The Laughter Artist

Shruti Swamy

Drunk. Split almost open. And I found myself laughing at the window at the violence outside, a man yelling at a woman who walked quickly away from him, crossing through the dark, sudden emptiness of the street to its opposing sidewalk. The violence was his word to her, cunt, which is his word to me, too, though I was, of course, an un-encountered stranger: it was just that the word implicated me. Called out as he moved toward the fleeing woman, trying to master the distance between them, moving towards her like he would take her by the throat. No knife, no gun, but he had his weapons: his arms, his dick, his voice. Call the cops? I might. The phone in my hand. But I didn’t know what the cops would do for her, I couldn’t be sure they wouldn’t make her life worse. And I should—should I—rush down there with a broom and scare him off her, scare him away from her? Yes, of course, that would be the good human thing. The thing to do when you live here, though, is to stand at the window and watch with the phone in your hand. Across the way you can see the neighbors in the window doing the same thing. We all stand in our windows like a hall of gods watching, and I am the only one that appears mirthful, I am the only one to laugh.

A laugh signifies. Not just mirth. I am a laughter artist. Artist is certainly a little overblown, though it is actually also my official title. Artist if I deserve it at all is because I don’t just have a single good laugh, but many of them. I have a harsh laugh, a hissing laugh, a soft laugh, a mocking laugh, a laugh that is pure joy—a sweet bell rung, an angry laugh, an instigating laugh, an infecting laugh, a polite laugh, a comforting laugh. I am developing a laugh that incorporates tones of barking with a dog’s whine: it is a begging laugh. A laugh that says please. Can one say please with a laugh?

Yes. Listen:

Hak-ha-rauh-hak-whoop-oop-ha-hak.

Him: Do you want it? Tell me, do you want it? Cunt?

Me: Hak-ha-rauh-hak-whoop-oop-ha-hak.

That was not what I laughed when I saw the man chase the woman across the street. The empty street because the light was red, otherwise it was quite busy, cars drove fast there and on rainy days their tires made a sound on the pavement that was oddly comforting, and the tires got sheened black by the water. No, it was not raining, not that day. But it was dusk, and it had been dusk all day. The woman wore a red sweatshirt with the hood pulled up over her head, but I still read her as a woman. I’m not sure why but most women have a walk, they can’t help it. Not a swagger hip-walk at all, or not that it’s anything delicate. It’s perhaps just an awareness of how much space they are taking up at all times. Even if they take big steps to move quickly they are aware of the precise amount of space their body uses as it expands and contracts. She had that. I had it. I had seen a video of myself moving. It was a play I was in when I was trying to be an actress and not a laughter artist. It was not that I didn’t want to be a laughter artist, I just didn’t know that you could. In the play I was a waiter and I entered the stage in a manner that I thought was masculine. I was also concentrating on not dropping my tray which was large and circular and which I had to hold at ear level as the director had instructed. On the tray was a soda in a glass bottle of the time period for realism, so if I dropped the tray it would, realistically, spill fizzy across the stage. I can’t blame my lack of masculinity on my concentration, though, because in fact I practiced for many months, even though it was a small part—a very small part, if I’m being honest, just one scene. I used to go and sit at the bus stop and watch the way people walked, really study them. I made all my friends walk circles around my apartment holding a large circular tray at ear-level, and my husband. I mean, I made my husband do it, too, and I filmed them. I watched the films over and over again. This is when I noticed the thing about women and the way they walk. Walking is not so simple as putting one foot in front of the other, I also learned. Our balance looked both practiced and precarious the longer I studied. I felt sorry for each and every one of us bipeds by the end of it. In contrast, the cat’s movements never held the kind of danger that every step for every person seemed to hold. She also never seemed sad.

