The First Act

Fiction / Jessica Alexander


:: The First Act ::

The dra­mat­ic thrust had all but been enact­ed. It lacked only a third or sec­ond act. 

The Count­ess had come and promised to come back. Lau­ra sat, list­less­ly embroi­der­ing in a nook by the win­dow. It was so many years ago, Lau­ra told her­self, and it nev­er was a love affair. It lacked even a sec­ond act. She sus­pect­ed the Count­ess was a liar. She sus­pect­ed the Count­ess was dead or dying some­where. It felt unfin­ished. If there’d been even a sec­ond act, she’d know what to call it. So, one morn­ing, when the girl float­ed along the walled gar­dens, Lau­ra stood and gasped. There was a moat and a draw­bridge and a stone foun­tain. They’d sat by the foun­tain in the first act. Her knit­ting nee­dles clat­tered to the ground. A ghost! she thought. The Count­ess has come back!

The girl, for her part, stopped amidst the fra­grant lilacs. Her shoul­ders clutched as if she had been struck. There was the slab of stone where she sat so many years ago, but she could not remem­ber what for or why she had returned there. She did not love it, and the mute and stu­pid stone, it did not love her either. Still the foun­tain soft­ly gur­gled. The water was the kind of blue that makes you think of dream­ing. I have been here before, she was think­ing. It makes you want to give your mind away. To trade it in for some­thing sweet­er, some­thing kinder. Some­where a bird chirped, and she almost loved it, almost thought that’s what love is: how the air held her to itself. She stood very still beside the foun­tain. The sound was clear. The light was clean. The sun dipped behind some clouds. She stood there. A ter­ri­ble trick! She looked over the edge of her strange body as if it were a precipice, and longed to fling her­self for­ev­er over it. It was a ter­ri­ble trick to be held here. She did not want it. 

That’s how Lau­ra found her, so still beside the stone, like she might fling her­self into the moat. “Wait—” Lau­ra said, but on see­ing the girl’s face, she sprang back. Was this the Count­ess? She looked dif­fer­ent. Maybe younger. The Count­ess did not seem to know her. 

Are you a ghost?” she asked. 

The girl said she did not know. 

Come clos­er,” Lau­ra said. Though she knew it was a hor­ri­ble trick to coax a dead girl into her soli­tude, she want­ed to. She want­ed this girl for her com­pan­ion. But ghosts, she thought, are such fatal­ists. They do not like tricks, and yet— 

Had Lau­ra said that aloud? Like an indig­nant cat, the girl gath­ered her­self. It isn’t true, she thought. I haven’t any preferences. 

Lau­ra, of course, con­ced­ed. How could she know a thing about this strange being? So, she told her­self, and yet she was cer­tain it was an argu­ment they’d long been hav­ing. The grass, the branch­es, the foun­tain. Let me invent this. She’d make her remem­ber. Yes, it is all a trick but it will get inside you, she was think­ing. I will put it all inside you again. Is it hor­ri­ble for me to curate a memory—to call it loving—and like a balm or a berry I’ll press it through your rough lips. Because, admit it, you’ve been starved, are starv­ing. The sky! Just look at it. How every day the air feels like a day you’ve lived already. And what are you then? Just some­thing briefly hold­ing it, forc­ing it all to go on exist­ing. How utter­ly unre­al­is­tic it is to want any of this, and yet— 

I want to show you some­thing,” Lau­ra said. 

How could any­one be like this, the girl was mar­veling. Was mad, so mad, so ven­omous. Her hard eyes, her con­tempt, her impas­sive mouth. I’m noth­ing like her! I’m noth­ing. How can any­one know enough to say so much? Say, I am like this? Con­fess. How can any­one say: I am like this. This hap­pened. Then this. Now I am like this. It’s remark­able, real­ly, she was think­ing, what some could say! They sit. They sigh. They say, Look at the sky. And you look at the sky. They force your eyes. Your mind. They get inside you. They say, I want an apple. And so you want an apple too. You want some sol­id thing inside you, an idea. It is not enough to touch the tree, the grass, where you sit and laugh. You must car­ry it all away with you if you want to be some­body too. Some­one must make you want something—they will put an image in your head and it can­not hold or con­sole you. And if they are some­one like this woman, Lau­ra, you are wait­ing. You are hold­ing your breath. And you are won­der­ing: what will she make me want next? It’s like trad­ing your­self in for a sto­ry, and so, you’ll nev­er be sure whether the sto­ry was any sweet­er or kinder than you were. Mean­while, the sky is on the brink of mean­ing some­thing. It’s all too hor­rif­ic. A hor­ri­ble trick! You want a fog­gy city. You want some­how to be smoth­ered in fog or a fond mem­o­ry of some­thing long ago. A city. Call it Venice. No, not Venice. Maybe Bath. Call it Bath. 

