Most of this Story Isn’t About Us.
Most of this story isn’t about us, although some parts are. Most of this story is about the man in the bar I’ve walked past twice now, and how much time he spends wondering whether he knows me or not . Other parts are about Vivien Leigh, who spent a lot of her life confused as to whether she was an actress playing Blanche DuBois, or whether she and Blanche were one and the same. There are short passages about the girl who copied fire, there are others about Sylvia Plath and some of this story is about James Dean.
No part of this story is about me wondering whether or not it is sensible to love you.
The part about the man in the bar goes like this:
The man in the bar does not know me. The man in the bar is sitting by himself, and though he has nobody to wait for, he is pretending that he does. He has thrown his jacket onto the seat next to him, as though reserving it for someone. Whenever another patron approaches him asking to take the chair, the man says no, apologises. The man sits by the window, facing the street, so he does not have to make eye contact with anyone inside the bar who might interpret a shy glance as a request for company. The man spends a lot of time telling himself that he is not lonely.
I am walking past the bar because I like to walk, and stay quiet, and spend hours not talking to anyone but myself. Most of the time, I am not lonely. I have very little in common with the man.
The man in the bar catches my face as I walk past. He smiles, despite himself. I smile back, but only briefly, because I can walk quite fast when I want to. I am writing a story in my head about a girl who copied fire, and burnt.
The man in the bar watches my back as I continue down the street. He follows me for as long as he can, craning his neck until I pass into a group of people that have spilt into the street, and am gone.
The man in the bar likes to think about the woman who he is waiting for, although she does not exist. Every few moments he checks his phone, because he believes if he does this, other patrons will leave him alone. But looking down at his blank screen makes him feel worse. Lonelier. No one has sent him a message in some time now. So he likes to imagine texts that the woman who does not exist has sent him. He answers, typing messages into his phone, and then sending them back to himself, typing his own number into the address box. He sends answers that look like this:
NO. I DON’T MEAN IT.
IT’S COLD, AND I’M WAITING.
YES. OF COURSE I DO. I LOVE YOU.
He sends these messages off, and a few moments they come back to him, his phone buzzing. He reads over them again, and then puts the phone back into his pocket.
He is not unattractive. His hair is long and dark. He has often wondered whether or not he might be gay. He has no one to wait for because he does not like people. He knows that this is real loneliness.
I am still walking, writing the story in my head about the girl who copied fire. The story is half finished. The girl has just invited me into her house, and is watching me smoke a cigarette.
“Why?” the girl who copied fire is asking.
“Why do you smoke?” She doesn’t understand. She is sitting across from me, staring intently at the ashtray and the tip of my cigarette, her eyes flicking in between the two. She is young. Ten or twelve. I cannot tell because she does not stay still. Because she moves like fire, even now, with her fingers and her hair separating and coming together in thin waves.
The girl who copied fire is in this story because she is a lot like how I imagine you were when you were young. You have not told me much, and I have seen no pictures. But you and this girl share something.
“I smoke because I like it,” I tell the girl. “It makes me feel relaxed.”
The girl who copied fire asks a lot of questions. Some are easier to answer than others. She wants to know whether women move faster than men, and I tell her I don’t understand the question.
“Women can move as fast as men,” I say, blowing smoke through my nose.
“Everyone walks at the same speed?”
“No. Some move faster than others.”
“So. Who is faster? Men or women?”
“Neither,” I say. “Some women are faster than most men, and some men are faster than most women.” The girl who copied fire sighs, and watches me stub out a cigarette into the ashtray.
But then she has nothing more to say. The story is only half finished. By now, I have circled back, and I am walking the way I came, about to pass the man in the bar once again.
The next part of this story is about James Dean.
James Dean was bisexual. He smoked too. It is rumoured that sometimes he got his lovers to butt out their cigarettes on him during sex, their pink hands working their way into his skin, the burning end leaving perfectly circular holes in his chest. Later, he died in a car accident, because the woman he loved had gone back to marry another man. His car crashed as he drove through the snow. The windowshield was filled with white. He had turned off the wipers. He watched everything change, and everything stay the same. The road, the tires, the streetlamps. Snow worked its way into his hair. Into his mouth. He choked on it. It melted on his lips and ran down his face. His eyes turned white. He watched, while he could, as everything became the same colour, till sound turned white, turned to snow, fell around his ears, covering the parts of his body that had been burnt by cigarettes, covering all of him, till he was white, till he was nothing, till he was snow, till he was sound and then the car ran into a tree and he died.
