Fidelity was the most important thing. It was a real locker, ripped from the local high school, modified as little as possible. The pads were dipped in pig’s blood. There were a hundred imported cockroaches swarming below, twenty rare moths on loan from a nearby breeder. The only air holes were the slots through which, in an earlier life, a lovesick adolescent might’ve slipped saccharine notes.
When I read the script I anticipated this being the most difficult scene, but still the physicality of it caught me off-guard, and my chest grew tight, my breathing labored. I pounded on the metal before me, hollering obscenities: “Let me out, let me the fuck out!” etc. (Not in the script.) “I’m fucking serious, Siri,” I said at the top of my lungs. “I can’t fucking breathe in here.” There was no response save for the chittering laughter of the Trio. I counted the cockroaches to calm myself.
When they did open the door I nearly leapt claws-first at Siri, who sat in her director’s chair cross-legged and stony-faced, but then something in her demeanor soothed me: true pride, maybe, or else only simple artistic satisfaction. She strutted in her cowboy boots toward me and said, “You were great! Genuine fear, it’s great.”
“Yeah,” I said, and tried to smile. “It was genuine fear. Why didn’t you listen to me?”
“You ever see Hitchcock’s The Birds ? Great flick, too often dismissed as being a mere genre excursion. So Tippi Hedren, who plays the female lead—Hitchcock threw a bunch of live birds at her. And I mean it really comes across in the final product. It seems real, Taylor. Anyway, he probably also sexually assaulted her, but hey, a great technique is a great technique. I think I want to leave in the part where you scream my name, too. Meta-cinema.”
I could never stay mad at her. She went to survey the set, prep the next scene, and I retreated to my trailer and showered and changed and sat at the little desk and switched my laptop on and searched “Ariel Polka,” who was supposed to be my co-star, to play Lisa, but who had yet to arrive on set—Siri said she was still in Milan, modeling, but the rumor among the crew members was that she was finishing up a stint in a secretive rehab facility. There was another rumor that the studio had pushed for a more recognizable star (the popular names among gossip-mongers were Anya Taylor-Joy, Chloë Grace Moretz, and Hunter Schafer), but Siri had ultimately insisted on Polka because of the chemistry they had cultivated working together on their last film, A Red Sun Rises Over Portland, a comedic Maoist polemic funded by a French studio, which had, for whatever reason, vastly exceeded its box office expectations in the States. (I hadn’t seen it.)
But it was perfect casting, as far as I was concerned, because Ariel was by far the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. She fit perfectly the image of Lisa I’d developed when reading Worm, (which, it’s worth mentioning, I had done several years before there was even any pre-production chatter about a cinematic adaptation—I had even written some well-reviewed fanfiction, believe it or not—a fact that had helped me greatly, I felt, in the audition), except she was perhaps a touch more buxom, perhaps a little more conventionally movie-star-looking—not, obviously, that I was complaining.
I slipped myself a Valium (for which I had a legal prescription, to be clear!) to kill the lingering locker nerves and found the nude scene in her first film, So I Heard You Had Angina?, a saucy rom-com with a massive age difference between the leads (eighty to twenty, I believe). There was a frame in which Polka’s “full frontal” could be seen, and I stared at this while waiting for the pill to kick in, running my hands idly beneath my clothes.
I had just unzipped my jeans when there was a rapping (rapping!) at my trailer door, and I re-zipped and slammed the laptop closed and bid the knocker enter. I had suspected it might be Wildbow, who (I was told) was somewhere on set, and who was supposed to talk to me about my character at some point, although I harbored a secret suspicion that he never would. Instead it was Coraline Paglia (no relation), who was to play Amy Dallon. Coraline was quite famous already, having played a fan-favorite recurring character in an ABC sitcom, You Up?, and we had become, over an extravagant lunch at the nearby Korean-Mexican fusion place (the tteokbokki burrito bowl was to die for, if you’re ever in the area), we had become good friends.
She lay across the sofa opposite me and said, “Hey, you’ve read the book this thing is based on, right?”
“Well, it’s not a book, it’s a web-serial. And you’re telling me you haven’t?”
“I read the script, but I couldn’t make it past the first chapter of the ‘web-serial,’ if that’s a real thing. Anyway, the reason I’m asking is because people act like they’re afraid of me when I’m in costume. And they make lewd—and frankly, if I’m allowed to, as a cishet woman, say this, homophobic —jokes.”
“I think you should simply, you know, read Worm ,” I said.
“Whatever,” she said. She was fervently ginger. “Hey, hope you’re alright after shooting that thing earlier. That looked like torture. ”
“I respect it,” I said, trying to sound world-weary. “I respect Siri and her art.”
“So what do you think of Malik?”
Malik Corsica was playing Brian, and had entered with Coraline into the beginning stages of a tawdry star-crossed affair. I had seen them kiss coyly behind the craft services table that previous Monday. She told me about his hair, his biceps. I found the whole thing disgusting, if you want to know the truth. For starters, Amy was supposed to be a lesbian. But, then again, I couldn’t expect everyone to take their roles as seriously as I took mine—I took mine seriously as death, I really did.
