03 August 2014

Not On Paper

I am the first one to the Layover Suite, which is no surprise; I’m always the first one here.  I switch on the lights and open the blinds.  It’s about 3:30pm in Los Angeles.
We’re not supposed to be here at this time; we should be down on the platform, waiting for the train.  But we don’t go; we know it won’t come.  Since France and Germany are both asleep, there’s little reason to go to the platform anymore.  They are our best bet these days, yet even they have started leaning towards conventional.
The recession in America is lasting longer than anyone expected.  That coupled with the impending national election, has the country being pulled apart once again.  You’re lucky to get a group of Americans to agree on anything, let alone something that doesn’t fit neatly into a preconceived notion.  No, we will all be here for a while longer.
I look through the cupboards for something to serve the group but there’s little to choose from; our population must be growing.  A few years back, there was a large defection to the Literary Neighborhood.  It paid off, too; trains were pulling in and out of their station a few times a day.  Only a few of us remained here, our reasons varied.  Some of us worried we would be marginalized over there; others had simply invested too much to give up.  A few of the Tropes bounced back and forth between colonies – they have that luxury.  But the old guard still frowns on that type of behavior; it was our version of bourgeois.  We had already survived the dark days of The Return; days we’d hoped not to see again, but now, with nothing rolling on the tracks, some of us might just enjoy the chance to go out for a bit.
I arrange the chairs in a circle.  It’s a loose circle, no one wanting to admit we’ve formed our own little therapy group.  I stagger every third or fourth chair to face the opposite direction or set it a couple of feet from the core circle.  I notice the worn armchair has been placed by the window already.  It makes me think that the morning group – the Tropes – are struggling as well.  Why would they post a train sentry?  If they aren’t going out, it either means the Tropes are falling out of favor, which will result in a SendUp for us; or that nobody is going out.  I make a note to check The Room records to see who has been entertained of late.
As I arrange cookies, Michelle arrives, earlier than usual.  She is one of the few who wait, still, on the platform before coming up.  Michelle has gone to the Arena so many times we have all lost count.  By the time they are done with her in The Arena she is so abhorrent she prays not to go out.  But when she is in her pure form, she waits on the platform, just in case.  Seeing her so early nudges me in the stomach; if Michelle has given up, who are the others going to turn to for help?
Michelle’s beauty amazes me every time I see her; her mane of golden hair cascading across her shoulders and her long, slender neck leading to a collarbone so delicate, it appears carved from marble.  Her flawless skin is the color of strawberry milk, which brings out the crystalline blue of her large, expressive eyes. Of course, it is her absurd proportions that get most of the attention; supple, round breasts, her disproportionately small waist and ample hips.  All of that is propped on sculpted, long legs with a few more inches added compliments of the stilettos she is never without.
Michelle walks into the center of the room, avoiding chairs; which is a feat considering her nose is buried in a book.
“Good morning, Michelle,”  I say, at last.
“Hmm?”  She says turning her head but not able to pull her eyes from the page.  Finally she makes eye contact with me.  “Oh, hello Dr. Alsew.  How are you this afternoon?”  She slides on to a chair.
Michelle has never called me Taylor or even Der Doc, like the others.  She has only ever referred to me as Dr. Alsew.   And although she always uses my title, I am conscious that not using hers makes her feel normal.  Trent and some of the brasher ones call her Docette, which I know she loathes.  I introduced her as Dr. Simpson once to a newcomer and she sharply amended it to Michelle; so she remains simply Michelle to me.
Brendan enters the Layover Suite next.  This is both a surprise and a good sign.  His recent re-emergence at the Layover Suite gives the others hope; and hope is all we have.
Brendan was a member of The Return.  Prior to The Return, Brendan possessed an inner light that emanated from his every pore.  His positive nature was infectious; he was the first one we introduced to the new guys.  His welcoming manner, his relaxed humor and ability to listen to you as if you were the only one in the room always put a newbie at ease.  In our darkest hours, we sought Brendan out just to try and absorb some of the positive energy that ran through his core.  Many sessions have been spent since The Return trying to figure out if that energy still made up his core and his skin was just too thick now to allow it to shine through; or if it had been replaced with something much colder.
