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Playing Life: The Anti-Truman Show
Claudius Cipher is an actor, and life is his play. And as a performer of life rather than a liver of life, he will do anything and everything he can to make the story more interesting and his presence felt.
At three months of age, Claudius was given the role of baby Jesus in a re-enactment of The Nativity. There he was, a mere infant, swaddled in blankets deep within a wooden manger. Boys and girls surrounded the crib; the audience wriggled for a better look. Claudius Cipher was the center of attention. It was then that the following idea planted itself inside young Claudius's head: life is a production. A production much larger in scale than the one he was currently taking part in. A production equal in scale to life itself.
Or maybe, a production larger than life itself. Opinions in this matter would depend on one's perception of death. When asked how they view death, most people are likely to say that it is simply the end of life. But Claudius Cipher is different. He would tell those people that there is no way of knowing if death is the end of life if they hadn't died before.
As Claudius grew and developed, so did his ideas. At the age of twelve, he was so invested in this play he called life that he decided to take his performance to the next level: before turning in each night, he wrote, and still writes to this day, a script, in an effort to guide his next day of acting. These scripts are rough, loosely outlining Claudius's behavior and interactions on a given day. They are simple guidelines, with no strings attached. Sometimes, Claudius finds himself wishing that the words he writes on the page manipulated the real events of his life, but alas, he lives in a world where feats like that are not possible. If things don't go as planned — as written — Claudius finds himself in a rotten mood. If things go as planned — as he wrote them — he finds himself in high spirits.
Claudius Cipher is in a rotten mood most of the time.
Yet, if he writes in his script that he should be in a rotten mood, and he follows his words, he really cannot be in a rotten mood after all, can he?
Claudius Cipher says, “It's all part of the performance.”
~ ~ ~
Claudius Cipher is an actor, and life is his play. On this particular day, Claudius was forty years old, and he was in a rotten mood. But he had written it that way, so in reality he was in high spirits. At the moment, he was just performing. He was in his element.
As he rambled down Michigan Avenue in the direction of his apartment building, the events of the day flashed through his mind. Today was a good day in the world of Claudius Cipher: rehearsal had gone well, and he had put in a fantastic performance in the eyes of the director.
“Claudius, that was marvelous! They're going to love you. Just love you,” she had said.
Yes, she. The director of Chi-town Funk was female.
A female with whom Claudius had been having an affair for a little over six months. His wife didn't know. But according to his plans, it was only a matter of time before Juliet would realize the shocking truth. These were the kinds of things Claudius believed made his performance in life more appealing to the average viewer. He had always been a keen observer of the world's rather odd obsession with television soap operas.
“Throw in a little sex and betrayal,” he had thought to himself one night six months ago, when the idea of an affair first popped into his mind, “and the people will become obsessed. They won't risk tearing their eyes away, not even for a second.”
The only difference in Claudius's version was that the acting was bearable.
~ ~ ~
“Hey, you,” Juliet said as she opened the door. “Dinner will be ready in about ten minutes.”
“What's cooking?” asked Claudius.
“Your favorite,” replied Juliet.
“I don't even know what my favorite is, so how could you?”
“You'll just have to trust me.” She winked at him. “Now, go wash up, then come down and set the table, or I'll come after you with a spatula.”
“Sounds like a plan.” Claudius Cipher made the journey upstairs to the bathroom and splashed his face with warm water. “She trusts me, she trusts me...” he muttered under his breath. He caught sight of his reflection in the mirror, and thought that it looked rather dashing, dripping chin and all. “Looking good, sir,” he said to the reflection.
“Shut up, you old fool,” answered the reflection.
~ ~ ~
“Wow, this looks delightful,” remarked Claudius Cipher at the dining table. He was gazing at the sliced pork tenderloin and asparagus sitting in his plate. He was going to miss her cooking. The tenderloin was as juicy as it ever was. It burst and bubbled in Claudius's mouth, and after he had swallowed his first bite, his stomach rumbled in approval.
“So, how was rehearsal?” asked Juliet. “Tell your story, and I'll tell you mine afterwords. You won't believe who showed up at the door in the morning.”
“Who?” Claudius was puzzled.
“Tell me about your day first.”
“Oh. Right. Well, we made a lot of progress today,” said Claudius. “And I can tell you right here and right now that my scene on the rooftop with the banjo is the highlight of the entire show. Possibly the best display of my acting talents to date.” He was lying, of course; Juliet did not know about the bigger show that Claudius was a part of. “And the director thinks so as well,” he added.
“Oh, stop calling her ‘the director'. She has a name, you know. It's Naomi. The two of you should at least be on a first name basis by now.”
“Believe me, we are,” replied Claudius. Actually, they were on much more than a first name basis. “Sorry, old habits die hard. I call all my directors ‘the director' when I talk about them.”
“Well, it's like talking to your best friend about me and referring to me as ‘my wife.' Juliet chuckled. “Anyway, I just hope Naomi knows that being hard on you is the best way to tap into the talent within. Is she hard on you?”
Claudius smiled. “She's extremely hard on me. Harder than you ever were.”
“Good. Someone needs to be, ever since I went soft.” Juliet placed a hand on top of his. “You look tired. How about we turn in early tonight, hm?”
“I was thinking the same thing. But I have to go do my writing for the night.”
“Ah, the book. Will I ever be able to read it?”
“When I'm dead.”
“How morbid. Is it really that bad?”
“Worse than you ever thought possible.”
