Thursday, September 24, 2009

Scenes From a Divorce: The Private Salon

Maybe writers need their own social apartheid. We don’t really mix well with regular folks. They find it bizarre and disagreeable that we sit for hours in front of a computer screen, inventing gossip about nonexistent people. I spent one afternoon with the son of a woman I was dating, making up a story. The whole idea upset and disgusted her. Okay, it was a story about finding a magic stone that would make adults do anything he wanted, and he was asking his Mom to triple his allowance, make homework optional and sign a liability waiver for skateboard camp. But we were having fun. Incidentally, you should never read one of those liability waivers for skateboard camp -- they’re terrifying.

Another woman got annoyed when I complained about some film we’d just seen trashing the book it was based on. “Who cares?” was her final, exhausted verdict. “It’s only a movie.”

Only a movie? And the book they ruined was only a book. And books are what you read when the magazines run out. But they never do.

One girlfriend was furious because I used her in a story; another was mad because I didn’t.

Neither one of them understood that it wasn’t them, or wouldn’t have been … just someone who looked and sounded like them, with a few of their more annoying mannerisms Girl who over-filled every room she entered with show-off ballet moves, you know who you are. You, too, nail-biter who said “Totally,” every time you agreed with me and “Thank you” every time I agreed with you.

Other writers understand when you fade and stop paying attention because of some plot point you can’t fix; they shrug when some stray comment winds up in one of your characters’ mouths. They like to be alone just as much as you do, and need your critical attention when they read long passages of fresh-minted prose, just like you need theirs. They don’t mind if you eavesdrop in restaurants; they’re eavesdropping, too.

It’s a good set-up, if you can find a writer you respect that you actually want to live with. That’s the tough part, because let’s face it, writers are pretty much just as annoying as all those non-writers think.

Driving out to Annie’s cottage in Polpis on the night of our private salon, I couldn’t help wondering if she might be the one. But I had heard she was still wary after the break up with her crazy actor and I wasn’t quite as finished with her friend as I should have been. It felt like a potential mess waiting to happen, “a regular monkey’s tea party” as my grandfather liked to say. I thought of Edna St. Vincent Millay starting an affair with one of her readers after a particularly well-written fan letter. That was the way to do it: translating the love of words into a more urgent carnality without ambivalence or complications.

The drive from town settled my nerves. After the last grasp of commerce – a liquor store tucked into the trees on the right, a ford dealership on the left – vanished around a curve in the road, and the last ostentatious real-estate boondoggle fell behind me, Polpis Road turned into one of the most beautiful drives in New England. With the moors on one side and the grand old clapboard mansions allowing glimpses of the harbor between walls and hedges on the other, I could feel myself escaping the gravitational pull of the busy town and the crowded ‘mid-island’ with its convenience stores and gas stations. Much of the island had been spoiled – even despoiled – but the farther out you cruise along Polpis Road the less it seemed to matter. These old houses weren’t going anywhere, though the cars in the driveway had changed (more Minis and smart cars, now; fewer Hummers and Expeditions). The moors and the bogs were protected by the Land Bank and the Conservation Commission. This was old money country, shabby with a haughty indifference to the granite counter top and the sub-zero refrigerator: no one was selling, or moving, or installing a climate controlled wine cellar or a state-of-the art digital screening room. They’re just going to keep on fishing in Coskata pond, drinking Bloody Mary’s on the deck and complaining about the food at the Yacht Club.

It seemed fitting somehow that Annie had found a place for herself out here, surrounded by the wealthy, but living hand-to-mouth, tucked away in a four hundred dollar a month cottage among the wild blackberries and the poison ivy. It turned out years later that she was actually related to the owner, going back five generations of landed gentry. The thought terrified his family when she mentioned it over cocktails one evening, as if she was going to rise up with a cold-eyed gang of Boston lawyers and demand her share of the old man’s property. Nothing could have been further from the truth. She had been living out there for twenty summers and it just pleased her to find an ancestral connection to her cantankerous but affectionate landlord.

I pulled into the bluestone driveway, rolled past the main house and down to the cottage. The lights were on in the dusk and when I climbed out of the car the silence of the place closed over me like water, like a tropical ocean, and I was breathing it like a fish, a new creature in a new world.

This place is gorgeous,” I said when she came to the door. “I could feel my blood pressure dropping about ten points a mile as I drove out here.”

She smiled, stepping back to let me inside. “I know,” she said. “But the problem is, you never want to leave.”

Her hair was down, a frizzy blond cloud that softened her sharp features, as the grey cashmere cardigan buttoned over a flimsy t-shirt and loose jeans accented the girlish allure of her body.

She pushed at her hair nervously, pressing the wild mane to her scalp. “I’m sorry. I look awful. My hair gets insane when it’s humid like this.”

