Method Acting

A version of "Method Acting" was originally published in the
Spring 2010 (Vol. IV, No. 1) issue of TSR.

At Tad’s 27th birthday party, our neighbor Sharon walked up to Brian and said, “Objectively speaking, you’re the most beautiful man I’ve ever seen.” The rest of us, including Sharon’s girlfriend Rebecca, started talking loud, trying hard to pretend we hadn’t overheard. It had been Tad’s birthday, and there was Brian getting a present. Brian never mentioned it either, nor did his wife Amy, but about six weeks later she called to say they were getting divorced.

She sounded so calm I thought at first I’d heard wrong.

“Brian doesn’t want to split up,” she said.  “But I can’t go on supporting him.”

The weird thing is Brian was the supportive one. He did all the cooking, and if Tad and I went away for the weekend, he would pick up our mail and feed the two cats. When Amy and I were on the television show, he played our father. He’s only eight years older than me but even now, a decade later, I sometimes go to him for advice.

On our TV show, the aliens were so believable that it wasn’t until I was around sisxteen that days went by without my heart pounding at the sight of Amy. She played my sister, except not—she was always an alien, though our show mother never caught on. Amy liked to goof on me when we were hanging out in our trailer or before we got out of a limo to open a toy store.  

“Cassie. . .Cassie. . .” She’d roll her eyes back so the pink-trailed whites were all that showed. She had some weird medical condition where her fingertips were always cold and I hated when she ran them along the underside of my arm. She scared me. I wanted more than anything to be cool enough to hang out with her. And in the last season of the show, when the long-awaited implosion had destroyed our home planet and the scientists on the space ship were being picked off one after the next by the fungus no drug could cure, we knew ourselves to be stuck on earth forever. We would get high in our trailer and talk about the rest of our lives, or go shopping together, and, if I was lucky, Amy would do my math homework. 

The show went into syndication. I did not act again. I was a good human girl from the planet Earth, the aliens had failed to overcome me when they had the chance, and that seemed enough. 

Tad and I moved east in our early twenties. I grew plump enough that other men did not see me. I thought about studying something, but I had no particular bent. Days went by, then months. I took yoga classes and ran on the beach and walked my dog. Once in a great while I felt I might be visible again, but by then I understood I had the option to ignore people. No one would post a mention of my rudeness on Page Six. I did not matter.

Around here, in the fall, hunters use bow and arrow to go after migrating geese and wild turkeys and, most enthusiastically, after deer. Amy and Brian bought forty acres in the woods when they moved here; they let the hunters cull deer from their property; they’re terrified of tick-borne diseases. Even now that they’re divorced, they live together. It seems to work.

Tad, who was my boyfriend in kindergarten and remained my friend through all the years I was in California and is now my actual husband in real life, wants to raise guinea hens because of the ticks. Tad does not hold with hunting.

When Tad tells this to Brian, Brian raises a hand as if to ward off evil. “Tchh, tchhh,” he says, and I think it is some form of ritualistic erasure of Tad’s statement. In general, silence is Tad’s preferred language. I treasure any words he speaks. At our house, which we bought on first viewing, the floor is palest elm and the furniture is spare and there is nothing on the walls. We like to lie on the bare wooden floor in front of the fireplace. Sometimes we light a fire, but often we don’t. 

Sometimes I wonder if we have been together too long. Amy and Brian are better friends now than they ever were, married. Although Brian played our father on the show, they are only 18 months apart in age and Amy is older. Brian is ten years older than me. Ten years older than Tad. Tad had walk-on parts, once or twice, when he came to visit. He is good-looking, but the camera does not like him. His skin reflects light in bland, boneless patches. In person, though, despite what Sharon said, he is far handsomer than Brian.

