life, in stage directions

by Aqeela Naqvi

You have never been one to question the cadence of the seasons, summer’s open arms, autumn’s lingering goodbyes, the joy that spring brings after every blistering winter. But for some time now it seems like the sun itself burns you with kisses from scorching lips. And the petals that you once watched in amazement as they were shaken from the trees now seem to fall like grenades against the ground. Lately it seems like your life has been nothing but a stage scene, memorized, rehearsed, delivered for a faceless audience.

[Curtains. Open scene: a courtroom disguised in the drapery of a ballroom. Enter: stage right.]

You turn to face the crowd. You put your hand on a book, and instead of swearing an oath of truth and honor, you find yourself slicing your heart with a quill and signing in blood a codex of rules: how to stand, how to talk, deliver the right line with the right laugh at the right pitched back angle of the head. Who to engage, who to disengage, who merits a nod, and who the kissing of the feet. But what the directions don’t tell you is what to do when false compliments begin to taste like dust in your mouth; when hollow smiles stretch thin and begin to fall apart at the seams; when you walk in an effort to seem tall, but find yourself crumbling away with every step; when you feel like a statue of the kings of old swallowed by the dark currents of a ravenous sea…

From the moment you’re born backstage, they teach you how to speak, how to cherish the curve of W as it makes its way across the crevices of your mouth, to savor in the taste of M as you enclose it and hold it gently against your lips. But now when you’ve crossed the curtains? Now they tell you to close your mouth and speak with your eyes. To flutter your lashes like the wings of a fly caught in a web who smiles and laughs, its voice a constant falsetto to ignore the motions of the spider weaving around and around. When they question W What’s the Worth of Woman and you answer M – the Magnificence of her Mind, you’re met with a stern look. Where you were once taught to speak to discover the world, you’re now drugged to silence so the world can discover you, a backwards evolution, a perverted stunting of the soul.

What once was a kindhearted urging to open-mouthed speech is now a calculated admiration of the closed contour of your lip. The moment you realize this, the stage begins to shake. The delivery of lines turns into shrill carnival laughter and the lights shift until they’re glaring angrily against your face. Pin-drop silence. You walk across the stage while elderly women with crocodile skin eye you behind the shadow of their fans. You look down and find that your carefully chosen dress has been exchanged for the cheap dressings of a racehorse, as you’re paraded in circles around the stage while men in tall hats scribble furiously on crisp white pages.

You feel the scuttle of an insect across your foot. Your steps are not the clapping of a heel but the groaning of rotted wood as this decaying stage threatens to cave in. You look at the actors who are running their fingers across your face and grabbing at your wrists and find that they’ve removed their masks, that their faces are the faces of the dead, their empty eyes boring into the caverns of your skull, their hands endlessly clawing, searching, reaching, for the beating of your heart.

It’s all you can do to soothe your soul as it screams, Look inside, I’m here!, all you can do to quiet your mind while it yells You’re not looking at me, what is really me! while they tug on your sleeves and spin you in circles, admire the thinness of your waist and the fall of your dress and the labyrinthine facets of your broken spine. The grin plastered on your face is like a circus clown’s, but they admire its paintedness, unwilling to see what really lies beneath—tear beds that have eroded into the curve of your face, the darkened half moons resting under your eyes—unable to realize that the sky’s tears bring forth flowers, that only from half-moons do glittering wholes emerge.

You are standing, center stage, surrounded by people to the point of suffocation, but still utterly alone. You are solitary, but not enough so to be as comforted as that speck of dust which that has witnessed and understood the majesty of the universe. People are around you, hanging over you, talking at you, about you, whispers as loud as screams until you can’t take it anymore and your hands clench over your ears.  The clamor is deafening but all you hear, all you beg for, is silence, silence, silence.

[Exit: stage left. End scene. Curtains.]