Diretora by Colleen O'Brien
Praise from associate fiction editor Sofie Harsha: Diretora is a brave exploration of the blurred edges between love and violence. The narrator has a way of viewing and describing her world that is as guarded as it is hopeful and honest, and as sophomoric as it is wise. O'Brien's use of the repeated slap is fearless and unflinching, yet we're always left bracing ourselves--we're left flinching. Diretora is filled with a special kind of longing, one that hovers over the story like smoke in the air. The images of the characters trying endlessly--to get their slap just right, to push each other away and pull each other back, to play out their own inner dilemmas together, in one solitary action--smolder long after the story's finish.
Gui and I were taking acting. We’d learned how to fake a slap. One night in the dorm, we practiced.
“Just leave me alone,” I said, with what I hoped was passion.
“Don’t walk away from me,” he said.
“I said leave me alone.”
He came close, raised his hand, and swiped it across the air in front of my face. I jerked my head to the side and at the same time clapped my hands sharply, down by my hip.
“That was good,” Andrew said. He was watching from his bed, propped up with his Greek homework on his lap.
“You turned too soon,” Gui said. “Don’t look at my hand, look me in the eye.” He put his hands on my shoulders. “I’ll do it slow,” he said.
He raised his hand and in slow motion drew the arc of the slap. When his hand was just barely in front of my face, I turned my head, also in slow motion.
“Smack,” Gui said. “You’re still not looking me in the eye.”
“Yes, I am,” I said.
“Woman,” he said. “I know when someone’s looking me in the eye.”
“Man,” I said. “I am looking you in the eye. These are eyes, right?” I pointed at mine. “What’s the word in Portuguese?”
“That’s it, you little—” He swiped his hand in front of my face again, and I jerked my head to the side but forgot to clap.
“That was better,” Andrew said. “That looked really real.”
“Olho, puta,” Gui said, laughing. “How do you say eyes. That was good.”
“Do it again,” I said.
Andrew was my boyfriend and Gui was his roommate. My room was right next-door, but I was always in theirs. Gui didn’t care if I slept over. He’d almost walked in once when I was straddling Andrew, totally naked, but by the time he got the door unlocked Andrew had pulled me down and thrown the blanket over us. “Oh my God,” Gui had said, “I’m hiding my eyes.” He covered his eyes with his hand and went to his closet, a little pasteboard cupboard at the foot of his twin bed, exactly like Andrew’s. “Dude, I’m sorry,” Andrew said. “I thought you were—” “I am,” Gui said, and with his hand still over his eyes held up a three-strip of condoms, and Andrew and I laughed. “Bye, Mom and Dad,” he said as he went out the door again. “Don’t wait up.”
At night, the three of us lay in the dark talking about what people looked like. We went up and down the halls of the dorm: Keisha was all right. She could be attractive. Lindsey was fat. Mark was attractive, I said, reasonably attractive, not as attractive as Andrew. Or Gui. Right, they said. But it was true! Gui made a rule: No one in the dorm was as attractive as we were. Who else? Huat-Chye we shouldn’t talk about, he was only fourteen, the youngest person ever enrolled at the university. But why shouldn’t we talk about him? When Gui was fourteen, his father had taken him to a prostitute. When Andrew was fourteen, he was already having butt sex with his girlfriend. Oh my God, Gui said, one of those Christians? No, Andrew said, she just liked it. She was older.
I’d never had a boyfriend before Andrew. I’d had sex, but just a few times, in parents’ bedrooms or little kids’ bedrooms at parties. This email quiz had gone around the dorm, The Purity Test, and my score was almost as high as Andrew’s because I’d done more drugs. Gui’s score was the highest. He was the only one who’d been with two people at once.
“Just leave me alone,” I said now.
“Don’t walk away from me.”
“I said leave me alone.”
I looked him in the eye. He was right that I hadn’t before, though I thought I had. Really looking him in the eye felt different.
“You’re still looking at my hand,” he said. “At the last second, you look at my hand.”
“Because you’re laughing,” I said. “I can see it in your eyes. You’re not really angry. It’s just a game for you.”
“Is this what acting is?” Andrew asked.
“Pretty much,” Gui said.
“Flaky,” Andrew said.
“Pretty much,” Gui and I said, almost in unison, and then laughed.
“Can you go do this somewhere else?” Andrew asked. “I’ve got shit to do.”
“Listen, you fucking Greek,” Gui said. “Don’t get aggressive with me. The barbarians won it, remember?”
“I remember. So pillage my woman. Get her out of here so I can learn these verbs.”
