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Home > Station Eleven(13)

Station Eleven(13)
Author: Emily St. John Mandel

“I insist. No strings attached.”

Miranda is momentarily distracted by the coat-check girl, who is staring adoringly at Arthur. He whispers, “You don’t have to make any decisions right away. It’s just a place you can stay, if you’d like.”

Miranda’s eyes fill with tears. “I don’t know what to—”

“Just say yes, Miranda.”

“Yes. Thank you.” It occurs to her as the hostess opens the door for them that she must look terrible, the bruise on her face and her eyes red and watery. “Wait,” she says, fishing in her handbag, “I’m sorry, just a second—” She puts on the enormous sunglasses she’d been wearing earlier in the day, Arthur puts his arm around her shoulders, the photographer on the sidewalk raises his camera, and they step out into the blinding flash.

“So, Arthur.” The journalist is beautiful in the manner of people who spend an immense amount of money on personal maintenance. She has professionally refined pores and a four-hundred-dollar haircut, impeccable makeup and tastefully polished nails. When she smiles, Arthur is distracted by the unnatural whiteness of her teeth, although he’s been in Hollywood for years and should be used to it by now. “Tell us about this mystery brunette we’ve been seeing you with.”

“I think that mystery brunette has a right to her privacy, don’t you?” Arthur’s smile is calibrated to defuse the remark and render it charming.

“Won’t you tell us anything at all about her? Just a hint?”

“She’s from my hometown,” he says, and winks.

It’s not a hometown, actually, it’s a home island. “It’s the same size and shape as Manhattan,” Arthur tells people at parties all his life, “except with a thousand people.”

Delano Island is between Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia, a straight shot north from Los Angeles. The island is all temperate rain forest and rocky beaches, deer breaking into vegetable gardens and leaping in front of windshields, moss on low-hanging branches, the sighing of wind in cedar trees. In the middle of the island there’s a small lake that Arthur always imagined was formed by an asteroid, almost perfectly round and very deep. One summer a young woman from somewhere else committed suicide there, left her car parked up on the road with a note and walked into the water, and then when divers went after her they couldn’t find the bottom of the lake, or so local children whispered to one another, half-frightened, half-thrilled, although upon reflection, years later, the idea of a lake so deep that divers can’t reach bottom seems improbable. Still, the fact is that a woman walked into a lake that wasn’t large and no one found the body for two weeks despite intensive searching, and the episode sparks up against Arthur’s childhood memories retrospectively and leaves a frisson of darkness that wasn’t there at the time. Because actually from day to day it’s just a lake, just his favorite place to swim, everyone’s favorite place to swim because the ocean is always freezing. In Arthur’s memories of the lake, his mother is reading a book under the trees on the shore while his little brother splashes around with water wings in the shallows and bugs land fleetingly on the water’s surface. For unknown reasons there is a naked Barbie doll buried up to her waist in the dirt on the lake road.

There are children on the island who go barefoot all summer and wear feathers in their hair, the Volkswagen vans in which their parents arrived in the ’70s turning to rust in the forest. Every year there are approximately two hundred days of rain. There’s a village of sorts by the ferry terminal: a general store with one gas pump, a health-food store, a real-estate office, an elementary school with sixty students, a community hall with two massive carved mermaids holding hands to form an archway over the front door and a tiny library attached. The rest of the island is mostly rock and forest, narrow roads with dirt driveways disappearing into the trees.

In other words, it’s the kind of place that practically no one Arthur encounters in New York, Toronto, or Los Angeles can fathom, and he gets a lot of uncomprehending stares when he talks about it. He is forever trying to describe this place and resorting to generalizations about beaches and plant life. “The ferns were up to my head,” he tells people, performing a gesture that suggests greater and greater height over the years until he realizes at some point in his midforties that he’s describing plants that stand seven or eight feet tall. “Just unbelievable in retrospect.”

“It must’ve been so beautiful” is the inevitable reply.

