That’s how it has to start, right? You need a countdown for your story to work, but most importantly, you need it to be long enough for you to have the time to actually tell your story. You have thought about it a little, and you think you’ll end with the last ten seconds – that way, it’ll have reached its full dramatic potential – so it seems obvious that your countdown needs to be longer than that. To summarize, you need a number of seconds bigger than ten, which would preferably have something to do with the way time is measured.
Well, there isn’t much of a choice, is there?
Sixty seconds it is.
You have the format of your story, and it’s quite the pressing one. You look at your blank sheet, and feel, already, like you’re running out of time.
For a beat, you think about starting to write right away. All you need is a name and the start of a sentence, and off you go – come what may. You write “Lisa was running away as fast as she could”, think about what you could say next – too much time, it’s taking you too much time. You erase all of it and start over.
You decide this is going to take a little bit of planning.
You need characters. That much is obvious.
(You liked the first name, so you kept it. You’re entirely unsure of whether Lisa will be doing any running in your upcoming story.)
Blond, long hair – like a golden halo around her face, shining locks crumbling over her shoulders all the way down to the small of her back. Dark brown eyes the shade of melted chocolate, a pale complexion, a small, turned-up nose. A few freckles, scattered over her cheeks like so many treasures to be found. 18 years old.
Smiles a lot, has a beautiful voice and likes wearing crop tops that show off her tanned stomach. On the outside, seems like a perfect woman for sure. On the inside…
(You’re not certain yet what goes on inside Lisa’s pretty head. When you picture her, you picture her body, her face, her eyes. You like the perfect picture that you have painted. You’re not sure you want to sully it by making her human.)
Main character. Probably.
Is rich. Is very rich. Is much richer than all of his friends combined. Knows it, and is both proud and ashamed of it for no particular reason at all since it almost never comes up and he didn’t ever have any part in building up his parent’s fortune. Would like to hate his family for their astonishing entitlement and sense of superiority, but can’t bring himself to.
Close to Lisa. She’s the only one of his friends that his parents somewhat approve of.
(You like the name. You created this character solely so he could be given this name, and you truly hope that he will live up to it.)
Tall. Suspicious both of and to the entire world. Might fall in love with Lisa, unless he tries to kill her.
(You haven’t quite figured out what the tone of your story will be.)
(You think he may be blond as well, though you’re not quite certain yet. You’re still trying to decide whether he’s a big brother or a little one.)
You run out of character ideas.
You decide you should probably figure out some of the plot of your story in order for you to imagine more characters. You’ll need to work on the outline at some point anyway.
You stare at a blank piece of paper for a while before having to admit that you don’t have a lot of ideas concerning the plot either.
You grab Lisa’s character sheet and write at the very bottom of it “Has to get less perfect”. But any idea you come up with seems entirely wrong to you, as if taking her perfection away from Lisa shatters her whole character.
You wonder how it feels. Perfection.
You think maybe it feels like a trap. You think you’re not the first one to think that, given how many stories about princesses escaping their gilded cages you’ve read.
You wonder if Lisa feels trapped by her golden hair and chocolate eyes, and the way the world treats young, beautiful girls. You wonder how it would influence her actions. You’re not sure her feeling trapped by them would automatically make her want to evade them.
You wonder if a bird inside a gilded cage actually wants to escape, or if that’s just a pretty tale birds in hideous cages like to tell themselves.
You start writing.
You have barely started, and you are, as ever, running out of time. You write a few hundred words only to delete them all and start over again. None of what ends up on the paper seems to express the feeling that seized you when you started writing – the taste of the story you wanted to tell.
You like Lisa though. You like her a lot more than you ever expected to.
“Please,” she said. “Do it for me.”
Ryan shook his head no. “I can’t. I told you I couldn’t. What would my family think?”
“What do you care what your family thinks?”
He would have liked to throw the ball right back at her, but Lisa’s family was actually great where his was a caricature of everything gone wrong with the wealthy class. Still, he couldn’t tell her yes.
“My parents said no. It’s still technically their house, they have the right not to want us to party in there… I can’t invite you guys over for New Year’s Eve when they’ve very explicitly told me not to.”
“Your parents are assholes.”
“Well. No question about that.”
