Written by Tantra Bensko / Artwork by Lee Kuruganti
Projection Theater
Hannah and her friend Lewis crept toward the abandoned university theater through the tall
grasses that slid against their skin, knocking spores into the air that stank of reproduction.
They rose up to look for faux dangers, and bent back down, grinning in anticipation of the
wondrous auditorium they'd heard about from the art school where they taught. They'd never
talked about the place to anyone who had gone there, but had over-heard collages of
conversation in the hallways. Hannah and Lewis thought they'd seen a photo of it on a bulletin
board at the school, a clipping from the college paper, but could never agree on what it looked
like. They wanted to paint it to enter a contest that would take one of the multitude of people
who entered far away from that place to a new life. Or, at least Hannah really wanted to win it.
Lewis was more interested in having a fun day with Hannah than winning the contest that
would take the winner across the world from Knoxville, Tennessee to a career in London.
The trees dripped with Spanish Moss and scents of the south. The stairs were rotting away, so
Lewis adjusted his back-pack and jumped up onto the old porch, tested out the questionable
boards, and held his hand down to Hannah. She nodded, set down her bag of art supplies, and
climbed up on the porch without his help. He hesitated and pulled back his hand awkwardly. A
loud fluttering of wings brushed their faces. A bird's nest they noticed in the tree next to the
porch nestled gleaming eggs, more colorful than any they'd seen. Green. Or blue. This was a
good day already. Especially because the big red door to the theater was not locked.

It did have a pretend lock on it. Engraved with a complex design, the metal was heavy yet had
no place for the clasp to enter. It was perpetually unlocked, with words written on the back
they couldn't make out. Some kind of unfamiliar script. "Maybe Polish?"

"Or German?"

They peeked through the filmy glass of the old ticket window, which was shattered like a
cobweb but still in one piece; they saw a mosaic of the scene from so many fragmented dark
angles they grew dizzy and stepped away. "I wish I could play that piano," said Hannah.

"What piano?" asked Lewis.

"See, the big dark thing on the right side of the stage."

"You mean the stuffed brown bear?"

"What?" Hannah squeezed down the urge to punch through the glass to show him the obvious
piano.

They left the large double doors wide open for light and strode into the entryway. They set
down their art supplies in the dust and looked around. It was even more glorious than they'd
expected. The red velvet seats in the auditorium obviously provided materials for local animals
to pilfer and to build their homes in. Lewis thought maybe the animal sitting in a seat, facing
the auditorium was a raccoon, but decided it couldn't be, not in the daytime. It looked at them
and scampered away. Statues of two ticket-takers stood on either side of them, and a statue
of an usher in the aisle. Lewis took out his camera, and took some carefully considered shots
of them. "These are kind of eerie," he said, "so real."

"But sort of cubist," she countered.

"Really? They seem like hyper-realism to me."

"Odd."

They excitedly set up their easels, and sat down on the theater seats sideways, their legs
draped over the arm rests. They spread out their acrylic paints, took out their boards, stuck
large pieces of paper to them, and got to work. Hannah chose bright colors and relaxed back in
her seat, painting with wide brushes using angles and approximated straight edges to capture
the Picassoesque style of the statues representing their viewpoints from a variety of angles.
Sometimes she got up to walk around them before going back to the seat. He combined colors
for subtle flesh shades and moldy shadows on suits with painstaking care, erasing, covering
up, getting it exact, squinting.  

They got up after a few hours, stretched, and draped the paper across the velvet chairs. They
played about on stage, pretending to be birds. He kept trying to get the improvisation going as
a comedic feathery mating dance. She became continually sillier, tweeting and chirping wildly,
rolling her eyes, twisting this way and that, though he was going for poignant or for something
approximating passionate with a ridiculous twist. She bent over, and he fake-leered, but she
didn't get the joke. He thrust behind her, and she still kept her wholesome expression.

