Tell Me How You Really Feel
"The queer hate-to-love story you need in your life." — Bustle
The first time Sana Khan asked out a girl – Rachel Recht - it went so badly that she never did it again. Rachel is a film buff and aspiring director, and she’s seen “Carrie” enough times to learn you can never trust cheerleaders (and beautiful people). Rachel was furious that Sana tried to prank her by asking her on a date.
But when it comes time for Rachel to cast her senior project, she realizes that there’s no more perfect lead than Sana-- the girl she's sneered at in the halls for the past three years. And poor Sana-- she says yes. She never did really get over that first crush, even if Rachel can barely stand to be in the same room as her.
Told in alternative viewpoints and set against the backdrop of LA in the springtime, when the rainy season rolls in and the Santa Ana's can still blow-- these two girls are about to learn that in the city of dreams, anything is possible-- even love.
Excerpt from Tell Me How You Really Feel :
Princeton University: Admission Office
P.O. Box 430
110 West College
Princeton, New Jersey, 08544-0430
March 15, 2019
Once again, congratulations. We are thrilled to be offering you admission for the Class of 2023. As you applied early admission, we know you are as excited as we are about this splendid news.
As we wrote earlier, you and your parents are invited to join us for our April Hosting program to learn more about Princeton. An invitation is enclosed with our earlier mailing. Our faculty members are interested in meeting you and we hope you can join us.
We are still waiting on your response card, which you need to fill out and return to us with a May 1 postmark.
Irene McAndrew Malloy
Dean of Admissions
April 1. 30 Days Until Deadline.
“And, finally, why you?”
Sana watched the interviewer. The woman had on a dark, boxy suit and had her hair fixed in a sleek, long bob. She was dressed to blend, to be forgettable. But Sana saw the interviewer’s sharp eyes.
Sana smiled — a calculated half smile. “Why me? As opposed to someone else? Look, I know you’ve got thousands of applicants for this position. Who doesn’t want to add working at a research genetics hospital in rapidly industrializing India to their future med school application?”
The interviewer nodded. Patient, but unimpressed.
“I’ve wanted to be a surgeon my whole life. I’ve practiced stitching with cross-stitch and embroidery since I was ten. I’ve been playing video games for longer than that. My hand-eye coordination is off the charts, frankly. I’ve taken every premed class you can take while you’re still in high school. I elected to take organic chemistry in my senior year. I’ve shadowed doctors. I’ve done internships. I’m, like, a poster child for doing the most. My whole life has built up to being a doctor. My whole life.”
Sana paused so the woman could give another noncommittal nod. The walls of this room were a faded slate gray. An intentionally neutral room. A space for evaluating fairly. Aside from the interviews Sana did for summer jobs, every interview room she had ever been in had been similarly painted. Similarly outfitted with beautiful, institutional mahogany furniture.
“But that doesn’t make me different. I’m sure all your other applicants feel the same. Have done the same.”
The woman nodded again, her sharp eyes a little narrowed, waiting.
Sana had practiced this part, alone in her room. Having to admit what she was about to say to herself the first time had been terrifying enough. But in front of another person was something else altogether.
She took a deep breath, ready as she would ever be. “The thing is, I don’t know. I don’t know what it is to wake up every day and go into a hospital. To actually help people in this way. We didn’t have the money growing up for me to take any of those medical mission trips. And even those, they aren’t everyday conditions, are they? They’re an exceptional week in the life. I want to know what it’s like to go into work every day and treat patients. I want to know that the last ten years of my life will be worth the next forty. I guess that makes me kind of bananas. Train to be a doctor, take the big paycheck, kid. That’s what my naana would say. My father, too.”
Sana didn’t like bringing up her father, but for some reason, he seemed pertinent here. He’d focused on career so much that she only saw him when he came back for birthdays and holidays. And sometimes not even then. Mom was the one who had worked because she’d had to, because she’d had no other options. Her father had thrown himself into his work because he’d wanted to find an honest means to stay away. The interviewer was so focused on Sana that it was nearly impossible to hold eye contact.
