The Rules of Improv

Short Story by Julie Benesh

The Rules of Improv

Lainie emerged from her shock, lying on her side in the driveway surrounded by a black wreath of cleft-chinned superheroes in boots and helmets. She noted the gravel in her hair before wincing at the tenderness of two small broken bones in her left hand, various bruised ribs, and shrapnel-inflicted gash above her ankle.

It was a mistake any mortal could make, exploding her gas grill by forgetting to open the lid before turning on the gas. It would have been worse had the fire department not considered their stone-mansed subdivision a high priority, saving both her and the garage from further damage. Had the house been burned down, or god forbid, one of his automobiles damaged, her husband Jeffrey, car dealer extraordinaire, may have killed her, convinced as he already was of her ditziness, the chaos with which she had infected the sacred institution of their marriage. Not to mention her employment as his spokesmodel, appearing on his expensively produced yet charmingly amateurish commercials, appearing at events and occasionally walking through the dealership saying, “Let me find someone who can answer your questions.”

As a fireman pulled her to a seat, kneeling to support her, Lainie could hear the voice of her improv teacher saying, “Situations are funny,” leading Lainie to the syllogism, “this is a situation/situations are funny/this is funny, followed by her teacher’s trademark admonishment: “don’t think.”

Next she heard her mother say, “Everyone gets one free mistake in a marriage. If he don’t give you one...”

Lainie’s mother hadn’t said much since her demise, or even during the last weeks of her final illness, so Lainie had to pay a certain amount of attention, shaking debris from her coiffure.

There may have been more than one mistake, but who was counting? Lainie nonetheless expected that this domestic mishap would surely bring her and Jeffrey closer.

Because something had to change.

#

A few hours earlier, the pre-explosion improv class exercise assignment had been a blind trust walk. She paired up, as if randomly, but not really, with Stanley. Theirs was the only mixed gender pairing; the two other women in the class always paired up together. Stanley put here blindfold on in the elevator. She could hear their two female classmates giggling and smelled their mingled perfume. She wondered, and not for the first time, if they were laughing at her. Maybe Stanley was holding his fingers overhead to give her horns. Then she considered that if one of them were blindfolded, they wouldn’t know what he was doing. But maybe they hadn’t used their blindfold yet. Stop thinking.

Outside, the spring air hit her like a cooling batch of oatmeal cookies: Quaker Oats was right across the street. She heard the girls clattering away. She shivered in the shadows of the dusk. “We’re going this way,” said Stanley, steering her sharply to the left. “Don’t worry. I won’t make you cross any streets, even with me. You know,” he added irrelevantly, “I’m a personal trainer.” He was always saying that, as if it were a big deal. Lainie wondered if that was a gym teacher with title inflation, because, if so, she was again’ it.

He was pulling her to the left again, and then again. She felt something looming in front of her, like a wall. “We’ll rest a minute,” he said.

The resting was nice; Lainie felt herself calming down. Stanley lowered her arm and took her hand. “Hey, touch my face,” he said, raising her hand to what felt like his jaw. As her fingers brushed his lips he kissed her hand; for a second she was afraid he would lick it, like a cat. He stroked her left hand with her rings, the diamond engagement ring nested with her wedding band like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. “That’s some ring.” He stroked her wrist up her forearm to the inside of her elbow.

She thought he was going to kiss her, but instead he said, “It’s your turn to lead.” She felt him untie the blindfold. “Watch your eyes,” he said, shielding them with his hand. He lifted the blindfold and she saw they were in the green painted doorway of an apartment building around the corner from the Y. He held the blindfold up over his eyes, then turned around for Lainie to tie it. He turned around to face her, his hands on her shoulders. They stood there a moment, and Lainie reached forward to push the hair falling over the blindfold. Then, not thinking too much, she lunged forward on her toes and pressed her lips against his. For a second he seemed to make no response at all, and Lainie fell into that chasm, between potential rejection and potential Trouble, that safe-for-now second of surrender. Then he kissed back with thorough enthusiasm, then gently pushed her just as deliberately away. “Time to go in. Lead the way.” Upstairs at the Y, blindfold off, he handed her a business card. “If you ever need a trainer,” he said, “I’m yours.”

It wasn’t much, perhaps, but it was enough to make her want to grill salmon for her husband as soon as possible, and, apparently enough to make her blow up her garage.