He frowned under his sideways smile. He told himself she couldn't even see him as a male
enough to think about sex humorously. His head felt waterlogged. It wanted to leak through
his eyes.

They returned to the paintings. "You'll see you what I mean about the statue looking Cubist
when my painting is done. I can't wait to do more sketches today. I want to do a whole series
from this place eventually. I want to win the state competition for art teachers with it the
series. If I win, that means I'll be able to go teach in London. That would be a lot better job
than this dinky one."

Lewis choked up, but adjusted his voice. "Me too. I'm going to try to beat you out. We're so
good, one of us should win, and obviously, that means me. Ha ha! Wait, look," Lewis said,
"mine isn't realist any more. It changed. That's so strange. There's something really odd about
this place. It's like the reality we're seeing is different, but why?"

She looked and said, "Yes, that's about right. See, that's what I meant. Sort of like mine, but.
Wait. I don't understand. Mine changed too. How bizarre!"

They shook it off and ventured into the wardrobe room, standing to let their eyes adjust to the
dark. The walls were covered with masks, the ceiling hung with large puppets, and costumes
overflowed everywhere. "I can't believe how great this is!"

"This is just fabulous. Truly." She tried on a sequined dress and tiara, holding a wand, and
spun in front of the mirror, giggling like a girl. As she spun, she glimpsed in the mirror a man
about three feet tall, with a round face, pushing apart two giant blades of grass and stepping
through them toward her. She spun to face him but saw nothing there but the costumery,
including a gnome outfit, in front of the leafy design on the peeling wallpaper.

Lewis picked up the gnome outfit and held it up to himself in front of the mirror. It would have
fit a child. He crouched down to sit with his knees in front of him against his chest, and held
the gnome outfit up. Its neckline fit about right with his. He smiled. He started rocking back
and forth sideways and making a "Derpadoo derpadee" sound as if he were a goofy character
waddling on stubby legs.

She stood behind him, both of them looking into the mirror. She stuck out her chest, letting her
shoulders relax back, her breasts sticking up higher in a healthier pose. She massaged her
neck, and rolled her arms, sighing. He angled his eyes upward, his attention caught by his
beautiful friend's bosom jutting higher suddenly into his peripheral vision so dramatically. He
stuck out his jaw slightly to create a more square shape than he'd seen in the mirror, and he
did his best to smile at the same time. She chuckled, pretending to be amused by his gnome
character.

When he looked back at the mirror, he leaped away from his vision of her as a giant figure with
a door hollowed out, leading back through a tunnel. He felt a sucking toward the tunnel, and
threw down the costume. She looked at him quizzically, an ordinary woman wearing the too
tight purple dress, which made her took thick-waisted and cheap, in a dark room. "I don't think
trying to see things in such a dark room is a good idea for me right now for some reason," he
said. "Let's get out of here."

"You're serious? Look at all these masks." She took down a giant mask of a head, which she
put on. It was a woman in the middle of a surgery, her skin and skull pulled back, her brain
open to viewing. Dust filled the crevices and tiny bugs walked along them. Hannah started
reciting numbers in her head. She did advanced mathematical equations that suddenly made
sense to her, and she stood straighter than ever, confident, and in control of her life. She
started to show off with a physics theorem.

He said, "Don't shoot!"

She set it down, puzzled by his reaction. He ran away. She stayed in the room, and found the
stick for pulling down the puppets. She grabbed one, and got inside the front of it, dragging
the back, and walked to the mirror. She couldn't put a name on it. "Yellow caterpillar? Otter?
Leviathan?"

She shuffled out to the auditorium, tripping over it, reaching out to the walls to feel her way
through the door. She said in a muffled voice, "Lewis. You've got to be the back of me."

"What? Could you say that again?" he called out. He poked his head around the corner, and
saw her exuding from the wardrobe.

