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Books and movies taught me that only the beautiful ever deserve to be loved. It's a hideous thing to say, really, but it's true. When you're an actress, all anyone will talk about is how they think you should lose that extra ten pounds or honey, have you ever considered a nose job, or come on sweetheart, take your clothes off and I'll make you a star. And I hate it I hate it I hate it. I wish I could find a pretty way of saying it like River would, some way to make it sound powerful and spiky, but I can't. All I can say is that it's awful, and I hate it, because I'm just not all that good with words. I'm good with River's words; I can say them like I mean them, but my own just always seem to come out flat. That's why I'm an actress and not a writer, I suppose, and I suppose that after everything I just said, acting may not seem so good for me either. I can't explain why I want it so much.
All I remember is that my mom was sick one Christmas. I can't remember how old I was- I must have been six or seven at the time, too precocious to be shy at all. I remember getting out the gift my father had hand-picked for her, tearing open the wrapping and revealing the video tapes underneath. I watched Guys and Dolls, West Side Story, The Sound of Music, Oklahoma... and when they'd finished I stood up and declared to my mom that I wanted to be the lady with the pretty voice. And she laughed feebly, and called my dad in, and the next Christmas, and every Christmas until I was eleven we'd go to see the Newport Amateur Thespians doing their Christmas musical. When I was eleven, I became a NAT in my own right. When I turned 13 and daddy got a huge promotion, we moved into a bigger house and got a maid and a new car and my daddy promised me the world for my birthday. I have seen a show on Broadway every birthday since.
I don't know what it was that first attracted me to the stage- I couldn't tell you if it were the costumes or the makeup or the pretences of it all. I couldn't say what drew me to musical theatre over Shakespeare or clever Pinter-esque plays. I just feel it so strongly sometimes; I'm not meant to play happy families all my life with mom and dad and Hugo, no matter how cosy it feels. I'm destined for Maria and Nancy and Elphaba and Christine. Those high notes are just another challenge. Stage fright is not an option. This is all I have ever wanted to do and it is all that will satisfy me.
I suppose it's no surprise to you that I'm going for the lead in River's play. I mean, he calls it a play, and I'm sure to him that's all that's really important, but he forgets the other important part of it- the music. I am not backing down on this issue. There must be a song in that play somewhere for me, and if there isn't, I shall scream. Call it the diva inside of me, whatever, but there are talent scouts coming from all over the place to watch, and how am I meant to get into a musical theatre programme if they don't hear me sing? River is being far too pretentious and snobby about the whole thing- honestly, I'd rather he wrote me some heartbreaking lyrics than put in random metaphors and tried to show off by freaking people out. Nobody wants to see that.
All of that's beside the point. The point is that I'm going to be the star and I'm going to be ridiculously happy and I'm going to get that final encore even if I have to write the damn song myself. River has been my best friend for years, but he's not going to be taking that away from me. Surely he has to understand how passionate I am about it all. I mean, he's exactly the same way with his writing and I've never stopped him from doing what he wanted when it came to that. Obviously, I don't plan to ruin his first and last major adolescent play by turning it into High School Musical, but I don't see why there can't be music.
I honestly need the music to perform. And I feel really strongly about it, which is what brings me to interrupt one of River's famous writing frenzies. Obviously, he is not happy about it, and he probably resists the urge to throw his coffee all over me, deciding against it only because he is unhealthily dependent on the caffeine. I brave the inevitable sulking that interrupting him always causes and I corner him backstage before the auditions begin, knowing that it may well be my last chance to get a few songs into the play, because if the lead has a song, all auditions for the part will have to involve a song, because of the way our drama club works. I am surprised when he actually agrees to hear me out based on this logic.
I take a deep breath and begin to talk. I compliment him on his way with words and I look at what he has written so far. And it is good, really good, in that obscure and romantic way that only River can be. I look at the discarded pages on the floor, saying things like 'the curtain rises- it is the end of the world' and detailing weird dream sequences but even they are quirky and impressive. His words almost distract me from my mission, but only almost. I have spotted his main flaw.
"What's the plot here, River?" I ask him without any hidden agenda, for the time being. I am genuinely intrigued by the whole thing. He has all of the detail but none of the obvious, and I recognise right away that the people who are filing into the auditorium are going to want the storyline before the prose. I watch for his reaction and I think he realises it too.
"It's a love story, Leila," he says, slowly. "But I don't know where to begin."
I am astounded at this. My clever, darling friend, the literary genius in the making- he doesn't know what his story is. I'm honestly a little alarmed because it's not like River, not to plan ahead and get the basic story down on paper before he starts writing it. I don't know how to help and I hope I've got the wrong end of the stick.
"But you have got a story planned, River?" I ask him, knowing even as I do so what his answer will be. I am quite honestly exasperated because there is a crowd of people waiting to hear the outline and he doesn't even know where it's beginning yet.
"No, Leila, I haven't." He clarifies my assumption, looking panicked, and I shake my head in disbelief at him. Surprisingly, he actually looks a little scared by this, so I guess that he realises what he's gonna have to do. This makes me worry even more because River is really not good at winging it, even on his best caffeine boosted days.
Caffeine tends to make him ramble.
"I wanted to tell it backwards but it seemed derivative and too Betrayal-esque and then I started looking at fairytales and love at first sight and Brief Encounter and all of the love story types kind of bled into one in my brain. It needs to be epic and beautiful but I refuse to write some sappy pile of crap, so I'm basically screwed, Leila, I think," he says without pausing for breath, and I wordlessly follow him to the kettle in the drama club kitchen, where he pours himself a supersize mug of black coffee and gulps a mouthful down nervously. I hope that he doesn't want ideas from me but I am sorely disappointed, because he soon turns to me with his puppy dog expression on and I can't say no to it- I have never been able to. I don't know what to suggest.
According to my cell phone, we have about ten minutes to think of a plot and decide about music before auditions start, and this makes me want to freak out and go Drama Queen on River's ass.
And then, joy of joys, something occurs to me. I realise that I could use his problem to my advantage- if I could think of the perfect plot, River would have to repay me by putting songs in. I am so relieved by this idea that I start to grin like a Cheshire cat on speed, and River, despite his obsessing, doesn't fail to notice.
"Oh God, what?" he asks, knowing that he won't like what I've got to say. I smile again, a hint of satisfaction showing on my face and giving him that cute little worried crease between his piercing eyes.
"I have a proposition for you River," I begin, and then the idea comes to me.
And I get what I want.
"My darling thespians, this year, we are making a love story," he declares. He glares in my general direction, taking a deep breath.
"...and it won't be happy or cheesy a lot of the time, but I guess you could call it a, uh... musical?"
The magic word.
The auditorium erupts with cheers.
I have what I want.