The walls in hospitals are off-white like this, I remember thinking. A few weathered copies of Vanity Fair, distracted receptionist with an overabundance of Maybeline….Perhaps the decorators felt they had to compensate for the anxiety the thought “waiting room” brings, or they may have just been sterile and blasé people. I was stuck with Cheyenne regardless, my eye twitching with each fresh cascade of young hopefuls.
She was sweating lightly. My hand crept up to her shoulder, pausing, as if something clandestine and unpleasant dwelt there beneath the skin, but I allowed it to linger only a moment. It was time for the Supportive Friend Tess Show, and I couldn’t be late for that. “You’ll be fine, love. You know it by heart.” She glanced at me, glad for the intrusion “Where are they now? Number 29?” I nodded supportively. “Twenty-nine, I think.” She heaved a sigh, and reapplied her mascara. She wouldn’t last long.
“I can’t fuck this up, Tessa. I’ve been waiting. Been patient. Paid my dues. This is literally the last job in town. Well, literally meaning figuratively, but I deserve–“
“Ma’am?” A portly assistant appeared at Cheyenne’s shoulder. “They’re ready for you. Second door on the right.”
“Right,” she gritted, taking my arm. “Pray for me.” I stared at her for a few seconds, realizing how overly dramatic the scene she was causing must have looked to the receptionist. “Pray for you? You’ve been an atheist since junior high,” I reminded her.
“Well, forget that, then,” she said, and smiled at the assistant. “Let’s go.”
She staggered out half a magazine and a trip to the restroom later. She didn’t say a word; just signaled to get the car. I saw the tears before she unlatched the door. “Oh, baby,” I whispered as I grasped her hand.”How bad?” She ignored me and tinkered with the radio, settling on a faint station that produced mostly static. I gently drew her hand back to me, splintering the tension. “How bad?”, I asked again.
“I’ve had better. The guy liked my accent, said I captured the facial expressions, but he was just trying to be diplomatic. The woman had no clue what I was doing.” She paused. “Tess, am I good? Tell me the truth. I’m no Lawrence, no Streep. I know that. I’m not even a Theron. But I make you believe, don’t I?”
The center of her eyes were still crimson, and her contacts breathed the stale air, anticipating.
“Of course you—”
“Don’t say it unless you mean it.”
We pulled the Honda Accord off the road. I inspected her seven-hundred dollar dress and shoes that probably cost more than my rent.
“There’s a drink with our names on it down the street, Chey.”
“I appreciate it, but–“
“I mean, we can actually have the bartender write our names in it. They’ve got this new brew pen thingamawhatsis that–“
She smiled around the edges, and nudged her door open. “Thank you, Tess. Really. But I’ll pass. I need to stew, probably in my tackiest bathrobe and with some Plath for company.”
“If you’re sure. Remember to wear your oven mitts.”
She laughed. “You’re awful. See you tomorrow.”
I left the motor purring for a minute before I crept back onto the road. I wished I could have reassured her that she wasn’t the Mariah Carey of acting, but Cheyenne wouldn’t have believed me.
Some years ago, I made the mistake of getting talked into university for two semesters. It was an unfortunate pairing, a commitment that neither I nor it was particularly interested in pursuing. One afternoon, after a breakfast of deep-fried Hostess Twinkies and craft beer, I faced the truth and unceremoniously quit. I began working at Plato’s Microwave, a quaint, twenty-four-hour Greek diner. A few weeks later, a high school junior named Cheyenne Devion waltzed in dressed as the Queen of England and ordered her kreatopita, with her friends posing as the Imperial Guard. The next weekend, we were playing paintball in bridesmaid dresses. One thing led to another.
Cheyenne breezed into the diner towards the end of my shift. She was flustered and kept picking at her jeans. She ordered her usual, and when it arrived, she garbled something in my ear.
I shoved her into a booth.
“Are you out of your gourd?”, I whispered. ”
“They gave me tomatoes again,” Cheyenne began dissecting her sandwich. “I like tomatoes when they’re made into ketchup and I think marinara sauce is the cat’s pajamas, but these diced ones–” She trailed off and rummaged through her purse.