Four months after Tad’s birthday, the season was finally over, the crowds gone. Brian and Amy and Tad and I brought a sack of hamburgers and onion rings and a bottle of Malbec to the beach in Sagaponack. It was early September, just after sunset. As it got darker, the sky grew seeded with stars of all intensities and it was cold enough that we wore winter coats. We chatted idly, licked onion salt off our fingers. The toes of our boots digging into the sand, we talked about the sad ways some of our friends had ended up, and the deer hunters and the coming of fall. And then, very suddenly, a cone-shaped light dropped out of the ocean sky and hovered above us, pulsating brightly in the gloom. Amy said, “Does anyone else see that?” and her voice was so matter-of-fact I was reminded of how things used to be, when no matter what we needed, someone provided it immediately. Lunch, a hair cut, rollerblades, whatever; before we’d fully had the yearning, someone responded. After a while, it wasn’t fun. The spaceship rendered the clouds a fuzzy gray, and spilled glitter along the waves all the way to the horizon. Brian said quietly that we must be seeing things. Up and down the beach, the wind caught people’s voices calling to one another in the dark, and then I blinked and for all I know the rest of them did too. The light was gone. We sat there for another hour, barely speaking, but the thing did not return.

Tad said it was probably the Twitter satellite and Amy giggled, and for a moment I thought maybe they would be happy together. I pictured them in bed, not fucking, but laughing, their heads close together on nice fluffy pillows. Then I remembered I would hate to lose him, even temporarily, even to someone I like as much as Amy.

A line of dialogue I remember: Once you have seen a spaceship, you can never take it back.

Our neighbor Sharon’s girlfriend Rebecca is one of those people determined to be compensated not for her value but her values. She works for the Land Conservation Trust. She is the most recycled, organic, high fructose corn-syrup-free human I know. When we were packing our lawn chairs into the station wagon, hushed and slightly embarrassed by what we’d seen in the night sky, I saw Rebecca and Sharon hoisting chairs into their Prius, and I felt sure we had shared something that transcended our complete lack of interpersonal chemistry.

They must have thought so, too. The next morning, Rebecca and Sharon left a walnut-spelt bread in our mailbox, wrapped in an old cotton napkin. Tad thought it was delicious, and called them up, hoping to get the recipe. They invited us to dinner, and we went, even though Amy and Brian were not included. The other couple was two potters; he made vases and she made bowls and nobody seemed to find this dichotomy amusing. Constance, the woman, asked what I did for a living and I told her I was a character, and silence fell. “Like at Disney World?”

“Sort of,” I said, lifting my wine glass to my lips. I had wanted to manage my drinking at this meal, but I could already tell I was going to get shitfaced.

Tad started to say I was taking some time off. I knew he wanted to say that I used to be an actor, but now I was just a character. He thinks that’s funny. I didn’t want Constance or her husband Bill to ask what show I’d been on. What if they remembered me, and studied my face to see how I’d changed? Of if they’d never heard of me before?

“We’ve agreed,” I interrupted, “to give each other time off when needed.”

Constance raised her eyebrows.

“Not from each other, but from. . .from. . .” I couldn’t think what the word was. 

Tad said, “The rat race.”

I said, “With all due respect.” Then I felt my face turn red. I was picturing big, ugly rats racing off the space ship drawbridge, up the dunes, swarming gleefully through town like kids on a treasure hunt. That happened on the new spaceship in the last season of the show.

Constance cleared her throat and looked around the table. Rebecca sat back heavily in her chair. I took another sip of wine, a bigger one.

“I’m not much trouble,” I said. “I rarely leave the house.”

“I’m sorry?” Constance said.

“Seriously, I used to travel all the time. I mean, all the time. And now I don’t.”

Sharon nudged the casserole dish closer to us. Whatever was in it was gray-brown and gooey, maybe eggplant, but it looked like run-over squirrel. Skinned squirrel. Tad picked up the serving spoon, his face very still. “Looks good,” he said, lifting a hunk of goop onto his plate.

Rebecca pushed her chair back. “There’s rice! I forgot!”

She seemed to feel she had to fix Tad’s plate; she spooned brown rice onto it, shifted his glop back on top with the serving spoon. Tad blinked several times as he thanked her. His contact lenses were dry. Rebecca and Sharon must have cats, even though we hadn’t seen them. It would certainly explain the musty scent that permeated the place.

