Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A story...

Life, Art and Crystal’s Levis

MITCH: I’m not leaving, Crystal. I don’t care what Blake says.

CRYSTAL: But Mitch, he’ll kill you if he finds us together.

MITCH: I won’t let him get between us. Not this time.

CRYSTAL: Oh, Mitch. What are we going to do?

“And then they kiss and the camera stays on them as they embrace passionately.” I look up, hopeful. “So… What do you think?”

I don’t know why I do this. Why I persist. He hates my work. Hates everything about it: the words, the stories, the people I work with, even the fact that I work there.

“Could we talk about something else?” he’ll say, as though, as long as I don’t speak about it, it isn’t there. That the words — my words spoken aloud — are all that make it real.

Which makes me talk that much more.

Which makes him hate it that much more.

Sometimes, when I’m working through a script or in the middle of a re-write, he walks into my office, storms in really, and announces he’s leaving. Just like that. His anger huge and intimidating in my tiny, not-quite-a-bedroom home-office, shrinking me — shrinking us — as he rails.

He tries to soften it. Tells me he loves me — he always does that first — but true to form, comes right out with it. “I love you but…” The reasons vary, or sound different anyway. But underneath it’s the same thing. Same old story, just a different episode.

My words. He hates my words.

He denies this of course. Says it’s not what I do but how much I do it. That I’m “never there”, and when I am, I’m so distant that it barely counts. Distracted, he says. Somewhere else. That he wants me back. “Down here. On Earth,” he yells, like his Earth is the kind of place I’d want to be anyway with him all angry like that. That if I gave it away, tried something else, we could make it work. “Together, we could make it work.”

But they’re just words, aren’t they?

It doesn’t happen like that in real life. Real life is a lot more like soap opera. It’s not like a sitcom, where we find resolution in twenty-two minutes (minus the ads). Nothing’s like that. It’s not even like a blockbuster movie where the hero lives to accomplish Herculean acts, while the heroine is thin and gaunt and looks fabulous in jeans that have never been near a Chinese sweatshop, or a Tijuana market. And the bad guy loses, or dies, and always, always wears black.

But soap opera ... now that’s real life. Take Crystal and Mitch, for example. They love each other, they’re two consenting adults of different sex and equal social status — no reason in the world why they shouldn’t be together. Lord knows they’ve had sex often enough. But, still, there’s the whole Blake thing — the former lover, now revealed to be Mitch’s long lost twin brother, who has control of the family’s wealth and will banish them both if Crystal doesn’t return to him, like she’d promised she would after he threatened Mitch’s life…

It’s messy, isn’t it? Well, so is life. I mean, really, who doesn’t have an ex, the brother of your current lover waiting around somewhere? The kind that shows up at the local mall with the girl he dumped you for strung around his shoulders, her skinny hips as narrow as your forearm, and her creamy blond hair tied up in schoolgirl pigtails, while you’re in your gardening gear — not even the good gardening gear, but your crappy, never-let-anyone-see-you gardening gear — and your unwashed hair sticks to your face in a limp attempt at the “natural look”. I mean, who hasn’t experienced a moment like that?

The fact is, life’s complicated and ongoing, with endless threads and loose ends tying themselves up with bits of your life that should otherwise not be connected. And there’s never just one bad guy. It’s never that obvious.

Besides, I look really good in black.

But back to my husband…

“It’s fine, Rach. Just fine,” he says. The sigh resting right above his words, not quite near enough to be audible, but hovering just out of reach of my indignation. So he gets away with it.

“What do you think will happen next?” I say, despite the voice inside me saying, Shut up! Shut up! He hasn’t insulted you yet, he hasn’t threatened to leave you in weeks, so why do you persist? Why? Why? Why?

He looks at me squarely. His eyes are as blue as a kids’ wading pool. Seriously. Exactly that colour blue. And his eyebrows are heavy and dark and almost always brooding. He could be a character on my soap opera, except he’s too literal and too practical, and wouldn’t dream of declaring anything loudly or passionately, unless he was watching the Cowboys go wide. But he’s handsome, my husband. Very handsome.

