Mia invited Roger to her rented cabin in the Rocky Mountains to advise her on a screenplay about a jaded stuntman’s affair with a troubled schoolteacher. She offered him $5,000. Roger, who’d shattered his ankle the previous October while filming in New Mexico when his horse had a heart attack, and who’d worked since then as a nightclub bouncer in Philadelphia stopping fistfights and dancefloor blow jobs, flew out a week later.
“There’s a couple I want you to meet before they go on vacation,” said Mia after picking him up at the small regional airport, as they switchbacked along a narrow mountain road with dented guardrails. “Donvieve and Generro. They’re old friends of mine who made money from wind farms and are coming in as producers.”
Roger quietly took a Vicodin and gazed down at the valley below, a patchwork quilt of ranch squares stiched together by unbending roads and streams. It looked like the kind of landscape quilt a giant might wrap around his shoulders on a cool autumn night when the question of what would happen to him in his declining years, without friends or family to take care of him, would weigh heavily on his mind.
“It’s boring here,” said Mia, who was forty-three and wore black fishnet stockings, a black miniskirt with toreador threadwork, a black shawl and silver onyx earrings, and had a spider web tattoo spun around her neck, “but the seafood’s amazing. I’ll take you to this tuna place’ll blow your mind.” The radio station they were listening to became crenellated static. She touched the volume button but didn’t turn it down. “Generro’s niece is going to house-sit for them while they’re away. She just got back from an au pair year in Switzerland and wants to become a nun.”
Roger noticed a pen stain on his left pant leg, although he didn’t use pens.
Mia tapped him on the wrist. “I said she wants to be a nun.”
“Generro’s niece, Anne. I saw you just now. Don’t tell me you’ve become a pill head. That won’t work.”
“They’re for my ankle, from the surgery.”
“I thought you had that six months ago.”[G1]
Roger shook his head. “It wasn’t six months ago.”
It had been eight months since his ankle surgery, which had gone smoothly and left no lasting damage. He was subletting his Philadelphia apartment to an Argentine scholar, an authority on the failure of American soft power in South America, who’d said when they met to discuss Roger’s building and transfer keys, You look familiar, like I don’t know who, but somebody. The clouds overhead were the color of soapy dish water that had been sitting in the sink for days because one felt such Vicodin-based calm that one didn’t bother draining it. Roger stared up at them, at the clouds, and the bottom of his visual field was perforated by craggy mountains and spiky trees and slender buttes with ivory snowcaps, like a row of shark teeth.
Mia shifted into a lower gear. “We’ll be at Donvieve and Generro’s in five minutes.”
“We’re going there now?” He opened his eyes wide and turned his head. “I’m too tired to meet anyone.”
“You’re just stoned. Have some air.” She rolled down his window and the pressure inside the car dropped, as in a small airborne plane when its loading door is pried open. Roger’s hair flew out of its careful side part and the radio static was drowned out by the wind’s legato bass. Then they reached level ground and passed mock Bavarian castles and geodesic domes honeycombed with solar panels, before turning into the driveway of a blue Tudor cottage.
Anne answered the front door. “They left an hour ago,” she said.
“Did they?” Mia frowned. “This is my friend Roger. I’ll just use the bathroom, if you don’t mind.”
Anne shrugged and Mia padded down the hallway. Roger examined a pair of cross swords mounted on the foyer wall, heraldic items with light, elegant etchings, and he needed the $5,000 to pay off his brother, Alfonse, who’d loaned him money for his move from Los Angeles to Philadelphia at six percent interest, which seemed like a lot but was less than Alfonse would have charged if they hadn’t been brothers. Anne waited with Roger in order to keep him company, or to make sure he didn’t steal anything, or because she’d just been on her way out and couldn’t leave until he and Mia left first. Lightning flashed outside and Roger put his hands in his pockets to roll two pills between his thumb and forefinger, tiny wheels going nowhere.
Back in the car ten minutes later as they accelerated onto a two-lane country highway and rain started to fall, he said to Mia, “I don’t think the stuntman character should be jaded. That makes him sound like a private detective. Maybe he could be paranoid from old concussions, but not jaded.”
They hit eighty and flew past a team of bicyclists in brightly colored outfits clustering tightly together, like tropical fish at a shark’s approach.
“You didn’t talk to Anne,” Mia said.
“Watch out for the blind curve coming up.”
“When I went to the bathroom, you didn’t say a word to her.”
“The road’s getting slick.”
Mia brought them down to thirty-five and Roger felt a mixture of relief and disappointment. She said, “You never ignore pretty girls like that,” while he took two Vicodins because the last one had had no effect, either because of the altitude or because he’d finally built up too high a tolerance or because Mia’s nervous energy was infectious.