Michelle glances briefly at the TV screen before greeting Brendan.  It is primarily for him that a scarf has been put over the screen.  It was unplugged some time ago, not long after the last Defection.  But the scarf was draped over it when Brendan made his first appearance back in the Layover Suite after The Return.  The TV used to run non-stop, showing movie after movie – all decades, all genres, all stories and characters.  It was installed to inspire hope but during dry spells such as this, it is nothing more than a constant reminder of how we are not welcome in their world.  The Tropes objected at first to our unplugging it.  They would plug it back in during their Waiting hours.  But the dry spell had lasted long enough that even they find the reminder tedious.
“Brendan.”  Michelle says.
“Hey.”  Brendan says walking to the window.
I approach him with a plate of cookies; he seems too thin to me, and he performs a soft fist-bump by way of greeting.  I offer the cookies.
“Nah, dude.”  He says gently.  “I had a pretty awesome breakfast this morning.”
I raise my eyebrow.  “Really?”  I ask.  We haven’t seen him eat in so long.
“Yeah.  I couldn’t sleep so I got up to wax my board and, dude, the sun came up, right out my window.  It warmed me up, you know, in here.”  He reached out and placed a hand on my chest, leaving it there for a moment before retracting it with a nervous laugh.  People often worry they are being inappropriate when they touch me; I do what I can to put them at ease.  I am so encouraged to hear this coming from him; it is the most hopeful thing I have heard him say in months.  I place a hand on his shoulder and am surprised to feel it is slightly rough from years of exposure.  I admonish myself silently for assuming that black skin cannot be affected by the sun.
Michelle clears her throat and I take a moment to follow her gaze.  In Brendan’s close cropped curls, he has re-shaven his lightning bolt.  This is his signature, his identity, his hope.  The return of the lightning bolt will inspire everyone today; I can’t help but get excited.
Tim comes in next and dampens my spirits.  I know his is a need for routine and thus, coming to the Layover Suite is a part of his daily schedule from which he will not deviate, but I always hope he’ll catch a train and we can communicate in peace.  I think Tim has gotten meaner, though Michelle says his attitude is merely a reflection of our anxiety of being stuck here.  Michelle has been a cardiologist, a brain surgeon, the top oncologist to the president, the head of a major network of all the country’s top learning hospitals but never has she been a psychiatrist, psychologist or even a therapist.  I guess her mind is just that expansive.
Tim walks in and grabs several cookies from the plate with a dirty hand.  I eye him to assess how volatile he is today.  He sticks out his tongue and gives me a raspberry, effectively making the remaining cookies inedible.
“Dude.”  Brendan says, patting Tim on the back.
“Dohn touch me.”  Tim says.
“Bad night, my friend?”  Brendan asks.
“Whad do you care, N-word?”  Tim spits out before refilling his mouth with cookies. Somehow I have been effective in curbing his racial epithets to colloquialisms.
Brendan removes his hand and puts his arms up in mock surrender.  “Hey, my friend.  I’m just here, feeling the vibe like you dudes.”
Tim turns to face Brendan in an awkward twist.  I notice his fly is down and underwear is poking out from it.  Tim starts pulling at Brendan’s tank top, forcing the elongated armholes to stretch down to his board shorts.  I reach out to remove Tim’s hands.  Each time I extract them, he replaces them.  This continues for several rounds, Brendan is patient.
“Timothy.”  I say as evenly as possible.
“Doh call me thaa.”  He says swiping at me.  “You are a shit and I hope you die.”
“Tim, please take a seat.”
“I gunna sit next to the titty gurl.”  He says, lumbering towards Michelle with his hands outstretched.  She effectively avoids his grabs and gets him to sit across from her.  Tim runs his fat tongue over his chapped lips and blurts out disgusting suggestions to Michelle.  His stuttering and underdeveloped speech make the suggestions even more offensive.  If I had to guess, I would say Tim’s retardation placed him mentally at about a 2nd grade level.  But his 23-year-old body was much more developed and he sticks his hand in his pants and begins to play with himself.  Michelle removes herself to the window.