#

The latest Manzini Motors commercial cued a peppy, percussive driving sort of theme song, showed a still shot of a car, (what car Lainie couldn’t even say, although she could explain the technical aspects of the script and editing); then the dealership and sign, car, then Jeffrey, car. Jeffrey’s father, car, Jeffrey and Lainie, car, then Lainie in slo-mo turning, hair flying, with Jeffrey’s voiceover “When you think of cars” the entire sales force, in front of the dealership, “Think of us” and finally, Lainie with the last words “the ones you can trust.”

Lainie loved the commercials beyond all reason. Her Chicago art school friends would never understand. Like them she had never been a cheerleader or pom-pom squadder, prom queen or homecoming attendant, but unlike them, she had always wanted to, at least wanted the option. Thus she stood, or rather, stumbled, a testament to contrariness, confounding all like an irregular verb in an otherwise straightforward phonetic language. The circumstances of her chain-smoking, elderly parents, her mother irrepressibly doting, her father a hulking avuncular alcoholic, their drooping house with its myriad afflictions ranged from aggravating to extenuating a cause, among her peers as well as the various (other) authorities, for resentment as much as sympathy. Then there was the terribleness at volleyball, and there was, worse, what lay beneath, an irritating degree of distractibility, or perhaps its opposite: hyperfocus on irrelevancies that no one else could bear to focus on for more than a moment.

So it was understandable, even laudable that Lainie went to art school, where obsession rules, married up, to underwrite her dreamy impracticality, and bought a lot of shoes flipping from poverty to opulence. When Lainie was poor and alone, she dreamed of just this sort of comfort, 1200 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets woven tight as a parachute, a swimming pool, olives in the refrigerator, a maid. Now that she had it, she missed the dream, and the love she had that she imagined would be best expressed among all that comfort.

#

For several months before the explosion which broke the windows of their double garage and singed the paint on Lainie’s car, Lainie had been walking into walls, distracted by growing Jeffrey’s scrutiny of her every habit. “Are you going to just leave that there?” he’d ask, referring to a glass (on a counter), an article of clothing (on a hook), a snack (on a plate). Or watching her walk in a new pair of shoes: “Are you becoming pigeon-toed?” Once he found a carton of orange juice in the refrigerator with a sell-by date of the day prior and yelled, “Are you trying to give me botulism?” The more he watched, the more mistakes she made, the more mistakes she made, the more he watched. It hadn’t always been like that. They used to call each other Beeb! Then he stopped and, eventually, so did she.

#

“One more thing,” her mother had said, as Lainie leaned against the tallest and biggest-booted fire officer. Lainie could almost see her tapping the ash from her Benson & Hedges, and swore she smelled its more delicate fragrance mingling with that of the dying embers of the garage. “The meaning of life: entertainment for the dead. Just as we suspected. So just remember the rules.”

Rules. It was a lot to take in, in Lainie’s condition. Especially from the woman who’d stored bread inside the roll-top desk (multi-purpose!) and washed her dishes in the bathtub because the kitchen sink drain was clogged. Lainie’s mother was not exactly what most would consider conventional, so there was only one set of rules she could mean.

When Lainie was in college, her mother’s favorite entertainment was an improv TV game show. So when its host gave a lecture at her school, Lainie invited her mother to ride the bus 250 miles and sit with a bunch of college students in her paisley/floral shirt and polyester double-knit pants taking notes with the grim seriousness of someone studying for the Bar to represent themselves in a capital trial. Lainie bought her a signed copy of his book, The Rules of Improv.

Lainie started her improv class about a year after her mother died, because she missed her. During the first class, right after the human knot, everyone in class took a turn at being held over the top of the heads of the other twelve people in class, carried around the room, then lowered slowly, all the way to the ground, a trust-building exercise. When it was Lainie’s turn to be carried, she started to cry, the tears running out of her eyes and into her ears. She let her classmates think she was afraid of heights and praise her for her courage. The truth was she was literally touched and moved at the human contact she felt.

#

When Jeffrey burst through the door after the explosion and her trip to the ER, the Rules of Improv, so recently invoked by her mother, flew out the hole in the wall.

Always say yes! Improv is about cooperation. “Noooo,” Lainie shrieked when Jeffrey told her he was leaving, or rather that she was leaving him, involuntarily, because he was kicking her out.

Don't block or deny reality. Work from a common understanding of what is realistic. “Did it occur to you that maybe the grill was defective, and not your wife?”

