Casey wandered the Port Authority bus terminal, newly debarked off her bus from Memphis and feeling like midtown Manhattan had punched her in the face. A guy approached her. The man looked like a farmworker who’d wandered in straight off a granja—his brown skin weathered and creased, his white straw cowboy hat similarly battered by the elements. He was pushing sixty if he was a day.
“¿Cómo llego al JFK desde aquí?” he asked. How do you get to JFK from here?
Casey was surprised to have the question come in Spanish, because she didn’t think she looked particularly Spanish-speaking. But it felt like a welcome to New York. She’d spent the last five years studying language and applied linguistics at the Universidad de las Américas Puebla, UDLAP, in Cholula, Mexico, achieving professional competence in Spanish, and maybe that had revealed itself in her choice of clothing, or the way she walked. Or maybe the old fellow just couldn’t see.
Casey had noticed plenty of signs for JFK plastered high on the walls of the Port Authority, so she told him he could take the subway from there or get a train from Penn Station, a ten-minute walk or so, which was faster and the same price.
“No mires tanto hacia arriba. Parecerás una turista. Es lo que alguien me dijo.” Someone had told him looking up makes you look like a tourist, he said. He tipped his hat as he left, in the direction of Penn Station.
Fifteen minutes in New York City and already she was getting advice.
Looking up is how I know how to get to JFK, she wanted to call after him, but the impulse wasn’t a strong one. No impulse was these days. She was grateful that he had wanted to protect her, and wary of being easy prey. Even after her years-long escape to the pulsing new experience of Cholula, part of her remained in an implacable fog. She imagined herself walking the streets of Manhattan and looking up at all the skyscrapers. That kind of aw-shucks naïveté might be an improvement over the fog; most days it was more than she could manage to maintain eye contact. There was more than one way to look vulnerable.
Casey rolled her bag out of the Port Authority onto Eighth Avenue, not knowing where she was going, only that she had to get there. Car horns sounded, people yelled. Video screens were garish red and hot pink. There had been a recent rain and she could hear tires. Somewhere, jackhammers were going. I’m in a movie, she thought.
Crowds approached. Her chest felt tight. Her gaze fell to the sidewalk.
The dirty concrete was a comfortable place to rest her eyes. She avoided oncoming pedestrians by watching for their feet. She’d become quite comfortable out amongst human beings in Cholula, where people had accepted her as another earnest language learner attending UDLAP, but her distrust of strangers, which she’d fled Memphis to heal, had come back in force once she returned to the banks of the muggy Mississippi. Within a month she was on a bus out of there. Now she felt that same distrust in New York.
Coming here was a mistake, she thought. All these miles between her and hell and she didn’t feel one bit better.
People jostled her, banged into the bag she rolled behind her, and cursed her as they spilled their coffee. A standing man wearing a sign selling bus tours forced her to a stop. She collapsed the pull handle of her bag into its interior and held the bag by the side handle to reenter the stream of walkers. It was hardly better. She remembered the bag had a shoulder strap, so she dodged a bicycle to step into a urine-scented alley where she unspooled it. Now she held the bag in front of her, as she might have done on a Cholula bus, there out of consideration for fellow passengers though also to guard against thieves. Here, the familiarity of the move helped her breathe.
A book in her bag listed inexpensive places to stay. Exorbitant by Memphis standards, let alone those of Cholula, but she’d had hundreds of miles listening to bus tires hum on asphalt to make her peace with that.
She spotted a diner that looked unexceptional, far more so than the chain coffeehouse next to it, whose jaunty, overly familiar logo promised some kind of reassurance Casey knew it could not deliver. She pushed open the diner door. The bell hanging from it rang. She took a seat at the counter and looped the strap of her bag around her stool as she tucked it where she could rest her feet on it.
An older woman, mid-forties perhaps, approached behind the counter, tossed a menu in front of Casey and continued walking, turning her mop of thick red hair back toward Casey just long enough to utter, “Coffee?”
“Yes ma’am,” Casey said. “Thank you.” A busboy slid a clattering white ceramic saucer and cup in front of her.
“Light?” the waitress asked on the return leg of her vuelta.
“Cream, honey,” she said, pouring coffee into Casey’s cup. “Would you like some cream?”
Pareces una turista, the waitress might as well have said.
Casey nodded. The woman poured a stream of cream into the shimmering black in her cup.
“I must seem like a tourist,” Casey said.
“Nah.” The woman pitched her voice low, in what sounded simultaneously like scoffing and praise. “New in town, sure, but I saw your maneuver with the bag. You seem like you’re here to stay.” The woman gave Casey a smile and patted the countertop twice next to Casey’s menu. “You’re in the right place.” She moved on to another customer.