“It was,” he tells them, “it is,” and then finds a way to change the subject because it’s difficult to explain this next part. Yes, it was beautiful. It was the most beautiful place I have ever seen. It was gorgeous and claustrophobic. I loved it and I always wanted to escape.

At seventeen he’s accepted into the University of Toronto. He fills out the student-loan applications, his parents scrape up the money for the plane ticket and he’s gone. He thought he wanted to study economics, but when he arrives in Toronto he discovers that he wants to do almost anything else. He worked hard in high school, but he’s an indifferent student at the university. The classes are tedious. The point of coming to this city wasn’t school, he decides. School was just his method of escape. The point was the city of Toronto itself. Within four months he’s dropped out and is going to acting auditions, because some girl in his Commerce 101 class told him he should be an actor.

His parents are horrified. There are tearful phone calls on calling cards late at night. “The point was to get off the island,” he tells them, but this doesn’t help, because they love the island and they live there on purpose. But two months after leaving school he gets a bit part in an American movie filming locally, and then a one-line role in a Canadian TV show. He doesn’t feel that he really has any idea how to act, so he starts spending all his money on acting classes, where he meets his best friend, Clark. There is a magnificent year when they are inseparable and go out four nights a week with fake IDs, and then when both of them are nineteen Clark succumbs to parental pressure and returns to England for university while Arthur auditions successfully for a theater school in New York City, where he works for cash in a restaurant and lives with four roommates above a bakery in Queens.

He graduates from the theater school and marks time for a while, auditioning and working long hours as a waiter, then a job on Law & Order—is there an actor in New York who hasn’t worked on Law & Order?—that lands him an agent and turns into a recurring role on a different Law & Order, one of the spin-offs. A couple of commercials, two television pilots that don’t get picked up—“But you should totally come out to L.A.,” the director of the second one says when he calls Arthur with the bad news. “Crash in my guesthouse for a few weeks, do some auditions, see what happens”—and Arthur’s sick of eastern winters by then, so he does it, he gets rid of most of his belongings and boards a westbound plane.

In Hollywood he goes to parties and lands a small part in a movie, a soldier with three lines who gets blown up in the first ten minutes, but this leads to a much bigger movie part, and this is when the parties begin in earnest—cocaine and smooth girls with perfect skin in houses and hotel rooms, a number of years that come back to him later in strobelike flashes: sitting by a pool in Malibu drinking vodka and talking to a girl who says she came here illegally from Mexico, crossed the border lying under a load of chili peppers in the back of a truck when she was ten; he’s not sure whether to believe her but he thinks she’s beautiful so he kisses her and she says she’ll call but he never sees her again; driving in the hills with friends, a passenger in a convertible with the top down, his friends singing along with the radio while Arthur watches the palm trees slipping past overhead; dancing with a girl to “Don’t Stop Believin’ ”—secretly his favorite song—in some guy’s basement tiki bar and then it seems like a miracle when he sees her at someone else’s party a week later, the same girl at two parties in this infinite city, she smiles at him with half-closed eyes and takes his hand, leads him out to the backyard to watch the sun rise over Los Angeles. The novelty of this town is starting to wear a little thin by then, but up there by Mulholland Drive he understands that there’s still some mystery here, still something in this city he hasn’t seen, a sea of lights fading out in the valley as the sun rises, the way she runs her fingernails lightly over the skin of his arm.

“I love this place,” he says, but six months later when they’re breaking up she throws the line back at him—“You love this place but you’ll never belong here and you’ll never be cast as the lead in any of your stupid movies”—and by this point he’s twenty-eight, time speeding up in a way that disconcerts him, the parties going too late and getting too sloppy, waiting in the ER on two separate occasions for news of friends who’ve OD’d on exotic combinations of alcohol and prescription medications, the same people at party after party, the sun rising on scenes of tedious debauchery, everyone looking a little undone. Just after his twenty-ninth birthday he lands the lead in a low-budget film about a botched bank robbery and is pleased to learn that it’s filming in Toronto. He likes the idea of returning to Canada in triumph, which he’s aware is egotistical but what can you do.

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