On Oakwood Street

by Derek Flynn

Ursula used to be an actress. Now, she’s an alcoholic. She spends most of her days and nights in the same couple of bars on Oakwood Street, sitting in the corner by herself, drinking wine and writing poetry. She reads me one. It’s good.

“I wrote that last night,” she says. “Before I passed out.”

She was a good actress, at least as she tells it. And she was on the up. She’d just landed a supporting role in a big Hollywood summer movie. The day she found out, she went out to lunch with some friends to celebrate. And one glass of wine turned into three, turned into five. By the time she got home that evening, she was hammered. As she got changed for bed, she tripped over a make-up case on the floor and fell – face-first – into a full size mirror. The left side of her face hit the mirror; the glass smashed and carved a bloody furrow from her forehead to her chin. The doctors did the best they could to patch her up, but she was left with an inch-wide scar. She got some reconstructive surgery, but it was expensive. When the money ran out, she ended up back on Oakwood Street.

Funny thing about Ursula: she’s obsessed with mirrors. She can’t pass a mirror without staring at herself in it. Sometimes, she’ll sit there for twenty, thirty minutes staring into it. We’ll be in the bar and she’ll go to the bathroom, and half an hour later, I’ll have to go find her and she’ll be sitting on the bathroom sink looking at herself in the mirror.

“Don’t you ever just like looking at yourself?” she asks me one day.

“No. I tend to avoid mirrors.”

“Why is that?”

“Because I don’t like what I see.”

Of course, she doesn’t either. She’s not staring at the good side of her face. She’s staring at the scar. But, she doesn’t look sad. The whole time she’s sitting there, she has a look of concentration, as if she’s trying very hard to understand why something like that would happen. A simple twist of fate, as Dylan said. Something you can never understand.

But when we have sex, she climbs on top and lets her long, black hair hang down over that side of her face. And when she sleeps, she turns her back to me and sleeps on her left side, her face buried in the pillow.

With Ursula, I end up hanging out in the types of bars that I usually avoid. They’re a far cry from the bars I play – and I’ll play pretty much anywhere. These bars don’t have music. There might be an old, dilapidated jukebox in the corner, but none of the barflies in there are interested in listening to it, or in wasting their last few cents on a tune. These bars are the last stop, the last exit. Pretty much every single person in there is cursed.

In the beginning with Ursula, I didn’t notice it that much. She’d read me her poetry and talk about life; she was so intelligent and articulate that it’s only when I began to see her in these bars – with these people around her – that I realised how far she’d fallen.

And that’s when my worst instincts kick in. I want to say, Look, why don’t you just kick the sauce and clean yourself up? Get back on your feet. But by saying that, I’m saying that their world is wrong.

Sure, she could opt out, just like people opt out of “normal” life. But, most people don’t opt out; most just choose to continue on, for better or worse. And that’s what she was doing, that’s what everybody else in the bar was doing. It doesn’t make them bad, it doesn’t make them good; it doesn’t make them anything but human.

I watch the people in these places as they laugh and argue. They’re no different to the people I play to every night. The only difference is the people that I play to believe that they have somewhere to go to when they go home. But, maybe they’re deluding themselves, believing that there’s some point to it all, that’s there’s some point in trying to get somewhere, to get the job, the house, the car. Ursula and the rest of these people, maybe they’re the ones who know the real truth.

I ask her what sounds like a stupid question – does she think she’d be happier if the accident had never happened, if she was still an actress in Hollywood? It comes out sounding like a cruel question, but I’m just curious. She looks at me through the end of an empty shot glass.

“Probably. I’d have money, maybe be married. Of course, I’d probably be a mindless drone, pinched and preened to within an inch of my life, spouting banal sound bites to Entertainment Tonight. But … it seems to work for all those other actresses, right?”

The only time she doesn’t wear her hair down is when she’s in the bars. Then, she ties her hair back, her scar on full show. It doesn’t seem to matter then. Everyone in there has scars on their faces, real or not.

Author Pic

 Derek Flynn is an Irish writer and musician with a Masters in Creative Writing from Trinity College, Dublin. Derek’s short story “The Healer” was recently featured in Surge, an anthology of the best new Irish writing published by O’ Brien Press. He is also a regular contributor to http://www.writing.ie where he writes his “Songbook” column. And because he obviously has a lot of time on his hands, he is currently working on his latest solo album.

Like most writers, he is fueled solely by caffeine and self-doubt.

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