Anna Hagen

Girl Gargoyle, Guy Gargoyle

I had already kissed three boys and one wom­an onstage when I found myself sec­onds and inch­es away from my first kiss in real life. The stage kiss­es were no help: my legs quaked. We were out­side the First Avenue stop and the hot night loomed above us, heavy with the threat of yet anoth­er late sum­mer storm. It was my move. Some small cool part of me knew that if I turned around and walked down the sub­way steps, I would hate myself all the way home. I didn’t have to do much more than sway for­ward. The bar-lined night-lit street had melt­ed away, and all I could hear was my heart­beat. I feared that if I moved toward him I would lose my bal­ance and some­how pitch us both down the sub­way steps. I feared that he would pull away. The sliv­er of calm in me watched as the moment stretched so long that to kiss him or not to kiss him would have equal­ly revealed some­thing wrong with me. Kissing onstage had been easy. I had marked a K in my script and pressed my lips again­st my play husband’s with­out a gig­gle or hes­i­ta­tion, because DT had been watch­ing. The thought of DT saved me in real life, too. I leaned for­ward. I almost for­got to close my eyes. Our lips touched. He pushed his tongue into my mouth. By the time my brain had caught up with my body it was too late to think twice.

DT was our direc­tor. Not his and mine, but mine and the oth­er the­ater kids’. We called her Ms. Thresher in per­son, and the oth­er teach­ers called her Dawn, but DT was how she signed her emails and it fit her, more of a title than a name, nei­ther mas­cu­line nor fem­i­nine but force­ful. That was how she spoke, too. It was as hope­less to try to imi­tate her as to please her. She always loved the boys best.

Even so, when we played the walk­ing game before rehearsal, I felt a flush of pow­er from walk­ing like her. We would begin in neu­tral, try­ing to stand straight and stride for­ward with no fur­ther motive than to move through space. It wasn’t easy. We had to resist play­ing fol­low the lead­er. We had to fight again­st eye con­tact, laugh­ter, and the irre­sistible urge our back­packs gave us to slouch, even when we weren’t wear­ing them.

Before we could get com­fort­able, DT would clap and call out a way of walk­ing. “Strut!” she would say, and we would cat­walk through the the­ater.

Stroll!” she would yell, and our walks would slow to ambling gam­bols.

Pre-school mode!” she would call out, and we would wad­dle like four-year-olds, soft-bel­lied and stum­bling.

California mode!” Our walks would length­en and relax. Our arms would swing heavy and our weight would shift back­ward as our hips led.

Director mode!” she would say, and we would stride, heads lead­ing, legs charg­ing, hands raised and ready. I would think of the way she shift­ed the air in a room when she entered it.

She would call us to a stand­still and we would move on to mouth warm-ups: “Red leather, yel­low leather,” “Girl gar­goyle, guy gar­goyle,” “A prop­er cup of cof­fee in a cop­per cof­fee cup,” “I am a moth­er pheas­ant pluck­er,” “She stood upon the bal­cony,” “To sit in solemn silence,” and on and on until our faces buzzed. I was the queen of the tongue twisters. One time, DT had me run through them all for the rest of the cast. My body trem­bled, but my teeth and tongue stayed nim­ble. I did not dis­ap­point her.

Now all any­one remem­bers of DT is the scream­ing, the qui­et con­tempt, Alice R.’s pan­ic attack, Susanna’s anorex­ia, and all the com­plaints of vague dread. I wish I could keep the best of her as well as I’ve kept the worst.

Our high school looked like a castle mis­placed in a block of office build­ings, and the the­ater, wedged in the base­ment below the gym and above the sub­way tun­nels, was its dun­geon, or its dragon’s lair. If I stood on the school’s front steps at three in the after­noon, I saw its jagged shad­ow trace an out­line from anoth­er age onto the glass-clad build­ing across the street, though in the three months each semes­ter between audi­tions and per­for­mances I sel­dom left school before night­fall. If I stood in the dim the­ater at noon I could feel the pum­mel of bas­ket­balls above and wait for the rum­ble of the trains pass­ing below.
“Subway mas­sage!” some­one would yell when a train passed dur­ing a break in rehearsal. We would throw our­selves to the ground and give our­selves over to the shud­der that would spread from the earth to the stage to our bod­ies.

