A director was coming to Harper’s college campus to shoot a movie that fall. The night before she learned this information, Harper asked her roommate Anne what she thought the block of time on the freshman orientation schedule labelled MOVIE NEWS was supposed to mean. Maybe it’s what movies are being shown on campus this semester, Anne, an idiot, offered before spitting a cheekful of toothpaste into the sink. They both knew Anne was wrong about this, but it wasn’t worth getting into. The two girls were alone in the women’s bathroom on their floor, voices echoing off the dulled coral tile. Harper despised Anne the second they’d met the previous afternoon, their similarities limited to both having checked the boxes that read NIGHT OWL and I SNORE INFREQUENTLY on the incoming freshmen roommate survey and nothing else. Anne was a wispy, watery-eyed theater major who went to an arts high school in Nebraska and loved that she went to an arts high school in Nebraska even though Harper was certain there was no art there. Anne put up photos of her Nebraskan arts high school friends on a newly-purchased bulletin board. When she asked Harper where her photos of her high school friends were, Harper said, I don’t even think about high school. Also Anne snored frequently.
Harper was eager to abandon their obligatory friendship as quickly as possible, which, after MOVIE NEWS, the hour block on the freshman orientation schedule between SEXUAL HEALTH & SAFETY and GETTING THE MOST OUT OF THE STUDENT PORTAL, would be easy to do now that a director was coming to campus to shoot a movie. Harper would be cast in the movie. She had decided it.
The college Harper and Anne were attending was not a very good one, a fact made apparent in the assistant provost’s obvious and embarrassing excitement over the director coming to shoot a movie there. The school was classic in a Midwestern sense: leafy, bricked, formerly religious but now merely spiritual. The orientation took place on the quad. Gray metal folding chairs held anxious freshmen bodies squirming with discomfort. A nicer school, a better school, Harped noted, would have done this inside, in padded seating, in air conditioning. This was her safety school, she reminded herself. She’d transfer next year, once the movie wrapped. It’s not every semester this happens, the assistant provost told them. The director of the movie was an alumnus of the college. So he was biased, Harper thought, and nostalgic. What a combo. The director was vaguely familiar to her: he had been prominently featured in a significant percentage of the college’s promotional materials, leaning against a well-regarded tree on the quad in a sweatshirt she’d learned from walking around the bookstore cost sixty-five dollars. This was his directorial debut, the assistant provost explained. He had spent the past decade of his life starring in a very popular sitcom. It was one of those shows about people in their twenties played by people in their thirties. Kids at Harper’s high school defined their sense of self-worth in how many episodes they could binge-watch on nights and weekends. The assistant provost was somehow still going. He always loved acting, but his real passion is directing, she said, adding, also writing, because he wrote the movie he’s directing because he did, after all, major in English, and he’s starring in his own movie as well.
What can’t he do? Anne whispered too loudly.
The last thing the assistant provost told them was that the director wanted students, real students, even freshman students to play parts in his movie, because he wanted it to be verité, which Harper knew from three years of copying French homework meant truth.
That night, Harper, and much to her chagrin, Anne, made their way to the school-sanctioned, alcohol-free foam party on the quad in which most of the incoming freshman class flailed rhythmically to EDM in a pool of soapy, manufactured foam until a girl from their dorm slipped and broke her ankle. The whole thing got called off after that. You can’t even grind good in foam, a guy said loudly as most of them filed back to the dorms. In the mess of it all, Harper ditched Anne. She went alone off-campus to a much rumored-about party at what was called the Model UN house but just looked like a normal house. An upperclassman on the Model UN team bought her three shots of vodka, asked her her major––French, she told him––and then Harper danced with a different guy, a freshman, some blonde boy she recognized from looking borderline catatonic during MOVIE NEWS.
What’s your major? He asked at one point, his whole hand on her ass. Political science, Harper told him.
Kissing him was neither pleasant nor unpleasant, their mouths soaked in vodka.
Back in her room, Harper gave him a blowjob. Her first. She thought of a girl she knew in high school, Ally someone, who gave a blowjob their sophomore year, and said the whole thing was like having a bunch of pennies in your mouth. After that, Harper’s parents had discovered her in the bathroom, slipping penny after penny past her lips, and they yelled at her until she spit them, salty and smudged and slimy, into the sink. You have to admit I got a lot of them in, she said at the time.