Questions are bad. They slow down the action. “How can you do this to me? Are you perfect? Why did you marry me in the first place, if you don’t like me the way I am?

Work your quirks! This turns a mistake into a charming character tag. Here she’d been trying to rein hers in. Was such a buildup in herself somehow transferred to an otherwise benign, if not benevolent household appliance? Perhaps one that also bred the spread of clutter that even twice weekly household help failed to quell? More forbidden questions…

Take care of your partners and let them take care of you. Improv is about interdependence. A six-month separation and the divorce would be finalized. When she got married, all Lainie’s friends thought it was sweet that she’d had no prenup. But now she understood why. Jeffrey’s money was mostly his father’s, so there wasn’t much in the way of “marital assets.” Lainie found a newly constructed paint-fragrant duplex that took cats. The problem was the rent. She had no salary history to speak of and needed a co-signer. Her father agreed, but his credit check revealed several disqualifying factors. Lainie offered the $10,000 as a year’s rent, but they wouldn’t take it, citing that it would then be impossible to evict her, should such a thing become necessary, nothing personal, but they just couldn’t leave themselves vulnerable like that. Lainie asked Jeffrey whose reluctance to co-sign (“Can’t you live somewhere more affordable, Lainie? Too bad you can’t sell your shoes. For what I paid for them you could feed a family of four for a lifetime”) forced her to tell him that if he didn’t she’d have to go to his father, who would be terribly disappointed.

#

Away, Lainie was, by turns, depressed, anxious and exhilarated. She got a job working twenty hours per week at an independent bookstore with a host of other artsy, overqualified co-workers, all of whom were instructed to refrain from commenting on people’s purchases and were forbidden to make or take personal calls on the store’s time. Due to her injuries, she was slower at shelving, cashiering, and cleaning than them.

#

Everyone she talked to thought Lainie was better off without Jeffrey. Probably true, but that didn’t much help her “work through” the “grieving process”—she did, after all, love him, and her sadness at losing him was magnified by their lack of sympathy. A video montage of their happier days, the honeymoon in Kauai, vacations in Cozumel, swam in front of her eyes, open or closed, day and night like some insanely customized film festival.

That Lainie was a videographer, by training at least, probably didn’t help, not that it ever helped her, despite winning the Silver Reel Student Competition for her MFA thesis at Columbia College in Chicago. Watching her winning oeuvre, a thirty- minute, earnest environmentally oriented docu-drama, she could never judge whether it was a masterpiece, an experiment or a piece of junk. (Lainie figured that must be a lot like motherhood, the difference being that motherhood was at least a definitive launch into a mission with clear deliverables.)

Once in a while at work a customer would come in and say, “Hey, you’re that Manzini lady! What are you doing here? And what happened to your hand?” Most of Lainie’s coworkers were nice about this attention, but she volunteered to clean the bathrooms when she closed just to show them she was humble, wielding the mop with her one good hand.

It was better than waiting tables, was Lainie’s thought, which she was doing when she met Jeffrey, that summer after she graduated. He left her his business card with a note to give him a call if she wanted to have dinner.

Her mother had been beside herself—it was like Lainie was dating a celebrity, royalty even. They got married in her hospital room the following summer, ten days before she died. The reception was six weeks later at the Cedar Rapids Country Club, with 1500 guests, business associates of Jeffrey and his family… and Lainie’s father and six of Lainie’s friends.

Now that she needed a job, Jeffrey clearly expected her to return to her serving-wench roots, even leaving a message suggesting a position at the new Medieval Village near Monticello as a way to combine her professional experience with her interest in the performing arts and referring her to his customer who was the brother-in-law of the general manager.

Lainie ignored him.

#

The morning after having cast off her splint, enabling her to once again style her hair and apply full make-up in less than three hours, Lainie stood in the drizzle outside of Fontaine Photos, downtown just across the bridge from the island courthouse, Cedar Rapids’ claim to “just like Paris” fame. The town’s characteristic smell of scorched grain spewing from the world’s largest oatmeal plant a quarter mile away filled her throat like ashes as she peered at her reflection, or what she imagined she could see of it, in the chrome trim of the door.

Lainie needed to find work, and to find work she needed a headshot. Fontaine Photo had done her improv teacher’s unrecognizably glamorous one. Pryde Fontaine would be a good person to know, since in addition to headshots, formal portraits and “tasteful and subdued coverage of your event to catch the spontaneous and casually posed,” he was said to do a fair amount of commercial work. Thus he could perhaps refer her to whomever she needed to be referred to do that, which was, of course, the point of the headshot in the first place.

