Updated: Sep 15, 2021
By Catherine O'Brien -
On a somnolent evening which fancies itself as a stepping stone to night, I’m walking by the lake. The creatures of the night seek prime real estate pools of sunset in which to re-energise their flagging bodies of flailing limbs. Others opt for privacy and estivate in the trapped heat of the day underground, just out of sight. A cricket, whom I would describe as more of an acquaintance than a friend, unbidden but not entirely unwelcome, enters my company. Stridulating and sometimes droning, he recounts the latest news as a moth with milky eyes offset by pinpricks of sunflower, offers a salutation of its beating petal wings. I hear that the sun lost tonight’s coin toss with the moon, the result of which is quite the surreptitious win for one searching for a distracting and wholesome sight. The moon has donned its drop pearls of silver and dangles them close to the ground tantalising unworthy suitors, such as we are, far below. This is where I come to outdistance my feelings as you will come to learn as I loop you into the know. As sleep finds me under a blanket of pure white stars, the man nestled in the crook of the moon’s croissant arm plays soft soul music to nourish my dreams. In my dreams I am not the sum total of one incident. I am an expansive galaxy of possibilities and need-not-have-beens.
The shuttle bus to my second job is running late and I’m toeing the ground, as if I can dig a safehouse for my thoughts out here in the open. I probably could, my travel buddies don’t pay me any heed. There’s an emo girl with knitted sleeves and angled eyeliner speed scrolling a timeline on her phone, an office clerk with a bald patch in the shape of Sicily on the apex of his skull and an elderly woman examining the ground I’ve disturbed in my nervousness. ‘Running late’ that’s a funny phrase, isn’t it? Don’t mind me, I’ve a penchant for oxymorons. I’ll recreate the phone call for you with my agent, it’ll be good practice for me.
"Darling, I’ve come through for you against all the odds," her voice was the raspiness of unfiltered cigarettes.
"Oh, great. That sounds promising." I was proud of my response, it sounded rehearsed.
"Listen, I need you to pop into my office to run through some things. We cannot have a repeat of the singing canary food commercial."
I took too long to formulate a reply and so, although my agent was the vilest human to ever smear icing on a mediocre celebration cake, I attended my appointment as per her instruction.
She covered me in a sycophantic canopy of air kisses on arrival. That’s when I knew I had hit the big league. I was in toothpaste and not just any toothpaste, I was to be the face of whitening toothpaste.
"Listen, honey, you cannot squander this chance with any rookie mistakes."
"I know, I’m sorry."
"Nonsense! There’s nothing to be sorry for...yet. You just need to wise up, this is a cut-throat industry. Now, let’s break down this feedback you received from your latest job."
"Okay, I better take a seat."
"Oh, of course, honey. You sit yourself down and buckle up because the first portion is about to be a bit bumpy."
She then read their point of view to me.
The candidate was well presented, neatly groomed and in acceptable shape. There were no physical impediments to success such as facial tattoos or disfigurements which would have occluded the candidate from pursuing the role advertised. The candidate’s natural teeth were in good condition and it was observed that they would support the temporary veneers well (veneers are used to achieve uniformity of appearance and reduce the chances of any anomalies or distinguishing look(s))
We note the request for feedback and so offer the following candidate specific critique.
The candidate was visibly nervous/agitated at the beginning of the performance and needed to take a moment to compose herself. This was noted.
The candidate overindulged in improv and the use of non-sequiturs.
The candidate did not appear to believe the words which she spoke. An actor never doubts.
When asked what she believes to be the best way to hone her craft going forward, the candidate replied ‘hard work, drudgery and repetition’. The tone of reply was noted and unappreciated.
Ultimately, it was felt that the candidate allowed the momentous nature of the audition to percolate into her mindspace and this more than anything else demonstrated that this opportunity may have been a premature one in this case.
We thank your client for their interest in ‘Sizzling Peanut Butter Fritters’ and predict great things lie ahead for her should she show greater discipline and self-restraint.
When she finished speaking, I felt like she’d entered through my navel and gutted my innards with an invisible apple corer. She moved promptly to burn my failure, her face smiling faintly as the flames licked at her discoloured fingers. The purging complete, she sat opposite me, hoping for a phoenix to rise from the chemical vapours of the papers as they smouldered ineffectually in her ash tray.
‘Butterfingers’ was her idea of a joke and her way of breaking the tension. She giggled like a hyena as my skin prickled with our collective embarrassment.
I stopped the madness.
"What’s the takeaway for me in all that?"
That halted the laughter onslaught in its tracks.
"You’ve got to be better, honey. Better and different."
"Is different better or am I different if I’m better?"
"Girl, sometimes I think you’ve got white mallow for brains in that little head of yours."
The big day arrived and the director met me at the studio entrance with open arms. I looked behind me in case this affection was misdirected and as I did he swaddled me in gym-built arms. He was pulling off the distinguished gentleman look in every other way, only his facial hair let him down. He had a thin salt and pepper moustache which, out of what I can only assume was unbridled shame, had migrated to the outer reaches of his face. It leant his face a quizzical look which did not escape me and I felt a storm of quiet compassion grow in my ophthalmology centres for him. He was flawed, just like me.