“I think it looks great.”

“It looks horrible. It’s Ok. You can say so. It looks like I just stuck my fingers in a wall socket. The Mad Scientist look”

“I like it.”

“You’e insane.”

“Lucky for you.”

She squinted at me. “We’ll see about that.” Then she noticed the bag in my hand. “What did you bring? I’m starving. I was fine until about five minutes ago then my blood sugar dropped. I was about to start eating shredded wheat out of the box.”

“Ugh. That would definitely have spoiled your appetite for the picked lobster, home-made red cabbage coleslaw, and potato salad I have here. Plus the baguette and the raspberries. Oh, and a bottle of Pinot Grigio. No wait a minute. Two bottles.”

“Sounds like a wild night you’ve got in mind.”

I lifted out one of the bottles. “Onward and upward with the arts.”

The cottage was a simple rectangle maybe fifteen feet by forty. I had stepped into a high raftered, open-stud living room, with yachting pennants, old quarter boards and fishing rods decorating the beams, 1920s Nantucket theater one-sheets (Rose Tremaine in Private Lives the ‘Sconset Casino), family photographs and equestrian prints tacked to the wooden walls. The cracked cement floor was softened by sisal rugs, set about with an old velour couch and some white wicker chairs. A dusty television sat on an antique desk between two windows, but it looked as though it hadn’t been used in years. Beyond the dining room table, a raised a step led to the kitchen, with doors leading into the bedroom and the bath. Annie had lit Candles and hurricane lamps. The place was cozy, lost in time.

I stood looking around, taking it all in.

“It’s like some relic of another era,” I said.

She smiled. “Just like me.”

We walked into the kitchen and I started unpacking the bags.

“And what era would that be?” I asked her. “The eighties?”

“Come on.”

“The seventies?”

She made a little puckered wince, as if she had just stepped into a cloud of gnats. “God no.”

“The sixties?”

“I kind of hated the sixties.”

“No Woodstock?”

“Too muddy.”

“But the bands! Jimi Hendrix and Joe Cocker and Creedence. Neil Young played with CSN for the first time ever that weekend.”

“I don’t know, My sister went and all she heard was crowd noise, Melanie and Iron Butterfly.”

I smiled. “Great band, Crowd Noise. Their older stuff was better, though.”

“The older stuff is always better.”

“What a drag though – I mean if you keep working, If you’re Coppola and all anyone wants to talk about is The Godfather. Or like – that scene in Cakes and Ale when Maugham’s unsuccessful friend is telling how great his crappy first novel was.”

“I love that book.”

“Most people have never even heard of it.”

“That’s why I didn’t invite them tonight.”

I put on my best English accent. “Most of us resent people when we treat them badly. Alroy Kear was far too big-hearted for such pettiness. He could treat you very badly indeed without afterward bearing you the least ill-will.”

“I love that. I always see him as George Sanders. That must be because of the movies.”

“They;lve made some pretty good ones. But they can’t seem to nail The Razor’s Edge.”

“That’s because they don’t understand that it’s really about Elliot Templeton, not that drippy woo-woo guy. I love Elliot Templeton. He’s so wonderful and so sad. Remember when he’s on his death bed and all he wants is to be invited to the Duchess’ party?”

“And Maugham lies to him and he dies happy.”

“Yeah. Poor Elliot.”


She handed me a cork screw and while I was working it she said, “I guess … the Fifties. No -- the late forties. Just after World War Two. Men wore hats and kids didn’t wear bike helmets. Cars had fins. People drank scotch out of little flasks at football games. The Giants played the Polo Grounds. Everybody smoked and nobody cared. John O’Hara world. That’s my era. Maugham was huge then, too.”

“He met my Dad once, at a party. He tottered up – that’s one of my Dad’s favorite words, ‘tottered’ …and he steadied himself and looked my Dad in eye and said, ‘Dear boy, I hear you are the toast of Broadway. I’m happy to say that I am too old and too rich and too drunk to give a shit.’ Then he turned and lurched off. One of my dad’s fondest memories. Meeting Maugham.”

“You must have had a cool childhood.”

“It was weird. I was a bi-coastal kid. I spent vacations in L.A. – enough time to get hooked on my Dad’s world, but not enough to really be part of it. I was always on the outside. Which was actually okay, because my Dad’s new family was seriously fucked up. My half-sister was over-dosing on LSD, my step-brother tried to drown me in the swimming pool and my step-mother was right out of Grimm’s fairy tales – the uncut German version. None of this smiley-face American shit. I think she secretly wanted to chop me up and stick me in a batch of cookies. But she wouldn’t be caught dead baking, and it’s not the kind of thing you can ask the Filipino chef to do, unless you’re planning to give him a really big bonus, which was not her style.”