Trent and Deidre walk in next.  Trent, upon seeing Tim, smiles wide and points to him “My man!  Enjoying yourself – good for you.”
Trent walks over and slaps Brendan on the back.  “How is my chocolate desire doing today?”
Brendan smiles tightly.  “Well, bro.  Just trying to be copasetic, ya’ know?”
Trent sidles up next to Brendan, placing an arm around his shoulder.  “How ‘copasetic’ you feeling, honey?  I could really use some chocolate on my schlong.”  He blows into Brendan’s ear.
Brendan shakes his head slowly.  “Nah, not that copasetic.”
“Someday, someday – I will have you on your knees in front of me.”  Trent says pointing in Brendan’s direction.
Deidre walks over to Michelle.  Michelle’s reaction tells me Deidre has already been drinking.  Her dark glasses stay in place as she pours a glass of juice for herself.
“Have you had breakfast, Deidre?”  I ask tentatively.  I wish we had more than cookies; I had no idea so many would show up.
Deidre turns towards me with a steady head and body.  “Yes, I had a beautiful plate of eggs and bacon sent up.  I was able to finish them with my third Bloody Mary.”  She turns back to Michelle.  “I can count that as my fruit and vegetable group, right Doctor?”  She says with a smirk.
Michelle smiles back and holds up the New York Times Stock Exchange section.  I wonder if Michelle is expanding her quality set or simply so bored with waiting that she needs to learn something new.
Deidre says.  “I told you last week, you really should concentrate on a solid business plan first.  You have a cursory knowledge of how stocks work, that’s all you need.  I really think you would go as an executive before you go as a trader or even a broker.”
Michelle furrows her brow.
Deidre points to a pair of chairs and pulls out a flask.  She sits next to Michelle and runs a hand over the expensive fabric of her skirt.  Her hair is pulled into a clean knot on her neck.  Deidre is the most pulled together person I have ever encountered; and her blood alcohol level rides at a steady 1.7 throughout the day.  Occasionally Michelle will remind her that the human body will collapse due to sustained abuse, but Deidre simply nods and adds, “We’ll see when that day comes.”  The subject, quite honestly, bores her.
Colin enters the room.  Everyone watches him as he greets each person warmly.  He is not conventionally good looking, his nose is a bit crooked and his forehead a shade too long, but his imperfections add up to attractive – impossibly attractive.  His warm personality makes him even more engaging.  I have found, on a few occasions, that even I have giggled at one of his compliments.
“Hello, my good doctor.  You are looking especially fetching today.  Optimistic?”  He says to me when he approaches.  His green eyes fix on me as they do everyone when he is in conversation with them.  After our exchange, he glances over to the forming circle.  He waves to Tim who nods.  He says a hello to Deidre and winks at Michelle.  She smiles broadly.  He shakes Brendan’s hand and laughs at Trent when he makes an obscene gesture.
Colin is a ThrownAway.  His type has not always been here.  A few decades ago, Colin would have stood on the Tropes platform and been whisked away with every train.  It wasn’t but within the latter half of the millennium that Colin found himself here.  Cynicism had robbed him of his place on the platform and now he must make do with us.  We are the victors in this case.
Colin brushes an errant crumb from my lapel.  My heart quickens at his touch.  I thank him as heat rises in my cheeks.  “How is your wife?”  I ask after I clear my throat.
His whole face brightens and his impossibly wide smile grows even wider.  “She’s amazing.  She’s the reason I look forward to each new day.  I wish you could meet her – she would really like you.”
I wish I could meet her too.  I wish she were here, if only for Colin’s sake.  I don’t think he’s leaving soon.
I wait for a few more moments to see if anyone else will appear.  It is closing in on 4pm in Los Angeles and it’s a Friday afternoon.  No trains will be coming today.  Because of this, I assign Tim to the sentry position.  The group seems in good spirits and with Brendan here, I want to keep it that way.  We don’t need Tim’s bile and he won’t know there are no trains to watch.
“Okay,”  I say, taking my seat.  “Hello to all.  I apologize for the shockingly insufficient snacks today;  being a Friday I thought we would be few.  What business should we start with today?”
