“You must confront the darkness within to confront the darkness without.”
Friday afternoon, 14 September 2007
Emmett: How do you make somebody fall in love with you?
That was the question he was asking at first. How do you make somebody love you? You can’t. Love, as far as El can tell, is one of those cosmic forces everybody lies about because the truth is, they don’t really know.
The truth is, Cécilia will never love him.
But Em knows better than to care about the truth.
So, how do you make somebody think they’re falling in love?
That’s an altogether different proposition.
Love is only awkward in the real world. In the real world, most of love is forced conversations, a lot of wincing, and the quiet strength that comes from realizing that people aren’t really perfect, but that they’re enough. In the real world, love is work.
But the movies don’t teach us that. And for all of Cécilia’s maturity, Em knows in the roots of his gut that she doesn’t know what real love is anymore than he does.
The trick of it is the pace. Too fast, too aggressive, she’ll get scared. He thinks about the time Dad tried to take him hunting. You only get to startle a doe once.
But too slow? Too slow and the illusion stalls, the penny drops and she’ll realize she’s not looking at a pipe; she’s looking at a picture of a pipe.
Time. He has to manage it perfectly. Better than he ever thought he would. He juggles school, the movie, the occasional family dinner to show he isn’t up to anything but being a moody teen. He becomes dimly aware that he hasn’t had a real conversation with either of his parents since before the dance. He keeps waiting for them to rear their concern at the most inconvenient moment, for Mom to say something when he comes back home from school, but she never does.
They are giving him space. Just like he’s always wanted. It’s about time.
Everybody thinks he’s doing something different than what he is. His school friends think that Em’s snared the lead role in a film some guy named Faustin is directing, and not only that but he’s got this hot actress girlfriend who he wants to impress. And because he tells good jokes and makes them feel like he knows everybody a bit better than they do, they cough up the pocket money and toys he needs to maintain the ruse. Borrowed watches, wheels, and wear means he seems rich but unfussed by it, grounded apart from his privilege. Mature beyond his years, even as he radiates a childlike glee when he laughs.
But he can’t pretend to be rich forever, so he gets creative. Their dates aren’t expensive—they’ve been doing expensive things their whole lives, he’ll tell her at one point. The best things aren’t free, but you can’t buy them either.
Walks around the Garden District at night, with slow, winding conversations and stories that sound too ridiculous to have happened to one person but surely too absurd and detailed to be false; and Em knows how to tell a story. Some nights they return to that spot, but others they lie in warm grass and do nothing but talk.
It’s always about her. That’s the key. She’s naturally intrigued by him, but all his stories come back to her, to how she feels, to what she thinks about this or that, what she would have done if she were him. He trades her, story for story, and laughs as he teaches her to tell it proper: Cajun-fried.
He walks her through the bayou one weekend, pointing out the plants he’s surprised he remembers and how he’s happy that there’s only ever one season here, how he feels more at home here than in the city even though he’s never actually lived here.
“Ancestral roots, I guess. Or maybe vines, more appropriately.”
So he talks to her and weaves his lies tight and stitches them to her truth. He wants his voice to be the one she hears when she questions herself, his voice to be the only sound she trusts like she trusts her own.
He brings her pains to soothe, too. She likes to feel needed, to feel helpful. And he sets her up with straight line after straight line, about how his mom and him have never been close but were always alike, and how he worries that maybe that means he’s ‘supposed’ to be alone. How he sometimes thinks that his dad is only happy when he’s away from them, from him. How sometimes there just seems like a distance he doesn’t know how to broach. He keeps things dynamic, too, want to keep up the details; he reads a touching email from his father (all the way from Switzerland!). He adds moments of happiness, too, Christmas dinners gone hilariously wrong, birthdays where his brother tried to make a cake but ended up making a kind of chunky pudding instead (and he hasn’t eaten cake on a birthday since).
And it’s only natural that he wants to hear about her family, too. The imperfect moments and the perfect ones. The times she felt happiest, most complete. He never pushes, instead letting the “natural” direction of their conversations continually flow towards those ever-deep waters.
GM: The headwaters of those currents are unsurprising ones.
The first, last, and most important things in Cécilia’s world are her mother and sisters. As she quotes several times, “Other things may change us, but we start and end as family.”
She’d want to introduce Em to them all, if she hadn’t already. He met Adeline when he first met her, of course. Aeline is still so grateful over how he saved her from Lee. He’s acquainted with Yvette and Yvonne, who don’t seem to quite understand the specifics of what happened, but who seem grateful to him all he same. He met Simmone, of course, when she played that prank on him (“I’m sorry about that, but Maman is right—we Devillers do have a bit of the devil…” Cécilia jokes).
Noëlle is the only one of Cécilia’s sisters who’s a new face to Em—comparatively, at least. The four-year-old child shares nigh-identical features to her five siblings, down to the same build, voice, and eye, hair, and skin color. It’s really only the age difference that distinguishes them. Cécilia comments on the familial resemblance with a knowing, “Men don’t run in our genes.” Noëlle is still in preschool and doesn’t have much to say in conversations, but she seems to think Em is nice.
And, of course, he’s already met Maman.
“She thinks you’re wonderful,” Cécilia smiles. “I’m sorry she’s not around more often, but she’s very busy. She did have something she wanted me to pass on to you, though, after she read your latest version of the script—the one with the unambiguously tragic ending.”
“Oh, you know,” Cécilia laughs, “I’ve forgotten what it was. It was something sweet and reassuring. She’ll tell you herself at the screening, I’m sure. She loves the latest script. She’s looking forward to seeing the finished movie so much.”
Emmett: The hairs on the back of his neck stand. “Yeah, it’s been a while since I’ve seen her. What does she do with most of her time, when she’s not with you and the rugrats?”
GM: “Oh, a lot of things. She’s on the boards of directors for a lot of civic, cultural, and philanthropic organizations, like the Ogden Museum and McGehee’s executive committee. She spends a lot of her time going to meetings and social events—always outside our house, though. Back home, people don’t really believe in mixing their personal and professional lives. Once someone’s left the office, forget about them answering any calls or emails until the next work day.” She pauses thoughtfully. “I think Americans would be a lot happier if they adopted that lifestyle. So many people here feel so stressed about their jobs.”
Cécilia also agrees with Emmett that the best things in life are free. Her tastes don’t run towards the expensive, at least past a certain point. She seems to take wealth and privilege enough for granted that she doesn’t need to see it flashed at every opportunity. It’s more the conspicuous absence of its trappings, as Em observed with Yvette, that stand out like loose threads in the costume of lies he’s wearing.
That’s the difference between new money and old money, Uncle Ron sagely pontificates. Old money thinks it’s crass to wave their money in someone’s face. But they have more unspoken codes about how things are done, too. Sometimes new money is actually easier to fit in with.
Maybe it’s that, how they’re from such different worlds. Maybe there’s some unspoken bit of etiquette Em is missing, the sort of thing you pick up in cotillion lessons and country clubs he’s never been to. Maybe it’s how they come from such different families, or maybe it’s how this relationship is wrapped up in an elaborate lie to one of them.
Cécilia just feels like she’s from another planet, sometimes.
She has worries, concerns, and fears, like anyone. She misses her home country, sometimes, and all the friends she had there. But Maman has made their family a new home here, and she’s made so many new friends she wouldn’t trade for anything.
She’s had boyfriends before Em, but those relationships ended amicably. They’re still friends. She even offers to introduce Em to some of her male friends, and just gives a tinkling laugh at the suggestion anyone should feel jealous.
