A short story
Gene called them his good-day-bad-day bagels. When he was having a good day, he’d allow himself a bagel, and when he was having a bad day, he’d also allow himself a bagel. How he landed on bagels was a matter of both convenience and health: New York had no shortage of them and doughnuts upset his blood sugar. But bagels, on the other hand—they possessed an inoffensive, neutral quality. The problem was he sometimes swerved between good and bad so frequently that he ended up consuming three bagels before dinner. Though Gene believed in waiting until the end of the day before declaring it one or the other—sticking a nice, firm label beneath it—waiting defeated the purpose of an immediate, edible consequence.
Gene measured out every moment of his life into a series of punishments and rewards. If he missed the subway right when the doors pinched shut, he let himself forgo eye contact with the homeless woman jiggling her paper cup. If he skipped the subway fare because a charitable stranger had propped the door open, his punishment (awful to consider it punishment, he knew) amounted to giving her a dollar along with the eye contact.
Mentally taxing to approach life like a bank account, a nonstop escalator of fluctuating numbers, yet he found comfort in it. A system of measurements to keep himself on the straight moral path because he couldn’t always keep it straight in his mind—this was his self-prescribed treatment.
Today, the day he took the N train from Astoria and boarded the bus on East 39th and Second, he’d tallied zero ups and two downs, meaning he was allowed two ups: an everything bagel with green-onion cream cheese (he counted them separately; he didn’t like to cheat the system). At the bodega, he’d considered ordering a second bagel, because today—surely, today of all days?—he would have reason to celebrate.
He opened his brown paper bag as Napoleon sank into the seat beside him. “My doctor said I have the heart of a 60-year-old,” Napoleon said by way of hello. Given that Napoleon had turned 60 last month, Gene offered no response, instead politely listened as he denounced the toxicity of Western medicine. Napoleon interpreted Gene’s silence as a reproach. “What’s with you?”
“Nothing,” Gene lied. “My stomach hurts.”
Napoleon rummaged through his satchel, a fake Louis Vuitton, and produced a bottle of Po Chai pills. “Take two of these. With lukewarm—not cold—water.”
Gene waved him away. “I’m fine.”
“Suit yourself.” Napoleon zipped his satchel back up and eyed Gene’s paper bag. “What do you got there?” Gene reluctantly admitted to the everything bagel as Napoleon closed his eyes. “I haven’t eaten since last night. We wrapped at four in the morning. I took a nap on the 6, didn’t even have time to go home and shower—”
Gene handed the bagel over.
“You sure you don’t want any?” Napoleon said, already tearing through the wax paper.
“I’m sure.” Gene meant to ask how bagels fit into Napoleon’s anti-Western cleanse, but was distracted by a familiar face boarding the bus—a woman he’d once been paired with as a couple at a fancy Szechuan restaurant in the Lower East Side. He turned in his seat and recognized more faces before the vertigo of familiarity was heightened by a new realization: Everyone present had been selected because, from a blurred distance, they could be related.
Napoleon noticed too. “I bet you it’s a Japanese World War II movie.”
Napoleon (his parents had named him with misguided hopes) played ILLEGAL IMMIGRANT while Gene played UPSCALE LAWYER. How their respective identities factored into this casting decision (Napoleon being a little more South to Gene’s East) was understood but left unspoken by both men. Standing in line to get propped—Gene with his shiny briefcase, Napoleon with a soiled cardboard sign—Napoleon had offered to lift Gene up. Napoleon’s shortcut to making friends was lifting people up, including the 6-foot-3 man who played SECURITY GUARD, somehow stunned and satisfied each time he managed it.
Gene continued to run into Napoleon on set, not unusual when few background actors shared their narrow demographic. Without having exchanged numbers once, Gene suspected he was on more intimate terms with Napoleon’s catalog of health problems than Napoleon’s full-time friends were—one of the perks, or pits, of the job: endless hours to kill when the only weapon around was small talk. But the transitory nature of these interactions was also their beauty, which freed you up to confess more than you’d otherwise dare because after 12 consecutive hours together, you’d simply say, “Nice talking to you,” and never see each other again. You walked off with others’ confessions and they with yours, safe in the degrees of separation that stretched between you.
Gene had been doing background for two years. When asked how he’d gotten into it (a stock question extras passed around between takes), he would say he’d always been interested in acting, and wasn’t a late start better than none? That wasn’t entirely true, though. Actually, it wasn’t true at all. He’d signed up to do background because of his daughter, Athena. Like Napoleon’s parents, Gene had named her with hopes she’d achieve magnificence, and then, to his bewilderment, she did: Winner of the Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting. Nominated for Best Narrative Feature at SXSW. Premiered at Sundance Film Festival.
He once looked up her biography: “Athena Wu is a writer and director. The daughter of immigrants, her work interrogates the intersection of race, sex, and violence. She lives in Los Angeles.”