“Welcum beck, N-word.” Tim says from his window seat.  I stiffen.  Is it possible that he did it intentionally?  Such an unkind gesture seems beyond his intellect but he has shocked us before with his cruelty.
Brendan, to his credit, absorbs the blow with the same ease he does everything and waves to Tim.  “It’s great to be here, rah.  But as soon as the surf’s up, I’m outta here.”  He flashes a hang ten to prove his point.
“TRAIN!”  Tim calls out.  The group turns to him in unison.  He giggles as he looks at a magazine.  This is a game he likes to play when he is sentry.  Even though he has called wolf countless times, all of our hearts start just a bit each time.
Hope burns eternal.
“I had an inquiry from Thailand.”  Trent says.
No one speaks – we are stunned into silence.  We hardly hear anything from Thailand.
“It was a weak one, something underground; but still, it came the other night.”  Trent looked quickly around the group.  Michelle and Deidre looked skeptical.
“Yeah, I know.  I’m not going anywhere.”  He said looking at his hands.  When the overly confident ones sound disheartened, it hits the hardest.  He throws his head back and shakes out his golden curls.  Brendon puts a reassuring hand on his shoulders.  “Wanna take my mind off it?”  He asks salaciously.
Our process is fairly simple, regardless of how it sounds.  One of us is selected and we go to The Room.  We stay in The Room for a while as we are massaged and dressed up as needed.  Once we have been given enough attention in The Room, we proceed to The Arena.  In The Arena we are evaluated by the Decision Makers.  They may or may not make further changes and then we are sent here, the Layover Room, where we wait to see if we will be sent for or not.
All of us have been through the process by now; it’s part of our routine.
But things have changed since The Return. It used to be that when you went out, when you boarded the train, you didn’t come back.  You may remain in a holding pattern or you may never have your name known by many, but you didn’t come back.  The Return took place one cold winter in Los Angeles.  So many had gone out; it was a boon.  We were on the platform every day because we were so hopeful with the amount that left.  The trains trickled down until they didn’t come anymore.  We were saddened for ourselves but delighted for our compatriots.
Then the trains came back.  We flooded the platform, hopeful that each would have our name posted in the window.  But they didn’t.  They had no names posted.  When the doors opened we all stood still, no one knowing what to do.  Michelle was the first one off the train. She held her head high and walked past us with a weak smile.  We stared in disbelief.  Then the others, hundreds of them, came stumbling out of the trains.  We called to them, asking what was going on but they couldn’t answer, they didn’t know.  Nothing like this had ever happened.  Brendon was in the last group of those to leave the train.  He came into the sunlight blinking; his mouth agape.  He made eye contact with me for a full minute but would not step onto the platform.  When the train started to go, Brendon was thrown from his step to the platform anyway.  Nobody made a move to lift him.  He stood up and walked through the crowd with his head down.  I touched his shoulder as he passed; he shrugged my hand off.
We lost a part of Brendan during the Return.
“I think this is a good time to discuss the schedule.”  Deidre says.  “I have been analyzing the current one, which is based on an antiquated set of data, and feel we are under-optimizing.”
“I see,” I start.  “And what changes do you propose?”
“We base our time spent here on the fluctuations of Los Angeles almost solely.  Some of us have a good feeling for a few of the EU countries but have not adapted our routines accordingly.  New York has almost completely been taken out of the equations and we are, in fact, completely disregarding the Asian market.”
“But we haven’t seen anything from New York in some time.”  Michelle says.
Deidre considers this.  “What’s going on at the Television Compound?”
Colin shakes his head.  “Television, has it come to that?”
Deidre narrows her eyes.  “I have no problem thinking small if it means movement.”
“But, I mean… we’ve all been so established.”  Colin continued.  He is well intentioned but the group can’t afford to listen to him.  Colin has the luxury of defecting to the Literary Neighborhood at any time.  It would only be a matter of moments before he goes out from there.  Yet he clings onto the halcyon days of the Eisenhower years, when the men on screen loved their wives with all their hearts and the nanny was nothing more to them than the old lady who watched the kids.
“Ah, baby, you feeling down?  Want me to get you up?”  Trent says, leering at Colin.