You know three things: Lisa does not like being perfect so much as she is terrified of not being perfect anymore; her favorite person to talk to is Ryan, but her boyfriend is Casimir because she has never felt an ounce of attraction towards Ryan and can’t imagine not having a boyfriend; she feels compelled to throw the best party ever at Ryan’s enormous empty house for New Year’s Eve just because she’s pretty sure that’s what’s expected of her.
You also know you have to tie all of this to a countdown somehow. Quite sadly, any knowledge that you might have about that last part ends there.
You write. You write. You write. Everything that you write seems spectacularly bad to you. You don’t have the time to ponder over every little word. You write. On and on, endlessly. You write.
You delete it all.
You’ve stopped writing. It’s useless: every time you try, your mind stays blank, and when you force yourself, the end result is so bad you delete it almost immediately after. Lisa has convinced Ryan to throw the party in his house regardless of his parent’s wishes – they’re halfway across the world anyway – and the night is starting to fall. It’s New Year’s Eve.
You have no idea where all of this is heading.
You decide you need to take a break.
Your break is a lot longer than you thought it would be. Worse: it’s not working at all.
You decide it’s time to get back on track. Time has flown while you weren’t looking, and the zero hour looms dangerously close – way too close to your taste.
You collect all of your character sheets, all of the little notes you made, you read your story once again and then you try to order all of the tiny bits of information, to hammer some sense into it all. You add six new characters to your sheets, so that you can keep track of the whereabouts and actions of the key players. You create a whole new document dedicated specifically to the creation and fleshing out of your outline. You write hundreds of words on Lisa’s sheet to try and clarify what her motivation and inner life could be, you develop some heavily-detailed background to explain –
You realize, much to your dismay, that you’re going to have to put some of yourself in that story if you ever want to finish it in time.
You were never perfect. But trapped? Trapped, that you’ve been. That you’ve felt. You remember the horror and the fury and the helplessness, the overwhelming urge to cry or kill, to do something to get yourself out, and the debilitating fear that perhaps there was nothing at all that you could do.
“What the fuck are you doing?”
The question had no sooner escaped her lips that Lisa wished she could take it back. Casimir jumped so high that it would have been hilarious had she not just caught him – well, she wasn’t sure exactly what she had just caught him doing. But she was pretty certain he was up to no good.
“Oh, Lisa,” he squeaked out in a truly terrified voice – and matching face, for that matter. He closed his fist and shoved it in his pocket so forcefully she couldn’t help but squint at it suspiciously. “How – how are you doing?”
“Me? I’m fine. Why are you kneeling all alone in Ryan’s bathroom?”
“Well, no-nothing at all, I swear! I mean… you’ll see. Just wait a bit. You’ll understand. I have to go.”
He was out the door before she had had the time to process just how weird he was acting.
She was dancing with Helen like her life depended on it – the music was great, the lighting ideal, and her dress breathtaking: everything was going perfectly well – when Ryan came to find her.
“Hey,” he smiled, but his eyes were confused and perhaps even a tiny bit worried, “could I talk to you for a sec?”
She winked at Helen and followed him out of the room, to the front porch.
“What’s the matter?” she joked. “You look like someone snatched the last marshmallow from the bowl and drowned it in the chocolate fountain right in front of you.”
He rolled his eyes, and bent forward to whisper in her ear, “Do we both agree that you’re not exactly head over heels for Casimir?”
The world stopped. Something dangerous tightened in her chest, a grim foreboding. She remembered Casimir’s weird attitude in the bathroom, his kneeling, his flight.
“I like him,” she answered honestly. “He’s funny, and earnest. Head over heels would be an exaggeration of my feelings, but that doesn’t mean I don’t care about him.”
“Yeah, that’s not my point. He just went to see me to say that he wanted to do some big, romantic gesture for you at midnight in front of everyone. Wanted me to let him be the one to do the countdown, so that everyone would have their eyes on him…”
No, she thought, no, no, Casimir, we’re eighteen and this is a highschool thing, a teenage love, what are you doing?
Ryan searched for her eyes. “I told him that sure, he could do the whole countdown thing, but that he should be certain you were okay with all of this. He said you would be, because it was a beautiful surprise and you two loved each other so much or something… Anyway, I figured I should warn you. Do you have any idea what he plans on doing?”
You think maybe Lisa’s greatest flaw is her perfection, and the way it limits her, traps her, prevents her from reaching any full potential that she might have.
