Reader — Chapters 32-34
I had something in my head to complain about yesterday, but I never got to blogging, and now I forgot it. So, instead, here are three 100% context-free chapters of the novel I’ve been working on, Reader. They’re unpolished, first-draft chapters, which means they’re going to be awesome. Enjoy!
For those interested in the progress, I’ve divided the story into five sections, giving it what I pretentiously think of as a Shakespearean five-act structure. These three chapters come toward the end of the first section. Right now, I’m early in section three.
One of the few nice things I had discovered since moving to Los Angeles was the comical abundance of low-rent theatres. In a town full of actors craving attention, it made sense that entrepreneurs would capitalize on this by buying ancient can-can saloons and sparing every conceivable expense in bringing them up to twenty-first century health and safety codes. Luckily, they passed the savings on to dopes like me, who would rent the cheapest available theatre sight-unseen.
It happened on a Thursday night, on one of those mythical days I’d come to look forward to since moving to L.A. It had only rained — or, more accurately, misted — once since I’d come here, but every couple of weeks, clouds rolled in from the Pacific. The smog dissipated, the temperature dropped by about twenty degrees, and the intense sun disappeared behind the shroud of gray. I called them “Seattle days.” I wished we had more of them.
The show was to start promptly at eight o’clock. I got there at around six to make sure everything ran smoothly. You’d think not much could go wrong with a show that involved people sitting in a chair, reading from three-ring binders on music stands. Trust me, that’s not how things roll in the theatre world.
The theatre had a grand total of three microphones, which I arranged to cover as much of the stage as possible. I made a note to tell Amanda to pick up the microphone. I didn’t trust that she would speak as loudly as both she and Masha said she would.
I set up the chairs in what I thought would be the best possible arrangement for the microphones, but I wouldn’t really be able to determine it until we started going. We only had the theatre until ten, so we wouldn’t have time to do a technical rehearsal or anything that normal people do when mounting a production.
Natalie showed up around seven, half an hour before call. I was on the stage, wondering to and fro, trying to figure out if any of the lights needed repositioning before we started. I saw her standing at the back of the house, staring disagreeably at the theatre’s charmless Spanish architecture.
“Where did you find this place?” she bellowed across the empty space.
“Craigslist,” I replied.
She set her bag down on one of the seats and stepped up onto the stage.
“How many people does it seat? A hundred?” She looked out at the seats like a general surveying carnage after a lengthy, brutal battle.
“Two hundred seventy-eight,” I said.
I could feel her vibe radiating across the stage. She was, possibly for the first time, contemplating the pointlessness of the endeavor. In a venue that seated two hundred seventy-eight, would anyone of renown show up? The goal was to be seen — me for writing it, her for acting in it — but who would see us other than friends and powerless well-wishers? Had she wasted three weeks rehearsing?
Yes, she had. Accuse me of self-sabotage if you must, but I saw the futility of the staged reading the moment Natalie took it seriously. We had neither the money nor the connections to make such a thing matter. Our only hope, if one could call it that, was the Hollywood myth that certain big-shot producers popped into random theatres hoping to discover a diamond in the rough. She’d be certain to stand out among the cast, but I had my doubts about how the script would be received when performed so poorly.
“Is this a good idea?” Natalie asked. Even though I could feel her anger, she said it with a vulnerable rawness that sort of broke my heart.
In that moment, looking into her fearful eyes, I thought about what an asshole I was. The relationship, or whatever one called what she and I had, frustrated me to no end. I’d fallen for Natalie, quickly and deeply, but she’d rejected me on an emotional level. In a rare switch, she had no problem accepting me as a sexual being, but she shied away from a deeper connection. I wanted to believe she felt the same way I did but forced herself to deny such feelings — after all, she did have a husband, and I knew she’d never leave him. But what did it matter whether she felt that way or not, if she wouldn’t commit to me?
Why couldn’t I put aside my feelings and treat her like dirt? Frankly, I did, albeit in more passive-aggressive ways. This staged reading was the final of many subtle attempts to treat her as shabbily as I felt she treated me. I pretended to go along with whatever she wanted, but I only expended the bare-minimum effort to ensure she had as miserable a time as I did. That’d learn her!
