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When Dreams Die, Part 1

August 20, 2011

I guess it all started shortly after I graduated from college.

I never really thought that I’d ever be one of those girls, but I guess none of us ever really does. We all just sort of fall into it for some reason or another. Some days for me, it’s just so hard to even believe that I was once that person, that I can’t even remember all the reasons I got involved. Maybe it was the money. Maybe it was the appreciation. Maybe I was just bored. I don’t really know anymore. It didn’t start right after I graduated from college.

You don’t just graduate from college and then suddenly end up with a job you never wanted, especially not when I graduated. God, I would’ve killed for a job I didn’t want, and I’d have done worse to get the job that I did want. I guess it actually started after I moved out of my parent’s house to pursue my dreams.

Well, I guess they weren’t really my dreams. By the time I left my parent’s house in northern Virginia, my dreams were already not going to come true. That was the first time I felt my dreams die a little on the inside, when I packed everything I owned away and into my old blue hatchback then drove away from my childhood home.

I remember it had been very sunny that day, when I stepped out of the house with that last little box. It was a small box of novels and a few picture frames I had had since I was a little kid. The sun shined down through the huge tree that dominated our front yard, illuminating the few green leaves left and making me turn my head to notice just how many of them were starting to already change from green to brown. A chill breeze blew across me, sending goosebumps across the skin of my bare arms, and making me shudder for the briefest of moments.

It felt right to leave just as autumn was finally starting, but the early fall smells of dying leaves and the pumpkin my mother had already put on the porch just like she always did, only served to remind me of how strange this was. For the first time I could remember I wasn’t going to be in school, and I wouldn’t be going back any time soon.

The summer had passed with its usual too swift nature. This year though as opposed to splitting my time between busy internships and laying in the dying sun of the late evening with my friends, I spent every waking moment writing cover letters and sending out resumes. I knew that my desire to be an actress was a dangerous sort of dream, so I had decided that for every head shot I’d apply to two “real” jobs.

I never got a single interview.

I had never understood it; I had two degrees from a top-ranked state university, some spectacular internships, and a stable job throughout high school on my resume. Granted, those degrees were in Theater and English Lit, and the internships were with theater troupes but…I just figured they would have counted for something. Apparently though, a college education wasn’t enough to qualify you to answer phones anymore. You needed two years experience answering phones.

Most of my friends had given up hope of getting a job at the start of our last semester. The stock market was doing…something. I didn’t really understand it but I remember my parents worrying about their jobs a lot. Sometimes, I wonder if anybody understood what happened that year, or if they just knew that it wasn’t good for any of us. I guess I just never got the memo.

All of my friends had scrambled to take easy courses so they could study for the GREs or the LSATs, or whatever. Whichever exam could get them into any graduate program was what they were looking for. I never understood it, we were finally finishing our time in school, and yet people were just going back for more. I always wondered what happened to the excitement that our scholarly obligations were over.
As my shoes crunched along the gravel walkway to our driveway, it began to make sense. As I carried that last little box of my possessions to my car, I couldn’t help but fight back a single tear as I thought about how some of the theater groups I had interned with had practically laughed at me when I came around looking for a job. I knew that internships don’t always lead to jobs, especially not in my field, but they said they didn’t even have anything I could volunteer to do. A new crop of fall interns was already on their way, and so they didn’t need any more free labor or members of the troupe chorus.
I opened the large backside door to my car, and reflexively threw my jean-clad leg up to prevent a few things from falling out as I moved to wedge this last little box on top of everything. As I surveyed the boxes that comprised my life, I closed my eyes and took a deep breath and shut the trunk with a firm thunk.

My dad came around from the front of the car where he had been finishing up his standard pre-road trip inspection, just like he had every semester before I went back to college. He was dressed in his usual ‘casual wear’, a polo shirt with all the buttons neatly fastened, khaki slacks cinched with his light brown belt, and a pair of sensible sneakers. I fought back a frown as I looked up at his now salt and pepper hair that had just a few years ago been a deep black. Like so many people nowadays, he was toying with facial hair and this fall it was apparently time to give the goatee a try again. I avoided contact with his amber eyes as he said, “You’re all set, sweetheart. Your mother and I will be up in a few days with some of the heavier stuff and your bed.”
“Thanks, Dad,” I tried to say nonchalantly, with that air of annoyance that I had managed before the start of every semester. Back when I thought it was silly that he felt the need to check every inch of my car over before I left for just four months. When I was leaving with no plans to come back home except for maybe a few days around the holidays, it suddenly mattered a lot to me that my dad was doing that.
“Are you sure you won’t need a car,” He stammered out after a second before any awkward goodbye embrace could begin, “I mean, we don’t need to take it back with us, we could just leave it up there.”

