In my movie, I am a girl walking alone on a subway platform. The dark corners imply gruff hands, sandpaper fingers threatening to wring me out and dump me on the tracks. But I shuffle forward, trusting in the power of jump cuts, the gentle viewer who isn’t exposed to the brutality of monsters and mobsters and incisors. Later, an inciting incident, a dead loved one in the bathtub and the agony of a door left ajar to the dangers of the street. Later, a montage of the city in its lowest form, crowds crushing themselves into concrete, fire escapes crashing into empty alleys, airplanes landing ominously on smoky runways. But for now, I am a small girl walking alone on a subway platform. Many languages are being spoken around me and I let them wash over me, the beautiful breadth of the same emotions expressed in different ways. I am curious and my neck is soft and open to the rushing air pushed through underground tubes. I am a small girl walking alone on a subway platform with no destination. The lights are flicker fluttering and I bathe myself in their indecision.
As expected, a train comes rumbling through the tunnel. Its genres bellow the stale air into a maelstrom. The air is still stale but there seems to be a lot of it now. A thousand brightly painted subway cars screech to a stop. In one, a sea captain pulls a tusk from the soft of his belly, exposing an empty hole where his liver should be. He smiles at me but it is the smile of co-conspiracy and I do not want to be a meal in this movie. I do not wish to reduce myself to that. I stop at another subway car, where a hired killer wearing a black beanie makes belief he has found god by giving his shoes to a barefooted houseless woman. He doesn’t fool me with this naked gesture. There are bullets in his mouth even though he’s doing his best to make them look like sunflower seeds. In a third car, a married couple openly loathe one another in public by tearing the buttons and pockets from their shirts. If you can’t hold me you can’t hold anything, he yells. You will never again tell me to stay fastened, she replies. They see me, a small child, and look suddenly hopeful, their eyes turning into slivers of upturned moon. They look as if I am the answer to a prayer they forgot to make but I do not need them, either. I leave the subway and walk out onto the street. The sun is making faces at the skyscrapers so I make faces at the skyscrapers. The train rumbles on without an audience, carrying its cursed performance to the next borough.
The city is rolling its opening credits. Violins staccato all over the asphalt and cameramen take closeups of people’s shuffling feet in crosswalks. I stick to walls and avoid their unwinking cameras. I plug my ears from the voiceovers that static from dozens of haphazard speakers mounted to every surface. They are asking, what’s the point of doing anything if no one’s watching? over and over again like the mantra of a dementia patient. The alleys are not safe because they are filled with empty plagiarists recycling the same two ideas over and over: a movie about a dog who teaches a family to love and a TV show about a motorcycle that lights itself on fire when it’s angry. The plagiarists scuttle over each other like a teeming rat king, pitching different version of this same idea over and over, clamping pleather attaches to their chests and asking, how would you like to make a million dollars. Sleeplessness drips from their eyes. I am sad for them but I understand their aspiration is a disease I cannot afford. Booths litter the sidewalk that promise to fill in your backstory in 30 minutes or less. Smiling makeup artists and costume designers hand out pamphlets for Becoming Your Best Self, which is just a series of minor medical procedures and a wardrobe change. I am a small enough girl that they do not bother me as I walk past but I can already feel them sniffing at my potential. I can see their nostrils flaring ambiguously.
