She stands with her back turned to the viewfinder just off to the right of the setting sun. It is uncertain how the camera came to be pointed in this direction. The distant orange sun has sank halfway into the ocean, creating a cone of glowing, reflected light that ripples along with the current. Wisps of long, brown hair gently waver in the cool breeze. She's as blue as the ocean. The waves crash inland and as they recede they slowly bury her toes underneath thin layers of ocean swept sand. He steps away from the viewfinder and joins her on the shoreline in the frame. They stand next to each other and watch the ocean and feel the wind and make no movement. Her name is Sheena. His name is Adnan. The year is 2014.
Her family is on a trip to Venice Beach, and against his artistic dignity, he is the cinematographer filming a commercial for a car company that stars Natalie Portman. Sheena walked the beach alone, able to sneak away from the family for a little while, even though she knew in the back of her mind that her sudden disappearance would be recognized almost immediately. The black sedan needed to have sand dusted off of it and Natalie's personal assistant had just returned with coffee so it was basically break time when Adnan steps away from the camera to join the girl at the shoreline. His hair is messy and shorn on the sides and he reeks of suntan lotion and cigarette smoke, visible flecks of sand dot his large unkempt beard. His gut protrudes out of an open Hawaiian shirt. Production up to this point had been less about promoting American craftsmanship and more a hedonistic experience due mostly to a paranoid producer who was fairly certain his wife was sleeping around on him and thusly had fallen hard off of the wagon and re-discovered a love for alcohol and girls of indiscriminate ages in bikinis. Sheena and Adnan say nothing to each other, he had much expected her to take off once he stood beside her, but she remained there gazing at the same endlessly stretching ocean.
The year is 1994. In the maternity ward, doctors and nurses have created a kind of human dome around the bed that the infant and her mother reside in. They coo and gasp and wiggle fingers at the tiny baby swaddled in a comfy, thick blanket and who is just there, being a baby; silent, oblivious. One doctor recommends a pediatric nutritionist from Brooklyn that would be perfect. Another says he has a brother that leads a touring symposium on child development and has connections to some of the most progressive minds in the field. Another says his wife is an influential figure at the American Montessori Society and could potentially pull some strings. A nurse offers her teenage daughter as a possible nanny. The family are led in by the father, one at a time, so that they can poke their heads and one arm, if possible, through the gushing hospital staff to congratulate the mother and get a peek at the tiny baby. Her name will be Sheena.
A few of the doctors continued to check on her, making certain to maintain a friendly relationship with the M. family, and go so far as to even offer discounted check-ups, surgeries, etc. to immediate and extended family. The teachers and dietitians and trainers flew in from as close as New York City and Los Angeles to as far away as Japan and France to teach her, to fill her mind with their worldly knowledge and instill their ethical and artistic insights within her spirit. They moved their families to live near the M. family, and so their kids were Sheena's friends and classmates. She was raised laodicean and taught to view the world with an open mind, but in some cases, there still remained instituted some rather antiquated principals, going so far as to circuitously present her with a groom for future betrothal, one Lucas Merrineaux of Rennes, France, a finance philosophy teacher's son. At age 3 she already had a firm grasp of the English language and was on her way to speaking fluent French. Age 7 she impressed her tutors with clever wordplay and witticisms and the ability to solve intermediate puzzles with ease and challenging tasks with a focused, strategic mind.