To say the goth-girl receptionist in the sixth-floor suite greeted Lainie upon her arrival would be an exaggeration; she stared blankly when Lainie said her name and appointment time and shook her blue-tinged crow-feathered head toward the dressing room. Looking in the mirror Lainie found the rain had softened her hair to a state that she found remarkably acceptable. She was pulling out her selection of earrings when she heard “Knock-knock,” and a tall blond man came in, looked at her closely then said firmly, “Your hair and make-up look great.” He frowned. “You’re a little shiny. Did you bring powder?” She nodded as he stuck out his hand. “I’m Pryde. How did you hear about us?”

Lainie told Pryde about her improv class.

“Really! Say something funny!”

Lainie stared at him, then smiled. He had enthusiasm, he meant no harm, she was sure. She squirmed a little in her chair. “Well, it’s not stand-up, you know. It’s an ensemble thing…you build on a situation and your partners.” She paused, thinking about the brochures for improv that said it was all about teamwork and trust and how she felt like she needed a remedial course in both. Not to mention laughter—she needed cheering up. But in reality, for her, improv felt more like charades, because you pretty much couldn't talk, you couldn't use props, and you had to read people's minds. She never liked charades, either. But at least in charades they let you think.

There were ten men and three other women in improv class. The two other women, who looked, respectively, like vintage Nicole Kidman and Halle Berry, liked to do every scene together, always something suggestive like giving each other massages or putting on lipstick with their mouth in wide perfect “ohs” facing the mirror of the audience. In every other situation in life Lainie was pretty, too, a goddamn spokesmodel, if a short and clumsy one, but in improv sketches she felt gender neutral, squat and stubby, sexless. She often played a little girl, grandma or pre-teenage boy. Someone had to.

The definition of a quirk was something you do once, perhaps by accident, and it becomes a permanent part of your character’s trait for the duration of that character’s life. Your quirk is your fate, and Lainie’s, as an improv student and future divorcee, was to kiss Stanley and blow up buildings; she was merely following the rules, like mother like daughter.

In improv you were supposed to always say yes to your partner—to say no, to block or deny left the scene with nowhere to go. Yes always got you someplace, and maybe eventually someplace good. In real life, it mostly got you in trouble, but that was what was so fun about show business.

With Stanley, the surrendering of responsibility was the biggest, most irresistible taboo of all. Was it sex if someone brushed his knuckles against your fully clad bosom until you swooned? Certain politicians would say no. Lainie knew better, but she was separated, dumped, soon to be divorced and still it wasn’t exactly what people thought of when they thought of sex, now, was it? It couldn’t get you pregnant or give you a disease, and even lacked the vulnerability of naked flesh. And yet it was surely less perverse than internet sex, where, after all, you had to go trolling, be deliberate, you had to give more than consent.

“You’re blushing!” said Pryde. “Your neck is all splotchy. What are you thinking about?”

“I blew up my garage and now I’m out of work,” she said, a walking, talking non-sequitur. She held out the three pairs of earrings he had asked she bring.

Pryde drew back, making his eyes go big. “Were you manufacturing meth?”

Lainie blinked at him again, working her new quirk. She made an amused face, like stretching a muscle you’d forgotten you’d ever had. “I worked for my husband, but we’re divorcing.”

Pryde nodded. He pointed at the earrings of choice, then said, “I have to touch you.”

Lainie jumped a little. It was what Jeffrey had said to her on their first date, right before their first kiss.

Pryde smiled. “To arrange your clothing. I always warn ladies.”

What about the men? wondered Lainie. Pryde pinned back her jacket at the waist. “Bring the powder,” he said over his shoulder.

He led her into the studio and arranged her on a chair to take some test shots and adjust the lighting. “Some of these poses will seem awkward. But what’ll happen is you’ll look like a different person in every shot. But you know this stuff as an actress, right? Twist to the right a little.”

“Not really…”

“Excuse me, actor. Make your eyes sparkle.”

“What?”

“Blink them a few times. You’re not a model…?” He looked and raised an eyebrow, as if skeptical, but not in a blatantly insulting way.

“Well…not really. More on-the-job training.”

