She’s In Complete Control
A Short Story by Jeremy Benjamin
Written using the suggestion "Bemuse"
Originally featured on 01-04-2008
As part of our series "Relatively Forced Holiday Laughter"

The play opens with a young lady sitting on a picnic bench reading a book. The setting is either a college campus or a town commons—the playwright did not specify. The set design looks like it was supervised by a meth addict who just dropped out of high school and got paid minimum wage.

Randal never saw himself as an audience unit. The lifting of the curtains transported Randal in his mind to the first script read-through with the cast seated around a table in plain clothes drinking coffee and belching while the director scribbled notes on a yellow pad, Randal as an ethereal voyeur with an early draft of the script in his hands.

Randal had been wrestling all week with the spokes of a poem he was trying to write, repeating the lines to himself like rotations of a power sander making gradual revisions. Time is a dead locust splattered on a windshield definitely did not work. At two in the morning in his bedroom he had tweaked it from a windshield to my windshield, but that sounded even worse. The word time was way too contrived, so he scrapped it and changed the first line to read the future is a dead locust splattered- He didn’t even finish writing the sentence. It was at that point that he needed to walk away from the poem and leave the house for a while. Sitting in a theater with the deformed limbs of his poem squirming around his mind’s uterus like maggots, he suddenly felt like he needed a shower more than he had ever needed a shower before.

Enter: young man.

The young man looks around uncertainly and walks up behind the young lady, who is unaware of his presence. He looks guilty and nervous as he reaches both hands toward her, retracts them, hesitates, and slowly reaches back toward her. At one point he almost walks away, disgusted with himself. His intention is to give a complete stranger a massage.

That is exactly what the young man does: he lays both palms over the tips of her shoulder blades and spreads out to encircle the base of her neck with his fingertips. His technique is to picture his hands as films of hot wax poured over her skin, conforming to the shape of her muscles. And then he begins to slowly press, dig and kneed, roving the surface of her back and shoulders in search of target points. When he finds them, he will plant the appropriate thumb along the contour of her spine and use it as an anchor while his knuckles begin the excavation process. His method is to visualize the young lady’s back as a garden and himself as a commissioned landscape architect. He has been told he is talented.

Pheromones smeared on glass- Randal chastised himself; he would not think about the poem here. He came here to distance himself from its awfulness so that he could revisit the purity of that one simple image that had resonance; the black streak on his windshield was his muse, and it would speak to him later if he would stop distracting himself and just enjoy the damned play.

Whether the young man performs this act as a social experiment, an assignment from a psych class, or whether this is a sleazy sexual ploy of his, the playwright does not disclose to the audience his motive.

The young lady’s reaction is a null reaction. She continues reading, smiles slightly, and arches her bodyweight into the stranger’s hands to make it clear that she is deriving pleasure from this. At no point does she turn around to look at the young man’s face. It is not clear to the audience whether she assumes the young man is somebody she knows and was expecting, or whether she is simply enjoying the back rub and does not care who is administering it.

As the scene progresses, she guides his hands with vocal feedback. “A little to the left- right there, harder. Mmmmm…” Once she finishes the chapter she’s reading, she places the book down and nonchalantly poses the question “Who is this?” as if she’s just answered a telephone.

The young man’s hands let go and jerk away from her as if burned.

“I didn’t say stop.”

He proceeds to trace the rim of her collar bone with caution.

She repeats the question.

“You didn’t know who I was this whole time?”

Their first instant of eye contact is given emphasis by a subtle dimming of the stage lights.

She is turned toward him now. “How would I know who you were?”

The young man shifts his feet. “I’m sorry, you just looked like you could use a back rub.”

“Then why did you stop?”

He looks down. His mouth inflates with a few options for responses, and then slackens.

The young lady says “I thought you might play the classic game where you act stunned and say oh my god, you look just like my girlfriend from behind, I thought- oh, I’m so embarrassed.” She acts this out comically with her hand clamped over her cheek. She has probably gotten that line before.

The young man laughs; laughs like he’s genuinely relieved.

“Be honest, was that what you had planned to say? But then the moment you saw my face you knew you couldn’t bullshit me, right?”

His mouth chews more candidates for responses that his brain rejects.

“Right?” She pokes him in the chest.

“I hadn’t actually reckoned that far ahead. I do things impulsively sometimes.”

“You're a bad man. You know that, right?"

The young man nods.

