June 30, 2015
This excerpt comes a few pages into the second chapter — Sophie Stark is making a film based on an exaggerated story her new girlfriend Allison told about her life, starring Allison herself. Bean and Stacey are characters in the story. Allison narrates this section.
I was still working at the bar then, and Sophie did all the casting without me. So I didn’t meet the guy she picked for Bean until our first day of shooting. He hadn’t come to the read-through—Sophie’s assistant director, a stuck-up girl named Susan who I already didn’t like, read his part in a schoolteachery voice. But there he was the first day, at the community center that was supposed to be my high school, wearing a white T-shirt that looked like it had been dipped in pee.
“This is Peter,” Sophie said.
I stuck out my hand, but he just nodded at it. He didn’t look like Bean, but he looked like the scary, cocky Bean I’d made up for the story. He wasn’t tall, but his arms were ropy and his hands were big, a fighter’s hands. His face was ugly in that way a lot of girls like, hard angles and slitty eyes. He held his body like he didn’t trust people.
In the first scene that day, he was supposed to ask me about Stacey. The community center had a hallway with olive drab lockers that looked a lot like a high school; we took down the signs for senior-citizen groups, and Sophie had Peter lean up against one of the lockers like he was waiting for me. I didn’t like how she reached out to move his left shoulder down. He didn’t like it either; he rolled it away from her and gave her a junkyard-dog look. She didn’t back down, though. Instead she said, “You’re not mad in this scene. You’re relaxed.”
“This is what I look like when I’m relaxed,” he said.
“Well that’s not what Bean looks like when he’s relaxed. I need you to lower your shoulder.”
He looked at her for a hard minute, and when she didn’t break her gaze he did drop his shoulder, but slowly, like it was a favor. Then the camera was ready; Sophie sent a couple teenagers we’d paid ten dollars to be extras down the hallway first, and I followed, carrying a backpack. People always talk about what a “natural” actor I am, like I don’t actually have any skills and I just grew out of the ground like this, some prized tomato. But really I have to think carefully all the time, because I don’t have any formal training. You learn a lot of things in drama class that I had to teach myself. Especially back then I was thinking constantly, because I wanted so hard to show Sophie she wasn’t an idiot for picking me, and also because I wanted everyone to see how great we both were, how well we worked together. That day in the hallway I was thinking about how I was in high school, ornery and impatient but starved for the feeling of being liked, for the feeling of somebody seeking you out to spend time with, not because you were making them dinner or fixing their broken doll or telling them no, they didn’t mess their life up. I thought of how it was to walk down the hall and see the real Bean, before he hurt me, the pleasure of running into somebody I didn’t have to make any effort with, and how it might have been to see fake Bean, who was supposed to be cool and scary and who I would have wanted to impress, and I tried to mix those things in my face and my body and the way I walked. It felt like a long walk down that short hallway with cameras on me for the first time ever, and when I reached Peter, I was relieved.
But his face looked funny, like he was lost or something, and instead of saying his line he growled, “What are you looking at?”
“That’s good,” Sophie called out. “But your line is actually, ‘Come here a minute, Marianne.’”
What about that was good? I wanted to ask.
But Peter just rocked back on his heels and slipped his thumbs into his pockets and said, “I know. I was just messing with Allie.”
I hated when people called me that, but I thought Peter was trying to get a rise out of me, and I didn’t want to let him. I knew something else was going on too. Peter looked nervous. He took his hand out of his pocket to scratch his nose. I wondered if he was on drugs. I walked up again, and this time he said the line right, and I said, “What’s up?”—which was my line—and then he just said, “Not much,” and I looked up at Sophie because that wasn’t his line either—he was supposed to say, “How well do you know Stacey Ashton?”
“Okay,” Sophie said. “Take a minute and look over the script again.”
The skinny kid who was our production assistant handed Peter a copy of the script, and then Peter did something weird. He flipped through the whole thing for a minute, not even stopping on our scene at all.
“Okay,” he said, “I’m ready.”
We went through it again, and this time instead of bringing up Stacey he said, “I have to talk to you about something.”
Sophie was getting frustrated.
“Just stick to the script,” she said. “You don’t need to ad-lib.”
But I knew Peter wasn’t ad-libbing. I’d seen that lost, defensive face before, on Arnie Phelps, who finally got passed to seventh grade because he was too big for the grade-school chairs. Peter couldn’t read.
He must’ve known I knew, because he dropped the script on the floor and mumbled, “Whatever, this is bullshit,” and walked down the hall and out the door.
Sophie stood empty-handed in the hallway. She looked as lost as he was.
“What just happened?” she asked me.
“He can’t read,” I said.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Sophie said. “He was reading the script.”
“He wasn’t,” I said. “He was pretending. Where did you find him anyway?”
“He was working at this bakery I go to,” she said. “I liked the way he looked. Why would somebody pretend to know how to read?”
“He’s embarrassed,” I told her. “He doesn’t want anyone to find out.”
“Why?” Sophie said. “Who cares if he can’t read?”
I was quickly learning that even though Sophie seemed to understand me so well at times, there were things she didn’t understand at all. That day I didn’t feel like explaining how normal people cared what everyone else thought of them or how if you weren’t good at school you always felt nervous around people who were, like any minute you might have to prove you really were as smart as them.
“He thinks you’ll think he’s stupid,” was all I said.
Sophie had a habit when she was frustrated—she would rake her fingers through her hair and pull it back hard from her face. It made her look like a hawk, diving.
“It’s okay,” she said, more to herself than to the rest of us, who were gathered around looking confused.
