How to Look Like You're Praying


Zac van Manen is a writing and film student that hates his last name. He likes sleeping, coming up with ideas that he'll never finish, and writing scripts that people apparently don't like.

He also chooses to suffer through emotionally damaging television, and someday wants to write it.


by Zac van Manen

I look like I’m praying. Take away the gun, and the man, I just look sad, kneeling on the cold metal floor. My tongue tastes unfamiliar. It’s the halitosis of a confession. I’ve never been in a confessional, though. Never seen one that wasn’t filmed, obscured by dramatic lights and convenient shadows.
            But I can’t talk, what with the hypocrisy and the gun in my mouth.
            The man, he’s looking at me like he’s saying, ‘Are you okay?’
            And I’m looking at him like, ‘No, but keep going.’  
            Because we’re committed to this acting thing. This fake, fraudulent, horrible thing.
            ‘Dear Lord,’ I’d pray if I were a praying man, ‘I’m sorry.’ I’d tell him that I wanted to apologise. Actually, I am telling him that I want to apologise. But I’m not going to. So I’m apologising for that. It’s a self-perpetuating circle of apologies to a god I don’t even believe in, but with my knees frozen to the floor, I sort of have to say them.
            Maybe he could appear, save me, rip my legs off the floor. He’d leave the skin behind, and my shins would be bloody strips, but maybe that’d help change my mind.
            ‘I don’t know!’ I’m screaming to the man with the gun. And he’s screaming back at me, but I’m not entirely sure what he’s saying. I’m not listening, not a hundred percent.
            Then it’s, ‘You’d best be praying!’ and he’s just yelling it at me because he has to.
            So I’m screaming back with, ‘I don’t know! I really don’t know!’ Not a single tear yet. No crying, no whimpering. Just the saliva of a desperate scream, splattering across his crotch.
            I’m looking up at him like, ‘Sorry,’ and he’s looking down at me like he’s thinking, ‘It’s someone else’s problem.’
            And he’s kneeling down. We’re eye to eye, and he’s got the gun in his hand, his finger on the trigger, and he’s looking me right in the eyes. His face is like, ‘I am going to kill you,’ and his eyes are like, ‘Am I?’ One looks sad, and the other just looks angry.
            And then, ‘I’m not sorry,’ he’s saying, the way he’s supposed to.
            Then, click, then, ‘Cut!’
            The man with the gun, he’s standing up, taking it out of my mouth. It’s dripping with my saliva, and he’s shaking it off like, ‘That’s disgusting.’ And it is. What’s more disgusting is the way I’m breathing. My lungs are shallow now. They’re not holding as much air. My chest’s not exploding just so that I can stay alive. It’s well within my rib cage.
            It’s not as satisfying.
            ‘Again?’ I’m asking, still on my knees, still waiting.
            The man with the gun, he’s looking at me like, ‘Really?’ And I’m nodding at him like, ‘Really.’
            ‘Alright,’ we’re being told, and he’s going back to it. He’s putting the gun back in my mouth and it’s sliding in across my teeth and I can taste my own saliva and I can feel it dripping down off my tongue. But someone else is wiping my mouth, because continuity. We can’t fuck up the shot.
            ‘Sorry,’ I’m telling them. ‘Sorry,’ I’m telling myself. The man with the gun, I’m looking at him like, ‘Sorry.’
            The man with the gun, he’s looking at me like, ‘It’s okay.’ He’s looking at me like, ‘Is it okay?’
            ‘No!’ I’m screaming at him, because that’s the line. I’m screaming at him like I mean it. I’m screaming with some more saliva dripping down onto the floor. I’m screaming like the director wants.
            ‘I swear to God,’ the man with the gun’s screaming. ‘I swear to God, I will put you down like the animal you are.’
            And he’s spitting a little too. Not on purpose, not the way I am. It just came out, when he spat out the word animal. When he spat out the threat. When he spat out the promise.
            ‘Please!’ I’m screaming. I can’t even remember my motivation; I can’t remember the script, properly. I’m improvising. Appropriately improvising. They call it talent, skill. They call it a gift, even, but I just call it breathing. I call it living. I’ve improvised every situation I’ve ever been in.