“Trent, we are having a discussion here; one that affects you.”  I say evenly.
“I would offer to get you up but I can’t figure out if you grow on the inside or the outside.”
“TRAIN.”  Tim calls out.  We ignore him.
I return to Deidre.  “What about the Asian market?  We’ve already dismissed India.  Who are you proposing we cater to – not China, surely?”
“The underground market in China is prime territory for us but it is still predominantly monopolized by the Anomalies and Supernaturals.  I do think we are going to crack it soon.  I think we should focus on Vietnam and Japan.”
“Japan?”  Michelle asks.  “We’d be killed off almost as soon as we got there.”  Michelle will not see Japan or any Asian country for many, many years.  Her self-assuredness coupled with her intelligence holds her to the Western Hemisphere.
“No, I think someone like Trent or myself might get in there.  And Colin, you may too.”  Deidre responds.
Nobody looks to Brendan.
“And you too, Der Doc.  You have a really good chance.”  Deidre said.
People generally excluded me from the conversation.  I like to believe it was because they did not want to lose me as the lead in these little group meetings but I think it’s merely an extension of everyone’s perception of me; my confidence unnerves them.
“Bitch is a dude.”  Tim said walking to TV.  He pulls the scarf off it and tries to turn it on.  “Sumbuddy turn this on!”  He demanded.
“Tim settle down, we’re trying to work out a game plan.”  Deidre said sharply.
“You’re ugly.  Nobody wans you.”  Tim said.
Deidre’s eyes narrowed and her mouth tightened.  She started to say something but Colin intervened.  “Deidre, your dedication to this topic is admirable.  You never cease to amaze me with your prowess.”
“Colin,” Trent said loosening his tie, “You want prowess?  Bend over and I will prowess you into next week.”
“OK, I think we should take a little break.  Maybe we should…,” the muffled sound of a train pulling out from a distant station whispered into the room.
“TRAIN!”  Tim yells from his seat by the TV.
It must be the Literary Building.  Michelle and Colin go to the window.  Deidre follows soon after.  I toss the cookies in the bin.  Trent looks at Brendan, who doesn’t move.  The sound of the train has affected him.  Mercifully, Trent walks past the opportunity to capitalize on his fragile state.
Michelle taps on the glass as the train passes by.  “I think that’s Angela.  Look at the hair – I am sure it’s Angela.”  I peer out at the train passing on the Literary track.  A shock of red hair is discernible in the window.  It could be anyone but we all know Angela so we wave to the back of her head and wish her well.  Michelle leans into Colin who drapes a reassuring arm around her shoulders.  She presses her bosom to him and leans her head in his direction.  Colin rubs her shoulder and smiles as brightly as he can.  Michelle looks into his eyes with longing.  My temperature rises just looking at this exchange.  Colin takes his other arm and wraps it around Deidre.
“This is good.” He says enthusiastically.  “This is positive.  Literary always picks up first.”  He is not tempted by the ladies on either side of him.  I would love to meet his wife.
“No, dammit!”  Deidre says pulling away.  “This is not good.  Who cares what happens in Literary – they get to stay whether anyone reads them or not.  They stay.  And meanwhile, we can’t even muster the optimism to make it to the platform.”
“Deidre, we shouldn’t give up hope.”  I try to interject.
“Hope?”  Trent yells.  “You know damn well why you don’t have any fucking food – the Tropes ate everything this morning.  They have been here every morning.  If they’re in here, you KNOW we aren’t going anywhere.”
“Trent, I think the Doc is trying… “Colin begins.
“Close it, Loverboy.  Unless you want me to slip my cock in that pretty little mouth of yours, I suggest you shut it.”  Trent eyes are reddening as he walks to the window.
I look to Michelle.  She usually helps in these moments.  She surveys the room, retakes her seat and picks up her book as if she were alone.
It is up to me.  “Listen, I know how bleak this looks.  If we can just pull ourselves together and work on who we are.  If we build our own confidence, it will shine through to all those we’re trying to reach.  If we believe in ourselves, others will believe in us.”