“I’m getting married,” he said.
“To Amber. We’re doing it in Maine next year on the coast. You should come and bring Brody, if you guys’re still together.”
The tires hissed on the wet asphalt like a gramophone between songs, and the beetle-ravaged aspen trees on either side of the road were white stalks striped with ribbons of dark brown, standing ramrod straight.
“You know this already,” Mia said, “but Amber’s wrong for you.”
Roger shook his head again. “We never argue. We don’t even disagree about anything.”
“What we— ” He would have said that respecting someone else’s opinions was different than ignoring them, that open-mindedness wasn’t apathy, but they were pulling up to Mia’s cabin, which was actually an alpine chateau in the Swiss style, with six bedrooms and two hot tubs and a mud room wallpapered an electric orange that gave Roger a headache, or contributed to the headache that had been building for some time. He went to his room, popped four Vicodins, put his phone to sleep, and stared at a water stain on the room’s ceiling until it turned invisible.
Over the next week, they spent every morning walking through fields of mountain irises and golden banners, talking about the stuntman character—he’d have left Hollywood because of a hamstring injury and be working as a bartender, drinking too much, sleeping with whomever was left at the bar at closing time, and fighting with his neighbor about her loud, angry Labradoodle—before going to Donvieve and Generro’s house in the afternoon, where Anne would be lying poolside, bored by something on her phone, gloomy because she’d been alone all day, annoyed at having to entertain Mia and Roger again, or brooding over her decision to become a nun. Each time he saw her, Roger thought of fairy tale heroines who in pursuit of love gave up a vital part of themselves—their voice or home or identity—and wondered what it felt like to want something that much.
One early evening Mia left Donvieve and Generro’s house to pick up tuna dinners for them in town and called twenty minutes later to say that her car wouldn’t start and that she didn’t know when she’d be back. Setting down his phone, Roger rose from a plastic pool chair that left bright pink bands on the backs of his thighs, and crossed the tiled patio—a fantasia of navy blues, bantam reds, and mossy greens—to get a glass of lemonade from the wheeled drinks cart.
“Her car broke down?” said Anne, removing her sunglasses, on her back on a purple towel. “It’s a brand new rental.”
“She’s an aggressive driver.” Roger added ice cubes and sipped the lemonade and considered telling Anne what he thought was really going on, that Mia wanted them to sleep together so she could write about it in her screenplay. Instead he said, “If me and Amber get a dog, should we get a puppy or a rescue?”
Anne put her sunglasses back on. “Just have a kid already. You’re old enough.”
“We’re not having kids.” He returned to his chair, crossed his legs and took no pleasure from hearing the ice cubes tinkle in his glass. “Too expensive.” He traced the scar along his left ankle and took a small handful of Vicodins.[G4] [JE5] The actor for whom he’d done the most stunt double work—a muscular, well-hydrated star in his late twenties—had once said to him under a burning October sun after they’d hiked to the top of Runyon Canyon, as distant wildfire smoke billowed into a mottled Los Angeles sky, that he didn’t have real conversations with people anymore. No genuine interactions. His, the star’s, celebrity scrambled the behavior of everyone he talked to, made them laugh too loudly at his jokes and agree with whatever he said. Sometimes the star met people who, because they too were stars or had heard him complain about never being contradicted, would contradict him, but those occasions also felt unreal. The star was from Indiana, not far from where James Dean had grown up, an actor who’d been unprepared for the hollow freedoms of California. Roger listened and then said that all conversations involved posturing and pretense, so the star wasn’t missing out on anything. Real conversations don’t exist, Roger said. The star looked at him with studied or actual alarm, and said, That’s a jaded thing to say. Although Roger had only been trying to make the star feel better and didn’t actually disbelieve in real conversations, he turned away from his handsome reflection, from someone who could afford everything but what he most needed, and said nothing contradictory.
Anne hadn’t wanted to see the Mile High Repertory Theatre’s production of “The Miracle Worker” because she already knew too much about Helen Keller’s life, but Mia had begged her to come, so on Friday night she sat between Mia and Roger during the poorly lit production—the lighting recreated, to a degree, Helen’s visual impairment, with the stage so dark that actors blurred together in places—and then outside the theater, as the audience filed out squinting in the streetlamps’ glare, Mia got a phone call and said she’d catch up with them for dinner at the tuna place around the corner, La Mer.