Casey’s chest muscles relaxed further, allowing her to draw the first deep breath of her new life. A mild sort of terror had gripped her in Memphis, a terror she’d earned. Now it was gone.
The fog remained.
Casey took a sip of coffee. She knew she was not okay. But for the first time since she’d returned to the US, she thought maybe someday she would be.
Roger White watched from his lectern as the new crop of shockingly young students filed into his lecture hall, ready to unmask him for the fraud he was. They filtered down the curving, carpeted stairs on either side of the hall and chose their comfortable, fold-down seats deliberately—near friends, near the door, or near him, the celebrity prof, screenwriter of The Fix. A skinny one locked eyes on him, preparing for combat. Jesus, another September.
I’m getting pretty old if I can think that, was his first reaction, although forty-eight was not ancient, comparatively speaking. He thought, immediately, of sharing this inner dialog with his students, but decided it wasn’t funny enough. Also, it was August, not September. School years hadn’t started in September for decades now. And he was ancient, in teacher psychology terms, at least as measured by numbers of students taught. Thousands, all because of The Fix. His only produced script, The Fix had won Sundance praise (but no award), then Oscar buzz (but no nominations) and finally selection for Un certain regard at Cannes, where he, director Bill, and cinematographer Elżbieta had floated off the closing-night stage in a sea of victorious giggles, carrying the Priz d'interprétation masculine du jury.
“Welcome to Film Studies 345, Hyperlink Cinema, people.”
The hall was packed. There had to be well over a hundred young things out there, more than anyone in his department got for an upper-level NYU course and more than he could handle these days. Classes where students got to sit in the dark doing nothing always had a high yield ratio. Or yield. Yield was a ratio. It was important to be precise with language if he was ever going to win a MacArthur.
“So . . .” (he hated sentences beginning with so, but there it was) “. . . what brings you here today?” No one laughed. “Kidding. I know what brings you here. Hyperlink cinema, a scriptwriting style that fractures the structure to gradually reveal connection between seemingly disparate storylines.” That sounded reasonably authoritative. “Name me examples of hyperlink cinema. Let’s see who’s read the course description. Hands?”
The palms went up, fingers wiggling here and there. Who to choose? Whom. Whom to choose? He pointed at a girl, her blue eyes and freckled skin reminiscent of a long-ago girlfriend, from his hot-shit phase when he was a twenty-three-year-old doing a Fulbright at Oxbridge, the first of his two books already brewing in manuscript form.
“Syriana?” Her rising tone showed that up-talk was not dead.
“You’re not sure?” He sensed she might rise to his challenge.
“Syriana,” she said more robustly, displaying a gravelly smidge of vocal fry. Good for her.
He pointed to the boy next to her. They looked like a couple. They weren’t matching, except for the curliness of their hair, but they leaned toward each other. Their perches were middle row, center: they wanted to be seen.
“Yep. That was in the course description. How about one that is not?”
“City of God, Pulp Fiction, Dazed and Confused,” the same kid spouted.
Roger chuckled. “Someone came prepared.” This time the students joined him in laughing. The trick was to be a little mean, but not too mean; he wasn’t a drag queen.
Now the class went wild, naming films when he pointed at them, but many not waiting for his OK, just going for it. Hannah and Her Sisters. Hereafter. The wretched Short Cuts. The more wretched Love, Actually. And he was enjoying it, too, reveling for a moment in the fantasy that he could give all hundred plus of them the attention and education they deserved.
“So, you all know how to talk. Our first assignment will show if you can write. I would love to have you write about why Short Cuts is not hyperlink cinema . . .” somebody out there was blushing, “. . . but it’s too fucking long to watch.” Laughter. They always loved it when he swore. “Instead, today your dreams come true. Today, we watch an entire film, one hundred minutes, together. For next class, write me three pages about it. Not facts. Thoughts. I want thoughts. So, as you sit here, in the dark, don’t fall asleep, don’t get caught up in the story. Be thinking. Bright, scintillating thoughts.”
He pushed a button on his remote and the lights dimmed. Another button and the screen descended. A third and the film began: Kanchenjungha. Black and white. That ought to get rid of the lookie-loos, those drawn by the course description but not actually interested enough to do serious work. About a third of today’s lot, maybe. That would give Roger a fighting chance. Instead of just grades from the TA they might get a personal note from him to demonstrate he viewed them as individual intelligences.
The film started. Damn. He’d forgotten it was in color, a mental lapse that set his palms sweating. But never mind. The Bengali dialog and stilted subtitles should scare off an even greater number: he’d not only make them think and write; he’d make them read. Another fucking September. And one way or another, Roger White would survive it.