Authors: Jane Smiley
To Jack Canning, Mr. Inspiration
I thought that I had arrived, like the Caliph in the
in the nick of time to rescue a man who was being beaten, and in fact it was a different tale from the
which I saw enacted before me, the one in which a woman who has been turned into a dog willingly submits to being beaten in order to recover her former shape.
Gogol once boasted of
: “All Russia will appear in it,” but later confessed that he had made it all up.
Anton Chekhov: The Complete Short Novels
But a little after nones, they all went and refreshed their faces in cool water before assembling, at the queen’s request, on the lawn near the fountain, where, having seated themselves in the customary manner, they began to await their turn to tell a story on the topic the queen had proposed.
DAY ONE • Monday, March 24, 2003
Max was still sleeping,
neatly, as always, his head framed by the sunny white of his rectangular pillow, his eyelids smooth over the orbs of his eyes, his lips pale and soft, his bare shoulders square on the bed. While Elena was gazing at him, he sighed. Sometime in the night, he had turned back the white comforter; its fold crossed him diagonally between the hip and the knee. The morning sunlight burnished his hands (right on top of left), and sparkled through his silvery chest hair. His cock lay to one side, nonchalant. Elena smoothed the very tips of his chest hair with her hand so that she could just feel it tickling her palm, and then circled his testicles with her index finger. She was sleepy herself, probably from dreaming of the Oscars. What she could remember were more like recurring images of the bright stage as she had seen it from their seats, smiling figures walking around on it, turning this way and that, breasting the audience suddenly as if jumping into surf—not unhappy images, but not restful. The bright figures had stayed with her all night, sometimes actually looking frightened, or turning toward her so that she had to remind herself in her dream that they were happy, well fed, successful.
She sat up quietly, so as not to disturb him. She saw that all of their clothes—his tux and her vintage gold silk-velvet flapper dress—were draped neatly over the backs of a couple of chairs. Her silver sandals and her silver mesh evening bag lay on the windowsill where she had set them when she walked in the bedroom door. He had taken her to the Oscars and then to the Governors Ball, because she, of course, had never been, though he himself had an invitation every year—his movie
had won Best Screenplay in the 1970s (and in fact was listed on three “hundred best films of the twentieth century” lists that she had looked up on the Internet: seventy-seventh on one, eighty-third on another, and eighty-fifth best on the third). At fifty-eight, Max had a certain sort of fame in Hollywood: most people had heard of him, but lots of younger ones assumed he was dead.
Elena, who wrote self-improvement guides (she was currently working on
Here’s How: To Do EVERYTHING Correctly!,
chapter four, “Eating and Drinking”), had also managed to earn herself a house, but it was a bungalow in the flats of Beverly Hills, not a mansion that cascaded down a mountainside in Pacific Palisades, looked across Will Rogers Memorial Park at the Getty Museum, and had five bedrooms, a guesthouse, and a swimming pool down the mountainside (three flights of stairs) that caught the morning sun. There were two gardens—the herb garden and flower garden, one level down from the kitchen, and the Japanese garden, twenty feet below the swimming pool, which was utterly cool and silent, as far away from Los Angeles as the island of Honshu.
Elena put her feet on the floor and thought of the war. The war had begun on Thursday. As soon as she thought directly of the war, which had been until this moment of her day a presence but not an object, her fragmented, Oscar-colored mood jelled into a general feeling of shame and fear. The fact was, the war was going forward no matter what, no matter how threatening and dangerous it was, no matter how many people were certain to die, no matter how many people protested and complained, no matter what a bad bet it looked like. Other people could understand the war and explain it—there was, indeed, something reasonable about the war that other people seemed able to comprehend—but for Elena the war was entirely counterintuitive. She supposed it came down to that very word—“war,” a word she had avoided reading, saying, looking at for a number of years when she was a child during the Cold W—, when “war” meant annihilation, mutually assured destruction, better dead than red, except that as a child she had understood “dead” much better than “red”—she had understood “dead” perfectly. Elena remembered herself at eight, standing in the kitchen with the radio on and her fingers in her ears, blocking out the sound of the television in the living room that was reporting the random progress of various threats to her life. One name she remembered was “Francis Gary Powers,” a man who endangered everyone by spying. After more than forty years, Elena could still remember that name and see his snowy black-and-white figure, a tall man with dark hair, being hustled from one room to another by other, more shadowy figures. She remembered him because she had known that there was a train of circumstances that could begin with Francis Gary Powers and end with her death. Even then, even at eight years old, Elena had understood that tipping over into mutually assured destruction would have been an accident. This war, though, was not an accident but an intention. People who knew people whom Elena knew planned to visit assured destruction on other people whom Elena didn’t know. She sighed so deeply that Max turned toward her and opened his eyes. He said, “Did you have fun last night?”