I shook my head, “No, Dad, people don’t use cars up there. It’ll be hard enough keeping it around for a few days.” I sighed, and looked up at him with my best false smile as I tried to say jokingly, “I just hope I don’t get a ticket.”
He chuckled, and I let go of the breath I hadn’t realized I had been holding, “Oh yeah, I got a ticket there once. They should be ashamed, with the amount they charge people.”
I nodded, unsure of how to respond.
A few moments passed with the two of us standing about arms length from each other. The wind whipped past us again, and a few of the dead leaves fell off the near ancient tree where they carried away by the eastward wind.

My father finally closed the gap between us, and placed his arms on my shoulders before pulling into his familiar warm embrace. As always he smelled of Old Spice and whatever soap had been on sale the week my family had last restocked. When he let go of me, he looked down at me, and asked, “Are you sure you want to do this, sweetie?”

I nodded, carefully brushing my dirty blond hair back over my shoulder as I got ready to meet his gaze. Finally, I locked my own dark eyes with his, and said, “Yeah, Dad. I think it’s…for the best.”

He nodded his head very carefully and deliberately, then stated, “I’m proud of you, Ashley. We’ll always be proud of you.”

I smiled, swallowing to prevent myself from crying, as I replied, “Thanks, Dad.”
We broke apart but still stood quite close until I heard the sound of someone else walking out onto our expansive wooden porch. I turned my head to see my mother standing there with a small cooler, and a sheaf of papers that were probably printed directions. She stepped out from the shaded porch and I smiled as the sun played against her own blond hair that was starting to gray at the roots. My mom moved across our front yard with smooth measured strides and stopped within a few feet of my father and I. She lifted the cooler with an awkward smile, and asked, “You don’t think it’s too corny that I made you some sandwiches for the road, do you?”

I laughed for the first time that day, and immediately hugged my mother, as I assured her, “No, Mom, it’s great. Thank you so much.”

She smiled, and hugged me very tightly, before handing me the paper that was still warm from our printer, “I also printed out directions because I knew you’d forget.”

“Thanks, Mom,” I said, for the first time in months not stopping to explain that my phone could give me directions.

We walked around my car, where I placed the cooler and directions into the passenger seat. I then turned toward them, and stood in front of my open door. For a few moments we just stared back at each other. Well not quite each other, each of us knew that if we made eye contact we would burst into tears. After what seemed an eternity my father saved us from the awkwardness of it all, by speaking, “Well, you should probably get going, don’t want to be unloading your things in the dark.”

“Right,” I nodded as I moved in to give him a hug.

He held me fast and firm for a few seconds, before we parted and he said, “Call us when you get there, and keep an eye out for any troopers on the road.”

I smiled up at him, “Of course, Dad.” I then moved to hug my mother.

Her embrace was fierce and had more strength behind it then I thought she was capable of. As her arms tightened around me even more, I just barely felt one of her warm tears drip onto my shirt. I shut my eyes tight, fighting back tears of my own again, already having lost track of how many times I tried to avoid crying. We slowly broke apart when I felt my dad’s hand on her shoulder. My mother was dabbing at her cheeks as she said to me, “Just be careful, honey, and if you have any problems, don’t be afraid to call.”

My head moved into a nodding motion though I don’t quite remember telling it to do that, I was too focused on trying to not cry, as I watched another tear run down my mother’s cheek. “Yes, Mom,” I croaked out, “I better…better…get going.”
My mother nodded, and my dad smiled with a mixture of sadness and pride covering his face, as I got into my car and he shut the door for me. I didn’t look back as I drove away, instead I just kept my eyes focused on the road. I put all of my energy into driving through a neighborhood I knew so well that I was confident I could probably drive through it blindfolded. At the time though, I needed to think about anything but the fact that I was leaving for the last time.

Before I reached the interstate though, my eyes flicked over an empty parking lot, and without even thinking about I guided my car into it. I parked at one of the far edges of it, before leaning over and opening my glove compartment. A smile flashed across my face as I spotted a small travel pack of tissues and I pulled them out. Finally, after the past few very intense hours, I let everything out and tears rolled down my cheeks.