The cast went out for drinks after the show closed and I was talking to the director. I told him all this. I was a little tipsy and I was apologizing to him for not being able to master a truly masculine walk. But when I apologized he looked amused. He said, “I cast you for that very walk.” His words were slurred and French-sounding. “Why do you think I made you a man when you could have been a woman? I liked to see a woman crossing the stage, wishing she were a man.” Also he told me, “You have a careless way of being in your body. It is odd for an actress. Actresses are always very conscious of their bodies. But you, you seem to be shrugging into it. Saying oh well.” I didn’t like that very much, though I got the feeling he had meant it as a compliment. I think he had said it almost flirtatiously. But he was married to the lead actress, the one I served a soda to, so maybe it wasn’t meant to be a compliment. And the woman rounded the corner.

And the woman rounded the corner, and was erased. The man rounded the corner too, and was erased. The street filled up with cars, released by the red light into the pen of the dark block like bulls. Their taillights were red, their headlights wet the street, darkened it. I tapped the glass like an aquarium, still laughing, but this was an honest laugh, my true laugh, which I only was able to release when I drank, because I was becoming too practiced. Whenever I started to laugh in company I felt like I was constructing the sound, I was choosing between sounds, to give my listener pleasure or deny him it. The choice was mine but I was still making a choice. After a while, even when I was by myself I became too conscious of the choice and the construction to laugh truly. I left my laugh is what I am saying. I stood outside of it and watched it leave me, slipping or bursting through my lips. It was like an ice cream seller who still liked ice cream but she could not exactly taste it. Or she was too aware of it. She tasted cream, fat, sugar, the light and dark notes of vanilla. It was just too much. But drunk: ah. My laugh returned. The mind forgot the lips, the breath. It fell out of me. It was not a laugh I could perform on command, like all my other laughs. It was a fantastically ugly sound, grating, like a rusty gate swinging open in its hinges:

Hareek-hareek-hareek

It felt so good along my throat and rushing past my teeth. Laughter has a taste. I stood at the window for several more minutes. Then my drink was empty and I went to the kitchen to refill it. I live alone in my apartment now and my husband is not my husband. We split amicably and we still see each other sometimes and give each other hugs. I have started whispering something indecipherable into his neck during these hugs, because I am trying to reverse the slow but total erosion of mystery that occurred in the six years of our marriage. The shape of a body, the body’s intimate noises, lovemaking, laughter, the muffled farts of the bathroom, the body’s weeping: and there were times I had been with him when I was no different than I was as a child, and I suspected that he was no different with me than he was as a child, stupidly happy, and playing, wrestling on the bed like naked kids. The screen dropped from my self in those moments without me even realizing it, the terror came later, when I noticed it had fallen, when I was trying to gather myself up in raw handfuls but I was like sand all over. I couldn’t explain it to him, or even to myself, this absurd panic. It took hold of me when I cooked dinner, or tried to read a book, or sometimes, immediately after we fucked: and he could tell, if he was looking, he described it as going blank behind the eyes. Still cooking, still moving my eyes across the page, still lying beside him, loose and breathing—the body lived and lived. But panic expanded outward, irrepressibly outward. What was I afraid of? Nothing. Literally nothing. Nothingness. Of vanishing.

For my final project in laughter school, I created a divorcée laugh. It took me some time to articulate and then perfect. I started with the pure laugh of a baby and then made it dirty, roughed up the edges. I had to perform it in front of my class and my professor, and as they watched it burst from my mouth I felt myself becoming the person the laugh suggested, broken but swaggering, the kind of woman who leaves lipstick marks on a cigarette. Afterward my professor took me aside and asked me if I would teach it to her, which I was happy to do, sitting almost knee to knee with her in her little camphor-smelling office. She learned it after only a couple minutes and capped the laugh off with her own, bitter flourish: then it was hers, though she was happily married to an accountant. She herself was a beautiful, seamless laugher, her face seemed to pull back a layer as it laughed so you could see its elegant structure, its bones. She taught laughter as though it were a foreign language, demonstrating a laugh and then breaking it down to its plainest syllables, which she would feed us two or three at a time until we could laugh it in unison, then we would break out into our own rhythm, and the laugh would shatter across the room. It sounded different in each of our voices: Lawrence’s Malbec baritone, Jessa’s creamy mezzo-soprano, Lilly’s surprising tenor; Timo thrust it all through the nose, but in Sandra you could watch the laugh rise up from her gut to her chest to her shoulders, it was deeply athletic, and she told me she had to wear a sports bra to class because it created as much breast-joggling as running. I could pick my classmates out in a room of laughers now, and when I hear their voices on TV or in commercials I remember quite viscerally the body that created the musical sounds: it is intimate as touch, their laughter. We’re not in touch now, but sometimes we will call each other and laugh into the receiver, laugh and listen, as we learned how to do. The laughter school I went to is the best one in the country, though it is not a degree-granting program, all you get is a certificate. I have mine hung up in my living room, and I am proud of it. I am proud of it, but I was terrified to explain to my Indian mother what I had spent my time and money doing.

