This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

November-December 2017

Bad Actress

New fiction by Jasmine Szabo-Knox

Jasmine Szabo-Knox

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Illustration by Kaley McKean.

I met Ana at a girls’ school where I taught French to her fifth graders, and lived in residence until June, in a room overlooking an all but abandoned airport. Ana and I spoke little during the first six months—the winter months—only becoming friends when the weather changed, skin already bruised, bearing a sudden heat that sent fissures up our chalkboards. At lunch, we sat together in the teacher’s lounge, monopolizing the one fan, wetted paper towels on our chests; or we climbed up the steel stairs leading to the roof, opening the door onto an empty concrete expanse, just to choke on air, thicker than smoke. I’d taken the job because I wanted to work by the Astoria river. I heard it drifted cooler, came remedial even in summer; a lie true only after midnight.

Some days, at Ana’s insistence, I flirted our way into a coworker’s car to blast his cool air, while she tried and failed to find music she liked on the radio. Sitting in the parking lot, we watched landscapers roll out a new front field, a clay diamond, slippery green grass and the kind of small-town floodlights that sprayed and spit fire. We took walks in the gully, shaded by its own depth, which ran between the back field and the airport, separated by a fence overgrown with kiwi vines, a vine I’d never heard of. Ana had, of course, and having been raised by this city and its strange fruit, recognized the kiwis were sick, bet me they’d die when their leaves turned autumn colors, knowing a dirty summer always brought black rot.

She introduced me to more car owners. I thought I’d met everyone already, took for granted that I’d made a home for myself when in fact I’d ignored many of them.

Ana showed me, naming unfamiliar names, discriminating between allies and enemies, and when pressed for further detail gave the same useless description of a man or woman my age, scrawny and undone; tan bodies clad in black; all sharp knees and elbows they should want to cover up. Next to her, it’s possible I was that dull—because she was lush with the coarse and sunny hair of a televangelist’s wife. Maybe that person used to work here, I’d say, sticking my tongue out.

Maybe that person’s a ghost. Then, as if summoned, a ghost would walk by and Ana would grab onto their shirtsleeve without missing a beat, introducing them through an aggressive smile, and I’d shake hands with this or that ghost. I would always forget to say my name.

During my first week at the school, Ana requested I leave my classroom door and all the windows open while she taught across the hall and I corrected homework, waiting for my turn with the students. The windows on her side were also left open, for a wind to roil through. This is how I came to know her before she ever developed an interest in me. She was louder than any wind, and I listened in on her lessons. She was expert at finding snaky ways to drift off subject and talk about Rachel, a friend from childhood who was in the movies, and I became invested, starting to believe I knew this woman too.

Rachel’s parents had been playwrights living in a warm and beautiful house full of books, who introduced Ana to good food and clothes, taught her to drink, invited her to sleep on a downy guest bed, borrow the scooters, bathe in the square tub, crash their sprawling parties. Long estranged, Ana still read every profile of Rachel she could find, in which she was always famed as a Hollywood peculiarity: an odd, unpretty girl who was also a success. It was true she was plain, left her dishwater hair undyed, but on the inside she was exactly an actress, a snot, a rich and cruel animal her whole life. Ana had the scars to prove it; there wasn’t enough rosewater plucked from Rachel’s bathroom to fade them. Obviously Ana had used her for a sliver of her beautiful life, but because she’d taken the beatings, believed all things should even out in the end. Instead, Rachel got to be a darling alien in a magazine and Ana was here.

