In response to Call No. 67, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” trailer.
On the television, Audrey Hepburn and some actor mindlessly smiled out at the two young people, sitting in their apartment. As the preview for one of that night’s many specially-scheduled films ended, one of the two stood, walked to the television, and turned it off, just as another commercial began with people smiling brilliant smiles.
“What the fuck was Breakfast at Tiffany’s about anyway?” Lulu, the one who had stood, said. She was standing in front of the television now, as if to guard them from the possibility of turning it back on and wasting their Sunday evening as they had their Sunday afternoon. George, the one who remained on the couch, stared back and then shook his head. His thick frame glasses fell to the floor, and he reached to pick them up.
“I mean, fuck,” Lulu continued, on to something, but not knowing quite what. She put her hands on her hips and stared sullenly out the window above the couch. It opened onto a view of their sparsely populated backyard and the house behind their own. There was also a kiddie pool in the back corner of their yard, just visible, where they would sit with friends sometimes in the summer, to cool their feet and minds. “Ugh, I could really go for some ice cream,” she said, walking into the kitchen, which was not so far from the living room.
“Hey,” George said, a bit louder than normal, but only to catch her attention. “Do you wanna maybe go out for some? We could hit up Chocolate Moose deliciousness? Or Blu Boy awesomness?” He followed her into the kitchen, his slippers snapping on the hard wood floors.
“Sure,” Lulu said, sighing. She was already halfway to eating ice cream when she realized they didn’t have any. “We don’t have any ice cream anyway.” She shut the freezer door and turned to face her partner, who was standing right next to her now. If she’d taken a step forward, she’d have run into him. “And it’d be fun to dress up for ice cream,” she added, grabbing his smallish bum, “man-candy.”
George understood that they regularly exchanged such nicknames for Lulu’s benefit – her favorite was ‘darling.’ He did not appreciate being objectified, but he understood it was part of her own combat with the objectification of her body. One day, he would raise the issue and note that it was not okay to treat him that way. But he was not sure, if he thought about it, how long their love would last. Lulu was combative and bossy, and he gave in too much.
“Come on, let’s get dressed,” Lulu said, already halfway to their shared bedroom. She was used to leaving George Malcolm Reynolds to his thoughts. If she was honest with herself, it was a wall between them. She was gregarious, and he was in love with her. He wanted to hold her, and she just wanted to burn their love until there was nothing left of him. But she also understood this.
And the part of her that loved him held back the brunt of the flames.
“Okay, cool,” George said. He did not like his name. In fact, George preferred to go by Malcolm, but never told anyone this, so by and large he was just George. His best friend in the world, who was currently traveling in India, was the only one who calmed him Mal, his favorite nickname, seeing as his middle and last name were the same as the protagonist of his favorite show, Firefly. Lost in thought again, George had to remind himself to follow his girlfriend’s lead to their bedroom.
By the time he entered, she was already wearing a lavish black gown with a sparkling headband on her head. He raised an eyebrow, noticing right off that she looked quite a bit like the lead in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
“Zip me up?” she said, the zipper dangling open at the back of her dress. He did.
“Where’d you get that dress? One of your roller girl friends?” George stepped away and leaned against the door, while Lulu glared back at him from the mirror. She was balancing the headband, which involved a ridiculous ornament at the top, on her head, using the mirror to judge whether it looked good. She hated that George thought roller derby was a joke, that he only came to bouts when she forced him, that he practically avoided her derby friends. He claimed that they didn’t like him, but she thought it was more that he didn’t like the person that she became around them.
“Whatever. I just thought it’d be fun to go all out. Maybe get ice cream somewhere fancier than normal,” Lou said. She thought of herself as Lou, even though her born name was actually Lulu-Beth. She hated her mother for it, but knew it was better than her brother’s name, Sky Lance Edwards. The result of the fanciful names was a continuing chip on his shoulder, and her preferring not to come home for the holidays.
“Well, I guess I better up the ante,” George said, opening his closet and searching for something that looked especially smart. He picked out a retro suit that he’d gotten at a local thrift shop for cheap, and left the room to put it on the bathroom. More importantly, he knew that Lulu would take forever in the bathroom unless he was ready before her.
