Julie Orringer plays with verbs brilliantly in her scene work to “The Isabel Fish.” The story centers around a victim, Maddy, who was a passenger in a car that crashed into a lake, killing Isabel, the driver and girlfriend of Maddy’s older brother Sage. Angry, Sage is now estranged from his sister and treats her cruelly. Maddy tells us in the story’s opening line: “I am the canker of my brother Sage’s life.” Their parents encourage Maddy to take scuba lessons at a local YMCA. Central to Orringer’s story is a therapeutic theme: confront the fear of nearly drowning in water by going back in and learning how to breathe underwater.
And Maddy does. In the last two scenes Orringer’s choice in “actions” intensifies. On her way to scuba lessons at the Y, Maddy verbally spars with her brother. He’s stuffing food in his mouth, avoiding her. He feels guilty for having killed her “science experiment fish” out of spite. To smooth over the fish-killing, Sage offers Maddy a cigarette, but she rejects him with a curt, “Yeah, right.” He tries to placate her: “I know you steal them sometimes.” But she won’t allow for any playful connection, calling him a “dickhead.” Thwarted, he offers to buy her new fish and she rebuffs him: “Do you know how ridiculous that is?”
Their jazzy musicality isn’t leading to any kind of reconciliation, so Sage opts for resignation: “okay, okay,” and then surprisingly confesses, “I’m an asshole.” This is a moment of complete honesty and vulnerability, and it quietly rhymes with an earlier scene: at a hot-tub party Sage told a story in front of his high school peers about five-year-old Maddy peeing in a pool, embarrassing her. Isabel defends the younger Maddy, challenging Sage with the hard-edged “Why do you have to be such an asshole?” and then abandoning him at the party. She and Maddy drive off together in their fateful journey.
Maddy, however, isn’t ready to fully embrace Sage’s openness, his admissions of guilt. Instead, Maddy tops Sage’s confession with the heartfelt tonalities of the wounded, “You make me wish I died instead of her.” Beat.
This is a staggering and dramatic punch line. An overhand speak-out that leaves us on the canvas, long passed the referee counting to ten. Sage is so shaken that it forces him to reassess his relationship with his sister and admit, “I can’t believe I turned into such a shitty person . . . I wasn’t even nice to her.” Orringer cleverly places the epiphany in the hands of a supporting character, not the lead.
But it is Maddy’s story, not Sage’s, and Orringer writes thro-ugh the epiphany. Maddy, moved by her brother’s confession, soothes him: “You weren’t a terrible boyfriend . . . Isabel loved you.” Her actions in the scene move from challenging to rebuffing to staggering to soothing. The verbs he plays follow a trajectory of offering, placating, abjectly confessing, and indirectly apologizing. Orringer plays levels as both characters adopt strategies to get what he or she wants (largely understanding, compassion, and love).
In the final scene, Maddy with Sage by her side conquers her fears. “Quit thinking about the last time,” he says, assuring her she won’t have another panic attack like she did the previous time in the pool. They tumble into the water and Maddy has the stage’s final spotlight:
We tread water, watching each other through our masks. I cannot see his eyes through the glass, but I can see, reflected small and blue, a girl wearing swim fins and a metal tank, self-contained and breathing underwater.
They’re together, committed to one another, but the moment is hers. And she’s visible.
Earlier, Maddy admired the translucent blue pair of fins and matching mask that her mother purchased for her, observing, “They seem like they’d be almost invisible underwater.” It was as if she had wanted to disappear.
Now, however, she isn’t hiding. She’s finding herself. She can’t see his eyes but her own, and like the scuba tank she wears, the self-contained underwater breathing apparatus, she, in a moment of double-voiced wonder, is made whole again, no longer fractured but self-contained.
Along with providing actions or verbs to play, strong, well-crafted and authentic dialogue should evoke triggers. A trigger is a crucial word in one line of dialogue that propels the next line of dialogue, speaker to speaker. A crucial word can be hurtful, confessional, a challenge, but it needs to elicit a response out of the other character sharing the stage. So, for example, when Sage, in the final scene, reassures his sister that falling in the pool this time will be “different,” she responds to her trigger word, “different,” with “We’ll see,” an implication that she’s still wary and lacking in confidence. Similarly, in the penultimate scene, when he says, “I’m an asshole. I admit it,” she responds to the trigger word, “asshole,” with, “You didn’t used to be . . . Not such a major asshole, anyway.” By repeating his word “asshole” she shifts his apology into a desire to return to what their relationship was when they were much younger, like the time they had chicken pox and had to stay home from school and Sage took all the blankets in their room and set up an “oxygen chamber” through which they watched TV.