~ ~ ~
Claudius Cipher retreated to his study and locked the door. He had been doing it that way for his entire married life. He hid in his study every night and wrote the script of his life. He shuffled past his computer and sat down at his typewriter, an Underwood Five from some time in the 1960s. It had been given to him by his father at the age of twelve, after which the idea of scripting life came into play.
What was about to be written had been planned for many weeks. Tomorrow was the day his wife would leave him, but that was not where the plan stopped.
For almost an entire year, Claudius Cipher had been contemplating the events of his life, the play he has both directed and acted in. Over the years, he had relentlessly performed, doing whatever he believed would make his story more engaging. He tried to view the show from the audience's point of view, deciding whether the narrative he was weaving on a daily basis was satisfactory or not. Most of the time, he deemed the narrative satisfactory, even if the factors contributing to its merits had caused him physical or emotional pain. In fact, Claudius was so passionate about his way of life that he did not care what the effects of such a life were. After many months of thinking, he came to the conclusion that his story should end with an element of surprise as well as a heavy dose of irony, for Claudius knew that of all the ways a truly great tale can end, irony ensures the strongest reaction from the audience.
While looking back on his life, Claudius felt as though he had accomplished all that was necessary. He put himself in the place of the audience once again, and asked himself the question: Does this man deserve an award for his efforts in the field of acting?
Claudius liked to think so. He also thought that it was time for his play to come to an end. It was for him to decide, because after all, he was his own director.
And this ending, it needed to be dramatic and most of all, it needed to be ironic. Claudius liked irony.
Tomorrow, soon after his wife left him and he met Naomi for a walk, Claudius Cipher was going to die. He sat down and began setting the stage for his own death.
In about five minutes, his wife would hear his mobile phone vibrate and read the text message he told Naomi to send him. Have you gotten rid of your wife yet? Juliet would drop the phone and realize the shocking truth. She would proceed to pack her bags and leave first thing in the morning. Claudius planned to sleep in his study.
This was his life's work, his ace-in-the-hole, his nail in the coffin.
His final act.
~ ~ ~
November 9th, 2010
The Final Act [note: bold]
Claudius wakes up at 9:30 AM. He walks from his study to his bedroom.
Juliet is sitting in a chair near the bedside table, surrounded by suitcases.
Claudius: “Sorry honey, I lost track of time last night and fell asl — hey, what's going on?”
Juliet: “I'm leaving you.”
Claudius: “Wait, what? Juliet, where is this coming from?”
Claudius looks genuinely puzzled.
Juliet: “I know about you and the director.”
Claudius: “You mean Naomi?”
Juliet: “Yes, I mean Naomi. How long has it been?”
Claudius hesitates, but decides on the truth.
Claudius: “Six months.”
A tear makes its way down Juliet's cheek.
Juliet: “Ah. Well. Honestly, If I knew this was going to happen, I would
have pictured myself livid, screaming and throwing things at you. Oddly enough, I don't feel that way. I just want to leave.”
Claudius: “I'm sorry.”
Juliet: “No, you're not. Goodbye, Claudius.”
Claudius stands his ground, and makes a call to Naomi.
Claudius: “It's done.”
Naomi: “Wonderful. I'll meet you at Millennium Park in an hour.”
Claudius: “Right. See you there.”
He takes a shower, changes, and leaves his apartment. Walking along Michigan Avenue, he pauses on the sidewalk and waits. Thirty seconds later, a speeding BMW makes an appearance to his left. He begins to cross the street just as the BMW comes whizzing in his direction. The BMW hits him at full speed, and Claudius dies.
~ ~ ~
Claudius Cipher opened his eyes. He did not know where he was. He was also very sure that he had just died.
“Well, you did die. Dead is dead. But you're also here,” said a voice.
Claudius jumped. “Who's there?” he asked.
“Look around you.”
Claudius looked around him, fully taking in his surroundings for the first time. The first thing he noticed was that he was wearing a tuxedo. He was standing behind a large red curtain, and the light was dim. The curtain looked strangely familiar.
“I'm backstage,” realized Claudius.
“Yes, you are backstage. And you're about to be center stage, so perk your ears up, you old fool.”
So Claudius listened, fully taking in peripheral sound for the first time. From the other side of the curtain he could hear the faint murmur of a large audience. There was also some generic piano music playing, but it was hardly noticeable. It was then that Claudius heard a voice say, “Ladies and gentlemen, it is my honor to now present the award for Lifetime Achievement in Acting. This year's prize will go to a man who has spent his entire life playing the role of himself in a production that the rest of us like to call ‘life'. But the thing is, he chose acting as a career path, starring in a plethora of first-rate productions in the city of Chicago...so when he acted on stage, he was only pretending to act. It still confuses even me, but I do know he performed magnificently, and that's all that really matters, isn't it? And now, without further ado, I give you...Claudius Cipher!”
The band played loud, harmonious melodies as Claudius Cipher emerged from the red curtain at the rear of the stage and made his way to the podium situated at center stage. When he arrived at his destination, the announcer placed a gold plaque in his hand, and the applause was tremendous. Claudius shook the man's hand vigorously, then turned and beamed at the hundreds of faces smiling up at him.
“Thank you, thank you…” he stammered. He was overwhelmed with joy.
The image of the ceremony faded slowly from view, and suddenly there was darkness. Claudius felt at peace. Actually, he didn't feel anything anymore.
Claudius Cipher is an actor, and death is his play.
~ ~ ~