Something terrible is about to happen to Charlie Outlaw. This terrible thing will slam into his life with such shocking force as to seem impossible, implausible, even as it’s happening. If we could reach into his story and warn him, he’d struggle to believe us. For the last three weeks, Charlie has been so miserable that it’s hard for him to imagine his life could get worse. Also, he is famous, and people tell him all manner of untrue things.
Charlie Outlaw is an actor, currently the male lead of a hit television drama. In his roles he’s had to grieve and rage and die, and yet his own life—or shall we say his life as Charlie, because even when he’s someone else it’s all his own—has been blessed with an absence of horror. He has, like all of us, known fear and anxiety and guilt and heartbreak, known them more intensely, perhaps, than many of us, because he was born with the heightened sensitivity of an actor and because he became one, and so subjected himself to the highs and lows of that existence, the intensity only inconstancy can bring.
Heartbreak is what chased him here, to this island nation off the coast of a foreign continent, to this clearing in a rain forest where he sits and eases off his backpack, pretending not to notice the surreptitious glances of the woman beside him. Heartbreak, and also fear and guilt and shame, and a desire to escape the gaze—the many, many gazes—of those who know too much about him and imagine even more. Later he will relive again and again the sequence of events that brought him to this place and time, starting with the interview he gave Vanity Fair. Without the interview, none of the rest of it would have happened, not the backlash from fans and coworkers, not the stricken look on Josie’s face, not the insomnia-driven impulse to book a flight. He wouldn’t have spent last night alone in a rental cottage, struggling to resist calling Josie again, would never have hiked into the jungle today without his phone. A person to whom something terrible has happened is as obsessed with causality as any plotter of stories. I did A, and B followed. Is that what it means to deserve something?
Right now Charlie’s mind is on the right strap of his backpack, which he’s struggling to loosen. His pack is very full, because he’s planned an overnight hike—eleven miles of walking today, and then a night, maybe two, spent under the stars on an otherwise inaccessible beach, and then eleven miles back again. There are a handful of other hikers in the clearing—napping, eating, adjusting the laces on their boots—and though he intends no conversation, he’s glad to see them. He dislikes solitude, but he has chosen it, as penance, as quest. He has to remember he’s a person, not a compendium of other people’s opinions. He has to remember who he is when he’s alone.
The woman beside him turns out, when he glances at her, to be quite beautiful. She goes on watching as he fiddles with his strap. There are only three reasons to observe him performing this extremely uninteresting task: One, she knows who he is; two, she thinks he’s attractive; or three, she’s bored. All of the above is also a possible answer. He tries to resist meeting her gaze, but even now, when he should know better than to make eye contact with strangers, it seems rude, or cowardly, to ignore someone who’s looking at him. She smiles and doesn’t look away. Not just bored then. He smiles back automatically, then returns to his backpack. Please don’t talk to me, he thinks. But he can tell she’s going to.
For quite some time now—possibly his whole life—a good deal of Charlie’s processing power has been devoted to reading other people’s reactions. He’s highly attuned to the feelings of others, an instinct that can have the eerie accuracy of telepathy. He can usually tell what someone wants from him, and most of the time he tries to provide it. He strives never to offend, because he hates to hurt others and because he himself is easily hurt, though jokes and charm and good looks assist him in concealing that. Of course, in trying to please one person (a reporter, for instance), you can wound others. Since the interview, he’s been stuck reliving every one of his stupid, thoughtlessly hurtful words: the memory of saying them, the memory of reading them, the memory of everyone else quoting them back. Even if Josie had forgiven him, even if she hadn’t broken up with him, he’d be struggling to forgive himself. Why hasn’t he learned by now to deflect, to produce an enigmatic smile? Why does he still answer every single question he’s asked?
He presses his thumb and forefinger hard against his eyelids, takes a breath, shifts his mind back to the strap.
“American?” the woman asks.
Because he doesn’t want to talk to anyone, he doesn’t want to talk to her, lovely though she is, but he can’t tamp down his reflexive politeness, his hardwired desire to please. “Yes,” he says. “You?” Though from her accent he’d guess no.
She puts her hand on her chest and says, “Brazil.”
So she won’t sense his reluctance to talk, he asks another question. “Are you going all the way to the beach?”
She purses her lips and tilts her head from side to side. “Maybe,” she offers finally. She waves a hand at her feet. “These boots . . .” She makes a face.
“Ah,” he says. “Boots are important.”
She smiles as if this were a clever thing to say. The show doesn’t air in Brazil; at least he doesn’t think it does. But still she might know who he is. With the internet, all things are possible. If she does know, he wonders if she’s seen all the nasty comments about him. The homicidal vitriol. Some people probably even hate him in Portuguese.
From his pack he extracts a bag of lychees he bought from a kid with a cooler on the side of the road. He offers some to the woman and they both eat. He makes a joke and she laughs, meeting his eyes with obvious interest. He wishes he could reciprocate. He wishes he wanted to. That would be an approved way for this story to unfold, the story of how he tried to get over Josie. But to sleep with another woman would feel like a betrayal. Like another one.
“You are alone?” the woman asks. “You hike alone?”
The woman shakes her head, gesturing at two women stretched out on the ground with their hats over their faces, their booted feet crossed at the ankles. “My friends.” She rolls her eyes. “They are tired already.”
“Me, too,” Charlie says. “I don’t really like hiking.”
“No?” She raises her eyebrows. “Why, then?”
“Why don’t I like it? Or why am I doing it?”
She laughs, though what was funny? “Both.”
“I actually do like hiking. Just not by myself.”