She sometimes feels like a lot is expected of her, between her scholastic, extracurricular, and familial commitments, and that she’s short on time for herself. But it’s worth it, to her, and she wouldn’t change that part of her life if she could.
She’s moving to Massachusetts next year to attend Wellesley College, and admits she’ll miss her mother and sisters. And her cat Frollo, who’s going to stay behind with his five siblings because she doesn’t want to separate them. But she’ll fly home regularly, and she’ll move back to New Orleans after grad school. She thinks it’s important that she experience new places and meet new people in pursuit of her educational and professional goals.
She feels sad about all the misery, want, and hate in the world, sometimes. She feels bad for the “less fortunate” in New Orleans, for she realizes she is very fortunate in very many ways. Sometimes she’s concerned for humanity’s future. But she accepts that she and her family are doing what they can to extend their good fortune to others. They’re doing their own small part to make the world a better place; the rest is up to everyone.
That’s the thing about all the things that might infringe upon Cécilia’s happiness. There’s always a “but” after them. But they’re not so bad. But there’s a way around them. But they’re worth it. But, but, but.
Cécilia is happy. Her family makes her happy. She fondly remembers the past, enjoys the fullness of the present, and looks forward to the future, but isn’t in any hurry to get there. She doesn’t seem to be that angry, jealous, scared, insecure, resentful, or otherwise discontent over anything, at least not beyond immediate moments like Lee harassing her sister.
Cécilia is content. She is happy. There’s nothing she’d change about her life.
Em has never seen anything like it.
Emmett: At first, he thought she was broken, somehow, cosmically unbalanced with her lack of suffering.
Now he knows better.
She was just waiting to meet him.
GM: Growing up in France was very different from life in the United States, Cécilia agrees when Em raises the subject. People are friendlier here, and a lot more chatty and extroverted. Acquaintances share what she calls “really personal things” with people they’ve only just met. People back home are more reserved. But the friendships can be deeper. In America it can be hard to get past the superficial. They’re more sensitive, too. People debate and criticize each other freely in France, but in America everyone wants to be avoid offending each other, and it’s considered impolite to argue with people about their political and religious views.
“I used to be a lot more argumentative, actually,” Cécilia mentions with some amusement. “But I learned to tone that down. It’s not how things are done here.”
One of the biggest changes to get used to was eating. People appreciate food more back home. Lunch breaks at her old school were two hours long, with multi-course meals. Breakfast and dinner are fairly light meals next to lunch, which is massive. Cécilia’s family had to change their whole eating patterns to fit in with their new community.
“And of course food is very, very important back in France. No one brings their own lunch, because the food at schools isn’t just good, it’s wonderful—it’s all freshly made with local ingredients, and everyone sits at intimate little tables with cloth napkins and water pitchers, like in restaurants, and you’re not rushed at all. My family’s lucky the lunches at McGehee are pretty good, but it’s downright sad what the ones in public schools are like.” Cécilia shakes her head. “I wouldn’t feed those lunches to animals. It’s no wonder children here have so many health problems.”
Emmett: “What kinds of personal things?”
El gets wanting more out of relationships. He had friends when he was younger who he told everything to, whom he lost touch with after going to St. Martin’s. He’s always missed having somebody who you could tell anything to.
He also laughs at the description of a more argumentative Cécilia. “I wouldn’t say this isn’t a country for argumentative people. You make your way here by saying what you think.”
He wonders whether schools in France also give out complementary blowjobs and cigars in detention.
GM: “Past relationships is the first one that springs to mind. You can hit off with someone you’ve met just that afternoon and have them telling you stories about their messy breakup with their ex. People are more reserved in France—you only share those sorts of things with close friends, who can take a while to make.”
“And I’d say you’re right, people are more outspoken here in some ways. But there are unspoken conventions too. If you go out to lunch with some people you’ve just met, for instance, it’s in bad taste to bring up politics or religion, and especially to get into an argument. But in France, it’s the opposite. People get into political debates with strangers and new acquaintances all the time.”
As far as the Devillers themselves, Em eventually picks up the family comes from Avignon, a city in southern France. “There’s more to the country than just Paris,” Cécilia states, half-jokingly but also half-seriously.
“I’ve not even been to Paris that many times—there’s people here who’ve probably explored the city more than I have.”
Emmett: “You don’t say?” he replies in the same tone. “Educate me, all I know is what you’ve told me and the tune to Champs-Elysees.”
GM: “Well, Avignon has its own music too…”
GM: She shows the music to Em on a Sunpod.
Emmett: “I like that second one,” he laughs. “Music needs a little swing to it.”
So do relationships.
“Your mom, though—did she grow up in Avignon? Or just raise you and Adeline there?”
GM: “She raised all my sisters there,” Cécilia corrects. “Even Simmone was born in Avignon, though she was just a baby when we came over. We still have a house where we spend summers. We don’t want her to grow up too American.” Cécilia smiles in seeming jest. “Maman came to Avignon when she was very little, but she was actually born in Spain.”
Emmett: “Really? Were her parents French? I don’t actually know much about your family, or your history.”
He doesn’t say or your dad, but he doesn’t need to.
GM: Cécilia laughs. “You’ve met Maman and all five of my sisters, El. That’s more than I can say for your family. I know your dad isn’t around much, but when am I going to meet Devin and your mom, or come over to your house?”
Emmett: “My mom…” he pauses, there. “You can meet her. If you want to. She can be a lot, though. And my house is boring, but if you want to come, you can.”
Tricky, but doable. He’s talked to Ron about this eventuality. He’s quiet for a moment.
“You know it’s nothing about you that makes me nervous about introducing you to them, right?” He goes on, “It’s just… not every family is perfect. And I’m not sure how often you’ve had to see that. Because, well, it sounds like yours is.”
GM: Cécilia smiles wanly. “Perfect is relative, El. My family is very lucky, but I wouldn’t say we’re perfect. We have fights and bad days and times things don’t go our way, like with Lee at that dance. I actually read a scientific study somewhere once that having four or more girls and no boys is the most unhappy combination of children a family can have.”
Emmett: Really? What about two boys, one girl, all dead?
“It’s hard to imagine you fighting with any of them. You’re the most patient person I’ve ever met.”
GM: The wan smile doesn’t go away. “Then you should get to know Maman better, because she’s the most patient person I’ve ever met. But everyone fights at some point. My sisters are mainly good at making up. And not everyone in our family is happy, either. My aunt might be one of the most unhappy women I know.”
Emmett: “I didn’t know you had an aunt. Is she back in Avignon?”
GM: Cécilia nods. “My family goes back every summer, like I said, but she doesn’t always want to see us. She’s very sad. Very tired. Young children with lots of energy just don’t agree with her.”
Emmett: “I have an uncle like that.” He actually does. “Undiagnosed depression, or something. He just has these moods where he won’t tell anybody anything. Uncle Roy. Is she close to your mom, your aunt?”
GM: “Very close,” Cécilia nods. “She usually doesn’t want my sisters around, but she and Maman can talk for hours.”
“I’m sorry about your Uncle Roy. Maybe you could introduce me to him, too. Routines, or ruts, can exacerbate depression. It can be helpful for them to meet new people and see or do new things.”
Emmett: “If I can catch him in a good mood, I’ll trade you for meeting your aunt—what’d you say her name was?— if she ever comes to town.”
He mentally adds another name of people she might have to meet to the list.
He finds himself studying the lines of her face, trying to make out features that are her own, that he cannot recall seeing on Abèlia’s. “What about the other side of your family? Any connection there”
It’s asked tactfully enough, but he can feel her dancing around the subject and he needs to pin it down.
