Article — From the February 2010 issue

Lonely Hearts Club

A star-crossed obsession with As The World Turns

For two decades, I’ve lived between New York City and Oxfordshire, and when in the autumn of 2008 I came back to New York, I got a television for the first time in years. I said I wanted it in order to follow the presidential election, but it was really so I could view entire episodes of As The World Turns, not just online excerpts. As The World Turns, one of the oldest soap operas on network television, became the only program I watched; for election coverage, I went back to my laptop. On As The World Turns, impetuous Luke was also running for office, but, desperate, he stuffed the student-government ballot boxes. Honest Noah betrayed his boyfriend to the dean and moved out on him for the second time. Luke was expelled and started drinking, a danger for someone with a donor kidney. Thank goodness, he’d gone through that operation before I started watching the show.

I moved back my lunch hour and did not answer the telephone between two and three o’clock. I had my machine set so that As The World Turns recorded automatically anyway. My partner of nineteen years, my visiting Englishman, loyally watched an episode with me and then gave me a look that said this wasn’t going to be an interest we shared. I watched the whole show even when Luke and Noah weren’t featured, aware that there were viewers who forced themselves to stick with it when Luke and Noah were on. I was startled by some nasty comments about The Boys—as they were known to their fans—that I found posted in a chat room. It was not for me to understand how anyone could resist this portrait of first love, the way the two actors managed to convey in a caress or in the whispered utterance of a name the helpless tenderness of it.

I joined the As The World Turns Fan Club and at the last minute got a ticket to the annual fan-club luncheon held in New York last spring. I tried to plan what to wear, but bristled when a friend observed that it sounded like I was getting ready for a date. The ballroom doors at the Midtown hotel were to open at half past ten that Saturday morning for the raffle of show memorabilia. I had not expected the excited noise of over four hundred people sitting down to a not-bad lunch, and certainly had not thought that I would be so humbled by the induction to come.

I was such a newcomer. As The World Turns had been on the air for fifty-two years. I was among mostly women, of all ages and sizes, but also a good number of men. A black guy on my left, in his late thirties maybe, had been watching the show for twenty-nine years, having been introduced to it by his grandmother. Others at our table were silent not because they were unfriendly; they were merely preoccupied because determined on their own interior business. We were all there for the same reason. Eventually, some thirty-five soap-opera stars were brought out onto the faraway stage at the front, one by one or in romantic pairs. The roar when Van Hansis (Luke Snyder) and Jake Silbermann (Noah Mayer) appeared made my heart pound. There they were, in the ballroom distance. We were instructed to stay in our seats until the stars had taken their positions at small tables along the walls.

I got in their line. As soon as I’d arrived at the luncheon, a black woman had given me a Luke and Noah Fan Club nametag. Wearers of these tags fell into conversation right away. Young people had flown in from Paris or cut short a stay in Moscow to come. Twins from Texas were going to take in a Broadway show. The line was moving. It moved again, until the room felt too warm and bright. The girls directly in front of me stopped talking. We couldn’t hear the conversation a few feet ahead of us, but we caught the music of their voices. Someone had just presented one of them with an action-hero doll.

Then I was there. The table stood between us, but there they were, courteous, flawless, and camera-ready. I was dimly aware of a woman to my left whose function was to take the picture when you went around the table and stood between the stars, but I didn’t have a camera. Instead, we shook hands. They read my nametag. I could barely look at them. I produced a glossy photograph of them that I’d bought that afternoon. When they weren’t looking at me, I could look at them. I told them they were great. They thanked me and finished signing. I shook their hands again, which seemed to surprise one of them. Unable to meet his eye, I followed his black felt pen as he shifted it from one hand to the other. It was time to turn and go and I’d acted like a crazy person.

I didn’t look back until I was halfway down the line again. There they were, putting their arms around someone’s shoulders, smiling into the flash. I still couldn’t think of a thing to say to them. They were saying goodbye to someone else, and one of them looked down the line, as if seeing it for the first time, the longest of any in the ballroom. Then he was smiling at someone new. To watch their professionalism recalled me to myself.

I struck up a conversation with a black woman in a hat who was ecstatic that she’d won in the raffle large posters for both herself and her daughter. She was a fan who knew what she wanted. Every year she came to the luncheon to say hello to her favorite star, whom she’d followed to As The World Turns from a soap on another network. I asked if she thought my nametag identified me as a member of a lunatic fringe. She said the cast of As The World Turns were very good to their fans and their fans were good to them. We loved them and it was rare that a character stayed dead.

Another middle-aged black woman said that she enjoyed watching the characters get through problems not unlike her own. Kicked out of school, Luke had started a foundation for social justice with a trust fund given him by his biological father, a Eurotrash type whom he loathed. Because her mother had been denied a share of the family fortune, a distant cousin of Luke’s hatched a scheme that led to Noah’s and then Luke’s abduction. As of the luncheon, they were still being held hostage. I asked the woman if her problems were of that nature. “Yes, indeed.”

She remembered when Lauryn Hill was a young girl on the show in the early 1990s, singing at the show’s first interracial wedding. Beyond us, at the black table, I could see Luke’s half-black cousin, her black private-detective father, the town’s black police lieutenant, and his black attorney girlfriend, but, snow queens that we were, the black woman and I didn’t make a move in their direction. Stage veteran Elizabeth Hubbard, who plays Luke’s maternal grandmother, says on the As The World Turns official website that the Memoirs of Madame de la Tour du Pin is her favorite book. Before the luncheon, I’d imagined us discussing Madame’s surprising glimpses of blacks in Revolutionary France and of slavery in Albany, New York, which blacks had burned down a couple of years before Madame, however enlightened, arrived to become a slave owner herself. But I didn’t join the crowd around her chair either. I took a last look down that line I’d been in, and although I don’t drink or follow baseball, I went to a Times Square bar and watched the Yankees, already losing twenty to two.

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is the author of the novel <em>High Cotton</em> and, with Robert Wilson, the theater piece <em>Orlando.</em>

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