But Sana didn’t break. “So why me? You know I speak Urdu and Hindi and Bengali. And Farsi, if that matters at all. You know I’ve got the grades. You probably even know I got into Princeton, even though I turned in my application with you before I’d heard back from them. But honestly, why me? Because I need to know that the future I’m banking on isn’t just good in theory. I need to know it’s not just good on paper.”
The interviewer bit the inside of her cheek — but Sana wasn’t sure if that was to bite back a smile or a grimace. It didn’t matter anymore, anyhow. She’d told someone. She’d told the truth, and the truth was the one thing she’d never confessed to anyone. Not to Naana or Mom. Not to Mamani or even her father.
Sana swallowed. One more hard thing left to say. “I know I’m good at becoming a doctor—the tests and the classes and the science. But I don’t know if being a doctor would be a good thing—for me or for my patients. I’d like to figure that out.”
“That is, without a doubt, the most selfish answer I have ever heard.” But there was no malice in the interviewer’s voice. She maintained neutral—her tone, her expressions, her manners. She’d clearly been doing this for a long time.
“I know.” Sana nodded. “But I thought I’d tell the truth.”
The interviewer leaned in, over the clipboard she’d been writing on. “And why on earth would you do that?”
Sana shrugged. “Everything I’ve gotten in life has been on hard work and talent and some luck, but mostly this one assumption—that I would be a doctor. I don’t want the position on those terms. I want the position knowing I got it, even if I’ve got doubts.”
“And that’s your final answer?” The woman looked at her clipboard, then back at Sana. Still unreadable, still inscrutable.
“That’s my final answer.”
Shit. Shit, shit, and double shit. Rachel knew not to say it out loud. Not while the film advisor and photography teacher, Ms. Douga — who everybody just called Douga, even to the teacher’s face — was in the room. But she thought it all the same. And the look, Rachel knew, was written all over her face. An open book — that was what her mother had always said. I can read your face like an open book, Rachel.
It hadn’t been a compliment.
A freshman had knocked into the props table, causing a Magic 8 Ball to go toppling off of it. That should have been the end of it, since Magic 8 Balls aren’t actually round enough to go rolling around on set. But this one managed a good 270-degree turn before knocking into a light fixture. That should have been steady, too, but one of the crew members must have forgotten to sandbag the base down after Rachel had set the diffuser. The lamp tilted, then wobbled, then went crashing down sideways.
It was like a Rube Goldberg machine from Rachel’s own personal hellscape.
“Are you going to help, peabrain, or are you going to sit on your behind all day waiting for me to solve it?” Rachel shrieked. She rushed over, picking the light back up. But it was too late; the soft-focus light she’d balanced with was done for. Her diffuser now had a solid rip down one side.
The freshman she’d addressed startled, then froze. Wonderful, thought Rachel. Another incompetent sent my way.
“I guess I have to do it myself, just like everything else around here.” Rachel was constantly doing things for herself. She couldn’t rely on anyone else to actually do a good job.
The freshman — Ryan, she remembered his name was Ryan Ayoub — finally set himself in motion.
“Too late,” said Rachel. “You had your chance and you choked. Don’t ever mistake me for a patient person, Ryan.”
She supposed some people would have just said “freshman” and been done with it. But Rachel knew the importance of names. She knew that it would spur Ryan into better action the next time. Because knowing your name—that was like the Mafia don knowing your family, knowing where you lived. You weren’t a faceless screwup. You were an individual screwup. You would be remembered the next time.
“Rachel,” said Douga. “This isn’t boot camp. You don’t get to test if everyone’s tough enough to handle working with you. Leave the poor kid alone.” The tone behind Douga’s words—the “Rachel, you should already feel lucky enough to be admitted into these hallowed halls” speech—was familiar enough.
Rachel didn’t even flinch when she heard that anymore.