GM: Em may not have met Abèlia for very long, but hers is not a face he will soon forget. It’s the spitting image of her daughter’s, down to the same pale skin, high cheekbones, milk-smooth complexion, and swan-like neck. Their lips, eyes, mouth, chin… all close to the same, if one were to shave away the passage of twenty to thirty years. The only immediate, all-too striking difference between them is their hair and eyes: pale blonde against midnight black, and deep against pale blue. Em has the odd thought that they’re blue like an ocean… the same ocean. Only one is close to the surface where the sun still shines, and the other is so deep as to be almost out of sight, just on the border region where nameless things great and terrible and alien swim.
“Depressed people often don’t let you catch them in a good mood, El. You have to take the initiative and surprise them,” Cécilia smiles. “As for my aunt, that’s because I didn’t say.” Her smile doesn’t dim.
“That’s very deft how you asked that second question. But a lady must have her secrets…”
Emmett: “What’s a secret you never tell?” he idly asks. “Like a joke without a punchline or a story without an ending. But you don’t need to tell me anything you don’t think I can’t hear. And I wouldn’t want you to. I hope you know I’m asking because I’m curious about…well, everything about you. Everything.”
He’s quiet for another moment. “But when you’re ready to, I have a secret for you, too. Maybe even one almost as good.”
GM: “Oh, really?” Cécilia raises an eyebrow. “You’ll have to give me some kind of clue, to be fair. All mysteries start with some set of knowns.”
Emmett: “It’s something your maman doesn’t want you to know.”
The delivery was good, if he could grade himself. Professional, even. If there was music playing, it would bow be skipping and clattering into silence.
But instead, there is only the silence that breaks when Cécilia inevitably answers him.
GM: “I’d say that’s a little broad, still, next to your question about me,” Cécilia says thoughtfully. “We could stay it’s ‘something to do with my family’, but that’s not the same, is it?”
Emmett: “Sure. It’s something that she’s choosing to hide from you about me. How’s that?”
GM: “Oh, that’s better. Very intriguing, too.” Cécilia smiles contently. “But I wouldn’t want to disappoint you by giving everything away. I suppose I’ll just have to guess what your and Maman’s secret is…”
Emmett: “Guess, then. What kinds of secrets would she keep from you?” He leans forward on his elbows, closer to her now. “You can tell a lot about somebody by what they hide. What’s the secret you can imagine she’d keep?”
GM: “Hmm,” Cécilia says thoughtfully. “The first thing that comes to mind is something for my or my sisters’ well-being. Something to keep us safe. And you say your father’s an ambassador you don’t see very often. Maybe you were involved in a sensitive diplomatic matter—ambassadors’ children aren’t supposed to get involved in those, which makes it even more sensitive.”
Emmett: “That’s a clever secret,” he agrees. “How would an idiot like me go and get himself involved in something sensitive?”
GM: “Perhaps by always underestimating himself,” Cécilia counters.
Emmett: “That’s me, too humble… but still, what kind of thing would I do to involve myself where I shouldn’t be? Did I fall in love with a Saudi princess, or just make best friends with Kim-Jong Un’s illegitimate son?”
GM: “Your father’s stationed in Switzerland, so I’d say something more mundane. The first thing that comes to mind is something to do with finances.”
Emmett: “That’s a good guess. It’s only fair I get one too, right?”
GM: “Of course. Though I’ll say as much to confirm as you have,” she smiles.
Emmett: “Right… so obviously you don’t talk about your father, but if he’s a secret, the question becomes why. Because a secret means somebody loses something when it’s told.”
He looks into those pale blue eyes. “Okay. So let’s assume him and your maman are on good terms, because obviously she’s never cut him out of her life completely, and just as obviously he’s fathered all your siblings. Which means one of two things: that she loves him, but can’t have or doesn’t want him in her life regularly, or… you don’t have a father.”
And as he says it, he is almost certain he has accidentally said something completely true.
GM: “Do you mean ’don’t’ in the sense that he’s dead?” Cécilia asks.
Emmett: “No. I think you never had one.”
“It’s like you said. Men don’t run in your genes.”
GM: Cécilia raises her eyebrows. “You mean in the biological sense?”
Emmett: “I mean that whatever Abèlia did to start your family, she did it on her terms. Her daughters, her choice, her initiative. Maybe that means a donor who signed a lot of contracts or something, or maybe there’s some other more complicated process at work, but I bet that whatever the answer is, when I say ‘papa,’ you don’t see a face.”
GM: “That’s certainly a more biologically plausible scenario,” Cécilia states coyly.
Emmett: Late afternoon becomes evening, and the bottle of wine they bought with them become empty.
They talk more, and more pleasantly, make out a bit, eat some of the food she bought, and drink slowly but fairly throughout. There’s no reason not to; they know each other, they’ve drunk before, and the conversation stays light but breathlessly, restlessly close.
GM: Cécilia has as casual an attitude towards wine as Em has seen from any of the Devillers. They’re fine drinking most anywhere. They’re fine with even the children drinking. But drinking towards excess seems to be another matter—Em’s never seen Cécilia get really wasted, and she doesn’t seem to find much appeal in doing so. There’s no element of risk or transgression in alcohol for her, and after enough glasses it’s all cons without any pros.
She eventually starts saying they need to gather up their things and leave—she’s taken time out of her pretty busy schedule for this.
Em recalls back to the down-to-earth talk she gave him after a few dates about how she intends on saving herself until marriage, citing her Catholic faith, studies that say couples with fewer premarital partners are happier together, and perhaps not least of all, Maman’s relationship advice. (“Always keeping a few things mysterious about yourself” was another piece of that.)
It came out too, with Ron. The dirty stories lasted a while, but eventually his uncle called him out. “Sheeeeit, son, you know what they say. Don’t bullshit a bullshitter. Not an old one like me.”
“Now I bet you’re embarrassed because you can’t get this girl to put out, so you’re feedin’ me bullshit, because you’re scared you’re losing your touch. But it ain’t like that. Some girls, the ones who are doe-eyed for Jesus especially… look, kid, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. So what do you do then?”
“Well, that’s easy. You wait. You don’t lead it anywhere. Eventually, if the day gets hot enough, it’s gonna get thirsty on its own. What that means is, you can’t just show these girls a wild evening, turn on the charm full blast, and hope the hookup’s gonna happen. You gotta become part of their lives. And I don’t just mean meet their families and shit… you’ve got to get them invested in you. Emotionally, not just horny.”
“So, this Cécilia girl. She cares for other people, right? Not ‘cares about,’ ‘cares for.’ Looks after her little sisters all her life and shit? Now, gee, isn’t it funny how much she wheedled you about film school? And getting this movie off the ground, how it was all her idea, even if she’d tell you it’s yours? That’s what she does, sounds to me.”
“I’d say your way in is this movie. Time I’d make my moves is after the premier. After the whole room’s all clapping, you’ve made the pretty speech, shaken hands, and everyone’s all sucked your dick. Then, drag out the afterparty—just you and the people whose names you actually fuckin’ know. Get a little more to drink in her. Little more compliments, little more food, little more everything. Let it get really late. Then, let it get really, really late. Let it hit that magic hour a good girl like her’s never s’posed to be up, where she’s real tired and things start getting a little blurry, a little unreal. Your tie’s loose, jacket’s off, her hair and makeup’s all mussed and she’s takin’ off her heels, but she’s not gonna konk out, not on a magic night like this.”
