Melanie met Harriet at a health food store in the cosmetics section. They were both looking at a facial cleanse made from watercress that promised to protect against free radicals and improve skin tone. They began sharing their experiences with organic shampoos and paraffin-free mascara and Harriet mentioned, that while using an exfoliator, she had rubbed her skin raw.
“When I decide to do something, my commitment is total,” she said.
Harriet also shared that she needed to see a dentist – holistic of course – as it had been over five years and her puffy gums were marring her headshots, an essential commodity for an actress. Melanie said she was a writer. Realizing they were both artists, Harriet knew immediately it was no accident they had met. The universe was sending them a message.
“What’s the message?” asked Melanie.
“Together, we are meant to fight any obstacles that stand in the way of meeting our true potential.”
Although fully committed to her art, Harriet was unable to support herself as an actress and worked as a go go dancer, to make ends meet. She danced on a pedestal in skimpy outfits carefully sewn with sequins and macramé-like stitching by her personal seamstress. The men in the clubs begged to touch her but she reminded them that she had been hired for her talent, which included dancing at a ferocious speed for twenty minutes without interruption. In her acting class, she was known for her over-the-top emotionality and bursts of performing genius. What she prided herself most on, however, were her one-handed cartwheels.
At home, Harriet liked to position a table lamp so it shone in her direction as she marched to the center of her living room and belted out a show tune – sotto voce. She had neighbors.
Yes, I’m versatile, she would think.
Melanie lacked the confidence to write a novel so she wrote short stories. Her work was predicated on the idea that the only way for a woman to be a great writer was by giving voice to her anger, “an emotion long denied the female artist.”
“Whatever the emotional blocks to our creativity, we must fight through them – scream, beat our fists in the air, curl up into a fetal ball.” Harriet agreed.
Melanie had as yet been unable to submit a single story for publication. Instead of rewriting to improve her work, she preferred to start something new. She couldn’t risk failure, although she fended off feelings of inadequacy by reminding herself of a writing award she had won in grade school.
Melanie’s parents paid her rent. She covered her other living expenses by cashing in U.S. treasury bonds bought by family and friends when she was a newborn. She had been an attractive baby.
Every day, after they first met, Melanie and Harriet went to “their” coffee shop and talked for hours about their careers and the greatness for which they were destined.
“The universe is definitely on our side,” Harriet said.
While they spoke, young people like themselves walked past the windows: first year associates at law firms, marketing managers, event planners, junior copy writers, medical students, dental students, public relations coordinators, social workers, computer programmers, personal trainers and editorial assistants. As the day progressed, young people, laughing, talking, alone and in groups, continued to pass by on their way to dinner parties, engagement parties, baby showers, charity events, blind dates, marathons, museums, the airport, rock concerts, exercise classes, dance classes, the beach. Melanie and Harriet never noticed.
“The usual?” asked the waitress.
“My acting teacher told me he was tired of my hysterics in the classroom and that I needed to focus more on the work. When I started to cry, he became really frustrated,” said Harriet while eating home fries off Melanie’s plate. “I sniffled through the rest of the class. I never got to perform my monologue. ‘Nobody knows the tragedy of being a girl.’ That’s the way it begins.”
“That sounds really great,” said Melanie, “and I like the way you clutch your hair, like you’re going to pull it out, while you’re doing it.”
Melanie often complained to Harriet about her roommate, Lucy. She felt she was overconfident about her dance ability.
“She’s pudgy,” said Melanie.
“Deluded,” said Harriet.
When asked about her dance studies, Lucy would remind Melanie that she studied Cecchetti, a ballet method that had spawned Anna Pavlova, Alicia Markova and George Balanchine.
“She never lets you forget it,” said Melanie.
Lucy diligently attended class every morning and followed the Cecchetti method’s strict routine of exercises. Her dance teacher, Peter, a perfectionist, encouraged her, appreciating the seriousness with which she approached her work. He was asexual, which was a disappointment to Lucy.
“He has a guru,” Lucy had told Melanie.
Soon Peter’s guru became Lucy’s guru. He gave her a picture of a bearded man wearing mala beads, which she held in place on her desk with a paperweight. She touched it daily.
To further hone her skills, Lucy installed a ballet barre in her bedroom where she practiced, while Melanie spent her time on the phone with Harriet, her laptop unopened on the kitchen table.
“Do you ever finish anything?” Lucy would ask Melanie. “There’s a hundred pieces of paper in your room with one paragraph on each of them.”