Anne, classic stupid Anne, burst in midway through (or maybe towards the end, it was impossible to tell) the blowjob, and the blonde boy yelped and scrambled out of bed as Anne muttered, Sorry, sorry, oh my god, sorry, I’m sorry, shit, I’m sorry. It didn’t matter much to Harper. I hope you get some sleep, Anne told the boy as he hiked his pants up and stormed out, horrified one other person saw his dick.
Once again, the two girls were alone in the bathroom brushing their teeth. Harper dragged the toothbrush roughly along her tongue and the inside of her cheeks, desperate to get the taste of copper out of her mouth. I really am extremely sorry, Anne said again, almost crying.
It’s not that big a deal, Harper told her. How do you get to Carnegie Hall, you know? Anne shook her head, confused, and said, I don’t know.
In the weeks leading up to the director’s arrival, Harper watched every single episode of his sitcom at the expense of her homework. Her classes were dull anyway. She was in a smattering of useless, required gen eds: astronomy for non-science majors taught by a wheezing elderly woman who wore mismatched earrings; American literature taught by a middle-aged man who would have been considered conventionally attractive if he weren’t also teaching American literature; and Painting 101, for which she refused to buy her own supplies and instead stole small tubes of oil paints from her classmates. Every afternoon when Anne would arrive home from whatever touchy-feely theater workshop in which she was allowed to wear leggings, Harper would be lying on her bed, laptop posed on her stomach, watching the director’s sitcom. It was bad, like so much of TV was. The jokes were obvious, the timing off. He was a notably bad actor, prone to eyebrow raising and scoffing. She passed on dinners in the cafeteria with Anne, hoping she’d get the hint as time passed that she had absolutely no desire to be friends. When Anne would return night after night, Harper would be in the same position, another episode beginning or ending, granola bar crumbs strewn across her chest.
Harper was sitting out on the quad not reading for class the day the director arrived. He was tall with the kind of half-hearted beard that only looked good on a man older than forty. He was not handsome, but he was older and a man, which was almost the same thing as handsome. He would try to fuck her at some point, Harper figured. It was an inevitability, like the sun exploding. He walked up the quad, grinning like a moron and pointing at trees, the assistant provost following him around. Across the quad from where Harper was sitting, the blonde boy whose dick was in her mouth some weeks ago was nose-deep in a book on the French Revolution. He looked up when the director walked past, baffled, maybe, and in that second of distraction, Harper waved. He looked back, confused. That was fine. It was a relief to have someone decide for her that he was not worth it.
The director paced aimlessly around campus with his crew during the day, which Harper learned from one of his scraggly production assistants named Quentin was known as location scouting. This tree was good, this tree was bad. This patch of grass got nice light, this building can be framed elegantly. After offering the possibility of sex she never intended to and would ultimately not have with him, Harper got Quentin to email her the screenplay of the movie. It was obviously horrible: A guy returns to his alma mater after about fifteen years to teach literature for a semester in the place of his favorite English professor who is undergoing chemotherapy. While spending a year at the college, he starts to realize the students are teaching him more than he’s teaching them. But they’re teaching him about what young people are into, like polyamory and texting, not about Chaucer or socialism or whatever. Also he dates one of the students which at the time the guy, the main character, the director, thinks is a good idea, but comes to realize that there are actually a lot of perks to being an adult, like leaving college.
It’s not quite a comedy, Quentin said, but there are definitely jokes.
The director, however, didn’t run the auditions; the casting director did. She was a hard-nosed lesbian with an edgy haircut and an edgier jawline. She wore severe black glasses that Harper could tell were fake. In their audition, Harper and Anne, bafflingly inescapable, improvised a scene in which Anne cried (which was so easy for her it was practically cheating) and Harper said, you have to tell me the truth or I’ll kill myself. She snarled a little. It was scary. Anne was obviously scared. The casting director, astonished by Harper, clearly, thanked them both to be polite.
I don’t think it’s that type of movie, Anne said afterward.
I’m not sure you ever have any idea what you’re talking about, Harper told her.
The parts were posted the same day as midterm grades, both forecasting an unanticipated outcome for the rest of Harper’s semester. I want to see you in my office sometime, her American literature professor emailed, which she knew was meant to be a flirt and deliberately ignored. And the casting director, who Harper realized was likely self-conscious about her age and vastly jealous of Harper’s lack of forehead wrinkles, did not cast her in the movie. Anne––of all people!––managed to get a role as the director’s character’s girlfriend’s roommate. Congratulations, Harper told Anne in the most genuine tone she could muster, just to fuck with her a little.
