You need to look at me.

There were not enough words to explain.

You need to look at me.

He didn’t believe her yet. He wouldn’t even pretend. He could do that, for her, and maybe she’d get to believe she’d affected another person and he’d get to enjoy the gratitude she flung at anyone who made her feel solid. He could do that, but he chose not to.

That smug fuck. There. That sudden spike, use that. You need to look at me. No, too far, pull it back. This wasn’t a dinner table argument, not that she’d ever had those, but she’d heard about them, in families with less square footage and more siblings than hers, where squabbles burst out in a flurry of dropped final consonants.

One of the first things they taught her was how to scream and still sound beautiful.

You need to look at me. Too needy. Nobody will like you if you ask for things.

She thought she heard a voice doubting her, telling her it wasn’t enough, that she needed to be either more honest or more imaginative because right now she was neither fish nor fowl and there was no space here for the half-formed.

She had nothing to be honest about, so she decided to do what she’d done since she was a child and make something up to seem interesting.

The scene:

Five years into their relationship and the care she had for him, the time they’d stolen, all narrowed into this awful moment. He was leaving and she didn’t want him to. That was all it took. Her voice cracked. It was a kind of magic. It pulled at a thread inside him.

Not hard enough, apparently.

We are tired of waiting, the voice came. Show us something real.

She grabbed at new emotions. Look at me, she whimpered. A beat. Then, sforzando: Look at me, she shrieked.

All right, that’s enough. You’ll hurt your throat.

He turned around, looking everywhere but at her to prove that he wasn’t doing it on her account. He looked bored in the specific, infuriating way that other people, who didn’t know him as well as she did, mistook for deep thought and found attractive.

The possibilities fell away and they stood in a large, mostly empty room with soft walls, wood-panelled floors and a single, unopenable window that looked out onto trees and backyards and afternoon sun. It was one of the oldest rooms, the window meant to remind students there was another world. Other rehearsal rooms had windows that faced inward, showing the other work of the building, offering a chance for comparison at every turn. The best had no windows.

Esther shook herself out, blowing air through her lips like a horse, wishing she could have some equine dignity and get put down after a failure.

Take ten. We’ll come back and try with someone else. The instructor watched the dozen or so students sprawled against the wall suddenly twitch into poses of interest, a whole class of people whose entire future careers would depend on yelling Pick Me to as many jaded people in as many stifling, featureless rooms like this as possible.

How about … Katrin. Now go, go, breathe the air.


In the courtyard they knotted together, stretched, lay down in almost-yoga poses. That looks hard, they said to Esther, grimacing. It’s always shitty to be first. Gordon’s such a little bitch of a teacher. A big bitch, one added, among other sentences that would have seemed sympathetic to someone not taught to analyse dialogue.

He didn’t talk to her. Instead, he tossed her a smile as he crossed the artificial turf, and she imagined he was trying to say, you did the best you could, we can talk about it later, let’s keep some professional separation here. They’d slept together twice, early on, and she believed he believed she was still hung up on it, and she hadn’t gone out of her way to correct that notion, and by this point it had become so much of their dynamic that it might as well be true. She looked away, looked back. That was what someone would do — if they liked him. Also if they didn’t.

Across the courtyard, sitting on a low wall, the sun lighting his fade the way he preferred, he turned his good side towards the group, and she wondered if he ever imagined her in as much detail.


Katrin did well, of course. To Esther’s eyes, it was as if she was really hurting, like she’d reached inside herself and pulled out something painful to even contemplate, and when she was placing that gently on the floor in front of you, what kind of monster wouldn’t turn around?

The students rotated. Tara wheedled. Michael raged. Dani cried, and everyone could tell it was in frustration at the exercise, which didn’t count.

There was a list of verbs, or in a dead theoretician’s parlance  “actions”, that they were meant to refer to if they couldn’t decide what to do in a scene. Every interaction was an attempt to get something from another person, every line a chance for a new approach. You can’t cry someone. You can’t sadness another person. An amateur mistake. You can only trap them, or intimidate them, or crush them, or, or there were probably kinder words she’d forgotten or never been optimistic enough to learn in the first place.

Playing verbs required Esther to actually want something rather than experiencing a mood and waiting for it to go away. It was perhaps mildly insulting to the process that she was here and didn’t even want it as badly as the people on the singing shows said you were meant to want things. She knew that, as with most things, she was here because she had the right face.

It was a kind of pretty that hadn’t yet chosen which way it would go: frozen into ice queen, softened into best friend, shredded into strong female character. She knew the types, they all did. And she knew she didn’t have the streak of ugliness required to be truly beautiful. She didn’t look like an alien, or a witch, someone who could kill you with any of several hidden extra limbs.