“Hell yeah, you better!” Lou shouted after him. She looked at herself in the mirror, satisfied with the dress, only dully noting that she looked like Audrey Hepburn in the preview, and then pulled out the pouch of make-up she kept in the top drawer of her dresser for special occasions. She paused to recognize how ridiculous it was that their relationship had come to this, competing to get ready for an impromptu ice cream outing in fancy clothes.
She mulled on it, much as she knew George mulled on the nicknames she gave him and all the ways she teased him every day. He was a barista at a local coffee shop, while she worked each day from 9 to 5 with a local graphic design firm. They spent each Saturday going to the gym at 8 AM, getting vegan brunch at the local co-op from 10 to 11, and then wandering around the farmer’s market arm in arm, chatting up friends and neighbors they spotted there. Weekday evenings were split between their individual groups of friends, but they were both restless.
Lou tugged at the fancy hair band and set down her eye make-up. She’d absentmindedly applied her make-up but it didn’t look half bad. Now, came the hard part: her hair. She started playing with various things even as she tried to work out where they’d gone wrong. She supposed it was all the talk of moving. Most of their friends had recently moved to Chicago or Portland, including one friend who specialized in making gourmet ice cream with flavors like Guava Smoothie and Bacon Pepper. One or two had moved to Denver, like Jeanette who made a living off of jewelry sold online. But the talk of late between them was moving to Chicago, with all the other artsy types, or Portland, with all the other more relaxed but still cool people.
She stared at herself in the mirror and tried to think of Lulu Edwards as a person in Portland or Chicago. She could not see herself walking around any such places, not even New York, and much less in this particular outfit. She was not a film character, all glitz, ideals, and random perfection. Harmony was not something she understood.
In fact, a part of Lou understood that the primary way she understood the world was through her experience as a child, waiting for her parents to come back home. They would leave to run errands or buy something simple, and then not return for 8 or 12 hours at a time, despite promises to the contrary. Lance quickly gave up on them and flew the coop at 17 and a half for a pre-college course. Lulu had waited longer, probably through her final year of college, when she’d stood waiting for her parents to pick her up for graduation. They had finally called at 8pm to ask why she wasn’t at the restaurant, and Lulu had promptly started ignoring them. This series of events and escalations had led to her moving through the world hoping only for the least horrible thing to happen, rather than the best.
Staring at herself for a long minute, Lulu thought of all of this, and then set it aside, as she always did. If she were honest, she did not want to be in Indiana. She hated it. She had grown up in Indianapolis and wanted to run as far as she could from it.
“Is that a hat you’re wearing or a serving tray, darling?” George asked in a theatrical voice. Lulu turned to find him leaning casually against the doorway. He was wearing a retro, slightly shiny suit with a shawl collar and a white shirt. He’d combed his hair to look like some retro film star, and Lou surprised herself that she liked him like this. Sexy and fun, if a bit corny.
“Where’d you even get that suit?” she said, and walked toward him, leaning in to kiss his cheek slightly. She hadn’t meant to, and so, to add something abrasive to the moment, she added, “Your hair looks like doll hair, dude.” She laughed a short chortle and then turned back to doing her own hair.
“Whatever, it’s totally sexy,” George replied, and stood straight. “Bathroom’s yours, dear-heart.” He then shuffled past her to get to the closet, where he began rummaging through his shoes. Lulu, meanwhile, took her chance and went for the bathroom. George had not been thinking of much in the bathroom. Getting his hair to look right had taken so much time, even if it had only been a few minutes, that he was quite hurt when Lulu had blown it off as dumb.
She was always like that with Mal’s ideas. When she talked about moving to Chicago, he would talk about his dreams of starting over in Northern Michigan. His family was currently debating what to do with his recently passed grand-uncle’s land there – and his mother, as the late uncle’s closest relative, had offered him the opportunity to pursue his dream since he was little. To farm, like his grandfather, and great-grandfather, and several of his now deceased uncles, too.
But when he’d brought up the possibility of moving somewhere not-urban, Lulu had blown it off completely. He’d pointed out that he could work at a café or diner or bar in the area to help them keep up with the few bills they’d have, but he had enough training from his undergrad degree in sustainable farming practices to at least make them self-sustaining within a few years. Which was something. No, it was more than something, it was amazing that it was even possible.
