"They're wrong when they say write what you know. Write what you want, and in the end you'll find out you knew it all along" –Samantha Newcomer
There is a tiny room on the lower west side where once upon another day I felt acutely aware of the white space at the top of the page of a new chapter, where I had already been sitting for half an hour tipping left and right on the plastic fold-up chair that was missing one of the foot pads. The pad-less foot made a scraping sound on the ground with each move, and the rhythm had lulled me right into where Paul found me. "Get out of your head, Orly," he said, flicking my hair before settling into the uncertain chair beside me. Paul knew me well enough to understand that my head was exactly where he'd find me. He knew me well enough to know that I garnered sustenance through imagination, and I would never leave wonderland if I had my choice. I guess I'm not as strong as Alice.
We were here for a casting, our casting. It was for a play I'd been working on for the past eight years that was finally becoming a reality. Paul was a friend, my best friend really, but today he was my director, here to help me transpose my ideas from pen to stage. While I was in my head, he was truly in the world, almost omnipresent. Paul lived. He existed so meaningfully that even Sartre might say that his essence did in fact precede his existence. Most importantly though, Paul kept me sane, making sure I didn't fall too far down the rabbit hole in my mind.
He set a vanilla latte before me with the explanation that I would need this to get through the day. We hoped to cast our leads in the next few hours, and we had auditions lined up for nine girls and seven boys. However, I couldn't help thinking that I wouldn't need the coffee, but I took a sip anyway, appreciating the first hints of its distinctive flavor (I believe no two coffees ever taste the same).
"Are you sure about this?" Paul looked at me with all six feet on the ground. His eyes tried to find the answer before his ears as he stared with his mouth straight across, waiting.
"What do you mean?" I tried to play innocent with my chair tipped back, but I understood. This might be the last chance to call the whole thing off, to retreat back into my tiny apartment with my manuscript clutched to my chest, listening to the honking of horns and the incessant ticking of my wall clock. I would feel the beating of the words time themselves to the clock and my heart until everything hummed in perfect unison to sing me to sleep. I don't know if Paul knew how many times I'd imagined that exact scenario, but as my heart thrummed with the excitement of the edge of possibility, his eyes drank me in and saw those visions running in a filmstrip between our eyes.
"You know what I mean. You could back out now. We could cancel this and go grab coffee and laugh about how stupid we were in college. Then you could go home and I could go home and we could both turn on Real Housewives of Atlanta and stay up too late texting about it. Then we could sleep and then we could wake up and forget this whole thing ever happened."
"Why do I feel like you know something I don't?" I asked with a smile and a roll of my eyes.
Paul replied with unexpected seriousness, "You shouldn't. I really don't know much of anything at all. I can just tell you that this is a risk, and you need to know it's a risk. You're putting yourself out there. This could wither and die before your eyes, and you need to know that. You need to be ready. Are you?"
He stared penetratingly at me and I soon became acutely aware of the six feet on the scuffed ground beneath me.
"You're cute when you worry. Of course I'm ready."
The day passed in tense monotony. The constant humming of what's to come played in the background of the same lines read over and over again with slightly different inflections. The guys all seemed the same to me, each a slightly lankier version of the last with slightly tighter pants and slightly more hair gel. None of them was right. I could tell it about each of them the moment they walked through the door, but I thought a chance was fair. They all got one, and they all disappointed. They played the leading man role one dimensionally—all anger and melodrama but no depth. We sent each away with a cryptic "we'll call you."
The girls were better. Some of them were. Most were fresh-faced, t-shirt and jeans, ponytail and shoulders back like their ballet teachers instructed when they were eight and they told them they couldn't be ballerinas because they weren't graceful enough. That was when they took up acting to let out the depression wrought by the crushing of their pink tulle dreams and their lack of grace. Some sweet older acting coach told them that they had talent and it made up for the judgment of the ballet teacher and from that moment on they were going to be on Broadway. As soon as they could, they packed up their bags to escape that small town, eventually emerging from beneath the street into the smoke and the bite of the city to walk through the door of that little room on 13th street.
The last audition of the day was different. This girl wasn't like the others. Her lace up boots drummed confidently on the scuffed floor as she decisively placed her resume on our chipped wooden table, pivoted, and took her place in the fold-up chair, its four legs resting limply on the scuffed floor. "Shaye Bernard," she announced with a voice that scraped like a subway car beginning to move. She breathed cigarette smoke and neon.
"You may begin," Paul told her with a nod. I almost wanted to laugh at his uncharacteristic formality. Shaye wiggled her shoulders and turned her knees in, firmly planted feet rocking onto their outer edges. With bony elbows rested on bony knees and eyes on knotted fingers, she began what Paul and I had taken to calling our big monologue.
"It's not like they say. He's not bad for me. Believe me, I know. I know myself better than anyone else, right? I know myself, and I know what's good for me. I love him you see. I'm in love with him. And he loves me. I know he does because he told me. He told me he loves me and he tells me so I know it's true. Why wouldn't it be true? He hasn't ended things yet, so obviously he still loves me and he still wants to be with me. And he apologizes when he does something wrong. I mean, when he knows he's done something wrong. There are times when I get mad and he doesn't apologize…but I immediately regret it. I always regret it because he wasn't wrong. I was just getting mad. I always apologize because it's good to apologize, you know? Things don't get better if you don't apologize.