The year is 2008. A 14 year old Sheena stands behind the center podium on the set of the Jeopardy! Teen Tournament. She is prim and academic, wearing earth toned clothes, a muted green collared shirt and tan sweater vest and her hair conservatively tied back into a bun. It's the Final Jeopardy! round and the other two contestants on both sides of Sheena look like they've barely survived a nuclear fallout. Christine Faulkner from Flagstaff, Arizona began the game confidently but was quickly absolved of that when Sheena aggressively picks off the State Capitals one by one after she had incorrectly guessed the capital of Kentucky, only the second question of the game, and was left to be a spectator as the phenom from Glen Burnie, Maryland clears the board. Pete Saunders from Holyoke, Massachusetts hardly showed any signs of containing vocal chords as he had not been heard from at all, save for the portion of the program when Alex Trebek walks the podiums and engages in light chats with the contestants, and even then required some on-the-spot coaching from the experienced host. By Final Jeopardy! he had a look on his face as if he had wet his pants. During Double Jeopardy!, it looked as if Christine had shaken off the shock of Sheena's utter dominance in the first round to answer three questions in a row in the category of the Periodic Table, but she would lose it all after making it a true Daily Double and blowing all of her meager progress by incorrectly stating that nickel was the cheapest metal on the periodic table. There is an odd edit during Sheena's calm and ravenous warpath up and down the board. It's subtle, but the apparent after effects are noticeable, Christine's hair suddenly seems disheveled and her eyes appear to be slightly swollen. At one point, Alex Trebek attempts to make light of the situation by dryly requesting that Sheena allow the others to get in on the act. To her credit, the steely-eyed center podium contestant allows a great amount of time to go by on the following question, a curt and deviant smirk on her face that points directly at the host as she holds her buzzer with a steady hand, thumb hovering intently over the red button. On the one second mark before time runs out, she buzzes in, “Who is William Howard Taft?”, and adds another eight hundred dollars to her already tremendous winnings.
“Well, this certainly was an interesting game.” Alex Trebek says, an obvious hint of sarcasm in his voice as the theme song plays and the show closes. Sheena stands beside him with the posture of a soldier at attention with her hands behind her back and fiery eyes and a hidden smile that sends a message to the rest of the competition, a field which she will obliterate. “Join us next time to see if Sheena can continue her dominance as we continue the Jeopardy! Teen Tournament.” These episodes have not been rebroadcast since their original air date.
TONIGHT and TONIGHT ONLY! DR. DUTCH CALDWEN interviews the author of “A FUSCHIA TORRENT OF RAGE” and UPCOMING NOVEL “THE FARTHEST END OF THE OCEAN”, SHEENA M.
He enters the waiting room and there is an unusual silence, the television that is mounted on the Southwest corner of the wall is off and no one else is in the room that is regularly populated with other head cases. Adnan approaches the front desk and the young, auburn-haired, freckle-faced girl that is normally behind the glass has been replaced by a rigidly tall, thin and bony girl with platinum blond hair, she wears an incredibly expensive looking sequined dress. She does not look up at him as he scribbles his name on the sign in sheet, her fingers tap away furiously at the keyboard, she's not even looking at the computer monitor or the keyboard and is instead gawping at a particularly shiny spot on the glossy particle board desk of reflected light from the florescent ceiling fixture above her. Nothing but random letters and symbols fill the computer screen as she heaves a heavy and bored sigh. Adnan stands there for a second, just to see if she will acknowledge his presence but quickly gives up. There is a curious chill to the familiar lobby today.
As he is in mid-squat over one of the taupe guest chairs, hands firmly around the wooden arms of the chair, the receptionist calls out to him. She is now standing and holding the clipboard as if she doesn't know what it is. Unable to read his perfectly legible signature she ventures to guess his surname is “Axhandle” before gesturing like Vanna White would introduce the next Wheel Of Fortune puzzle towards the doctor's door.
“Doctor Rickenbacker will see you now.” She says.
“Doc...? Dr. Sears isn't in today?” Adnan says, bent over with his bottom still hovering over the guest chair.
“No. He's not here, it's Doctor Rickenbacker today.”
“Is he sick?”
“No, he looks pretty good today.”
“No, I mean Dr. Sears.”
“Oh, yeah he's sick.”
“In the past, Dr. Sears just cancels if he's under the weather.”
“Doctor Rickenbacker is just right over there. Just through that door.”