Yet even if she weren’t perfect, she might have still been trapped – as you were. Truthfully, the problem is in trying to be perfect, not in being so – being so, in your opinion, only adds a pernicious sense of obligation to the whole thing, as if the mere possibility of refusing perfection was the greatest insult of all. But the real problem is to continuously maintain a façade as perfect as possible for the outside world to see. That you did – just like everyone else.
Because that’s the heart of it all, isn’t it? The illusion that perfection exists. That if you somehow did a little more – smiled and sang and planned your incoming week, and dressed better and ate better and just stop procrastinating and wasting all of your energy on stupid useless things – you could become her – the perfect woman, or close enough.
You’re not perfect, you never were, and yet you understand, you deeply understand, why Lisa feels like she is, like she has to be. For she was born blond and young and pretty, and how could she waste it all by not being perfect?
You understand why she thinks she needs a boyfriend – a beautiful boy, with a beautiful smile, cute and charming and head-over-heels in love with her. For how could she be perfect, if she wasn’t half of a perfect couple?
You understand why she won’t feel entirely able to say ‘no’, when Casimir proposes to her in front of all her guests, at her perfect party.
It all comes down to that. The façade, the illusion that she can’t escape – won’t escape. Maybe it’s the only form of power she ever felt as hers: the deep, exhilarating, horrible sense of superiority that one draws from succeeding at social expectations better than anyone else.
Maybe she feels that, were she to say no, to irrevocably ruin her couple right in front of so many people, she would lose everything – all of what she ever had: the shaky, deceptive mirage that she has everything going for her.
A universal rallying call. All across the living room, the chatter stopped as people scrambled for their glasses of champagne and turned to the center of the living room, where the countdown had just started.
Where Casimir stood, beaming.
Lisa felt the sudden, stupid urge to run away.
The words are flowing under your fingers, as if this had always been the story you meant to tell. There is no hesitation anymore, no long break staring blankly at the screen of your computer. You know exactly what to say.
You’ve been there, in a way. Even if you haven’t really, even if it’s as wildly different as it’s strikingly similar. You stood in her position once. The surroundings were a little bit different – yet, writing the words, you write about yourself, watching your boyfriend kneel at your family’s Thanksgiving dinner, and you remember thinking, “how could you do this to me?”
She caught his eye and he smiled at her. Sweet, scared, thrilled. He patted his pocket – the one where he had put his fist so quickly when she caught him earlier. An unconscious gesture, to be sure. She fiercely regretted not confronting him when she still had the chance.
“Just look at him,” gushed Helen, appearing suddenly at her side –
– “He has eyes only for you!”
She felt her throat constrict. Helen, she knew, had an especially bad case of romanticizing almost every real-life relationship she was confronted with. Not everyone was as passionate about the ‘perfect couple’ she supposedly formed with Casimir. Yet that was their overall reputation all the same – the perfect, cute, loving highschool couple.
Only a few minutes ago, she was perfectly fine with that.
You said no. To the proposal. You looked at him in the eyes, trembling, and you said, “no.”
She looked at him. He looked at her. What’s in your pocket, Casimir? she wondered. She recalled him, kneeling in Ryan’s bathroom, his back to the door, one arm outstretched in front of him – his hand hidden from her by his body.
And then she understood.
Your father still talks about it – how you refused to marry the man you were supposedly in love with, the man he enjoyed having the occasional beer with, the man he already saw and accepted as his son-in-law. Your cousins as well – they laugh and laugh about it as if you hadn’t run out of there in tears after he stormed out in a fury.
Your mother doesn’t. She falls silent whenever the subject is broached, and that’s reproach enough.
You figure it will settle one day – once they have lost any hope that you might still change your mind, go to him and apologize, magically fix everything and finally marry him for good.
You made the right decision. You’re pretty sure of that, even though sometimes, when you have to cook diner alone, you wonder if you shouldn’t have tried at least. You were happy with him. You simply couldn’t imagine getting married.
You don’t miss him, not really. You miss the easy way it was between you before he decided he wanted more from this relationship that you were comfortable giving.
You don’t regret telling him no either. You regret him asking the question. You regret having had to make that choice in the first place.
In both cases, you would have lost.
Wait, she wanted to say, wait, wait!
But the world didn’t stop for her, and neither did Casimir. She felt like she had been caught in a violent, never-ending maelstrom. She felt on the very edge of catastrophe.
She looked at him and thought, how could you do this to me?
(You’re not quite certain that Lisa would make the same choice you did)