Only after she got fired, when I vis­it­ed the old school and found her office bare, did I con­sid­er the work it must have tak­en her to make the room into our green room, our lair. I can’t imag­ine that she asked any­one for help. She must have attached the mir­ror­ing to the walls, stretch­ing her arms past their nat­u­ral span and bal­anc­ing each unwieldy pan­el with a knee or hip or head until she had hoist­ed each sec­tion into place. She must have hung the old stage cur­tain on the oppo­site wall, and she must have spent hours hem­ming and darn­ing the thick cloth, pleat­ing it to hide the patch­es fad­ed to red­dish brown. She must have nailed the masks to the upper trim­ming and made the pil­lows for the pro­duc­tion of Arabian Nights know­ing that her stu­dents would use them for naps and post-rehearsal pow­wows after the show’s close. She must have cho­sen to sac­ri­fice every oth­er inch of wall space to the plaques she made for all her best ex-stu­dents. They were noth­ing more than mount­ed paper print­ed with off-col­or images from the plays, but they gave us a dream: to stay in her office forever, the favorites, made spe­cial by her claim on us.

DT kept her old head­shot framed on her desk. It should have been easy to over­look, a small dim square in that col­or-clut­tered office, with­out even a glim­mer of glass on the front to catch the eye, but the pho­to had cap­tured some­thing unde­ni­able about her dark eyes and the carved hard­ness of her face. I always want­ed to take a closer look, but her con­tin­u­ous pres­ence in the room made look­ing feel like pry­ing.

Here is DT’s room one year before her dis­missal. I had tak­en a lunch peri­od nap in her office on a few over­sized pil­lows saved from the old Arabian Nights set. It was tech week, only a day or two to go until the per­for­mance, so it must have been late November. She need­ed me to cry in the show, or bet­ter, to fight not to cry. My body refused. I would have given any­thing to do it onstage, to please her, but for the past few rehearsals I had found myself laugh­ing instead. I feared that my fail­ure to cry, or to try not to cry, proved to her that I could nev­er feel strong­ly or fine­ly enough to be an actor. I had asked to nap in her office in the hope that my sleep­ing face would show her that I could be vul­ner­a­ble.

When I star­tled awake, heart pound­ing, brain slug­gish, she was gone. The room looked strange with­out her body to anchor it. I was late for my next class but I couldn’t make myself move. The phone rang twice and fell silent. I got ahold of myself. I blinked away the dizzi­ness, restacked the pil­lows, and then, sud­den­ly, I knew how to use my chance. Ears perked for the sound of her return, I picked up the head­shot. Her skin glowed as if some­thing burned inside her. I stared, and stared, and final­ly I found the wom­an I knew in the one she had been. In the pho­tograph and in the flesh, her smile meant some­thing much richer and dark­er than hap­pi­ness. She made me ready to do any­thing for anoth­er smile. I placed the pho­to back the way I had found it. I arranged the pil­lows into a bed again, lay down, closed my eyes, and wait­ed for her to come back and see me sleep­ing. I planned out how I would wake as she entered. I hoped the light would cast my open­ing eye­lash­es in shad­ow.

Spring brought a com­e­dy. At the end of the first act she had me seduce Paul by singing, pulling him onto my lap, dan­gling plas­tic grapes over his head, and steal­ing a kiss in the break between the cho­rus and the verse. Paul was her favorite that year, hand­some Paul with his blue eyes and tenor voice, con­fi­dent Paul with his series of girls from oth­er high schools, Paul who had sung, “Why do you build me up, but­ter­cup baby, just to let me down?” to a girl who wouldn’t give him a blowjob. One mess of a rehearsal left us top­pled to the floor, the plas­tic grapes popped beneath us like bub­ble wrap. Paul was high on some­thing and his eyes looked like corn­flow­ers.

How many times do I have to tell you before it sinks in?” DT asked me. She swung the music stand out of her way, charged the stage, and waved Paul to her place in the audi­ence.

Begin,” she said.

Sing?” I asked.

What do you think?”

I began to sing. My voice trem­bled away from the notes. I could see her swal­low a wince.

Now take my hand,” she said. “See, there’s your prob­lem. One of your prob­lems. Right hand. Don’t stop singing.”

I start­ed again.