Rebecca began a long, self-referential story about a speech she’d given to a local retirement community encouraging people to add the conservation trust to their wills. I watched her mouth move over her glistening teeth and I thought that if I played her, ever, I would color my hair with strands of silver. Our builds were similar, angular shoulders and long bones, but where I assumed I was required to make the most of my endowments, she seemed to suffer from the delusion that she had no need to do so. As I studied her, Sharon placed two fingers on Rebecca’s forearm and tilted her head at me with a frank and somewhat confrontational air. I was about as attracted to Rebecca as I was to the slop on my plate, I wanted to tell Sharon, but instead I picked up my fork and scraped a little area of eggplant onto the tines, slipping it into my mouth while simultaneously holding my breath in my nose. I managed to swallow.

“So,” Tad said, “Did you see the aliens?”

Constance and Bill looked startled. As if this was the question that made the evening strange.

Although I was grateful to Tad for raising the subject, I also resented him. I should have thought of it. I placed my clog directly atop his sneakered foot and pressed down gently.

“I saw the ship,” Rebecca said excitedly. “We both did.” She put her elbows on the table, squashing her breasts against her clasped hands. “Wasn’t that the weirdest?” Then something dulled across her face, I would call it the recollection of her virtue. “I mean, of course, I know they’re out there, they have to be,” she began. Her mouth closed and we all sat silently for a moment. I realized they had neglected to put on politically appropriate dinner music, like sitar.

Tad said, “We were taken. On board the ship.”

I took my foot off his sneaker and placed it carefully back down on the floor, next to my other foot, as all eyes swung to me. I nodded. I picked up my fork, but was unable to mime eating another bite of the casserole.

“Yes,” I said. “It’s true.”

Constance giggled.

I shrugged. “They were nothing special,” I admitted. “Hardly what I would have imagined.”

Bill wasn’t sure if we were joking, and I could hear in his voice both the possibility of amusement and the willingness to take me seriously. “Not alien enough?”

“No. Sort of normal. Scientists in white coats taking blood and shining lights into your eyes, that kind of thing.”

Sharon said, “You’re kidding.”


“But we were at the beach that night. We saw you.”

“I guess time is different there,” I said. “On board the space ship.”

“Oh come on,” she began, but Tad put his fork down with a clatter.

“This was hard for us,” he said.  

Rebecca nodded vigorously.

Sharon gave her a dirty look.

“They had lumpy skin,” I offered. “Grayish and lumpy. But they were nice to me. To Tad, too.” I swallowed, glanced around the table. They were all watching me. “We weren’t hurt.”

Tad put an arm around me protectively.

“Lumpy?” Sharon asked skeptically. The whole feeling of the room was different, as if we’d switched from Mozart to Schoenberg, although of course it wasn’t politically correct to listen to music while eating, not any more. Probably it was a waste of electricity.

“Like collagen. Or Botox. I forget which is which. But the one that makes your skin lump up.”

“Were you scared?” Rebecca asked.

“If they were going to hurt me, they’d have looked meaner. I would have been able to tell. But they were very considerate. Even when they tested us.”

“Tested you?”

“How?” Bill leaned forward, so that his beard grazed delicately across the edge of his wineglass.

Sharon muttered that she was going to clear, but Rebecca put a hand on her own plate and Sharon remained seated.

“Well,” Tad said. “It was pretty much what you’d expect. They looked me over, took blood. The needle was a laser, that was pretty cool. And then we had to, well, you know. . .”

“What?” Bill asked. “Had to what?”

Tad’s arm tightened.

“We had to do it with them,” he said. “Have sex.”

“It doesn’t mean the same thing to them. It’s more like eating, or sleeping. A bodily function. Though they aren’t built the same way as humans.”

Tad took his arm away. 

“How?” Rebecca asked. “How are they different?”