“Then, you take her out alone. Maybe someplace special, really special, or maybe you just take her straight home, whatever feels right, but you take her home. Your home. Or someplace you can say is your fuckin’ home, ‘cause it’s gotta be just you two, alone, and she’s gotta know you’re alone. Celebrate with some more champagne, someplace cozy. Don’t fill up her glass all that much, just little baby splashes, but keep the refills comin’. Feed her a line about getting accepted into film school. Yeah, it takes longer than that, but what the fuck does she know. Or, hell, show her an actual fuckin’ letter. Say how proud your mom was, too. Your brother. How happy they were. Even better if she ‘meets’ them. Say your ‘ambassaor’ dad called. Hell, pretend to take a call! Guy’s in Switzerland, right, so fuckin’ time zones? Get all choked and weepy. About how you didn’t think this could happen. About how your life’s all changed, how bright the future looks. You tell her this is all her, all ‘cause of her, and you’ve never met anyone like her, and you’re on a new course now, a new life, all ‘cause of her. And when she’s lookin’ at you all doe-eyed, and sees what a bang-up job she’s done takin’ care of you, because taking care of people is what she fuckin’ does… then, kid. Then’s when I’d make my move.”
“Well, actually,” Ron had then smirked, breaking the spell of his words, “that ain’t when I would.”
“You’re still young, but truth is, women are like… buses. There’s always another one pullin’ in, no matter what you fuckin’ do. I’m not gonna put on a tux and wine and dine every piece of tail that struts her ass.”
Then he’d leered. “Though just wining ’em…”
Ron had gotten up from the couch, rummaged through a kitchen cabinet, then had tossed Em a plastic baggy with several plain-looking pills.
“You don’t wanna wait through all that shit, just plop one of those babies in her drink. And she’ll be all yours.”
Emmett: He had said little then. He hadn’t known what to say, except nod.
He’s not an idiot. He knows what this kind of thing is called, even if people don’t like to talk about it. The r-word. The thing that so many people do but never, ever call by its name.
Murderers will call themselves murderers to brag, thieves will shrug when they’re outed as thieves.
But only the truly sick are proud of rape. Only the furthest departed from others can stare into that sin and its sweeping, cruel abyss, and say: “I feel no shame. I know what I have done, and I am whole.”
He left with the pills. They’re not heavy. They’re no more a burden than sugar pills.
It’s not like the situation is a normal one. Cécilia might not even be human, to say nothing of her mother. Besides, didn’t she say herself he is beyond redemption, beyond the point of no return?
There’s a moment. The last cup of the night, and she’s distracted and his hands are quick. He can do it.
He thinks about walking a plank. There’s a sword poking him to walk back, back, to plunge into the icy depths he’s straddled all this time.
But the thing about walking a plank that most people don’t understand is that you don’t have to step off it.
The moment is here.
“Yeah,” he says. “Let’s get out of here.” He makes sure to help her pack up.
When she isn’t looking, he slips the pills. The bayou waters gurgle them up like pigshit.
As he drives her back, he can’t help but think that just because you can’t turn around, doesn’t mean there’s one place to go.
And then he thinks that he’ll miss this place, as his latest borrowed car’s headlights tear open a hole in the night and show him into New Orleans.
Sunday afternoon, 16 September 2007
GM: “Well, Em, there’s five stages to making any movie,” Ron explains. “Some people say seven, but fuck that noise. There’s only five that really matter.”
“Stage one’s development. You write the script, pitch it to people who can bankroll it, and pray to whatever god you believe in they don’t shit all over it. Because they can, so long as you’re taking their money. They can use the pages for toilet paper, hand them back, and tell you not to mind the smell.”
Em writes and pitches his script. Ron says it’s “bold” and grabs his interest. It’s got a novel and intriguing story that isn’t a cliché at all. It’s also too intelligent for mass audiences.
“Shit, that ending? You need to hold their hands more. I’da told you to dumb this down if you’d signed the rights to Zodiac. It’s too good. People don’t want good. The aunt needs to be a vampire or something, and she needs to die at the end.”
“But that’s the fun of being a young director like you. You still get to write good movies.”
He laughs bitterly.
“Don’t get used to it.”
Monday afternoon, 17 September 2007
GM: “Stage two is pre-production. Creating a budget and schedule, picking film locations, and hiring actors. Getting the money is what it is, but casting auditions are always fun.”
He winks at Em.
“Usually when actresses start sleeping with the director.”
Saturday morning, 22 September 2007
GM: Em could say he paid much attention to the legal aspects of the movie, and spent much time on funding and other pre-production tasks before getting to the auditions, but he’d be lying. Besides, Ron points out, it’s not as if his actors are working for money, so he can “hire” them on sooner.
Em gets his friends to tell their friends, and puts up flyers around local colleges and high schools. No one’s getting paid for their roles, beyond free food at the film shoots, but there’ll be a fancy meal at the Commander’s Palace screening. And it’ll be something to put on college applications or under “volunteer experience.”
Sitting in for the auditions is fun the first few times, and even the next few times after that. It gets repetitive, though, and some of the unpaid youth actors are simply trash. It’s on a Saturday morning when the scheduled lunch break feels too far away that the next of his prospectives steps in.
Emil: The man is dressed in the traditional attire of exhausted college students: a sweater branded with the name of a university he doesn’t attend and a pair of jeans that are a little to baggy to be flattering. He wears a skullcap on the top of his head. “All right, all right, I’m coming!” he laughs after the young brunette who’s pulling him along, almost tripping over the floor.
Emmett: Em stares. Is that a Jew hat?
GM: Cécilia, sitting in one of the empty classroom’s adjacent fold-out chairs, smiles and gives them the standard “thanks so much for coming” hello that Em’s heard all morning. She also asks them to “slate,” which as she helpfully explains, “is a movie term for giving your name and talent agency to the auditioners… though somehow I think we can skip the second of those.”
Em’s heard that line more than once too.
Emmett: Cécilia’s an angel. He’d say something about how he didn’t deserve her if it wasn’t a tad too close for comfort.
He glances over the two and when their turns come gives each a prompt.
The brunette gets a usual prompt—“tell me a secret”—but when he’s screening the man, he finds himself oddly focused, his curiosity evoked through the haze of mouth-breathing amateurism.
“Tell me about yourself in the most interesting way you can.”
Emil: “Uh well, if you want to know about me I could tell you I’m a Jewish Comp Sci major… class of…” he sees that this isn’t really what they’re looking for, so he breathes and switches gears. “I know how to find out secrets. Given an hour or two, a phone book, and an Internet connection, I could find out the context of anybody’s lives. Who they are. How they present themselves. And if I had some time to chat with my rabbi, I could figure out anybody’s fundamental purpose.” He stares Em right in the eyes. “I could find out who you are, but more importantly, why you are.”
Was that too much? Emil thinks. His lifts his arms up, showing his palms to the director. “Not that I would ever do that. That would be a couple hairs shy of a stalking charge. Not to mention the ethical issues.”
“Oh!” he remembers, turning to belatedly answer Cécilia’s question. “You can call me Em.” Every performer needs a pseudonym. Well, every performer whose goto audition comprises of telling minors he can doxx them.
GM: The brunette, who simply gave her name as Hillary, looks amused.
“Oh, that’ll be easy to remember,” the younger blonde woman smiles. “It’s so close to his name—Em and El.”
“What’s the most interesting thing you’ve found out about someone through your rabbi, phone book, and internet connection?”
Emmett: Em chokes a little on his water but otherwise retains his composure. “Yeah, real easy,” he agrees.
The fuck is this guy?
“I’m interested, gotta admit,” he says in the meantime. “What are you looking for at an audition?”