“The daughter of immigrants.” He read the line twice to make sure he hadn’t hallucinated it. That she had taken on her mother’s maiden name was bad enough, but what had compelled her to lie? Like Athena, Gene had been born in Michigan; they’d moved to New York when she was 5. He’d grown up in an industrial town on the outskirts of Detroit, pretty painlessly, all things considered. He had plenty to be grateful for, all things considered. But Athena—she refused to acknowledge that her accomplishments, all the awards and fellowships and titles, had been made possible through an unbroken line of others’ suffering. And yet in her “body of work,” Athena never failed to adopt their suffering as her own. If such a thing as a surrogate of misery existed, that was his daughter.
How to explain he was terrified of her? Not just terrified but puzzled he’d had any involvement in her upbringing, let alone her existence. In an interview, when asked why she’d gone into filmmaking, Athena had responded, “I’ve always been interested in controlling my environment. I guess you could say it was an affect developed in childhood.” The last line had made him squint sideways at his phone.
Gene wasn’t an ambitious man himself—he looked for meaning in the hours spent clocked out of his job more than in the job itself, which was, at the moment, driving part-time for Uber. He and his cousin split custody of a slate-blue Toyota Camry; he had the weekends and his cousin, the weekdays. He rented out the second floor of a duplex from a young couple, a painful reminder he had yet to achieve the kind of financial security his daughter enjoyed.
He led a noiseless life, though it was a little lonely and monotonous, true. But doing background, he’d been a NASA scientist, a doctor, and a UN ambassador without having to train for any of it. For as long as he could remember, Gene had had trouble staying loyal to a single objective. When Athena was younger, he’d been a security-desk attendant, a truck driver for a restaurant-supplies company, and a maintenance-crew member, just to name a few. In between jobs, he’d participated in paid surveys about products he could never afford and swallowed clinical-trial pills his nonexistent health insurance could never cover. He’d had no time to tend to a “career.”
But Athena—she’d always known what she wanted. Barely in second grade and already arranging her toys in elaborate three-act stories. Other little girls wanted dolls or clothes; his daughter had coveted a Sony camcorder with infrared night vision. Other daughters were devoted to or at least tolerant of their fathers; his had abandoned him when he needed her the most.
The bus squeaked onto 495 and spat them out in Long Island, at an immense studio Gene hadn’t known existed. All these years and New York kept pulling scarves out of its hat, discount-magician-style. He could never come to grips with the city, which thrived on chaos rather than order. But maybe that was why he stayed. The city was forgiving, built on second and third and fourth chances.
In the parking lot, everyone stretched, yawned, and obediently shuffled in the direction of neon-pink signs pointing to holding—a demoralizing room with 10 fans in lieu of functioning AC. Nonunion’s breakfast was already waiting on warming trays: scrambled eggs, sausage patties, bacon, pancakes, and home fries. On an adjacent table were juice boxes and packaged snacks. The granola bars were always pocketed in seconds. Gene had forgotten this and by the time he wandered over, only unsalted peanuts greeted him.
Gene looked up. Napoleon had sauntered in with his SAG-exclusive breakfast, served upstairs: eggs Benedict, shrimp cocktail, sliced avocado, and a salacious chocolate muffin.
“Didn’t want to eat with them,” he sneered, though Gene didn’t understand why since he never let anyone forget he was SAG. “Where’s the line for SAG?” “Sorry to cut, I’m SAG.” “Is SAG getting bused home?” Another point docked off.
Gene took a bite of flaccid pancake as the first AD swept into the room, his movements so frenetic that the NDAs fluttered in their piles on the conference tables.
Gene waited for “Janek but you can call me Jack” to speak. He did not. To Gene’s amusement, Jack waited until all the NDAs were signed and collected before opening his mouth. From that moment on, the extras were bound to silence.
“Okay, so _________ happens over the course of 24 hours. It’s made up of three vignettes, each one based around a different __________ in New York. I said vignette, not vinaigrette.”
Most of the time, nobody on set bothered to explain anything to them. Most of the time, they were herded around like blind children. On the rare occasions explanations were offered, the film was either big-budget or art-house.
“And our eyes and ears, __________, he’s the thread that connects them all. You still with me? Okay, so today we’re shooting three scenes.” Disappointment dribbled through the room. “I know, I know, it’s going to be a long day, but trust me, we want to get you out of here as fast as we can.” Translation: We don’t want to pay you a cent more than we have to.
Someone raised her hand. Jack pretended not to see.
“So in this vignette, everything takes place on a ______________. In the first scene, it’s a normal day. You’re all waiting for the _______ like it’s going to come any second. Yeah? In the next scene, it’s the same scenario but you’re getting a little __________ and you all ___ _____. In the last scene, imagine a _____ or __________ has just happened. This is when __________ starts to go haywire. He’s been ____________ throughout the day, ____ on, called a _______, and now he completely loses it. Got it?”
Gene set down his fork, his appetite diminished. Why was Athena so seduced by tragedy?
