The man who will later steal from me is directing a short film. Today, in this moment, we’re still friends, so I pick up when he calls.
On the grounds of his apartment complex, he leads me to a Bradford pear tree, puts me underneath, and I kneel along the roots to thieve shards of glass from the green. There are other people with us, laden with cameras and lights, and they lean over me, commit my idling to film. They come close enough for me to remember their sugared breath but not their faces, not their voices—I’ve lost years to forgetting, and their heads are smooth and eyeless. I don’t remember the mouths. My friend tells me to look off to the pond, just north, and my eyes meet the sun, and he says Smile, like you’re hearing a joke. And he’s not taken anything from me yet, so I nip the bottom of my lip. I beam. It takes effort—the tree’s blossoms smell of rot.
My friend knows plenty of actresses. I’m a sociology major, not an actress, but he knows this too. I haven’t done anything like this since I was in Honors Drama, an eleven-year-old in a newsboy cap, the kind I thought thespians wore, a marker of my sincerity. My last performance was a play of sneering and stomping, my costume a black miniskirt that I let drift high across my thighs. I thought I could be sexy at eleven. I thought it could be part of my act. But I quit Drama when the pupils of other people began to petrify me, when I traded wanting to be watched for doing the watching, and after my friend wraps his shoot, I’ll never perform in this capacity again. I’m not counting the show I’ll put on for him later, to convince him that I’m unchanged after what he took. I won’t count the number of times I’ll pretend to remember anything about the dolor that will come after.
We take the afternoon to film it, my friend’s wordless, plotless, montage-y thing. We want to do it in one go. My friend yanks us all from the sunshine and deposits us into his apartment, where his DVDs are strewn in a predictable mess and sweat sours the draft from his window. In the bedroom, I don a button-down, rumple it like believable sleepwear, and let them film me like that. When he gives the command, I burrow into my friend’s bed. Look confused, he says, look unsure. I find that, despite how often I feel those things, I’m not good at miming either. I mash my hands against my eyes. Squint when I rest my arms. The blankets smell like spirits and old cologne on skin, and later, when my friend steals from me, that smell will stay with me, on me, for months. I don’t know this yet. I take hard swallows of air so the camera sees I’m distressed. Someone laughs and I snap I’m not an actress. I’m giving it my best shot.
We finish in his living room, where my friend sits me on his couch. He frames me in daylight, which is risky, but worth it, he says. He calls over a man of the faceless crew, who steps into the threshold of my memory and gains an identity: scene partner. Fellow actor. Something good. I like him without trying, this man who settles beside me to murmur one-liners. I’ve hardly begun to laugh when my friend shoots me a look. You’re breaking up in this scene. Say shitty things to each other. Improvise. It nearly sounds like pleading. I take my eyes from the man next to me, looking somewhere past the camera. I think of my mom, scorn on her mouth as she breaks dishes. I think of my dad, his knuckles, his smile. The camera rolls.
We begin, us strangers, to argue. We ad lib like we’re lovers.
Him: “What the fuck were you thinking? Do you ever fucking think?”
Me: “I knew you didn’t listen. I hate you.”
Him: “You’re wasting our lives. You’re wasting mine.”
Me: “Put your hands on me. What are you afraid of?”
This is what people say to each other, I know.
Parts of me begin to hurt: my arms from brandishing. My throat from constricting. My face from grinning. My friend tells me to smile less, that no one looks like that when they’re mad, but every time the camera begins its capture, I laugh as I scream. My scene partner rises from the couch with each cut, leaning over me to shout. Spit on my face. Spit on my bared teeth. All the lightness from before is siphoned out by our clamor.
The room’s grown so quiet. I don’t know if they’re still filming. There is only me and my paper tongue, my scene partner with his mouth like my mom’s, his knuckles like my dad’s. Perhaps, says my friend, we’ve forgotten this was acting. We’ve become servants to the moment, agents of emotion. My Drama teacher used to say that instants like these were the point.
Later, when the cameras make their exits and my scene partner is sent away, when my friend has robbed me blind and plied me with coffee to apologize, he’ll say something similar: there wasn’t much he could have done differently, really, when he was so caught up in the moment. The moment entrenched him in its webs, shackled him to its demands, and for years I’ll wonder if this is the cost of having something worth taking.
All I had wanted was to act one more time. How I longed for cameras to have been on us then.
Art by Bob Schofield @anothertower