by Jenny Ortiz
Strewn on the couch are second hand clothes and old kung fu movies. East likes Bruce Lee the best; she knows everyone says it, but Bruce Lee was a badass motherfucker; his son, too. They were real cool. With an untoasted Pop-tart, East sits on top of the clothes and watches Enter the Dragon, alone.
Later on, when the movie is finished, East goes into the kitchen for some cereal. She opens the fridge only to find the milk carton empty. Throwing on her leather jacket, she waves to her fish and heads to the supermarket. This is the only thing she hates about the real world. The things she needs don’t appear in front of her, she has to go out and get them.
As East walks down the block, she once again concludes that as much as she misses certain things that made her life easy, she would not be some kind of sleeper cell; that’s what she’d promised herself when she left the world created by the Authors and entered the real world. She forgot about the steam punk nation she’d been born into and settled in New York. She’d been a nomad there and had nothing and no one to miss. Sometimes East thought about Roan, the way they’d travelled through forests and swamps on their way to… where?
She couldn’t remember what ending the Authors had planned. A face off with her brother, Ian. No, she shakes her head as she walks down the block to the corner, where the red awning of the supermarket is drooping low and is threatening to fall on the crates of dry apples and thick skinned oranges. She isn’t going to spend her youth waiting for the Authors to pick up where they left off. Let Ian control that world, overthrow the king or the corporation; she isn’t even sure who is in power anymore. Her leader now is the President of the United States. Though she isn’t sure what democracy means, East believes it’s better than an army of zombies that keeps the population in check.
The only thing East really misses about her old life is the show Dinopups. She is wearing a shirt, with a Dinopups character on it. It reminds her of the card game that went with the show and how she’d played with Ian. She never lost. She doesn’t have the cards or the show or, for that matter, anyone to play with anymore.
East doesn’t like to think about the past. Her story had once been written with enthusiasm, only to be left midway through. She and the other characters were in a perpetual wait, repeating the same actions, walking in circles, pretending to be lost. Having clawed her way out of the swamp, East had pulled herself out from between the green ink and white lined paper. Pushed the words off her skin and took a job at a Laundromat. East avoided other characters, the ones who escaped and certainly the ones still in stories. In every book, she could hear them calling for her to come back.
But as she makes her way to the open fridge in the back of the supermarket, East thinks about all of the people she left behind. She knows the only reason she’s thinking about the story and the past is because of The Grappler, Jude here. He’d moved from her story to another collapsed story, only to be abandoned. He’d always been a good character—she liked his smile and the way his boots were always covered with desert sand. But the Authors took him out of her story because she was supposed to only have interest in Roan. But Roan isn’t around anymore and the other day, Jude and East went out on their third official date. He’s coming over later tonight for a movie, some snacks, and wine. Along with the milk, East buys a pack of condoms.
He’s late. Two whole Bruce Lee movies late. East watches the popcorn bag turn in the microwave, while the credits run on the television. After taking a large swallow of chocolate milk, East moves toward her fish tank. The red and orange fish glide around unaware of her presence. They make large circles in the tank, ignoring the plastic submarine and the clay mermaids sitting on the rocks. She imagines that being a character is very much like being a fish. She was given food, and a daily schedule. Her friends and her family were already waiting for her. For a moment, she wishes she still had the security of knowing Roan loved her. She wonders, if it had been written that they’d love each other right away, why she left him behind.
The fish don’t jump like East does to the sound of knocking on her door. The popping sound follows her as she opens the door. Wet and panting Jude stands in front of her with a big smile. He’s wearing his tattered black coat and dusty boots.
“They’re writing the ending of our story.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I woke up this morning and was in the forest, looking for you and Roan.”
“I work for the cooperation, duh. I’ve been trailing the two of you. Of course I’m only working for them to get revenge for my wife’s death… but that doesn’t matter, what matters is that I was trailing you in the story.”
“You just woke up in the story? How’s that possible?”
“We are characters.”
“I haven’t been pulled back into the story.”
“Not yet, but I think you’ll be written in sometime tomorrow.”
“But I work tomorrow. And I’m pulling a double shift because the rent is due at the end of the week.”
“What’s that matter? We’re going back home.”
She looks around at the things she’s bought and rearranged so carefully. The couch from IKEA she’d assembled on her own, photos of the day she adopted her fish, the magazine subscriptions, the television, Bruce Lee.
“I think I need a drink,” she says.
They sit together in a booth at the Left of Center, a bar that caters specifically to characters. East pulls her sleeves over her hands as the waitress, a woman styled like a 1950s pin-up, brings them their beers. The bar is crowded. Mondays are always crowded. Authors reread their weekend dribble and cut whole passages, full of characters. Little than half of those characters filter into the real world, looking for something to do. East hates being around them, but Jude takes her anyway. A stock character tries to buy East a drink, which amuses Jude. She slumps into the booth and stares straight ahead, pretending to be brain dead. After a few minutes, the stock character shrugs at Jude, and finds himself a flat character to dance with. Full characters only come to the bar because it’s the best discarded description of one. Cheap drink and good music could cover up the crowds. Ladyhawke’s Professional Suicide is playing and Jude asks her if she wants to dance; she’s about to say yes, but a gang of stereotypes walk in and take over the dance floor. The music becomes frantic and the air dense.