Sometimes she forgot to emote and looked empty. People liked that the most. Especially when she left her skin behind and was nothing more than a set of eyes, maybe a voice.

You need to look at me.

It was Tara facing away from Esther this time and she chose that moment to turn around.

What were you thinking about there, the teacher asked.

Nothing, she said, believing it.

You don’t know. Well, that tells us something. It’s also impossible to reproduce. What’s the point of a feeling if you can’t have it more than once?


The gin and tonic was sickly sweet and made her think about dentistry. Esther did the thing with her eyes where they watered and the bartender threw away twelve dollars worth of drink and made her one with soda water instead.

Most nights they drank Diet Cokes and pretended to be other people from more acceptable places. They said it was a chance to practise their accents. Scottish and German, their most recent acquisitions, were fun to roll around the mouth but useless for the world outside. Regional Australian was faintly humiliating; all of them had worked to smooth out any identifiable traces, and nobody wanted to admit that backsliding could be a pleasure.

The ultimate was Standard American, a perfectly generic accent that had never belonged to a real human being. Pure artifice: New York and LA and nothing in between. It was the flat, clear surface of a frozen lake, which they had never seen but might one day — if they made it or ran far enough. It was the best version of themselves. It was their favorite, without the u.

That night, by the time Esther got back, the rest of the group were one and a half drinks in, so naturally the time had come to share their dark backstories.

Chiho talked about her dad dying, Nina about what they referred to as their “family drama”. Katrin took a breath. She was deciding how seriously to play it, where to place herself on the spectrum between Chiho’s sombreness and Nina’s airy dismissal.

I used to not eat, she said too fast, then pulled it back. You know. Typical teenage shit.

Did you get the down? asked Chiho.

Yeah. Weird that your body is like, hey you want to look like a perfect specimen, how about we make you look even less like a girl. She flinched and tried not to glance at Nina. Sorry — that’s my brain talking, not what I —

It’s okay.

Then I wanted to go here, and I just decided to stop, I guess. One day I ordered a burger. It didn’t taste anything special and it looked like shit, nothing like the ads; I probably shouldn’t have chosen the cheapo shop on the corner for my big decision, but it was there.

It can’t be that easy, said Esther. Not easy. Sorry.

It’s okay.

They spent a lot of these conversations reassuring each other.

Um, simple.

Sure, but who wants to know about other people’s therapy sessions? Eventually you either choose to take the advice or you die. What about you?

Esther didn’t expect it to be her turn so quickly.

I don’t know. Deciding to come here, maybe. That was big.

Chiho threw her a line. What did you say, in the audition, when they asked why you were here?

They didn’t. I guess I’m just good at it.

Esther remembered just in time to do the goofy smile that made people think she was merely tolerably weird, rather than someone who believed in themselves and was therefore worth hating.

Katrin looked at her, even though she didn’t need to.


It was snowing. It should not have been snowing.

The scene:

It was a hundred years in the future, their lives extended by some new technology, something to do with cells probably, she’d heard a podcast once, and they were watching the last great wave come in. All of the icebergs were long gone and their attempts to control the weather had failed because they were, despite everything, still mortal. They had gathered at the highest point left and thrown a BBQ. He was looking out to sea because he had always been drawn to the horror but that was not what she wanted for him. She wanted his last view to be of her. This would be a kindness for him, and a sacrifice for her, because in looking back at him she would see the wave gathering behind him.

That meant that in their final moments, he would see her and give her his face, and they would both die knowing for sure which of them was the giver and he was the taker.

Hard to fit that into a verb.

I don’t believe you, the teacher said. You’re not pulling on anything real.

The scene:

A different snow, this time so thick and hard it was difficult to tell if the person was who she thought it was.

It was time enough later that in this weather she was not quite certain it was him, walking across a supermarket parking lot, on a cold white afternoon.

He knew she was there. He’d seen her when he came out, shopping cart full of a week’s vegetables, and he’d chosen a path that avoided acknowledging what had become of them.

You need to look at me.

He bent down without a sound and climbed into his reasonable station wagon. Drove away. The snow fell. It kept falling. She stood and watched until the tail-lights disappeared around a corner and let it fall on her. She said it again to the empty road and felt like she was turning to ice.

You have to give of yourself. We will sit here for the remainder of the hour if we have to. Long enough to get through all your tricks.

You need to look at me.

No answer.

You have to — sorry, need to — ah —

The teacher made a small sound and put his notepad down. This isn’t working. You need to loosen up. Use other words. Find your way back into it. It’s not an improv, this isn’t comedy, don’t do a bloody improv. Tell him something real.

