“Why this song?”
We’re meant to be learning songs we’ll be able to use as audition pieces. Every actor knows better than to audition with I Dreamed a Dream, so I was expecting the question. I would never have picked it, but I’d already made up my mind to quit acting, and I wanted to do it at least once.
I really don’t want to talk about this, especially not here. I might have been expecting the question, but I have no idea how to answer it.
“I… relate, I guess. Or I’ve been through something like this.”
I trip over the words, cringing at myself. Blah blah humanity and art, the human condition, etc– I really do believe all that, but in this moment, I am comparing myself to Les Mis, watching myself from outside my body. It’s rough.
A few of my classmates shift in their seats. I don’t look to see if they’re the ones who witnessed me drunkenly vow to win back my rapist at a party freshman year.
After it happened, all I could do was lay there, staring at a medal I won at a science fair. I almost failed improv two years in a row because I freaked out whenever someone touched me when I wasn’t expecting it, and most of the time when I was.
I still can’t stand floral sheets.
My professor looks me up and down. I can see in his eyes that I come up short, that I am not fuckable enough for victimhood. Theatre artists mainly care about who can suffer the most beautifully. Experience is cheap compared to being hot, especially when it comes to rape victims.
I am supposed to call myself a survivor, but honestly I don’t think surviving is what I’ve been doing.
I am not beautiful. By theatre school standards, I’m morbidly obese (a size 8), and with my newly shaved head I actually sort of look like a big toe. Anne Hathaway can get away with a buzzcut. She even starved herself skeletal to sell the whole suffering waif thing.
I used to have an eating disorder, but now I have three jobs. I can’t starve myself unless I want to pass out while making someone’s coffee or selling a discount butt-plug (liquidation sale). I grew up around actors, though; I’m used to this part of the whole thing. These days, I’m more focused on hating my nose.My professor is still looking down his at me. It’s swollen, pitted like a strawberry. Its redness spills onto his cheeks before disappearing into a wiry, white beard. If Santa Claus were an aged queen with an alcohol problem, he might look something like Adam McKnight.
“And still I dream he’ll come to me? That we will live the years together?” It sounds crass in his voice, dripping with irony. These are the words I chose the song for.
I do not tell him that for years now, I have woken up pinned by grief like a fucked up little bug from dreams where Joey wants me back. Sometimes he tells me he’s sorry. Other times, he just slips his hand into mine and we both know what it means. Those black-brown eyes, shining and warm. More than once, I’ve woken up expecting a text from him and been hit with the whole thing all over again. This is the worst thing about me.
“People are complicated,” I say.
When I return to my seat, no one claps.
* * * *
Sky kisses me as soon as he walks in the door. Camera gear crowds the narrow doorway and spills into the hall. His breath smells like earwax.
I've only woken up naked beside him after blacking out a handful of times. Mostly, he’s sweet. I crack open a third beer and offer it to him. I drink it when he refuses. I started drinking after I got raped. The irony is not lost on me.
When my best friend was a kid, her mom went to prison for heroin. In high school, she taught me how to make a “jailhouse burrito.” Ramen noodles folded inside a tortilla with shredded cheese. I eat these a lot now. The more I weigh, the less likely I am to be cast in a role where someone will touch me.
“How was the final?”
I don’t want to get into it. “It was great.”
“Good,” Sky says, looking at his phone.
By the time the sun goes down, I’ve slipped into the kind of drunkenness that makes the whole world feel warm. The kind where I can almost stand to be inside my skin.
Though it’s cold for May, I'm sweating sprawled across the twin bed we share. Through the open window, blaring horns and laughter drift in at odd intervals. My room reeks of stale smoke and last night’s vomit. Sky doesn’t mention it. Neither do I. His gear has migrated into the corner, blocking the door. When we first got together, Sky only shot on film. Now, the expensive tower of tripods and lenses and whatever else grows from the walls. I close my eyes to keep it from pressing in on me.
Sky sniffs and pushes up his glasses with his shoulder, still typing. He does not notice the world shrinking.
I’m too drunk to read. The words swim in and out of focus. I probably won’t remember any of this in the morning. I should really have read The Bell Jar by now, and I have the faraway awareness that I am enjoying it. The protagonist, Esther, is sitting under a fig tree thinking of the future. I giggle at the word crotch and wonder what it would feel like to stick my head in an oven.
I should have sex with Sky, but I feel like I might throw up. A bite of jailhouse burrito dribbles down his chin and onto the carpet. He is working on a new cut of a documentary about himself. Sky transitioned young, with the full and enthusiastic support of his all American, picket-fence parents. He’s huge with the bootstraps crowd.