It was petty, though. I had elected to deal with my problems by sabotaging not only her career but my own. Wouldn’t we both be a whole lot happier if I’d found real actors — trust me, even great actors will work for nothing in L.A. — flooded the city with flyers, and booked a real theatre? None of this had to be as difficult as I’d made it, and for what? To teach someone a lesson that has nothing to do with a fucking staged reading?
“It’s gonna go great, baby,” I said.
What else could I say? I’d made our bed.
Jimmy Murtry graduated in my class at Columbia and had come with us on the Semester in L.A. pilgrimage. He had his moments, but on the whole, I fucking hated him. On the elementary school playground of life, he was the guy who’d torment and taunt for no other reason than to stare with amused salamander eyes at the reaction. “You gonna cry, sissy?” went his internal monologue.
I disliked a frightening number of people, but I took no pleasure in that fact. The fact that Jimmy did only made me hate him more.
So it surprised me when he strolled into the Brickton Theatre a few minutes before 7:30. I hadn’t seen him since Semester in L.A. had ended, and I’d honestly hoped our paths would never cross again.
Jimmy looked around the place, eyes boggling as if he’d never seen the inside of a building before. “Place is nice,” he said, and the only thing that bothered me more than his smug approval was my involuntary delight that he didn’t hate the choice of venue.
“What are you doing here?” I tried and failed to keep the irritation out of my voice.
“Steven can’t make it,” Jimmy said. “He texted me to take his place. He said he told you.”
I shrugged. “If he sent me a text message, I wouldn’t know. I can’t get a signal in here.”
I could have gotten mad at Steven for bailing at the last possible second — after arriving late for every single rehearsal — but he did try to do the right thing by sending someone to do the job for him. The downside of keeping hatred bottled up was that your idiot roommates never knew not to send people like Jimmy Murtry to replace them.
“Who’s she?” Jimmy asked, lolling his head in Natalie’s direction.
“Natalie,” I said. “My girlfriend.” I added that last pointedly. I knew Natalie hated the “G” word, and Jimmy probably wouldn’t respect relationship boundaries, but he needed to know she was off limits.
“Who’s she playing?” he asked.
“Robin,” I said.
“Cool.” He flopped down on a seat in the fourth row, staring at Natalie and me on the stage.
“Hey, why don’t you go backstage?” I said. “There’s a dressing area. We’ll meet you and the other cast members back there when we’re done.”
“You’re the boss,” he said, leaping to his feet.
As he strolled up the stairs flanking the apron, Jimmy asked, “Any hot chicks in the cast?”
“No,” I hissed.
“Okay, okay. Just asking.”
He wandered beyond the array of stage right masking curtains.
“What, exactly, are we doing here?” Natalie asked.
“Nothing,” I said, keeping my voice low. “I just wanted to get rid of him.”
I put an arm on her shoulder and led her gently stage left.
“Who is he?” Natalie asked.
“Steven and I went to school with him. He’s a fuckin’ dick.”
Natalie grunted acknowledgment and said, “Part of the Zionist media conspiracy?”
I laughed, but I should probably explain the reference. I’d shown Natalie some tapes of a sketch-comedy troupe I started just out of high school (and hastily abandoned once I realized college classes expected me to do some work). We had a couple of good sketches, but I mainly showed it to her as a fruitless bonding exercise, to show I once had some interest in performing. One sketch had particularly tickled her. It was about a cable company peon trying to uncover the cabal of Jewish oppressors who controlled all world media. It was little more than me showing my fondness for elaborate conspiracy theories by tying everything I could think of into the character’s ranting, punctuated by the repetition of “Zionist media conspiracy.” I didn’t think it was a particularly great effort, but Natalie almost fell off my bed laughing, tears streaming down her cheeks.
Anyway, I laughed at Natalie’s callback and said, “No. He’s just unpleasant. Kind of stupid and belligerent. All he talks about is sports and chicks, but it’s kind of a smokescreen for the fact that he’s a terrified, fat nerd.”
“Sounds like Scott.”
“Why would you marry a guy like that?”
Natalie didn’t respond in any way. She looked like a robot that had just powered down.
“Should I leave him?”
Holy fuck. What had just happened? She often made digs at Scott, and I’d support her even though I’d never met the man. She never talked about him in any great detail, but I knew a general, unexpected personality clash had driven them apart. Not far enough for her to seriously contemplate leaving him — at least, not in my presence. Idle joking, always. Suddenly, things had gotten heavy.
I reached deep into the recesses of my soul for a response that would express both my confusion and joy without sounding too idiotic. It came out as a stammering, “W-what?”
