On Monday nights, Shelly goes with Jack to this bar called St. Mark’s that used to be a dive, but is suddenly and without explanation, cool. Now, Hollywood-types fill the leather booths, with their mussed up hair and good shoes, discussing who’s getting deals and who’s getting fired. Shelly sees it every day, in outdoor cafes all down Third and Beverly, the agents leaning back in their chairs, adjusting baseball caps, thumbing cell phones.
Because he’s written television for as long as Shelly has known him, Jack drags her along on these nights, to watch staged readings of other writers’ scripts in the attic above the bar—a cramped, airless room they call the “Actor’s Den.” The television Jack makes rarely finds its way into peoples’ homes, but he makes it, one way or the other—even if he only guides it along its path to destruction like a doomsday chauffeur. The bar is wood paneled and velvety like the inside of a jewelry box. The owner drinks ancient scotch out of a miniature crystal glass and pulls constantly at his handlebar mustache, a collector of old timey things. When they arrive, he tells Jack about the two screenplays he’s writing: one comedy, one horror.
“It’s all a veneer,” Jack whispers in Shelly’s ear, when the owner turns his back, “a hologram image. It’s just making up for a lack of substance.” But Shelly knows he points these things out because he is often guilty of them. It is a condition he cannot escape. This is his bread and butter, he says, even though it tastes like shit. Mostly, he says these things while they’re both naked, having sex, and Shelly is on top, rocking back and forth until they both forget their lives.
Shelly lives in a desolate part of town, teaching students who rarely want to learn. They want to talk about cars and baseball and sometimes even television. Most days are like hostage negotiations.
“Shut up, you idiot. You stupid idiot. Get out.” She says this to herself every morning, looking in the rear-view mirror while idling in the parking lot, debating if she should open the door. This teaching was something she fell into, splashed hopelessly around in, like a puddle. Now she rushes in late to class, Monday through Friday, the bottom of her pant legs wet and dragging.
“You should write a screenplay,” Jack says, when she complains. “I could teach you.”
They met at a bar, not St. Mark’s though it might as well have been. “Life is long,” he said, when she tried to make small talk. She liked him immediately.
I’m writing a book, she tells people, though she’s not. She has ideas, but who doesn’t? When they press her, she talks of her influences. Chaucer, she says, and Beckett, though she’s never read either one.
Early on, she learned that talk of literature renders television people speechless.
In the Actor’s Den, there is one row of wooden tables built into the wall, but those are reserved for the decision makers, and the rest of them sit in fold out metal chairs, close enough to smell the shampoo in one another’s hair.
Today, a writer in a lumberjack style flannel shirt introduces his TV pilot. “It’s a modern day Great Gatsby,” he says, “but with teenagers.”
At St. Mark’s, they refer to the scripts as teleplays. The writer has a small, comma-shaped mouth, as though he’s punctuating his own sentences. Inside his shirt pocket, there are four ballpoint pens of varying length and one number two pencil, extra sharp. He is trying hard for serious.
“Think 90210, if it took place in the twenties,” he says finally, and then glances around the room to cast the actors.
The actors. They are hungry—they ache with it—but they are trying for nonchalance. Still, their voices carry, loud and animated. Regardless of their body types, their ethnicities, they all have beautiful teeth—long, gleaming white doors. They come every Monday for a chance to read out loud, to hold a script on its way to creation or demise, to hope one of the baseball caps will look up from his iPhone and notice. Notice what? Shelly’s not sure, though she’s overheard the baseball caps speak of the compelling angles of a young man’s face, and the funny, yet heartbreaking way in which a praying-mantis-bodied actress said the word, “Hi.” No one is paid. They call it a workshop.
Next to Shelly, a Midwestern-looking girl smiles at her. She’s new here, Shelly can tell. The girl is too eager, too nice, and she’s dressed up in a blazer, as though on her way to a job interview. Still, when she flips her hair back and wipes away the bangs now beginning to tendril with sweat, Shelly sees that she is beautiful. These actresses, they know instinctively when they are most attractive. They can turn it on and off. Jack, across the room, flips pages, speaks in an assistant’s ear. When he looks over at Shelly in her folding chair, he sees the Midwestern girl, and his face changes, as though he’s been presented with a math problem or a riddle. Beautiful women create problems for men, Shelly knows. Shelly has always been on the verge of beautiful, her face creased with the effort of almost, and this has created a problem for her.