I excavated Cheyenne’s hand, which was clutching a little Vasoline tube. “Chey. Please. This plan is the opposite of sensible. Running away to Toronto? It isn’t going to solve anything!”
She stopped and lifted her eyes to meet mine, the fake specks of green pleading me to understand. “I know how it sounds to you, Tess, but I can get an apartment. I’ve been checking some listings, and the area around Bloor Street has vacancies. Pantages and Princess of Wales are there, an entire underground of experimental leagues…there’s nothing here, you know? Just a joke of a community league, and I’ve been feeling like the punch line for far too long. And it’s not just what happened yesterday, it’s what’s been happening for years. You know that.”
“But it’s just a hobby,” I said weakly, already understanding my mistake. I breathed the tension-tinged air deeply and tried again. “OK, that came out wrong. Sorry. But Chey, people don’t move to other cities on a whim, especially when they don’t have much paid experience in the field.” I searched her face, and her eyes sashayed. ” Just tell me why.”
“Because I watched Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing and I couldn’t sleep for a week. Because Madeline Stowe still makes me tremble. Because my mind is conducting stage lighting at all hours, even when the headlights of the other cars blind me. Because I can be someone else every night. I can’t explain, Tess. You should remember what it’s like to feel trapped.”
“Look,” I sighed. “If I can’t talk you out of this, I’ll come up with you for the weekend, and when you realize it’s a terrible idea, we can move you back down.”
At shift’s end, we gathered our coats, and walked outside, dodging the crystalline droplets sprinkling down on our backs. She whispered in the dark, but I could hear nothing but the rain. She insisted on walking home, and I let her that time; I knew the look.
We were on the road in the Accord by six. I craved sleep like a pregnant woman craves chocolate-covered hot dogs, but I had to drive: Cheyenne had never owned a car. She was visibly nervous, but her spirits were festive. “Really, dollar stores should not have landed in Canada,” she snorted. “For Americans, it’s the 67-cent store. Hey, pull into Tim Horton’s for a minute, would you? This’ll be good.”
What she meant was, her delivering an unsolicited, unwelcome monologue in which she pretended to be Ewan McGregor’s girlfriend would be hysterical, that gossiping about his embarrassing personal habits in a loud Scottish accent would elicit a chuckle from busy suburbanites who simply craved their coffee, bagels, and minimal human contact. After three agonizing minutes, she took my arm and marched out the door. I started the engine. “We’ll be in downtown Toronto in about two hours,” I said.
We spent that time in almost perfect silence. “They just didn’t expect–I mean, people were confused, and–”
“Stop,” she said quietly, “Do I need approval this badly, attention this much? I just embarrassed myself in a doughnut line.”
“Give me a fucking TimBit, Tessa.”
When she was twelve, a few years before I knew her, Cheyenne’s parents dragged her to Arsenic and Old Lace. She tried to spend most of the production in a sputtering sulk, but the Brewster Sisters stirred her just the same. She said that when she slept that night, she dreamed about being able to make people laugh and cry at will, and surely that was the most delicious power a human being could possess?
The spiders in Cheyenne’s new apartment made her queasy. She had five hundred square feet of space. No television and no washing machine, but she did have a Eurofridge. Cheyenne had neighbors, but she never met any those first few days. They did not emerge from their rooms, but you could hear them through the floorboards. When we returned from Assagio’s and the red pepper scampi I’d bought us had settled, she frowned. The texts from her mother had been plentiful and swift. “She just keeps repeating herself.”
“It’ll get better.”
“I can’t make her understand,” Cheyenne said. “This is what I want. I can make people feel; there’s no greater gift than that.” She heaved gently, almost as if tears were about to form but were blocked by her pride.
In that moment, I would have gleefully strangled anyone who told her she wasn’t good enough, even if it was me and even if it was true. She gnawed on her bottom lip and smiled at me, the genuine glow I recognized from when we first met.