Deidre scoffs and brings out another flask from her purse.  Colin smiles weakly; he wants to support me but this is all he can give at this time.  Tim approaches me.  He stares up at me, running his eyes over it from top to bottom and back up.  He purses his lips and spits a wad of phlegm at me, it hits my cheek.  I stand still.  He is reacting to the group reacting to me.
“Sit down, Tim!”  Michelle calls out from her chair.
“Make me, tittay-gurl.”  Tm says turning to her in his awkward manner.
I notice Michelle’s fist clench.  She has been here longer than anyone in this room;if anyone should be making a scene, it should be her.  Trent comes over to Tim and guides him to the easy chair.  Colin approaches me with a handkerchief and wipes the spittle from my cheek.  I can feel its presence even after it’s gone.
“This is bullshit.  We need to be more proactive.”  Deidre starts again.
“Deidre, it’s no use.”  Brendon says in a soft voice.  “We can do everything we want and for what?  To be told we don’t fit in?  To be told we are not acceptable?  I just want to be who I am.  I like who I am.  And I can’t catch a break.  Why?  Because I’m black; I’m black, bro.  I thought we were past this?”
“Maybe it’s because you’re a surfer?  Or too laid back?  Or that dialect you have – you don’t know why they don’t want you; none of us do.  And that’s why we can’t get out of this God-damned room!”  Deidre says, quickly pacing.
“You’re a drunk.”  Trent says.
Deidre stops and face shim. “So?  Drunks have propagated screenplays for decades – male and female.  How does my drinking hold me back?”
“It doesn’t,”  Michelle says.  “That’s the problem.  Moral lessons – being a successful drunk doesn’t send the right message.”
Deidre scowls.  “How can you be so calm?  You should be tearing this place apart.  As Brendan says, in today’s day and age we can’t accept a smart woman?”
“Not with that ass.  She looks like a stripper – who wants a brilliant Playboy bunny?”  Trent offers.
Michelle dismisses the discussion.  “Look Deidre.  You speak of us controlling this – how?  We are who we are.  We can’t change that.  That’s why Dr. Aslew speaks of embracing ourselves.  The minute they sober you up or ratchet down your accomplishments in The Arena, you come back.  As soon as that pen crosses out my bust measurements, I come back.  Trent can’t get anywhere without them cleaning up that filthy mouth of his and making him effeminate.  Brendan made it all the way to the studio head.  All the way to sale.  And when the offer came back there was one note… One Note – ‘he needs to speak street.’  And that one note brought on The Return.  Stop trying to figure out how to get into their scripts – it doesn’t matter.  Colin is considered for every married lead there is.  He doesn’t even go the platform because he knows in a matter of pages, someone has made him leer at a neighbor; unclean thoughts about the babysitter have been entertained or, hell, maybe he’s made out with a poker buddy.”
The room remains silent.
“TRAIN!”  Tim calls out from behind them.
Michelle points to Tim at the window.  “Tim can’t catch a break with the moral conscious.  Who would the screenwriter be if they made a mentally challenged man rotten?  Not a perpetual victim?  It can’t be!  It won’t be.”
“Michelle.”  I started.
She turned to me and smiled.  “You’re the saddest of all.” She whispered.  “Your great flaw is how unflawed you are.  How can you possibly not have any hang-ups about being perpetually hung in-between sexes?  If anything, your ambiguity gives you strength and that strength is the first thing they strip from you on paper.  You can’t even get off the idea board before the other writers start trying to figure out how you exist.”
“TRAIN!”  Tim yells out again.
“Tim, shut it!”  Trent yells out.
“I think we just have to wait it out.  As soon as the collective economies improve, independent films will be on the rise – as soon as the funding is available.”  I say as reassuringly as possible.  “With the derisiveness of the political climates, authors will need to exorcise their angst.  It may start in Literary but once those books fit their marks, the studios will come knocking.  And they can’t change popular characters – not too dramatically.  We all stand a chance.  Just commit to who you are.  And if you need somewhere to vent, we are here.”
“TRAIN!”  Tim said.
Deidre snapped her head around and opened her mouth to scream at him, but she stopped short.
We all turned towards Tim.
He is staring outside with his hands firmly pressed against the window.
We listen, as the train comes.

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