I took a sip of my wine. Tad had refilled the glass, thank god. “Well,” I said, looking around the table with deliberate calm, “I had to lie back on the exam table. Tad was off somewhere else. I didn’t know what was happening to him. And the alien took off his robe thing. He had a short penis, really thin, and I guess I must have looked disappointed because he asked me what was wrong. I told him the truth, I said Earth men had bigger penises. And he kind of laughed, or at least I knew it was a laugh even though it sounded like a hiss. ‘Let me show you,’ he said, and he twisted his ear. First the right ear, and his penis got longer, and then the left, and it got thicker. I have to admit it was kind of fun, after that.”

Tad put his arm back.

“And you, Tad? What happened to you?” Sharon asked. She had heaped all our food-flecked forks and knives onto her plate. I thought they’d probably spill when she stood up with them.

“She yanked my ears,” Tad said.

Bill ran his napkin across his mouth, held it there a moment.

Rebecca said, “I’ve never had sex with a man.”

“It’s pretty fun, to be honest,” I said. “Even with an alien.”

A silence fell.

Sharon said she’d made apple pie for dessert, and Rebecca said she’d gotten the cream from a cheese-maker she knew. He had his own cows, and the milk wasn’t treated by any chemicals whatsoever. I admit it tasted different, thicker and creamier than what we were used to. I ate every bite, and wanted to ask for seconds. We talked about a local politician who’d switched from Republican to Independent. We talked about a local guy we’d all heard had committed suicide. Tad announced that he wanted to expand his firm, that even with four tech guys full-time he couldn’t handle all the work he had. Rebecca said her ex-girlfriend, a Mac expert, was moving to the area, and Tad said he’d be pleased to meet her.

We had kombucha tea, and I could feel its warmth tingle along my forearms.

“What if you get pregnant?” Constance’s question came out of the blue, and at first, I didn’t understand. “By the alien? What would you do?”

Everyone looked at me. I could feel myself turning red. I felt perhaps they knew something I didn’t, about Tad, or me, or even about my alien captor. When I closed my eyes, briefly, I could picture exactly what the alien looked like: Wrinkled and hairless, gray-skinned, an earless Babar with abruptly tapering wrists and delicate ankles, and an earnest, yearning curiosity about all the oddness out there in the dark cold universe. He did not lie awake at night thinking about the inexorable passing of time; he lived and he lived without hesitation, a veritable Sharon of the great beyond. “Oh,” I said, hardly able to form the words, “I hadn’t thought. I don’t know.”

Beside me, Tad sipped his kombucha. He looked very serious.

“I never heard you talk so much,” I said to Tad. He put the key into our lock and shifted the door wide with his hip, gesturing for me to go inside ahead of him.

“Seriously,” I told him. “It made me wonder, I had to wonder if you’ve got lots of words saved up in there.” I patted his chest, smoothing his flannel shirt under my open hand.

He hung up his jacket. “Not really,” he said.

“I was impressed,” I told him.

He turned on the stairs; he was already unbuttoning his shirt. “You fucked an alien,” he said.  

“Anything for science.”

“How noble of you,” Tad said. 

“It was, wasn’t it?”

I followed him upstairs, drawing my sweater over my head. An eager fan once told us that the most important thing for couples to have in common is that they go to bed at the same time and like the same food. For years I believed this to be true. 

Then I believed the best couples were the ones who could not stop having sex, day after day after day. 

Probably it keeps changing. I don’t know. But after that night I feel like if Tad and I were ever separated, say in wartime, we would find each other. I know why Amy and Brian sit out there in their house in the woods, divorced and devoted, trading a pair of binoculars back and forth while hunters drag bloody deer across the lawn. I know why Sharon ate her dinner. I know why Constance only throws bowls. 

And I am certain what an alien prefers to do in bed.

SUSAN SCARF MERRELL is the author of Shirley: A NovelA Member of the Family, and The Accidental Bond: How Sibling Connections Influence Adult Relationships. She directs the Southampton Writers Conference, is program director (along with Meg Wolitzer) of the novel-editing program, BookEnds, and teaches in the MFA in Creative Writing & Literature at Stony Brook Southampton. She served as fiction editor of TSR: The Southampton Review. Essays, book reviews and short fiction appear most recently in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Common Online, The Washington Post, and East Magazine.