Fiction — April 13, 2015 11:32 — 1 Comment

Untitled Rosario Dawson Project – Zac Hill

I had busted out my phone to read the Atlantic article about the woman with two skeletons, which holy fuck, which is why at first I missed her. 

I’m on the six train north. The lights emit a dental color and the air conditioning certainly works. The tracks rumble, which you feel in your knees, and my head sways in time with the car’s motion like a flame on the tip of a wick. I am thinking about Candy Crush Saga and the kind of microwave chicken meatball to buy for dinner at Whole Foods and whether I remembered to donate to my nonprofit on Amazon Smile when I purchased the shoes I’m currently wearing, and in thinking I am trying to forget because I recently lost someone impossibly precious to me, and so the entire surface of the Earth fits inside this train car, with its stainless handrails and Zizmor ads and poetry of butter sammiches.

Which is to say again that when she enters I take no notice, and when I raise my head from spatters of text on my phone I’m floored to see Rosario Dawson digging her palms into the creases of her forehead, weeping. I blink my eyes and blink them again and when I open them from blinking a third time she is still there and is still Rosario Dawson, and when she wipes her cheek with her wrist, smudges of slate stain the surface of her skin like skeins of silt on a shoreline.

Her face has made a mask of her. She is trying not to be looked at and she fixes her gaze on a nondescript point and covers her chin with her bare fingers and so no one looks at her. Like Assassin’s Creed she blends in with the crowd on the bench and in seconds she’s cloaked in nothing. With her index finger she’s beating a rhythm on her upper lip. She chews on the insides of her cheeks. As her jaw moves her temple swells and ebbs. Tiny ears. Deep bold brow, like a fighter. Eyelash extensions. A heaviness in her shoulders, like she’s hauling bags.

The harder I look the more I lose focus. Her body is a carapace that repels attention. The opposite of magnetism—and after few passive seconds I am noticing not her but again the train car, the vascular subway maps, the money-back guarantees, the Dominican family with the daughter in spaghetti straps extending her finger and pointing at something.

The car lazes forward. Its doors dilate and contract. People enter and are. Some leave. I begin to feel the realness of my tendons, strained by my bent feet. The adhesion between my muscles and my skin, the mass and weight of it. My chitinous nails, bitten and dull. So much hair on my arms. I twist a tumble of it near my elbow and the resulting filament juts out like a cellphone tower. And of course breathing, the chore of it. My lungs gorged bladders of lifestuff. Their air pressure felt. My diaphragm doing its business. This whole sack of me. Down at the end of the car a baby pounds its palms atop the seventies-orange seat. It looks like an action figure whose legs you can squeeze to make it flail.

Eventually my eyes drift to my phone and try again to read the Atlantic article but the reception dies between stations so all that’s downloaded is the author’s byline and the multiskeletal woman’s name, Jeannie, who is a person and who exists and who exists in the space beyond this car. But Rosario. What can I share with her? What can I say to say we are in common? Her swaddled hair casts a dense shadow against the plastic white of the walls, and the shadow sulks near her averted face, spilling into the pool of her clavicle. She peers into it, her skull sighing downward.

What she is feeling has no name, but it should. I hang like jerky from my own bones.

The baby in the back starts to cry and the bout of crying overtakes us in a wave. Hearing the baby cry is an experience like the snapping of timbers on a ship at sea in a storm and like a shot in a film all the eyes in the car converge upon the baby and his mother.

The two of them are looking at one another. He sits on his own in his own seat with his back uncannily straight, like the object of a nun’s gaze, his head wrenched in her direction. She picks at the skin beneath a nail. He howls like a sick dog, like a shipwreck victim wailing for rescue, like an echo in search of its source.

Yet his crying is not continuous. Something is off. It is less like a baby crying and more like a child-actor method-acting a baby crying, pausing to check the playback between takes. It starts and stops at odd volumes, like a mic check. It is less a cry than a plea—a plea not for attention, but for the most basic kind of acknowledgement, the acknowledgement that the baby is and is real and is of something, a sum of disparate parts.

But she will not edge toward him.

