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 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.