She went on and on about Malik, and I drifted off and dreamed of Ariel, my sweet Ariel.
The next scene involved juice. There was apple and grape, and taunting to accompany them, and I felt, there on the toilet seat with a ham sandwich in my shaking hand, just as Taylor (as in Hebert) had felt, and more of her essence, her capital-T Truth, was revealed to me. I understood her betrayal and its attendant nihilism. I understood the sublimated violence—and, perhaps exceeding my precursor, I understood its structural origin.
The Trio exited stage left, and I left the stall to stare at myself in the mirror. Siri had an intense fascination with mirrors; it was present throughout all her work. Bugs came crawling toward me from either side, real bugs, for Siri was insisting on doing everything practical, despite the danger of infestation, which was in fact already beginning to happen—rebellious centipedes had started to squat in the walls, spiders to spin their delicate webs between expensive camera equipment. It was driving everyone insane, but Siri most of all.
Perhaps the only real difference between Taylor Hebert and I, at least on a spiritual level, was that where she had a corona pollentia, a shard, an Agent, to manage life’s relentless stimuli, I had nothing but a Valium prescription. I felt this very intensely, shivering in silent agony before the mirror, staring at my made-up face (I had insisted to Siri that Taylor would never wear makeup, but she ignored me, citing “artistic license”), as the black mass stretched inexorably toward my sticky hands. I wondered if, should the shoot go on too long, I really would be able to control them.
Siri called cut, and I shook my head to rid myself of the phantom insect-sense. She said she wanted to speak with me, and I followed her to a dark corner, and she said, “Taylor, listen, I think you’re perfect for this role. It seems unfair that I found you; you’re making things too easy, ha ha. However, uh, there are still some things I’d like to work on. For one thing, and don’t take this the wrong way, you’re way too pretty. Taylor Hebert is supposed to be gawky and stick-thin. You’re just a little too, er, curvaceous. Your face is too symmetrical.”
“What exactly would you like me to do about it?”
“I don’t quite know yet. Maybe we could have you wear a prosthetic mask. Or maybe we’ll just do some motion capture. I don’t know. Something to consider.”
I walked into the lazy sunlight smiling. I was from Wisconsin and had yet to acclimate to the moneyed languour of SoCal. I felt sure of myself and confident, even beautiful, even too beautiful: this was a rare state of affairs. If I walked through the smoggy circuitous streets of Hollywood I would attract the most attractive men and women—they would flock to me like moths to a flame—and this was one area where my powers exceeded Ms. Hebert’s, poor girl.
It was in this headspace that I met Ariel face-to-face for the first time. At first I didn’t recognize her (she was wearing sunglasses and a broad black straw hat), I simply thought, “Why, who is that beautiful woman?” but then she tapped me on the shoulder and shook my hand and said, “Hey! You must be Taylor?” and her honey-velvet voice was unmistakable.
“Ariel?” I said. “Oh my God. When did you get here?”
“I’m just arriving from the airport. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you for so long!”
“Same here, Jesus, you have no idea.”
In my fantasies I had imagined that before Ariel I would crumple like cloth, melt into a simple lump of blushing flesh—I was too pale, too virginal, where she was worldly and divine—but this was not, in fact, what happened. What happened was I asked her to dinner. “I think it’s important that we get to know each other,” I said, “if only for chemistry’s sake.”
“That sounds like heaven, ” she said, and gave me a grin that was suitably vulpine, so vulpine I thought she might’ve practiced it in the mirror, with canon citations in one hand and fanart for reference in the other.
She said she knew the perfect spot, and led me to a diner down the block, and we sat at the counter and ordered waters (I had learned my first day here that ordering a Coke, as I would have preferred, would earn me disappointed glares). She asked me about how I was adjusting to the starlet’s lifestyle, this of course being my first major role, and I answered in such a way (I hoped) to make me seem like a “trooper,” which was a word my father often used to inspire me, a practice he had begun shortly after my mother’s death.
“You’ve read Worm, right?” I asked over my Caesar salad.
“Of course. I read it even before I knew about the role.”
“Hey, me too! Who’s your favorite character?”
“Hmm,” she said, and sucked salt from her forefinger. “I might have to say Lily, you know, Foil.” Which was an encouraging answer, to say the least. “What about you?” she said.
“Honestly,” I said, smirking, “for me it might be Lisa.”
“Aw, you’re too kind.”
“What do you think about the Taylor/Lisa ship?”
“You know, like what if they were in love with each other. I always thought it was fun to imagine.”
“No, I can’t say I . . . I mean, isn’t Taylor straight?”
“Ha ha,” I said, and took a long sip of water. “Forget I said anything, it was just a joke.”
We ate in silence a few minutes longer, after which she claimed she needed to speak with Siri. I said I would use the bathroom and then walk to my hotel, which was true: I sat in the dingy stall and sobbed, or maybe more like shuddered while my cheeks grew wet. An obsidian scorpion crawled under the door, and I stared at it with a fury of which I could never have previously believed myself capable, and it flipped over and squirmed till it finally perished.