A chair screeched back against the linoleum floor. The elegant hand gripping it belonged to Hiriko, an attractive, widowed woman of undisclosed age. Gene had met her a couple of months back, when they played ND PEDESTRIANS during an alien invasion. She had a habit of bringing an enormous paperback to set, opening it up, then ignoring it for the rest of the shoot, and she kept a flask in her purse from which she stole small, satisfied sips.
“Do you know who’s playing the lead?” she asked him, twinkling.
Gene could never tell if she was flirting. He wasn’t even sure if he wanted her to flirt. He had not dated anyone in a very long time.
“That young man everyone’s talking about, ______________.”
He was said to be the next (the first?) great Asian American actor of their time, the one who’d raise them from obscurity into, well, something beyond obscurity. His résumé ran the gamut from superhero action flicks to romantic comedies, and now he was, unsurprisingly, segueing into dramas. And his daughter had nabbed him in her film’s lead role. His daughter—the words leaned forward on the edge of his tongue. He yanked them back.
“He’s dating what’s-her-name, the actress who played the last Wonder Woman,” Hiriko added.
Gene’s mind sketched a rough impression of her: blond, full-figured, legs up to here. “Isn’t that something.”
The three chewed in silence. No one said aloud the obvious thought hanging over the table, That would have never happened in my day!, because it would have conceded the world was zipping in a different direction while they felt affixed to the same spot.
The man at wardrobe took one look at Gene and asked if he’d brought a change of clothes. The question was an insult; his clothes were brand-name, from TJ Maxx. Gene did nearly all his shopping at TJ Maxx, a comfortingly neutral store.
He shook his head no without bothering to trot out an excuse, then couldn’t help but cut his eyes at Napoleon and his fake Louis Vuitton luggage. Napoleon pulled out five full sets of options as wardrobe fawned over him.
Inside a portable dressing room that refused to zip up all the way, Gene struggled to tug off his pants without knocking over the flimsy nylon contraption. He cursed himself for ignoring the wardrobe notes from last night. “No bright whites, no brand names, think grimy, interesting patterns acceptable, nothing that causes strobing, though!” Surely that warranted a subtraction of points.
At hair and makeup, his hair was combed through and spritzed. Makeup devoted more time to covering him in soot-colored powder.
“You have great eyebrows,” the makeup artist complimented him. She kissed her brush into a cake of gray and gently stabbed his forehead.
Gene twisted up to look at her. She had purple hair, a flower tattoo trailing across her neck. “Thank you,” he said tremulously. He wished he knew her name.
She looked a little put off by his sincerity. “Sure thing.”
Add three points to the day. He had great eyebrows.
She stepped away to let him review her work in the mirror: He looked poor. Poor and old.
When the availability request had popped up on his phone, it had said only “BYSTANDER for UNNAMED PROJECT.” His eyes had snagged on the text. Something about it crackled, its very nondescriptness setting it apart from other requests.
He had almost turned it down, had almost given up hope he’d ever land on one of his daughter’s sets, but then he remembered she was scheduled to be in New York. He’d read about it on a fan-run social-media account: “Athena Wu rumored to start production on her second feature in Manhattan next month.”
He’d last seen her at the Atlantic City bus terminal, seven years ago. Their goodbye had been benign, even pleasant. When she handed him the envelope of cash, she hadn’t cut any of her usual backhanded or reproachful remarks. And when they parted, she’d even gripped his arm and said, “Good luck.” Good luck, in any language, spoke of well wishes, didn’t it?
Not until weeks, then months, later—time marked by deafening silence to his calls, texts and emails—did he obsessively rewind and freeze-frame the moment. Trying hopelessly to pinpoint when in the course of an hour their relationship had soured and spoiled. When they stopped for Subway sandwiches? Waiting in line for tickets? But that was absurd. He wasn’t so naive as to believe the first thread had unraveled at the Atlantic City bus terminal. No, Athena must have decided sometime before (when?) to “estrange” herself from him. What a funny word, estrange! Gene thought it sounded unnecessarily fancy, almost French, since it called to mind escargots. But sitting smack in the middle of the word was strange, and yes, strange was the word for a part of yourself going off into the world, scaling magnificent heights, while the other part remained a distant spectator. If Gene had to describe the sensation, he’d say it was like catching a glimpse of your elbow on someone else’s arm and wondering, Now how did you end up there?
The PA charged with wrangling them like blind children was Beckett. He wore the standard PA uniform: sneakers, jeans, hoodie, and a holster slung around his hips where a walkie talkie took the place of a gun.
Gene felt paternal toward the PAs, who were invariably in their 20s and considered sleep a fun activity they’d try someday. When an unusually thoughtful PA asked, “Need anything? Everything okay? Let me know if you want water,” Gene had to stop himself from asking, “Do you need anything? Is everything okay with you? Let me know if you want water.”