I get sad whenever I watch a film with James Dean in it, because I cannot help but think about his body, eyelashes still wet with snow, slumped over a car wheel. After I have known you for some time, you tell me you get sad when you watch Marilyn Monroe in a movie, because you cannot help but think about her body slumped out across a hardwood floor, her blonde hair trailing across her open eyes.
I am not thinking about James Dean when I walk past the man in the bar for a second time. He, catches my eyes. He looks confused, but I just smile, and shrug my shoulders. He smiles back, and moves his glass of beer a few inches to the left.
The man in the bar is trying to remember a Sylvia Plath poem. It is a poem a woman read to him, years ago, although at the time, she told him she had written it. He was in love with the woman, and together they lay on her bedroom floor, and she spoke gently into his ear. He did not read poetry, as a general rule. He had met her at the party of a mutual friend, and she had laughed at his jokes in the right way, and instantly made him feel more relaxed. He had even followed her home that night, pressed his sleeping face into her naked back, and had dreamt of things he would later forget.
The woman told him she was a poet. There were no books in her house. Hardly anything to write on. She had one bare desk that she kept in the kitchen, next to the oven. It was strange little things like this that convinced him that he loved her.
After they had sex, the woman would read him her poems from memory. Sometimes she would recite them as if they meant nothing, talking in a low voice. Other times they were performances. She would move her hands in front of her face, tightening them. He worshipped anything that came from her.
Naked, she looked a little like you. Her hair was shorter. Her eyes were a different colour. But you both had the same way of walking, as though your body only hung loosely off you. As though it was an afterthought to your beauty. You were both lined with stories traced into skin that tasted like both nothing and everything at once. And when we made love; the man and his woman on the floor of a bedroom, you and I against the edge of the bath tub, we could all imagine that we were part of something beautiful. Something that fell like snow.
The man in the bar had known this woman for six months before her birthday came around. He wanted to get her something special. He was not particularly rich, but he worked hard, and the apartment he rented was small enough for him to buy her something nice. Something expensive. There was never any part of him that doubted what it should be: a book. Poetry. Something she loved. After all, she owned none of the poets she endlessly described to him.
He shuffled into a bookstore on the day before her birthday. It was warm. The woman behind the counter smiled at him, and he smiled back. He felt like talking to people today. He walked up to the woman behind the counter and started talking, fast, like he hadn’t done it for a thousand years.
“I’m looking for poetry,” he said, and the woman behind the counter smiled.
“Anything in particular?”
“Sylvia Plath,” he said, quickly, and blushed. The woman behind the counter smiled, raised a hand to her lips.
“You’re a Plath fan?” she asked.
“It’s for my girlfriend.”
“Cheery stuff,” the woman behind the counter said, and laughed. But the man did not care. He felt as though he would never care about something as insignificant as laughter again.
The woman behind the counter led him over to the poetry section. Her fingers brushed over the titles, until she found what she was looking for.
“Ariel,” the woman said. “It’s a good place to start.”
But the man was looking at a thick book; the Collected Works. He pulled it out, flipped it over. It was sixty dollars. He grinned.
“This one,” he said. The woman smiled.
“Would you like me to wrap it up?” she said. The man shook his head. He wanted to read a few of the poems before he gave it to his girlfriend. Wanted to surprise her. Maybe he could quote one of the poems in the birthday card he would buy for her. He wanted to feel impressive; as clever as she was.
He started reading as soon as he walked into the street. But he was surprised. He knew the first poem he flipped to. He had heard it before, although he had never read Plath in his life. He read over the first few lines again;
What a thrill –
my thumb instead of an onion.
The top quite gone
Except for a sort of hinge.
He knew this poem. She had spoken it into his hair, whispering, her voice catching around his skin, sticking where the words hit.