“She has no artistic sensibility at all,” Melanie told Harriet angrily. “I mean, when she walks, she stomps. When she speaks, she yells. When she laughs, she hee-haws just like a donkey. She’s a complete ass.”
Harriet had brought a thermos of bone broth to the coffee shop and poured Melanie a cup.
“It a great detox,” she said.
“I wrote this,” Melanie said to Harriet, holding a piece of paper in her lap. “It’s kind of autobiographical.”
Melanie read aloud, “She thought back to her recent date with Chuck Dickens, a shoe salesman who vomited on her chest after a night of drinking. He apologized, as though that made up for everything. Well, it didn’t.”
“Love it! The imagery is really raw and naked,” said Harriet.
“The story’s not done yet,” said Melanie. “Lucy said I never finish anything.”
“You mean the Lucy that has a real bedroom while you sleep in a converted breakfast nook without a door?”
“I was thinking of putting up a beaded curtain. I saw one online. The beads looked like blue sparkly diamonds.”
“Forget Lucy. But I like the beaded curtain. You could make some really dramatic entries into the kitchen. I’m great at dramatic entries, but I need more people to see my work.”
“You were an extra in that Indie film.”
“True. And the director is pretty famous.”
“Who was the director?”
“I forget,” said Harriet.
“I’ve got a really great idea for a new story.”
“I’ve got great ideas, too and I’ve been using them to write my own monologues. It makes my acting so much more authentic. Here, I’ll do one for you.”
Harriet closed her eyes, put her hands in her lap and started to breathe deeply.
“What are you doing?” asked Melanie
“Preparing my instrument,” she said.
Melanie felt stupid. Of course, she thought.
After a few minutes, Harriet opened her eyes and began.
“When I would come home from school, my mother was always there, even though she never had time to make me a snack and I was really hungry. She was too busy putting on make-up, which took hours because it had to be perfect. My mother was an actress and was known for her awesome performances at the local high school. She felt she always needed to look her best because at any moment a casting director could show up – which, by the way, I can completely relate to.
Anyway, when I was around 16, she started to act strange. She told everyone she wasn’t just a housewife. ‘Au contraire,’ she would say, ‘I’m the world’s greatest actress,’ and insisted her name was Sarah Bernhardt. She finally got so crazy that during a performance at the high school, she ran up onto the stage and put the female lead into a headlock, yelling, ‘Viva la France.’ They took her away in handcuffs, which was pretty embarrassing. No one wanted her to act in any of their productions after that. She just sat in a chair, her hair a wreck, with white socks pulled over the top of her pants. She never wore make-up again. The woman who had been my mother was gone. “
By the end of her monologue, Harriet was sobbing with her head in her hands.
“You were so real. I had tears in my eyes, too,” said Melanie. “And everybody in the coffee shop is looking at you. You won’t need to use a microphone on stage.”
“You know, Mel,” said Harriet, “between the two of us we have so much talent. I mean, we could start our own theatre company. We could write the plays together and then I could direct and act in them. I could also do the costumes and set design, lighting, props, public relations, fund raising and make-up, which, of course, I learned from my mother. We’d get worldwide attention. We’d be famous!”
“You’re brilliant,” said Melanie, excitedly. But, would we need other actors?”
“Well, we could ask Amanda Novak from my acting class. But she has a lisp.”
“She is so deluded,” said Melanie.
“Marilyn Jacobs? said Harriet, thinking aloud. “She works a lot, but her acting is completely inauthentic. Besides, when I went over to her apartment to rehearse a scene, Billy Smith, another classmate of mine, was there in his underpants. He was hiding in her bedroom but I saw him.“
“She sounds like trouble.”
“There’s Mimi. I don’t know. She’s really short and is always saying, ‘Good things come in small packages.’ She stands on a box when she does her monologue.”
“Tom Cruise stood on a box when he worked with Nicole Kidman.”
“She’s not Tom Cruise.”
“Bud Myers? His father is Falcon Myers who’s been a working actor forever. Bud’s always trying to prove that he’s as good as his father, which he’s not. It’s really annoying and I hate his beard. I can’t believe he thinks that thing is attractive. He shoved his tongue down my throat when we did a love scene together. Disgusting.”
“Disgusting,” echoed Melanie.