In his office, Doctor Rickenbacker sits snug and gently swivels back and forth in Dr. Sears' leather office chair. His loafer-clad feet are hanging down above the floor and move pendulously between the base pedestal legs. As he stares out of the large window in front of him he taps the handle to the pneumatic gas chamber with his fingers before finally gripping and lifting the handle, letting the air slowly hiss out of the chamber as the seat lightly descends towards the floor. Adnan pokes his head in and watches the office chair deflate before clearing his throat.
“Doctor Rickenbacker?” Adnan says. “That's right.” “I guess you're filling in for Dr. Sears?” “Right again.” Doctor Rickenbacker says as he spins around and wheels his chair over next to the chaise sofa. “Come in, come in. Have a seat.” He says, as he pats the sofa seat.
Even the smell in this office, which is indeed Dr. Sears' office, is different. It smells like plaster and rubbing alcohol and a hint of marijuana, perhaps freshly toked as there is also an odd haze in the room, different parts waver and seem smoky, like being viewed through a dissipating mist. The chaise sofa is still the same, thankfully, nice and plush, but the comfort of good furniture only goes so far when every movement one makes is being watched by the beady eyes and tense glare of a man with droopy jowls and an unnerving, crooked smile suited more for a business transaction rather than a therapy session. “Is Dr. Sears sick today?” Adnan says, cautiously approaching the sofa before having a seat.
“He is. Yes.” Doctor Rickenbacker says.
“How long is Dr. Sears supposed to be out for?”
“I have no idea. It was sudden. I assure you I come recommended.”
Doctor Rickenbacker reaches behind his desk and plops a manilla folder, Adnan's file, onto the shiny oak surface. He also brings out and unfolds a spindly metal easel and a sheet of poster board with scrawling all over it and sets them up. At first, he has trouble corralling the easel but eventually gets it set up straight. After unfurling and pinning the poster board to the easel, the scrawl facing away from Adnan for the time being, he sits back down and adjusts his brown, corduroy blazer and beige tie. The stand-in doctor continuously scratches and picks at the floppy skin of his neck and his resting breath is heavy and difficult. He now reclines in Dr. Sears' comfy, leather office chair with one leg crossed on top of the other and his hands resting in his lap, fingers threaded.
“We'll save the visual portion for later. What I've gathered in reading through your file is that you have a somewhat odd obsession with a younger female. A college student, if I understand it correctly. You two have been together for quite some time and are having relations and copulations and doing the dating thing, which is generally normal. But what's interesting is why she takes up so much of your anxiety, so much of your time.” He gestures to Adnan's file on the the oak desk by patting it with his palm, producing a thick smacking sound. “That's a lot of time spent doting over just this one female. Believe me, I understand, I get it, she is amazing. She sounds amazing. She sounds like one of the most beautiful and interesting women in the whole world. But, do you hear the sounds your file makes when I smack it with my hand? It sounds I'm slapping someone's belly. There's a lot in here about Sheena, and it seems to border on unhealthy obsession.” “No offense, Doctor Rickenbacker, but I'm more used to Dr. Sears' method, in that I tell you my problems and what kind of strange dreams I've been having and then you analyze them.”
“Well no offense to you too, Mr. Alexandre, but I think something like, what, eighty-percent of this stuff is dedicated to a Ms. Sheena M. and the other stuff is neuroses, maybe a point one percent devoted to how much the roaches in the summertime gross you out. You're madly in love with a girl. You pay us money to tell us this?”
“Tell me about it.”
“Fine, we'll reverse the roles. I'll talk and you stare at me. Perhaps if we went to the chart, we could shine a little light on the situation at hand. Because, I feel that your problems and strange dreams are directly connected to Sheena.” He unpins and turns the poster around. There is a detailed time line of the moments Adnan has mentioned to Dr. Sears involving Sheena, from when they first met on the beach, their first few dates, sexual endeavors, dreams about her, thoughts of her, ways she is and is not compatible with him. There are small notes written under each time line, most spun to reflect how they negatively impact Adnan's psyche. Some notes call into question his emotional availability, age and generational differences in how he and Sheena were raised, some also mentioning psychological conflicts based solely on the fact he's a native Californian and a byproduct of the art culture that thrives in Los Angeles. There is one note underneath a part of the time line when Adnan mentioned that he wanted to write a story about Sheena that simply reads Woody Allen-syndrome???