“Yes, but I dreamt about the stage all night. What I liked best was that so many people were happy to see you.”
“The troll emerges from under the bridge.” He pulled up the coverlet. “It’s always a pleasant surprise.”
“It looked to me like they were genuinely happy to see you. Actual smiles that included their eyes. Involuntary twinkles and sparkles and body twitches.”
“They’re actors. Nothing is involuntary.”
“Well, thank you anyway for taking me.”
“The best part was them wondering who you were and where you got that dress.” Now he rolled her into his embrace, right up next to his shoulders and chest. He kissed her between the eyebrows and pulled the quilt over her. “The worst part is that I think we have a house party shaping up.”
“Isn’t your friend Charlie Mannheim coming soon?” She had met Charlie the previous summer with Max on a trip to San Francisco. She had observed then that with men you often didn’t quite understand why two people who became friends when they were ten years old remained in contact almost into their sixties.
“That, plus Stoney has to vacate his place while the floors are being redone. And Isabel wants to visit all of a sudden. I guess she broke up with Leo and he won’t leave their apartment.”
Stoney Whipple was Max’s agent, a position he had taken over from his father, Jerry. Elena hadn’t known Jerry. She’d met Max in the cheese section at Gelson’s last Easter, when Max was buying a Piave and Elena was buying a Gruyère de Comté and their hands touched as they both reached for the Epoisses. Jerry had died by that time. She had come to understand that Jerry Whipple was, by all accounts, a legend. Stoney Whipple was sweet, Elena thought. He was in and out of Max’s house in a way that reminded her of her Midwestern roots, and so she felt friendly toward him for that and also because his career didn’t seem to be shaping up into a legendary one.
But Isabel! Isabel was Max’s daughter, whom Elena had not met. She said, calmly, she thought, “That’s three. That isn’t so bad. It isn’t bad at all.”
“Stoney can sleep in the study. He’s going to be in and out.”
Without wishing to, she felt a surge of nervousness. The spacious peace of this luxuriously sprawling house to be broken! Although Elena loved to contemplate pork roasts and thread-counts and bottles of spring water on bedside tables, having to provide them made her anxious. She said, “At least we got rid of Simon.” Simon was Elena’s own son, a senior at UC Davis, who, Elena thought, was spending too much time in L.A. and too little time in Davis. He had left only a week ago, after twelve lazy days of vacation during which he did not look for post-graduation employment.
Max said, “What do you want to do today?”
“Hide out from the war.”
“Oh, that.” He frowned and flopped over on his back. Max’s feelings about the war, she knew, were compounded less of shame than of anger. When Elena said that the war was stupid and then Max replied that, yes, it was stupid, she then went on to point out that those prosecuting the war didn’t comprehend the chaotic and agonizing nature of war, and he went on to exclaim, “What’s the plan? It’s evident they have no plan!” As a movie director, he had directed
in the late 1980s, an epic Civil War movie that ran three hours and five minutes, had taken eight months to make, employed hundreds of extras and horses, and had, perhaps, killed the studio that made it. When he talked about planning, she was sure he was thinking about projects he had planned and executed over the years. And he was thinking of the army, since he had been in Vietnam.
She lifted the quilt, then let it drop. She said, “The war is too much for your cock.”
“I admit that.”
“Say, did you notice that when I spoke to Michael Moore after the ceremony, about his speech, he seemed a little shocked by the booing? You don’t expect Michael Moore to be shocked by anything. I was disappointed. I mean, if Michael Moore is intimidated by a little booing, what’s going to happen to the rest of us?”
“But who was booing him? Studio executives. You don’t want to be booed by studio executives, even if you are filled with contempt for them. Anyway, I bet by this time you’re the only person in the world who knows he was shocked. I bet even he doesn’t know he was shocked anymore. And who’s to say that they were booing his remarks about Bush? Maybe they were booing his remark about having Canadian financing.”