But La Mer was closed for a private party, so Anne and Roger went to a Mediterranean bistro nearby and ordered falafel sandwiches from a teenager with a chin-strap beard, nose ring, foundation makeup, gold hoop earrings, Denver Broncos cap, shiny marcelled hair, white button-up blouse, pomegranate lip gloss and teardrop tattoo at the corner of his right eye. The teenager said, glancing at a TV monitor mounted on the wall, at an ice skating competition with sequined skaters in love, “I’ll bring out your order when it’s ready.”
At a small vinyl booth, Anne unfolded her napkin and Roger talked about his deaf cousin, Sam, who as a teenager had been swimming off the Jersey Shore when someone spotted a great white shark in the water. The lifeguard on duty ran up and down the beach shouting for everyone to come out, but Sam, not hearing, continued to float on his back.
Their sandwiches arrived and Anne looked at a whorl of gray in Roger’s brown beard, like a satellite photo of a hurricane over land, and said, “Then what happened?”
Roger took a bite. “Nothing.”
“The shark didn’t attack him?”
“And he didn’t see it?”
She stopped herself from asking what the point of his story was. Not because it brought into relief the hidden dangers that everyone lived with but few recognized, and not because it resembled a Christian parable or Buddhist koan or other accordion-shaped riddle, and not because she suspected that Roger didn’t have a point—maybe he did, maybe he didn’t—but because an image came to her of a boy lying out in the serene Atlantic, facing the sky as a cold gray body passed beneath him, in silent conversation with himself or God about the nature of buoyancy.
Roger said, “My aunt was a nun, Aunt Miriam. She ran marathons and placed in the top five for her age group a few times.”
There was something off about the falafel despite the yogurt sauce. Or because of it. Anne spat into her napkin and said, “She must’ve been a lay sister.”
“Is that different from a regular nun?”
Anne nodded. Before leaving for her au pair year in Switzerland, she had contracted with Horst and Inga Mendelssohn, married gynecologists, to take care of their three-year-old, Rebecca, from eight to five Mondays through Fridays, but when she arrived and saw that the Mendelssohns put Rebecca in front of the television every night, she wound up watching the girl all the time. Two months later she demanded that they hire a babysitter to help out. They understood but didn’t share Anne’s concern about Rebecca watching too much television, because she would soon grow out of it and into reading and school work and play time with friends. Americans, they knew, micromanaged their children’s lives, and Anne was naturally a product of her environment, Just as we are products of our environment, purred Mrs. Mendelssohn, stroking Anne’s knee along the grain of her corduroy pants and ending with a soft calf squeeze, which seemed sexual but wasn’t. This warm, conciliatory gesture made Anne feel, along with the sunbeam hitting her through the kitchen skylight under which she and the Mendelssohns and Rebecca sat with cold demitasses of espresso, like a cat who rather than whine to escape should lie back and enjoy it.
Being considerate people, the Mendelssohns hired a part-time babysitter and Anne started going out to bars where she met tall, well-groomed Swiss men who bought her stiff drinks and were strenuous in bed—Swiss sex was a kind of calisthenics—as well as rich, stateless twenty-somethings angry that Europe had become so dull and the United States so spoiled, as well as a hippie fringe always on their way to or from a three-day music festival in the Alps or French countryside or former East Berlin.
One night at a Roma crafts fair on the outskirts of Geneva, Anne was by herself smoking a clove cigarette when a woman with long blue hair, Sister Elise, asked her for a light. The similarities between them were uncanny. Anne had run away from home just after her fifteenth birthday, Sister Elise at sixteen; they read manga books but not graphic novels; as kids they’d loved being spun around by their fathers, then rollercoasters, then marijuana, and then heroin and ketamine before realizing that they couldn’t remain dizzy and disoriented forever; they ignored politics; they preferred G-spot[G8] [JE9] to clitoral orgasms even though G-spot orgasms were just the climactic sensation of having one’s bladder repeatedly poked; they were Geminis; they had long-dead grandparents and severe allergic reactions to bee stings. At one point Anne wondered if all this were a set-up, if Sister Elise had researched her beforehand—the world being full of stalkers—but it was nice to have a friend to meet for walks in botanical gardens and on leafy streets that wound up and down steep, brick-laid hills with sweeping views of Lake Geneva and its dandelion sailboats. Sister Elise explained that her vows had been less about loving God—although she expected, over time, to love Him more and more, as in arranged marriages when you came to see profound goodness in someone who’d once been a stranger—than belonging to a community where charity, love and order were lived practices rather than aspirations. Sister Elise still enjoyed sex sometimes and secular art sometimes, but those things and their pursuit no longer consumed her. They’d become occasional treats, parts of a balancing act instead of obstacles to salvation.