“Not if he can’t do his job properly.” But Rachel wasn’t trying to scare Ryan, or anyone, away, not really. He needed to learn, the way she’d had to learn. The way they’d throw you into the deep end on a real set. Rachel couldn’t make anyone unhirable. The worst she could do was yell at someone. This was an industry where people lost jobs over not stapling paper at the correct forty-five-degree angle.
Rachel was being positively gentle.
She was shooting the film in color, for God’s sake. There had to be continuity. This wasn’t some accidentally satirical Ed Wood kind of feature. Rachel would bet cold hard cash that nobody ever gave Tarantino this kind of shit on set. Rachel hated Tarantino, but at least he got respect from the people he worked with. Rachel knew she was supposed to calm down; knew she’d been told to calm down on many an occasion. But she wasn’t blowing a fuse over something minor. She didn’t actually care where the props table was set up or how much people talked between takes. This was about the colors that the camera was picking up. This was about lighting continuity.
White balancing was important.
“The white balance isn’t that off.” Douga wasn’t just the photography teacher and the cinematic advisor for the Royce School. She was a natural-born peacemaker. A smooth talker. That’s what the head of a department had to be, when they dealt with the kinds of parents and administrators that Douga dealt with.
Douga’s tone gave Rachel the sensation that she only got Douga’s attention as much as she did because she’d become a real pain in the ass. Rachel watched the faces of her crew as Douga’s words landed. Rachel was losing them. Maybe she’d already lost them. She’d probably never had them.
“It’s off.” Rachel found the balancing board, then she shoved it in Ryan’s hand. “Do you think you can manage holding this still?”
He nodded meekly. Better than she’d expected out of him, honestly. Rachel adjusted the camera efficiently. The soft, muted tones she wanted for the piece were what people might call seventies inspired, or Wes Anderson-esque. But to Rachel, they were an homage to Sofia Coppola. Her viewers were going to be haunted, à la Virgin Suicides. But she couldn’t do that if the balance was off from the start. She couldn’t do that if the lighting changed within a scene for no reason. Postproduction could only correct so much. One more adjustment, one more twisting knob. Perfect. The balance was perfect.
The scene, on the other hand, was far from it. The sophomore she’d cast as Helen of Troy wasn’t performing half as strong as she had been in auditions back in September. The props looked ridiculous, and the entire premise, Rachel realized, was falling apart because of it. Not that Rachel was blaming the props master, per se.
As the director, the burden of the credit — and failure — of a production fell to her. But these details were taking the scene from raw and honest to camp. And not the good kind of camp, not the intentional kind. The shitty kind that led to the creation of shows like Mystery Science Theater 3000. Rachel would not make a cinematic production that belonged on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Rachel was going to make art, goddammit.
Allison Heron — the girl playing Helen — called out “line” for the fifth time that day; Rachel had enough.
“Cut,” she said. Mostly for herself. Mostly to calm her frayed patience, which, as she had informed Ryan, was thin on its best days. “That’s a wrap. Everyone, go home. I need to do some massive rewrites. Don’t bother coming back, Allison.”
Allison looked like she was about to cry. Douga put her head in her hands. This was not, as everyone new to the set could tell, an unusual occurrence for Rachel.
Rachel instructed Ryan on how to pack up the lighting and sound equipment. She herself took apart the camera, piece by piece. She wound the cords efficiently, neatly. It was sacrosanct, this ritual. Nobody else could be entrusted with the equipment. It was too valuable, too precious. The money was one part of it—Royce had shelled out a good deal of it for the camera alone. But it was more than that. Directors should understand how to handle their own equipment. They shouldn’t just let their lackeys and crew members on set do all the labor. Directors ought to understand all the jobs they were effectively managing. They ought to respect that they were captains of a ship and needed to be able to do even the smallest tasks.
Douga stopped about a foot away. “Rachel.”
“It’s just wrong,” said Rachel—cutting Douga off—with her signature whine in her voice. She hated that whine. Made her sound like Mickey Rooney, complaining that the newfangled movies had gone to the dogs. But Rachel could never keep the tone out of her voice. Acting had never been her forte. Everything she was feeling came out and came through, in whatever she was doing. “I know it’s wrong. I thought this would be believable but it’s far from it.”