“What’s going to happen next?” he says, his voice as tired and strained as I’ve ever heard it, and I realise that he would have answered me anyway, one way or another, whether I’d pressed him or not. Because today is the day. Finally. After all the promises, the threats, the anger… today he is leaving me.

“I don’t know, Rach. What usually happens in these stories? They hate each other for a bit, then they meet someone else and get on with their lives. After a couple of seasons apart, they decide they were meant to be together all along. That, or they discover they’re long lost siblings.”

I want to reach out to him then. Kiss him square on the lips because, even when I hate him, when this voice he saves for disappointment — this voice he saves for me — is hard and immovable, he is still smart and funny, and better, somehow, than anyone else I know.

“I could quit,” I say weakly, although we both know I won’t do that.

“Too late, Rach. It’s way too late.”

I nod, and think about what Crystal would say here, what Mitch would want to hear. But I probably would have written this differently, so that there was another woman, or another man, or suspicion anyway, and once they realized it was all a mistake, they could return to each other, knowing they’d never have to feel such loneliness again. That they were meant to be together.

But I’m no terrible at first drafts. Better to let this version go the way it is. Set it aside for a time, revise it later, and try again.


GRACE: Quick, hide here!

CRYSTAL: I can’t do it, Grace. I can’t put your life in danger!

GRACE: It’s too late, Crystal. Blake already knows. But our friendship means more than that. More than anything.

CRYSTAL: You’re the best friend a girl could have, Grace. I’ll never forget this. Never!

“So he left? Just like that?”

I’m talking to my friend now. That friend we all have. The one you’ve known so long and been through so much with that you’re not even sure where she ends and you begin. So you find yourself relaying stories that, later, you suspect might have happened to her and not you, but as neither remembers or cares, you don’t bother trying to work it out. That person who calls you and says, “Hi.” No name or details, no reason for calling, just a sigh that you recognise even before she speaks, and the unquestioning, unrevealing “Hi,” that somehow manages to say it all.

“Just like that.”

“Are you sure?”

“No, I’m not sure. I should check the garage maybe, or his workshop. He could be hiding in there…”

“I mean, is it for good?” She’s barely six months older than me, but has always seemed decades ahead, like someone told her things that no one else knows; secrets she ekes out grudgingly, on a need-to-know basis.

“Who knows?” I shrug. Who ever knows? If he comes back, will he stay? If he doesn’t come back, will that ever change? Does anything ever really change? Or do we just see different drafts of what is, essentially, the same thing. Variations in plot, maybe some character development along the way, but the same point, in the end. The same old story.

“Right then. Let’s get drunk,” she says. And who am I to argue when she’s so much wiser than me?

We are lying on her floor now. The fake Persian rug she bought in a factory outlet downtown is scratching my elbow, which is holding me up. The wine bottle is beside me, empty, on its side, looking as necessary as I feel, and as useful.

“You know,” she says, languidly, like it’s something she’s been saving up for all night, “we kind of had a thing together.”

I stare at the wine bottle, my eyes somehow disconnected from my brain, because although I am looking at the bottle, I can still see her face, clear as day: the heart-shape is pretty, if a little insipid, with a sprinkling of tiny freckles across her nose, and one persistent pimple that reappears monthly, as it has done today, in the same place along her jowl. She’s watching me, of course. Watching to see what I’ll say. Hoping I’ll say more, or maybe she’s hoping I’ll leave.

And then I’m speaking, although I don’t remember deciding I will. And my voice sounds like it’s coming from another place, somewhere I’ve never been before.

“What does that mean?” Although I know — we all know — exactly what that means.

“It was a long time ago.”

Of course it was. It always is a long time ago. What would be the point of making it recent? How better to prove my perpetual self-absorption? My longsuffering husband’s inevitable surrender, while demonstrating that he is flawed, too, and real. Not some saintly two-dimensional Perfect Man who the audience loves to hate as much for his perfection as his whining self-righteousness. Not someone who we all boo and hiss, crying, “You’re better off without him!”

