After Nina McLaughin

ali

A cinema studio is a factory for making ghosts. The cinema is a ghost language that has to be learned.
— Jean Cocteau

So Connie and I went to a movie. One of those crackling black-and-white ones, where their faces go ecstatic with every single emotion. La Belle et La Bête. Connie’s always been more of an art person—galleries and museums, everything beginning and ending in the space of the frame. The visual guidance in movies is too prescriptive, she says. The gaze is too dictated. I reminded her

that she’s a pretentious ivory tower millennial lesbian, and she reminded me that I am too. So we just went to the movie anyway.

So I’m watching this movie, watching the La Belle’s narrow 1940s eyebrows hang ponderous with consternation, watching La Bête’s overlarge, overbright cat eyes drilling back through the screen. And I think La and La. Not La and Le. Why did I never think about that? All the dead hours in the college moviehouse, absorbing flickering cultural standards, and I never thought how gay the language makes this movie. What if La Bête was just a butch lesbian living an eccentric lifestyle? I know Connie could’ve fucked with that reading. What if this is a crush-on-a-straight-girl, enemies-to-lovers, the jock-and-the-nerd-hooking up story? Damn. All these slow, sticky possibilities. Of course at the end — the happy ending — La Bête is revealed as the beautiful golden haired man La Belle always wanted him/her to be. But I mean. A beautiful man. Fuck.

Connie leans over and whispers, Hey that ruff and the hairline kind of make him look like Queen Elizabeth in the globe portrait, you know what I mean?

So now we’re both thinking of Cate Blanchette, which only makes it gayer. Turning all these gentle myths into something for us instead of for that cooing hetero family a few rows up who are obviously here because they liked the Disney version. Connie wasn’t even allowed to think the word gay when she was those kids’ age. When I was those kids’ age—like, nine? — I knew gay was a bad word. I had the Rent DVD in my hand once in the hall in high school and boom, everyone was like, you gay? Jean Cocteau, the director, he was gay. That guy in that Bête suit is his lover. Was. Everyone’s dead. Gay and dead. Hell. This is a gay-ass myth. This is some sacrilegious bestiality minded fucking nonsense. In this story, it takes an act of pure love to make the gays look human. In this story, I’m making everything exactly what I want it.

What? God, no. I’m not saying that. Want her, want to be her. It’s a distracting question. Queerness is messy like that. Like you’ve got your own body and the kind of body that you think is beautiful, and if they don’t match up, that’s whacked. But anyway yeah. I know Connie didn’t look like La Belle. Neither do I. That isn’t even what we’re talking about is it?

So anyway, we went out for dinner after, and then we got ice cream. Minty and melty off the cone. It was a hot summer. We both had the movie score in our heads. Or at least I did, and Connie said she did. Or maybe she didn’t say that. I don’t know. Guess I wasn’t really paying attention. You see. I was thinking a lot about how a few years ago I wouldn’t have gone out for dinner and ice cream. That was when I did want to be beautiful. It was like the way La Belle était belle: stretched thin, luminously halved, smooth and bright under the closest scrutiny. Fragile as a reflection in glass. Just a shift: all gone, untraceable with its edges all afterimage. That’s the beauty I wanted. Like Joan Crawford’s twiggy arms struggling to support a typewriter in Grand Hotel. Like Brigitte Bardo’s mysterious, unashamed slimness. Like all the endless legs sticking out of miniskirts in The Italian Job. Everything on screen was wanting wanting wanting. It’s easier to make a story when you don’t want as much, right? Don’t you think so? I don’t know, just asking. Like I just want to know.

But that skinny girl—La Belle, you know I recognize her when I see her on screen like that, falling in love, making her love pristine where it would have been messy. A prince, not really a beast at all. She’s just so good at showing up the way you need her to. Maybe it’s the beauty. I see her gay. I see her shining. All at once. She’s me and the reflection-bright ghost of me I wanted to be. Like I’m carrying her around inside me, a smaller better me. A me that’s really beautiful. Want her, want to be her. Want to kiss lips, want to kiss with lips like that. You see? It’s all reflections. I don’t know. Is that problematic? I mean that’s always the fear, right? Like what if I’ve internalized something that I shouldn’t have and I just don’t know it’s wrong yet? But how can you watch out for it if you don’t know it’s wrong? God I’m just asking. I’m not accusing you.