She pointed behind her, and to him. He gleefully crawled inside to carry up the rear. "What is
this thing? A millipede?" He started rowing the legs through little portals. As he reached
forward and backward to grab onto them, the row of them seemed to extend. He was able to
reach farther forward and farther backward than he expected, and the numbers of the legs as
he counted them echoed in his head. Each echo multiplied them, and bounced off the walls.
The numbers made waves, as he rowed the legs, and they ended up together on another shore
with tall grasses. Some kind of animal, its long snout bent to the ground, snorted and trotted
away. They jarred ashore.

He was thrown forward, and he thrust his hands out to grab hold. "Hey, what are you doing?"
asked Hannah. "You've never grabbed me before. You've always been a perfect gentleman.
That's why we're still friends."

"Oh no, I'm sorry. It's not like that. You know that. But, oh, never mind. I have no idea." He'd
often wanted to grab her, and have her respond with a swoon. Yet it was some sort of
prehensile impulse to prove he was desirable. He didn't really want to get sexual with her. He
just didn't want to continually feel that sense of rejection that went along with being in the
friend zone.

They climbed out of the costume awkwardly, and kicked it into the wardrobe. She asked, "Do
you mind staying out of the wardrobe for a minute?" She changed into a dragon costume. She
picked up a sword and shield, held them up as she left, and turned to point them at Lewis. He
jumped onto a chair. He ran to her left, and as she followed closely, he managed to run past
her into the wardrobe and shut the door. He changed into a shaman's costume, brown leather
in frayed edges, decaying hemp blouse, and rat-eaten belt. He grabbed small square cobalt
blue suitcase by the handle and approached the door. He took a big breath and opened it.

He strode outside the room, and the dragon held out its sword. Lewis set down his case and
opened it quickly. Out flew some pastel moths. They swarmed the dragon's eyes, and it
swatted at them, knocking itself in the face with its sword and shield. Their soft color blended
powder on its face. It sneezed. The moths flew away making a cloud the shape of a pig.

Lewis reached inside and pulled out some browned papers. He read from one: "Do not do to me
what you do to you. Do not overtake my shadow with your hand before you shake hands with
yours."
The dragon skipped in a circle, laughing.

Lewis reached in again. The suitcase closed on his wrist, grabbing it, vacuuming him inside. He
screamed, and wriggled. The dragon lifted off and continued circling, spiraling out larger as it
flew toward the high ceiling. It swooped at him as he squirmed, its mouth open wide showing
sharp teeth. It nearly missed him as he gasped, strafing him from all sides with incredible
speed.

"Do you hate me?" he yelled at it. "Is it because I'm ugly? Is it because I don't make more
money? Why can't you help me instead of fight me, dragon? We could be allies."

"Oh," said the dragon. "Sure, we can play that." It breathed fire at the suitcase, melting its
hinge just enough, and Lewis sprung back out of it, his costume torn, his arm and ankle
bleeding. The dragon threw him the shield. "You can have this. How about that?" And it lunged
at him with the sword. Lewis used the shield instinctively to cover his heart. He ran around the
room, curled into a ball, rolled around, covered himself with a mask of a giant, and peasant
dresses, a jester's outfit, and canes. The dragon grabbed them and pulled them off him. He ran
into a corner, hiding behind his shield.

The dragon laughed and spun around him, close to his body, buzzing him like flame, circling
him barely on the ground, liquid fire, and hovered over him from behind. The dragon opened its
mouth wide. He rolled out from under it. He used the shield to hit the dragon as it flew at him,
and knocked it down. He stood over it, and placed his foot on its stomach.

"What do you want from me?" asked the she-dragon.

He said, "To know that you like me. I want you to like me a lot." He tugged on his shaman
outfit that was riding up and exposing his waist.

"I do; what are you talking about? It's not possible to like anyone more than I like you. I think
you're projecting your sense of rejection onto me. I'm convinced that's what's making all these
weird things happen here. That's why things look different to you than they do to me. Because
you're not seeing how much I do like you."