“Skip Peterson’s in my class. He’s a children’s television star and really talented. The only thing with him is that he doesn’t have much experience acting without wearing a ground hog costume. Esther Feldman’s too lazy. She always comes to class in her pajamas. There’s Justine Blackman, but she never likes to go outside during the daytime.”
“That would make it really hard to rehearse.”
“Besides, she says she wants to have a baby.”
“Don’t you have to take a baby outside during the daytime?”
“Who cares? Forget them. They’re all losers. I’m going to make it a one-woman show. I’ve always wanted to perform Euripides.”
“Yes, Euripides, that would be great. I could definitely see you dressed in a toga.”
“I could do Shakespeare. I love his intensity.”
“Shakespeare would be fantastic. You could wear a dress with one breast exposed. That’s what they wore back then. I saw a picture somewhere.”
“For my art, I would definitely do that.”
A month after Melanie and Harriet had first become friends, Melanie’s parents refused to continue paying her rent. After she sent them a story that she had recently written, they told her to get a job. She went to an employment agency that placed her with Mr. Fuller, a retired businessman. She typed, filed, took dictation – although she didn’t really know how – and made tea. It turned out Mr. Fuller was also a writer.
“I’ve been involved with business my whole life,” he said. “I’m like an aging dancer, who has to keep on dancing because their whole identity is wrapped up in that one activity. But I’ve wanted to write a novel. I know I have one inside of me, but so far I’ve been unable to find the time,” he said and grabbed for her hand.
“Don’t ever start wearing make-up,” he said. “You’re lovely just the way you are.”
“I was thinking of highlighting my hair. Harriet says it will make my eyes pop.”
He let go of her hand.
“I have, however, taken to writing haiku,” he said. “I was attracted to the form because of its brevity after a profound experience I had last year. I almost died from a reaction to antibiotics. My lips began to swell and I went to the emergency room where I was injected with Benadryl. When a nurse finally returned to check on my condition I was speechless, with my tongue swollen and hanging from my mouth and me unable to breathe. The Benadryl hadn’t worked. I spent ten days in the ICU after an emergency tracheotomy.”
“That’s so real,” said Melanie, frightened by his story.
The good news is that while I was in the emergency room I was given a full physical. I can’t begin to tell you how much I enjoyed it. When you get old, nobody wants to touch you.”
Melanie wondered if Mr. Fuller was coming on to her.
“Let me read you one of my haikus,” he said and pulled it out from under his desk blotter.
I really like fruit.
It is tasty when it’s ripe.
I like it best stewed.
“What do you think?” asked Mr. Fuller.
“You get a lot done with just a few words,” said Melanie.
Mr. Fuller was pleased. “What do you write about?” he asked.
“People, I guess, and relationships,” said Melanie.
“I’d like to hear one of your stories,” said Mr. Fuller.
“It’s not finished,” she said, finding a crushed copy of a recent story in her backpack.
“Cassandra Bellicose Walker dated a bass player. She heard him play. She thought his music was lousy but pretended it wasn’t. He pretended he loved her but he didn’t. They had sex. He decided to get back together with his old girlfriend who was a violinist. He said it was a string thing. When he broke up with Cassandra, he told her it was her fault. She believed him. She was very upset so she started cutting herself. That made her feel much better.”
“It’s kind of autobiographical,” said Melanie.
“Ah,” he said, “you write about love. Remember, a young man will crawl on his belly like a snake to get sex. I know,” he continued, “because I used to be that young man.”
Melanie wondered if Mr. Fuller found her attractive.
“Why do you only wear the color blue?” he asked. “Are you a member of a religious sect?”
“Harriet thinks it’s my best color.”
Mr. Fuller was quiet.
“She’s older than me,” she rushed to add. “She has more life experience. She understands the currents of the universe. It’s so wonderful to be with her and be swept away by her vision.”
“My dear,” he said, “Be careful you don’t drown.”
Melanie was frazzled after rushing to the coffee shop. She hated being late, although Harriet never seemed to notice. “A creative mind,” she would say, “is always busy.”
After she sat down, Harriet gave her charcoal capsules.
“They help you rid your body of unwanted toxins which just gunk up the whole system. Besides, they’re good for gas.”
“Mr. Fuller gave me a pashmina shawl that’s pink and gold,” said Melanie, smiling. “Lucy said it comes from India.”
He’s coming on to you,” said Harriet. “Remember our credo: Let no man distract me from my art.”
“What about Hal?”