After a week of searching, Cheyenne landed a temporary position with Theatre Presents, an outfit that was currently contracted to perform The Crucible for junior high students. The troop had an opening for the part of Rebecca Nurse. Post-rehearsal, Cheyenne seemed fairly confident in her ability and said the cast and crew were wonderfully supportive. She was determined to accept it as a blessing.
“This is the start, Tessa,” she babbled. “This program is very highly rated. If I’m lucky, I can score some theater contacts! Now do you see why I had to come here?” She paused, thoughtful. “Have you seen my good heels?”
I revved the Accord as Chey revved herself. She looked like a miniature schnauzer, with her head hanging out the window at just the right angle. “Coming up on Yonge Street now.” All was quiet from the passenger seat. “Chey?” She didn’t respond.
Inside the building, she kept her vow of silence. I tugged at Cheyenne’s suede coat, but she dug her heels in and refused to look at me. “Tessa?” she asked, in a voice I didn’t recognize. “Did I screw the pooch on this one? Should I have waited for something better?”
I smoothed her hair gently, trying to mimic the rhythm of the bass drum thundering above us. Must be band practice somewhere in this building. God, kids should really stay the hell away from trumpets. “Chey, you’re doing the only thing you can do right now. This will lead to bigger and better things; you know it will. I’ll be here. I’m with you.”
“I know. Just pretend not to watch me in-between lines. It’ll make me nervous.”
The actors were not magnificent by any stretch of the imagination, but they were good: more than decent, I would say, and I’ve listened to Cheyenne’s running commentary for enough years to know the difference. I pretended to ignore her when she was “off-stage.” I was relieved that she couldn’t see how many soundless Nintendo Switches were popping up throughout the small theater, a techno-wave of plague or monkeys in barrels. I hoped she was tuning out the whispers, the distracted giggling. She might have become discouraged.
Cheyenne needed air. In translation, that usually meant a drink, but on this occasion, she genuinely did need more oxygen. She was physically exhausted from the effort. “Five minutes, that’s all,” she said in a gravel tone. “To the corner and back.”
It had become considerably colder in the half-hour since her idealism had plummeted, and we wrapped our coats around ourselves, a cocoon from all that might strike down from heaven. She looked ahead, and gently separated her split ends.
The sound of her steel-tipped boots tapping their incessant jitter woke me from a relatively involved slumber. I crept outside to ask her if she could stop, but held my tongue and watched silently as the apple-green fire spit angrily from under the fire escape. Cheyenne stood there outside the window for what was probably fifteen minutes, but I aged months in that time, in that brief quilt-square of life that kept threatening to dissolve into the primordial mush. And from the shadows that the fire threw off, I silently brooded. What was either of us doing here?
I had to return home: my boss still believed I was looking after an ailing family member, and I wondered whether or not that lie had, at some point, become the truth. I had stayed three weeks with Cheyenne, far more than I’d originally intended, but my own life needing tending, and I couldn’t help her anymore.
Weeks went by, and two letters came. I was able to actually reach Cheyenne by phone only three times, and she was somehow perpetually on her way out the door. She got distracted easily, preferring to let me fumble the conversation. I knew she hadn’t returned to Theatre Presents, but there was a re-enactment of Our Town in Quebec that looked promising. I didn’t get the details, but I think she did well.
Her memory kept me awake nights. I still could not wrap my head around why she’d wanted this. I knew she must be struggling. The jobs didn’t pay very much. I thought more than once about how an unemployed young actress would support herself. I took out a subscription to the Toronto Sun, and watched the Entertainment section daily, hoping to see her name. I never did.
One day, about three months after Cheyenne had left, my home phone rang as I was cooking shrimp. I didn’t really want to answer it, but it was early enough in the day that I figured it might be my boss asking me to switch shifts. “May I speak to Ms. Alseides?,” inquired a polished, baritone-voiced gentlemen. “This is Lawrence Garrison from Acting Up. You’re listed as a secondary contact for Cheyenne Devion.”
“Um.” My mind raced. I didn’t remember Cheyenne mentioning anything about Acting Up. “Yes, that’s me.”