Now turn me, turn me. Good. Sit us down.”

She sat on my lap, one arm wrapped around me, and some­how the heft of her body calmed me, slowed my breath and brought some warmth back to my fin­ger­tips.

Mime the grapes,” she said. And then she kissed me.

That’s how it’s done.” She got up and walked back to her stool in the dark of the the­ater. “Paul, back onstage. Start over.”

When one of the boys skipped rehearsal, she would read his part, strad­dling her stool and flip­ping through the script on her music stand. She would not move. She would not need to. Her voice could trans­form her body and cast a flick­er­ing oth­er world onto the world that we knew, so that we saw both truths at once, like the vase that holds two sil­hou­ettes. All that she did, we felt.

And this though she looked noth­ing like the beau­ty she had been. She had swal­lowed life whole and grown swol­len with it. The slack black clothes she wore turned her body into neg­a­tive space, as if its bulk exist­ed only to float her pale face above us. She told us that our mem­o­ries made up our tool­box, and then, all supe­ri­or benev­o­lence, she shared her mem­o­ries with us. One time she had smiled so long and hard for a Restoration Comedy that she dis­lo­cat­ed her cheek­bone. Another time she had found her­self assis­tant pro­duc­ing Days of Our Lives. With her dou­ble-sid­ed actor’s exis­tence, she had lived more than we ever would.

Here is DT two months closer to the day when I would lose her.

Raise your arms,” she ordered, not both­er­ing to hide her exas­per­a­tion that she had to repeat with her voice what she had said with her touch. The dress was for­ties syn­thet­ic, a dusty sky blue with a wide neck and a crys­tal pin at the heart. The fab­ric clung to my waist and then swished from the hip to the calves. I looked thin­ner and haugh­tier than I had ever felt. It was the only real peri­od cos­tume in the show, and we all knew it marked me as DT’s favorite girl.

She touched my col­lar­bone to remind me not to slouch, and then she kneeled before me. I watched in the warped wall mir­ror as she shuf­fled on her knees in a slow cir­cle around me, her mouth bristling with pins and her hands test­ing and pinch­ing the cloth. I found myself hold­ing my breath.

Above us, the school bus­tled, but there in her office was calm. We felt no rush. We need­ed no words, and though the silence made me think of all the things I could say, I held them in. Time moved strange­ly. She twirled me, pinched the fab­ric at my shoul­ders and at my waist, stooped to touch the hem, to pull it to my leg and then to let it fall again. As I watched my dis­tort­ed reflec­tion, I felt the teth­er loosen between the body I saw and the body I felt. All that I knew was the slight touch of her fin­gers brush­ing again­st me as they reached for the dress, the breath of her on me, and the warmth of her body touch­ing mine as she leaned closer to stab in a pin.

Three months lat­er came the August night when he first kissed me. I thought about his kiss all the way home. I couldn’t stop touch­ing my bot­tom lip to feel for the slight swell, the only proof that it had real­ly hap­pened. It had trans­formed me, though no one could see it. I was not the girl who had tak­en the sub­way to meet him a few hours ear­lier; I was now a girl who had been kissed.

The sta­tion swel­tered. I had always felt at home on the sub­way, free to slack­en my face and soft­en my eyes, glad to watch the streak­ing dark­ness and let the train’s rat­tle course through me, but as I wait­ed for the train I found myself edg­ing up again­st the tile wall under the mosaic First Avenue sign. Making myself vul­ner­a­ble to him had left me exposed. The plat­form was not quite emp­ty, and there had been a wave of copy­cat crimes in the tabloids ever since some­one pushed a stranger onto the tracks.

When a group of girls in dress­es and heels came clack­ing and laugh­ing down the stairs, I let go of ten­sion I had not known I was hold­ing. The count­down clock said sev­en min­utes until the train would arrive. I count­ed out an exha­la­tion, hop­ing to slow my heart and cool my body. Six min­utes to go. I decid­ed to walk to the oth­er end of the plat­form.

At the halfway point, a steady drip fell from the con­crete above. I won­dered if it was gut­ter water or our con­densed breath and sweat. I must have glanced back at it as I walked onward.

Watch where you’re going,” a man’s voice said.