The girl remem­bered a vil­lage: the build­ings were grand and bro­ken. Some­where some­one else was wait­ing for her, and she was try­ing to get back to her. Did she ever get back there? She didn’t think so. That’s how all the sto­ries go, isn’t it? And the girl was won­der­ing, who put that sto­ry inside of her, and did she want it there? How, now, she won­dered, would she ever rid her­self of it, this ter­ri­ble bereave­ment? Was it even hers? 

Mean­while, time was passing. 

I will invent you, Lau­ra was think­ing. I have felt this way, Lau­ra was think­ing. I have felt this way. Before you came, I felt this way. Like the clouds felt heavy and they pressed some­thing out of me. Like I might drown in sky. Like all day I sigh. Like I can’t tell if the air in my chest is too much or if I can­not get enough. 

And then, the girl told her­self: I won’t be sad because you say so. I won’t be so suggestible. 

Some­where on a tree limb a bird chirped. “Do you like the sound of that? I like the sound of birds in the morn­ing. I like the morn­ing. We have such won­der­ful birds here. I like the light. I like the way it creeps in slow­ly, glow­ing. I want to show you some­thing,” Lau­ra said. 

How does one come to know this about them­selves? How does one come to know they like the sound of birds? To have a thing to show some­one? To say: look? And then you turn your eyes just like they want you to. Why? Because you are a fool. 

What’s wrong,” Lau­ra was ask­ing her. 

It had nev­er occurred to the girl to say any of these things. And what hap­pened when one said it, when Lau­ra said “what nice birds” was that she want­ed the earth to swal­low the birds. To swal­low her. Why should she want this, she won­dered. Because this girl made her want and she want­ed wrong! When Lau­ra said she loved this time of day, the singing birds, the sky, which was almost pur­ple, she want­ed to impale her­self on a tree limb or a fence—she want­ed to nev­er leave it, to curl up and die inside a sweet­ness she would nev­er learn to trust. The girl felt ner­vous. Tell your­self a sto­ry. Look, the sky you loved has changed already. Tell it. Tell it quick. Before it all changes again. But when she watched her­self talk, when she tried to bring her­self into being, she seemed to push her­self fur­ther and fur­ther away from what she’d aimed at, some vital glow­ing thing, some­thing else. What was it? Why was this woman hold­ing her hand and lead­ing her on and on through the tall grass, toward the house. She ought to be leav­ing now. 

For Laura’s part, she found the girl very odd. She was noth­ing like the Count­ess. She knew noth­ing. So, Lau­ra had to tell the sto­ry all over again, to start from the begin­ning. Still she liked her. How strange and pret­ty she was with such wilder­ness in her wild hair and her face all bronze from stand­ing in the sun. Her voice was rough and pleas­ing. So stern and sad and seri­ous. It was a joy to stand in the grass and look at her. She thought she was a ghost. “Are you a ghost?” she said. 

The girl said she did not know. 

You remind me of some­one,” Lau­ra was telling her. “There is a woman who vis­it­ed so many years ago. You remind me of her. You look iden­ti­cal. Only you are so dif­fer­ent. So wild and shy. I have the woman’s por­trait inside. Would you like to see it?” 

Yes,” the girl said. But she did not believe it. Not real­ly. Not yet. It was a trick. The way the sun felt. The way this woman wanted—what? To make her want. To make her say it. “Yes, I want to see it.” 

It is a trick, Lau­ra was think­ing, and you are a fatal­ist. How could she pos­si­bly know this, she won­dered. Because all the sto­ries have been told. She want­ed to tell her this, they’re all tricks, you know, and yet— 

She did not know how to make the argu­ment. It was self­ish. She want­ed a com­pan­ion. She liked this girl who spooked so easy like a bird. Like an injured bird, she thought, I will care for her. 

Then, sud­den­ly, the girl remem­bered some­thing: the fra­grant lilacs that bloomed two weeks each spring, the walled kitchen gar­dens, the shrub­beries, the park­land, the poplars and the pear trees. 

She shut her eyes and braced her­self for a hard slap. 

Because this world, she thought, who wants it? 

Every­one. What­ev­er it is. Every­one wants this so bad they’d claw their own heads off to keep them­selves from want­i­ng it. 

Would you like to see it? 

See what? 

A por­trait of your­self. Come. I want to give you this. An expe­ri­ence. To carve a shape in your mind the size of myself, and if there is such a thing as betray­al, I will betray you, because you are not me. But come out of the sun. I want to show you something. 

The girl held her­self at the edge of the foun­tain. She did not know what else to do. Hadn’t this already hap­pened? Why am I here again? She was won­der­ing. Have I left some­thing undone?



From the writer


:: Account ::

I kept hav­ing this dream about a woman I knew. 