He escorted me using the half embrace half push technique into a well-lit arena of activity. I was entrusted to Carlos from mid-morning onwards who lifted sections of my hair in turn, each time each segment climbed a fraction higher, only to be returned with an audible sigh to my gown. He looked at me looking at him in the mirror and smiled. I knew why. I felt his pain. I didn’t know how to manage it either. After some prolonged silences and hushed consultations with his senior stylist, I made the cut and he started to slice and splice at my troublesome mane.
When Carlos had worked his magic, I was given to Cecelia the makeup artist who ate a bobby pin as she worked her canvas.
"Your cheek bones need some scaffolding, aim for gentle upward swishes of blush - nothing too heavy-handed."
She told me this as I saw my finished look for the first time. My new face greeted me with querulous eyes that seemed familiar in their accusation but I couldn’t be sure. My mouth formed the expression of a startled bowling ball.
"You’re all done, chick. You knock ‘em dead."
Those were her parting words as she spun me around back into a kaleidoscope of activity behind a shimmering curtain. Almost immediately, a hand grabbed my wrist and catapulted me into the middle of a frantic beehive. Strangers orbited me chanting instructions and adjusting my appearance. A lady with crimson nails held swatches of patterned material to my face and turned it towards the light. I felt the stimulation of mild celebrity and I queried my resolve. As the gatekeepers circled, I wondered why they remain evergreen but like to snap and break the young tender pieces of foliage looking for more. Beluga whales can swim backwards, the cricket told me that. Sometimes, I swim backwards just because I can. Admittedly, the lake would never judge me for that, I sense these strangers would.
‘Bellissimo’ he said the word with such conviction that it hung in the air reluctant to dilute itself.
How did I not notice that he was Italian earlier?
"You are a vision, dear."
This praise was not unwanted and set a precedent for more. I wondered if I could try these antics later back at the lake. A wasp once told me I had the hip to waist ratio of a Grecian Goddess but I think that was out of spite.
"Are you ready, dear?" The director is back and his face is bordering on gleeful.
I offer a tentative ‘Yes’. I hope he can see the attempts at erasure I’ve been through. I long for sameness and uniformity. Am I all smooth edges and softened lines?
The hours that followed sent my life into an indelicate spin. I started in a kitchen with waxy fruit that wriggled and slipped to evade my new fake teeth. I am told to embody a typical suburban housewife and cannot get the image of her white picket fence out of my mind. A son is gifted to me and we remind each other of the necessity of a good teeth brushing routine, for some strange reason we aren’t instructed to floss. A makeup artist slathers me in lip gloss that tastes like strawberries in the rain. She doesn’t seem that interested that both my son and I have reversed our gingivitis in under four weeks. I was struggling. It became really difficult in that moment not to break character but I persevered.
Filming recommenced after lunch. According to Gino, my second scene should have given me the chance to ‘shine’ in front of the camera. I have some killer lines in front of a bathroom mirror and a host of strangers’ eyes.
"After a busy day running around after my children–yeah, I thought it was weird too that only my son was around but maybe they were on vacation with their father–I like to use Smiley Shine Toothpaste. It ensures that I wake up every morning to a brilliant healthy shine."
I spoke clearly and paced it well. I offered intonation when appropriate and crucially I didn’t reinvent a word or add a snippet of new dialogue. I had learned my lesson.
When I looked beyond the camera lens, I saw Gino. He was clutching his chest with tears streaming down his face. I was elated. I had finally moved someone to the point of believing in me. I didn’t flinch when the paramedics arrived, their heavy boots thumping negativity underfoot. I rinsed my mouth out and turned on my son’s nightlight, not forgetting to flash a smile for the camera on my right.
I’ve learned from the best in the business. The armies of ants at the lake never break ranks. I’ve asked my agent to request some feedback. She’s not returning my calls which is most unprofessional. There is a slim possibility she’s not my agent anymore. It was curious all things considered that they cut my scenes from the commercial. I had believed them when they agreed with Gino that I had imbibed the very essence of the role. I still cannot be sure but my intuition tells me that perhaps someone they favoured threw a strop and demanded the leading role. As he was stretchered away Gino said I was his leading lady but others contradicted that and said I was absolutely crazy. These things are subjective, I guess. For now, I’ll lick my wounds and regroup at the lake. I’ve got the entirety of the Milky Way at my disposal there. It doesn’t try to justify a surcharge when I experience a constellation of life’s downsides. It stays elevated and inspires me to keep my feet on the ground and my head in the clouds.
Catherine O’Brien is an Irish writer of poems, flash fiction and short stories. She writes bi-lingually in both English and Irish. Her work has appeared in print Iris Comhar (July) and online Six Sentences. Her work is forthcoming in Janus Literary, Five Minute Lit and Free Flash Fiction. You can find her on Twitter @abairrud2021.