I hadn’t seen him until he spoke. He was sprawled on a bench with his head tilt­ed back to rest again­st the tile. His skin, shirt, cap, and pants were paint­ed bronze. Maybe I didn’t notice him soon­er because I took him for a stat­ue. His eyes stared at me, their dark wet­ness a sur­prise sur­round­ed by all the bronze. I stared back. He grinned. His slick teeth shocked me as much as his eyes.

If you want to look, you have to pay,” he said. Suddenly in motion, he dug into the pock­et of his pants and pulled out a crum­pled paper cup.

I’m sor­ry. I’m just walk­ing past,” I said, but I didn’t move. He was old­er than the age­less paint had first made me think, at least as old as my father.

Listen, watch this,” he said. He placed the cup by his boot and reached into his oth­er pock­et. “Sit down and watch.”

I don’t know if I lis­tened to him because of the exhaus­tion in his voice or because I was a changed per­son, a kissed per­son, one who took risks. I sat down. He pulled a bill out of the cup.

A ten,” he said. He fold­ed it length­wise, press­ing the crease into a hard line. The bronze did not rub onto the paper. If I touched his hand, I won­dered whether I would come away clean. He fold­ed the two ends in at an angle and gave the shape to me.

What do you see?” he asked.

A house?”

What else?”

A tri­an­gle with legs.”

Don’t play dumb,” he said.

A paper air­plane. I don’t know,” I said.

Look,” he said, point­ing at the legs. “There are the tow­ers. There’s the smoke. You see it?”

I saw it. I couldn’t think of an excuse to get away. The clock showed one more min­ute for the train.

What that means is, it’s all about mon­ey. Trust the peo­ple in pow­er and you’re in trou­ble. People get hurt. That’s what hap­pened.”

The train screamed into the sta­tion.

This is me,” I said. “Goodbye.” I hur­ried to the front of the train, by the conductor’s booth. I wait­ed until I was inside to look back. He was gone from the bench. The car was emp­ty but I couldn’t shake the feel­ing of being watched. The A.C. blast­ed. Only after I had sat down did I real­ize I still had the man’s ten. I doubt­ed I would ever see him again to return it. I tucked the mon­ey into my wal­let, hat­ing myself for feel­ing pleased.

A lid­ded Styrofoam cup rolled from the back of the car down the aisle, seep­ing some­thing pink as it made its way toward me. I lift­ed my feet to avoid the sticky trick­le, but just before it reached me the cup lurched back to the oth­er end. I tried to stay as cool and immov­able as DT.

Another train drew next to ours, win­dow to win­dow. The togeth­er­ness made it feel as if we were stand­ing still. In the oth­er car I saw a wom­an in black, and for a moment I thought it could be her. I had seen her a few times on my way to school. The wom­an looked up. A stranger. The oth­er train turned away and I was left alone. When the doors opened onto my stop, I walked in direc­tor mode out of the car, up the sub­way steps and down the six dark streets to my apart­ment. I took off my shoes in the stair­well, slow­ly opened the door, and dressed myself for bed in the dark. As I lay wait­ing for sleep, I ran my tongue again­st my swol­len lip.

One mon­th lat­er, he was my boyfriend and DT had cho­sen a new favorite girl. Auditions had passed, the cast list had been post­ed, and DT had made me Girl Three. The heat seemed like it would nev­er break. We, he and I, cow­ered out­side the English class­rooms, sweat­ing, start­ing at the echoes of dis­tant slam­ming doors, ter­ri­fied that some­one would return for an after­school meet­ing and find us. I had the kind of shud­der­ing sobs that feel like drown­ing.

It’ll be okay,” he said. “Don’t cry.”

As if that were a choice. It sur­prised me that I could cry in front of him. I didn’t want to, but every attempt at a deep calm breath made things worse. The thought of DT could no longer help me stay strong. I smiled between bouts to apol­o­gize for the emo­tion. He sat on the floor next to me, pick­ing at the car­pet and smil­ing back, wait­ing for me to say the whole thing was a joke.

Fuck the part,” he final­ly said. Puce patch­es were show­ing on his neck and cheeks from his dis­com­fort, or may­be from the heat.

It’s not about that.” The words came out like a hic­cup.

Hey,” he said. He looked like he might start cry­ing.

I tried to make it a joke for him. “Call me Girl Three,” I said with a lit­tle flour­ish.

