Fall 1996, Volume 13.3
Joan Puma is a former staff writer for The New Yorker who now lives in Buffalo, Wyoming. Her fiction, non-fiction, and drama have appeared in Grand Street, Wigwag, Tumblewords, and Baseball Monologues.
Sometimes I think the only thing I like about the movies is movie music.
"There's a rumor going around that Robin and I are sleeping together," Ben Michaelson tells me, just as the lights darken in the Tupelo Springs Cinema and the credits for one of John Huston's last movies start to roll. It took us 25 minutes to drive to the theatre. You'd think he would have brought it up in the car. If he were a woman, he would have. Then, maybe, we would've gone for coffee and discussed it. But no. He has to zap me nowl—ike a drill-in-hand dentist to his captive, open-mouthed patient. But I don't really want to discuss it, either. Maybe it's a good thing, being zapped here and now.
I say nothing. I slump further down in the new plastic theatre seat, quickly glance over and up at Ben, sort of sideways, and wait for more with dread. I don't want to hear anymore; I know I don't. I didn't really start any rumors. Honest. I just told a couple of friends on the set what I sensed with my gut. I suppose that could qualify as rumor mongering, but it wasn't really. It was intuition mongering if it had to be anything.
"Well," Ben goes on finally, having paused so long, that we are already up to Film Editor (which will be my credit, if we ever finish location shooting, let alone the movie). "I'm not." Why is he telling me this? "Who are you sleeping with?" he adds. Bull! Subterfuge! Insult to injury. He can't be serious. Who does he think? Harpo Marx?
I whip my head around and glare at him through the dark—cringing, not wanting to take the question seriously, but not able to ignore it, either. I take some long, deep breaths; my yoga teacher back in SoHo would be impressed. Come on. Let's get this over with already. The movie's starting. Movie? How in hell can I concentrate on a movie now? Too bad it's John Huston and not "High School Confidential." Too bad I'm not in Sheboygan.
Why me? Why is he telling me? Am I being accused? Lied to? I'm not his wife—why would he lie to me? Confessed to? Bribed? I can't be being bribed—not with this movie. It's murky and out of control (just like my life lately). Only five minutes into it and I can already tell: this movie is not like Huston's early films, which were murky and under control. I might as well try to get into it, I guess.
It's a great strain being intuitive. It clutters my life, which can, when I keep to myself, be blissfully uncomplicated. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, Memphis Minnie, Charles Brown, Ruth Brown, Skip James, E=MC2, my Puli, buttermilk, yogurt, cottage cheese, a healthy (possibly unhealthy) fantasy life, my palmetto, my catalpa, my jacaranda, my hibiscus, and my eucalyptus, rock and roll and hard bop, energy cannot be created or destroyed, apples, peaches, nectarines, knowing which guys not to fall for, and having enough change for the bus and the washer and the dryer—those are the hallmarks of my simple life.
It's when other people come into it that the works get clogged up. People are not funny; indeed, they're a real problem. I can't bear to watch them in action sometimes. I just can't understand how little they seem to know—to want to know. Believe me, it's a terrible burden sometimes being an obsessive-compulsive clairvoyant.
So it's no wonder I spent so much of my life as a willing prisoner—first as a prisoner of my daughterhood, then a prisoner of my wifenessence, and, lately, a prisoner of my own personal theory of anti-immaterialism (a philosophy in which mental perceptions have no reality except as material things). Prison is safe. Living in the material world may have resonance for Madonna or Thomas Hobbes, but it's too distracting, too painful too often for me. Oh, it can be nice for a while, becoming involved with people, living life interactedly; like robins in the spring, on the wing, and all that. But I've seen those robins locked in combat; it doesn't last, you see. (Right now, my tiresome clairvoyance is questioning my choice of "robins" as an example.)
So who wants to be out there with all those other vortices whirling about? Not me. It's inconvenient and too much trouble. It took me nearly four decades just to climb out of my own personal vortex, and I sometimes resent it to the max having to aid, comfort, or even just deal with any passing, out-of-control Tasmanian devils.