Jack has one rotten tooth. His head swings back in laughter, like a door opening, and that’s what Shelly remembers while looking down the shadowy part of his throat: his rotten tooth. Soon, the writer in flannel appears, asking the Midwestern girl to read the part of a Midwestern teenager, fresh-faced and over-eager, is exactly how he explains it.
“You’re supposed to be 18,” he says, “but you can pass, can’t you? However old you are.” The actress can’t decide if this is a question to be answered out loud.
Shelly looks up from the rigid lip of her book, and he says, “Jack’s getting you a drink downstairs. You like Scotch? Whoever you are,” and Shelly says, “Not at all.”
Now, the writer and the Midwestern girl discuss the Midwestern role. She has a hint of an accent, words curling at the edges like paper beginning to burn.
“I get it,” the actress says, sounding serious, her lips pursed, nodding deeply. Shelly notes that the firmness with which she presses her lips will surely lead to wrinkles, then heartache, then lip injections, then divorce. Shelly folds her arms on the table and sets her head down. She breathes deeply, counting, like Dr. Wasserman suggested.
She feels Jack behind her. He sets her drink down with a shivery thump of glass and places both hands on her shoulders. Shelly, too, is from the Midwest—a safe state cushioned by other safe states, a region of slow-moving people. Here, they talk slow but their eyes dart around, as though hunting for something just out of sight. It’s a common habit Shelly finds disconcerting. It is exotic to have moved here for a teaching job. On her way to school, Shelly counts the palm trees ticking by, cemented in the sidewalk. This is partly what attracts Jack to her, Shelly knows. As it turns out, exoticism comes in many forms.
Jack whispers in her ear, “You don’t have to stay,” and Shelly says, “Neither do you,” and then takes a long drag on her drink’s straw, like she’s wandered into some noir film.
The Midwestern girl has taken Jack’s seat. When she offers it back, he smiles in an easy, Midwestern way. “You sit,” he says. He speaks in a tone Shelly knows well—nasal, deadpan—the one he uses when he’s trying to win you over.
The girl inhales the perceived kindness. Jack pulls up a chair and wedges himself behind the two women, in the triangular gap between them.
On the other side of Shelly, yellow-haired girls are quoting Shakespeare. No, Shelly turns to see, they are simply reading from a script. They are trying out for an off-off-off Broadway play.
“It’s all happening in New York,” says one blonde to the other. When she bends low to adjust her boot, Shelly sees the dark seam of her true hair color. “Brooklyn’s the only place to be,” the girl continues, and Shelly feels old, past her mother old, lowering into the ground, grandfather clock old. This week alone, she’s heard this Brooklyn refrain at least a dozen times.
“How’s that script look?” Jack asks the Midwestern girl, leaning over her shoulder where he can surely smell the citrus notes in her shampoo. In her mind, Shelly has begun to refer to the girl as Daisy.
Daisy nods excitedly before she speaks. “Oh, it’s good. Really great. A lot of depth.”
Jack smiles in his hemmed in way, though of course, Daisy probably thinks that’s all there is; she’s receiving him in his entirety. It took me years to get the full thing, Shelly thinks, but the thought is too depressing to dwell on. And what she has isn’t full, not at all. What has she been doing all this time? Her life has a funny way of moving on without her.
“Do you direct?” Daisy asks Jack, “You look familiar.” He smiles, pressing his fingers into a church steeple.
“No,” he says, poking Shelly’s back with the steeple. Jack is Jewish, but in the casual, dinner party way. It hardly counts. Another thing he likes about Shelly, she thinks: her Waspy-ness. Her hemmed in Midwestern sensibility.
“I write television,” he says. “But you should talk to her.” He gestures toward Shelly. “She’s writing a book.”
“Are you?” Daisy asks, and Shelly says, “No.”
Daisy’s smile trembles, unsure.
“I’m just teaching,” Shelly says. “I’m just hanging around in bars.”
“Do you act?” Daisy persists.
“She’s never tried,” Jack says. “But she should.”
Daisy nods. “You have a very animated face,” she tells Shelly, who can’t decide if that’s a compliment.
The flannel shirt clears his throat, scraping his Doc Martins on the small wooden stage. “If we’re all ready,” he says, and when nobody responds, he continues, “Let’s get all the actors up here.” The fold out chairs snaking across the stage gradually fill. Pages flip. Throats hum. While rushing to stand up, Daisy hits Jack in the knee with her chair.
“Don’t worry,” he says, “they won’t start without you.”