I want to meet him, Harper later told Quentin after making out for approximately ten minutes. They were in her dorm room which she had been sure to lock this time as an Anne prevention measure.
He doesn’t want to meet you, Quentin said as nicely as possible while also not being particularly nice. Not that there’s anything against you, but he’s really trying to keep to himself. This whole process is really stressful for him.
Oh, because making a movie is obligatory? Harper said. She broke things off with Quentin that night.
She started to follow the director around campus, noting which coffee shops he frequented and when and what he got. The day after she didn’t turn in her astronomy paper, Harper purposefully knocked the director’s latte out of his hands at the coffee shop in the student union. Oh my god, I’m so stupid, I’m so clumsy, she rambled like a girl who’s so stupid and so clumsy.
The director told her it was fine. He was clearly livid but trying his best not to be. Maybe he was a little bit of a good actor. Harper offered to get him a new coffee, and he smiled at her. Bingo. In line at the coffee shop in the student center, Harper told him he forgot to cast her in his movie.
Well, I don’t cast… he said. And there are only so many parts for students, you know? There are adult characters, you know, we have Tommy coming in this week.
He was in my show, uh, with me. He played Greg––like the best friend, basically.
I’ve never seen it, so that literally means nothing to me. She rolled her eyes, as if to articulate this was a major oversight in her cultural upbringing.
Huh, he said, well, you know, it’s streaming now. He was taken aback, clearly. It was possible that he was falling in love with her. He ordered a replacement latte, but Harper could tell he was still thinking about her. The guy behind the counter at the coffee shop was the blonde boy from ages ago. He muttered a hey to Harper but she ignored him. He said hey again but louder. Of course he was jealous to see her with an older man––that was how all men were.
What’s his deal? The director asked her once she bought the coffee.
Harper shrugged. I gave him a blowjob and now he’s obsessed with me.
The director laughed––really laughed. Okay, wow. Yeah, that’s college, I guess.
It’s so annoying, Harper said. He’s, like, I mean. He’s a kid. Like if you wanted to hook up, it’d be one thing, but…
The director looked at her. What’s your major? Biology.
Oh. His mouth stayed open. Just kidding, it’s English.
His face didn’t change. He asked, What’s the one thing, by the way? What?
You said if I wanted to hook up with you, that’d be one thing. What’s the one thing? Oh, it’d be, like, cool and fun, and you’re an actual adult.
That’s three things.
So he was good at this, Harper realized. Never mind, she said to him.
Yeah, he agreed. I’m married, also. He showed her the ring on his finger and everything. The silver band was dull and ugly. What a performance this was turning into.
If you use this as dialogue in your movie, you owe me $4,000, Harper said.
He laughed again. It was good to hear him laugh. Harper never thought of herself as funny before, but maybe she had been funny the whole time. They went their separate ways––I have to go to class, Harper said, even though she was planning to skip––but he waved, his stack of script pages in his hands, and said he’d talk to casting for her.
That night, Harper found herself in such a good mood she even read lines with Anne, who seemed incapable of actually acting but was very good at memorizing lines. Acting is reacting, Anne explained as they brushed their teeth that night. So you have to listen to what the other person is saying and react to that, rather than think about what you’re going to say. You can’t just live your whole life thinking you know what you’re going to say. I can and I do and I thought those things before you even said anything at all. Harper spit into the sink.
The next day, Quentin was hanging around outside her astronomy class after Harper got a strict talking to about how her final would be the deciding factor in whether or not she’d pass for the semester and how the professor was willing to offer her some tutoring. Harper did not respond in the moment, distracted by the professor’s mismatched earrings, one of which was a ceramic carrot, the other a black and white cat. Think about it, the professor told her.
There’s a crowd scene, Quentin said out in the hallway, somewhat despondently, clearly heartbroken. He wants you to be one of kids drinking coffee in the background. Shoots on Monday. Do you have class or anything that afternoon?
No, Harper lied.
Quentin gave her some sheets of paper, referring to them as a call sheet. He paused, then: I don’t know how you wormed your way into this one.
It’s unbelievably sexist of you to call ambition worming. And here I was, thinking maybe I ought to give you another chance, and then you go and say something like that. I mean, the fucking nerve on you! A few people in the hallway turned to stare, but it didn’t bother Harper in the slightest. Quentin needed to hear this. How often was someone brave enough to talk to a man this way?
