and it was fun. My role was to mingle as a ditsy but enthusiastic conversationalist who chewed bubble gum loudly, took bites of other people’s food without asking, and was offended and bemused when anyone suggested she might be the culprit.
Life was otherwise mundane; I was living with my parents as a single mom, waiting tables in the evenings, writing my goals (“savings account, move to LA! get a haircut? blog”) in a notebook, and generally wishing my life was something else. As Nada Klugh (pronounced “clue”… get it?), everything was different, and I looked forward to my weekly transformation. So when the troupe leader called me about a one-time gig that paid twice as much and sounded twice as fun, if not a little weird, I jumped at the chance.
The job was this: A man and his girlfriend were avid fans of conspiracy theories and secret societies. They liked comic books, video games, and cosplay. My role was to have drinks with them in a hotel lobby for one hour and talk with them about an imagined life as a wealthy socialite type who traveled the world with an extremely important, exclusive secret society that (possibly) controlled the entire world from behind thick oak doors and mysterious Venetian costume masks. It was an elaborate gift for her birthday, a chance to pretend that the Illuminati was real and attainable, and life could be like a movie. I arrived at the hotel with three other actors, in character immediately: an older, sophisticated gentlemen with a velvet blazer and crystal-encrusted walking cane, his perky female accomplice (me), and our bodyguards, played by two large men from the San Francisco opera who wore trim black suits and curly-wired earpieces.
The clock struck nine and the game began. It stopped being fun about five minutes later, when we all realized that one person didn’t know this was a birthday gift (and also didn’t know it was pretend). But the show must go on, and I am dedicated to the craft, so I insisted we order drinks. I made everyone taste my chocolate cocktail and giggled about ceremonies in Prague, my hidden tattoos, various international experiences like high school in Hong Kong and helicopter transportation in Rome. By the time I left with my colleagues, we had figured out that this seemed to be an elaborate way to validate some gaps in a relationship timeline—we were proof that the tales the (older, wealthy) man had been spinning were true, and the woman was relieved to learn that not only had he been telling the truth, he was also a member of a secret society.
You’re welcome. Happy birthday.
Ten years later, I still think about this one hour of my life all the time. I feel guilty, I feel angry, I feel curious. The more I think about it, the more unsure I feel about all the moving parts and what I could have done differently. Where does our responsibility fall when it involves someone else’s relationship and a different moral compass?
Pulling apart the layers of my discomfort, I realize that a part of my reaction is wrapped up in our society’s gender roles. For centuries, men have used their power to make people—especially women—do whatever they want them to do. This man used his money to corroborate lies, and to convince his girlfriend that he was more powerful than he already was. I still think about what it would have felt like if it had been the other way around. Honestly, I would probably admire a woman who went to such lengths for her own gain. I guess my moral compass has sexist biases.
I fantasize about finding the woman and having a lengthy conversation that includes an apology from me and juicy details from her. In the fantasy, though, I am the hero. But my night at the hotel, my ideas of what it would be like, aren’t based on reality. In real life, I have no idea what was really happening between the two of them. For all I know, they could be very happily married now. They could have children. He could have confessed everything to her that night. She could have actually been playing the game all along. (Bravo, sister.)
Playing a literal role in someone else’s private life was something I wasn’t really prepared for. But it made me think about all the relationships that we observe and participate in, sometimes without realizing it—and how uncomfortable that can be. Based only on the snapshot I had, I sensed a “victim” and a “manipulator,” but how do I know that was real? Should I have said something? What, exactly? I’m not sure that speaking up would have changed anything—after all, he was lying to her… but so was I.
We feel a certain curiosity about the lives of others—we want to know how our own lives stack up in comparison. I still don’t know if I wish I could follow up with her because I’m genuinely concerned, or because I’m curious to know how the relationship ended up.
Sometimes I think it’s a wonder that friends, lovers, and partners around the world trust each other at all. I’ve come to appreciate the interdependent relationship between trust, faith, and love. There isn’t a universal understanding of these elements, so people learn to define them for themselves. The only way to know what a relationship’s foundation is built on is to talk about it; communication becomes the fourth pillar, and I believe it is more important than ever in this odd, odd world.