Beckett, unlucky fellow, was not a PA with a natural loudspeaker built into his lungs. Gene caught the beginning half of his sentence as he crossed the room, his voicing cracking in the middle: “If you have not had your picture taken—”
“What?” Hiriko called. “What was that?”
The question went unanswered and they were transferred into the care of another overworked PA.
Tian formed the start of a line, looking serenely unbothered. Of all the people Gene had ever met on set, Tian had been doing background the longest. He never scrolled through his phone between takes or tried to negotiate sitting down in a scene. He’d never dream of sneaking off to holding, pretending he hadn’t heard his number called. In other words, he was the consummate extra.
The PA asked for their numbers.
“Two,” Tian chimed in his clear voice. Of course he was No. 2 on the call sheet.
Hiriko turned to Napoleon. “How are auditions?”
Unlike her and Gene, Napoleon was an acteur, meaning he had an agent who occasionally secured him auditions in demoralizing rooms not unlike holding.
“I just did one for a commercial,” he said, loud enough for others to hear. “A national one.” Gene and Hiriko exchanged Aren’t we special? glances. “For gastritis, which, sure, isn’t what I planned on for my acting debut, but I wouldn’t have to work for a year: $50,000 on average is what I’m hearing. And don’t forget the residuals.”
If Napoleon lucked out, he’d be guaranteed a lifelong job. Then again, he’d be forever known as the face of gastritis. Which put him out of the running for arthritis guy, ulcers guy, etc.
They shuffled back to their table.
“I hope you get it, Napoleon, I really do.” Gene mostly meant it. He pulled out the bag of peanuts, scrutinized it. Did he deserve a reward?
“You’re just—what—one voucher away from joining SAG?” Napoleon asked, though he’d asked Gene this question before.
Another point docked. “Mm-hmm.”
Hiriko’s eyeglasses slipped down her nose as she leaned forward. “You have to learn a special skill. Sign language. Playing dead. Tap dancing. You know, I once danced with Sessue Hayakawa.” She winked at Gene as he struggled to recalculate her age based on this new bit of information. He wasn’t imagining it—she was flirting. She opened her paperback and scanned Gene’s midsection. “Or just invest in an NYPD costume. You have the build.” Maybe not.
“You know what you got to do?” Napoleon teased. “Insert yourself.”
A few legendary extras had snatched up speaking roles by shouting a line so good, so flawless, they’d rendered themselves indispensable. Infamous among extra lore was the Being John Malkovich scene when a guy whips a beer can at John and hollers, “Think fast!”
Hiriko pursed her lips. “What do you mean?”
Gene recounted the anecdote, pleased as anything, as if it belonged to him and only him.
“Oh, that? That’s been debunked.” Hiriko sipped gaily from her flask. “You didn’t know?”
Gene sighed with inordinate disappointment. Now why did she have to tell him that? He preferred the false version, the better version.
By noon, Beckett’s voice had been reduced to a rasp. “Everyone, Nos. 1 to 75, follow me. We are going to set now. Leave your stuff here. No one will steal your umbrella, I promise. Yes, go to the bathroom now. Bring your IDs to get propped. I said, ‘BRING YOUR IDs.’”
Beckett led them through a tunnel of hallways leading into a massive warehouse. Rows of horizontal lights spanned the length of the walls, tricking the eye into the collective fiction that broad daylight filled the warehouse. Extraordinary, the amount of muscle and sweat poured into movie magic, Gene thought. And he did think it was extraordinary, to the point where he’d look around set and grow a little misty-eyed. I’m a part of movie magic, he’d reflect, and if I so much as step in the wrong direction, I can break the spell.
They passed by a construction area—sawing, hammering, sanding—before entering a replica of a New York City subway station. The uncanniness was surreal: Everything, down to the grimy tiles and dripping metal beams and balled-up, wet trash, had been cloned to perfection.
The set was frantic with people wrangling their respective gear: cameras, lighting, sound, hair and makeup, the person who stuck neon tape on the ground (how was he named in the credits? Gene had always wondered). He spotted Jack yapping into his headset, a different PA reprimanding Beckett, Napoleon hitting on a guy half his age, and then, and then—he saw her.
She was staring at a screen, seated in a raised folding chair. Her hair was short now, chin-length, not long as she’d always worn it. She looked tired. She looked awfully young compared with everyone around her. She was dressed like a PA. Did she need water? He could have cried.
“You.” Beckett snapped his fingers. “Here.”
He pointed to a spot a few yards away from Athena. Her outline flitted in the corner of Gene’s eye.
Napoleon nudged him. “What are you doing?”
Gene realized everyone was grudgingly lying down. “Which scene is this?”
“How the hell would I know? They never tell us shit.”
“If wardrobe says I ruined this coat, it’s not my problem,” Hiriko murmured. She took off her glasses, then looked at Gene for approval. He offered up a noncommittal noise.