They sit in their seats with room for the Holy Spirit between them and there is no wider space in all of being than that several inches of space between their bodies. Not once does she move to touch him, to bridge that gap, to intrude upon that space with her humanity. He is as Midas or as Rogue from the X-Men. He is as the sacrament withheld. The baby begs for a reaction from her, a vulnerable second, but the space between them is like the space for killing between trenches and the scowl she broadcasts says why are you screaming and why are you and she withholds her touch like the stamp on an immigrant visa.

Rosario’s eyes are shut and she is quaking almost imperceptibly, shivering like an orphan in the cold.

The crying is a tactic and the tactic has failed so the baby tries to stand up in the chair. The mother leans away and begins to dig through her purse for her cell phone. She discovers it. The baby stumbles and falls and gets up and stumbles again. Mom scrolls through a menu. Finally the baby finds a center of gravity, and he plants his arms in the middle of the seat, and rocking his entire body forward with pressure from his heels begins to bang his forehead against the seatback of the seventies-orange chair. It makes a thwapping sound.

Mom looks up and sees what’s happening and when she sees what she sees she gasps and reaches out and grabs the baby’s arm. He immediately stops what he’s doing and debuts a wide grin. Then Mom digs her nails in right below the baby’s elbow joint and he chortles like a pet caught by buckshot and he tries to wrench his arm away but his weakness cedes to her strength and her thumbnail slices through his skin like a rudder in a current. The nail snaps and you can hear it and what she says is, “Fuck.”

She pinches him with the jagged nail, right above the shoulder.

“When I pinch you—do you feel it when I pinch you?” she asks.

She pinches him again and turns her body away and picks her phone up from her lap and taps at it four times and the kid’s howling is as invisible as elevator music, and the traincar’s other occupants are like extras on a set, and when I look over towards Rosario she is as every other passenger everywhere, silent and anonymous. She has eased forward in her seat, her forearms resting on her knees, her gaze blank, her expression Tracy Chapman-like.

But the shadow from earlier—where the plane of her body is supposed to interrupt the plane of the fluorescence and leave its fingerprints, instead blades of light slice unperturbed into the surface of the bile-colored seatback behind her. But above them. Above them like a thundercloud her shadow. Earlier when she took her seat with her face and her tears in her hands, when the mass of her hair blazed its black and hanging brand upon the wall—that’s exactly where it lingers now, dense like toxic gas, and Rosario turns her head this way and that way and another way, and she fidgets with her hands, and her right leg vibrates restlessly, but the shadow is stalwart, remains perched like a sentry, and it grows and grows and grows and grows and grows.

Eventually it engulfs an entire corner of the traincar. It’s stretched out wide across the wall like the Batman symbol. I am looking around to see who is seeing this but nobody seems to be seeing this. It’s some trippy shit. I begin to slink away what I hope is imperceptibly. One guy in the opposite corner with a Brooklyn beanie is reading an actual print newspaper. Someone is wearing headphones, which are loud. The car of course continues to rumble, which I believe I’ve said already, except now the tenor of the rumbling is more like one of those wooden carts inside a mine that they mock up at theme parks, and it’s filled to maybe a quarter of its capacity, and it’s unclear whether it’s descending or ascending, on its way in or on its way out.

To the baby, of course, nothing gets past this motherfucker. He’s pointing at the shadow with a what-the-fuck expression. And the mom—God help her the mom, whom I am sure is at this very instant dealing with her own world-heaving chaos, with (say) her general-practitioner mother who, despite the depth of her education, is so overcome by neuroses as to be unable to attend to clients as she breaches the threshold of her sixth decade, and yet is unwilling to abandon a certain standard of living, and whose frugality knows very few bounds but nevertheless knows bounds, and who therefore just informed her daughter earlier today of her intention to move in with her daughter’s family, of the practicality of it, of how sensible it would be, who delivered the line passively and with a sense of inevitable expectation, as a matter of course, as with the weather or with plate tectonics, the expectation to move in with the mom and the mom’s husband with his habit of farting and the mom’s older daughter Kenzie with the braces and the makeup and as of very recently the selfies in the bathroom mirror—so God help her, God forgive her because the loss I myself am feeling has not just consumed me but replaced me, and so I understand, and because Rosario and her shadow both understand, because both frames of Jeannie locked in civil war understand, because everyone in the car if they find it within themselves can understand. If we try. And we have to try.

But not all of us succeed in trying, because the mom’s words are, “Not this shit again. None of this shit.”