The scene:


I’ve been asking you to turn around because there’s something here that you need, or something there that you need to avoid. It’s not that. It’s me. It’s always just been me. I need you to look at me. Because. Because.

[A beat.]

Because I look different, now. And that needs a witness.

[She almost looks to the side and then chooses not to. The others don’t exist.]

Do you know what the bravest thing I ever did was? I ordered a hamburger. That’s it.

[She laughs, to herself.]

It’s not going to war or fighting something awful or saying I love you or holding your grandma’s hand in the hospital. Those are other people’s stories and they’re great. They really are. I don’t have anything like that. Nothing big.

[She realises.]

But that was the point, wasn’t it. To be small. To get so small you could almost disappear.

(Fast, chatty) There was this Greek philosopher I read about in maths class and his whole thing was, you can never get anywhere. Every distance you cover, you have to cover half that distance, then half that, then half that, then half that … so you can’t move. You can see something right in front of you but you can never catch it.

Every day, I ran further and further, and every day I ate less and less.

[She’s getting faster. It’s the opposite of the philosopher’s paradox. She can’t stop herself from moving forward.]

I wanted to be good enough and I kept getting closer and closer and closer and I never got there, so eventually it seemed easier to not exist at all.

(Quietly) I almost got there.

[Her voice catches.]

[A pressure of eyes on her, Katrin knowing what she has done, taking what belonged to another and polishing it into something fit for mass consumption, and she forces herself to overcome her flinch and stand tall. There is pleasure in it. Maybe he won’t look at her. Katrin will. Maybe that’s enough. To be known and hated instead of vaguely liked.]

(Bravely) The doctors said if I had gone any further it would have damaged my heart. Gone further. I had gone somewhere. And I realised I wanted to keep my heart alive after all.

(Heartbreakingly) Maybe — so I could give it to someone.

I got out and I ordered this hamburger and God, it looked like shit. Dripping juices. The ones in the ads aren’t real. This one was. It smelled like — like meat — like me. Disintegrating meat.

(Like a revelation) And I made it part of myself and the next day I had another. I still ran. But I replaced what I lost.

[She speaks and feels this new power, transmuting base and pitiable facts into something with purpose, and she reaches for a moral.]

The thing is, I was still doing it for you, I was still shaping this into what I thought you’d like. If not you, someone like you.

So, don’t come to me. I don’t need that. But I would like to show off how much I’ve grown. Then I can turn my back on you.


Outside, on the fake grass, he put his hand on her shoulder. She let it happen.

Hey. That was really brave. Do you wanna —

She saw Katrin coming and pushed him away with a little three-part move, smile upward, duck head, shake. It was just a class. I’m fine.

It was a small class. He’d find out soon enough. She didn’t have to kill it immediately.

He tightened his grip on her shoulder in an almost-hug. His eyes did their serious thing. He made sure she saw that before he walked away.

Katrin took his place and a part of Esther’s mind observed that if you could use goggle as an action, that was certainly what was happening now.

That was. That was —


My story.

You weren’t using it.

How can you — we were sharing, in confidence —

That’s not what we do here. We share everything for the work.

Oh, now you listen to what the teachers say —

It’s a victimless crime.

No, it’s — I am literally the victim!

It’s not like I told everyone you had a problem, okay? I told everyone that I had a problem. That makes me look bad, not you.

You know exactly how this place works. That makes you look good.

Esther waited.

What the hell am I supposed to share now?

I guess you could talk about the time a friend betrayed you.

Katrin almost laughed. You know what my favourite part is? Of course he loved it, and Gordon loved it, that old fuck, because they’re men. Because they have no idea what it’s actually like and they feel obliged. It didn’t happen to you. Everyone who was paying attention could see that.

Much later Esther thought, isn’t that what we’re meant to be doing here? Acting as if things happened to us that didn’t? Or haven’t, yet?


The scene:

Snow, so thick and clotted it was difficult to tell if the person was who she thought it was.

It was time enough later that Esther was not quite certain it was her, walking across a supermarket parking lot, on a cold white afternoon.

Katrin knew. She’d seen Esther when she came out, shopping cart full of a week’s vegetables, and she’d chosen a path that avoided acknowledging what had become of them.

Hey, Esther said. It’s you, isn’t it? Turn around. Come on. I know you can hear me. Look at me. You need to look at me.

Katrin bent down without a sound and climbed into her reasonable station wagon. Drove away. The snow fell. It kept falling. Esther stood and watched until the tail-lights disappeared around a corner and let it fall on her. It was like she was turning to ice.

It was like that.

It was that.

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