As soon as Athena was preoccupied, Gene carefully lowered himself down; he couldn’t bear for her to catch him panting and fumbling, the spitting image of the old man he must have occupied in her imagination. He stared up at the enormous ceiling. The floor beneath him was cold.
The stand-in for the principal actor was shuttled off as Jack’s voice descended from above. “Okay, so this is before __________ has entered the station. Think of it as the ____ before the _______. Right now we want to create a _________ mood. Got it?” He was met with blank faces. “Lie still, but move around. Scratch something, cough—no, mime coughing—just don’t look dead. Okay?” Jack clapped his hands together.
Gene struggled to make sense of the film. Was it abstract? Athena’s first film had been abstract (an excess of neon signs at night; decadent food left uneaten on tables; opaque conversations) but at the same time the very opposite of abstract, given that 10 minutes of it were devoted to the gang rape of a girl. A girl who looked not unlike his daughter. Gene’s instinct was to flee the theater mid-film, and he might have if his body hadn’t congealed into a useless block of flesh. Afterward, he used the lobby’s free Wi-Fi to scrape the internet for information on how he was supposed to feel. However illogical, he couldn’t help but suspect Athena left signs for him in her art. If she’d baked a message into this first film, what on earth was it?
In an interview, when asked about the film’s explicit violence, Athena had answered, “I had to show the truth. This happened. We can’t look away from it,” referencing a 1985 news story out of San Francisco’s Chinatown. Gene understood this; he did. At least on an intellectual level. But who was it for? Who wanted to watch it? He certainly didn’t want to see five white men gang-rape a girl who looked not unlike his daughter. He could’ve lived his whole life without seeing it. Happily. But maybe he was a Philistine. He favored comedies. Animated movies. Black-and-white classics. He was a sucker for unambiguous endings.
In the lobby, he’d put away his phone with an uneasy heart. Whenever he watched interviews of his daughter, she came across as angry. Angry and self-righteous. The combination made him profoundly sad. Wasn’t she tired? He wanted to tell her to take a break. To allow herself carefree stupidity, the birthright of anyone her age. But his daughter was on a crusade (against what?). She was terrifying. She’d always terrified him.
“Napoleon?” Gene whispered.
Napoleon’s head was positioned just above his. Tiger Balm wafted from his forehead; the man was morphing into an apothecary. “I ever tell you I have a daughter?”
“QUIET ON SET.”
The urge to toss it all out the window seized Gene. To throw a beer can and yell, “Think fast!” Gene licked his chapped lips. “She’s the director.”
Napoleon twisted around in disbelief as someone barked, “Stay in your first positions.”
“No kidding?” He fished for the miniature headshots he kept in his wallet. “Hey, introduce me.”
Gene swatted his hand away. “She doesn’t know I’m here.”
“What the hell are you talking about, Gene?” Napoleon demanded, abruptly a full Staten Islander, a fact he suppressed until he couldn’t.
“HOLD THE TALK. LAST LOOKS.”
Napoleon brushed his hair back and sucked in his cheeks.
“Pictures up … Rolling … Background … Action!”
Action! was the sacred word that recontextualized the set into a nearly religious space. Every second carried weight and they all bore it, each and every one of them, for a common purpose, and surely such collective devotion gestured at a kind of religion, didn’t it?
Gene noticed only then that the principal actor had materialized. Gene startled a little in recognition—so Hiriko had been right.
The principal actor fell to the ground, moaning and writhing, before crawling over the extras. His foot nearly grazed Gene’s chin. After a while, his wails echoed through the set. In Gene’s opinion, he was overdoing it, his drama sliding toward melodrama.
“Cut!” Athena’s voice. Gene’s heart did a jumping jack.
For the next two hours, while the camera was moved into every conceivable position, Gene remained suspended in a state of anxiety so intense it bordered on elation. When Jack called, “Checking the gate!” his posture caved with relief.
Beckett allowed the extras to stop by the crafty truck before heading back to holding. Gene stretched and dawdled, loitering until the others had filed off set. He felt oddly light and heavy at once. He steadied himself and walked toward Athena, the calm center in a cluster of moving bodies, her headphones hanging off one ear, still staring intently at a screen monitor.
Gene kept his eyes down as he passed, but at the last minute he looked up and what do you know, she was looking right at him.
“Dad?” she said, not unkindly, not even so much in surprise.
She continued to stare at him. Then she got up and hissed, “Follow me.”
From the back, she looked very thin—malnourished, practically. Her walk still listed toward the left, a flaw inherited from her mother. She led him behind the set, lights blaring synthetic daylight above them, over electrical cords and past carts stacked with bottled water, through a set of double doors into the parking lot. Outside, it was drizzling.
Gene’s hands trembled; he was on the verge of splitting apart from happiness. He’d planned out this moment hundreds of times. The apologies. The forgiveness. The reunification, like two weary countries after a civil war.
“You’re sick,” she said.
“I’ve missed you.”
“What are you doing here?”
“I’m acting,” he smiled.
She smiled back like she wanted to run him over with a car. “I could have you arrested.”