Emil: “Oh, like I said I don’t think it would be very good to go snooping for info like that most of the time. But to give you an example of the stuff my rabbi can tell you… there’s always something pertinent in the meanings behind names,” ‘Em’ answers El with a shrug.
“To he honest, Hil sorta just dragged me along over here. But, you know I’ve always liked the movies and I like the idea of helping out a community project. Its been a while since I’ve had the chance. So I’d like to play a part if you have one in mind.”
“You have a real interesting name, El, know what it means?”
GM: “It’s another name for God, I think?” Cécilia supplies.
Emmett: “Yeah, I think my mother liked the sound of it more than the meaning. But I’ll bite, what’s it mean originally?”
He keeps his tone friendly, but this guy is clearly a kook. Still, no harm no foul.
Emil: “Your friend is right, it is, in its shortened form, a name of God. But back in the day, before the God of Abraham was widely known, your full first name, which I suspect is some translation of Elijahu, was of much more significance. Elijahu means my God is Yah. It was a defiant declaration of faith, of knowledge of who truly controls you despite being surrounded by other insects who claim divinity and through that seek control. You aren’t a servant of Dagon or Baal, and you can’t change this fact. Your subservience to your God is a part of you. And you even have the pleasure of knowing your master’s name.” Em expresses this with a great levity, like he’s retelling a childhood story.
“You know, Elijah was also a prophet. Every prophet gets to tell a story, sorta like what you’re doing with this movie. But the special part about Elijah is that instead of perishing before His word came to pass, his master took him from the world alive, by fire, to stay next to Him in His house. Forever.” Em is beaming, a little too excited for his own sake.
GM: “Oh wow, that’s a lot to have in a name,” Cécilia says. “But I guess it’s true that names have power. You obviously know a lot about religious studies, Em.”
Emil: “Oh, that’s nothing. My teacher says we’ve barely scratched the surface of knowledge to learn. Do you have much interest in religion yourself?”
Emmett: “Some,” El lies immediately. “But I wasn’t raised in a churchgoing home. I know Cécilia was, though.” He beams at her. People feel grateful when you make them the center of your universe. Even if they already live there.
“You seem to care a lot about meaning,” El says to the Jew. “What’s your own name mean, Em?”
Emil: Em smiles at El’s apparent interest, but then scrunches his brow a bit before answering, “Well, in the original language, ‘Em’ is an adjective, meaning pertaining, or perhaps, belonging to mother.”
Emil thinks for a moment before breaking into laughter.
“I guess that means I’m somewhat of a mama’s boy. I can’t disagree with that!” Em finishes as he calms down. “So what’s your movie gonna be about?”
GM: “It’s a love story, remember?” says Hillary, having watched her boyfriend’s lengthy exposition with some amusement.
“That’s right,” Cécilia nods, still smiling slightly over El’s churchgoing remark. “It’s a rags to riches story about a poor conwoman who falls in love with a handsome young heir, but his aunt is a horrible monster who gets in the way.”
“That’s an interesting subversion. Refreshing, actually. Usually it’s the guy trying to get the girl who’s better than him,” Hillary remarks.
“Yes, we wanted to do something refreshing. It’s 2007, after all. The girl can fight to get the boy too.”
“Yes, that sounds great,” Hillary nods. “But it does sound a little black and white to me too, no offense. Two people in love, a bad person gets in the way, and true love overcomes?”
“Oh, we’ve made sure to give it more depth than that,” Cécilia smiles. “The nuance isn’t in the aunt, but the heroine’s choices. When I say the aunt is a horrible monster, that might be the literal truth. Or it might not. The aunt isn’t ever mean to the heroine’s face, but there are disturbing hints about what she’s up to behind closed doors—things so disturbing she might not even be human. The heroine isn’t sure what to believe and wonders if she’s insane, because at the same time, the aunt makes her nephew very happy and actually encourages them to pursue a relationship together. But the more the heroine sees, the more she’s convinced their happiness may be built on an unspeakably awful lie. But she can’t simply expose the aunt without consequence, or even expose her at all—the aunt is powerful, connected, and she’s no one. So the heroine has to face some very hard questions about what she’s willing to do for love, what she can live with, and how much of this may just be in her head. There can’t be a happily ever after in this story: just an option that’s less distasteful.”
“Oh wow, that’s really dark-sounding,” Hillary comments, eyebrows raised. “Would you say that it’s a horror movie?”
Cécilia seems to think on that. “You know, we actually hadn’t really considered its genre. But now that you mention it, I’d say it definitely is. It’s only ambiguous whether it’s supernatural horror or psychological horror. Some or all of what’s happening could just be in the heroine’s head.”
She smiles at the two auditioners. “Hopefully that gives you both a better sense of what the movie’s about, anyway.”
Emil: Emil nods. “Thank you for explaining, but now I’m curious. Does the conwoman ever admit to her deceit? You know, out of love or something like that?”
GM: “You mean about who she is?” Cécilia shakes her head. “No. Though now that you mention it, that detail gets largely sidelined in favor of the plot with the aunt. I wonder if that’s a mistake.”
Emil: “Well I guess I assumed, since she’s a liar, she might make herself seem better than she is. Maybe you could include a redemption arc?”
GM: “Maybe you shouldn’t,” Hillary says thoughtfully. “Does the aunt get to redeem herself?”
Cécilia starts to answer, but Hillary preempts her with, “Rhetorical question. You want this to be a horror movie, and that’d be a really happy ending. But how much worse is the aunt than the conwoman, really? How many people has the conwoman hurt? Why should she get to redeem herself just because she’s the protagonist?”
“There’s a quote my mom likes, ‘Every person is the protagonist in their own story.’ Even the ones who are bad guys. It feels almost… excusing the conwoman, saying that because she’s the heroine, the protagonist, the center of her world, that she gets to be special. Am I making sense there?”
Emil: “You know, I think you bring up something really important there, Hil. Maybe, and I’m no storyteller so take this with a grain of salt, if you want to do something fresh, let the aunt alone redeem herself?”
GM: “Oh, just the aunt? Why her and not the conwoman?” Cécilia asks curiously.
Emil: “Because she’s the only one who is really suffering in the movie. She’s the one the audience will come to see as a monster. The other characters get off comparatively easy. Let the aunt fight for her image and you’ll have a nice twist,” Emil responds after some thought.
GM: “I don’t know… actually, no, I do,” Hillary frowns. “The aunt’s supposed to be a horrible monster who’s hurt people, isn’t she? So why should we feel bad for her just because the audience finds out? So she loses her reputation—that’s called getting caught. That isn’t suffering, that’s justice.”
Emil: “Because, Hil, I’m not sure the aunt is actually that bad. They said that we never see the aunt actually hurt anyone. If it’s told from the perspective of the conwoman, she could be twisting the narrative to justify her actions. What if we get to see the aunt’s side of the story in the end of the film?”
GM: “That’s true,” Hillary thinks. “So the conwoman was actually just mistaken about the whole thing. The aunt being a monster was actually a con she was pulling on herself. The real monster all along was her.”
“I wonder though, if we can already switch roles like that and have the conwoman turn out to be the real monster, could she redeem herself too? And how do you have her redeem herself and still face justice?”
“I’d first say the aunt being a monster is a matter of perception, but the conwoman being one is an objective fact,” Cécilia raises. “Crimes are crimes, and the conwoman can’t simply spin her way out of those. Twisting other peoples’ perspectives is what she’s always done. She has to admit to that, to her crimes, and other people’s perspectives—society’s—mattering more than hers.”