“I can’t barely stand to be in the same room with him. Why the fuck should I stay married to him? He doesn’t even have health insurance!”
“How long have you been feeling this way?”
“You’re kidding, right?”
I gazed at her dumbly.
“I’m with you, Stan. A woman who feels like staying with her husband doesn’t find another guy.”
She had a point.
“The pilot didn’t get picked up,” she said.
At first, the non sequitur threw me for a loop. I imagined a lone pilot standing on a deserted tarmac at twilight, dejected because his ride home hadn’t shown up. It looked like the world’s tackiest Edward Hopper painting. I quickly realized she had changed subjects and was referring to the guest role she’d won weeks earlier.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “What does it mean? I mean, career-wise?”
“Another thing nobody’s ever heard of I can put on my résumé. They won’t even give me a DVD so I can add it to my reel.”
She took a seat on a long, splintery bench someone had stuck backstage for (I assumed) an unrelated show. Her body looked like a mollusk trying to withdraw into an invisible shell. I suddenly felt very awkward and useless, so I merely looked at her sadness.
“I’m sorry about the reading,” I said. “I just…” Did I want to slide headfirst into the usual pile of bullshit, or did I want to tell the truth?
“I know,” Natalie said softly, almost whispering. “You don’t really know anyone out here, and you don’t have any money, or time, or anything. You’re doing the best you can.”
I’d snowed her so effectively that she was parroting my excuses like gospel. It made me feel like something worse than a monster, but I kept that feeling to myself. She was not in the mood for such confessions.
Finally, I sat beside her, wrapped my arms around her, pressing my doughy midsection against her small frame. I wanted her to feel my physical warmth, in hopes that she would translate that to emotional warmth. She sobbed, her body heaving from the anguish. I knew from every movie I’d ever seen that Jimmy Murtry would burst through the curtains at any moment and start braying like a jackass, spoiling the moment and turning Natalie’s sadness into anger — anger directed at me.
That didn’t happen. Instead, I rocked her as gently as possible, whispering a vague shushing that sounded more like ocean surf than a call for her to stop sobbing. We stayed that way long enough that my mind started to wander in the direction of the call time. I was not in a prime position to check the time, but I guessed we’d been rocking and sobbing and shushing long enough for us to be well past 7:30.
Natalie kissed me, which for some reason made me forget about call. I kissed her back while she cried, her tears spreading to my cheeks, hot for an instant, then ice cold.
She sighed deeply in mid-kiss, sucking in my coffee-ravaged breath before pulling away. “Will it ever get better?” she asked ambiguously, voice choked with sadness.
“It has to,” I whispered. She could have meant any number of things, and I had a few ideas, but I had little option beyond ambiguous reassurance.
Natalie looked down at her lap. Short, pleated skirt. Navy blue. Went nicely with her breast-hugging sateen blouse, even if she looked like she’d just arrived from a sock-hop-themed porn set.
“Go find the other actors,” Natalie said to her lap. “I need a minute.”
I squeezed her shoulder the same way an emotionally stunted Little League coach consoles a crying nine-year-old. I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t want to leave.
At some point, the lights had gone down and the stage crew had drawn the mid-traveler. I heard rustling and murmuring in the audience. Had Natalie gotten her bag off that seat?
Jimmy leaned against the old, crappy makeup table like Fonzie, chatting up Masha while totally ignoring Amanda. Masha humored Jimmy with an obvious disinterest. She had Natalie’s bag slung over her shoulder — thank God for Masha. Amanda sat on a burnt orange molded-plastic chair most likely stolen from a school, playing frantically with her Nintendo DS. Arthur Silverstein — he insisted it was his real name, but I still didn’t believe him — sat on a stool beside the sound board, face buried in his hands.
“Good,” I growled. “You’re all here.”
“Where have you been?” Masha asked, relieved that I interrupted Jimmy in mid-sentence.
“I had to attend to something.”
“Yeah-you-did,” Jimmy said, like it was all one word. He made a pounding motion with his fist.
“Swear to fucking God, Jimmy, now is not the time, and I will murder you if you say another fucking thing about it.”
Jimmy stopped speaking.
“Okay, guys. Just remember — pressure’s off. Do your best, but you’ve got scripts right in front of you, and there’s no blocking to remember. All you gotta do is read it like you mean it.”