It’s at these times when she remembers her past with sadness: the smell of the trees and the soft, mud like texture of the ground under her bare feet. Towards the end of her time in that world, she stopped using shoes. Gave up the worn down ankle boots for a thin layer of dirt on her skin. Had Roan disapproved? She couldn’t remember.
“Can we go?” she says, looking at Jude.
“We just got here.”
“I hate this fucking place.”
“You wanted to get a drink.”
“Why couldn’t we go to a normal bar?”
“Because this is where our people are.”
“They’re not my people.”
“And humans are? You can’t do anything with them.”
“And going where? You going to go see another Bruce Lee movie? That’s really assimilating to the real world.”
She ignores him and zippers up her jacket against the wind. Jude’s right. She’s lonely here. No, not lonely, haunted by nothing. East realizes now that nothing has a weight. It isn’t heavy, but uncomfortable, making itself known. Whenever a Bruce Lee film ends and the credits are flashing on the screen, East feels the nothing. She doesn’t feel it when she’s with Jude, but she hates his reasoning as to why: they’ll only be fulfilled if they’re reconnected to the story. She crosses the street, narrowly avoiding a speeding car. She doubts the driver sees her; she’s like a sliver of black paper floating in the dark.
A guy in a biker jacket opens the door to another bar, a bar with real people inside. She mumbles thanks and slips in, avoiding the guy in the front checking ID. Though no one is smoking, there is the smell of cigarettes on everyone’s clothes and the sound of the cash register is shrill and overpowers the sound of people talking. East slips through the crowd and takes a seat at the end of the bar, orders a beer, and begins to watch the people. She likes how the girls’ sleek metallic colored skirts crawl up their thighs as they dance in place. The music is bad, but no one seems to notice.
When she notices him, he is standing with a girl in crème colored pants too tight for her thighs, but she’s still attractive. He’s standing next to her talking, his face close to hers, and he is bent slightly to meet her. When he stands up straight, he’s tall, thin, and with his white buttoned down looks more like a sheet of paper than East does.
A heat settles in East’s thighs and right below her breasts as she watches the girl shrug and move away from the paper-like man. He sighs and puts his beer bottle on a table nearby and leaves. East follows him all the way down to the subway. She luckily has a MetroCard and quickly follows him towards the platform where he waits for the A. It’s already one in the morning, and from the looks of another man on the platform, they just missed one. They’ll have to wait another thirty minutes. Putting on her headphones, East chooses an instrumental to play while watching the paper man.
East likes taking the train; she likes watching the people. They slowly become her characters, each one with a story she won’t abandon. Sometimes, she’ll feel the urge to write one down on paper, but she never does.
He doesn’t notice her until they’re on the train and she’s standing next to him, her eyes on an ad by his head. She smiles at him.
“You were at the bar with your girlfriend.”
“No, she’s a friend.”
“But you want her to be your girlfriend?”
“I—I don’t know… Do I know you?”
“No.” She pauses. “I’m East.”
“Nice to meet you,” he says, not looking at her. She is still smiling.
He has travel magazines on his coffee table. East picks one up and begins reading about the fantastic beaches of Malaysia. She knew a boy from Malaysia, tall and athletic. He didn’t talk much, but told funny jokes. She can’t remember any of them now. He only worked at the Laundromat for a few weeks before he started school. Once he started, he never came back. They had washers and dryers on campus. Now the only people working aside from herself were the manager, Kim, and Paul; none of them liked to talk much.
“I get them for free from the adjunct faculty lounge. The Popular Mechanics, too.”
“Are you a teacher?”
“Not yet. I’m a graduate student. I get a stipend for helping a few of the professors with their classes.”
“That sounds interesting.”
“Yeah, it is. What do you do?”
“I work in fashion. I’m responsible for organizing and separating different colors and textures of the clothes to be used on the models. “
“Sounds pretty important.”
“It is. One slip up and a whole week’s worth of fashion statements are destroyed.”
“Are you thirsty?”
He’s already in the kitchen and doesn’t hear her. The furniture in his apartment is sparse, except for the old couch and the stack of books neatly against the off white wall where the television should be. On the bottom of the stack is a biography on Bruce Lee. Carefully, East pulls the book from the bottom without toppling the other books on the modern world and literary theory. She flips through the pages until she finds the photos and examines each one.
“Are you into him?” he asks.
“Yeah. I have all his movies. I’ve read this. Did you know he pitched the show Kung Fu? In the end, they didn’t cast him. But he said the moves in the show were more ballet than—”
“I don’t know much about him. My friend was studying alternative philosophy and left this behind,” he says curtly, avoiding her eyes.