Before she could get another word in––and she had several planned––Quentin turned and headed down the hallway. See you Monday, he called back, flipping her off.
ASSHOLE! By this point, Harper’s astronomy professor poked her head out into the hallway. Turning to her, Harper said, As you can see, I’m going through a really difficult time and won’t be able to swing by for tutoring.
The following Monday, Harper went to the coffee shop where they were shooting for the day. It was all a big mess––cameras, lights everywhere. If this was meant to be low-budget, it didn’t look it. Anne was there, of course, where wasn’t Anne? And the girl––some junior or senior at the college––who was playing the director/writer/actor’s character’s girlfriend. She was tall, almost taller than him, but the camera was angled lower to make him seem taller than her. She had long, blonde hair and good posture. She looked so quietly confident in herself that Harper considered never speaking again until she realized the girl looked like an expensive horse. Oh well. A production assistant showed Harper to a table and gave her a copy of Jane Eyre to pretend to read. I’ve read this before, she told him, it sucks.
You made it! The director came over to Harper’s table and gave her a squeeze on the shoulder. She put her hand over his and he withdrew it quickly. No ring, she said aloud.
He nodded slowly. The character’s not married.
We write ourselves the way we want to be seen, Harper said. What’s your major again?
Philosophy. She smiled at him.
Anyway, he said after a pause, I think it’ll be a fun day. Totally, Harper agreed.
The scene was straight-forward: the director/writer/actor’s character and his girlfriend and his girlfriend’s roommate (Anne) were all going to the coffee shop to talk about literature together. This was an opportunity for the director/writer/actor’s character to explain some garbage life lesson to them, Harper assumed. Guys in these types of movies always had life lessons despite their characters being consultants or whatever adult men did. Behind the counter at the coffee shop was not the blonde boy but a different blonde boy. So it really was verité. Harper looked down at a random page of Jane Eyre, her eyes glazing over the small font, as she listened to the scene.
Hey, the new blonde boy said.
Hey, Anne replied.
The director/writer/actor’s character and his girlfriend and his girlfriend’s roommate all sat down at the table adjacent to Harper. She could feel herself being filmed on the other side of them, the warm burn of the lights on her cheeks. It was really happening.
What’s the deal there? Who?
The guy at the counter… You don’t wanna know… Tell him! It’s funny!
I mean, it’s not funny, it’s––okay, like, I gave that guy head like a week ago.
The director called for a cut, and Harper snapped up from the book. Had Anne of all people just said that? Harper looked over and Anne gave her a small, innocent wave.
Can you––can you be a little braggier about it? The director asked Anne.
Braggier… she was thinking about it. Anne never understood before and she wouldn’t understand now.
Like, you love this about yourself. Gotcha. Anne smiled.
The scene started over again, Anne read the line in a braggier way. A boastful, hurtful way. I sucked him off, she said, and Harper could feel a proud grin rise up the sides of Anne’s face. Stupid fucking Anne who hadn’t given a stupid fucking blowjob in her whole life. This wasn’t acting, it was pretending. It was lying. Before Harper could turn to them––tell her exactly how to do the one thing she was supposed to be good at doing––the director/writer/actor’s character spoke:
Hey, I mean––that sounds fun, but like, I guess, one of the things I wish someone had told me in college is that the greatest thing you can learn is to have respect for yourself. Love yourself, know yourelf. Everything you do amounts to this whole––full––beautiful–– thing. And you should nurture that thing, that you-thing, like you would a rose.
Harper stood up quickly, the coffee shop chair scooting back with a shrill drag. Everyone turned: the grips, the PAs, the coffee shop employees, both real and fake, the director, the director/writer/actor’s character’s girlfriend, Anne. Sorry, I, uh, I forgot I fucking hate movies, Harper said finally, and left.
Out on the quad, Harper took a few deep breaths. She didn’t know what was more of a relief: that Anne couldn’t act or that the director couldn’t make a good movie. Still. He owed her $4,000 and then some for the emotional damages caused by hearing Anne do a half-rate––no, quarter-rate––impression of her. It was all so broad, so miscalculated. She looked around. Classes were just getting out. Students filed onto the quad, walking in pairs or groups, chatting enthusiastically, lanyards strewn over their necks. So many smart kids, in theory at least, and professors, thousands and thousands of dollars spent on all their degrees, and none of them understood her at all.