“What is this?” Adnan says, perturbed. “It's an analysis of your time with Sheena.” Doctor Rickenbacker says. “I proactively made this in the event you responded with any arguments contrary to my analysis. I wanted to provide this chart to show that some of your deepest issues may well branch out from the stress and struggle of today's dating scene. In fact, I would wager that those stressors are amplified so much more being an older gentlemen and attempting to court a younger female.”
“What are you talking about?” “You know what I mean. Keeping her engaged and interested. It's hard enough for people to do that these days even when there isn't a ten year difference in their ages.”
“I think we function like a fairly normal couple.”
“Is that why your file is loaded with mentions and detailed notes about her?”
“I'm in love with her.”
“You also rag on about her immediate family.”
“They're meddlesome. She says so herself, sometimes.”
“She's allowed to say that, that's her family. Similar to how black people refer to each other with the n-word.”
“This is the kind of hostility I was anticipating, quite frankly.”
“Let us refer to the chart once again and I'll show you how this all connects.”
Is it here that Adnan notices the left side of Doctor Rickenbacker's face begin to sag.
“Here's one...March 3rd, she plucked a gray hair out of your head and it made you feel old and caused many moments of internal reflection about growing old and fragile.”
“March 25th, you admit to consultation from internet articles about dating because you're concerned about mixed signals.”
“Your hand felt the heat between her legs...what the hell does that mean?”
“Are you okay?”
“Your face, Doctor.”
“I...uh...” It is here Doctor Rickenbacker's left ear slides down his cheek leaving behind a trail of adhesive.
Adnan sighs and falls back into the soft cushioning of the chaise sofa. “So, I'm not as curious as to how you were able to clear the entire office out, whichever M. you are. I'm aware of your influence.”
“I don't know what you're talking about...this is just...uh...”
“It wasn't bad enough that one of you dressed up as a boom operator on the set of a shoot and kept asking me questions about Sheena while sticking the mic in my face. You people aren't even trying anymore.”
“Preposterous, I'm just having a bout of Bell's palsy...I...uh...” It is here his right eyeball and half of his mouth are now covered up by the melting plaster mask.
“The sad thing is, I think I've become used to it.”
“Go on.” His left ear comes completely unglued and lands in his lap.
“It's the theatrics of it all.”
“Again, hostility. Now towards the M. family. I don't think I have to tell you what the nucleus of all of this negativity is.”
“Have it your way then, tough guy. We can talk about other things. I don't know. The filmmaking business? Weirdest thing you've ever seen in Hollywood? The Buffalo Bills? You ever do it with any celebrities? Oh fuck it, jig's up.”
“What's the deal with you people? Why can't you leave her alone?”
“Who's the therapist here, Mr. Alexandre? I'll ask the questions.”
“I'm curious why you're going into so much effort to track her down. I don't understand the obsession.”
“That's funny coming from someone who requires a therapist to talk about her. And, anyway, it's a family matter, so it's none of your dumb business.”
“While I have you here. I've actually been writing a screenplay in my spare time. I don't have a name for it yet. It started out as a kind of horror film but now I don't know where the hell it's going. You might be able to relate, it's about a guy who's afraid of cockroaches. He has a horrifying a dream where a cockroach crawled into his ear and messed up his brain and when he wakes up he sees a lone cockroach clinging to his bed room wall nearest to his pillow. I'm still tooling with other ideas. But here's one I had recently; guy's laying his head down to go to sleep, when he suddenly feels from behind the cloth of his pillow case the hairy legs of a cockroach kicking and scratching the lobe of his ear. He's freaked out, but he doesn't move. His eyes go wide and his face turns pale and all he can do is utter a wheezy laugh that quickly turns into full-blown cackling. Fucked up stuff, right?”
