Tonight the joke isn’t funny. It’s the same story told the same way, line for line, but the comedian’s delivery is off, the concluding smile a little bit too desperate. Sometimes if you say the last word with the wrong intonation, or you wait just a second too long, that’s all it takes.
For now their laughter is a gift they’re giving him. But everyone in the room knows that it’s a reward the audience can withhold.
The comedian holds the microphone close enough to kiss. I’m going to tell you something that no one else knows, he says, and just in time he flashes that coy grin he always uses to endear himself, whether his audience is a thousand people or one beautiful woman. He has them again, if only for a moment, and so they wait for him to continue.
The woman in the front row clutches her red velvet armrests, as if she’s watching a horror movie that no one else can see.
But of course, his show must go on.
The comedian’s life thus far has been comprised of a series of rooms in which people said no to him occasionally, but overwhelmingly yes, yes, yes. In recent years he has become unstoppable, like the spread of religion or disease. This night marks the conclusion of a tour which has now stretched longer than the gestation period of a child.
Years before, the woman in the front row met the comedian in the smallest of all of the rooms that had led him to this one. He was onstage in a dark and dusty comedy club, and he said something that made her laugh. Back then, that was all it took.
He told her over drinks at the bar that night that he had never heard a laugh like hers, how it bubbled and built until he knew tears were leaking from her eyes without even needing to see her face.
She fell in love with him then. Or so his story went.
She continued to haunt the rooms for him as they grew bigger and bigger, unwavering before the stage as people drifted vacantly around her and, over time, heard something that caused them to linger.
She remained his first audience, the anatomy of his humor dissected down to its bare bones in front of her. In his frustration he would pace one of the many hotel rooms—which were all variations of the same room, in the end: coffeepot, clock, and bed. He’d wave his hands and explain to her why she should laugh.
But humor at its best should be instinctual, involuntary, triggering laughter like a bodily reflex. For him she would laugh anyway, over and over again, as if pulling something out of her mouth from her gut, from deep inside of herself.
The comedian was always unable to stop thinking of laughter as a metric, a commodity. She told him over and over again—the laughter’s not the goal, it’s the byproduct. You’re selling a feeling. Selling the ability to think about something else, even just for a little while.
And not just that, she’d said once. But an intimacy. They leave the theater and they think they know you. For better or worse.
In recent years, other women had taken to asking her how it felt to have “won” him. Crush of thousands! And he comes home to you at night! The question always sent a flash of unbidden anger through her, because of course she hadn’t “won” anything. In a way she had made him. He was who he was because he’d been with her. There was a whole show I sat through, back in the early days, where I was the only one who laughed, she wanted to tell them. He wasn’t always funny.
She’d grown to hate adjacent fame. She grew tired of having their life together filtered through his lens to the masses. Everything anyone thought they knew about her was what he’d told them. And how easily her character shifted through the lens of his words—sometimes a girl, sometimes a woman. Facets of her personality shone through, but no one ever got the full story. She’d accepted it for years because he made it clear, through everything, that he loved her. They were just stories, he’d told her once.
At the parties the women cocked their eyebrows, sipped their wine, fished for private details. But all she could think of was the empty rooms where they’d begun. Really the comedian’s public persona was an amalgam of the two of them—the best parts of both, with the worst removed.
She wanted to say, When they fall in love with him, they’re falling in love with me, too.
But if his life was a series of rooms, hers had been a hallway.
Recently she’d realized that the longer she stayed with him, the more doors were being closed to her. And it would only be a matter of time before she was left in that narrow, lonely space, with every door closed and locked and all of the lights off behind them. The worst part: Never knowing for sure what the doors had concealed to begin with. But she’d woken up one morning and realized there might still be time.
To be her own person. To tell her own stories. To open one of the doors and walk through it. But she’d have to do this alone.
They’d agreed they would wait. Talk to the lawyers. Settle on a public narrative. A love story with a beginning, middle, and an end that they could share together, united even in their decoupling. He’d said he understood. He would give her whatever she wanted, it would be amicable, as long as she agreed not to tarnish his reputation. That endlessly grinning boy they all thought they knew.
He had just one request. One last night where I can see you in the front row. Her seat was there, same as always, still reserved, so she thought, why not sit and watch? But now she understands why he asked.
He holds the mike close enough to kiss, and he tells them.
One final opportunity to own the narrative, make it his. Worse—he turns it into a bad joke. Something about lawyers and monogamy. She considers for a moment, while he speaks, the very real possibility that she might vomit. She thinks of the word amicable and then sees it grow smaller in her mind and disappear. She imagines herself turning around in her front row seat to take in the rows behind her, all those faces looking forward that would take her in, an audience to their dissolution.
Above them the comedian paces, running his fingers along the length of the microphone’s cord with an awkward grin on his face. She swallows back bile. The crowd is silent, still waiting for the punchline.
It is strange to be surrounded by people who think they know him. But hadn’t she also thought she’d known him? No wonder she is sitting down here with the rest of them, really. They’d all thought they’d known him. And he’d thought he was their friend. And in the end, everyone was wrong. Wasn’t that hilarious?
The absurdity of the moment, the understanding of what little control she has is bubbling up inside her. She can feel it, explosive, compulsive; she is unable to tamp it down.
And then, one person laughs.
A nervous, skittering giggle that goes on and on, breathlessly. Just when it seems as if the laughter has trailed off, they inhale deeply and continue. It sounds, as it goes on, now not so much like laughter as weeping, as some laughter sounds once it passes a certain point, the emotion it conveys crossing the boundary from humor or sadness into some other extreme that is both and neither at once.
The comedian stands rigidly on the stage, bewildered, because he cannot recall a scenario where a single person laughs so long and hard while no one else does. It is likely the thing that is baffling security—they can’t remove someone for laughing at a comedy show, after all, and yet the laughter is disruptive, unsettling, and has frozen everything in time until it runs its course. A single sound in the center of all that silence, drawing everyone’s attention from the stage.
The laughter crescendos, a full-bodied symphony. It carries the loss, the love, the loneliness, the pure and unadulterated absurdity.
Her chest vibrating with the laughter, shaking, heaving as if she had now exorcised something, the woman in the front row stands, still breathlessly giggling, and begins to clap for the comedian, alone.
Then she turns, waves a final farewell to the audience, and exits stage left.
Abigail Oswald is a writer whose work predominantly examines themes of celebrity, crime, and girlhood. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as Wigleaf, Matchbook, Fractured Lit, Hobart, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, DIAGRAM, and Split Lip, and her short fiction was selected for Best Microfiction 2021. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and currently resides in Connecticut. Find her online at abigailwashere.com, and on Twitter at @thefirstabigail.