The entire film crew is gathered in a big circle in the main hall of the local Tupelo Springs Grange. The light in the room is very bright. In the center of our circle is Will Rogers. Yup, he's alive. He looks great, dressed in simple dark-denim work clothes and a squashed-in mounties' hat, with a white bandanna around his neck, and a big grin on his face. He looks like he did in "The Roping Fool," which was shot in Culver City, California, in 1925.
It's over 60 years later, but here is Will, with us in Texas, spinning a loop that becomes larger and larger—so large now, that it almost touches everyone in the circle. The loop Will Rogers is spinning is nearly 25 feet in diameter I'm sure. I don't know if a loop this size is possible or not, but I do know that Will Rogers is dead. But that doesn't stop me or anyone else in the room from beaming with pleasure at the magic that is happening. All of a sudden I run off with great glee back to the trailer to get my copy of Will Rogers' Rope Tricks for him to autograph, and I think to myself as I run, "When I wake up, I will know what a special dream this is."
I came back to Texas to get out of show business. So what happened? Why aren't I a checker at K-Mart (the job I fantasized about while working on fast-food-chain commercials in New York) instead of sitting in this witless movie with Ben Michaelson, the magnate of the moment in the Texas film industry? Oh. Ben Michaelson, that's why. Ah. Ben Michaelson. From Rancho Palos Verde, California; by way of Annapolis, Maryland; by way of Southeast Asia; Dubois, Wyoming; Bahia Province, Brazil; and Eugene, Oregon. Ben Michaelson, ex-Navy pilot, ex-medical student, ex-guitarist-percussionist, ex-expatriate, ex-poet, ex-forest ranger. Oh, yeah, and ex-husband, ex-husband, ex-husband, and husband.
I met Ben at a chic barbecue on the banks of Lake Lyndon B. Johnson. I liked him quickly—before I even had time to consider whether I liked him or not. He told me he was about ready to begin shooting a feature called "The Dark Night of the Soul." It was a love story, he said. It figures, I thought; for some reason I got his number right off: tormented, bitter, self-destructive; he never once took off his sunglasses. We got drunk and then we got sober together, talking about movies the whole time. He was very funny, in spite of himself.
He gave me a ride back to Austin in his helicopter (I'm always a sucker for a helicopter), asked me if I'd like to work on the movie with him, loaned me his ragged copy of Film Form by Eisenstein (he kept it in his cockpit), and kissed me. As he took off, he called, "Read the section on montage!" I flipped through the book right to a dog-eared page with a sentence underlined in red ink: "As ever the echo, the unexpected junction, is found only at polar extremes."
"Uranus, the seventh planet, has the greatest obliquity, or inclination of rotational axis, of any planet, 97.9 degrees (in contrast, Earth is tipped 23.5 degrees on its axis). Essentially, it rotates on its side with its north pole below the orbital plane. That means that while one pole is pointed almost directly toward the Sun, the other hemisphere is in darkness. At the planet's north pole, "day" and "night" would each last about 42 years. How did this happen? A leading theory is that a large object, possibly a comet, slammed into the iceball planet late in its formation and before the capture of the five moons and nine rings around the new equator…."
A couple of days after I met Ben, I read this in the science section of the Austin American-Statesman. I jumped up, phoned my new shrink, and fired him. His East Texas accent was distracting anyway ("Vur-ry in-tres-tin', Sugar.") I threw away my three Carlos Castenada books, Freud's Interpretation of Dreams, and the I Ching. Then I called Ben and told him I'd do the movie. But then I thought better of it and rescued the I Ching out of the garbage.
So here we are, Ben and me, on a day off, in the palace of diversion, and I'm driven to distraction. I'm beyond diversion. He? He seems to be enjoying the murky shots of Mexico, the repressed son of a bookie. Here we are sitting in the dark in Nowheresville, Texas, not even slam dancing, let alone slamming into each other—two iceball planets, if you will. The Sunny Side of the Street vs. Mr. Morose. Film noir meets film blanc. He seeking me out. Me, letting him. And me, with a revulsion, an abhorrence—a denial, even—of the Dark, giving in and working on this lunatic's non-sweetness-and-light, non-PG romance that falls somewhere between the scary parts of "Bambi" and "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre." I'm sure Ben thinks we're making "The Sound of Music."