Let’s call her Car­ol. The last time I saw her was in high school, which was, to be hon­est, a very long time ago. The dream is set in a wrecked city that’s full of red light and fog. And I’m look­ing for her. I ask a bar­tender, “Where’s Car­ol?” He points across a smoky room at some­one, and there is noth­ing famil­iar about her. Still, the bar­tender is not wrong, that’s Car­ol, and I’m will­ing to accept it, though, admit­ted­ly, I’m dis­ap­point­ed. Like all the urgency just swirled down the drain of this dream. I don’t know Car­ol anymore. 

I haven’t seen her since high school, and in my wak­ing life I have no desire to speak with her. And so, this long­ing, like many, total­ly baf­fles me. I can’t help that. At night I’m wan­der­ing through the ruins of my mem­o­ry, want­i­ng bad­ly to tell Car­ol something. 

A bar in win­ter was the last place I actu­al­ly saw Car­ol. She sat on a stool and I sat on a stool across the room. And she looked at me with this very styl­ized hatred. It was high school. We were too young to be there. She didn’t want to say hel­lo. It was clear. It was no big deal, or was she jok­ing? Her sense of humor was won­der­ful and bru­tal. So, I thought about say­ing hi to Car­ol, but then she’d left, and that was the last time I saw her. It wasn’t a big deal, in part, because it took a decade to decide that was the last time. And the dis­cov­ery, by then, felt like stum­bling into my present, hold­ing a rel­ic, like a VHS, which is obvi­ous­ly just so use­less now. Still, I dream about it. What could I pos­si­bly have to tell Carol? 

When you’re young it’s like that. You have this rich inner life, and maybe a friend equal­ly invest­ed in per­form­ing it. Two years pass, and, maybe, you imag­ine all that has noth­ing to do with the peo­ple you’re becom­ing. I liked Car­ol. In high school, I liked the Bron­tës, too, and all through col­lege I’d look back on that fact and feel baf­fled by it. I loved Char­lotte Bron­të in par­tic­u­lar. I loved espe­cial­ly Vil­lette, which tells of Lucy Snow, who, after an unspec­i­fied fam­i­ly dis­as­ter, leaves Eng­land for the fic­tion­al French-speak­ing city of Vil­lette, where she teach­es at a girl’s school. And so, in the nov­el there is a world which reflects the severe finan­cial, social, and pro­fes­sion­al lim­i­ta­tions imposed on sin­gle women liv­ing in the Vic­to­ri­an era, and then this wild exces­sive coun­ter­part and counter-tem­po­ral­i­ty to that world, where Lucy Snow has this super­sen­su­al inner life, rich with desires whose objects all dis­solve inside these very elab­o­rate metaphors. And it’s odd because nar­ra­tive usu­al­ly needs such erot­ic props. A home, in the Vic­to­ri­an nov­el, is usu­al­ly one such ves­sel. And Lucy Snowe hasn’t got one. She says, “To be home­sick, one must have a home, which I have not.” It wasn’t, to me, a sim­ple dis­avow­al but a tes­ta­ment to the illeg­i­bil­i­ty of her loss and her long­ing evinced by the false author­i­ty of def­i­n­i­tion. I mean, she’s wrong, right? One must pos­sess a home to long for it? But she’s exclud­ed and home­sick for anoth­er world. And so this nar­ra­tive sleight of hand, this self-defense, which dis­avows emo­tion by negat­ing its objects, seems also to expand the hori­zon of her long­ing. So, there’s nev­er an object, and yet the nov­el is so erot­i­cal­ly charged! I know peo­ple dis­agree. I’ve read essays about it. There is an object, they say—its name is Paul. Well, I, for one, could nev­er state with clar­i­ty what in this world exact­ly Lucy wanted—and still the nov­el erupt­ed, at every turn, with rabid and wound­ed wanting. 

And so, I was think­ing about spec­tral desire, and I want­ed to write a nov­el, a spec­u­la­tive, par­o­d­ic, and goth­ic melo­dra­ma. Of course, there’d need to be a ghost, and the ghost is real­ly dis­cur­sive, pre­oc­cu­pied with negat­ing the world and her desire for it, which is to say, she’s real­ly angry. And I want­ed it to end when a woman seduces the ghost back to liv­ing or at least she attempts to do so for what can only be very self­ish rea­sons and I’m almost fin­ished and this is how my melo­dra­ma ends.


Jes­si­ca Alexan­der’s sto­ry col­lec­tion, Dear Ene­my, was the win­ning man­u­script in the 2016 Subito Prose Con­test, as judged by Selah Sater­strom. Her fic­tion has been pub­lished in jour­nals such as Fence, Black War­rior Review, PANK, Den­ver Quar­ter­ly, The Col­lag­ist, and DIAGRAM. She lives in Louisiana, where she teach­es cre­ative writ­ing at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Louisiana at Lafayette.