“That makes sense, then,” Hillary says. “The conwoman simply has to admit what she did was wrong. She has to be honest for once, and willing to face the consequences.”
Cécilia nods. “If the conwoman is caught and tells us she’s sorry, it’s hard to believe she really is—or at least sorry for anything besides getting caught.”
“Crocodile tears,” Hillary remarks.
“Yes,” Cécilia says. “For those tears to be human, she has to confess what she’s done when she thinks she can get away with it. She must be willing to face justice. But just as important as justice is mercy. The people she’s hurt can choose to forgive her, and absolve her of any consequences besides a humbled pride. Redemption is a two-way process. The criminal tries to prove they’re worthy of it, and the victim recognizes when they are.”
“So the conwoman could redeem herself, just like the aunt might not actually be a monster,” Hillary says. “That’d be a really happy ending. But is it the best story?”
Emil: “Horror is nothing without contrast. I don’t think redemption in itself has to lead to a happy ending. You know the story of Samson and Delilah? Samson broke his oath with God for the love of Delilah and he suffered immensely, getting humbled from a man who could kill a thousand men with an animal’s jawbone to a cripple with his eyes gouged out. His story was horrific, but he did redeem himself in the end, by sacrificing his life to tear down the temple of Israel’s enemies.”
GM: “That’s true,” Hillary remarks. “The conwoman could redeem herself. But the nephew or the people she’s hurt could always refuse to forgive her. Just because she does the right thing doesn’t mean that other people have to.” She frowns. “I don’t think I like that ending, though. It’s unfair. Samson gets recognized as a hero in the end, it just costs him.”
“I think I like that kind of ending more than one where the aunt turns out not to be a monster and the conwoman redeems herself, too. You shouldn’t be able to essentially just handwave what you’ve done away—redeeming yourself should cost something.”
Emmett: The young director is an unusually well-groomed young man for his age, and Em gets the distinct impression he’s a little at a loss, a situation perhaps unfamiliar to him. He’s been listening to their discussion first with the kind of polite silence of somebody who knows the work obsessively well but is waiting to hear what others have to say, then with what looks like a kind of touched surprise as the girl—maybe some kind of romantic partner, from the body language, but it’s hard to parse the boy’s exact relation towards her—- starts to talk about his project’s insides and outs, as attentively and thoughtfully as if it were her own.
Then that expression grows thoughtful and steadily still (morose?) as the group discusses the ending.
“I guess I’m wondering what redemption looks like when truth becomes dangerous. The obvious answer is she comes clean, shares everything—but that also seems too clean. What redeems a liar when the most dangerous thing they can do is tell the truth?”
The question seems directed at all of them, but he’s watching Cécilia’s face.
GM: “I’d say that’s the whole point of redemption,” Cécilia considers. “It has to cost the wrongdoer something. They have to give of themselves for others, not just to make right the wrongs they’ve done, but to show us they’ve had a change of heart. So Samson in the story gives his life to defeat Israel’s enemies.”
“Now the wrongdoer might also think, why should they ever do that. Who wants to die or pay some other price when they could get to live instead, and not? How does redemption pay?”
“You could say, again, the whole point of redemption is supposed to be thinking about others. But the wrongdoer is actually saving themselves too.”
Cécilia seems to think. “In fact… let’s assume for a moment the aunt really is a monster, and of course the conwoman already is. Now let’s say she doesn’t redeem herself to the nephew, and doesn’t come clean.”
A dawning look comes over Cécilia’s face. “Actually… I think I’ve got something that could be the perfect ending for this movie. Something that’s pure horror. Even more than the original script.”
“The best horror doesn’t just show the monster as an external threat to defeat. It makes the monster an internal threat too, that says something unsettling about the protagonist and forces them to confront their own failings and weaknesses. It blurs the line between the monster and the protagonist. I’d start by drawing parallels between what the aunt and conwoman have in common.”
“How they’re both hurting people,” Hillary says. “The conwoman isn’t wrong the aunt is a monster, but the conwoman is still one too. Though it’s more than even that, there’s lots of kinds of monsters. But the aunt and the conwoman are both liars.”
“Exactly,” Cécilia agrees. “They’re both lying to someone—actually, the same person, the nephew—in pursuit of happiness. They’re after the same thing.”
“Why, though?” asks Hillary. “What’s making the conwoman do this, lie to and hurt someone we’re supposed to believe she loves? Monsters aren’t born, most of the time, they’re made.”
Emmett: “A monster? I wouldn’t go that far. She wants love and light in her life like anybody else. The things she does to get it are wrong, but I think her crime is a teenager’s crime, a mistake made for human reasons. She’s manipulative and imperfect, but I’d hope also a sympathetic figure.” He tries to keep his tone curious rather than whining, hating himself for the thing inside him trying to feel.
GM: “I don’t think so,” Cécilia says, shaking her head. “Maybe if the aunt wasn’t in this, and the conwoman wasn’t going after the nephew. But the aunt is, and the conwoman is. It’s because like draws like. The conwoman is drawn to them, both of them, because she’s repeating history. If she’s lying to the person she loves, she’s probably done it before. Maybe past loves, but if you want to get to the heart of it, I’d say she’s lied to her family. And hurt them very badly. She’s looking for love here because she’s lonely. She hopes she can find it this time, but she’s repeating the same mistakes as last time.”
“So that explains why she’s after the nephew. But where does the aunt fit into this?” asks Hillary. “You said the conwoman was drawn to her.”
Cécilia nods. “There’s another quote, I don’t remember who it’s by or even how it goes—but we see things we wish weren’t true about ourselves in the people we most dislike.”
“How the aunt and the conwoman are both liars after the nephew’s affection,” Hillary raises.
“Oh, but it’s not even just the nephew,” says Cécilia. “I think the aunt is actually more important to the conwoman than the nephew.”
“The conwoman sees herself mirrored in the aunt, who’s a horrible monster. Not just who she is, but who she could be—a liar who’s gotten away with all the horrible things she’s done, which are so much worse than the conwoman’s, yet still manages to win the nephew’s love.”
“The conwoman is simultaneously intrigued, aroused, and repulsed by this. The aunt is everything about the conwoman she hates and fears, yet also wishes is true.”
“And that’s why the conwoman is doomed, and her pursuit of the nephew with the aunt involved can only end in failure and tragedy. Because you must confront the darkness within to confront the darkness without. For the conwoman, that would mean coming clean, and proving she actually is different from the aunt.”
“And the truth always comes out,” Hillary fills in. “Maybe it takes a while, but it always does. The conwoman found out about the aunt, after all, and she’s a better liar and worse monster than the conwoman is. That’s why con artists always move on, because people wise up eventually. You can’t fool someone forever. But the conwoman is looking for love—something you can’t just move on from.”
Cécilia nods. “The conwoman has forgotten that. She’s played herself and fallen victim to her own con—so she will lose the nephew and the love she hoped to obtain. Not because of the aunt. Because of herself.”
“That’s what we call a tragedy in the literary sense of the term—it’s not simply something sad that happens, like stubbing your toe, or even your mother suddenly dying. It’s when the protagonist brings about their own doom through a fatal flaw they could have forseen, but didn’t. It makes us throw up our hands and say ‘if only you’d done that! You could have gotten a happy ending!’ because it was so sadly, tragically preventable.”
Cécilia smiles at Elliot. “I’m so glad we had Em and Hil over, El. They’ve given us the best ending for this movie yet.”
Emmett: “Some people just have that magic touch,” El agrees, his mood twisting like a ballerina with broken heels. “Well, we’ll remember you two, that’s for sure—we already have your callback information, right?”