A man appears in front of me. He is wearing a black tracksuit with shimmering pink stripes and a big hunk of malachite dangles from a chain slung around his neck. His hair is dark and curly and his beard is long and soft. He asks, can I run something by you real quick? and I am already bracing for the inevitable elevator pitch but then he says, there’s this girl I see at the coffee shop every day, the barista or whatever you call them, and he looks gentle. He looks as though he might cry at any moment, like he might be a crying guy in a tracksuit on the sidewalk and it doesn’t look out of place necessarily but I don’t want to see it anyway. For his sake, I don’t want the cameras long-trained on people’s feet to train themselves onto his face as he grimaces and twists into a gentle agony. Nearby, a gaggle of actors are circle-screaming at one another, some sort of ecstatic show of anger. Women in figure skates with the plastic guards attached shuffle into a costume shop. Their thighs are thick with practice. The man in the tracksuit is still speaking, quietly now as if I am his friend and I do lean forward as he says, she is Estonian and I am Estonian and I’ve never met another Estonian in this city. There are not a lot of us and I want to say to her hi, I want to say to her that I don’t even drink coffee, I don’t even like it, but it makes me really happy to see her every morning so I go anyway to talk a little bit in my language with a person from the place where I was born and I am really glad that she is there. I want to tell her that I appreciate seeing her face before I start my day and that, after, I give the coffee to a screenwriter who likes to hang out on my fire escape before noon. I want to know if it is okay to say this, to tell this girl who makes me a coffee I do not want every day that I have been coming in every morning because she is kind and familiar and that is all. There is nothing more to it but I fear it is a lot and I don’t know how she will take it all…
He continues like this for a while, arguing his brows into knots. When the man finishes talking I take his hand with my hand and press it to his chest and I can feel his heart beating so tentative, as if awaiting permission, and he nods at me and walks away and I think this movie isn’t so bad. Maybe there will be some cautious optimism to carry home when the closing credits roll. Maybe not every performance is a selfish one and some people are just trying to find the truest way to communicate to one another. But suddenly a very expensive car ornament rolls onto the block and there is money bleeding from its black fenders and a looming boom reverberates the entire neighborhood. The actors and the publicists all stop and extend their necks like prairie dogs and I want to be far away when the frenzy commences. I want to be far away when the perfect weather girl with the pastel shoes comes clamoring from Plagiarist Alley, her blonde hair pinned in a speed bump. I duck into a bus station, whose seats gleam a blue plastic into the fluorescent ceiling.
Despite the chaos, I am still a small girl walking alone. I try to remind myself this. Despite the sage-burning black-robed Satanists having Serious Discussions by the vending machine at the bus station, I am not afraid of them. They are breathing heavily into boom mics shoved almost into their mouths and I know it is all just affect. Remove the ominous soundtrack and you’re left with the dull machinations of petty grave gazers, their off-key Gregorian chanting drowned by the approach of buses proclaiming their destination to exotic cities like Miami and Branson, Missouri. The Satanists do not scare me. What does scare me is a different invocation, this voice rumbling through the ceiling, perhaps an author who hasn’t slept in days, loopy on cough medicine and the company of bearded lizards: you are perfect, it says, you are perfect your are perfect and I made you—it scares me. I can feel my heart shove itself into my throat and I look for somewhere to hide but there is nowhere to hide. That’s not how this place works. No matter how hard I try I can’t make myself exist outside of someone else’s delirium. Everything feels wrong. I don’t know how to pretend that I’m not supposed to exist, that I was never born. Instead, I cling to my movie. I cling to my movie, which is part girl in the city and part double-crossing assassins serving never-ending twists to the delighted viewer. I feel the author cackling with earnings and it makes the light fixtures tremble—it makes the camera pan to a half-empty cup of water as implication of earthquake or act of Godzilla. Citizens are getting ready to point in awe, even the Satanists who pretend that they care only about the Moon.
In my movie, I am tender. In my movie, no headstones are toppled, no curses are lifted because they were never put in place, no animals are harmed. I am a small girl and there is no symbolism, no packs of hungry wolves tearing at the carcass of a moose. Of course, I didn’t write the movie. Of course, the moneyed meaning-makers are spinning cats cradles, twisting their fingers into impossible shapes the viewer is determined to deem human. But I am human. I am a human. My wants cannot be summarized in bullet points, though I try. I materialize a small notebook and write:
- I want two croissants. One for now and one for later.
- I don’t want to come of age until I am on my deathbed. Not even then, maybe.
- I want a small cat to hold in my arms because I am soft and sharp like a cat and it would make a suitable talisman.
- I want my self-actualization to come in the form of a big wave crashing against a jagged coast.
I exit the bus station and look out at the city, which now resembles a city. Fruit vendors are fruit vending. Two women in brightly yellow jumpsuits bookend a parade of kindergarteners walking to the park. The sun shines a quarter-thumb above the horizon as if it’s got nothing better to do. This time of evening, sometimes called the golden hour, is when all the stories have expended themselves and all the writers have gone home to name cocktails after themselves. Quiet wafts amid the normal noise of humans surviving humans. There is space to breathe and bask in the kaleidoscope of highrise reflections. I find a park bench and watch a cadre of squirrels communicate without saying a word.