I saw a familiar face on the screen—someone my brother, Lars, had introduced me to years before. I had no idea the far-reaching impact that would have on my life.
Three years after my brother, Lars, became another AIDs statistic in early 1991, I began reshaping my life. I moved across the country, fell in love, got married… And without his footsteps to follow in, I stopped performing and began to write seriously.
That spring, my now-husband surprised me with tickets to a new thriller.
“It’s’ got a great actor,” his inner movie critic declared. “You’re gonna love him!”
He was right.
“He’s dreamy, kiddo. You’re gonna love him!”
Lars handed over the show’s program as he bumped me toward the second seat. “I get the aisle for this one.”
The drama featured a cast of unknown-to-me names with bios boasting training from notable theatre teachers and regional company tours. Yet, I don’t recall anything especially dazzling about the performance three decades later. Instead, it rests in the corner of my mind as an ephemeral blur of lasers, fog, and monologues.
In typical Lars fashion, moments after the final bow, he maneuvered us to a sort of backstage gathering. Soon we were milling about with the show’s cast alongside several others who’d stopped by to see or be seen.
Lars ran a hand through his dark, wavy hair and bent so we were eye to eye. “How do I look?”
“Gorgeous,” I replied.
Set above strong cheekbones, Lars’s dark eyes revealed not only passion and talent but authenticity; he emanated a beauty much more than skin deep.
“Great.” He smiled, grabbing me by the wrist. “Be charming.” He scolded with a wink. Not without reason. I could be withdrawn in such environments. I preferred to watch from the sidelines, even then.
Before long, we were face to face with the object of Lars’s attention. Dreamboat Charlie had the same dark eyes that shone with sprightliness and vibrancy. Standing just inches away from him, the energy was palpable.
With shared interests and common ground, the two men quickly fell into an easy, friendly conversation. A few inches shorter than my brother, Dreamboat stood tall but with shoulders relaxed, at ease in his skin and entirely at home in his world. Lars stood with one leg bent to lessen the divide.
“…my sister’s an actress.” I heard Lars say as he tousled my hair. The glare I shot back was more visceral than I intended, and an awkward, heavy silence began to spread. But Mr. Dreamboat’s ebullient, contagious laugh soon overtook the situation.
Several emotions flashed across Lars’s face in the span of a few seconds. First, murder—he’d already decided how best to kill me and get rid of the body—for stealing Dreamboat Charlie’s attention. Next came embarrassment, and finally, love. Little sister really wasn’t a little kid anymore.
“She’s told me a hundred times not to do that,” he confessed with a smile.
Dreamboat returned the smile, his mask slipping, allowing the man behind the actor’s persona to make a fleeting cameo.
“An actress?” He asked, turning to face me.
I couldn’t have explained it at the time, but answering “yes” felt wrong. I acted a lot, sure, but I wasn’t “an actress.” I had fallen into acting, following in Lars’s footsteps.
“I act,” I muttered.
Lars sensed my awkwardness and jumped in to maintain the easy, feel-good mood. “She’s finding her way. She writes, too.” It was enough to bring my mind back from whatever hill I was stuck on.
Soon, the conversation returned to actors and acting, with Charlie even popping a question my way now and then—and actually listening while I found my answer. A fourteen-year-old child actor is an odd duck: more tolerated than appreciated, invited and welcomed in almost any adult industry situation but rarely afforded the luxury of genuine consideration. On those rare instances when it happened, it was noteworthy. It spoke to Charlie’s character. I was beginning to see why my brother liked this guy.
In time the conversation wound down, and we left the theatre, my tap-dancing brother winging and tap-ball-changing down the street to (almost) everyone’s amusement.
We never met Dreamboat Charlie again. He gradually became a part of the countless plays and performances, after-show drinks and conversations that blended into the carousel that was to be around Lars. And while the specific names may be long forgotten, the broader memory of those days lingers with extraordinary affection.
I didn’t think much about the people we’d met until my brother died of AIDs almost ten years later. Then, I would often get lost wandering through memories, thinking about all the hands we’d shaken, hugs we’d given and received, shows we’d enjoyed—and all that applause. How many of us who were there were still here to remember?
But as Lars was so often quick to remind me, no matter how perfect or tragic the moment, time always moves on.
On the screen, a little older and a lot balder, Dreamboat Charlie’s dark eyes challenged the inky shadow of the packed theatre.
My soul smiled.
Even though Lars was no longer physically with me, those precious, too-few moments we shared had somehow found a life of their own.
I stared at the face that had been within inches of ours a few years earlier. I watched his hands—which had passed Lars a drink—finger the edge of a pair of handcuffs. And somehow, that made the world feel a little smaller and a lot less cold.
I’ve come to understand that it’s not what we do that matters, but the people we rendezvous with that make all the difference.
I believe, on some level, Lars knew he wouldn’t be around long—that’s why he was so big, so vibrant, so unapologetically joyful. He was determined to have a good time, regardless of the situation. Now, at almost twice the age he lived to be, I think he was really on to something.
In post-pandemic life, with inflation rising, war eviscerating, and surety fading a little more each day, finding joy can feel like a struggle.
I’ve taken to spending more time actively looking for moments to enjoy the existence of another human being, just as I find them—and dance in the delight of crossing their path. It makes the day a little brighter.
No matter where we are, the small act of moving towards something is profoundly uplifting. And the simple effort of intentionally looking for something good in another person can help us cope more than we realize, for we are more alike than we are different.
I think of the random moments we have in life and how they ripple and extend, reaching toward the outer shores of our lives. We are all connected.
When I walked into that theatre so many years ago, I couldn’t know how significant those few fleeting moments chatting with an unknown actor would be—and the profound impact it would have on my life decades later.
And Dreamboat Charlie? He hasn’t been on screen in years, and no one seems to know where he is. But every now and then I wonder if, when the night is full and dreams are loudest, he ever hears a faint tap-ball-change rhythm rising from the sidewalk outside his house.
Originally published July 31, 2022