He walks them both to the door after they’ve finished chatting. “That was a nice conversation you two got rolling. I have to thank you for that.” He offers a hand first to the woman, then to Emil. His grip is comfortable and cool, but not strong.
“How did you find us, if you don’t mind me asking?” he asks the man. Something about Emil still perturbs him, and anything that takes his mind off the shit he just had to hear will be welcome.
Emil: Emil takes the young man’s hand, his shake by contrast is a little too firm for comfort. “It was fate. And also a flyer. But fate is definitely in there somewhere I’m sure. Hill actually is the one who found out initially, isn’t that right?”
GM: “Yeah,” she nods. “I think my mom and Cécilia’s have met each other a few times too.”
“Oh really, who is she?” Cécilia asks.
“I thought I recognized you from somewhere,” Cécilia smiles. “Congratulations to her on becoming majority leader.”
“Thanks. We were all really proud.”
Emmett: “Oh? My mom voted for her,” El says, a little surprised because it’s the truth. “You should invite her to the screening, in any case, especially if we call you back. I’m sure she’d love to see you on the screen, and the more big names, the better for publicity.”
GM: “I’ll ask,” Hillary nods. “Commander’s Palace is great even if you weren’t doing the screening there.”
Emmett: If he makes small talk now, he won’t have to think about it.
“That’s why con artists always move on, because people wise up eventually. But the conwoman is looking for love—something you can’t just move on from.”
“I know, I’d probably be looking forward to the meal as much as the movie if it was somebody else’s baby,” El laughs, his throat feeling garrote-tight. “How’d you two meet?”
GM: “We both go to Tulane, and we took some classes together,” Hillary answers. “Anyway, we’re sure you’ve got other people waiting to audition. Good luck.”
Emil: Before the couple leave, Emil takes a worn notepad out of his bag, scrawls an address on the little room remaining on the paper unstained by poorly erased calculations and drawings, tears the strip and hands it to El.
“You two seem like particularly intelligent and spirited people. If you’re interested in learning some deep truths about the world you live in, give me a call and come to this address for a study session. It might just change your life… if you’re open to it.”
Emmett: “That’s nice of you to offer, thank you,” El says, taking it with a smile and glancing at Cécilia.
I bet it’s a cult. A weird, black Jewish cult where they talk about baby names all night long.
Saturday afternoon, 22 September 2007
GM: The day’s remaining auditions go all right, which makes them both better and worse than ’Em’s.’
None of the other would-be teenage or college student actors go on about deistic etymology or leave as much of an impression. They also don’t twist his gut into a queasy pretzel over ‘character analyses’ into the cancer eating at his soul, or tell him that the object he so doggedly pursues is the same one that will destroy him.
The muffaletta he gets with Cécilia doesn’t taste like anything. She casually mentions how, “Oh, we forgot to actually do Hillary’s audition. Oh well, I’m sure she’ll do great from that talk we had.”
More auditions pass after that. Cécilia takes her leave after another several hours, citing extracurricular and familial commitments she’s put off to fit in the movie. She’s very excited though about how this is all going, "Though we still need to find our female lead. I’ll ask around some more. None of the girls really seemed quite ‘it.’
Emmett: “You really don’t think you can pull it off? It’d be nice, wouldn’t it? Not that you haven’t done so much already.”
He wants to hold her hand, but he needs both to hold the overlarge sandwich. He used to love these, getting them with Phil every time they were near this place, but something about its taste has soured on him. Olives and different kinds of pig. He doesn’t like eating dead things, he’s discovered the last few days. Maybe he’ll go vegetarian.
A vegetarian monster.
“You really got into talking about the ending back there,” he adds. “Do you think that’s the way to go? She lies in the bed she made?”
GM: “Absolutely,” Cécilia nods. “I think a better ending for the movie now would be the conwoman turning the gun on herself, after she realizes the truth and loses the nephew’s love.”
Seeing Em’s look, she adds, “Tragedies don’t hold back. Oedipus doesn’t. It’s not an ambiguous ending anymore, but the best stories don’t just raise ambiguities. They teach us lessons, truths we take with us.”
Emmett: His stomach clenches, and what little remains of his appetite evaporates faster than steam.
“It’s not about holding back, for me. I guess I’m thinking about if that’s something I believe in. Her killing herself, like that’s the only possible outcome. I get what you mean about ambiguities, too, even if I don’t feel the same way. But that’s not what’s holding me back.” He puts the muffuletta down, and regards her. “Humor me. Imagine you were her. As silly as that sounds, that’s what acting is, right? For real, take a moment, and you’re a lonely girl whose life’s been perfectly, frustratingly, unremarkable. And then you do something you never thought was possible, never dared to do: you told a lie, and the worst part is, it worked. It worked so well that now you’re happier than you’ve ever been, ever thought you could be. And then, when you can’t take it anymore, when you know you need to do something because you don’t know how to just stand still anymore… then, what would you do?”
He holds her eyes in his own, lets her see her own reflection carve itself into his retinas like the best kind of memory.
She is so damn beautiful.
She wants him dead, and she doesn’t even know it.
GM: Cécilia takes another slow bite from her sandwich. Dead things and all.
They say Hitler was a vegetarian, for what quitting meat is worth.
Emmett: And he was a liar, too. A really good one.
Damned if he shouldn’t run for president one day.
GM: He blew his brains out at the end of his story, too. It was around when the truth about the Holocaust came out, that ugliest of all lies, and people wised up to that conman too.
Cécilia does look beautiful today, though. She looks beautiful every day, but this Sunday she makes it look particularly casual. She’s got her pale blonde hair pulled into an (of course) french twist and ponytail, a practical ‘do for today’s practical-minded work. Em wonders how soft it’d feel to run his hands through. She’s got on a striped white and baby blue sundress. It’s a light, airy little thing with ruffles that goes well on her willowy figure, though it’s just high and thick enough that Em can’t get a good look at her cleavage. It suggests all he could have, but doesn’t go so far as to let him have anything either.
Cécilia wipes her mouth and sets the sandwich down.
“All right, putting myself in her shoes…”
“First, we have to consider these things in their full context, El. Because this isn’t just one, tragically or even humorously accidental lie, like if the conwoman misspoke her name to the nephew, was too embarrassed to correct him, and then she didn’t know how to walk back from it. This is a deliberate pattern. The conwoman has been hurting people all her life, going all the way back to her family. We can’t simply view what’s happening with the nephew as an isolated incident.”
“So if I were the conwoman… I would come clean to the nephew. I would admit to the lie, all the lies, and try to make things right with everyone I’d hurt. Maybe they wouldn’t forgive me. Maybe I’d lose my chance with the nephew. But that’s what it comes down to. I have to be doing this for other people, not just to ease my own conscience. I have to do what’s good for them even if it’s bad for me.”
Cécilia rests her chin thoughtfully on a slender hand, then says, “But I don’t think the conwoman has that in her. I don’t think she really cares about other people—or at least, not as much as she does about herself. I think the only circumstances under which she’d come clean are if she knew everything would be forgiven—and she’s scared she won’t be.”
“She’s very, very scared.”
“She’s so scared, in fact, that’s why she kills herself. Because if the conwoman doesn’t change her ways, she’ll inevitably become the aunt—that’s why it doesn’t really matter if the aunt’s exposed or not, because there’s going to be a monster either way. And the conwoman knows she can’t change, can’t walk back from the lies, because she’s too afraid to face justice.”
“She can’t change what she is, and she can’t live knowing what she is. So she takes the only way out.”
Cécilia smiles happily and reaches out a hand to take Em’s. Her touch is so light and soft.