“He has the worst back acne. I’m not attracted to him at all. I only date him because he appreciates my breasts. Remember when I showed them to you, that day when no one else was in the coffee shop? They’re perfect.”
“They are perfect,” agreed Melanie still thinking about Mr. Fuller.
“Besides, he’s the only guy that’s ever stuck around.”
Melanie decided to wait until after she ate to take the capsules. Otherwise, she would become nauseous, then have to pretend that she wasn’t.
“I’ve quit go go dancing and gone back to waitressing,” Harriet said. “Once I get famous, I don’t want some tabloid journalist to misrepresent my past and make it seem sleazy or pornographic. It could derail my career.”
“That’s really smart.”
“I did a one-handed cartwheel at the restaurant where I’m working from the table to the kitchen, with the order in my mouth.”
“I know, but my boss said to knock it off. He wasn’t insured for cartwheels.”
“Philistine,” said Melanie.
“You are such a great writer. You know all the best words.”
Melanie wasn’t quite sure what Philistine meant.
“Hey, didn’t you tell me Mr. Fuller was rich? He takes you out to expensive restaurants for lunch, right?”
“I always order the cheapest thing from the menu.”
“He likes you. Maybe he’ll put you in his will.”
“That’s too avaricious,” said Melanie, knowing what avaricious meant.
“Another great word, but Mel, you’re an artist and you have to seize every opportunity you can to advance your art. I thought you understood that.”
When Melanie had last seen Mr. Fuller his face had been bruised. He had told her he had lost his grip while holding onto the back of a chair and fallen over. They often confided in each other.
“You think growing old will never happen to you,” Mr. Fuller had said.
“A gentleman never grows old,” she had responded.
He had touched her cheek.
Today, however, Mr. Fuller was monosyllabic.
“I have to let you go,” he finally said. “My wife is jealous of our relationship.”
“Harriet said you were flirting with me.”
“I wasn’t flirting with you. I was flirting with my youth. Besides, where could our relationship go?”
“But you said I brighten up your life,” Melanie said.
“You do,” said Mr. Fuller. “But my wife is my life.”
Harriet, and Lucy who didn’t count, and the waitress who didn’t count either, and Mr. Fuller were the only people Melanie really knew.
“Don’t look so sad,” he said. “We’ll always be good friends.”
He told her to let herself out.
Later that afternoon, Melanie sat in front of her opened laptop on the kitchen table prepared to write. She waited for the ideas to come.
“My wife and I have a thousand shared experiences,” Mr. Fuller had said to her. “Who will you have to share experiences with?”
“Harriet,” she had answered.
The pigeons on the window ledge cooed. She had tried Vaseline, a rubber snake, even a small replica of The Nutcracker to get rid of them. Nothing had worked.
I can’t write with all that racket, she thought. Those birds are holding me back.
She tried again, but because she didn’t want to think about Mr. Fuller, she couldn’t think about anything at all.
It was the first time she was glad to see Lucy as she stomped into the kitchen.
“My flow is kaput,” she said to her.
“Melanie, you are so strange,” Lucy replied.
Melanie was starting to feel beaten down but she rallied, noting to herself that Lucy was a clod.
“Anyway, I’m pregnant,” said Lucy smiling.
“Pregnant!” said Melanie. “I didn’t even know you were dating.”
Slowly, she started to make sense out of the red chiffon scarf she had seen over a lampshade in Lucy’s bedroom.
“For goodness sake,” said Lucy. “Lift up your head, Melanie, and look around.”
“You have to take a baby outside during the daytime,” Melanie replied.
“And your point is?”
Melanie was silent.
“Look, I’m getting married and leaving town.”
“But what about your dancing?”
“Let’s face it. I’m pudgy.”
“But what about Peter?”
“He’s leaving town, too, and moving to an Ashram.”
“But you’re giving up.”
Lucy was annoyed.
“Sometimes, Melanie, in life you have to face facts. Like the fact that you should get rid of that navy jumpsuit you’re wearing. I know its vintage, but shoulder pads are really out.”
Harriet had said the jumpsuit made her look hot.
“And one more thing. A flat chest is great for a ballet dancer, but for an ordinary person like you, it’s something you might not want to draw attention to. So do yourself a favor. Find some clothes that are more flattering, and while you’re at it, try a different color.”
What does she mean by ordinary? thought Melanie.