"Why are you telling me?" is what I wished I'd asked Ben, what I should've asked Ben, but, of course, I didn't. As usual, I was living my life like a film editor in a movie theatre—when it's too late for any editing. It seems if I ever decide in my life that I want to take action, the camera crews have always gone home by the time I get around to learning my lines. And now even I'm wondering if he really is lying to me (although I'm pretty damn sure), or if my powers of awareness have slipped, and I actually am the paranoid maniac much of society has been fingering me for, for years.
The fact that the night Ben went off with Robin was the shortest night of the year wasn't a whole lot of consolation for me. It flat just wasn't one of my best nights. I had heard the idle gossip of the caterer, a desperate woman from Round Rock, whom I usually didn't pay any mind to, who was saying how sweet Ben and Robin had looked at dinner; and I immediately forgot all about my coffee and rushed out into the dark night—of somebody's soul—to spy on them through Ben's trailer window.
Did I say spy? Uh, it wasn't to spy, exactly; it was just to see if what I heard was true. I don't generally spy on people, but I missed dinner. What else could I do? Well, there she was, curled up on the couch and looking needy; there he was. True, he was sitting stiffly next to her, reading The Wall Street Journal, but, there he was. Or rather, there they were.
I ran back to my Winnebago bedroom still panicked. Why? I'm not exactly sure why. Maybe I thought I was responsible for Ben's soul and forgot to show up at the OK Corral for a showdown with Lucifer, or something. I tried to regroup and forced down three big slugs of vodka. Maybe I was confusing evangelical zeal for good old fashioned human jealousy. I chugged down some more Vodka. I don't generally drink, but the lighting guy gave me a half-empty bottle of Polish vodka to hold for (keep from) him, and I felt right then like a classic case of I Have to Get Drunk.
I stumbled out the door to go for a walk, half intending for propriety's sake to go over to the studio to work at the Steenbeck for a little while. I thought about Robin, who was the still photographer for the picture. I know she was needy. The first week I was here, she asked me if I had any drugs and then came on to me. I thought about Ben. I knew somehow that this was not Ben's first indiscretion as a married man.
I walked and thought and thought and walked and stopped and searched the bright, blurry, congested summer sky for just one familiar constellation and gave up in awe when I realized I was looking at the Milky Way, when who did I run into but Ben, who also appeared to be taking a walk. I was flabbergasted. He was alone. He must have sent her away.
He came up to me and laid his hands on my shoulders significantly for a long moment. Then we began walking in step and in silence together. He put an arm around my shoulder. I was shocked and disoriented. The hurt and anger and dread I had been feeling so strongly were now being stopped by the adrenaline police for driving without a license (and while intoxicated, I might add). I tentatively put my arm around Ben's waist. He stopped us and bent over and kissed me. I quavered and lost my balance. But it wasn't the clumsiness of lust, it was the vodka.
"What's wrong?" he whispered throatily.
"Umm…. The power of persuasion is no match for anticipation," I blurted out after some time; my speech was slurred. He looked puzzled. "Elvis Costello," I added. "Good night, Ben." I turned and made for my room, half running, half walking, half staggering.
Now, we could've kept on kissing. We could've even gone for a ride in his chopper, flying low through the boughs like Ewoks. We could've gone back to one of our bunks. But, no. I've always figured if trouble wants me badly enough, it'll come looking for me, and this time was no exception. Of course, this time it did come looking for me, but I sent it away. I sent it to Robin.
The next afternoon, Ben walked up to me. He was drunk or stoned, a crazy look in his eyes—somehow I just knew—somewhere behind those sunglasses. He was whittling a spear out of the branch of a pecan tree, the state tree of Texas. Do all guys carry knives, I wondered to myself. He shuffled up and announced he was going to kill his own dinner tonight, something about rabbits or armadillos. I fled. Naturally.