“It’s a great story. And it’s all yours, El.”
Emmett: He watches her.
Cochon Butcher’s is rarely quiet. But to Emmett Delacroix, for one moment there is a perfect, apocalyptic silence, the kind that a dying star leaves in its wake.
“You make a good case, Cécilia,” he says. “A really good case. I’d like that movie, but I don’t think I could make it. It might be my story, but the ending’s all you.” He smiles at her. “So how could I not ask you to make it with me? You’re as much a part of this as I am. People should see you front and center.”
He holds up a finger before she can reply. “Look, just give it a think for a minute, alright? I’ve got to use the restroom.”
GM: Cécilia looks as if she’s about to say something, then nods. “All right, I can think about it for at least that long.”
Emmett: “Thanks. It means a lot to me. Everything you say does.”
Inside the bathroom—it’s one of those nice ones—he takes out his phone, a fancy flip somebody who’s parents loved them more had passed on to him, and calls his ace. He always prefers to call Miranda. It makes it easier to stay in character when he doesn’t have to look at her. Overweight is one thing. Obese people disgust him.
Everything still feels quiet. Things have suddenly become very, very clear.
“Em? Is that you? It’s been forever!” gushes the younger teenager’s nasally voice.
GM: “Yeah, it has—how’ve you been, Miranda?”
Forever? Bitch, we talked three days ago. Make another friend, and try not to eat this one.
He entertains her need for conversation for a precious minute before getting into it. “Look, did you get the chance to look at those pictures yet? I’m counting on you for that assignment, you know. And you’re so good at languages. Binary and human, I guess.”
All this time, feeling sorry for himself. But sometimes, you look in a mirror and you see yourself and realize that if you have to hate yourself, you might as well be something worth hating.
“I think I’m ready to read them now.”
GM: “Oh, I did!” Miranda squeals. It’s not the way Em thinks of most girls as ‘squealing,’ though. It makes him think of a pig.
“But you wouldn’t be reading them. I’d be reading them. Will be reading them. And you’ll be listening to me…”
Her thick voice is almost conspiratorial.
Emmett: He glances at his watch. “That sounds nice,” he croons. “Do you think you could read them to me now? If it’s not a pain, of course.”
GM: “No, no, of course it’s not!” Miranda protests. “But, um… here’s the thing. It was… really weird.”
“I believe you. What was it about?”
GM: “Well…” Miranda’s voice falters. “I mean, it was weird in the sense that it wasn’t readily comprehensible to me and the apparent—um, sorry, that sounded dumb. Well, smart. But, um, no. Dumb. I guess that’s me. Dumb for sounding smart. Huh. Huh. Hah.”
Her laugh isn’t light and tinkering like Cécilia’s, which makes Em think of crystal chimes. It’s more like an set of rusty lead pipes hung up on unevenly sized bits of string. Pipes a pig is snorting through.
Emmett: He laughs, too. Get on with it.
“Don’t worry about it. Just read me what you got.”
GM: “Oh, well, maybe it would be better if I, actually, paraphrased. Told it to you in my own words. Don’t worry! I’ll communicate, communicate everything of substance it contained. Um, sorry. I’ll tell you everything it says.”
Emmett: He smothers the irritation between pillow-sweet words.
“I don’t mind you just reading it straight, we can talk about it after—I just don’t have a lot of time to talk right now.”
GM: “Oh. Oh, well, I’m just saying because—because the writer was not a very articulate writer. And the handwriting was sloppy. Well, it was neat for the age group, actually very neat, but sloppy by way of comparison. It was a little kid’s diary. Huh. Huh huh. Hah hah.” Miranda laughs again like she just made some kind of joke.
“Oh, um, sorry, was that not funny?”
Emmett: He chuckles. “It’s a little funny. How do you know it’s a kid?”
GM: “W-well, it was like I said. The tenor of the language used and the style of handwriting. I mean, either it was by a little kid. Or someone who was not very bright. Did you take this from a stupid person?”
Emmett: “Miranda, you’re not like other girls. You’re clever, and you have a knack for solving shit like this. I’m not there yet. I need more context before I know where you’re coming from. So just tell me about the pages, as fully as you can. Can you do that for me, Mir?” He idly picks his nose and wipes his finger on the sink’s underside.
GM: “Oh, yes! That’s what I wanted to do! Of course I can, Em, of—yes! I can! Sure!” the acne-faced teen gushes. She halts. “Um—sorry… okay, well, um, the diary is by a Yvette. Because she references her name in the interior contents. And she has allergies. To dairy.”
Emmett: Jesus fucking Christ, all this to know that macaroni and cheese gives her the shits.
GM: “Very severe allergies, that induce anaphylaxis. Do, um. You said to assume, treat you like—I don’t think you’re stupid! You’re very intelligent, Em! You just said, um. Do… do you want me to ask you, if you know what that is? Because I can not ask you. If you’d be, um, offended.”
Emmett: “I know what it is. I had a friend who needed an epi pen. Just keep telling me about it. What was actually written down?”
Silently, he wonders if she actually benefits more from him exploiting her than he does.
GM: “Oh! I knew you were intelligent, Em! I’m glad I didn’t ask you, if you knew what that was!” Miranda gushes. “And you know from a friend, instead of from reading it, so you are… worldly.” She pronounces the word with an almost majestic air.
Emmett: “Miranda, the pages.”
GM: “Yes, yes, you’re right. The pages, you’re right—about everything. N-not literally everything, I mean it’s not like you’re a North Korean dictator and I’m agreeing with everything you say out of habit, I just think very-”
“Um. You’re right, the pages.”
Emmett: He waits.
GM: “So, Yvette ate some cheese once. Cheese product, that is, contained within a snack. I don’t think she knew it had cheese, because I don’t think she has a suicidal ideation, and there are better ways to kill yourself. Like, you could shoot yourself. It’s weird how girls take sleeping pills when they want to kill themselves, the success rate is lower than when you use firearms, which men do. Though it’s actually possible to survive. There’s this… um, sorry.”
Emmett: She turns the gun on herself.
He says nothing. People talk when they feel pressure.
GM: “So Yvette ate some cheese, that she didn’t know was cheese. From a schoolmate. At her school. And she experienced anaphylaxis. Well, food containing cheese product. So they took her to the nurse and the nurse actually thought she should go to the hospital. Because her reaction was so bad.”
“And they tried to call Yvette’s mom. But she wouldn’t answer the phone. And then the mom was in the hospital. Or, um. I don’t think. Maybe she was and maybe she wasn’t. The writing would benefit from more clarity.”
Emmett: “That. Talk about that.”
GM: “A girl died, just a week later!”
Miranda’s voice is suddenly panicking.
“The one who gave the snack! She died! Because she made Yvette and her mom sick!”
Emmett: For a moment, he says nothing.
His face hurts.
“You’re my best friend in the whole world right now, Miranda. You don’t know how much you’ve helped me.”
GM: “Emmmm….” Miranda’s voice is a low, almost panicked whine.
Emmett: He hangs up halfway through her answer, and turns off his phone. His heart tha-thumps, in and out of tune with the blood pounding in his ears.
Em doesn’t believe in God. But he believes in film. He believes in himself with a desperate, unhinged belief. And he knows a treasure when he’s given one.
How to do it, how to do it…
Ha. Hahahaha. Hahahaha.
He’s chuckling lightly to himself when he sits back down with Cécilia. “Sorry about that, I just had a funny thought. Do you know what you want, yet?” He smiles as he reaches out to touch her hand much like she touched his. “Because I do.”
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