But when I actually told my mom that I was a laughter artist she said, “Professional laugher? Like a professional mourner?”

I had never heard of that.

“When your uncle died, we hired professional mourners. These were ladies who would come and weep and wail. They’d walk in the funeral procession with us and they would weep and wail.”

“But why?”

“Sometimes, when you lose—when people die—it is very hard to make tears. You feel like you want to make tears, but something inside you stops them and they press your chest. Like something sitting on it. So these ladies come and they cry for you. When you hear them cry your body starts to make tears, the tears travel up from your chest and into your eyes. And when they flow from your eyes that weight on your chest decreases.”

I wanted to touch my mother. On that funereal day I had been separated from her by a continent, and I didn’t understand why she had left. My parents tried to explain death to me but I didn’t get it: I never saw my uncle who lived in India, his gone-ness already seemed to me a fixed state, double gone, he was an abstraction beyond comprehension. But years later, I saw a picture of her she had had taken for my father, who stayed behind, with me. In the picture she was wearing a white sari and the skin around her eyes was very dark, her hair shorn close to the scalp, bald as a newborn, lips parted—her smile was breaking. She looked dense and fragile and beautiful as a star.

I told her that there were practical applications like voiceover work and studio audience work, and that there was the laughter I developed on my own, like an artist who made drawings for advertisings but was also a painter in the 1940s. I wanted to emphasize the practicality of my new profession because I could hear fear in her voice when she told me about the mourners. I was a wild girl; she was afraid for me. I couldn’t stroke away her fear.

I learned fear from her, my mother.

The street cleared and emptied many more times, and the moon came out. By that time I was finished laughing. I went and took a hot shower that was somewhat brief, though it was my third one of the day. It was becoming difficult for me because we were in a terrible drought, but bathing gave me a relief that was intense and medicinal. Three degrees more and the water would have burned my skin, I was on the knife’s edge of tolerable, and I used dish soap, in fact I pretended I was a dish and handled myself very gently, like a complicated bowl. I had been bathing this way for the last three days and my skin had become very—tight. It seemed not to fit me so exactly anymore, like it used to, as though I was wearing a perfect glove that had been designed for my hand. Now it felt like the inside of me was growing faster than the outside of me, and soon I would split myself open. The girl inside would be clean and shining, golden. One had to be careful when one was drunk and bathing, one might slip and shatter oneself. But truly she would not be golden, I knew, when she emerged. She would have the horrible pink skin that was left when the sunburn peeled away: newborn, ugly, and defenseless like a little baby mole.

I was dressing when the phone rang for a while and then I jumped at the sound of the buzzer and went to the window and looked down: my ex-husband was standing in his jacket looking up and waving at me. We were too far away to see the expression on each other’s faces. I let him up. He seemed to want to touch me but he was holding himself back from it, I had a bristle all over me, I was so tense. I hadn’t slept for two days and it was nearly the night of the third. He said my name, which is Janaki, which I will never fucking shorten to Jan. You don’t say the Jan in Janaki like the Jan in Jan: you stretch it out and soften it. I taught it to my class and my professor like my professor taught us laughter, breaking it down to its velvet syllables. It was my grandmother’s.

“Hi, Ravi.” It came out almost like a yelp. My throat was rough from all that laughing.

“You OK, buddy?”

“What are you doing here?”

I looked at him, his body. I had formed against him; my shape had shaped to fit him. Now, separate, we seemed so odd. He wore his worry all over him, but there was nothing he could do to sooth himself like he used to.