The students had no words, looked on dead-eyed throughout these lectures. They were 10, on the cusp of something, and instantly turned off by a jealousy so one-sided. The cruel ones—those girls sent to wash my blackboard as penance for whatever, did an exacting imitation of Ana’s deep and nasal voice, which I thought kind of beautiful, but understood was too singular, too reproducible. I could do her grave whine too, her walk, animatronic in its grace—stilted because she had one leg slightly longer than the other. Her mouth going obscenely slack whenever she was focused at her desk. I won the girls over quickly. They asked about a boyfriend and I told them about exes as though these were my girlfriends, and they were funny and conspiratorial like girlfriends, wanting more detail, more sloppiness. Later on in the year, sitting in the history teacher’s car with Ana, I mimicked the girls mimicking her, I thought to make her laugh. It’s fine they like you better, she said. She’d given up around Christmas, after catching a few of them copying test answers off the smartest girl, making it clear she’d seen what they were up to, before looking the other way. They showed no gratitude, and their answers hadn’t been copied down accurately. They were even bad at cheating.

By May, the girls hated us both. Feeling itchy, skinny, and listless from the heat, they glared with disgust as we sweat equally through our shirts. They couldn’t keep a thought in their heads, fell asleep in their chairs because they weren’t sleeping at night, needed to be excused, again, to fill their bottles at the fountain. And when that water rusted, we walked them down to the basement cafeteria—where the high-school girls ate—twice a day to buy sports drinks from the vending machine. We gave up on teaching, abandoning the final assignments of the semester, replacing them with a lesson on life cycles we could work on outside, where there was sometimes a breeze. It was supposed to be beautiful and distracting like screening a movie. Ana said she had a friend in a nearby town who sold butterfly cultures from his car. We took a bus to a vinyl house built on a slope, where the friend was waiting in the driveway, paved at a sharp angle. He seemed not to recognize Ana, or make eye contact with either of us, though she touched his arm more than once, indifferent to his mood. The caterpillars were stored in deli cups, stacked in a trunk lined the same shade of red as dingier basements, and we wanted to buy 20, assign one to each girl, but the dealer said half would die before unraveling. We hesitated. His breath was toxic like exhaust. These kids are 10? They’ll know, he said.

We bought 50. We carried them back to school in a packing box with a towel laid over; arranged them on a foldout table in the back of Ana’s class. For a few days the girls fed them milkweed leaves and sat patiently by as they became chrysalises, attached their bodies to the lids by single silken threads. Ana and I came in one night to transport them outside, turning each cup over, using droppers to loosen the grip of the sticky black buttons, gently removing the pads while her younger brother built us a netted cage in the gully, mounted mesh panels under flowering branches, layering images in a dark room; we watched from the window. In the finished cage, I scotch-taped the black buttons to the ceiling. The whole thing looked strung up in opals. The three of us sat in the grass and I asked Ana about Rachel and she sneered at me, her contempt giving her eyes a patina of silver. Rachel is an actress, said her brother. She’s famous. Ana spit on the ground between us, a phlegmy, poisoned glob.

The next night I went for a walk with another teacher, named Harrison, introduced to me by Ana as the sexiest boy in town. He slept in residence like I did, except his room was bigger and filled with fewer belongings. Maybe that was an illusion. A student—probably smitten—had etched the words Evil Boy into his bedroom door, neatly in the bottom corner like a signature. Another had written, “Call this number if you can’t get Harrison out of your head,” and then a number, in fat looping letters on a bathroom stall. It could’ve been the same girl, and I liked her better than I liked this boy, but I could get bored.

We sat by the river and dug our heels in the dirt. He talked about growing up in a place even smaller than this, where he’d been frightened by the pigs who chased him, planted frogs in actual bull shit, almost drowned in a freezing lake more times than he could count. Imagining his mother beating the heart-shunting blue out of his body gave me reason to stretch out on the bank, arch my back, act kittenish for someone who wasn’t Ana. I said I was grateful I hadn’t grown up anywhere as charming as that. He was doubtful; reminded me about the butterflies. Suddenly I wanted to show him what we’d built. Come see, I said, jumping to my feet. He sat stubbornly in the mulch, as if it were a couch, as if in protest of my enthusiasm. But I only grew louder, unwilling to be refused. Together we walked back to school, threw rocks at the barred windows as we made our way around to the gully. I felt my light dimming, and started talking to win it back: soon the chrysalises will split open, pump blood into their wings, swell before the sun dries them off.