“You don’t know that from one hour of shoots, Rachel,” said Douga. “You haven’t even seen the dailies.”
Rachel didn’t need dailies, not on this one. She could see it in her mind—the shoot was already totally derailed. Again. Between the lighting and her piss-poor lead, she’d have to reshoot it all. True, she’d already gotten her application materials in, so none of this counted toward college admissions or scholarships. But Rachel had chosen to do independent study as her final send-off from school.
Her last semester.
Rachel looked her advisor dead in the eye. “I know what makes a good film. I know when it’s right. And this, all of this. It’s just wrong. None of it works. None of it’s believable. None of it makes you want to take that leap of faith. It’s just bad.” Rachel picked up what was supposed to be a light diffuser but was actually just a cheap paper lantern and threw it on the floor. Not in a rage. Not in a tantrum. Just to show how easily the illusion shattered.
“Nothing on set is built to last, Rachel,” said Douga, and then, even lower, so only Rachel could hear, “We need to talk.”
Before Rachel could argue, Douga turned to the room at large. “Good job, everyone. When you’re done, I want to have everyone meet in the film lab.”
Douga shot Rachel a pointed look. She was probably regretting putting Rachel in charge, even if Rachel was a second-semester senior. Probably thinking about what a control freak Rachel was. Probably thinking what a waste it had been, giving this shoot to her, giving this spot to a kid with a chip on her shoulder.
Except they both knew Rachel was good. Honestly, she was better than good. She was going to go to NYU — as long as the scholarship money came through — and she was going to be a filmmaker, damn them all and their horrible nicknames for her. Rachel was bossy, it was true. She was controlling. But she was good. She was so f*cking good. And even if she made them hate working for her, they had to acknowledge that. That she had talent and a drive that couldn’t be matched. She had a vision, goddammit. She wouldn’t let Ryan or Allison or even Douga get in the way of that.
Douga turned her attention back toward Rachel now that everyone had left set. “I gave you the benefit of the doubt last winter when you said you needed an extension on your project. You said you wanted to make a full ninety-minute pilot that you could workshop around. I believed you were capable of it.”
Douga paused, and it was the worst pause of Rachel’s life because she knew it was a giant, unsaid “but” to everything that had come before it.
“Now it’s April. You’ve got no pilot. No movie. Not even a five-minute short to turn in. You’ve got two semesters’ worth of credits that you need to graduate. If you cannot produce something, literally anything, by the end of this month, I’m going to have to report you to NYU.”
Rachel sputtered. “What?”
“I’m sorry, Rachel. It’s my job. I can’t in good conscience tell them you finished an amazing project I wrote you a letter of recommendation for if you can’t get it across the finish line. You’ve gotten so many opportunities. More than one second chance on this alone. Do something with it. You’ve got until your showcase on May first.”
Rachel watched as Douga walked away, carrying the promise of Rachel’s dreams, her scholarship money, her college admissions in her wake.
Rachel packed away the camera and she slung her messenger back over her shoulder. She could deal with this project. She could deal with lugging all this equipment across campus all by herself. She could deal with being called into the principal’s office to have a discussion about morals and values and upholding the Royce model of behavior again and again at a school she certainly never belonged at—because that’s what the Royce School was, a school Rachel attended but didn’t belong at—and be lectured on what an opportunity was, and not burning bridges down when she got them. She’d learned to nod meekly and apologize. It was the only time Rachel could find any meekness inside of herself. But she’d learned to do it. To bite her tongue then, to bide her time.
She could even deal with another lecture from Douga.
What she couldn’t deal with, what she refused to deal with, was this final project being anything less than spectacular. It was going to be better than good. It was going to be the best. Her work and her passion and her obsessive control was going to take her places, the way it took boys places. She wasn’t going to end up stuck editing local TV for the rest of her life.
No, Rachel Consuela Recht was getting out, and she’d claw her way there if she had to.