He could refurbish his grandfather’s house and maybe even rejuvenate the cherry orchards that were in disrepair form a decade of neglect. But not with Lulu in his life. And if he did not make up his mind soon, his mother had noted that they could sell the property for enough to help his younger and older brother pay off some of their respective loan and credit card debt.
“Why are you just sitting there like that?” Lulu said, returning to the bedroom. She’d gotten her hair perfect and had been about to point out the beauty of the curls’ arrangement on her head, the broad hat abandoned on the bathroom counter. But she’d found George staring sullenly at the pile of his shoes in the closet.
“Oh, nothing, sorry. Just looking…for these!” he said, pulling out a pair of patent leather shoes she hadn’t even realized he possessed. The night was full of surprises, she thought, and hoped that by the end of the evening, maybe they could finally make a decision about what their future would be. Stay in Bloomington or move somewhere else, somewhere a bit more real.
“Here,” Lulu said, grabbing a tie from above her boyfriend’s head and handing it down to him. It was just a sleek, somewhat thin black one, and George reached out and took it. While she slipped on a pair of high-heeled boots, something that required her to sit and shift them back and forth until they were on, Geoge put on his shoes and his tie and then turned to her.
She stopped what she was doing, and they shared a long stare.
“What?” Lulu asked.
“You know, I don’t belong to you.”
“What the fuck are you talking about, darling?” Lulu asked, adding darling to soften her anger. She always did that, adding something soft to roughness, something abrasive to kindness. Lou hated herself for it, but could not stop herself.
“People do not belong to people, it’s just…it’s different. It’s more like we’re tangled up in each other. You can cut the strings or keep weaving with them – either way, it’s a mess. And it’s not as simple as following the money or following the love. Or following our friends,” George said in a rush. When he stopped, he felt like he’d just breathed for the first time in a while. Like he’d been holding the words in a seed inside himself for a little too long, waiting for them to germinate, but not realizing they were growing roots of anger in him.
Lulu stared at George. His face was red, which she had never actually seen. For the first time, she noticed that he had taken off his glasses, which meant he must have put in his contact lenses, something he hadn’t done since she’d told him she liked him better with glasses. She’d even picked out the thick-rimmed pair he now wore every day. But he was not wearing them now.
“Where the fuck did this come from?” she asked, knowing she was starting to play the part of angry girlfriend. She was holding herself back, filling the role she’d chosen, just like, she realized, George had. They’d been holding themselves back for months now, reaching out and keeping each other still and away from each other at the same time.
They were standing in a room looking like the characters they’d just watched play through the preview of a film on their television, and for the first time, Lulu felt real.
“It’s building a life on your own terms, Lou,” George said, suddenly with tears in his eyes. He seemed to be feeling all the emotions he never felt, as calm as he always seemed. And, truth be told, she loved him most like this, in his retro suit, which really looked nothing like one in a movie. It was wrinkled, rumpled, and dusty. She liked him with tears, too, if only because, somehow, it made her feel okay feeling her own emotions.
“I know that, Mal. I know. I just,” she said, pausing and allowing herself to not be tough. She could not be rough, Lou recognized that, but it was hard, after so many years of playing that role. “I just don’t trust myself with you. I love you so much. I just worry that I’ll follow you and let you make me into someone I’m not.” Lou turned and sat down on their bed, feeling her own eyes growing warm and wet.
“Okay,” Mal said, “me too.”
“And I hate those glasses,” she said, before she could stop herself, “and I don’t even know if I really like roller derby. I just wanted friends, for fuck’s sake.”
“I hate those glasses, and I think roller derby is weird and cultish,” Mal said, looking away, “but I knew you wanted friends, so I wanted you to have that all for yourself.” He came over and sat down beside her. “And I hate Harry Potter. I mean, the one middle book is okay, but the rest are pretty much young adult mush. I’d much rather be reading Russian sci-fi.”
“I don’t even really like Harry Potter that much, or Firefly – I’m sorry, I don’t!”
“I didn’t think you did, you know,” Mal said, and then turned to her conspiratorily, “but I don’t give a shit about dance music. I really kinda hate it.”