And so I miss him more — we all miss him more — because of this imperfection.

But that’s later. First, the drama…

“Tell me.” My voice grates with wine and tiredness, and all the things that I’d quietly suspected, but hated myself for thinking.

“Soon after you met. You weren’t really with him then…”

Not “really” with him? my mind shrieks. Not “really” with him?

“It was in those first few weeks. One night when you were meant to meet us — after work I think. You didn’t show up. You’d just started writing then.”

Ah, the words. Of course, the words. See how it’s all tying together?

“Anyway… We were drunk. We were both really drunk. It didn’t mean anything. Not a thing.” Her hands go up, flat and open, proof of her innocence.

“We promised we’d never say anything. He didn’t want to screw things up. He was so in love with you.”

Obviously. Because when you really love someone, you sleep with their best friend.

“You were all he talked about.”

I try not to cringe at her use of the past tense.

“I felt really bad. Really. But there was no point saying anything. It would only have hurt you.”

And you would never do that, would you?

I look into my glass. Four bits of cork float on the surface, bumping into each other and the side of the glass as I swill the wine around and around.

And then three of the bits are stuck to her face, and the wine drips from her chin, and I look around interestedly for the fourth piece of cork.


I have a plaque on my wall about friendship. It’s old and corny, but I’ve had it so long there’s a stain on the wall edging it, from age or water. From life. So I’ve left it there to hang.

It’s a list of what makes a friend true. Line after line of what friends do. Friends listen when you need to talk. Friends talk when you need to listen… That kind of thing, on and on all the way down the plaque. Except there’s one missing that they really should include, Friends don’t sleep with your husband.


I can’t sleep again, and the morning seems a lifetime away. My characters are filling my head, fighting to be heard, to live. They’re always clearer to me at night. Perhaps the day’s events, by then, have been sorted, and my brain is ready to tackle the moments without order. My creative mind takes over and prowls the dark night, looking for treasures hidden under rocks, secrets taped to the bottom of wicker love seats. And then the characters start to breathe, and I am right there with them.

Never more than I am now, with Crystal.

I watch her enviously. The way her jeans cling to her hips, snug and unfettered, as though she couldn’t be more comfortable or at ease. Her short, midriff tops are light in colour to offset her tanned flat stomach that glistens under the camera lights. I’ve always wanted my clothes to sit on me like that. Natural and easy, not like I’ve dedicated a good part of the morning trying to squeeze into my jeans. Or that I’ve had them altered twice for my height — first shortened, then lengthened again because the extra weight I’d put on made them sit two inches above my Achilles, revealing my squat ankles in all their stumpy glory.


CRYSTAL: It’s no use. He knows everything. We have to stop.

MITCH: I’ll never do it, Crystal. I’ll never give up. You mean too much to me. We mean too much to each other.

CRYSTAL: Oh, Mitch. This is crazy! You need to start a new life. Forget about me.

MITCH: Never, Crystal. As long as my heart beats and there is air in my lungs, I will love you. I will always love you.

“Crystal’s sobbing by then. Really into it. But Mitch stays strong. He takes her in his arms, strokes her forehead while the music kicks in, and then he sings their song. The camera stays there, then pulls away to show Blake standing right behind them.”

“Then what happens?”

“Well, nothing. That’s it. The camera holds them, to let the audience know Blake’s heard it all. That they’ve been caught again, only this time, by the look on Blake’s face, we know it’s serious. Really serious.”

I watch my producer absorb this. He’s an older man, and looks a bit like my dad, but a lot less friendly. He’s pretty gruff most of the time. Crystal’s terrified of him. Even now, after two years working there.

“I don’t like it.”

“You don’t like what?” I ask, feeling the shock of his words reverberate through me. I try to think which part he’s worried about. “Is it the song? We could cut the song. I thought it’d be an easy connection for the audience, plus a shot at cross-promotion. But I’m not married to it. I won’t die in a ditch. Is it the song?”