“No, you can’t,” he said lightly, and even she looked struck by this truth.
“You look great, Athena.”
“You have no right—”
“I have every right.” His voice had lost its friendly edge.
At this, Athena laughed unconvincingly. The skin around her eyes had already started to sag. She’s only 27, he thought.
“I have no obligation to you,” she said.
“Your opinion doesn’t matter here.”
“‘Opinion?’” he repeated skeptically. “Who’s talking about opinions? You’re my daughter—”
The hardness etched into the word was so startling, he took a step backwards.
“I will not engage with you on your terms. You will not cross the boundaries I’ve put up to safeguard my well-being.” She had switched to the clipped, even register of a therapist.
If she would at least scream, if she would at least cry! Anything would have been preferable to this phony wall of talk therapy. And yet he sensed the wall she’d patched together was fragile, the thinnest of paper holding back a flood. If he just pressed a little further—
“I’ll leave you alone if you give me a legitimate reason why,” Gene countered. He was convinced he’d engineered an indisputable workaround, because the contrary, leaving her alone for good, was unbearable. Instead, he stood dumbstruck as Athena fired terms at him like emotional abuse and parental neglect. As proof, she brought up the money, though she’d assured him in Atlantic City that she wanted to—what was it?—put him on the road to recovery. She told him she’d been going to Al-Anon for two years after realizing none of it was her fault.
Gene frowned. Al-Anon?
She’d always blamed herself, did he know that? As a child, she had to do everything, she had to track his purchases, his whereabouts, cover up his blunders for the sake of her mother, throw out the empty bottles, open the windows in the morning to air out the stink. Keeping their family from collapsing in on itself had fallen to her, but if she so much as asked for a packed lunch, she feared she was acting selfishly. She existed on perpetual tiptoe, afraid the slightest misstep would set him off, unable to go to bed for hours because she was waiting, she was always waiting. And yet at school, she had to pretend she had normal kid problems, make up excuses for why she fell asleep during class or why Gene had missed another parent-teacher conference. Thanks to Al-Anon, she had finally started to heal.
Heal. The word alone was a condemnation. A younger version of himself might have shouted or slammed an object against a table to tug the narrative back toward reason. But this version of himself—tired, lonely, and tired of feeling lonely—could only grab a handful of empty words. “I see.”
He couldn’t even bring himself to say sorry. He loathed himself for it. But apologizing would admit to her version of the truth.
When Gene didn’t say more, Athena blinked in surprise. “Well—yes. And I need you to respect that.” She turned and walked toward the doors.
Gene called out, “I wanted to say I’m happy for you.” The trembling in happy sickened him. He’d tried so hard to sound cheerful.
Athena slowed her steps without stopping. He started subtracting points, then lost count.
A year before they parted at the Atlantic City bus terminal, she’d been the same at her mother’s funeral. Withholding. Cold. Distant. Gene knew parents could be withholding, cold, distant. He didn’t know children could be too.
Athena made all the funeral arrangements, and for that, Gene was grateful. Well, more accurately, he felt blips of gratitude, bright buoys in the sea waving to him from afar through a haze of near-constant inebriation. From the hospital to the church, he was awash, afloat on a mixture he’d concocted of suanmeitang and whiskey, while Athena rushed around making calls, answering the door, heating up leftovers. He was inconsolable. He would have liked to drown. He couldn’t think of Bi-Ling’s wasted body sans thinking with morbid jealousy of the pain-free place she now inhabited. The few times clarity visited before a numbing headache took their place, he’d wonder, Why aren’t you inconsolable? My busy daughter. My oh-so-efficient daughter. Why have you left me flailing alone in this watery grief?
“Hi, yes, one black coffee, cheese crackers, a Rice Krispies treat, and … Sorry, what do you have back there?” He sensed the line behind him twitching with impatience. “And a granola bar. Wait, never mind—a fruit cup,” he said sagely. He hated fruit cups. The points demanded a punishment. Or a reward. He no longer knew.
Gene had conceived of the good-day-bad-day-bagel system after attending his first, and only, AA meeting. First and only because he just couldn’t look himself squarely in the eye in the light of day. If he looked at a problem aslant, it didn’t fully exist and therefore it couldn’t fully dominate his reality. Cowardly, he knew. But in his own way, he had managed. Hadn’t he?
“So you don’t want the other stuff?” The cook’s face didn’t sugarcoat his exasperation.
“No, I do,” he sighed.
Arms full, coffee sloshing onto his borrowed shoes, Gene walked back to holding and sat down. Athena’s words nagged at him. “‘Impact over intent.’ What does that mean, anyway?”
Napoleon shrugged as Hiriko turned thoughtful, flipping the pages of her book without glancing at them. “Do you have an example?” she asked.
“That’s what I’m saying—it doesn’t have any meaning. You can’t disagree with it. Like an ace card.” Gene stared suspiciously at his empty fruit cup—when had he eaten it?