She was a liar. He flipped through the book. Lines jumped out at him. He knew most of them. She wasn’t a poet at all. She probably hadn’t written a word of poetry in her life. But if she had lied about that, how much of what she had said had been true? Any of it? She didn’t even exist. It was all a lie.
There was no way she loved him.
The man had not seen a film with James Dean in it. If you had asked him, he would have recognised the name. That’s all. He knew nothing about Dean’s car crash. But as he walked down the street, and away from the bookshop everything was turning white. Clouds had appeared without him noticing. Snow was collecting in front of him, and he had turned off the windscreen wipers. He was covered in white. It fell on his body, landing on the places where the woman had lied to him, whispered to him, kissed him. He could hardly see. Everything was snow. Now, he was just waiting for the crash.
He threw the book into the trash can. He never saw the woman again. He simply did not call her. Avoided the restaurants they had visited together. She did not even try to contact him. He forgot her slowly, and then, years later, he found himself in a bar, watching the shape of my back as I passed him for the second time.
He had been drinking for a good few hours. People had come and gone. He had watched them out of the corner of his eye, but he would not remember their faces. Their conversations. He would sit at the bar till closing time, and then walk home as slowly as he could, wondering how much longer life would go on like this.
If he had walked the right way, he could have wandered right past me. I was sitting on a bench, smoking slowly. The story about the girl who copied fire was finished. I had nothing to write it down with, so I was running it over in my head again and again, trying not to forget.
The story about the girl who copied fire did not have a happy ending. In the story, the girl and I went to the movies. The girl who copied fire did not understand what we were doing. She did not like sitting in the dark, staying quiet. She kept asking questions.
“Who’s that woman?”
“What’s she doing?”
“Well, she’s not really crying. She’s acting.”
“That woman up there. Her name’s Vivien Leigh in real life, but in the movie her name is Blanche.”
“Because she’s not the same person in the movie as she is in real life.”
The girl who copied fire tutted, turned away. She was sick of answers like this.
If I had known how to answer her properly, I would have explained that it was interesting, actually, about Vivien Leigh. Leigh spent her life in and out of institutions, her illness reaching its peak when she played Blanche. She came to believe that she and Blanche were one and the same. When the takes were done, the shooting was over, she would look up at the cameras, confused. She did not understand why she was being filmed. She was just living her life. And there were all these people around her, holding her, touching her. And Stanley was not the same man anymore. His face moved, relaxed, and he was a stranger. He touched her on the shoulder and called her a name she did not recognise.
“Good take Vivien,” Stanley said, and in the corner, a man standing next to camera called out the name Marlon, loudly.
My story about the girl who copied fire ended with the girl leaving me because I could not answer her questions. One day I came home and there was nothing left but a shape made of smoke sliding out of the window. The girl who copied fire had burnt. I sat down on the edge of the bed, and lit a cigarette, and the smoke from the tip floated out of the window and joined up with the shape of the girl, mixing together until both got hurried out into the street by the wind, and disappeared.
I have finished thinking about the story. I start to walk home, slowly, although it is not my home. It is yours. I have the keys for the front door in my pocket. I flew in this morning. I want to finish my story about the girl who copied fire in time for you to read it when you come home from work.
There are not many things that I’m sure of. The man in the bar, for example. I still don’t know what the inside of his house looks like. Maybe if we were different people he might have invited me to his place. We might have talked. I could tell him the story about James Dean and he could jump up, out of his seat, excited and say “yes. Snow, falling on the windshields. And everything’s so fucking white. I know that part of the story. I know what that’s like” We will talk about the thought of James Dean lying dead against the steering wheel, but only briefly, because we have other questions. We want to know whether he saw the tree before he hit it. Whether he saw a shape. Something whiter than the other white, or deeper, or softer. If he knew.
Most of this story isn’t about us, you and me. But we are here, both of us, sitting side by side. Your hand is on mine, and together we are switching off the wipers. The car is turning white. Snow falls into your mouth. You kiss my lips and the snow moves across my tongue like that time we drank gin from each other, feeling for it beneath our teeth. Your hands are running down my body, but there is no difference between us anymore. Everything is going white, and the car and the snow and our bodies and the crash are all the same. And we know we’ll be able to see the tree coming. And we know exactly what it means.