They both looked at me, waiting for me to object. I opened the door and stepped halfway out into the hall.
“Just leave me alone,” I said.
One weekend when Gui was away skiing with kids from his prep school, Andrew and I had watched a bunch of porn. He couldn’t believe I’d never seen one. “Catholic girls,” he said, “it’s so fucking true.” It was true. I’d hardly even kissed anyone without being really drunk. The first time he got me off, I started crying. No one had ever done that to me, at least not that I remembered.
“Don’t walk away from me,” Gui said, following me into the hall.
“I said leave me alone.”
“That’s shitty dialog,” Andrew called.
“I’m beating my wife,” Gui said, leaning back into the room. “It can’t be Shakespeare.”
“Hamlet fucked with Ophelia pretty bad.”
“But he was a prince. I’m just Kowalski. People from Poland are Poles, bitch.”
Gui pulled the door shut. There was no one else in the hall. He put his hands on my shoulders again, then pointed at his eyes.
“But you can’t be laughing,” I said. “You have to be pissed. What did I do to you?”
“You fucked someone else,” he said, shaking me a little.
“But you’re laughing about it. Is it funny? Do you care?”
“You’re good at this,” he said. “You should be a director.”
Gui was free with compliments. I’d heard him tell this girl from the third floor she should be a dancer. But I still liked it when he complimented me.
“Okay,” he said. He let go of me and took a step back, bounced on his toes a little, pumped his arms like a boxer going into the ring.
“You’re furious,” I said.
“Furious.” He snarled at me, showing straight white upper teeth.
“No,” I said. “It’s still just a game.”
“It’s not a game, bitch,” he said, lunging toward me. The women’s bathroom door opened and Honni, this South African girl from the end of the hall, stepped out in a towel, wet blond hair combed flat. She glanced at us, then quickly went the other way.
“Ah, we’re just playing,” Gui called after her.
“Acting,” I said, in case just playing sounded like a lie. Gui’s English was perfect except for the rare wrong idiom.
“I wondered,” Honni said. She held her neon net bag of toiletries up by her chest, fist above heart, securing the towel. “You’re good at it, yeah? I thought something was really wrong.”
Andrew, Gui, and I agreed that Honni was attractive. The accent, I’d said, and Andrew said not just the accent, and over in his bed, alone, Gui laughed.
“Check this out,” he said to her now. “Don’t walk away from me.”
“I said leave me alone,” I said.
We did the slap. The timing was perfect, but my clap was off. It was supposed to be fast and sharp and should hurt a little.
“Bravo,” Honni said.
Gui checked out her ass as she walked down the hall. She had pale, pretty legs and her wet hair was parted down the back of her head. He was imagining himself behind her, staring into the white line of her part, hands on her hips, or I guess I was the one imagining it. When Andrew and I watched those videos, it took only a couple of minutes before we were fucking.
We did more than just fuck, though. Andrew had cried in front of me a bunch of times. He’d gone off Prozac this September, wanting college to be different. He didn’t need it—his stepfather had prescribed it, this cynical, sinewy old guy, who’d slept in a low-oxygen tent in the living room all summer, preparing to climb Everest. These drugs helped people, prevented suicides, curbed alcoholism and street-drug dependency. “Brave new fucking world,” Andrew said. He wanted to learn Greek so he could really read Plato. Plato believed people had souls.
When Andrew cried and I held him it was almost as good as sex. But afterward, he’d get kind of cold, and say things like the rip in the back pocket of my jeans was whorish, and not even sexy, just desperate. I knew how to say fuck you. I knew how to disappear for a day or two until he panicked. I don’t know how I knew these things but I was glad I did.
“Should we switch it?” I asked Gui when Honni was gone. “Should it be that you cheated on me?”
“With her?” he said. “No.”
“What about with Jessie? Or that sorority girl from Halloween?”
“No, no, no,” he said. “You cheated on me. I wouldn’t hit you if I cheated on you.”
“Are you sure?”
Gui thought about it. “Right, because of the guilt,” he said.
He looked at my mouth for a second, then off to the side. Just faintly, he winced.
“I’m thinking about these guys in Brazil,” he said. “They’re such pieces of shit. But they’re my friends, you know?”
“What’s it like to be one of them?” I asked.
He looked surprised, then hurt. “I’m not,” he said.
“No, I mean imagine you are,” I said. “For the scene.”
“Oh, yeah, yeah.” The hurt cleared from his face. “Diretora. Okay. I’m a piece of shit.”