“Are you okay, buddy?” Napoleon asked with unusual sympathy. As if Gene were unwell. Or worse, senile. “Did you … talk to her?”
Before Gene could answer, Beckett called them back to set. As they filed down the hallway, Hiriko held out her flask. Just by its heft in his palm, Gene knew it was half full—funny how an old instinct kicked right back in as if it had never left. He hesitated for a second, then cleared it in a single gulp. He had pinned Hiriko for a sherry drinker, but it was straight gin.
She raised an eyebrow. “One of those days?”
What Gene could not abide was being smudged away. That’s how Athena looked at him—like a smudge on the plain of her pristine life. A relic of her pre-famous past she’d never have to set eyes on again simply because she could choose not to, so low was he beneath her line of sight.
Unbelievable that she’d denied the fact of their biological relationship. Of course, she’d packaged it in different terms: chosen family and personal autonomy. Nonsense was what it was.
But Athena had always rewritten reality to match her preferences. Though her mother had died from a sickness hoarded in her genes—the Huntington’s so engulfing, it swallowed her personality—Athena claimed the disease had been triggered by Gene. The last night they spent at the hospital, she launched accusation after accusation at him: that Bi-Ling had abandoned her family and friends in Taiwan to move 8,000 miles for him based on promises he never intended to keep. That she’d lived a miserable and isolated life in this foreign country. That Gene, as self-centered and responsible as a teenager, couldn’t see it.
After Atlantic City, Gene had decided to start fresh, to become someone … fresher. He was a good man. Not a perfect man, no. He’d had a temper when he was younger, he could admit to that. And the drinking hadn’t helped (harder to admit). But he found it laughable that some people believed an instance of human error could negate, could indeed cancel out, love. His own father used to beat him, even when Gene was old enough to fight him off. And yet he’d forgiven him, in the sense that he had not known his father’s fist needed forgiving.
He’d been five years sober—until now, anyway. He’d forgotten to tell Athena in the parking lot. He’d wanted so badly to pocket her pride in him, to be able to gaze upon it anytime he wanted. He waited for something akin to momentous sorrow to wash over him, his hard-won sobriety erased in a blink, and yet the reality of what that sip portended seemed very far away.
Points lost, points gained.
He decided he would not think about it anymore and that was that; Gene had always been good at compartmentalizing. He studied his aching legs instead. He should have worn his compression socks. Or maybe the feeling was heartburn. Where was Napoleon with his Po Chai pills when you needed him?
They were shooting the last scene of the day. Two hours ago, they’d wrapped the third (or was it the first?) scene and passed into overtime, which meant a tidy $24.75 per hour, but what would Gene have given to just go home already. It was a mistake to have come. A mistake to assume knowing could ever substitute the softness, the loveliness, of not knowing.
Jack was bouncing up and down, somehow even more energetic than at the start of the day. Gene would bet money he’d been subsisting on a steady dose of Adderall.
“So in this scene, you’re all exhausted, okay?”
“But this is the big moment we’ve been building up to, when __________ is finally going to ________. Remember he’s been _____ on, _________, ______ around, and he’s had it up to here. It’s an emotional scene, a highly charged scene, and I want you all to feel it.”
The extras were to stumble haphazardly around the subway station—easy when everyone was floating in a fugue state at this 12th hour.
Jack moved them into their first positions. “Don’t be afraid to run into each other—I mean, don’t hurt yourself,” he quickly amended, no doubt thinking of lawsuits, “but act like you can’t see where you’re going. Okay?”
“If I ruin this coat, it won’t be my fault,” Hiriko murmured again. She looked at Gene for affirmation. He was in no mood to give it this time.
Commotion was developing farther up along the set, where the stand-ins and stunt coordinator were situated, but came to a pause when the principal actor emerged. His hair and makeup team trailed behind him, spraying and smoothing and powdering, as he carefully avoided eye contact with the background actors, then checked his phone before sliding it into his pocket.
Unbelievable, Gene scoffed.
Athena conferred with the principal actor and the stunt coordinator, the three of them speaking in agitated tones. Then the stunt coordinator called “No. 2,” and Tian walked over to join them. Gene kept his eyes on Athena, willing her to look his way. She refused. After a few minutes, Tian returned to his first position.
“Pictures up … Rolling … Background … Action!”
Gene zigzagged across the set, half blind without needing to act. The gin coursed agreeably through him. He slammed his shoulder into several people, Napoleon included, who doled out a sorrowful look in his direction. He walked at a faster pace, everyone’s faces smearing together, then slowed his steps when he heard the principal actor’s voice. He zigzagged toward it.
The principal actor gripped Tian by the collar, then sneered a slur in his face and pushed him. He mimed kicking Tian for an excruciatingly long time. Gene looked at Hiriko—she had broken protocol and closed her eyes. The sudden violence in the scene, in the warehouse, came as a terrible intrusion. Nothing, not even Jack’s frenetic explanations, could have prepared them for it.