When that summer had came to a close, I had decided that if I was going to become a real actress, I needed to go somewhere where there was work for it. There were only a few groups in the area where I had grown up and gone to school, but just a few hours north, there were hundreds. The decision seemed to be a no brainer when I finally decided to move to New York City. Through Craigslist I found two girls around my age that were looking for a roommate, and for some reason they agreed to let me move in without a face to face meeting.

As I dabbed away the last of my tears and blew my nose, I got back on the road and made my way for the northern bound interstates. As I drove, I spotted a sign that read “New York- 235 Miles.” I knew it was a little more than that to the apartment I’d be sharing with two other girls in Brooklyn but I couldn’t help but smile when I saw it.

At the time it was just a few hours of driving, but I knew it was countless more hours of waitressing, or bartending, and even more of auditioning for parts before I would get that breakout role in some off-Broadway play. As I made the long drive, between poorly singing along to songs and cursing the traffic gods, I dreamt of Village Voice reviews, parties on rooftops in SoHo, and gossip-filled brunches with fellow actresses.

If at that time anyone had told me that none of that would never come true, I wouldn’t have believed them. That’s what everyone said to everybody who aspired to be some sort of artist. Ever since I was little girl despite being told I could be anything I wanted, people had told me to not think I’d make it. They said I should prepare myself for a life of being a disgruntled waitress or “one of those sad middle aged women” teaching improv to senior citizens.

Still, I knew even from when I was very young that I had to at least try. You can never get anywhere if you don’t try, and I didn’t want to end up like every other person in the world. After all, it was everyone else who hadn’t tried and was now upset with their lives. I was going to try, I had to.

******
Driving on I-278 was one of the scariest experiences of my life. I had grown up driving on the Beltway where people seemed to drive without a fear of death, but people just seemed to barrel across Staten Island like they were hoping their cars would suddenly take flight and sail over any possible traffic. As I came into Brooklyn, things started to curve, and I swear people were speeding up. Getting off the expressway lead me into the grid pattern of northern Brooklyn, which would’ve been easy to navigate if streets were numbered and not named. I cursed myself for not deciding to live in Manhattan where things would be numbered as I twisted and turned down countless one way streets. Still, I knew I didn’t have the money for Manhattan, or even a job that would ensure I could live in Brooklyn.

My street was a tightly packed bunch of residential buildings, with a little convenience store on the corner. For the first time during the move I was happy that I owned a small car since I was able to wedge it between two others in front of my apartment.
I stepped out of my car into the waning light of the evening. My new home was taller than most of the squat brick buildings that composed the street, and was a very modern looking frame of glass and steel in comparison to their weathered stone. With a deep breath, I walked forward, and rang the bell to my future apartment, and after a torturous few seconds the speaker crackled and a voice said, “Hello?”

I pressed down the intercom button, and said, “Hi, it’s uh, Ashley. Ashley Howards.”

There was a pause just long enough to make me wonder if I was on the right street, and then after an eternity, the speaker crackled to life again, “Oh right, it’s the fifth. Let me buzz you in.” There was a loud sound like a heavy desk being yanked across a tile floor and the door vibrated a little.

I made my way into the building and my nose wrinkled slightly as I smelled marijuana coming from behind one of the doors, I then swiftly made my way up to the third floor where I stood in front of the smooth black door that read 3A. 3A would be my home for who knew how long, and I gently knocked on its door. The door eerily creaked open and I stepped into the apartment. “Hello?” I called as my eyes took in the living room and tight kitchen area.

There was a big lumpy gray couch in front of a coffee table and television. Magazines and bills littered the coffee table, along with a small bong that was a strange blend of purple and blue. I frowned as I moved around taking in the mismatched furniture before moving to the kitchen, which was kept fairly clean besides a small bit of grease that had built up on the stove top because of regular use.

“Hey,” a voice called, and I turned to see one of my roommates come into view. She was tall and thin, with dark hair that she kept cropped close. She was wearing a flowing white dress that I almost mistook for an oversized man’s dress shirt. After a moment, she righted a set of barely noticeable spectacles on her nose, before extending her hand to me, “You’re Ashley, right?” I nodded as I took her hand, “I’m Rachel. Sorry it took me so long to buzz you in, I ordered some Chinese food and completely forgot you were moving in today.”

