Let us consider a simple mystery.
A man at a party lights a cigarette; from ten feet away, at the end of a narrow hallway, a woman observes him. The next room buzzes with talk and laughter, the rattle of glasses over a Patsy Cline record in full croon. But she sees only him. For months he has been the focus of her fascination, moving at the edge of her circle of friends, chatty and charming, always clever, usually evasive, never alone.
And now there he is: by himself, striking a match with one determinedly casual stroke, a movement so sleek that she wonders if he had practiced it before a mirror. She smiles at this idea, and as she does, she catches his eye. This time, she holds his gaze.
Within minutes, a flirtation begins, and with it, a sudden reordering of her apprehensions. The young man she thought so arrogant before is nothing of the sort. It is not arrogance, she realizes, but hurt that lurks behind his bold manner. With sudden clarity, she sees his need. And her heart is softened by it.
A door opens in her mind. To go through it means a turning point, an entirely different life unfolding on the other side. That is how any life opens up—within a single moment, when a choice arises to say yes to something completely new and sometimes frightening. The word tickles at the back of her throat.
But what did he do with the spent match? Years later, that nagging detail will upend the whole memory.
At that moment, though, the lights in the room go dim. Well, not really, but in memory it seems, aspiring lovers are always leaning into each other in a poorly lit corridor—conveniently ignored by the partiers in the next room. In the cover and comfort of that space, the verbal sparring begins. He dances around the question and she evades it. She delivers a few barbs, not all gentle; but he is good-natured. The warmth in his eyes is reflected in the rising blush of her cheeks. In these matters, it is always best never to be too direct.
The scene plays out as these scenes do, each going their round to avoid saying what he or she really thinks, and least of all, what they feel, though the pull is strong. It is unmistakable.
Surely now, this is the beginning of something wonderful. Surely here, the door swings wide and the world beyond is fresh with opportunity.
Surely it is so.
And yet. And yet somehow, it does not happen. Does she drift? Or is she called away?
Is it fear or a sudden insight that shatters the spell? For the gaze is broken, the moment lost, the opportunity crumbles, and though she would not realize it until much later, the door swings shut on what might have been a critical turning point in her life.
And she will think about him for years.
Why did it not happen? Why did they not connect? Could it have been possible? And if it had—where would all that energy have carried them? What would her life be now, all these years later? Would she still be living in that small Midwestern town—would she be with him? Or would it have ended in the sad, small way such infatuations often come to unwind, when the head clears and the day begins.
There is no way to know, or guess, what the alternative could have been. But there are certain moments in our lives when we choose one door over another—one invitation, one friend, one obsession, one apartment, one job—and in so choosing say no forever to other portals to other places, other friends, other lovers, different marriages, different lives, different selves.
It is only years later that we realize how much of our identity is created not by ourselves alone, but by those around us. How we are seen, how we are loved, by whom we are loved—these are the things that define us as much as our own poor efforts to define ourselves.
And so the enduring mystery must always be: Who am I really? If I am not with you?
But the simple mystery is this: What did he do with the match?
Did he toss it to the carpet? Not likely. He was not thoughtless that way. Did he pocket it? Not possible. But where would it have gone?
That is the nagging question that suggests perhaps, in reality, that scene played out in an entirely different way. Perhaps it did not take place in the dim, narrow corridor of a good friend’s apartment, but on the back porch? Or in the garden?
Or in my own imagination.
Where memory and longing intersect, the restless mind can often create events so vivid we cannot believe they never in fact took place. And sometimes, when the need is great enough, you can piece together a remembrance of three or four events that did occur, recompiling them into a single meaningful moment, so that the drive to revisit and relive and reinvent those avenues not taken works to some purpose, works to put the past in its place and keep it safe, where regret cannot unlock it.
This is the enduring mystery: Did I remember or merely invent the interest of a sweet young man I should have encouraged and for whatever foolish reason, did not?
There is only one thing to do with such mysteries. They become fodder for the drama. It is the only place I know where to put them.
And that is why I write plays.