Fiction

What She Said

I didn’t think this blog would be the way it is. I wanted to write another blog about New York before moving on, but didn’t expect it to come out as two mini fiction stories. They are completely first draft, so don’t judge too harshly, but enjoy nonetheless.

***

She tripped up the curb and stumbled onto Union Square in downtown New York. She swore under her breath and with half relief, half despondency noticed that no one had looked twice: another reminder that she wasn’t a big fish in a small pond anymore. She moved around the park in the centre of the square looking for an empty seat to eat lunch. She shooed away a squirrel that seemed to have its arms crossed as she approached its perch on the bench, sat down and opened her paper bag.

Two forkfuls into her bean salad and she noticed a man sitting opposite her staring back. She lowered her eyes quickly, waited a few moments before looking up, to meet the man eye to eye again. They were seated a good ten metres apart, the distance creating a barrier that wasn’t so creepy, just more curious. She grinned a little, and went back to eating; fetching a catalogue from her bag and thumbing through it, pretending being watched was a natural occurrence for her.

She caught herself out – had she entered a game of flirting with this man? She took another look up to see if he didn’t look scary, or unattractive. This time he looked away. Without his eyes on her, she took the opportunity to size him up – messy black hair, a defined jaw line covered in stubble, and nice shoes. In fact, they were ostentatiously clean and sharp, unlike his flapping woolen jacket and slacks. He was thrift-shop chic, with a budget for good footwear.

Oops, he was staring at her again. She scooped up the last mouthfuls of food and packed away her rubbish and the catalogue into the paper bag and sat back to take in a few gulps of water and to stare into the middle distance, hoping the one fell movement landed the guy in her peripheral vision. She felt her heart skip beats as the future with this man started playing out in her imagination: first the near future of awkward conversation. He’d ask her about the salad, and she’d self-deprecatingly remark about her continued love of the Wholefoods salad bars, to which he’d whole-heartedly agree allegiance to, and her tone would change instantly, letting him in on her love of beetroot and chickpeas. Then they’ll be in a deli near her apartment in Williamsburg fondly chatting about the best types of bagels – garlic or pumpernickel, though he’ll like egg, which she won’t understand. Maybe he’s the romantic type to ask her hand in marriage, sitting side by side on a bench in the Ramble by the lake in Central Park. Actually, he would do it Prospect Park in Brooklyn, opposite that boat house, which she thinks is prettier than anything in Central. And then he’s holding their first born, and the smile, the watery brown of his eyes is a pure love that she’s at once in love with and jealous of.

But now a blurred figure is moving close by.

The man is joined by another man. The other man is the same age, also dressed in a university student’s Tuesday best. Darn. He’s gay, she thinks. She gave up hope completely as they linked arms. She pictured herself ordering a burger served on a donut rather than bread. She suddenly craved chocolate. Why had he stared so intently? She twisted her body around to see if there was something distracting behind her. Surely he wasn’t that interested in the Barnes and Noble?

No. He wasn’t. She stood up and scrunched her paper bag, watching a friend lead his blind mate down steps, carefully: the man feeling every concrete right-angle underneath his spit-shine soles.

***

Diane hated her name. Sure, it would’ve been OK in the 70s – she might have been Diane Keaton. She would’ve caught the attention of Woody Allen – a true New York girl, dressed in brown slacks, and parents who lived on the Upper East Side. But not Diane of the Upper West in 2011, living near Columbia University, but living with her sister and her sister’s boyfriend in what used to be a kitchen of a restaurant: now gutted and carpeted, but a basement nonetheless. Plus she was black. Would Woody Allen have cast an African American lead? All his films were so white. Diane noticed her lip curl and she stopped looking through herself in the mirror, focussing her eyes out of introversion, and resumed cupping her bare breasts.

She ran her hands over them and bent her knees, swinging a hip to the right, then the left. She closed her eyes, and began letting out a sigh that turned into a groan. “This is a joke,” she muttered. “Sensual my ass.” She picked up the script on the dresser in front of the mirror and scanned for her direction.

INT. – WAREHOUSE – NIGHT

WOMAN stands in front of KIRK dressed as Julius Caesar. This is his dream. He is being seduced by an African Queen. She dances sensually over him with a python.

WOMAN

I am your Queen. All of my rivers flow right through your land. I control your people’s health and all the gold in Africa.

“Some boy’s fantasy,” Diane said, and threw the script back on the dresser. She picked her bra up off the corner of the mirror and put it back on. These days, she thought, I’m expected to be Fantasia, or LaDesiree, or even Queen – but not Diane.