“Well, ma’am, we’re about to begin a three-month run of A Doll’s House, but one of our actresses unexpectedly left the production, and we’re scheduled to open next week. Ms. Devion auditioned for Helene, and although we offered the part to another actress, we were impressed by her performance and would like her to consider stepping into the role. It’s a relatively small part–I’m certain she could learn the lines and blocking in time. I left a message for Miss Devion two nights ago, but she doesn’t seem to be available.”
I felt like I was being shish-ka-bobbed. The room spun briefly, causing me to crash violently on the futon, nearly mashing my cat. This is it. This is her chance. “I’m sure her phone must be out of service, Mr. Garrison, and I know she won’t want to miss this opportunity. I’ll track her down and make sure she calls you back immediately.”
“Excellent. Thanks so much for your time, Ms. Alseides.”
They wanted her. Finally, somehow, somebody wanted her. In the distance, a techno remix of “Come On, Eileen,” ricocheted off the plated glass in the otherwise phantom street below. I found myself dreaming of her success that night, and I couldn’t contain it. Would this actually work? Was she—God forgive me—talented enough to pull it off? I called Cheyenne every two hours. She was not in. When I woke and my teeth had ceased grinding, I started hunting for my snowbrush.
I camped outside her door, asking random people in her building if they had seen her recently. No one had. I sat down outside her door, and an hour later, Cheyenne embraced me, wearing an expression I couldn’t quite read. “I can’t believe you’re here! It’s so good to see you,” she said, her voice a question. “Sit down, sit down. I’ll get us drinks. I ran out of beer, but I think I have Sprite…”
Something was off. Cheyenne now sported a small fairy tattoo on her back, and metal in some rather uncomfortable places. She looked like the Bar Wench at an alternative Renaissance Festival. She slunk back in, and the color in her cheeks flushed purple, accentuating the cheekbones.
“Cheyenne, Acting Up has been trying to reach you. The actress playing Helene skipped town, and you’ve got a callback!”
“Oh. Really? That’s…well, um, not sure I can help.” She averted her eyes.
“They want you, Chey. A Doll’s House. This is the start you wanted, the springboard for your career.”
She was silent, watching her feet make ripples in the carpet. I tried to read her, but her face formed an opaque bubble. Outside, bass wind chimes clanged the air. I lowered my voice and focused on the chimes, speaking to her softly. “Why did you move to Toronto? For a shot at being a real actress in a real production, remember?.”
She exhaled. “I know, Tessa.”
“Give me a moment, will you?”, she snapped.
Our stares interlocked, and she blinked first. “Cheyenne,” I said, as a parent to a child, “You look miserable. You cried after the kids at that school. Half your gigs aren’t even held in actual theatres. You’re never around when I call. What happened?”
She shuddered. “I…I don’t know. I’ve been doubting myself. I think this was a mistake. I know you believe in me, but I’m not that talented. The jobs I can get don’t pay much…”
“How have you supported yourself all this time?”
“I’ve kept the lights on. But I don’t fit into this scene, and I can’t go back to my old life, either. I’m…I’m lost, Tessa,” she murmured.
“But there’s a job right in front of you! Chey, you’ve been chasing a new beginning. This is how it’s born. Get out of your own way and take the role. Please.”
We sat on the roof for some time, with her humming songs from our university days, a simpler age. Odd, how life happens so quickly, and yet seems to linger at the strangest times, gazing at you uncomfortably. But I did not speak these things to her: she never had my love of philosophy. At dusk, I broke our silence, starling us both.
“You have no idea what you’re going to do.” Whether I meant it as a statement or a question, I could not be sure.
She inhaled, and looked around her. When her hands could be wrung no more, she stopped in the center of the roof, and turned to face me.
The original version of “Left, direction” in 2001 was my first proper short story. It was almost three times longer, was chock-full of late 90s cultural references, and was (although esteemed by my fellow students at the time) kind of a mess.
But I’ve always had a soft spot for this story, so I’ve done almost a complete rewrite here, with nearly every line affected (and hopefully improved). I still think about Chey and Tessa from time to time.