“Oh,” I said, before continuing, “That’s cool.”
Everything passed in a quick flurry as Rachel showed me around the apartment, my modestly sized room, and then she gave me a key and a doorstop to help prop the door while I moved my things in. Her Chinese food arrived and before I knew it, Rachel was squirreled away in her room, and I could hear muted music coming through the door.

After nearly two hours, I finally placed the last of my boxes in my room and sat down on the hardwood floor. I shifted so that my back was propped against the wall and looked over everything that would need to be unpacked eventually. “First day of the rest of your life, Ash,” I said aloud to myself.

My eyelids grew heavy as I stared out at the boxes and my slightly ajar door, and I smiled as I thought about everything that was to come. Then I giggled, as I thought about when it all started. That day when I knew exactly what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

It was when I was in the sixth grade, my first year of middle school, and I got my first real chance at acting. Two years earlier in elementary school, I had been part of the obligatory fourth grade musical but I couldn’t sing to save my life. Even though I loved being on the stage in our auditorium/cafeteria, and wearing a costume, I just assumed that any chance of being an actress was gone because I couldn’t sing. Then two years later, despite only being a sixth grader, I got a lead in the school play. I had had to learn so many lines but it all became worth it for those two nights when I walked on stage in full costume, with make up done by the drama club adviser, and stood beneath those lights. I didn’t miss a single line.

For the next six years of my life, I lived and died on the real stages that were in the middle and high schools. By the time I was in high school, I started going out for parts in a few of the local community theaters to keep me occupied when the high school did a spring musical, which I never could get a part in. Still, I never abandoned my high school’s drama club, I would be part of the stage crew and work the lights or build sets.

Friends, teachers, and my parents, none of them were surprised when I wanted to go to college and be a theater major. I decided against going to a theater school because money was tight and scholarships weren’t as plentiful as feel good movies had lead me to believe. My college had a great theater program though, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. Least, I never thought I would.

As my head drooped and my eyes shut completely, I began to wonder if I had made the right choices in my life. Maybe I should have taken on the debt to go to a school that would have helped me get a job after graduating. Or maybe I shouldn’t have taken a second degree in an equally useless subject, I chided myself. Now I was in New York, and that was no guarantee of success either, I realized. Hundreds of people like me showed up in New York City every day to make it big, and most of them could sing and dance. What made me any different, I began to wonder, what could possibly set me apart from the rest of them?

******

I didn’t wake up until I heard the sound of a siren whizzing past on the street below. My back and neck were sore as I stood and stretched, somewhat surprised that I had actually fallen asleep while sitting against a wall. As I checked my cell phone and realized it was past midnight, I was surprised to hear lots of noise in the apartment. Walking down the small hallway I could hear music coming from Rachel’s room, and then I came upon my other roommate watching a movie in the living room.

As I stood in the glow of the television, I could just make out her pale features and curly brown hair. She was dressed very casually, in a pair of pajama bottoms and a tee shirt, clearly ready for bed. Without removing her gaze from the movie, she spoke, “Hey, you’re Ashley, right?”

“Yeah,” I replied, stepping closer to the couch and resting my hand on it.
“Leigh,” She said in a weary tone, I noticed that she didn’t even bother to lift her hand when she introduced herself, barely turning away from the screen to face me. “Sorry,” Leigh began to explain, “I’m just really tired from work.”
“No, it’s ok,” I said with a faint smile. For some reason that I couldn’t explain I was mildly envious of the notion of being tired from work. I moved around the side of the couch, but ended up sitting on one of the wooden chairs that was nearby. After I settled down I asked, “What do you do?”

“I’m a secretary,” Leigh said as she paused the movie she was watching. Her finger made a spiral into the air as she sarcastically exclaimed, “Whoo.”
“Oh,” I interjected since I was unable to think of anything to actually say.
Luckily though, Leigh didn’t seem to care, “Yes, in the wonderful world of advertising. You’d think that with a business degree, and forty years of social advancement, I’d be treated better than the girls on Mad Men, right?”

“I guess,” I awkwardly supplied.

Leigh sighed as she shook her head, “Whatever, I’ll figure something out eventually.” She turned her face toward me, as I uncomfortably sat in the straight-backed wooden chair, my mild envy suddenly slipping away. “What about you? Why’d you move here?” She asked casually, as if it was a question she heard on a daily basis.