She laughed. “It can’t possibly have been that bad.”

“That’s why I can’t write about this stuff. No one believes it. No one believed the Mary Tyler Moore character in Ordinary People and I was like … that bitch is Mary Poppins next to my step-mother.”

“Well, my parents stayed married and I sometimes wish they hadn’t. My Mom deserves a better life. She – I don’t know. She chose it, I guess. She chose him.But I don’t think she really knew what her choices were. She could have walked away. She almost did a few times.”

“But she came back.”

“My Dad writes a mean love-letter.”

I poured two glasses of wine, handed her one and made a toast.

“To our crazy families, which made us the writers we are today.”

I cut the lobster into bunch of mescal greens Annie had in the fridge and made an olive oil and vinegar dressing while she put the baguette in the oven and set the table.

While we ate I told her that I regretted missing her plays – she had done a lot of theater on the island: a solo turn in The Belle of Amherst, leads in My Fair Lady and The Glass Menagerie, Linda in Death of a Salesman. Apparently she was great; but the only local productions I had seen were terrible – a clumsily staged One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and a teeth-grindingly inept Odd Couple with women in the lead roles. I had acted a little, but I found the stage fright debilitating.

“I’ve never had that,” she said. “I always feel comfortable on stage. I have life-fright instead.”

We finished eating – I noticed that she wolfed her food almost as fast as I did – and cleared the table. We got out our stories and settled in for the salon.

My story began this way:

The worst year of Michael Gersh’s life started with a morning of easy victories and good omens. There were bad omens too, but like most people, he chose to ignore them. The good stuff was just too distracting. At dawn, he finally managed to get a tube ride on a ten foot wave; at breakfast, he sold a screenplay about the Intifada to a pair of Egyptian bankers; and at lunch he closed a deal with the biggest star of the late twentieth century to make his best friend’s movie.

He could hardly wait for dinner.

Mike didn’t much care for irony, especially when it happened to him, but looking back at that sun-splashed March morning, he would have to admit it made perfect sense: he was riding high.

And a downfall is just a stumble, without altitude.

Annie’s started like this:

Alison was sitting in her old black Ford pick-up, peering into the rearview mirror, inspecting a smudge of yellow paint that ran along the left side of her nose, when he leaned over and stuck his head through the open window.

“Would you mind not parking so close to my fence? See, it forces people out into the street, and we've had some close calls, so could you please--?”

It was a ridiculously hot, sun-battering afternoon in early September and the last thing she needed was some Brooks Brothers rolled-up shirt sleeve leaning in, some thinning blonde going to gray-ex-Hotchkiss-ex-Taft-ex-Andover cum Harvard cum Yale Law School cum, beautiful wife cum Polaroid-perfect family back-drop, asking her to ease the margin of infringement on his self-important existence.

The stories were long and it was late when we finished.

We had an awkward moment at the door, as I was leaving. We were both a little drunk. She brushed against me, seemed to lose her balance. I caught her and held her for a second. The immanence of a kiss trembled between us. Then she slipped free of my arm and stepped back. We wound up shaking hands.

“Thanks for a great night,” I said.

‘Thanks for the picnic.”

“I liked what you said about the repetitions.”

She smiled. “You can say something fifty different ways. You just have the choose the best one and file the others away.”

“You said get rid of them.”

“I don’t think you ever get rid of anything. I bet you have lines you’ve been trying to stick into stories for years. Orphans left over from high school.”

“The problem is, most of them suck.”

“Tell me one.”

“It’s late. I can’t remember any of them, and besides-- ”

“It’s embarrassing.”

“Try mortifying. That was one of my favorite words in high school.”

She took my other hand, holding me in place. “Just one.”

“It would have to be a paraphrase.”

“I’m sure you’ll improve it.”

“I couldn’t make it much worse.”

She stared at me, eyebrows raised, head tilted down a little. Her posture said: Come on, let’s go. Spill it.

“I was really proud of this at the time,” I said.

“You’re killing me. I have to work tomorrow.”

“Okay, okay … let me set it up. The guy comes to the door, they haven’t seen each other in years, I was expert at true love tested by long separations in high school. I think I’d been on like one date at that point. Anyway, she doesn’t recognize him for a second, then she does.”

“Okay, so?”

“Ugh. Are you really going to make me do this?”

She just stood there, holding my hands.

“Okay, okay -- it was … ‘perception and response joined and separate: the lightning of recognition and then the slow thunder of a smile.’ Something like that.”

“It’s nice.”

“It’s awful.”

“I like it. Maybe you’ll wind up using it after all, now. When you write about tonight.”

She nailed me perfectly at that moment, as she always does. Of course I denied it at the time.

But here we are.

Anyway, it’s the next session I really want to write about.

And that night deserves a post to itself.


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