“It’s fine. We’ll just explain the story to him and let him ad-lib it.”
She waved at the production assistant. “Chris come here, we’ll make some notes. Allison, you want to go out there and get Peter?”
I didn’t. I didn’t like Peter, and I didn’t like that Sophie did. I didn’t like that she liked the look of him, all skinny and hard everywhere that I was soft. We hadn’t talked much about men but I knew she’d been with them, and I thought maybe what she liked in them was the opposite of everything about me. I was worried that one day she’d be with a man and tell him I was disgusting—my big ass, the way I submitted to her without question. I loved her in that headlong way that makes people jealous and anxious and greedy.
But loving her also meant I loved it when she was strong and in charge, when she knew what she wanted and she took it, even from me. And she wanted Peter to be in our movie.
“Fine,” I said.
Peter was leaning against the dirty wall of the community center, smoking a cigarette. Across the street was a park where the grass was dead for the winter, and some starlings were pecking at it. He was watching them.
“Hey,” I said.
He jumped a little bit, and I felt good that I could startle him.
“What?” he asked.
“I came to tell you that you don’t have to read off the script,” I said. “You can just ad-lib from now on. Sophie says it’ll be fine.”
He dropped his cigarette on the sidewalk and ground it out with his shoe. “No,” he said. “I’m done with this shit. I told her I wasn’t an actor.”
There was a wooden bench pushed up against the wall near where he was standing, and I sat down on it. I wanted to show that I wasn’t afraid of him.
“Look,” I said, “I don’t know you. I don’t know if you can act or what. But Sophie wants you to be in the movie, and she knows what she’s doing.”
He didn’t say anything.
“She’s going to be a big deal someday,” I added.
I hadn’t thought about this before I said it, but I realized it was true. Right then I imagined the day I would be talking about Sophie in the past tense, when people would ask me about her. I hoped I’d say, That was the beginning of our life together. But Peter didn’t ask anything. He ran a hand through his oily hair. That’s when I saw the tattoo, black-green on his white inner arm. It was an amateur job—a tiger with a head way bigger than its body, and one leg all long and wiggly like a hairy snake. The edges were blurring—ten years and it’d just look like a bruise.
“Where’d you get that?” I asked him.
He looked at me then, and his mean mouth had gone a little bit soft, and I realized he wasn’t much older than I was, probably twenty-five. He didn’t answer, but he seemed like he wanted to, kind of.
“Prison?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Juvie.”
“What did you do?”
He shrugged again.
“My dad was in prison,” I told him.
Peter lit another cigarette.
“What’d he do?” he asked.
I used to make up stories about my dad, like he was a bank robber or a gunrunner or a hit man. But I didn’t think Peter would like those stories, so I told him the dumbest, saddest one of all, which was the truth.
“He stole a car outside of Richmond and he was going to take it home to my mom and me to surprise us. But then he got lost and he pulled in to a gas station for directions, and the gas station was across from a police station, and the cops recognized the car and arrested him.”
Peter shook his head. “Your dad was a dumb-ass.”
My mom used to say this about him while he was away, from when I was three to when I was seven. When he came back, though, she cried and wrapped her legs around him, and they tried to make it work for a while and even had one of my sisters. But he was just missing the thing that lets people get by in the world, and he was always getting in trouble for no reason, getting thrown out of McDonald’s for trying to smoke or fired from jobs for skipping three days just because he felt like it. He wasn’t evil or even all that stupid; he was just really, really bad at following rules, and eventually he left us and moved out to the desert, where he said there were no rules at all. I didn’t tell Peter this, though. I just said, “Yeah.” I didn’t want him to think he’d riled me.
“I didn’t do anything,” he said. “Some older kids were selling weed and I was the lookout, that’s all.”
“How long were you away?” I asked him.
“Well once I was in there I kept getting in trouble for other stuff. Fighting. So six months and then another six, and then I got transferred and then two years. So three years.”
“That’s a long time,” I said, and then I took a little risk. “I bet you missed a lot of school.”
“Yeah,” he said. “So?”
“Listen,” I said. “Where I grew up the schools were shit, and a lot of kids didn’t go anyway. I knew a lot of people who couldn’t read.”
“Don’t fucking condescend to me,” he said in a low hot rage-whisper. “I know she thinks I’m a fucking retard and I don’t need you to explain it to me.”
His face went all tense the way boys’ faces get when they’re trying not to cry. I realized then that even if he didn’t care much about acting, he cared about impressing Sophie. I wondered if all the cast and crew were people like us, people who loved Sophie a little or a lot and were willing to do whatever she said. It made me jealous—I wanted to be the only one. But it also made me feel warm toward him; we were in the same boat.
“Sophie didn’t even know you couldn’t read. She thought you were just being a jerk, and she didn’t care. If she wanted trained Shakespearean actors, she could’ve gotten them. She wanted us. And that should make you feel good.”
“Why do you care about this so much?” Peter asked. “It’s not like you like me.”
“I love her,” I said, “and I want to make her happy.”
This was true, but there was something else I didn’t say—I could tell people were going to start coming between me and Sophie, and if I could take charge of Peter, maybe I could take charge of the next one too. And if I was in charge, maybe they wouldn’t make it as far in and it wouldn’t hurt as much.
ANNA NORTH is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and her writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Atlantic, Glimmer Train, Nautilus, and Salon; on Jezebel and BuzzFeed; and in the New York Times, where she is a staff editor. The author of America Pacifica, she lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Adapted from The Life and Death of Sophie Stark, by Anna North, Copyright © 2015 by Anna North. With the permission of the publisher, Blue Rider Press.