He hands her a beer and they move to the couch. They look at the bare wall silently. Their arms are touching and she can feel the tension in his body. There’s nothing to keep her eyes focused on and the beer in her hand is warm. She sets it down by her feet and puts her head on his shoulder. Looking at his forearm, East examines the black hairs sticking up and the veins bulging slightly. He’s breathing evenly, which surprises her. She wants to ask him about the girl with the crème colored pants, but doesn’t. Where the walls meet, there is an opening to her story. She knows he can’t see it; the branches of the trees are sticking out and leaves are slowly crawling on the wall. The shadow of a man passes through the trees. She shudders; he puts his arm around her.
“Do you have a bedroom?”
“Yeah,” he says.
She follows him and before they even get inside, she begins to remove her clothes. The floor under her feet is muddy and in the distance she can hear Roan’s voice. He’s looking for her. East closes her eyes and lets the stranger kiss her. Sex with him is like a warm finger flipping through the pages of a book. She ignores him as he whispers the name Abigail and focuses on her movements. When they’re finished, she gets dressed and leaves without saying goodbye. She takes with her the newest copy of Popular Mechanics for the ride home. She isn’t particularly interested in Abigail’s Bruce Lee.
On the train ride home, she reads the articles as a way to avoid making eye contact with the zombies sitting around her. Even holding her breath, East can’t escape the smell of iron and feces coming off their dirty, broken bodies. They aren’t very bright, so she can get off at her stop without worrying about them following her. As she makes her way out, a man and his girlfriend walk in. East doesn’t pause to check on them; instead she makes her way home.
On her way up the stairs to her apartment she finds Jude leaning against her door. She smiles at him.
“Where did you go?”
“I went home with someone.”
“Because of the story? You have no choice. You’re going to wake up one morning and find yourself back there. What are you going to do, crawl back to the real world every night?”
“If I tell you I’m good, you will think I am boasting. But if I tell you I’m no good, you know I’m lying,” she mumbles slowly as she opens the door.
Jude is standing in the doorway.
“It’s only the best line Bruce Lee ever said.” She pauses, her body is slumped slightly. “I think that it reflects this situation quite well. I’m going to do whatever I need to so that I can stay here. If I have to cut off zombie heads in the subway or get pregnant—”
“Is that why you slept with that guy? To get pregnant?”
“How did you know I slept with him?”
“You slept with him? I was just taking a guess. East… It’s not normal for us to be with them like that.”
“If I tell you I’m good—”
“Stop saying that.”
“Okay, how about this one: Love is like a friendship caught on fire. In the beginning a flame, very pretty, often hot and fierce, but still only light and flickering-“
“East, stop,” he says as he pulls her towards him.
“As love grows older, our hearts mature and our love becomes as coals, deep-burning and unquenchable,” she says smiling. “Pretty, huh?”
“If you always put limits on everything you do, physical or anything else, it’ll spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them… He said that too.”
East pushes away from Jude.
“Why are you saying all this?”
“Why am I? How am I capable of memorizing every one of Bruce Lee’s famous quotes? Why can I work in a Laundromat or have a one night stand with a stranger? Why would the Authors build all of this in my character if I was supposed to do what they want me to do in a faraway place that doesn’t mean anything to me?”
“You’re the main character.”
“Do I have to be? Why can’t they make another character? We’ve evolved. We’re no longer the characters we were.”
“That’s not true.”
“You haven’t killed anyone while we’ve been here. You haven’t talked about revenge or even thought about your dead wife. No, every night you come over and we eat Chinese food and listen to music. You’re more out of character than I am.” She pauses. “Bruce Lee says—”
“Please tell me. Tell me what Bruce Lee says. He’s dead, East. And you know what he did when he was alive? He made movies. He became a character. He wanted to be one of us. So shut up and come back to the story.” His shoulders are slumped. “We can be immortal.”
“The key to immortality is first living a life worth remembering,” she recites another quote; this time she says it as she walks towards the kitchen table. She sits down and looks at him. “As you think, so shall you become… that’s what he says… said. I think it’s appropriate for us…don’t you think?”
“You’re selfish. What about Roan? You’re going to leave him alone?”
“If the Authors let you remember me, remember the time we visited the Empire State building.”
After watching him leave, East turns off the lights and turns on the television, but doesn’t focus on it. Instead she drinks some milk from the carton, and sits on the couch, waiting to fall asleep. She thinks about the things she needs to do for work and wonders when she should buy a pregnancy test. She avoids the sounds of the jungle coming from her bathroom, closing her ears off to Roan’s crackling fire or to Jude’s boots crunching the plants on the ground, as he prepares to kill.
JENNY ORTIZ is a 23 year old writer living and teaching in New York. When she was a little girl, Jenny wanted to be a gun-slinging drifter, much like a Clint Eastwood character. She ended up (happily) graduating from Adelphi University with an MFA in Creative Writing and is currently working at St. John’s University and LaGuardia Community College. When she is not teaching or writing, Jenny can be found hanging out in IHOP with her friends, discussing music, video games, or Avatar: Last Airbender. When at home, she enjoys reading Haruki Murakami or listening to podcasts from the New Yorker. Follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/jnylynn.