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Today's Story by Chloe Gladstone

I was choosing this life because there was no competition in the small town, and I thought you couldn't fail if you weren't trying. It turned out this wasn't true.

Do You Dream of Acting on the Stage?

As soon as I formed the thought I am unlovable, the man at the next table moved to the other side of the room. He moved abruptly, gathering his coffee cup and napkin and fork with an irritated sweep, as if he’d had it with this table, he wasn’t going to take it anymore.

It’s got to be the breeze from the door that won’t quite shut, I thought. It must be the loud voices of the high school kids at the table on the other side of him. Trying to make excuses in my logical brain.

And then It must be me.

The heart winning, as it does every time.

The heart wins in its joys, but mostly in its sorrows.

I’d come to this small valley town a year ago, fleeing the normal things that one flees, which is to say, embarrassment and guilt. I’d pretended things were easy and then failed at them, and I’d left those things behind in the big city and was now pretending that I was choosing this life for its romance.

Truly I was choosing this life because there was no competition in the small town, and I thought you couldn’t fail if you weren’t trying.

It turned out this wasn’t true. I was failing to feel content at the smallness of my life. I was failing to love myself when I was being ignored.

I had just formed these thoughts, sitting in the town’s one cafe, when the man at the next table moved to the other side of the room. He was one of the regional logger types, and I probably would’ve hated him if he’d given me the chance. Instead I felt desperate for his approval.

I was sure he found my high-heeled boots absurd. He probably thought I smelled like the perfume section at a department store. I wanted to fell a tree to prove my worth to him, though he would probably have thought that unfeminine. I wanted to bake him a pie.

As he started to flirt with the waitress, I wanted to cry.

I finished my coffee quickly and left the rest of my muffin behind as I got out of there.

I started driving in the opposite direction of my house, aimless as I was every Sunday, my errands and housework and school prep done and no friends to call.

I drove up the narrow crest road that would take me through the aspen forest. I passed a few houses. It seemed almost like the people around here built their houses ugly on purpose, for fear that the region would ignite from the heat of its own beauty if they graced it with elegant architecture.

Once you got out past all the houses, winding up along the ridge of the small mountains, the scenery was searing.

I pulled over somewhere, nowhere, and walked into the woods. My boots were absurd, more likely to hurt me than protect me, so I took them off. Walking on the carpet of browning aspen leaves was infinitely easier without them, despite my tender feet. When I was child I walked barefoot everywhere, but it had been decades since I’d felt anything like rotting leaves against my skin.

My perfume was choking me now, and I picked up a handful of mud to try to rub it off. Oh, logger man, how did you get inside my head, just like that?

I didn’t think he’d approve of what he’d done to me, barefoot with a mud-streaked neck and wrists is probably not how he liked his women, but it was his own fault.

I came on the creek without warning, the sounds of my walking and breathing and cracking branches underfoot enough to drown out its sweet little sounds.

I sat on the bank with my feet dangling in, my black pants rolled up above the knees, aware of each bone in my foot as it ached from the cold.

The bear must have been crouching across from me the whole time I was sitting there, because there had been no sound, no movement; it was just that I didn’t notice it, and then I did. We stared at each other for a while. I tried not to look into its eyes. I’d read somewhere that you shouldn’t look right into a wild animal’s eyes because they take it as a challenge. It was the same rule you were supposed to apply to men who bought you drinks from across the bar. But just as with those men I found it impossible not to look into the bear’s eyes, and it looked right back into mine.

I was glad of the creek between us and my heart pushed into the hollow of my throat with each pulse, but still a little ha escaped me when I thought of the bear ending up in my bed just because I couldn’t heed the warnings of wiser women. Don’t look directly into the eyes.

The bear broke our mutual gaze first, then started nosing around in the dead leaves. It began chewing something, snuffled, sneezed, and walked away, never quite turning its rump to me but also never looking back.

From the crest road, I could look down into the wide flat valley and see the all town’s buildings speckling one bank of the river. The valley was made in the wake of a glacier and I always imagined the river was like a snail’s trail left by the big wet glacier sliding through.

I chose this town because they gave me a job teaching English at the high school, and I was sure that with a class of 12 students I could make a difference.

I started out trying to teach David Levithan, Sherman Alexie, and other authors who I thought would expand their worldview, but within months my liberal ideals had been swallowed up in the town’s mouth—meetings with the principal, obscenity complaints from parents, a hundred comments from the kids about how the books were gay. I tried 1984 and The Grapes of Wrath, but was gently reminded that they had been banned before, and that there was probably a good reason for that.

The principal was always so nice about it. My fellow teachers were kind as could be in the lunch room, but I’d never been inside anyone’s house. I stopped driving to the next town over to buy organic food and instead I ate the pesticide-laced valley potatoes just like everyone else, but I still got it wrong because I made my potato salad with vinaigrette and celery instead of mayonnaise and pickles.

When the willowy math teacher came to school with a black eye, the other teachers closed ranks around her and wouldn’t let me offer help or even sympathy.

As I drove back down into the valley from the aspen ridge, I thought Okay, Bear, I’ll give it one more try. I’m going to start a theater group.

When I got home I vacuumed the dried mud from my car seat and then started working on a flyer. I printed it on all colors of paper and I walked around town sticking them everywhere, even in front of the hardware store where people posted photos of riding mowers and wood chippers for sale on the cork board. “I Haul Used Concrete – FREE” one said, and then mine: “Do You Dream of Acting on the Stage?” I pinned them up outside the library and the grocery store and the school.

No one called that first week, and I said to myself, Maybe this should be the end of your dreaming.

I went to school every day and dutifully taught Pride and Prejudice.

Then a call came one day, and a man said he would like to join my theater group, and my insides lit up like a shop window at Christmas. I invited him to come over the next evening, and it was the man from the cafe who had sent me fleeing to the bear. “I always wanted to be an actor,” he said. “Can I come in?”

That night we read Chekhov together. We were both a little bit terrible, but we didn’t laugh at each other. Afterward I served borscht and he seemed to like it; he ate two bowls. We talked about Russia and discovered that we both had grandmothers from the countryside there.

“No wonder you liked the borscht,” I said.

And he said, “Also, you invited me into your home and cooked for me, so what kind of person would I be if I didn’t enjoy it?” And with that phrase I felt that perhaps for me the very tiniest corner might be lifted on the lid that covered up the town’s secrets.

He said that next time we could meet at his house, but I should tell him what we would be reading so he could be ready. I thought he meant ready with memorized lines, but when I arrived in his living room the next week with two copies of a Molière collection I discovered red wine and a plate of cheeses.

“I’ve been looking for good cheese ever since I moved here! Where in the world did you find it?” I couldn’t stop my voice from pitching higher as I sipped my wine and eyed the chèvre.

“I know a farmer,” he said simply, and another corner seemed to lift, just a little.

I had taken to wearing jeans and running shoes, and he asked me about it a few weeks later. “What happened to your city clothes?”

I said, “They seemed ridiculous here.”

And he replied, “Not ridiculous. Exotic.”

He was not a logger but a carpenter, and his home, though ugly on the outside, was filled with beautiful furniture.

This town on the inside was just what I had imagined, only it was nothing like I had imagined.


Chloë Gladstone writes catalogue copy for a living, which is not exactly what she had in mind when she was six and decided to be a writer when she grew up, but still it’s pretty fun.

Read more stories by Chloë Gladstone


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