“I know you were on that Manzini commercial. Is that the kind of work you’re looking for?” He frowned. “What did you study? Marketing? Auto mechanics? ”

“I have a degree in Video Arts. Never really used it, jobwise.”

“Would you want to?”

One of Lainie’s classmates, one who had not won the Silver Reel, had done a documentary on Tibet, in which she had interviewed the Dali Lama, his brother and his cousin. “It’s not very practical.”

“We used to work with a videographer, but she left for Hollywood. Or Vegas. Somewhere in the west, more glamorous than here.”

“You do industrial stuff? Like training videos?”

“Weddings, mostly. A few mitzvahs, bar and bas. A couple funerals.” He paused. “Do you think you can you help us out?”

“I was hoping you could help me get some gigs with ad agencies.”

Pryde looked confused. “How? I thought you weren’t an actress. You’re a director. Are you sure you can’t help us out? Just until you find what you’re looking for.”

Lainie was silent.

Pryde twitched his lip, and Lainie noticed the little crow’s feet fanning out from his blue eyes. “Will you at least think about it?”

Lainie said yes.

#

The poses Pryde had put Lainie through had called up various emotions: pensive, excited, assured, receptive, giddy; they hovered about her edges like ghosts. And Lainie was about to do something a little crazy, definitely quirky, something that Jeffrey would never forgive her for, if he ever found out, the kind of thing that even just Lainie herself knowing about would drive a wedge between them forever, cut the umbilical cord that extended between them and threatened to wind around her neck.

Now that she had the use of both hands, she was going to converse with her mother.

She read about it in one of the books in the New Age section, how you write your own message with your dominant hand, (left in Lainie’s case, the one that’d been in the splint) and receive the deceased’s with the other one.

She picked up her journal, midnight blue, embossed with a powder blue angel, slightly bent at the corners, rescued from the sales bin and acquired with her employee discount, and Lainie started, shakily, to write.

Lainie was unsurprised when it worked, her mother writing back, speaking through Lainie’s journal, a right-handed response to Lainie’s left-handed query, skeptical in death as she had been in life. “You sure you want to go to weddings every weekend? Like some kind of permanent bridesmaid? Sounds like hell to me…speaking of hell, is that photographer a hottie or what? Me and his dad had a little thing back in the 70s, before I married your father.”

Knowing Mom, a little thing could mean anything from eyes meeting at a bar to breaking up his marriage. But no wonder Pryde seemed so brotherly! When Lainie was little, before she went to sleep, she used to imagine a brother who would protect her from bullies, but not by being one himself, a brother whose charm would render bullies harmless, or more than that, make them fall in love with Lainie.

Mom was talking again, Lainie’s right hand flying across the journal, nearly illegible, but understandable nonetheless.

“You always fall for them womanizing BS’ers, like that one you married.”

He was a control freak, not a womanizing BS’er.

“Same.”

OK. Like being a spokesmodel was the same as show business. Like making wedding videos was being a director. Like writing in your journal was talking to the dead.

Same?

“Honey. I got a different vantage point where I am.”

You adored Jeffrey! I got engaged to him when you were sick because I thought you wanted me to marry him.

“Honey. Like I’m saying. Another vantage point. That’s all. I’m signing out.” Lainie’s nose itched, just like it used to when her mother was alive. It nearly convinced her that this exercise was not a projection of her own subconscious thoughts, but something literally, externally real.

Lainie put down her journal and stroked the cat, black with a white belly, with both hands as he twined himself around her legs. A neutered Tom, exactly what her dead mother wanted her to sleep with.

#

When Lainie would try to think of the exact moment in their three years of marriage when things began to go badly, it had nothing to do with her leaving a towel on the floor of the bathroom or a strand of hair (from her freshly shampooed head!) on the soap. It was before the commercials; in fact, it sparked the commercials at one of their semi-monthly Budget Meetings. After her freshman year roommate made a feature-length documentary about Tibet, Lainie wanted to make a donation to help her with her next project. She followed the established process and made a proposal, but Jeffrey turned her down. “That’s what foundations are for, Lainie.” But she needs matching funds! “We already give to the arts, Lainie. We have a subscription to the Cedar Rapids Symphony.” What about a hundred dollars? Couldn’t she use Discretionary Funds?

She wasn’t the only wife she knew who didn’t work, a fact she pointed out to Jeffrey. His own brother’s wife didn’t work.

But she raises his children, Jeffrey pointed out. That’s the most important work of all. He could understand if she wasn’t ready yet to have kids, he said.