With Lucy leaving, Melanie would have the apartment to herself. She wasn’t sure that was such a good thing. She thought about the slanted floorboards, the stove that didn’t work, and the neighbor that was held up at gunpoint. The trashcans in the front of the building always spilled over with garbage, although she had found her bedroom dresser there. The word illuminate had been scratched into the top. Harriet had been impressed when she told her about that. Your desk is sending you a message,” she had said.
Nothing seemed illuminated at the moment. In fact things seemed pretty dark. She had writers block, just been fired from her job and with Lucy leaving, the only person left to hate was herself.
Melanie was glad to go to the coffee shop the next day. At least she could count on Harriet, although she knew she could never tell her about the backpack Mr. Fuller had given her with its laptop sleeve.
Harriet walked into the coffee shop on her tiptoes. People moved out of the way.
“What am I doing?” Harriet asked, then answered her own question. “I’m walking on air.”
“Did something happen?” asked Melanie.
“I was in my acting class and playing Juliet from you know, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, after she takes the poison and was rolling around on the floor, really suffering. It was intense. I think it was some of my greatest work. Anyway, after class my acting teacher came up to me and asked me to leave. He said he couldn’t teach me anymore. Do you get it?” she asked excitedly. “He was saying there was nothing left for me to learn. Melanie, I have become one of the world’s greatest actresses. In fact, I’m the greatest actress of all time. I’m the big kahuna.”
“That’s fabulous,” said Melanie weakly.
“But you know me, Mel; my creativity is like a spring that constantly renews itself. So I’ve decided not to rest on my laurels. In fact, I’ve already come up with a new direction to take my talent. Are you ready? I’m opening up my own acting school. I know in my heart of hearts, I can be a great teacher and help other actors free themselves of their inhibitions so they can be filled with uncompromised feelings and in touch with their authentic selves just like me. Besides acting, I’m going to offer training in cartwheels, and I’ve decided to add splits. I’m also planning on having a small café at the acting studio where tofu hotdogs will be served. Of course, I’ll take the students away for weekend retreats where I’ll offer a variety of cleanses.”
“That sounds really great,” said Melanie.
“I’m doing it with Denise.”
“She’s amazing. You would really like her. I met her at a juice bar. We started talking and she knew all about the benefits of cold-pressed juices and inflammation. She knew about raw vitamins and minerals, but what blew my mind was she knew about enzymes. Enzymes! Melanie, we didn’t meet by chance. Denise and I are meant to be together. Our acting studio will be world-renowned. Let’s face it, I’m the next Stanislavsky or Uta Hagen.”
“I thought we were meant to be together,” said Melanie confused.
“Oh, Melanie. I love you so much, but it’s become clear to me that we’re cycling through the universe at different rates of speed. If you were able to feel the cosmic energy like I do, you would know what I meant. Besides, working with Mr. Fuller made you lose focus. Denise, on the other hand, is fully committed to her art.”
Melanie started to cry.
“Don’t despair. One day, you’ll find your unique specialness and where your talents lie. Even ordinary people have some talent,” said Harriet. “I have a friend who’s an energy wrangler. He doesn’t have any state certification, but he’s fantastic. I’ll give you his phone number. I’m sure he can help you.”
Melanie sat in the coffee shop alone. It was hard being there without Harriet, but she hadn’t been able to think of any other place to go. She wasn’t hungry but she’d ordered a glass of chocolate milk. She knew it was a good protein source for muscle repair, not that she’d been exercising. In fact, she hadn’t been doing much of anything at all.
A mother and daughter entered the coffee shop. The daughter was wearing shorts over pink tights that reached to her ankles and a black leotard. Her hair was in a bun and she pulled a backpack on wheels behind her.
“My teacher said if I worked hard I could be a principal dancer someday,” said the girl. Her mother clutched her hands, thrilled, and smiled.
Melanie noticed the girl was flat chested.
She took a piece of paper from her backpack and began to read.
“He came to her apartment already drunk. Unable to find a corkscrew for the bottle of wine in his hand, he broke the neck on the edge of the sink. “Want a drink?” he asked. “I don’t swallow glass,” she said. “How about a sword?” he responded.
Harriet would have said it was full of emotional power and showed phenomenal talent.
It’s crap, she said to herself.
With both hands, she crumpled the paper with its single paragraph.
Laurel Sharon is a psychologist by day and writer by night. She has a background in the arts, first as a classical pianist and later as a modern dancer. She has been published in Carte Blanche and Cosmonauts Avenue. A longtime native of New York City, she looks forward to writing more short stories.