Saturday, 6 February 2010

Destined for Greatness: a New York ficlet

My mother named me after her favourite actress in an obscure political TV show. Which is unfortunate, because our side of the Atlantic Janel is less sun-kissed Californian blonde, and more illiterate Essex girl with a failed perm.

Still, she tried, my mum - it's not her fault I didn't turn out to be slim, leggy and destined for greatness - and I thought of her when I boarded the American Airlines plane in London, thought of how proud she would be of me making this trip. I think of her most days, actually. I choose to believe that despite my lack of acting skills or political interest she would find something in me to be proud of. Don't ask me what. That's the part she was meant to tell me.

Today is the day I'm going to meet Her. My namesake. I know it as surely as I've known it every day for a week now, when I pick out my hairstyle and my outfit - purple argyle jumper, today, going for the casual look - but doomed, despite it all, to look like nothing more than an ordinary British seventeen-year-old.

My aunt thinks I'm sightseeing, which is only partly inaccurate: from inside this café in the West Village where I have waited and hoped every day - prayed, even, because it can't hurt, can it? - I have read pages and pages of the Rough Guide and written pages and pages in my big pink notebook. I can recite endless facts on the Empire State Building and Macy's and what was filmed where.

They recognize me in here now; maybe they think I am a budding artist, or a lovesick teenager looking for someone to whom I can pour out what is left of my heart. Most likely, though, they are not thinking anything about me at all. I get the impression that, at my tender young age and all that, I'm not yet meant to have learned that most people are far too obsessed with their own worlds to give potentially insignificant others any kind of thought at all, let alone a second one. More fool them; they've missed their chance to get my autograph and brag later on Oprah: I knew her back when she had pimples on her chin...

For the millionth time, the door creaks slightly as it opens; for the millionth time, I look up briefly, sigh in short-lived disappointment, dive back into my book. It's only when I stop for a sip of Organic Guatemalan - I'm a convert to coffee now I understand that Starbucks is not all there is - that I realize I've stopped really looking at who comes in, the way you stop seeing the French verb conjugations and periodic table when they've been on your bedroom wall for months.

And that at the table by the window...

I know now how that cliché came to be - you know the one, about beauty taking your breath away. Of course she looked amazing on TV or at the Emmy Awards or airbrushed to perfection on billboards. But here, years and years later, handing a pink crayon to her curly-haired little girl and marveling at the intricacy of her just-finished drawing, unwatched, living like the rest of us, she looked more beautiful to me than I'd ever seen her in the file my mum used to keep.

The beating of my heart is drowning out the gurgling of the coffee machine, the very cool pierced-nose girls gossiping next to me about some guy, the funky music, even. Come on, I tell myself. You worked every Saturday for two years and you got on a plane and you flew hundreds of miles and you sat in a café for days, and you're going to go home and say I saw her, but I was too scared to speak to her?

Surely I must be made of sterner stuff than that?

Apparently not, because I can't seem to move. Another cliché: fear that nails you to the spot. Or the expectation that weighs you down... Whatever, it's all true. I suppose that's how all clichés survive. I sit, and I don't move, and I look at her. I look at them, really, because the little girl is gorgeous too - and I watch them, mother and daughter, and then out of nowhere I feel like I'm going to...

...Oh. I am. I'm really crying. Okay. This was not part of the plan. I looked good, for me, this morning when I left my aunt's. Waterproof mascara or not, red eyes will not improve matters.

What is it about children? Children and cats, actually? They have an inbuilt radar for tears; they know when you need someone to come and sit on your lap and make you feel like you're not alone in the world after all.

"Mommy," she says, "why is that lady crying?"

I imagine I will smile later, remember this is the first time I've ever been referred to as a "lady", but for now, I would prefer to hide under my chair. Or, even better, an invisibility cloak. Where is Harry Potter when you need him?

She smiles at me. Did you see that, mum? It occurs to me that I ought to smile back, and I think I managed it. Just.

"You okay?"

"Yeah." I nod, vigorously.

"You want to come and sit with us?"

I nod just as vigorously, will my feet to follow me, pull up a chair. Then I ask a stupid question, because I have to say something, don't I? "Are you who I think you are?"

Had there been any room for doubt - and there really hadn't - her distinctive, radiant smile would have given her away.

"I guess that would depend," she says carefully, "on who you think I am."

I've thought about that, a lot. Of course I don't know who she is, not really. I've seen every film she's been in - and some of them are quite strange, let me tell you - and of course every episode of that drama, but that's not the same as knowing her. I've often wondered what it must be like to be so well-known in a way, and yet so little known at the same time. I suppose it's a little like having an identical twin, and people you've never met smiling at you and interacting with you as though you were her, expecting things from you that aren't yours to give.

But I know. I know she's not those characters she created just because she shares looks with them, any more than I'm her because we share a name.

"My mother named me after you," I blurt out.


Back when she was in the public eye more, she probably got asked for autographs and pictures all the time. Probably got messages from obsessed fans on Facebook, that kind of thing. But I'm guessing from her sparkling eyes that she's not had many little girls named after her.

"That's pretty cool," she says.

"I think so."

Right now, of course I think so. How could I not? Not so much at school when boys (it's always boys) google her, then look me up and down with my chubbiness and my unruly ginger hair and pronounce, "well, life can be cruel, can't it?".

"So is your mom here with you?" Mum, did you hear that? You're this close to an autograph...

"She died," I say, trying to sound - what's that word, nonchalant? "When I was born. People think that doesn't happen anymore," I've learned to add pre-emptively, "but it does. Well, it did back then."

"I'm so sorry," she says, squeezing my shoulder, and this time I don't have to force the smile out: her gentleness has melted my stage fright, or whatever you call this strange feeling.

"Mommy," says the little girl, still looking at me wide-eyed, and tugging at her mother's sleeve. "who is that?"

"This is Janel,"she says. "Say hello, Cara."

"But that's your name," says the little girl.

"We share a name," says her mother, tucking one of Cara's curls behind her ear. "I wonder if there's anything else we share?"

If her intention was to make me laugh, it's certainly worked. "I think that's probably about it."

"Well, we both like coffee, don't we?"

And then before I know it we're talking, about coffee and Starbucks and books and films and New York and London, and Cara is drawing a picture of me and her mommy together that I know I will treasure forever.

Janel asks about my big fat pink notebook, the one I always carry around with me.

"Oh. That." I shrug. No big deal, I want to say, or at least imply with my cool demeanour.

Actually, it's the biggest deal ever to me, and I've never shown it to anyone: my jottings and poems and descriptions and what I like to think of as deep philosophical thoughts but will probably cringe at in a few years' time, just like I cringe now at the diaries of my thirteen-year-old self. But for some reason I can't quite pinpoint, I pass it to her. "Take a look if you like..."

She flicks through with all the care I didn't even have to ask her to take. She nods, smiles, laughs at various places. The right ones? I can but hope. "This is good stuff, you know," she says when she pushes it back towards me across the wooden table. "Keep doing what you're doing. And send me your stuff." She scribbles down her email address and hands it to me like it's the most natural thing in the world.

And when, a few more crayoned pictures and another Columbian blend later, Janel and Cara get up and go, I'm left with the strangest feeling: that perhaps I am destined for greatness after all.

100% fictional, and dedicated to my favourite actress from a not-so-obscure political TV show...

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