The air trapped in Maggie’s lungs desperately slammed into its cell door again. A tiny grunt escaped as she fought to remain completely motionless. We couldn’t afford to perspire; frustration that would typically hop out of her pores was instead channeled through her wounded, frosty eyes. How could you say that? her irises hissed at me. Why do I never feel like I’ve captured your attention or respect until it’s too late? Don’t I deserve better?
“Ab right, rplax for a mbinute, evperyone.” That morning marked my seventh or eighth morning shoot with Angelica O’Neil as Director. After our third together, I’d assumed she must be contractually obligated to mumble at us through a banana nut bar. She held up a finger and we marked time while she chased her breakfast with a shot of Evian. “Good form, Maggie, but you’re concentrating so hard that I’m afraid you’re about to start shattering glass, and we just upgraded these cameras. Try for something a tad more…natural.”
Maggie exhaled, and you could hear the relief pouring out. She sent me a grin, the tempest swirling in her eyes switching to a mischievous sparkle. “Angelica, I’m flailing my arms and my mouth could swallow North Dakota, and I’m frozen. Nothing about this pose is natural!”
“Taylor’s managing well enough with his Surprised Man-Pout,” Angelica noted, and I felt an unexpected, slightly uncomfortable ray of pride light up. I’ve always had an overly-expressive mug. Growing up at St. Clementine’s, some of the other kids dubbed me Clayface, after the Batman villain; the idea that I’d one day pay rent with my face would’ve seemed ludicrous. But Angelica believed I was destined for this line of work. For months, she told my potential clients that I was tailor-made for stock photos. I begged her to stop.
“Doesn’t count; that man-pout is just his face,” Maggie said, a smirk dotting the end of her sentence.
“Hey, don’t drag me into this!” I stepped back so everyone would recognize and respect my neutrality. I already knew recognition would not be forthcoming. No one appreciated Switzerland.
“All right, you two.” Angelica finished her text, peering at us over the rims of her glasses. “Five more sets today and I’ve been invited to one of those–” She snapped her fingers, searching. “What do you call it? You’re locked inside a room and given clues, and you have to escape within an hour? It’s–“
Sickly sweet claustrophobia kicked me in the head for even hosting the thought. “An escape room,” I volunteered quietly.
“It’s an escape room. I knew it’d come to me,” Angelica said, mostly to herself. “So, back to positions. Taylor, you–“
“Wait,” I broke in, instantly regretting that I’d interrupted her. I shook my call sheet, the sound of its flappy squawking wobbling towards the camera. “You said there are five sets? I’m only showing four: couple watching on movie on couch, joggers on park bench, business meeting, and then psychologist and patient. What’s the fifth?”
“That’s Maggie, short run, solo. Eleven-thirty. Woman laughing alone with salad.”
From Maggie’s throat leapt a noise like a pregnant walrus attempting to sit comfortably. “Another one?”
“People love the classics.” Angelica shrugged.
“Did you know, Taylor, that none of the salads with which I’ve shared a photogenic laugh can tell a decent joke?” Maggie tried to roll her eyes; I pretended I didn’t notice that they stood still. “Being funny is the least a salad can do, since I’m the one expected to pick up the tab for our date.”
“What, just because you’re a human and it’s a pile of lettuce, you assume it won’t split the check?” I smiled and aimed a charming wink at her. “The salad’s working today too, you know.”
“Wait, what rate are the greens getting?” Maggie whipped around in mock frustration, staring our director down. “Mine’s higher, right?”
Angelica sighed, tapping her iPhone screen with long, aqua-tinted nails. “Five sets, people. Practice your stand-up routines on your own time.”
“Well, at least you’ll have an actual lunch today,” my favorite work wife whispered as Angelica’s crew settled back into position. “I’ll be giggling at a cucumber slice.”
Occasionally, companies like Angelica’s provide me with details in advance–but generally speaking, I clock in for gigs having no concept of what my schedule’ll look like, or who’ll be acting alongside me. I become a devoted father and a jealous boyfriend and a supportive coworker once a week, sometimes more. On those days, the set wraps. The crew packs up. The actress and I trade might trade gossip, since the universe of stock-photo modeling is shockingly local if you stick around long enough. And then we depart, our promised labor delivered. I never thought about my partners when I was off-site.
Until I met Maggie Breslin.
“Chin up, bucko,” I said, tapping her arm lightly. “I heard Angelica rented a comfortable couch for the shrink set, and you know how rare that is.”
“She found a unicorn?” Maggie’s expression shifted into over-exaggerated bewilderment. “I call dibs on Patient, then. Obviously.”
“What? An hour ago, you had this entire soliloquy about how you always end up as the patient, and you were worried about eventually being typecast, and then you stole half my bagel. Remember that? So I’ll be keeping the white coat.”
“Did you call dibs?”
“No, because I’m not twelve years old and we’re not living in 1992, bud.”
She snickered and bent down to tie a rogue shoelace, something I’ve watched her do at least a dozen times on every gig we share. “Are you new? Nothing is official with a lack of dibs, Taylor.”
“From the top, people.” Angelica’s patience seemed to be fraying. “Let’s nail this, wrap by ten at the latest, and move on. Really lean into your frustration, OK? Larger than life.”
We nodded and I braced myself for Maggie’s blistering stare again. “So serious,” she happily mumbled to herself, her voice degrading into a strained growl. “I am engaged in another argument with my nerf-herding husband, and he is conducting himself like a thoroughly unacceptable manner, and I must explain to him that our discussion in this cartoonish disagreement is a serious one.”
I actually met her husband David once, a number of weeks ago when Maggie’s car wouldn’t start. He’s one of those affable, neighborly types. “So you’re my wife’s most frequent spouse,” he said cheerfully. Maggie kissed him on the cheek. She ducked around him and popped the trunk open, leaving David and I alone. She was humming a melody I knew, but couldn’t quite place. “My wife really enjoys working with you,” her husband said. “Maybe we’ll see you out in the world sometime? Mags probably mentioned it, but our move was only a year ago, and we’ve struggled to meet new friends. You know how it is.”
I stammered something back. Maggie’s husband shook my hand heartily, clearly pleased. “Great. Thank you, Taylor. You have a fantastic night, now.” The car rolled away, fresh snow crunching in its wake. I wanted to flag it down. I wanted to tell her, because the stitches restraining the lie were snapping faster, one by one.
She knows, you idiot, my inner critic typed into my mind. They always know.
“Taylor?” Maggie’s voice, extremely close, but muffled. I opened the eyes that I didn’t remember ever shutting. Her fingers gently tapped the side of my arm. “You OK?”
I wanted to tell her.
But all I can manage is to carry the emotions with my name written of them, holding in perfect stasis.
All we can manage is to become other people.
“You bet,” I murmured, a liquid smile racing to cover the cracks. “It’s just my face.”
She laughed. Seconds later, pain and betrayal leaked from our eyes as we silently screamed a conversation we’d never have.