“Okay,” Lou said, thinking she didn’t really know this beautiful man beside her with tears in his eyes. She turned to him and reached out her hand, “I’m Lou, and I won’t ever belong to you.”
“Me neither,” Mal said, holding her eyes and smiling.
Lou continued, “I don’t know where my life is going, I don’t know what I’m doing, but I think I might like to do it with you.”
Mal smiled and reached out his own hand.
“I’m Mal, and I don’t know what I’m doing. But I think I might like to do it with you, too,” he said, and then exchanged a friendly hand shake. For one moment, and then he leaned in and she leaned in and they kissed.
It was quick, slight, and gently uncertain. It was, in short, nothing like a movie. Mal’s hair fell out of place, and Lou’s breast started peaking out of her too-tight dress. But they needed it, and that made the embrace a boon.
As it ended, Lou turned away and wiped her mouth, feeling like this was too good. Something terrible must follow, she thought. He would tell her that they had to move to Michigan, that she could not change his mind, that there would be no joint decision. What she hated most was that she would agree, no matter what. She would follow, and over time, they would learn to hate each other, because she would always blame him for being her own inability to walk away.
Mal meanwhile, was watching her.
“I don’t know if I will want you forever.”
“I wouldn’t want you to.”
“I hate being here. But I love being with you.”
“I want to see as much of the world with you as I can.”
“I want to try and find a new life somewhere else.”
“I want to try and make the farm work.”
Mal continued watching with each statement they uttered; Lou remained looking away, watching her lover in the mirror on top of the dresser. Her hair still looked great, and her lover had never been more handsome. He seemed proud of the both of them, happy to be talking this out, engaged and effulgent.
“I just want to move on, Mal. I’m so, so ready to start my own life, and I don’t know how you fit into it,” Lou said, standing up and starting to pace despite the tightness of her dress. Mal reached out and touched her elbow, gently enough that had she kept pacing, he would have lost his grip on her.
“Look. I’m ready to take the risk of failure, of losing you, to follow my passion. And I don’t want that to hurt you. But if I don’t do this, I will hate myself and you,” Mal said, and stood to stand beside her. She hugged him, instinctively, crying, and knowing that it was possible that they would not stay together. She had known that he would need to go to Michigan. She had been pushing him because she understood that, given time, he would choose to leave her if he had to.
Because it was his passion. And she did not know her own.
“You don’t have a cage, darling. It’s a shit metaphor anyway. But where does your passion lie? Mine is in sowing seeds, in making things, in watching life grow.” Lou looked at him, and Mal was smiling at her, his brow furrowed in concern. He was pressing the button, the one she feared, the one she avoided as much as she could. The voice in her head that asked, ‘where is your love?’
And all of a sudden, she understood.
The strength of Lulu-Beth Athena Edwards was in the waiting. Her greatest weakness was her greatest source of power and passion. She could wait forever; she could weave several yards of fabric in undergrad without sleeping a wink; she could watch the sun rise and set if she only had a reason. Despite her treasured middle name, despite her desire to be the strong, tough girl in her world, despite every well-laid brick of intention, she was full of patience. She was not goddess of war and wisdom; she was a Penelope, calm and ever watchful.
“I love you, Mal,” she whispered, “and I love my job, too. If I can do my work and be with you, I’d be so happy. But I’d need to be free to do other things, too. I’m not sure how good I’d be on a farm.” As she spoke, her words cracked in her throat, and her lover held her close, knowing that she needed a slight support for this one moment. Such a strong woman, he had to make sure she barely felt it.
“Okay,” Mal said and looked his lover in the eyes. “We can work it out.”
They stood there for a moment, looking a bit like characters in an old film, looking like themselves in fancy clothes. They stood and waited for all the emotions and words to pass. They could not see it in each other’s eyes, but they both longed for and feared that the last several minutes had never passed, that they had each imagined this conversation.
“I’m good for ice cream if you are.”
Jeremy Stoll is a writer, poet, and comics creator based out of Michigan and various other regions. He does research on comics and community in India, with a particular focus on Delhi and the work of the infamously talented and awesome Pao Collective. As a storyteller, Stoll is most interested in stories that challenge our assumptions about the world, ourselves, and the different roles we weave for ourselves.