Ana was already there, in the cage on her knees, looking like a helpless woman fallen in a doorway, her ass and her curls the only things in view. But your eyes glanced up, you drank in the whole picture and she was in that dream. “Are you okay?” I called out. Some fell, she said, turning around on her knees, acknowledging Harrison rudely, to my relief, with a shadow of a nod. They’re not easy to pick up, she said. They’ve got life! Those bugs had kicked her hands, anxious and spastic like chickens in a sack, leaving small red spots on her palms.

At that moment, a wind came to bend the cage. It sprung back ruinously, snapping the chrysalis threads, letting the pads crash to the ground around Ana, except the ones cushioned by her hair, quickly tangled in her nest of curls.

Or else nothing happened that night—nothing broke through the sultriness and Ana stood up, brushing the grass stains from her skirt, stepping out of the cage. Put her fingers through her hair. It happened in the morning—not with the wind but a violent and daydreamy impulse, one of the girls clutching the net, shaking the cage with Ana inside, wanting to make an acorn tree rain.

How would that have looked? I wouldn’t have flinched at that meanness, feeling dazed and half-dead. I’d stayed up too late with Ana the night before, picking chrysalises out of her hair, sitting on the hood of a car shaded by the clock tower, while Harrison watched, bored. Go home, she’d told him, but he wanted to sleep with me. Go home, I said. He listened. Some chrysalises broke between my fingers, matting her hair with the juices inside. She was patient at first, only reaching around to slap my wrist when something popped like a vein and dripped down her shirt. But eventually the shade moved and she yelled at me. She was finished. Stop it! Forget it! She hopped off the car, cracking her back and neck, shaking her legs out, heading home to cut off her hair.

Well, if there was shade, I guess it was morning. And if we were alone it was because we’d sent the girls indoors, their excitement dark and distracting me from my task. Who can say what happens in the summer, in a heat like that? Although it’s unlikely there was either a wind or a girl that strong; it was probably a gang of them.

School closed the following week. Ana and I dismantled the cage at dusk on a Saturday, the two of us refusing to get out of bed for the sun, only for the sunset, as it would go all summer, with so much begging until fall. Our principal wanted to leave the cage for batting practice, but Ana, hearing the idea for the first time, decided she wanted to crack endless baseballs in her own yard. It was a fantastic idea, the only way to kill the next three months. Besides, we’d paid out of pocket.

We were carrying the panels out of the gully one by one, piling them in the trunk of her brother’s car, when I spotted a plane out on the tarmac, striped like hard candy and waiting. I walked farther down to get a better look (where I’d been standing, the kiwi vines clinging to the fence were at their densest), and the propellers began to rotate. A family walked out of the airport and towards the plane, the propellers kicking up their shirts. There was a man in a suit, and his wife with her hands awkwardly placed on top of her head, and their teenage daughter behind them, cradling a baby in one arm, holding another little girl by the wrist.

Ana had caught up with me. That woman’s wearing a wig, she said, and that seemed right, partly because she never took her hands off her head, and partly because the blonde looked cheap and crackable even from a distance. Not like Ana’s new hair, long and brown, straight as a pin. But who would wear a wig on a tarmac? Ana said someone with cash underneath. Someone who’s stolen or made more than they claimed, carried more than declared. A woman who would unclip her wig when she got to the hotel or relative’s house, transferring the bills into her suitcase or the younger sister’s backpack, scratching her head like crazy, an unbelievable relief.

I asked Ana if she knew something, because she knew everyone. I’m just making this up, she said, her eyes narrowing. I thought she might spit again. I’m just guessing, she said, running her fingers through her wig. Camille, you have no imagination. I don’t believe you’ve ever stolen anything.

Jasmine Szabo-Knox is a writer living in Montreal. She is currently working on her first collection of short stories.

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