On Performance Art

Flash Fiction July, 29

Every morning, before my alarm even goes off, I have to decide who I’m going to be for the day. It’s my last conscious thought before I reach to draw my alarm closer to my headboard, already ticking my mind over my options.

I don’t like to repeat an option from the past thirteen days; it’s been this way since the first time I assembled a wardrobe full of clothes, having to double up the shirts and dresses on hangers trying to save space. When I ran out of space there I hammered nails into the walls, hooked dresses across the walls and switched them around every week.

I became my own piece of performance art, the kind which takes money and energy to maintain. People looked at me askance to begin, but the ones who saw me on a daily basis stopped trying to keep up after the first fortnight and the rest of the world seemed to never try – it made me anonymously memorable.

(Or maybe memorably anonymous)

I climbed the walls when leaving school, drowning in a sea of plain block-coloured t-shirts and jeans in varying stages of worn-ness – after getting my first real work paycheck I went out, found dozens of new things cheap from thrift stores and learned how to buy inexpensive makeup. Created a hundred new looks and tried to not wear the same item within a week.

I made friends from it, people who were entertained or amused by it. Some of them were the types of girl to look for her own costume, trying to finagle a way to stand out of a crowd when the crowd mainly wore the same outfit. My paychecks weren’t enough to cover it all, I realized, there were bills to pay and so I always skimmed a small denomination to either be saved for a new hunt or set to the side for a casual store-visit.

After a year of making new styles and wearing them as long as I could before I got bored, I stepped up the performance another few bits: I created various new personae to go with each style, starting with a name and Zodiac sign and detailed down to coffee orders and a series of little quirks. I filled a notebook with them all, and wore every personality the same way I wore my dresses: boldly, unapologetically and daring anyone to contradict me.

For a while it worked, keeping me from becoming bored. I played dumb when people said I was too smart for my own good, and pretended to not answer to any of the names I pretended to have. People guessed it was some kind of stage I was putting on – at the time I was studying literature and theatre together, so as far as anyone knew it was just a way to amuse myself.

No-one got hurt, I told myself. It was all in good fun and I wasn’t committing acts of fraud or using my various aliases to bend laws and rules.

It became exhausting after the first five months, but I persisted at it because I was already so used to mapping out who I would be and what I would wear, what my name would be and how to carry out the act. It helped a little that I alternated my days between classes and working and being generally around, as if to reaffirm my presence in the world.

One day, the worst of it happened: I lay in bed waiting for my alarm (despite all the characters I played, they all had the one thing in common, and that was a steady refusal to move out from bed until the alarm had finished going off), running through my options. At this stage I had my notebook so well memorized that I could visualize the handwriting, picture every loop of the vowels and consonants as they detailed who I could be in this new day.

I couldn’t decide who to be.

Panic stiffened my legs, and I refused to budge until I had decided on my character. Around this time I decided I needed to add someone new, edit the book so I removed one character and created someone new.

I withdrew a stack of cash from savings, skipped my morning lecture and went bargain hunting – it was rare that I went shopping with a set goal in mind, more that I knew what I was looking for when I saw it. After that, the one set piece became the frame around which I built a self.

Chaos set in, deep in my mind, as I tried to adapt to this new creation, something that I wasn’t sure of even as I outlined her backstory and filled in the detail with a hundred new points on a checklist. Even when I brought home piles of new clothes and mixed makeup shades to get her aesthetic right, I couldn’t relate to the character.

Studying her one night, it occurred to me that she was the plainest of the lot. Every other character had some dramatic flourish, some artistic leaning that always drew curious bystanders. This one had no drama habit, didn’t carry a paperback of some obscure play in a language she didn’t know, and didn’t like having to hold a conversation that ran deeper than the weather.

I slept badly that night, and woke to the realization that I had invented a character who was already existing: she was myself, buried under the layers of makeup and theatre and performing.

It had been so long since I pretended to be myself that I forgot how.

No wonder, then, that I couldn’t connect with her: she was the one character I never liked, the one whose story I liked the least.

(Later still I tore out her profile pages, stuffed them in the recycling and left the character list as it was)

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