And what she does is she fucking thumps him. She cocks her middle finger back and holds it with her thumb, and she releases it, and the rest of her hand splays out like a blooming flower due to the absolution of the tension from her thumb, and she thumps him hard in the side of his head, right in his temple, and why he’s crying now is that this kind of pain is the kind you don’t recover from.

Fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva. That’s what you have when you have two skeletons, when your cells rebel against you. My phone tells me this because I’m looking at it, because I couldn’t look at Rosario and I couldn’t look at the baby and I certainly couldn’t look at the mom.

This is solitude. The mom is sitting there so reasonably, the baby quiet now. My heart pounds impotently and hates itself. A useless organ. What I want is for someone to hug the baby. Someone non-threatening and non-strange and non-aggressive. Someone safe. An ally. But that person isn’t me. I am a man, a stranger, an other, whose heart is locked inside its meaty cage. My proximity cannot translate to closeness. The shadow blackens an entire wall.

I’ve never prayed before and meant it. Always I’ve felt the answer hid within, that if I rummaged deeply enough through the palace of my mind I’d dig up a solution. But the woman I lost also knew two skeletons inside her, two chandeliers of bone—but one was smaller than the other, and held the seed of a soul inside. And the shadow her passing cast over me was more like a second skin.

I was not enough for that or this. But someone was. She was in this car. I asked the universe for her. Rosario—you’re present, aren’t you? You’re here? You can put an end to this? But the shade of her silhouette is curling around the baby now, ravenous and starving, and Rosario doesn’t move an inch.

It’s some fucking Sleep-No-More-ass shit.

Yeah. A Punchdrunk production, “immersive theatre” or whatever the term is. Super intimate. One audience-member at a time. Rosario does something like thirty shows a day. The entire car’s in on it, with the lights rigged for the trippy shadow effects and every bystander a paid performer, painstakingly trained to evince no reaction whatsoever to the interplay between the principal actors.

I know all of this because of the DNAInfo article that goes up a few weeks later, which also spells out a couple other curiosities:

  1. Like maybe twenty percent of the “subjects” recognize Rosario, but what’s interesting is that there’s essentially no behavioral difference between those who know who she is and those who don’t (according to exit interviews conducted between six to eight weeks after you witness the performance, which I’ll have to let the social scientist in me chill out a bit w/r/t issues pertaining to that particular methodology, but I digress).
  2. A plurality of people react in no outwardly-discernable way—but of those who do, the overwhelming majority spend their time comforting the Rosario character, agnostic of whether they recognize her as the actress Rosario Dawson or not. An appreciable percentage of the remainder chastise the mother. Almost no one directly engages with the kid (for obvious social/legal reasons) but interestingly the fifteen or twenty people who did all chose to offer him food.
  3. There was a dimension of the performance I didn’t pick up in the slightest, which was that you were supposed to think that the Rosario character and the mother were related in some way—that indeed her character had put the child up for adoption, and her inexplicable weeping was the product of her suddenly and dramatically happenstancing upon the baby under circumstances for which she was totally unprepared. Her sadness ensuingly deepened as she bore witness to the child’s totally love-devoid relationship with the mom, which explains both the depth of her emotion and the clutching, grasping, yearning nature of the shadow coming to “reclaim” the boy.

I was labeled as one of those who ‘didn’t react’, so the questions directed at me in my own exit interview were attempting to suss out one of several potential “pain points” aimed at improving the next iteration of the show: whether the performance as a whole fell flat; whether the subject matter wasn’t particularly resonant; whether some inherent trait of mine tended to incline me toward passivity, or whether (to put it bluntly) I just didn’t really care.


Zac Hill is the Chief Operating Officer at The Future Project, an organization whose mission is to inspire every young American to live a life of passion and purpose. Previously he was a Lead Game Designer of the trading card game Magic: The Gathering. He writes for The Believer, The Huffington Post, and the popular gaming website, and has served as a Research Affiliate in Game Design at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He lives in New York City.

One Comment

  1. Robert Mize says:


    Engrossing, well written with several phrases and phrasings that I will be pissed off for days that I didn’t think of. I wish it would have been a longer train ride. Thanks


Leave a Reply

The answer isn't poetry, but rather language

- Richard Kenney