Elena smiled, then Max smiled. He said, “I want Canadian financing, too.”
“A movie I am going to make about you.”
“Oh, yes, about posture. I’m going to be sitting in my chair with both feet flat on the floor and my spine perfectly aligned, and then I’m going to rise from my chair and walk across the room without turning my toes out, pronating my ankles, or, God forbid, turning my toes in. We’ll put small white circles all up my spine and across my shoulders and down the backs of my legs, so that my physiologically correct and evolutionarily correct posture will be evident to anyone.”
“Then maybe I’m going to get stains out of some delicate items? Not just red-wine stains and bloodstains, but rust stains and grass stains and oils of various kinds? Using lemons and other citrus fruits?”
“No. You are not going to be useful in my film about you.” He was propped up on his left elbow now, looking down at her. His right hand slipped behind her back and turned her toward him. She let her head loll backward, lengthening and exposing her neck, and he kissed her along her jawline. When she turned her head toward him, he kissed her on the lips. He had a certain way of kissing that Elena liked very much, not active but quiet, springy, and full of suction. During the kiss, she contemplated their connection—tight, warm, and comfortable. Everything promised was delivered, adjustments were made in which he claimed more and more of her lips, and then, in a moment of common agreement that she suspected was visceral or even biological, they broke apart, in order to kiss again. Each long kiss built on the previous one as more and more nerve endings came into play. Each kiss was a surprise to her lips. Her brain remembered that they had kissed and that the kisses were always seductive and good, but her lips were won over anew every time. Each kiss, also, she felt as a material and particular assertion of his masculinity—steady, strong, orderly, desirous, and, above all, intentional, as if kissing her were something that he paid attention to each time. Elena, of course, had been kissed thousands of times over the years—she was fifty, after all—and she had been married once, and of course there had been high school and college and graduate school, and if marriage was like a thousand-dollar bill, rare but tangible and possessable, and going steady was like a hundred-dollar bill—more common than you thought when you didn’t have one—then kisses were like pennies, easily disregarded, hard to remember, or even inconvenient and annoying. And yet she could say with perfect honesty (and she was far too meticulous to allow any other kind of honesty) that Max’s kisses were always to be noticed, valued, and cherished, since they could not be preserved, which was, by the way, too bad.
They stopped kissing. He put his leg over hers and pulled her more tightly against him. Now that the kiss was over, she thought maybe it was this she liked best, the skin-to-skin contiguity of solid flesh, which, of course, was not solid flesh at all, but layers of various tissues, and, from the point of view of physics, lots of empty internal space. Perhaps as a young girl in biology class, when the elderly biology teacher set the orange on the lab table and said, “This is the nucleus,” and then walked to the far corner of the room and held up a pea and said, “This is the electron,” and then demonstrated, as best he could given all the junk in the room which they were to imagine as emptiness, the passage of the pea around the orange, she had hardly paid attention to him, because what she could not stop noticing was that her best friend, Linda, was whispering to her other best friend, Margie. The way that teacher lifted his arm, clad in brown tweed, and the way she could not really see the pea between his thumb and forefinger, and the way that the orange was bright against the smooth blackness of the lab table, was as vivid to her at fifty as it had been at thirteen, though, and of course that was why he demonstrated that space in just that way, so that indifferent twelve-year-olds would notice and remember. As a result of such idle biological experiences: here was the arm, here was the leg, here was the hip and the curvature of the chest. As they squeezed her and pulled her even more tightly against his vibrant warmth, she had in her mind an idea of the long limestone-white bones with their striated brick-red bulging attachments, and over those the bright azure-and-magenta network of blood vessels, and encasing them the squamous cells and the dermis and the epidermis, with its tear-shaped hair follicles out of which sprang those single dark hairs—each hair having a follicle of its own. When he held her and squeezed her and pressed up against her and warmed her and comforted her, she was aware of the variety of his anatomy. He was a mesomorph. As he moved, the layers slid smoothly and noiselessly across one another. As she pushed against him, the springing hairs flattened; she felt the different texture of his skin against hers. When children were raised without biology teachers and encyclopedias, how did they perceive the bodies of their lovers? It was impossible to know, Elena thought.