“Janaki?”

I was falling asleep on my feet, something I had not thought possible. My eyes jerked open. Vertigo. I put an arm out and the wall held me up. What on earth? his face was saying. I still had that bristle on me so he didn’t try to reach. Me. If only I had learned earlier to quill myself. A crumple between the brows, he was such a handsome divorcé.

“You drunk?”

“Yup. So?”

“So nothing. Just wanted to make sure you weren’t having, like, a stroke.”

I smiled. “No droop.”

“OK, why don’t we sit down.”

“OK. Don’t patronize me.”

“I didn’t think I was.”

“Tone.”

I sat down on the floor. He might be surprised how neat the apartment was now that I lived alone. When we lived together I assumed an anti-housework position that sprang from our collective confusion about what a wife was. Even my own shit, my clothes, would pile up around the dresser and the bed in formations he called berms. Now, I often put the clothes I discarded in the hamper, or right back on the hanger. “Want some. Whiskey?”

“No, thanks.” He sat down too, awkwardly. His legs didn’t fold easily into cross, but frogged up at his sides. My stupid husband. He loved a woman named Sophie now, and I intuited that Sophie would be pregnant soon: she was a little older than us and wanted kids, and I know this because she told me at dinner the very first time we met. He had said in the car that it was his fault, which was vain and infuriating besides being untrue. Your fault? As if he had any kind of control over my life, let alone the things that happened to me. If we hadn’t gotten divorced, you wouldn’t have gone on that date. We both wanted the divorce. In fact, the divorce was my idea. My idea, my fault? And then he was backpedaling, saying no one’s fault, no one’s fault. Which is incidentally what the state of California had said about our divorce and would say about my rape. No one’s fault. Not enough evidence. Your word against his.

“Let’s get you to bed.”

“If you had the chance to go to the moon, would you?”

“Yes,” he said.

“What about Mars? Mars you don’t come home.”

He was looking at me. “Look at you, you can hardly keep your eyes open.”

“Moon yes, Mars yes. For me. Actually, moon yes, Mars maybe.”

“Jaan.”

“You don’t get to do this anymore.”

“Jesus, someone has to. Up.”

I was lifting myself to my feet. His hands were cold and familiar. For a moment I remembered my body. Then it became too heavy. I was in bed. The old days were over, I understood, the awkward easy days of living freely. What lay ahead felt austere and frightening. In fact, I couldn’t look at them full in the face. I shut my eyes.

My professor told me that she had accepted me into the program because my laughter was unique and troubling and she saw potential. But I would have to learn how to blend. That was an odd comment to me because I thought of myself as perpetually blending, a child-of-immigrants instinct that I was working very hard to unlearn because it made me a bad actress. But my instincts had always been different with laughter: my laughter professor told me to blend but she also said she had a laugh she thought would be perfect for me. I went to her office with the hope that I would be her protégé, a hope I didn’t bother to disguise, I was so eager to be mentored. In fact, she did become a mentor to me and to all of us, all of us who wanted to be mentored, and she didn’t play favorites. She gave us each a laugh to learn that was ours.

Aroof—aroof—ek—ek-ek-ek.

It took a while. “More guttural. Spit it. It has blood.”

I didn’t understand yet that some laughs are not happy. It was a powerful dark noise she made, an incantatory sound, barely controlled, controllable. The laugh changed her face, her kind, maternal face, made it snarling. The bones stood out. We spent a long time, several hours, on those tiny syllables, and she was more patient than I was: I was hungry. Then I laughed a long thread of it, accurately if not expertly, it fell out of me like a strand of red silk, and in the stillness of that room, I sat flushed with my own daring, my own blood.

“What’s it called?”

“You already know the name of it.”

There was a tiny moon in the window of her office, tiny because it was alone in the window and there was nothing to compare it to but itself. Fall. “Death laugh.”

“Ah. What kind?”

“There’s more than one?”

“Of course,” she said.

“Laugh in the face of,” I said.

She was not smiling. “Yes.”

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