But Jeffrey was the one who didn’t want children!

No one said anything about wanting, Lainie, this is about being ready. And until she was, she had to do something to contribute. Obviously that something wasn’t entertaining or housekeeping…

But he always said that any job she could get wouldn’t pay enough to be worth it!

It was Jeffrey’s dad’s idea about the commercials. He liked her. And she did like doing the commercials, even though they were a little cheesy. Being part of a fifty-year-old business made her feel a part of something respectable, established. Everything her family was not.

When the manager of the bookstore, a severe young woman with short, magenta-dyed hair, called Lainie into her ersatz office to tell her that the bathrooms were not getting cleaned properly, Lainie told her she quit. She hadn’t made up her mind before that moment, but the moment she said it she basked in the inevitability of it. She was getting a real job. A reel job. Well, a digital one.

#

Lainie’s first day on the new job, she stayed so late editing that the cleaning crew came and went and she slipped on the wet floor of the bathroom, bruising her tailbone. In the weeks that followed she continued to work hard at Fontaine Photos (and Video). The technical parts, the artistic parts of her job were easy, her klutziness notwithstanding. The problem was the clients. Not that they didn’t like her. They loved her. But the first three jobs she did, all weddings, ended up with her selling a modest package and delivering a deluxe one, for no extra charge. “Lainie, I thought you worked for a car dealership! Don’t you know how to control the customers?” Pryde was amused, and, she thought, a little pleased that he had something to teach her. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know you never sold anything before. Watch me.” And so she sat in on his next ten meetings, listening to him say things like, “Well, here’s what most people do.” And, “If you amortize the cost over a lifetime, it works out to something pretty reasonable.” And, “You only get married for the first time once” which drove Lainie out of the room, near tears. He never said that again, in front of her.

Pryde was a good photographer, but great with clients. You couldn’t even call him a salesman, like Jeffrey; he was more like a hair stylist, the kind who makes you feel lucky to have the hair you have, and even luckier to find someone who appreciates it. He loved the bratty children, bitchy brides, couples celebrating golden anniversaries. He was much better at the client side of things, everyone agreed, than his father had been. To Lainie alone he said his dad taught him everything not to do with or say to people. His dad had been the better technician. Most people were one way or the other.

“But you Lainie—you have it all! You are so creative. And video has so many more possibilities. It’s so much more complex than what I do.” Pryde was never envious. They were, after all, a team. He was, after all, her boss.

It was true, about Lainie’s affinity for video. Lainie loved motion: the idea that no moment could ever be stopped no matter how important or terrible, it could only lead inexorably to the next. It was a comfort. At the same time, a place in Lainie felt still, full of so many quivering molecules that all that action, all that energy canceled itself out. The stretch of nothingness: mitzvahs, birthday parties, weddings and more weddings, a funeral or two, seminal events of others observed from behind a camera was comforting, frustrating, exciting, a bit like gestation, she thought.

Most often Lainie and Pryde would work a wedding together. Pryde would be got up in his charcoal suit, sometimes squiring a model he’d met from a commercial shoot, some former Corn Queen or Miss Pork or what Jeffrey would have referred to as a more exotic import named Dasha, Tasha, Natasha. But other times he’d say, be my date, Lainie? As if she ever brought a guy around while taping. And Lainie didn’t feel right dancing at these things, and she never drank while she worked, she needed a steady hand. But if there was a buffet, versus a sit-down dinner at the reception, they ate along with the guests and kept each other company. But those nights like all others Lainie hugged the cat and thought about Stanley, whose interest seem to be waning, to avoid thinking about Jeffrey.

On the last night of improv class, Lainie thought/thought/ thought, dreaming of some promise of consummation, a proposal for a more social and public relationship, or at least a tender good-bye. In what turned out to be a fishing sketch, Stanley did not even bait Lainie’s hook; he may or may not have touched her on purpose; she couldn’t decide if it was an accident or he was being more discreet. After class while everyone else went off for beers at the Hub, Lainie timed her exit to coincide with Stanley’s. “Car’s in the shop,” he said. “Friend’s coming to pick me up.”

Time to stop denying reality. “Your girlfriend...” Questions were bad, she remembered, so at the last moment she turned it into a statement.

He hung his head.

Well. “New or old?” A question, but it couldn’t be helped.

He looked around, hands thrust in his pockets, pulling his jacket taut. “She’s not that old.” He tried to smile.