"Are you agreeing with me just so I'll leave you alone?"

"No, ma'am."

The word ma'am collapses her serious, confrontational demeanor. A snorting laugh erupts from her reproving stance like a crack in a porcelain figurine. The audience will surmise that this character has never been addressed as ma'am in her entire life.

She is standing at this point. The two are the same height. She backs up and regains composure.

"Are you proud of your behavior?"

He is gradually looking more comfortable in his posture. "What do you mean?"

"You said you're a bad man. Do you seek redemption?"

"How?"

"Well, a truly evil man would have already walked away. You have a conscience."

"I don’t getcha."

The young lady sighs. Her expression says I’m smarter than you and your stupidity is beginning to irritate me, so now I shall exert my god-given right to wield it to my advantage.

Facing stage left, she peels her shirt off (the playwright inserts a very careful note—he seldom interrupts dialogue with stage directions, but this one is printed in large, bold font—that there is nothing suggestive or sensuous in the manner in which she strips; the character is not supposed to be played with any hint of coquettishness), folds it, lays it beneath her on the bench and lies down on her stomach wearing just a bra.

The young man is dumbfounded.

"Are you just gonna stand there?"

"You want me to…"

"You disrespected me, and now you have to finish what you started. If you can find that one spot in my lower back and force the demons out of it, I might entertain the idea of accepting your apology. Eventually, I mean. I’ve got this knot pretty deep in there, my chiropractor can’t even get to it. I won’t help you find it, and if you poke my spleen, I'll murder you. Stop wasting time." She resumes reading her book.

The young man awkwardly climbs onto the bench, straddles her and starts pummeling her back elastically with the backs of his hands. The young lady flaps her heels up and down contentedly.

The lights fade, and just before transitioning to the next scene, the young lady’s last line is heard:

"I’m never gonna sleep with you."

By this point, in case anyone still had any lingering doubt in their mind, it is confirmed that we are watching a romantic comedy. Romantic comedy is a genre. Experimental theater pours you into the ocean and tosses you a few small certainties. A genre is a set of many certainties that come as a prepackaged deal.

Boy will meet girl. An attraction will be established early. Boy will offend girl. Boy and girl will be brought together by some ordeal or inconvenient circumstance. Boinking will commence. Once solidified, their relationship will be challenged by internal and/or external factors, momentum will push it to the brink of collapse, after which boy and girl will ache for each other and then reunite via gestures of interpersonal transformation, and all obstacles to bliss will be removed. Boy and girl will walk hand in hand into the sunset and boink till they bleed. With the anticipation of those nonnegotiable ingredients delineated, how much of an ocean can there be?

The words 'I’m never gonna sleep with you' itched like a grain of salt on Randal’s tongue. It was a feeling of claustrophobia. He got up from the narrow pew and walked out of the theater while it was still darkened.

It was more than claustrophobia. It was the playwright hijacking the young lady’s character as a megaphone. Wasn’t that kind of like rape? The playwright was then using that megaphone to make an advertisement for events promised to happen in Act II. Since when was dialogue obligated to be a vehicle for a play’s own merchandising? Did the Saturday-morning-cartoon generation really have an attention span that high maintenance?

I squeegeed the future off my window, smooshed it into a doubled napkin and… No, stop.

The wind outside had accelerated and Randal distinctly recognized the smell of Foley’s Donuts as dusk settled around his ankles. He glanced over his shoulder at the awning to Michaela’s Pub before crossing the street. Later in the car, he wondered why he had looked behind him. He had no intentions of returning to the theater, and was not craving a drink at the pub.

Randal knew why he had turned around; it was not inconceivable that a woman might have walked out of the play in disgust at the same time as he had, and for the same reasons. They could recognize each other from the will-call line and strike up a conversation. They would mock the play and discuss all the reasons why the plot structure is so false to real life, and an insult to real people living their real lives. Based on the five minutes they saw, the conversation could flow into an ocean. They would talk about the evils of society and how the world would end. And then she would look him in the eyes bleakly and say "Randal, I’m never gonna sleep with you," and they would both laugh out loud. An attraction would therein be established, and they would promptly go home and boink, and then a bunch of complicated shit would go down over a period of several months, and then they’d get back to boinking. Or something like that.

Randal drove home alone. The black streak on the windshield was difficult to identify.

He liked to think that he could do better.

Read More By Jeremy Benjamin

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Portland Fiction Project

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