“No. Not just the song. I don’t like any of it.”

“But, but…” A thousand thoughts rush through my brain, but I can’t seem to grab hold of even one of them. So I stand there, stupid and mute, while he waits for me to leave his office.

I suppose he realizes I’m not leaving because he clears his throat, looks at the door pointedly, then puts down the paperwork he’d already begun shuffling.

“Actually, it’s Mitch and Crystal. I don’t like them.”

“But, they’re the whole thing! The whole series has been geared toward this moment. That was the plan.” It feels like the earth is shifting beneath my weight and I am left floating — hovering — dangerously above it. Out of the corner of my eyes, I can see the walls moving.

“I don’t believe them,” he says simply, shrugging away all my words and, yes, me too. Shrugging away me.

“Believe them?” I sound hysterical. The edge in my voice has shifted to one decibel below a shriek, and is already of a similar pitch. “How can you not believe them? They’re everything romance should be. They are passion and intensity. Courage and truth. They are … they are … impregnable,” I finish, although I stumble a bit over the word and remember, belatedly, why I never include it in dialogue.

“Yeah, well, I think they’re boring. Cut them.”

For a full minute I am unable to draw breath. I must look a little scary because he gets up quickly as though ready to perform CPR, but looking also like he really doesn’t want to. When I’m able to breathe again, I say quietly, through gritted teeth, that he can’t do that. That the audience would crucify him. That the people want love. “They crave romance,” I yell, “Crystal and Mitch define romance!”

The producer is watching me closely. He’s already decided I’m insane — you can see it in his eyes. He’s unsure what I’ll do next and is primarily concerned with getting me out of his office, into someone else’s realm of responsibility. But I suppose he thinks I’m still capable of reason, and that if he talks quietly, calmly, I’ll leave.

“Look. I know you’re having trouble at home——”

“What?” I say. “What?”

“Your husband left...”

He’s waving his hand around like he doesn’t know what to do with it, and all I can say is, “You’re going to cut Mitch and Crystal?” My voice is now a hateful whimper. And I decide immediately that it’s all Mitch’s fault — the whole thing, this disaster, comes down to Mitch.

“The ratings have dropped consistently since Crystal and Mitch got together. The audience loved the first kiss, but have hated everything since. I thought the best friend’s betrayal would pick it up, but it didn’t. Crystal and Mitch need to disappear ASAP. A death would be good. Maybe a murder/suicide. That’d work. Might help us move things over the holiday break. Open up some space for new characters, new stories——” his eyes narrow to ensure I understand before he continues, “new writers.”

“No.” That’s all I say. One word, one statement, encompassing every single emotion I have suffered these past weeks. It is the summary of me. Simple, clean, complete. No. That’s all. Just no.

“Well, obviously you’re fired.”


“So now you should go.”



“No.” I am loving this word. All this time I’ve tried to write lives, build worlds, with word upon word, when the answer’s been staring me in the face. This perfect, facile yet all-consuming word. No. It’s beautiful. This word, no, is beautiful.

By now security have shown up and all I can say, over and over, is “no”. I say it louder and louder. I say it — scream it — so many times that it loses meaning, run together in a string like that. But I know, too, that I can’t alter its meaning, or contextualize its point. I can’t manipulate it in any way. The meaning is so intrinsic, so wholly definitive that, even I, a wordsmith, a word lover, a writer, can do nothing except say it.




And it feels good.


So I’m at home now, sitting at my desk. I have no job. No husband. No best friend. I’ve never been more alone in my life, and yet I feel better than I have in years. I’ve brought Crystal with me, of course, tucked away in my mind and my computer. After a time, I’m sure I’ll let her out. Perhaps find her another Mitch, or even a Blake, maybe a best friend. But for now she can rest. Pull on some loose, comfortable jeans, tie up her silky blonde hair, and hang out at the local mall, being gorgeous and elegant and slim. While I continue at my computer, working on the perfect sentence, writing my entire life. Tiny words on a vast white page:

No. No. No.

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