*

She descended the stairs quickly, leaving her secretarial post at a Harlem high school early to catch the subway across the river for the Vinegar Hill warehouse shoot. The train rattled through the wormholes of the Big Apple, each stop making Diane tenser. This would be the first time she’d have her bare skin on film, and she was more bashful about it than she’d like to admit.

The train halted again and again letting on tired workers caught up in their routine, heads down, unaware of their visibility; teenagers from out of town, still talking about the rats they’d just seen – a genuine New York experience, rather than a scare; and hipsters painfully self-aware, scanning the other people on the carriage, sticking their chests out and oozing false confidence. Diane watched everyone – a favourite activity – longing for a chance to take on the role of the overworked single mother, with pinned back hair and bun, suit jacket and a mobile phone in one hand, the other balancing a how-to-live-a-happier-life book on her lap. “No Jackson, take the chicken out of the oven. Are you sure the gas is off? I’ll be home in twenty minutes – take Dolores’ roller skates out of the hallway.” This mother had closed herself off from finding new love and maybe the movie would allow Diane the chance to play scared-to-let-someone-in-…sharp-intake-of-breath-as-he-touches-her-for-the-first-time.

The train stopped at York Street station and Diane got off and urged herself on up the stairs. One day she’d be able to play a substantial part – she could show everyone how deep she could get under the skin of someone’s character arc. That’s why she studied acting – to tell stories. And now she was living the dream. “Fuck the dream,” she said under her breath as she came out into the light of street level. “How many more of these student films do I have to do?”

*

Diane watched a woman dressed as the Statue of Liberty talk to the director: she was a tall blonde model – not an actress at all. They were going to film her scene first. The model was dressed with a green crown, a moss-coloured nightgown that came down to her knees, and heels. She seemed to be flirting with the cameraman, an admittedly good-looking 20-something with an accent.

“I really don’t mind being naked… at all,” the model said, playing with the bottom edge of her nightgown.

The director didn’t blink. “We’ll see what we need,” he said.

The actor playing Kirk sat on a chair in an Abraham Lincoln suit and hat, with his back to Diane. A spotlight shone directly on the Statue of Liberty, who was walking in a provocative circle making ‘O’ shapes with her mouth and winking. Diane rolled her eyes.

“OK, we’ll do the scene from the opening pose,” the director said. He, too, had an accent: a lot of international students came to New York to study filmmaking, and then they worked hard to try to stay in the country.

The model strutted and moaned and lifted her nightgown above her thighs, then she exposed a bit of Brazilian-groomed vagina, and then the bellybutton before dropping the material and giggling.

“Cut,” called the director.

The model looked at him and smiled.

“It’s not necessary to lift your costume,” said the director. “OK, let’s try again.”

Diane watched as the model couldn’t help herself again and allowed the straps of the nightgown fall, exposing her breasts. The director and cameraman were getting obviously annoyed.

“Keep your costume on,” said the director. The model made a face a girl would make if she was told off by her father.

The next take went a little better, but a couple of minutes into it, as the Statue of Liberty spoke her lines, the bottom of the nightgown rose once more.

“Put it down – I don’t want to see anything!” said the cameraman, losing his temper.

The model seemed to snap awake and scowled. “What’s the point? It’s a sex dream, isn’t it?” she said.

“It’s a psycho-sexual nightmare,” said the director.

“Well I need a time-out,” said the model and strode over to Diane. “You’re the African Queen, I guess,” she said, controlling a bubbling voice, and waited for an answer.

“Yes, I am,” said Diane.

“I don’t understand this,” said the model. “You gotta be ready to bare all if you’re an actress, right?” She glared at the filmmakers, who were talking to the actor and laughing. “I thought Europeans weren’t prudes.”

Diane considered her answer. But everything seemed condescending. So she smiled and said, “You look pretty.”

*

Later that night Diane thought about how easy it was, in the end, to play the role of a semi-naked African Queen, and thanked God they couldn’t afford the python. She watched the late-night commuters, and pondered all the different ways people were afraid of being vulnerable.

***

Besides the new landscapes I see and the new people I meet; the challenge of finding food, and the constant change of comfort zone; something that has been keeping my mind active in the last four months has been the exchange of emails and online chats I’ve had with friends, who continue to expand my ideas about who I am and the world I live in. Here’s to them, wonderful as they are. And here’s to seeing that the illusion we all sometimes have of a big, bad audience judging our every move, is just an illusion.

***

Here are two fun facts I couldn’t fit anywhere into the last two posts:

Manhattan’s downtown southern tip area is predominantly landfill. The actual “natural” Manhattan makes up only 75% of the total area in the downtown region.

In New York, it is against the law for children to pick up or collect cigarette and cigar butts.

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