Lainie turned and walked away, proud of her dignified response until she stumbled over a parking curb, working her quirk, Lainie the klutz.

#

The next morning found Lainie in the break room guzzling Diet Dr Pepper, her remedy for emotional hangovers. Sylvia the receptionist came in to load the freezer compartment of the refrigerator with her Lean Cuisines.

“I see they changed the commercial.”

“What commercial?” asked Lainie.

“I tape The Young and the Restless and I used to see you on that commercial. Then I didn’t see the commercial for a few weeks. Now there’s some other chick on it.”

Jeffrey had told her that they were going to pull the commercial. He’d left a message on her voicemail saying, “Lainie, I don’t have to tell you this. I am not obligated to, it is in the letter you received from my lawyer, which you should have read, considering when we handed it to you, we told you to sign the signature page and hand it back to us. But knowing you as I do, and being the decent person I am, I am telling you that your contract with Manzini Motors is canceled and that means we won’t be using your services or your image heretofore.”

Yet it had not occurred to her that she would be replaced. And by whom?

“Who is she? Is it someone we work with? Someone Pryde… knows?” Pryde’s procession of wedding dates, rarely the same one twice sauntered, through her mind. Tall girls, all.

“Nah, some red-haired chick. Seemed like an amateur.”

Lainie made a mental note, she’d have to set the timer tonight for tomorrow.

Of course Sylvia often snuck a few minutes peek at her show at 10:00 if things weren’t too busy. The commercial aired at 10:18. Maybe Lainie could surreptitiously peek over her shoulder. Don’t block or deny reality.

Oh, what the hell. “Well, remind me. At 10:18 I’ll make a point of tuning in.”

All morning her editing the Eisenberg bat mitzvah tape, big-haired girls in ball gowns and body glitter, lip gloss and stilettos, with dates they looked like they ought to be babysitting, her stomach leapt and lurched. It was silly. What did she think she was going to see? She tried to deliberately imagine the worst possible scene, a method she learned from one of the self-help books read on break at the bookstore. If she could live through that, in her imagination, she could live through anything reality flung her way. She imagined the woman, a blur of copper hair, kissing Jeffrey passionately. Then she imagined a more proprietary peck. She couldn’t decide which was worse, so she put them together—a peck followed by a French kiss, a French kiss followed by a peck. Then she focused on the woman. Gorgeous. No, maybe ugly would be even worse. Graceful; no clumsy. The woman morphed back and forth in Lainie’s mind, every combination of pecks, tongue-kisses, gorgeous, ugly, graceful, clumsy. Well. Surely whatever she would see would have to be easier to take than this.

At 9:58 Sylvia paged her on the intercom in her sing-songy, air-quotey way. “Lainie, your 10:00 is here.”

Lainie headed for the break room where Pryde was standing by the refrigerator wearing blue jeans and a brown corduroy blazer. “Didn’t Sylvia just page you?”

“Yeah. False alarm.”

“Hey, if you have a few minutes, there’s …” His brow furrowed. “Hey, what’s wrong?”

“Pryde, will this take longer than five minutes?”

“Maybe…What’s wrong?”

“Can it wait maybe until 10:20?”

“Sure. Are you OK?”

“I want to see the new Manzini commercial.” She nodded toward the television.

“Sure. Let’s check it out.”

“Well, it’s not for another three minutes.”

“Are you sure?”

They stared at the screen. A dark-haired woman was ranting at a blond couple. At one point she flubbed her lines, “I know what two you have been doing. Don’t die to treny it!” and kept going. Another of Lainie’s college friends interned on a soap; they shot them on video, and she remembered hearing that production pressures for daily shows were such that these mistakes just had to be ignored, and that besides, people didn’t always speak so perfectly in real life, either.

But they always looked perfect, those soap stars, thought Lainie. She’d hated the thought of people going from these perfect creatures to her own flawed self, although Jeffrey always reminded her that people were looking at the cars, not her.

(Nonetheless it reminded her of the story about the Super Bowl party where the new neighbor saw a commercial during half-time and said, “Couldn’t they get some better-looking actresses for such a good slot?” And someone had to inform the poor woman that she was watching that very group’s video from prior year.)

The screen faded and theme music picked up, lulling Lainie to her childhood when she would watch these shows with her mother during summer vacations.