You’re going to do it?”

The ques­tion stopped me. I hadn’t con­sid­ered back­ing out. I could imag­ine what DT would think of me, what she would call me to my face and what she would say behind my back in the rehearsals I would no longer have to attend. I expect­ed I would hide my hurt and take the part, but the thought of going to rehearsal every night know­ing that she no longer cared for me made me want to scream. The very worst would be if I said no and my rebel­lion left her cold.

I don’t know,” I said. The words brought on anoth­er wave of sobs.

Baby,” he said. He didn’t know that I hat­ed it when he called me baby. I knew I didn’t have the right to be annoyed. He tugged at his hair and looked down the hall­way. “What if I said that I love you?”

I don’t think I believed him, and I didn’t imag­ine that he believed him­self, but the tac­tic worked: I stopped cry­ing. He was my con­so­la­tion prize.

Hand in clam­my hand, we escaped into day­light. The school traced its hard out­line onto the office build­ing across the street. The bright sky held us in like a sheet tucked too tight. I hoped he wouldn’t see the sweat bloom­ing beneath my arms. Cars pick­ing up kids clogged the nar­row road. A tiny wom­an stood by the front steps sell­ing plas­tic bag­gies of sliced man­go from a shop­ping cart. The blar­ing ice cream truck next to her made her look break­able. She cut a new man­go as we walked toward her, and the hon­ey smell made me feel less alone. I told myself that if I didn’t take the part, I would see this bright world every day.

Can we go to your place?” he asked. “The AC is down at my mom’s.”

He had nev­er been to my apart­ment before. The sum­mer weeks had been parks, walks, movies, and end­less breath­less tex­ting through the night. For the past week, audi­tions had kept me late at school. I knew that if I didn’t take the part, I could see him every day, but I didn’t know if that was what I want­ed.

The after­school throng car­ried us down into the mouth of the sub­way. We forced our way into the packed train. The doors shut imme­di­ate­ly, as if they had been wait­ing for us. We held onto the cen­ter pole and the train jolt­ed to life.

Your eyes are still pink,” he said, and touched my cheek with his thumb.

Thanks a lot,” I said.

And then I saw a wom­an in black at the oth­er end of the train. I know it hap­pens that you’ll see what’s on your mind, regard­less of what is actu­al­ly in front of you, but this was no delu­sion. It was DT. The train was crowd­ed but I know she saw me, too.

I didn’t mean it like that,” he said, but I was only vague­ly lis­ten­ing. I had decid­ed to show her how lit­tle she could hurt me.

I let my hand slip down the pole to touch his. He smiled. I took a step for­ward and came into the kiss on a slant so that I could see her see us. Her face showed noth­ing, but she didn’t look away. Soon we were kiss­ing the kind of kiss­es that have every­thing to do with bod­ies. As I bit his lips and sucked his tongue I thought of the hurt she had given me. The sub­way lurched and almost threw us into a stranger’s lap.

Sorry,” we said, and we start­ed again.

Don’t for­get to breathe,” a man jeered. A wom­an laughed. Ignore them, I told myself.

I want­ed her to feel small. All she had was her pow­er over us. I had young lust and the rest of my life, and her sto­ries couldn’t match that. I didn’t need a direc­tor for my per­for­mance. I made myself vul­ner­a­ble with­out her help. I opened my eyes every once in a while to make sure that she was watch­ing.

We got off at Union Square and trans­ferred. We left her behind.

He grabbed me by the waist as we walked up the steps. “What was that all about?”

I want­ed to kiss you.”

We got seats on the next train, not togeth­er. I start­ed to feel the sub­way chill. She had looked so small. Some part of me had always known that she was an aging over­weight failed actress with a sick hus­band and no patience, but now that I had rec­og­nized it I couldn’t shake the knowl­edge. I could no longer remem­ber why I had need­ed to hurt her. I couldn’t stop a wave of pity from shud­der­ing through me.

This is us,” I said, and left the train with­out both­er­ing to make sure he was behind me. He tagged along.

While we were under­ground, the smooth sheet of clouds had clenched and heaped. Gold light pierced through and a breeze scat­tered a few dead leaves our way.

I felt a rain­drop,” he said. He held out his hands and looked up. The sky was rest­less and the breeze was pick­ing up.

