There’s something awfully disturbing about that interval in the middle of the night, right after the middle of the night. The 2 AM – 4 AM window of despair. She avoids it whenever she can. She has to be knocked out or else doing something intensely absorbing, otherwise she can’t stand it.
This time around, she’s trying to read a Neil DeGrasse Tyson book in bed. She thought it would put her to sleep, but it’s actually really gripping. She never thought she’d care this much about Pluto. She often finds that it’s easier to get attached to remote things. There’s no danger in that.
Her phone lights up on the bedside table.
The words blur and then come into focus as she takes off her glasses.
I miss you.
Joanne lets the book slide off her lap. The string of words is a line of angry insects crawling from the screen up her fingers, her arm, all over her skin.
But she plays it off as a sweet text from a good friend. She's done this before.
You just saw me!!
She adds an Oscar statue. She throws in a few smiles and kisses for good measure. Smiles and kisses don’t mean anything.
She waits for a few moments to see if he’ll reply. The dots do not appear under his name. He’s not writing.
She returns to her book, fingers shaking slightly as she turns the page.
Her phone lights up again.
I miss you.
Joanne takes a deep breath. What she’s learned about him while they have been engaging in this delicate thing called “acting” is that Bradley is a very sober drunk, which doesn’t make much sense. But it’s true. His black-outs come with a thesaurus. Whenever he’s wasted, he uses very good grammar and dry punctuation. He’s intimate and serious. These short, clipped sentences reek of alcohol.
It’s really, really fucking ironic. And kind of tired.
Drunk Jack texting wide-eyed Ally, hoping she’ll take pity on him for the millionth time.
Although maybe in their case they’re both wide-eyed and they’re both pitiful.
For so long she thought she was the one chasing him, chasing his shadow really. She never allowed herself to think about him in flesh and blood. The real Bradley is a kind, loving father, the father she would have wanted for herself growing up, maybe.
So she made sure she fell in love with the idea, with a person between characters. Like Pluto, the Bradley of her imagination was remote, safe.
It hurt her – really fucking hurt her – to discover he might feel something for her in return. That maybe he had nourished a shadow version of her too, kept her in a secret chamber of his mind.
It’s so easy to play at deep, heart-wrenching love when you’re in character, when there are no stakes. It’s easy to dress up in someone else’s skin and sing with someone else’s voice and know that there will be no consequences. You think, okay, now we’re done shooting this scene, we can return to The Before, in capital letters, because this scene doesn't really exist.
The problem is you find yourself missing that other skin, that other voice. And you stop being able to tell which is which. I miss you.
Do you miss that skin, that voice, she wonders. Do you miss Ally? Do you miss the unreality of it - her?
She was always advised by her teachers (and there have been many teachers) to throw herself into the deep end of the pool, in acting, in music, in life.
They didn’t mean to, but they've condemned her to death, because she can’t swim.
What’s to miss? she texts back, staying out of the water.
His reply is short and to the point, a stoic’s form of libation.
Every little thing.
It’s the perfect reply, really. A seamless cliche. Every little thing could be anything and nothing. It could be the moments in between, the strips of light between the blinds, the hand on the small of her back, the lips against the shell of her ear, the finger tapping the keyboard without knowing how to play, her laugh, followed by his laugh which sounds more like a grunt as they have to kiss for the camera, his own eyes behind the camera, watching as she stumbles through the choreography until she gets it right, until it's second nature, until she vibrates with all that she wants to give to him, to the lens, to his eyes.
The uneasy comfort of sitting next to each other on the couch, practicing lines. There’s a blanket pooled at their feet and she pulls it over them and ducks her head under, because she’s tired, she doesn’t want to say her lines anymore, they sound so mechanical, she’ll never get it right, I mean how can she compete with Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand? And he ducks under the blanket too and tells her, everyone is watching you, and by that he means that there are many people walking around the set right now and they judge her every move and they expect so much of her, but he’s also the director, kind and encouraging and a little manipulative, a Jack of all trades, ha-ha, so what he means is that, of course everyone’s watching you, you’re a magnet, and this is exactly what made Judy and Barbra right for the role too, they weren’t beauties, they weren't lovely, they were magnets, and under the blanket the world is warm and muted and no one can disagree with him, and both their faces are too close for comfort, but his gaze is sharp and cold, almost predatory, and she knows her own eyes size him up in revelation, and somehow she manages to swim up to the surface, even though she doesn't know how. And because she doesn't know how, she leaves something of herself under that blanket.
Joanne puts the phone down.
She wipes a small tear from the corner of her eye. She cries so easily, all the fucking time, and whatever pretty story she feeds her fans about being vulnerable, about opening yourself to emotion, she secretly can’t bear it. It’s too hard to be an open fucking book all the time. She just wants to be happy, really. That’s her dirty secret. She never wanted this.
She wants a man that’s hers, a good man who doesn’t text her while the mother of his kid is in the other room. Or God knows where. She thinks she deserves this much.
Or maybe she doesn’t, maybe she’s earned this bad luck because she cries too much in order to absolve herself, to relinquish responsibility, maybe she is supposed to be unhappy because she isn’t careful with other people’s happiness and why did she break up her engagement and God, why does he even miss her?
She picks up the phone and starts typing angrily. You didn’t have to sit next to me on the bench, you only had to come closer and lean over the lid like we’d practiced. People think I’m the one doing this, trying to make it look like we –
She stops. She knows she won’t send it. She knows culpability is the needle in the haystack.
After all, did they stop kissing after each scene ended? Once or twice they didn’t, and they had to giggle like teenagers and wipe their mouths conspicuously, and since he was the director he would just say, okay that was good, we got carried away, but that’s good, that’s part of the moment and this way, no one was at fault.
One of us should move to Pluto, she texts back, erasing the anger with a sponge. That would fix things.
Her reply is esoteric enough – very much like her – that he doesn’t have any response on hand, which is what she wants.
She stares at the screen until her eyes stop watering.
It’s 3 AM and the window of despair is still wide open.
In the morning, she drinks her coffee with honey and doesn’t check her phone even though she’s got a notice from him.
She waits until she’s in the car driving her to the airport.
Sunlight pours through the window and bathes the cracks in her face. She stares at the screen.
Yeah, maybe. But it wouldn’t be far enough away.
No apologies, no halfhearted smiles and kisses, no sorry, I’m a weepy drunk, because he’s not. They’re not fictional people.
And Pluto is not far enough.
She stares at the rising sun, a little white disc that keeps them all alive while they play at their games of deception. When the universe finally expands beyond limit, when all life folds into carbon, when the stars blink out of existence, when Pluto is turned into diamonds and marbles, that’s when they’ll stop feeling this way.