Lainie endured an insurance commercial with a man in a giant eagle costume as Pryde patted a beat on his legs. Then the familiar Manzini Motors music began, a still shot of a car, then the dealership and sign, car, then Jeffrey, car. Jeffrey’s father, car, Jeffrey and...

It was improv Bridget, slo-mo, hair flying, babbling about trust. The Nicole Kidman woman from Lainie’s improv class, the one who’d fit in on any soap opera. The new and improved Lainie.

“Um, Lainie?” Pryde was speaking. “Did you know that Jeffrey’s engaged? His fiancée called me about engagement photos. I always get the names of both parties, and when this Bridget told me his, I said I was booked. I’m sorry, Lainie.”

That Bridget! She heard her mother echoing, “Same.” Lainie grabbed the remote from the table with her left hand, ring gleaming, and killed the image, at least the one on screen.

I’m going to sell that ring, she thought, and if I ever want to donate money to a good artistic cause, I can.

“Pryde… we should do a documentary about weddings.” She said it without thinking.

He said yes.

#

The nuptials of Theodore Edward (Teddy-Eddy as his frat brothers called him) Swain, lawyer, and Melissa Sue Horvatic, social worker, took place at Grace Episcopal Church in Cedar Rapids, on a sunny Saturday afternoon in September. A reception followed, as so many, in Lainie’s experience, did, at the Collins Plaza Hotel. It was the third most popular venue in the city, right after the Five Seasons and Roosevelt downtown. The hotel lacked a ballroom; thus all activities were confined to the smallish atrium, and this fact constrained its potential as a promising video venue.

However, the couple had ordered the most deluxe (and expensive) package, the Director’s Cut, which included such occasions as rehearsal and rehearsal dinner, locations including the hair salon, and limo, behind the scenes in the dressing room, special editing, credits, transitions and titling, all authored on DVD with chapters and scene selection. In Lainie’s view commercial art thrived on a paradoxical combination of restraint and unlimited resources, and here she had both. It was nothing like interviewing the Dalai Lama, she was sure. But it would be, in the end, almost like a feature film, shot in some scenic yet war-torn foreign country, the uplifting and heartwarming story nominally depicted reflecting the shadow of the deeper and darker one beneath.

Because strange things happened at wedding receptions, the combination of alcohol, family reunions a deux, and serious legal commitments and their attendant hubristic insistence that mortals might willfully deem anything “permanent” made such affairs if not downright dangerous, certainly portentous.

The events had so far been uneventful: the bride had yelled at her father who was possibly terminally ill, then the girl had cried, necessitating a dash to the market for cucumber slices, her older sister, matron of honor, was pregnant and didn’t quite fit into her dress until the seamstress had at it, the younger sister, a bridesmaid had a zit she had to pop and conceal. But Lainie was confident she could make it all upbeat and affirming. And the ceremony itself was fine; no one screamed that the groom was gay, or the bride a slut, or that the two were actually siblings, all those soap opera stories sworn to be true that Lainie had read on her videographer’s social media.

But everything was tinged by a frisson of import, because they’d signed, they’d signed the waiver, the first clients of many who had done so and this footage could all be used for the documentary—real art. Real reel art.

Everyone had said yes to her. It was the rule.

Through her mother Lainie realized that death is a lot like cable—hundreds of channels, but limited interaction. That contrary to popular belief, there are no distractions in the Great Beyond than the point of life on earth: entertainment for the dead.

You can rewind but you can’t, as a rule, fast forward. But like in the movies the audience can see, better than the characters, the shape of what’s to come, and the bittersweet truth that neither work nor love nor art could save you—if you didn’t save them first.

And now pacing the atrium, blocking out potential shots, Lainie looked up, and stumbled, almost dropping the camera and she heard Pryde, the moment that could have gone either way, say, “Lainie, don’t hurt yourself.” Not “Lainie, don’t drop the (expensive) camera” which would have made her do exactly that. Not “Lainie, don’t be such a careless, daydreaming klutz” which people, with the exception of her late mother, had been saying her whole life.

And she caught it, just in time, as the band began to play.

About the Author

Julie Benesh

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Julie Benesh has been published in Bestial Noise: A Tin House Fiction Reader, Tin House Magazine, Crab Orchard Review, Florida Review, Gulf Stream, Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Bridge, Green Briar Review, and other places. She has an MFA from Warren Wilson College's Program for Writers. Julie lives in Chicago and has a day job as a management consultant, professor and higher education leader.