They responded to this pep talk with the sort of miserable looks one might expect. I had other things on my mind than motivating the troops.
I glanced out through the side curtain at the house. Half full, with fifteen minutes to curtain. Could this possibly sell out? Why were so many people here? Who was here? I’d done no promotion at all. What if the entire audience consisted of influential Hollywood types? How could we measure up to that?
Natalie emerged from the web of curtains, cheeks still red and puffy. She put a gentle hand on my shoulder. I smiled at her and put my hand on hers.
“Looks like we got a pretty good crowd,” I said. “Let’s make the most of it.”
By curtain, the house was three-quarters full. A pretty good haul, all things considered. We all stepped onto the stage, hit with hot lights and tepid applause.
Two problems cropped up almost instantly. Amanda simply could not be heard beyond the apron, even with my strategic microphone positioning. The sound guy backstage tried to turn up her mic, but that only caused feedback. Adding insult to injury, Jimmy decided to try out his flair for improvisation. Most of his scenes were with Amanda, who could barely get out the lines as written. Trying to turn the script into his own thing only made her worse, so he started riffing monologues. Then he’d back himself into narrative corners and couldn’t find his way back out of the scene. Two pages of dialogue would spiral into ten minutes of aimless rambling. I hadn’t written Waiting for Godot 2: The Re-waitening. The tight, focused plot risked getting lost in Jimmy’s incoherence. I have to reluctantly admit that I found most of his ad-libbing surprisingly funny — I just didn’t like what he was doing to the narrative flow.
The fact that Natalie was essentially living her character made the performance all the more intense. For her sake, I hoped someone who mattered was sitting in the back row, hidden by a Gilligan hat and Elton John sunglasses. Robin was a deeply conflicted character, unsure about whether or not to settle down with a man who’s merely good enough or leave him for a colorful goofball who symbolizes the dreams she reluctantly abandoned. In the end, she chooses neither option, leaving Walter at the altar and letting Girth return to Los Angeles with his own fiancée. Call me sentimental, but my heart broke for Natalie as we moved through the story. She delivered an unforgettable performance amid a disaster the audience would pray to forget.
Afterward, nobody wanted to stick around. The audience flooded out like inmates from a crashed chain-gang bus, beleaguered but thrilled to escape into glorious freedom. Trapped in her emotional funk, Natalie insisted on leaving immediately. I followed her out to the alley behind the theatre. The manager had told us to park in the slots reserved underneath a precariously overhanging building on the hill beyond the alley.
She headed to her little blue Chevy, ignoring me until I shouted her name, a little more harshly than I’d intended.
Natalie turned to me as she unlocked her door. “We have to stop.”
I couldn’t think of a response.
“It’s not fair to Scott,” she added.
“But what about — “
“No,” she snapped. “I like you a lot, Stan, but this just doesn’t feel right anymore.”
“I’m going to go to your place with you,” Natalie said. “I’m going to get my stuff, and then I’m going to leave. You have to promise you’ll lose my number, and my e-mail, and — “
“I get it,” I said.
“Yeah, I promise.”
I got into my Concorde and pulled out behind her. An emotional cauldron roiled. I didn’t know if I should feel hurt or relieved, confused or enlightened. I didn’t want to feel anything, but every possible emotional combination poked through the surface. It took every ounce of strength not to start bawling like a baby as I followed her along the Cahuenga Pass back into the Valley.
Anybody but me would have seen the goodbye fuck coming. All she had at my place was a toothbrush, some toothpaste (she used some organic shit, refusing to use my sellout Big Toothpaste corporately co-opted Colgate), and (ahem) feminine products, all of which she could have simply let me mail or throw in the trash. But it was a smokescreen for one last romp, during which we both started bawling, like a Mormon honeymoon.
When we both calmed down, she said her final goodbye and left me standing in the doorway of Steven’s apartment, staring at the empty courtyard for a long time after she’d disappeared past the gate.
For Wednesday: “Contact!” (6/28/03) — In an attempt to make myself look more attractive to The Crush (or any other woman), I beg my ophthalmologist for contact lenses and endure unending torment trying to stick them in my eyes.
For Friday: “Biopics” (11/17/08) — After acknowledging the difficulties inherent in telling a true life story, I compare two biopics I recently read, Who Is Doris Payne? by Eunetta T. Boone and Heroes & Villains by Michael Lerner.