Hurry,” I said. I crossed my arms and leaned into the wind. I want­ed to cry again. I walked ahead of him so that he wouldn’t see.

My neigh­bor­hood looked strange to me, and I noticed its details as a stranger would. I saw the young trees that made passers­by swerve or duck to avoid their low hang­ing branch­es, the emp­ty school­yard held in with chain-link, the veined stone slabs lined up like clothes on a rack in the mar­ble yard, and the chalky fresh con­crete in front of the new high rise. I saw it all, know­ing that if I didn’t take the part, I could see it like this every after­noon, by slow-mov­ing day­light, with­out the late night post-rehearsal glam­or of street­lamps and starlight. The neigh­bor­hood felt aban­doned. I hoped my par­ents wouldn’t be home. I didn’t look for­ward to telling them how I had failed.

Slow down,” he called. I hadn’t noticed how far ahead I had got­ten. I wait­ed for him at the cor­ner. He ran, smil­ing for no rea­son, his back­pack thump­ing behind him, his long legs stretch­ing easy toward me. He drew beside me and grabbed my hand. For the first time I won­dered if he may­be had meant what he had said.

We both looked up as the first cool drops fell. I opened my mouth and clenched my eyes to the cool rain. The pat­ter swelled to a roar. Suddenly the dri­ving rain was comb­ing our skin and pin­ning us to the side­walk. I opened my eyes. The trees hurled their branch­es. The sud­den stream­ing rain tied me to the naked sky, and I found myself cry­ing. The salt min­gled with the sharp cold rain and ran down the lines of my face.

Come on,” he said. He was squint­ing through the down­pour and watch­ing me. He pulled us both under a tree’s branch­es. The pound­ing dulled beneath our shel­ter and we could hear the swol­len gutter’s gur­gle. The rain had released a sweet smell from the leaves. Our clothes hung heavy and my thin dress clung to the skin, show­ing every­thing. I turned away and pulled it from my chest but it just sucked back into place. I wiped fast at my face.

You know,” he said, “you don’t have to say it back. That’s okay.” He was look­ing at the shin­ing street. I leaned again­st the tree trunk and felt the prick­le of bark press through my sun­dress. I took his hand, slick and cold as mine.

The down­pour eased and we hur­ried home, skirt­ing or leap­ing the new sky mir­rored in the pud­dles. The apart­ment was emp­ty. We peeled off our clothes in the bath­room, down to our under­wear, laugh­ing to hide our shame. The med­i­cine cabinet’s tri-fold mir­rors mul­ti­plied our bod­ies. He kissed me and I tast­ed the rain. I touched his arm and felt the warmth of his blood beneath the cool skin. Something kept us from going fur­ther; shy­ness, or chival­ry, may­be, or may­be we both sensed that a mis­step could upset the afternoon’s frag­ile bal­ance. We bun­dled each oth­er in tow­els. He wrung out our clothes while I found a t-shirt and a pair of old soc­cer shorts that would fit him. We sat togeth­er on the couch where my par­ents read each night, and we lis­tened as the rain made the win­dows trem­ble.

We would not last. I would nev­er untan­gle him from the thought of her, and so I would hurt him and hurt him, again and again. A stu­dent would go to the admin­is­tra­tors and blame fail­ing grades and anx­i­ety on DT. Others would fol­low, cry­ing favoritism, stress, over­bear­ing close­ness and impos­si­ble demands. The kiss would be used again­st her. By the time the trees changed the accu­sa­tions would no longer be anony­mous. Before the frost, the stu­dents’ com­plaints would cost DT her job.

I would not be an actor. I would go to col­lege and try to for­get her, try to laugh at those hot days when the mad blood stirred, but some nights the thought that my tri­umph had launched her decline would keep me awake until morn­ing. At our fifth reunion, back home for good, I would see him hap­py with some­one else. I would hear of her husband’s death and ask about her, think­ing that per­haps I would write, but nobody would know what had become of DT.

But we knew noth­ing of the future. We sat in my liv­ing room, want­i­ng noth­ing more, or less, than to stay there forever.

~

Anna Hagen writes fic­tion and directs the­ater. She was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. She has stud­ied fic­tion with Amy Hempel and will grad­u­ate from Harvard in the spring.