But shit I need to tell you what happened. That’s the whole point. What was I saying? I was saying…​ I want a drink. I wanted a drink. I said, let’s find a bar. It wasn’t that late. We didn’t have class tomorrow, I forget why. The city had gotten so quiet, like it was holding still, just watching. Leaning in. Bright yellow cat eyes. Yellow? I don’t know why yellow. It was a black and white movie. I just thought those eyes must be yellow.

We were splitting a flight of beer — Connie always liked the ones that were way too hoppy. Like way too hoppy. I just let all that bitterness slide around me, mostly. I just drank to drink. I liked the softness. Wanting isn’t so sharp when your brain feels like it just crawled inside a feather pillow. And I’m like damn. Everyone in this bar is so cute. Like really. It was like walking into an ad, you know, like the ones in the magazine, Vogue or something, where everything’s just so beautiful it’s painful? And it’s like, if you want this bad enough, if you know this is what you want, all this can be yours? Like the house you know you’ll never buy or the juicy hamburger in the subway ad or the travel picture of a lake and you’re just like yes. That. I want that. Like a dream everyone’s having at once. I don’t know. Guess I was drinking too fast. But I could see that halved-down beauty—La Belle-level beauty—on everybody. Just glowing on them. And Connie was glowing like them too. Under all the ambery bar lights and doubled in all the different sized mirrors on the walls, they’d just clicked into exactly the way they were meant to be. And I was on the wrong side of things. The ugly side. Where all I could do was want.

There’s nothing you can do when you want so bad. You can’t day dream about something else. You’re just there, magnetized to the thing you’re never going to get to touch. What? No, I know. Connie and I were a thing. We touched all the time. That’s not the kind of touch I mean. Like how you can touch a screen, but the picture on the screen is still just a picture? Like if I pulled up a picture of a cat, you wouldn’t really be touching cat fur when you touched the screen.

Connie’s face was too transparent for this moment — the looseness of the silences became too deep, too much like needles on skin. Her eyeliner was too perfect, too carved to be true somehow, like it wasn’t really on her face, like it was the crystallized shape of her attention arrowing at me. That focus made me too trembly to speak.

I felt small, weirdly weighted down on one side. I felt unarmed—there was an enormous pressure, forward, forward, forward — I had to say something. Me to her, all settled and shining in the beautiful world. I kept waiting for her to turn into something else. I wanted that so badly. A shift to something easier, clearer. I didn’t want to be outside of what she was anymore. Women used to turn into trees and nightingales and rivers and reeds back in the day, in the oldest stories. So I just—shifted. I took a step outside myself. Like I said, maybe I was drinking too fast. But I just wanted, you know. That’s all. I don’t know. I had it, for a second. Standing on the other side, looking back at me, seeing me shining and different in a way I didn’t quite know how to look at. It was safe. There wasn’t anything else to want. It was all that beauty, all that tangled brilliance. I’d just found it. All the beauty I’d be promised and promised again, and it was just here. And I had it. It was the end of every story.

That was the last time anyone saw me. I guess I’m still walking around out there — my body, my arms and legs and lungs and heart. Like you could see it going by on the sidewalk, but I don’t have to be there anymore. I’m here. And you’re listening. No, I’m not tempted to haunt them. To try to get a closer look. Connie likes my body. Takes it to the movies every week for classics night. So everybody’s happy. It’s like I cut all the strings and gave myself the room to breathe. Not that I have to. Breathe. You see how wanting is over? That’s what I wanted to say. All things wane out of shape. The calm you want at the end of the workday. The peace you’re supposed to wake up with in the morning. A reflection that knows you when you look in the mirror. They try to keep it all just out of reach. Hamburger on the subway ad. The art on the wall that’s supposed to make you interesting. Smelling nice at the end of a whole day. Really getting that book not just reading it. The wonder you’re supposed to feel when the moon is full. Belle-ish beauty up there on the screen. But here’s what they don’t tell you: Just make a story, and give it a happy ending.

Alison Lanier is a writer and editor living in Boston. She’s a graduate of Wellesley College and got her MFA in fiction from UMass Boston. Her work appears in Ms. Magazine, Origins, Atticus Review, and elsewhere, and she currently works and studies new media at MIT. She has read more Batman comics than you.