“Still rolling!” the second AD called. A PA rushed up to the principal actor with an unlabeled bottle and squirted milky liquid into his mouth. He leaned back, about to spit in Tian’s face. Gene’s stomach clutched.
“Stop,” Tian said flatly. “I can’t.”
A few extras stalled in their movements, unsure if this was his line, if he’d been anointed out of the background masses at long last to a speaking role.
“Cut!” Athena called. She got down from her chair and walked over. “What do you mean you can’t?” she said with a hint of annoyance. “You just agreed to a second ago.” Her hands flowered open and closed, open and closed—a nervous habit.
“I don’t understand why we’re hurting each other,” Tian frowned. “It doesn’t make sense.”
Behind Gene, two PAs were whispering.
“—thought a _____ actor was too ‘controversial’ and a _____ actor was too ‘predictable.’” The other PA whistled under his breath. “Apparently, she said the ‘safest choice’ was an all _____ cast.”
Gene couldn’t help but grimace—his daughter’s vision of society was awfully reductive. But for whatever reason, she must have derived comfort from reducing it down to manageable parts. Was it so different from his good-day-bad-day-bagel system?
“I want to call my SAG rep,” Tian continued. Not the consummate extra, after all.
The principal actor vainly suppressed an eye roll.
Another extra addressed Athena. “What exactly are you trying to accomplish here?”
“Abuse against _____ is on the rise and—”
“And your solution is more abuse?”
“But it’s not real,” Athena said softly, as though to herself.
Tian laughed. “Am I not real?”
The question ricocheted through the crowd of extras.
For a shameful, fleeting moment, Gene thought of calling out, “Impact over intention, Athena! Isn’t that what you said?”
She was no doubt wearing the same contemptuous mask she’d worn in the parking lot, but when he looked in her direction, her expression spelled horror. Authority leaked out of her by the second. She looked so small. She looked so young.
In elementary school, Athena used to film him and Bi-Ling with a cardboard camera constructed from toilet-paper rolls. He’d crushed it in his hands one night, hostile and drunk and then hostile because he was drunk, but the next day, he’d bought her a used Sony camcorder with that week’s paycheck, which meant he’d have to skip meals twice a day, but she’d thrown her arms around his waist and it had been worth every spasm of hunger.
When she’d asked him in her little-adult voice (terrifying, she’d been, even then) if they had enough money to afford the camera, he’d lied. “Whatever you want, I’ll get it for you” was his favorite refrain, even when Bi-Ling scolded him for turning her into a bottomless person, someone whose desires have no end.
He never told Athena about the illegal gambling that had paid off her mother’s hospital bills. About the months he spent processing fake IDs in Jackson Heights as a second source of income. About how, during her freshman year of college, after his bike was stolen and he lost his job as a deliveryman, he’d spent six dehumanizing weeks homeless. She believed what she wanted to believe. No, she believed what he’d let her believe. Maybe both were true.
He realized with sudden, achingly sweet clarity what Athena had meant in her interview. Directing brought her control over her environment because it offset the chaos he brought to it. When she zoomed in and out on her camera, perhaps she left their apartment in Astoria. Perhaps she traveled somewhere else entirely—to a safer, better place.
“I’ll do it.”
Gene walked into the heart of the commotion.
“What are you doing, buddy?” Napoleon asked, resting a hand on his sleeve. He shrugged him off.
Tian looked at Gene, shook his head slightly, then walked off set. Gene half-expected people to clap. No one did.
Gene stepped in front of the principal actor. Up close, his handsomeness seemed unearned.
“You don’t have to, Dad.” Athena spoke quietly. Everyone stared at her.
The attempt to stop him only emboldened Gene. He sat down on the ground. Strangely, it wasn’t as cold as before. “Kick me,” he said to the principal actor. “Go ahead, spit on me.”
He had done the math. This is what the points commanded.
The crew looked around at one another. After a moment, the sound guy re-hoisted the boom. The lighting team repositioned themselves. Athena walked back to her director’s chair.
Gene lay prostrate before his part-time friends, the other extras, the crew, and, though he could not see her, his daughter, who watched him from behind the camera’s unblinking eye.
Gene qualified to join SAG that day. On IMDb, he is credited as ELDERLY ASIAN MAN. A gift from his daughter; according to union laws, his silent role did not require screen credit.
After the film’s release, he read review after review, hoping to reach a verdict on his daughter’s work without experiencing it, but the reviews were as mixed as he felt. When he finally purchased a ticket at his local theater early one morning, he was one of three in the audience. He thought he’d feel detached, looking at himself pretending to be someone else, knowing exactly what tricks had been turned to tamper with the fake until it could pass as real.
But as Gene watched himself gasping and convulsing on the subway platform—his arms tucked helplessly around his stomach, his mouth limp with resignation—he felt knocked over by such exquisite grief and, to his surprise, discovered his cheeks were wet.