The door closes behind Adnan as he egresses into the waiting room.
WHAT'S ON T.V. TONIGHT: THE CHARLIE ROSE SHOW: Charlie Rose, host, sits down with a panel of writers to discuss the future of literature. Featuring: Sheena M., guest, Jonathan Franzen, guest, Jennifer Egan, guest, Junot Diaz, guest.
It's a quiet white room with a blue hue entering from the window, this is a room where thumping and scrapes can be heard behind the back wall from time to time, they think it's the trees, but on closer inspection, the bare branches don't seem to come close to the exterior of their condo. Adnan sits against the wall in a melancholy slouch, legs crossed, his eyes are still and focused like a dog being presented with a treat. He ignores the laptop and notebook in front of him. The forever blinking cursor on the word processor lying in stasis mid-sentence on this draft of the screenplay. He watches Sheena walk back and forth in the doorframe, a half-peeled banana hanging out of her mouth like a fine cigar. An innocuous moment of voyeurism, this is like art to Adnan. A swell of pride rises in his chest, esurient to a degree, as if he is the only one trustworthy enough to view and understand this sight. On one pass she carries a full and tied up bag of trash and places it outside of the front door. On the next, she walks back holding the banana and chewing. Banana back in her mouth and now she carries a stack of pots and pans and places them down on the kitchen surface. He can hear her preparing their breakfast. Without paying attention to the time, it seems like she has the eggs boiling, the waffles ironing, the bacon sizzling, the coffee percolating, and the orange juice squeezed in milliseconds, in reality it's more like a kilosecond. She steps into the view of the doorframe again and remains there, holding their tabby cat like a child, the left strap of her tank top has awkwardly fallen down her arm, exposing the milky skin of her scrawny shoulder. Stringy brown hair drapes across the other shoulder and her bangs hang over her face. The cat lethargically bats at the strands of hair as Sheena mews and playfully pokes a finger into the cat's pudgy, soft belly. Her long, skinny legs make her look taller than she actually is. She is constantly mistaken for a young teenager, instead of a 20 year old.
She notices Adnan looking at her from the white-blue hued room and smiles as she puts the cat down, it scampers away upon touching the wooly carpet. With her thumb and forefinger, she brings the left strap of her tank top back up and around her shoulder before removing her top up over her head, her brown hair collecting in the shirt and then falling across her bare, planistethic chest and smooth, erect back. She hooks her thumbs into the elastic waist band of her orange running shorts and slips them slowly to the ground. He watches her stalk over to him and kneel down, his lap between her legs. They embrace and enter a moment of passionate kissing, fondling, and escalating breathing.
BREAKING: Controversial Trivia Princess, Sheena M., accepts invitation to return to JEOPARDY! in Teen Tournament reunion. Although episodes showing her dominant reign in the tournament had been assumed lost, speculation says they have been unearthed in the wake of upcoming biopic.
Adnan's voice echoes over the hiss of the tape recorder. “Sheena would stand at the window and watch the rain fall, as if she didn't know that she could easily just slide the door back and step out into the storm. It was in those beautiful brown eyes; the excitement, the want. I saw it as we sprinted down Venice Beach that day. She couldn't stop laughing as she ran and kicked her legs through the surf. I thought she would never stop running, I thought she was going to high-tail it into the distance. But, Sheena eventually stopped and turned around and allowed me to catch up. We barely spoke to each other that day, just little fragments of conversation, hardly what I would call hitting it off. Nights, days, a week, time passed and we just stayed together. I kept working and she kept up with her schooling and her writing and it was an honor to watch her at work. It was a long time before I stopped thinking that one day I would come home and she wouldn't be there, she seemed like such a specter.”
“I don't know where she is.”