"No violence for me, thanks, Ben," I pontificated at him, and walked abruptly away, distressed by his behavior. How can people run around loose like that? How can people, like Ben—a walking cautionary tale—go through life so twisted and so unsubtle? Or, for that matter—I'm trying to be fair—like me? No confrontation at any cost.
A long time ago I lived in a group house. After several months the group became pissed off at me because I never got angry at anybody. I never complained about someone's dripping mayonnaise into my own personal stash of granola. I didn't get upset when they broke my china teapot. Whenever two or more of them would get into a fight, I'd duck out onto the porch or into the yard or up to my room.
"We want you to, like, leave," they told me one day. "If you refuse, man, to interact with us, then we don't want you, like, living with us." I was furious; I seethed. I couldn't really afford to get my own place; I resented those rich, spoiled idiot hippies their luxury of psychodrama, but I was going to be damned if I would give them what they wanted now, so without a word, I went upstairs and started packing.
Once, an even longer time ago, I swallowed morning glory seeds with some people I barely knew—invariably a bad idea. He said he was a writer and wore his hair in a perfectly coifed Prince Valiant cut (this was 1967, and that should've been an immediate tip-off). She could have been a model, but for some reason was enrolled in N.Y.U. film school. I had met them at a screening of Andy Warhol's "Banana."
During our "trip"—it was like a mild acid trip—he came on to me; she came on to me; she came on to him; she took all her clothes off; he came on to her; he pulled a knife, my knife (we were, alas, in my house), my biggest French cook's knife (Norman Mailer had recently made news with his wife and a knife and was this guy's hero); and, then, around 4:15 a.m., they began trashing my apartment. I couldn't believe we had all ingested the same chemicals. They were acting like embarrassing, out-of-control drunks when they could have joyously been counting the skin cells on the backs of their hands or pretending they were Adam and Eve in Paradise. I made them leave by threatening to call the police. They had already torn a window shade and scratched a Sandy Bull record, and I wanted them out before they did any real damage. I would never have actually called the police, but they didn't know that, so they left.
He dressed her and out they went into the snow, each on two packets of Heavenly Blue and Pearly Gates (the English translations for the blue and white varieties of morning glories). I enjoyed the rest of that day hallucinating and walking in the snow in Central Park—alone. That is, until I got home and noticed that she had forgotten her shoes and stockings. For years after I discovered them, I would cringe in micro-hell at the thought of having thrown her out to walk barefoot through the snow and all.
I slept badly the next night, the second shortest night of the year. I woke up sharp and clear, my brain gnashing around, at one a.m., thinking about Ben and his spear and Robin. I knew then for sure what had happened. I sat up and reasonably assembled the facts: 1) he hates his mother. 2) she hates her father. 3) there is recreational sex and then there is degradational sex. So what was I supposed to do? I kept feeling that I was supposed to do something. Try to save Ben? Ben, who can't tell sex from violence; Ben, who I would have run away with gladly on a bet or a whim (I've got a whim of iron) in a minute. Sure. Right. And I would have taught him all I know about sex and violins and he would have learned it all.
But I didn't run away with him, and I won't. Not only because he's married, but because he won't ask me. And if I can't run away with him, then I'm not going to save him—there's altruism, and then there's being a schmuck.
The lights in the theatre go up gently. The movie must be over. Ben gets to his feet and stretches. He looks down at me fondly and says, "You know, this is the most uncomplicated relationship I've ever had with a woman?" I get up, enraged. Fortunately for society, and especially for Ben, I do not own a gun.
"If you want me to finish working on your movie, you'll shut up," I say very quietly and push against his chest with both hands as hard as I can. He falls back into the plastic padded seat hard, making a loud, compromising, squooshing, bubbling noise, like a whoopee cushion. Ben grabs my forearms and pulls me down onto his lap, as we both break up laughing. The people of Tupelo Springs file past up the aisles and out to their cars. They stare and grin at us.
Fade to Black