“I’m an actress, or well, I guess I want to be,” I frowned, biting my lip as I struggled to explain to Leigh who seemed completely unphased by my chosen career path, “I mean, I have a theater degree, and I’ve had some pretty cool internships. I mean, well, I’ve acted before you know, I was in the Virginia Shakespeare Festival last year but I just…”

“Yeah, I know what you mean,” Leigh thankfully said, “It’s tough for everyone right now. When’d you graduate?”
“This past May,” I stated, feeling somewhat embarrassed when I began to think of just how young and naive I probably seemed.

“I graduated last year,” she said, “Don’t worry, I had to tend bar for like eight or nine months before I got this job. But hey, I got my dream job, or well, the job that will get me the dream job in like a couple of years,” she paused and then added in a strange mixture of hope and cynicism, “I think.”

There was a lull in the conversation as we just stared across the room at each other before Leigh said, “You know, if you don’t have a job yet, I could probably help you get a job at a bar.”
“Thank you,” I responded, some what surprised by the sudden extension of kindness.

Leigh just rubbed her eyes, “Yeah, one of my old coworkers is working at some new bar in Manhattan. He said they’re looking to hire someone else, and apparently the owners want them to be a woman.”

“Why?” I asked, biting my lip as I began to think about the probable answer.

Leigh laughed as she looked me over before locking her eyes with mine and saying, “You know why.”
I nodded, “That’s pretty sad.” Was that all they wanted, just an attractive girl to carry pitchers of Bud Light or something? Worse, I began to reflect, was that all I had to offer?
“Don’t think of it that way,” Leigh suggested, “Just think of it as a job with flexible hours so you can go to auditions.”
I shook my head and explained, “I’ve never even been a bartender before.”
Leigh laughed, “Neither was I, don’t worry about that. People don’t go into places expecting to be able to get a complicated drink all the time. You’ll be lucky if you’re ever even asked to make a martini.”

I laughed too, “Really?”
“It was really weird, every so often I’d get someone who wanted a real cocktail. It was cool because I got to then actually do something, but most of the time it was just like beer or vodka and soda,” Leigh shrugged, “I don’t know when people stopped liking fancy drinks.”
Leigh then stood up and moved toward the kitchen, as she did she looked over her shoulder and asked, “Speaking of which, do you want anything?”

I rose from my chair and followed her to the kitchen, “I guess, what were you going to have?”
Leigh smiled, “Just a whiskey sour with some egg whites, some people call it a Boston Sour other people just insist that’s what a whiskey sour is,” Leigh giggled a bit as she explained, before waving me over, “Come here and I’ll show you how to make it.”

I laughed and joined her in the kitchen. What little remained of the evening began to pass quickly as Leigh shared bartending stories, and then eventually we began to trade stories from college. I couldn’t even begin to describe my happiness at bonding with one of my roommates so fast, especially given Rachel’s earlier disappearance. Perhaps, I thought, life in New York wouldn’t be so bad.

As I made up my bed on the hardwood floor that night, I reflected on the possibilities that lay ahead. Leigh wanted to help me get a job, and while it might not be the job I wanted, it would help me start making cash quickly while I searched for the right fit, which was good because it’s not like I had a tons of money saved up anyway. After bartending for a few months, I was sure I’d be able to get bit parts in things or just a small job sweeping up at some theater.

Anything that would have to do with acting, I realized, would be enough.
I didn’t realize it then, but that desire to do anything that involved even an ounce of acting would be part of how I fell into everything. Even then, the thought didn’t cross my mind that I would ever be one of those girls. I never considered myself one of those people that would want to do something so badly, that they’ll trade a little dignity for the chance to pursue their dreams. When you want something badly enough though, sometimes you make stupid decisions, and when you make stupid decisions, sometimes you can’t make up for them for years.

It started after I moved to New York, but more importantly it started after Leigh helped me get that job. It was not long after I got that job, that I would end up shooting my first adult film.
At the time, it was just a temporary thing. I learned later that it’s always a temporary thing, something you do cause you need the money, or because you want that modicum of recognition, or maybe you do it just because you need something to alleviate the boredom, and constant rejections that come with trying to pursue your dreams. I don’t remember exactly what it was anymore, I just know it started not long after college….

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