            That’s what I found in acting school. There are no rulebooks on how to exist. The Commandments eroded. But there are films, and they can be guidelines. They’re cheat sheets for first-grade romance. I swear I’ve seen the first year of my nineties college experience in some film from the eighties. I improvised someone else’s lines, and my beer wasn’t fake. But we were both acting.
            My paycheque was word of mouth. My paycheque was beautiful and she knew what she was doing. She left me not long after we met. She left me because I acted.
            ‘You don’t love me, do you?’ she asked.
            ‘I swear to God,’ I told her then. ‘Yes! I swear to God!’ I screamed at her then.
            ‘Yes! I swear to God!’ I scream at him now.
            I wonder, sometimes, if she remembers me. If she sees my films, my shows, my productions. If she looks at me thinks, ‘Yes. He belongs here, that actor of love and pain.’ That’s what I did first; I acted in romance, I acted in horror. They’re easy, and they’re cheap. Horror reuses the same props, covers them in red paint. One set, two actors, lots of blood.
            Romance, they spend their money on sets. No props, two actors, no blood. Lots of pain. So that’s what I learned to do first; pain. I could scream and cry at the drop of a hat. It was part of my auditions. A casting director, he stood right in front of me and said, ‘Cry when this hits the ground.’
            So I asked him, ‘What’s it supposed to be?’
            And when it hit the ground, the hat collapsed. It was old. No support. No frame. No shape. It just folded in on itself and I started to cry, because he said, ‘You tell me. It’s whatever makes you cry.’
            And when I looked at it, folded in, a lie of shape and support, I just saw a mirror with cracks and stains. I saw my first paycheque’s mirror, and we were both looking at ourselves in it. Young, collegiate selves. We were happy, and then we folded and collapsed and she left, and the acting kicked in.
            ‘Yes!’ I’m screaming at the man with the gun.
            ‘Are you honestly, really, prepared?’ He’s asking. Not screaming. Asking. He’s begging for me to say, ‘No, I’m not prepared.’
            But I don’t know if she remembers me, my paycheque. My bank doesn’t. My accountant doesn’t. He doesn’t want movies or TV. He watches spreadsheets and calculators. He gets his screen fix from formulae and graphs. In high school, I would have laughed at him. In college, I would have envied him. Now, I pity him.
            ‘Do you enjoy doing this?’ I asked him, once.
            ‘No,’ he said.
            ‘Then why?’
            ‘Because it pays.’
            And he was right. I did pay. I paid him. I paid him from my paycheques. He watched my money go in, and he watched my money go out, and he watched his money go in. In that order. He took pieces of other people and he kept them for himself.
            His office, it was covered in pictures and posters and paintings. I don’t know if he even knew what they meant. He had art and he had motivation. He had black borders, white text. He had white canvas, blue dots.
            ‘What does it mean?’ I asked him.
            ‘I don’t know,’ he told me. ‘I thought it looked nice.’
            ‘Why the horror movies?’ they asked me.
            ‘I don’t know,’ I told them. ‘I thought they looked fun.’
            And they did, when I wasn’t acting. The acting, it hurt. The acting, I wasn’t acting. Not really. I screamed sometimes and I meant it, and I cried sometimes and I meant it. I miss her still, and I don’t know where she is.
            But the man with the gun, I know where he is.
            ‘Really?’ He’s asking. Pushing for me to change my mind.
            My accountant, he never could decide. He didn’t know what he wanted to be, so I don’t know what to remember him for. My paycheque, the girl, the beautiful paycheque, she never knew what she wanted to be. She dropped in and out of courses, in and out of schools, in and out of college. In and out of jobs. Of personalities. We both acted. She just didn’t know it.
            We all acted. We just didn’t know it.
            Well, I did.
            To the man with the gun, I’m telling him, ‘Really.’
            Because, really, the gun feels really real. It tastes like metal and it tastes like cold, and it knows what it is, what it wants to be, and what it will be.
            A weapon, a weapon, and evidence.