He shrugs, then presents her with a sheepish smile. “I’m on a spiritual journey.” He can say “spiritual journey” only if he puts it in quotes. Not because he doesn’t mean it. Because he means it so much. People mistake irony for disdain, but how, without irony’s blessed distance, could you avoid succumbing to every one of your raw and tearful yearnings, every ridiculous thing you feel?
Save it for the close-up, Charlie. That’s what he says to himself, in life, when he can tell he’s about to cry. He said it to himself last night, alone in a rental cottage intended for two, and then cried anyway. When did the habit start? Before he was an actor, if there ever was such a time.
“I understand now,” she says. “For a spiritual journey, you must be alone.”
“Is that true? I guess that’s true.”
“So now I ask another why.”
“Why what? Why did I need one?”
Yes, why? Why Charlie?
The reporter had read deeply about acting, interviewed a multitude of actors. She was dangerously insightful. She asked questions about his process, about his ambitions and aesthetics, about the experience of newfound fame, like she already knew the answers, and so it seemed mere confirmation to give them to her. It felt like they had a mutual understanding. “Her loyalty is to the magazine, not to you,” his publicist said, with a weary patience, after the article appeared. Charlie knows that, of course he knows that. His task was to project the publicist-approved version of Charlie Outlaw, hers to see through that to his messier, more complicated, genuine self. She succeeded by making him fail. Can he blame her when it’s his job, too, to generate trust? “You can make a truth out of anything,” he said to the reporter, during the part of the interview that was an earnest discussion of craft. “You just have to make people feel.”
Still, he hates that these days he gets punished every time he drops his guard. His show’s success was nearly instantaneous, and he’s had months and months of interviews and events and people who melt into puddles or turn spiky and awful at the sight of him. He wants to stop feeling like every interaction is a chess game, each side anticipating moves. It’s exhausting being careful all the time. It makes him sad how frequently now “Charlie Outlaw” feels like another part he plays.
When we think of actors as changeable, manipulative, performative, we forget the willingness to be vulnerable, the crucial impulse toward honesty. Fame insists that vulnerability be armored in wariness, but Charlie has not been famous very long. He resists the lesson. He still wants to be himself. The interview began to go awry when the reporter asked him whether he’d watch his own show if he weren’t on it. He answered the question honestly. He gave it serious thought. He said no.
What can he tell the Brazilian woman, who may already know all this and many other things about him? That it turns out to be possible to know he said what he said, about the show being a little boring in its tidy resolutions, a little limited in its will-they-won’t-they concerns, and yet feel taken aback to see it all in print. The “boring” quote was the one that really pissed people off. That, and the part about liking “more challenging” shows.
To be a fan is to bear a love that by its very nature separates you from the loved one, a wind pushing away what it wants to hold. All the people who’d been so ready to offer up their love, so insistent he receive it—he could never love them back like they loved him, and they knew it, and so they were just waiting for him to give them a reason to hate him. He released them from their purposeless longing, and frantic with relief, they took to their keyboards to call him names.
So he thinks his fans are stupid, people wrote. He thinks he’s better than us. But we made him. Ungrateful s***head. He’d be nothing without us. He’d be nothing without that show.
He could tell the woman he is afraid that this is true.
Plenty of people wrote, I still love him, but—alas for human nature—those words floated away, while I hate him I hate him I hate him settled like shrapnel in his mind.
The woman nudges him with her shoulder. “I am in suspense.”
“My girlfriend broke up with me,” he says. “That’s why I’m alone.” To say this aloud is a self-inflicted wound.
The woman looks at him with such sympathy, which maybe she wouldn’t if she’d read the article. “I know this feeling,” she says. “Terrible. She does not love you now?”
“I don’t know.” He wants to protest that of course she still loves him. She must! It’s only been nineteen days. He believes in love at first sight, having felt it both on and off the stage. He fell in love with Josie the night they met. But surely the end of love takes more than an instant, more than nineteen days. Can an emotion stop so abruptly, like a road cut off by a wall? Not in his experience. Not even when the emotion belongs to a character, and you walk off the stage as yourself.
“There is another man?”
Charlie shakes his head.
She points at him in playful accusation. “Another woman?”
“So . . .”
He finds an answer that is neither a full confession nor a lie. “I said something about her to someone else, and she found out.”
That makes her wince. “What did you say?”
Why does everyone want to know his secrets, even the ones that are secret no longer? And how, how, did the reporter get him to tell Josie’s? He remembers discussing the effects of fame—sure, that was the theme they kept revisiting—and then the reporter brought up Josie’s career, how Josie no longer got anything like the level of attention Charlie was getting now. What did he think that might be doing to her self-worth? Charlie should have said something cheerful and evasive. Instead, he answered haltingly, feeling his way toward the truth. A small, uneasy part of him knew he should shut up, and as if she sensed that, the reporter changed tack. She complimented his relationship with Josie, saying how happy they seemed in photographs, so beautifully real that she wondered if it was all just another act.
Once, he’d been waiting in the car for Josie while she auditioned and she emerged buzzing—with anger or elation, he couldn’t quite tell—and instead of going to lunch like they’d planned, they drove to a deserted part of the garage, where she climbed on top of him despite, or perhaps because of, the dangers of security cameras, of some producer’s assistant pulling up next to them as she parked her car. It wasn’t like Josie to be reckless, to let passion win, and that’s why he remembers the scene with such painful vividness, the sound of her breathing and the determined way she moved. He loves that fierce, unconquerable part of her, loves it still more, perhaps, because she so rarely lets it out.
Copyright © 2018 by Leah Stewart. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.