"Not that things are bad. Of course I don't think things are bad. They aren't. They're great. We fight, I mean, we fight some. But we don't fight all the time. Everything's great most of the time. We just fight. Couples fight. It's because we care and there's something there. And we always make up and then everything is really great. It's better than it was at the beginning when we didn't fight because there's more depth now. It's emotional and it's real now. That's what all the magazines say. He comes to me. He trusts me. He's got his issues. His mom died when he was a teenager and that's why he's so troubled. But he comes to me when he needs help. He doesn't go to anyone else, so he needs me. He needs me to be there for him. And I need him. I know I need him because I need his support and he loves me.
"My friends keep telling me that this is unhealthy and that I should break up with him. They hate him but I love him so I don't care what they say. They don't know our relationship. They don't know him like I do. I know him better than anyone and he knows me. He's the only one I can talk to about everything. I trust him. I trust him. I love him. My friends say he shouldn't ignore me, but I know it's only when I do something wrong. And when he talks to me again—"
"You need to listen to them," I heard myself snarl. I reeled back at what had torn out of my mouth and simultaneously became aware of my nails digging into my palm.
Eyebrows lowered, Shaye countered, "I don't. They don't know what they're talking about. They don't know him. I know him. I love him. You don't get it. Leave me alone."
Leave me alone
"You don't love him." I hate you. "Can't you see that?" I'm not mean, I'm just honest. "He's pulled you into his web of mind games and insecurity and made you think that you need this." I'll break my rule this once and say I'm sorry. "You don't need this." I'm not talking to you anymore. "I promise you don't need this."
"I won't get this again. I know I'm not worth it. If I fail this time, I'll fail every time. You need to see that this is it for me. If I fuck this up, that's it. It's over. I'm over."
Everyone thinks you're annoying and pretentious. I'm just being honest. I'm not impressed with you. Anyone intelligent enough to understand your writing already knows what you're trying to say, so it's pointless. Society has made you think you have real problems, but really you're just whiny. Leave me alone you miserable slut. I hate you. I hate you. I'm sorry. I hate you.
"Stop. He's the one making you like this. He's the one destroying you. It's not you. It was never you. That voice in your head telling you how awful he treats you? Listen to it. Oh god please listen to it."
"Orly," Paul whispered, grabbing my arm and pulling me back into reality. Shaye stood before us, fists clenched like mine, breathing heavily, shoulders tracing heart monitor lines along the wall behind her. I tipped backward onto two feet and my toes, and she quietly sank back into the chair, eyes locked with the scuffed floor. I looked down at the familiar crescent marks in my palms
"We'll call you," Paul said somberly. Shaye stepped out of the room, her boots tapping more than drumming this time.
"Orly…" Paul touched my arm again, this time lightly with his thumb rubbing against my bones. "What happened? Are you ok?"
"I have to go." I quickly shoved papers into my bag, slung it over my shoulder, and headed for the door, hands jammed into my pockets in the hopes of finding some strength and solid ground within.
I sat in the coffee shop on 77th doing all I could not to think about what had happened that day. I noticed my fingers trembling, and I tried to tell myself it was the coffee in the chipped porcelain mug they were currently clutching. I stared at the steaming cup and watched the milk swirl—well really dance—as it lightened the entire mixture. The choreography told me a story about a girl I didn't know who could dance like that in white and skim the surface of black coffee, who could lighten it the way the milk did, who could make the whole world lighter with just a splash. With every splash it got lighter until soon it was almost blinding.
They always told her she was a light. It was something in her eyes, they said. They said she was special and that she could be anything and anyone. They called her talented. She had a right to reach for the stars because she could actually make it. She spent her life dancing and changing the color of coffee and not making a big deal about it. She knew what she wanted and where she was going. She knew, and she liked it. Everything felt right to this girl in the chipped mug. Everything was right.
Then he came along and changed things. He was blacker than the bitterest coffee she'd ever tasted, and his milkless eyes told her tales of deep sorrow. For whatever reason, she'd believed she could lighten them with sugar-colored fingers. She'd felt she was succeeding when he bought her flowers and kissed her goodnight. She was nineteen, and twelve through eighteen whispered to her and told her this was love.
He'd held her like she dreamed of, the warmth of his chest and a heartbeat that sped with her smile. He'd looked at her with his face just inches away and his eyes had smiled. She'd never known eyes could smile like that. When he cried after their first fight, she couldn't help but throw herself in his arms and hold him holding her while they cried together despite knowing it would be ok.
She never knew what happened. That's what made it so terrible. She couldn't say when the occasional fight turned into the occasional moment of bliss. She couldn't say when he first came to her insinuating suicidalism. She couldn't say when she began to spend nights awake, fearing she wouldn't see him the next day. She couldn't say when she began to spend nights awake, imagining what pills taste like.
She couldn't say when "volatile" became an understatement. She couldn't say when words whispered between two mouths breathing the same air (they made a heart flutter) turned to words spat by corrupted lips (they buried her in the pounding of her overexerted brain). She couldn't say when she realized she hated him. She couldn't say why she kept telling herself she loved him for so long after.
She could only remember the day it was over, when she realized she bled black coffee and something inside her wasn't working anymore. She made the world around her bitter and she missed the taste of milk. No longer did they tell her she could do anything. Now, they told her she could do one day at a time.
I swirled the mug to speed the mixing of the milk and the coffee. I was left with nothing but a light brown liquid in a chipped porcelain mug. Staring down, I became acutely aware of my tensed calves, the balls of my feet pressing into the ground, and my leg shaking with the strain. I could feel four feet planted firmly on the ground while two, with ankles jutting outward, pressed too hard yet still failed to feel stable on the coffee-stained floor. As the rippling of the surface slowed, I noticed a reflection in the opaque calm. Brown eyes stared back at me for a moment before I raised the porcelain mug to my chapped lips to calm my trembling fingers.