There’s a camera crew in the bushes outside the restaurant when I walk in. I can’t see them but the bushes rustle as I walk by and I hear the whirring of what must be cameras. It’s our first date. We sit at a white-clothed table and I order a bottle of pinot noir since she had mentioned it’s her favorite. She’s kind and polite but I’m nervous and I keep getting distracted. There are two men at the table behind her and the one facing me looks at me when he laughs. The waitress approaches our table at times that feel cued. She’s overly attentive and speaks in a way that feels like she’s on stage projecting for the nosebleeds. My date asks questions about my life, my interests and family and career and I start to answer her but there’s a commotion of clapping across the restaurant. There are shiny Mylar balloons shaped into letters spelling out Happy Birthday tied to a chair at the table. A typical cover up for Producers: blending in and drawing attention to themselves at the same time. She asks if I’m okay and something between confusion and annoyance slips into her expression. She’s trying to be polite but I’m straining the expectations of any reasonable person. What I can’t tell yet is if she’s in on it too. If they ask her to sign a release form, I’ll pay close attention to her reaction. Whether or not she signs will not necessarily tell me if she’s an actress, it will depend on her attitude. “Sure, why not!” cuts both ways. She says I don’t seem into this. Do I want to call it a night and go our separate ways? No. I need her to be real. I’m petrified of these people around me, this elaborate production. I do controlled breathing through my nose. In for five seconds, out for ten. I sip the ice water next to my untouched glass of pinot noir and stuff bread into my mouth, holding up an index finger as if I’m just itching to speak and be normal and I would if it wasn’t for this darn bread in my mouth, just give me a moment please. She waits patiently. I don’t deserve her. I wash down the masticated bread with the wine and slide into character with a sly smile. She shakes her head and tells me to relax. But I can’t. Not with all these people watching and predicting and expecting from me. The cameras, the lights reflecting off the silver and glass, the laughter and whispers. The choreography of the room. I should explain the situation to her. Ask her about her life. I consider asking if she has siblings but I can already see the man behind her laughing at the question. I consider others but notice more people looking in our direction. Rack-focus. Zoom in on the sweat beads brewing at the crest of my hairline. They’re laughing from home. They’re laughing outside and in. How can she expect me to say anything in front of these rapt eyes. I want to portray myself correctly, first impressions can’t be taken back, but what could I say that won’t be laughed at by the man behind her. I could say something clever or funny but what if the waitress doesn’t have the same sense of humor and she looks at me like a weirdo. What if the people at home are mocking me online. Perhaps an anecdote. But which. Who is this woman. What story can I tell her that will achieve the end I seek. Who am I really. It’s all gone to shit and she calmly slings her purse over her shoulder. I don’t know how long I’ve been silent for. She stands and I try to tell her don’t go, expecting the crew to get involved because the date isn’t supposed to end for another forty-five minutes at least and they need their footage. But they don’t. She walks out and I’m left there alone. Kill sound. Fade to black.
But there are no cameras. There are no Producers and the waitress is what she appears to be. She comes back to the table moments after my date leaves. She’s simply attentive. There’s no one looking at me. No one cares that I’m on a date. They aren’t listening to my stuttering words or honing in on my dripping sweat. I am not a celebrity. I’m no one and no one cares and it’s nothing and she was real but now she’s gone and now I know that as badly as I crave it I couldn’t ever bear to be a real person. My eyes are cameras and the voices in my head provide the laugh track to my own humiliation.
Will Beeker is a writer from Michigan now living in Los Angeles. Formerly a contributing editor at VVV Magazine, he is a Columbia College of Chicago alumnus where he graduated with a B.A. in Screenwriting. His work has been featured in The Arrival Magazine, he was a finalist for the Nicholl’s Fellowship and reads scripts for the BlueCat Competition.