Her laugh is high pitched, as though she’s unsure whether to believe him. When she fishes in her too large purse for a mirror, Shelly sees the purse is almost empty. The cheap fabric swallows Daisy’s small hand. Shelly knows this girl: she lost her virginity late; she takes Christmas card photos every year by a lake, Mallard ducks in the background. For Grandma’s card, she draws a speech bubble above one of the Mallards, “Miss you.”
But when Daisy approaches the stage, flipping her hair back, flashing yards of denim leg, Shelly remembers that she’s beautiful. Somehow, at exactly the same time, Shelly feels Jack remember too.
Moving down the row of chairs, each actor introduces himself and the part he’ll be reading. Some character-types: round-bellied, red-faced. Some long and lean. There’s a nerd, a leading man, a harried housewife. A black girl with a springy afro, sliding an ice cube across her neck. Still, beautiful teeth, all down the row. The room grows hotter. Each actor speaks too loudly, as though warming up, the expressions on their faces loose like elastic. Each has the buzzing, pried-open quality of coming alive on stage. Here, wings fan out, colors brighten.
Shelly, in the audience, feels her ass go tender from the hard, metal chair. She has the thin lipped, squinty-eyed quality of rarely being watched.
During the reading, Shelly’s attention span drifts—spools near and far, thin as twine. The only line which hooks her attention is the one lifted from Fitzgerald’s book. Though in this, the harried housewife shouts it: “I hope she’s a fool! A beautiful, little fool!”
The room bursts in applause, like a flower opening.
Afterward, the actors and writers mill around. Those who descend from the stage are glowing, as though Chinese lanterns have been lit just behind their cheeks.
“What did you think?” the flannel asks Jack. After Jack sings his praises, the writer turns toward Shelly.
“I think the kids I teach would like it,” she says. It’s neither a compliment nor an insult, merely a fact.
“You teach them Gatsby?” the writer asks.
“No,” she says, and turns away.
Downstairs, she orders a drink. A Bloody Mary, though it’s late. Through the window, there’s a thin, white wisp of a moon. “Very little blood,” she tells the bartender. “Mostly Mary.”
She thinks of her students—what do they like? Poking each other with rulers. Talking over her while she speaks. Revving their engines in the parking lot. But there is more to them, she knows, she simplifies to make a point—she always has.
Before she met Jack, on nights when she was lonely, she would try to masturbate and cry at the same time. It seemed poetic, though it always proved too difficult. Inevitably, she’d have to do one then the other. She’d never been very good at multi-tasking.
Some of her students are smart and creative. Some of them are hopeful. They are hemmed in by circumstances—where they grew up, who raised them. Like me, Shelly thinks, but that isn’t true. She moved here. She chose her circumstances. She chose Jack and all that he entails. Really, what little he entails—what small amount he requires from her. Wouldn’t it be nice to be required to give something huge? To give and give and give and still never give enough.
The bartender hands her the Bloody Mary and she asks to put it on Jack’s tab. Down here at the bar, the attic sounds like a party—stomping feet and scoops of laughter. Up there, it’s only people aching for things.
“What’s your boyfriend’s last name again?” the bartender asks, a Minnesota accent rounding his words. He has floppy, surfer boy hair and a square jaw. Shelly wonders if he wishes he were upstairs.
“He’s not my boyfriend,” Shelly says. What is he? She still gives his name.
In the Actor’s Den, she scans the room for Jack, then for the Midwestern girl. She doesn’t find either one. She sits down in her chair. Moments later, Daisy appears at her side, flushed. She seems bursting to talk, so in an act of kindness, Shelly says, “Great reading, by the way.”
This is enough to open the floodgates: the baseball caps she’s talked to and what they’ve said. She moved here from Arizona, Daisy says, Tucson. Actually, her name is Janet. But Shelly refuses to believe it. She’s from the Midwest, this Daisy, she must be. All the while, Shelly watches for Jack over Daisy’s head. This is how she’s become one of them: talking slowly, eyes darting, looking for something just out of sight.
She stays through another pilot, then the first act of a movie. Finally, intermission: Jack appears. A blonde hovers near his ear, one of the Shakespeare readers, biding her time until the Big Apple! That’s how she’d say it, Shelly thinks, Big Apple! Or maybe not. She’s probably far cooler than that, far cooler than Shelly was at her age. Across the room, Jack wears his problem-solving face. This blonde, she’s causing a problem, Shelly sees. He’s listening to the girl talk—about what? Shelly can guess: about depth, about Brooklyn, about Scorcese and Claire Danes. He thumbs through his business cards. When she takes one, he pulls at the end of her blonde hair. He leans close, as though sniffing for something. This is not LA Jack, or Midwestern Jack. She’s not sure who it is. Rotten tooth, Shelly thinks, disgusting rotten tooth. Another writer approaches the stage, a petite woman with cropped hair. She wears dangly earrings in the shape of Texas.