“But you don’t think that,” I said. “You think you’re in the right.”
“No, that’s wrong,” Gui said. “I know I’m shit, that’s why I’m angry. You’re supposed to make me better, but instead you—”
Their door had opened and Andrew was leaning out. “I can hear every word you’re saying even with headphones on,” he said. “Go somewhere else.”
He had his headphones around his neck, and I could hear the white noise coursing through them like a heartbeat in utero. I didn’t believe he could really hear us with them on. Andrew had a hard time concentrating just in general, and it was always a big drama.
“You missed Honni,” Gui said. “In a towel.”
“Fuck, really?” Andrew grinned. He was still angry, was still being a little bitch, but he appreciated what Gui was doing. He peered around the edge of the door.
There was this guy on the first floor, Nick, who had been in the computer lab when Andrew took The Purity Test, and now he was always talking to Andrew about sex, in this immature way that made it really obvious he was a virgin. When I was around, Nick looked at me like he knew a secret, like he could blackmail me if he wanted. Andrew said he probably thought about me when he jerked off. “I mean, you and half the girls in this dorm,” Andrew had said. “So don’t be too flattered.” “Yeah, I was really flattered,” I’d said.
“You’re acting like Nick,” I said now.
“Me?” Andrew asked.
Andrew stared at me. “You’re acting like a cunt,” he said.
“Oh, hurt me,” I said.
“Guys,” Gui said. “This is ugly. He’s got work to do, okay? Leave him alone.”
Andrew slammed the door. The slam echoed foolishly in the hall. I was embarrassed for Andrew and sick of him, but I was still going to sleep in his bed tonight. My roommate was in our room listening to Christian rock, and I was too timid to ask her to turn it off even when she offered.
“Leave him alone?” I asked. “Leave me alone.”
I ran down the hall, almost to the end where it opened into a little common space. A couple of kids were spread out on the couches, studying.
“Don’t you fucking walk away,” Gui said, running after me.
“I said leave me alone.”
He caught up with me, caught me by the arms, and I tried to shake him off, still crying out a little, adding more words to the scene. The slap wasn’t very good—I forgot to look him in the eye—but I stumbled farther into the common space when I recoiled and held my face like I was in pain. The kids who were studying looked up at us, and Gui grabbed my hand, lifted it up in the air, and swung us down into a bow.
“Thank you very much,” he said. Then he ran out of there, pulling me by the hand, down the hall on the opposite side. As he pulled me I waved and blew kisses at the audience.
“That was great,” he said. “Let’s do it again.”
“Just leave me alone,” I shouted, racing toward the computer lab. He caught up with me right in front of the lab and we played out the scene in the doorway. This time, I looked him right in the eye.
“Just a joke,” I called out to the staring kids in the computer lab. Huat-Chye was in there, crouched like a gargoyle in front of his algorithms.
“What kind of joke is that?” I heard a girl say, but we were already gone.
We ran back down the hall, through the common space, out into the dark dining hall. The kitchen was closed and there was no one in there.
“Leave … me … the fuck … alone,” I gasped.
“Get back here, bitch.”
He’d caught up with me faster than I thought and already had his hand up to slap me. I met his eyes and felt all his anger and confusion merging with mine and as I said the rest of my line I lurched toward him so that when he swept his hand across the air it clipped my mouth and chin.
“Oh my God,” he cried. “I am so sorry. I am so sorry.”
I’d covered my face with my hands. It didn’t hurt that much, just stung, but the adrenalin brought this antiseptic taste to my mouth and I was scared something had happened to my teeth.
“Let me see. Let me see.”
I let him pull my hands off my face. I was laughing. The tears, which hadn’t been much, were almost gone.
“Oh,” he said, and he grabbed me and hugged me hard. “I am so sorry.”
“It’s fine, I’m okay,” I said. We were swaying backward a little, and I took a couple of steps to keep from falling.
He pulled back and looked at my chin. “You’re not bleeding. You’re not bruised. Let’s go in the light and see if you’re going to have a bruise.”
“I won’t,” I said.
“What the fuck happened?”
“It was my fault.”
We walked back toward the common space. Only one girl was still sitting there studying, this girl Deanna, who was hot but bulimic. She pretended not to watch as Gui tipped my head back and examined my chin under the light.
“I think it’s going to be okay,” he said.
“That was good,” I said, staring at the speckled, fireproof ceiling. “We were getting it.”
Colleen O'Brien's stories have appeared in The Antioch Review, North American Review, Sou'wester, Confrontation, Sonora Review, and elsewhere.