The tape runs down and the recorder clicks loudly and everyone in the room sits silently. Adnan's forlorn glare matches that of Lucas Merrineaux's. There is a shared aura, a cosmic understanding of emotional loss between the two. They silently judge each other and during this brief moment of staring deeply into each other's long faces they reach a motionless and wordless settlement. The private investigator checks to his left and right to gage Adnan's and Lucas Merrineaux's and other M. family member's posture, face, any kind of silent clue in to their emotions. But both sides just stare at each other with stone cold lucidity.
HOLLYWOOD PRESSER: Natalie Portman to portray Sheena M. in biopic. A release date has not been verified by our sources as of this print. However, we are told that the studio is planning on an Oscar season release.
The car commercial wrap party. Natalie Portman watches from the other side of the pool at the beach house as Adnan and Sheena sit on the same unfolded plastic beach chair, her small frame leaning back into his barrel chest. They share a bottle of champagne and trade tiny, flirtatious pecks on the lips. The producer, blitzed out of his gourd and completely naked, bursts through the closed screen door of the rental house and commands everyone strip down and hit the pool. The last thing Natalie Portman saw was Adnan and Sheena removing each other's clothes before a lowly, gigantic, drunken production assistant who would go on to never work in this town again picks the academy award winning actress up and swiftly torpedoes her into the pool.
Today, Sheena M. sits in the corner booth of a diner alone. Bright, jacinth rays of light from the setting sun obscure her to anyone looking in that direction. Her hair is shorter, feathery, braided in the back. A pitcher of coffee sits on the table next to a white mug of coffee that she coddles with both hands, letting the rising steam waft and touch her tiny nose. The blue plate in front of her has crumbs and dried syrup residue on it. She watches out from under the floppy, wide, wool brim of her fedora with pink mascaraed eyes at the people that file in and out. Every time the glass doors open, the sound of Los Angeles traffic bursts in and is quickly muffled when they close.
The tape hisses and Adnan's voice is heard. “It's hard not to fall in love with someone like her. She tells you her thoughts about the future and you wrack your brain to say the right thing. On one hand you want to give the correct advice or have the proper reply. On the other hand, whatever you say and whatever you think, there is temptation, it comes from a purely selfish place because you realize you hold a beautiful diamond, achieved a moment of absolute bliss, gained audience with The Pope, and you know the moment is fleeting whether it's an hour or a lifetime.”
Outside of the diner, a vinyl tarp is being tied to the bodies of a streetlight and a stoplight pole on the corner of the street. It is a promotion for “The Farthest End Of The Ocean” and a planned book signing for next week. Per author's demands, Sheena's face does not appear on the advertisement, only the coastal backdrop and the sun that rests on the horizon. A small group begins to accumulate before the two baristas have the tarp fully tied. Sheena continues people watching as her fingers absently rotate her wedding band around her ring finger.
“She had that foreboding look on her face. As much as it killed me, I had to let her go. In fact, we spoke pretty comfortably about a future apart from each other. I have my path, I'm farther along, and as badly as I wanted to be there and to lift her up and listen to her argue with herself about what she could be in life, Sheena wanted to figure herself out and if she came back then she came back. I wasn't going to stand in the way. If you love something, let it go. I've always hated that fucking phrase. Just something people tell themselves to maintain a modicum of dignity when they feel alone. But, in that moment it was what I had to do, whether I liked it or not, I couldn't allow myself to hold her back.”
A mother, holding her sniffling toddler, a little girl with her tiny thumb in her mouth, enter through the cacophony of traffic outside and approach the counter. The daughter is put down and she immediately huddles up to her mother's leg and wraps one arm around a bare knee and places her head against the hemline of the flowy purple dress that her mother wears. There is a neon green bandaid on one of the daughter's arms and her eyes and nose are red from minutes of crying at the doctor's office. Sheena and the little girl's eyes meet briefly, the little girl is the only one who has the correct vantage to see Sheena without being blinded by the sun. Sheena cocks her head to the side and crosses her eyes and sticks her tongue out and the little girl gives a coy grin, thumb still firmly in her mouth.
BRETT LASS lives in Birmingham, Alabama. Besides writing fiction, he is also a contributor to Music Occurred.