He fumbled over his words: "I think. I think maybe we have to sort of kiss or maybe have sex
some time or something to know that's true? I think you have to "like me" like me for it to be
real." Next to them on the floor a creature with an elaborate shell piled high on its little body
knocked it off, and oozed toward them, squishy and wet. Lewis shuffled sideways to avoid
stepping on it.

"No we don't. It's true I care for you as much as anyone I have ever known. I promise. We've
been friends for years. I don't even believe you'd even want that if I said yes—would you?
You're just afraid of what it supposedly would mean about you if I'd said no." When he agreed
she was right, the dragon approached him, opened her arms wide, hugged him for a few
minutes tightly, saying into his ear, "I love you completely, Lewis. Through and through. I
always will." Lewis held back a sniffle. He squeezed his eyes but couldn't stop a tear. A grown
man. He shook his head, and quickly wiped his eye on her scaly shoulder. She was right.

"Let's get back to the art, alright?" They changed into their blue jeans, carried a mask of a
sleepy giant and one of a moon with a top hat into the auditorium. A raccoon scampered away
from their paintings draped over the chairs. They were scratched and bitten, torn into six pieces
each. "Hey, you! Argh! I guess we might as well keep them. Maybe we can piece them together
to use them as guides and start over later. What a shame, all that time wasted." Lewis
gathered them up and put them in the suitcase. It didn't stay closed well anymore, so he
wedged it into his art bag.

The lighting was growing too dim. "We can come back another day."

"But I really wanted to do a series of sketches today at least. I guess we had enough fun as it
was," she said. Lewis lifted his chin high, and breathed deeply, smiling broadly.

"We always do." Hannah reached out and caressed his cheek. "Because we're best friends. And
that's a great thing to be. As important as being boy-friend and girl-friend. It means just as
much to me."

They grabbed their art supplies, and walked out, closing the front door, which locked itself.
They admired the deeply blue eggs in the nest, and smelled the lilacs.

She drove him home and before he got out he asked, "Do you want to separate out the pictures
we did? Do you want to take your pieces? I don't know how that critter tore them so perfectly.
Now that's talent." She nodded and he reached into his bulging bag. He opened the suitcase.
The neat pieces of paper had complete paintings on them, all different and all fabulously
executed beyond belief: a bored dragon in a top hat, birds painting pictures of iridescent shells
on each others feathers, a bear playing a piano, blue eggs in a bird's nest cracking open and
giving birth to ghosts, Cubist giant ushers jousting, a raccoon picking a lock, a gnome smoking
a pipe in which the smoke took the shape of a fairy, two adult friends playing dress-up
together in pretty red chairs, a young sword dancing with an elderly shield, an inverted kiss
with the little boy upside down with his feet in the air and the right-side little girl bursting out
in a laugh so he plants his lips on her teeth, a yellow caterpillar studying itself seriously in a
fun-house mirror. They were brilliant, and all they would need for their portfolios, better than
they'd even imagined possible when they entered the theater.

He knew one of them had to win the contest, and move away, with projection-magic paintings
this good available to them to enter. Being best friends who could hug and show love was
fabulous, alright. But it still meant they wouldn't be pledging to live together forever; the Time
Theater amplified not only his projections but hers. He struggled not to hit the windshield.
Because the last little painting was a clock falling from the Parliament tower above the clouds
in the sky, with Hannah as the minute hand, and Lewis as the second hand, hugging profoundly
at noon, their eyes closed tightly with emotion, just at the point of being torn away from each
other as time moved forward towards afternoon, several minutes before it would smash on the
ground.
THE LORELEI SIGNAL
Tantra Bensko teaches fiction writing with UCLA X
Writing Program and elsewhere. She has books out
such as from ISMs Press and forthcoming (ELJ) and a
couple hundred narratives in magazines and
anthologies. She lives in Berkeley.