His professors think it’s good enough to get him into Yale. He even gave a TED talk about it. The Power of Your Story.
I’ve edited all of his admissions essays, even helped film the thing. I sat in the front row at the talk, clapping and beaming. As a girlfriend, I am nothing if not dutiful.
We end up fucking before bed, a tangle of limbs and breath in the dark. He finishes, I don’t. For a guy who has a clit, you think he’d be better at finding someone else’s.
I peel myself out from under his arm after he falls asleep and pad to the bathroom to brush my teeth, unplugging my phone to use as a light.
The phone buzzes plastic against the counter. A text appears on the screen.
The number isn't saved, but I know it. I don’t want to, but I do.
Can we talk?
What the fuck do we have to talk about?
I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.
My vision is black at the edges. I turn on the shower, let the water run. Steam fills the bathroom. Rivulets run down my phone screen and pool in the case.
Please, can we talk?
I can feel my pulse in my fingertips.
Joey and I used to say we loved one another unconditionally, but I think I was the only one who took it literally. I think he meant he’d still love me if I annoyed him or got fat. I meant that I’d love him even if he did something unforgivable. Even if it was to me.
When we were together, Joey was my entire world. We fell asleep together, texted at all hours of the day. We even split holidays with our families. Losing him was like losing a limb. Like my heart walked out of my body and got hit by a bus.
You can’t make one person your whole world. If they leave you, or if they hurt you so badly you have to leave them, you’re left with the impossible task of building a whole new one from scratch.
Hell of a way to learn that lesson.
* * * *
The trains have stopped running by the time I meet him outside the station. He must have caught the last one.
I have spent the last five years thinking about what this moment would be like, what I would say to Joey if he ever talked to me again. If I’d yell or cry or freeze, like I did that day. Whether I’d tell him about the dreams. I do, on the twelve-block walk from campus to our park.
I haven’t been here since the day after we broke up, when we exchanged borrowed books and Power Rangers DVD’s. I figure at worst, he’ll think I’m crazy. But he’s told me as much before, and he’s here now. Also, I probably am crazy.
He just listens, those night-dark eyes fixed on mine. There’s something about Joey that makes you want to tell him everything. I tuck my hands into my jacket pockets and ball them into fists. The park is empty save us and a bundle of blankets, someone asleep under a nearby tree. Joey’s black hair is blue with night.
“I dream about you too,” he says after a while.
“What am I like?” He tilts his head. “In your dreams.”
It’s a weird question.
“You look like your old self,” he admits. He smiles, dark lashes falling over moon-pale cheeks. My old self is blonde and thin.
“You feel like your old self in mine,” I tell him.
“I’m still me,” he says quietly.
There is one other thing I remember.
When he came back from the bathroom and found me lying there, he sat on the end of the bed.
I’d said I said no.
There was a long pause before he said anything. When he did, it was, you’re making me feel like I raped you.
Silence hung between us like a headman’s axe.
I cannot reconcile the person beside me with this memory. This can’t be the Joey who sat there, stone-faced and cold while I curled in on myself, or the Joey who kept going when I told him I didn’t want to. That person is a world away, just like the girl I was when it happened. Maybe it changed him as much as it’s changed me.
The man sitting beside me feels like the boy who cried when I told him I loved him. The one I lost my virginity to, who gave me a promise ring on our first date.
I can tell he won’t touch me unless I make the first move.
Sex ed at our school was a joke. We barely learned about STDs, let alone consent. The gym teacher who’d taught the class made one kid read the definition of penis from the textbook four times in a row to make himself laugh.
The school social worker was the one who used the word rape, not me. Not at first.
I reach across the distance between us and take his hand.
Maybe it’s my fault. If I’d fought back, he would have stopped. He loved me, he wouldn’t want to hurt me. The way he’s looking at me now, I think maybe he still does. Love me, that is. Maybe I was wrong about his definition of unconditional. Maybe I’ve underestimated Joey.
“So am I,” I say.
I bring his face toward mine, breathing him in. I feel dizzy. I feel like I’m flying.
I think of Sky, what I will say to him. I feel bad, of course I do. I feel evil, monstrous.
But I’ve also missed this ruined world, this fundamental piece of me that in this moment feels whole. And don’t I owe it to myself? To return to my wasteland home, knowing I've left my heart there?
When Joey kisses me, I have my answer.
He pulls away, and I open my eyes to another world. In this world, it is morning in my vomit and smoke bedroom, and I am still pinned beneath Sky. My phone is plugged in next to the bed, untouched and dry.
I am hit with the whole thing all over again.