“I’m gonna leave,” Shelly whispers to Janet from Tucson.
This is not the first time Jack has spread himself thin, cut himself up and offered what little there was to everyone at the bar.
“Wait,” formerly Daisy says, “You’re so nice. Let me take your number.” But already, there’s a baseball cap motioning for Daisy/Janet to stand. Good for you, Shelly thinks, tiptoeing down the slanted staircase. Knock them all dead.
On her way home, the sky is dark, filled with movement, oceanic. Shelly hates the ocean—it makes her nervous, the way it seems to stretch out beyond her grasp. She hates outer space too, the idea of infinity. Shadows of palm trees, safe in their cement, tick by. She thinks of all the men she’s loved, and all the plans she’s had. She feels small.
Hours later, in her bedroom, lying face down on the strange smelling duvet, her phone rings. “What are you doing?” Jack asks, using, the nasal voice he adopts when he wants Shelly to forgive him. He doesn’t ask why she left.
“I’m masturbating,” she says. She’d tried, but she’d only cried.
“No, you’re not.”
“How would you know?”
“I’d be able to tell,” he says.
“Would you?” She moans once, loudly. “See, done.”
“Let me come over then,” he says. “Let me help.”
She hears the rustle of his breath against the mouthpiece. “Why?” she asks. “And ruin my fun?”
“You’re not happy with me,” he says, using the same voice. She can hear him readjust, as though battening down his hatches, as though preparing for a storm.
“I’m just tired.”
“Life is long,” he says, and she nods, knowing he can’t see her. She catches her reflection in the mirror above her dresser, and she wonders if she always looks like this: on the verge of something. Sallow, average. She is not quite. She is almost. Downstairs, her Ethiopian landlord watches television, and thinks—Shelly is certain—of home.
“It’s part of my job,” he tells her. “Talking with the actors. It’s part of networking. It’s my bread and butter.”
Placing the phone in the hollow of her chest, she stares at the wall and tries to conjure up the Midwest. She pictures lakes with Mallard ducks. Daisy scanning a script, stretching her long horse legs. A dimly lit community theater stage and in the periphery, a red, threadbare curtain left piled in the dark. She can picture Daisy’s dreams piled there too, thrumming quietly in the velvet, waiting.
Shelly’s heart beats, lonely in her chest. She nudges the phone, so Jack can hear it. She thinks of her heart as lonely, literally, looking around for the lungs, the kidneys. Where is everybody? She pictures her heart with a face: beady eyes, thin lips. Then she reminds herself to breathe—the good, deep breathing—like Dr. Wasserman suggested. She feels the vibration of Jack’s voice on her ribcage. It sounds like he’s humming, like he’s an actor warming up. She hangs up the phone. Heart, she thinks, be still.
“Hey you,” she shouts, lumbering into St. Mark’s again, a coat over her arm. She’s talking to the flannelled writer. Alone, at the bar, he could be a lumberjack. Everybody else has left. He could be anyone.
“I remember you,” he says.
She presses the pad of her pointer finger to the very sharp pencil still in his pocket. Then, as though acting out her own asinine script, she says, “Hm. Sharp.”
When he buys her a drink, she tells him she’s writing a movie. “Two,” she says, “One comedy, one horror.”
“What’s the comedy about?”
“It’s sort of sad,” she says.
“A dramedy?’ he asks.
But Shelly doesn’t know what that is. “Maybe.”
“Based on a book?” he presses. His eyes narrow: half interested, half annoyed. People don’t like their bread and butter squandered.
“Based on a life,” she says. And then she folds her arms across the bar, rocks her head forward, hides her face behind her hair. She wonders if he can see her teeth, if she looks beautiful, if she looks shy. She can act. It’s not that hard.
“Isn’t this place weird,” he says, and suddenly—like a door opening—she likes him.
For a moment, she catches her reflection in a glass as the bartender moves it, but she’s careful not to look too closely. What she sees is a smudge, a brown haired blur. She sees herself in motion.
“Tell me about your screenplay,” the man says, again.
And so the story of a life, filled with longing and mystery, begins.