This intrigued Anne, who had always thought, or hoped, that there was a better way to live than what she’d observed growing up, and who worried about what lay before her: community college followed by two years at a university where she would train in a competitive field and go into debt, a bold and exciting but difficult and professionally unfulfilling move to a big city in her mid-twenties, serio-comic dating in her late twenties, a rationalized marriage in her thirties to try to beat the biological clock, frustration in her forties that patterns of behavior repeated themselves so often, resignation in her fifties to the fact that she would never know anything really and that her friends were beginning to get sick and die or radically reinvent themselves, a stunned and fearful sense of superannuation in her sixties, renewed resignation in her seventies, a slow-drip senility in her eighties, and finally a fog of illness and dementia in her nineties leading to death—so one weekend she visited Sister Elise’s monastery, participated in an evening social, and asked to join.
Anne said to Roger, “Let’s not say anything about the falafel.”
“What do you mean?”
She pushed her plastic tray to the middle of the table and felt a trickle of acid reflux and held her breath. The teenager stood next to them, retying his apron, raptly watching a man and woman sail into and out of each other’s arms. She closed her eyes and this was nothing, a minor trial before the accident of her life assumed the hard contours of intention.
A week after “The Miracle Worker,” Mia sliced open two bagels and dropped them in the toaster. Crumbs covered the kitchen counter like Braille while Roger sat at the breakfast nook with an empty coffee cup.
She said, “Donvieve and Generro are coming back tonight, so I told Anne she could stay with us till she leaves next week.”
“What for? They’re her aunt and uncle.”
“Donvieve and Generro are very private people.” Mia spread Philadelphia brand cream cheese on the bagels and sat at the breakfast nook and pushed a plate toward Roger.
“I’m not going to sleep with her,” he said.
The first movie Mia directed, “Wild Ride High,” had been a hit teen dramedy that launched careers and catchphrases and a national conversation about adolescent desire, idealism, and kill-everyone alienation. Her parents, professors at a small liberal arts college in Memphis, had tried to hide their disappointment in it, her father saying, “The soundtrack was well chosen, all diegetic,” and her mother saying, “It’s not your average teen exploitation,” but she cried after talking to them and started adapting “A World of No Consequence,” the 1916 Austrian classic they’d made her read in high school. While writing the second scene, in which Herr Stroheim, a low-level diplomat, is invited to dinner by copper magnate Christoph von Richter (“Someday copper will replace every other kind of wire,” says von Richter during his unannounced visit to Herr Stroheim, who’s depressed because he’s being sent to the Austrian embassy in Argentina after having fallen in love with a married woman and fathered a child with his housekeeper and gotten syphilis from a prostitute), and anticipates a long night of dull small talk and hysteria over Britain’s naval maneuvers in the Strait of Gibraltar, as happens at every dinner party these days, and so tries to get out of the invitation by confiding his problems to von Richter (“You mean you haven’t had syphilis since you were twelve?” cries von Richter, wiping sweat from his high, shiny forehead. “And this is your only bastard child? And to love a married woman, what’s better? She’s already paid for and can’t complain about your dalliances. You’re the luckiest man in Vienna!”), Mia got a call from her agent excited over the weekend grosses for “Wild Ride High”. Did she, Mia, want to direct a talking dog comedy with two of the biggest actors in Hollywood for a million dollars? Sitting in her tiny, un-air-conditioned bungalow, Mia fingered her copy of “A World of No Consequence” and asked if the talking dog script was good. A couple more drafts, said her agent, and it’s a family favorite. But it would never be one of Mia’s family’s favorites, so she told him about “A World of No Consequence”, and he said that after doing “Here Comes Trouble!” she’d have the clout for any passion project she wanted.
“Anne’s serious about her vows,” Roger said, “and I respect that.”
The talking dog movie had made money, but Mia still couldn’t make “A World of No Consequence”—no one wanted to finance a WWI-era period piece set in Central Europe without sex or violence, and no one ever would—so she directed “Here Comes Double Trouble!” and “Here Comes Trouble 3: Raise the Woof!”, on the set of which she met Roger and her soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend, Brody. When the second sequel did poorly and the franchise went on hiatus, Mia brainstormed original story ideas until a mutual friend told her that Roger had left the stuntman profession after breaking his ankle because he was fed up with staged fighting and staged courage and staged pain—he hadn’t said as much, but how else could you account for his move back to Philadelphia?—and she went to Colorado and invited him to join her as a consultant.
“Plus,” said Roger, “I couldn’t do it to Amber. We’re supposed to be monogamous.”
“I don’t want you to sleep with Anne,” said Mia.
She shook her head.
“It seems like you’ve been trying to get us together, since we go over there every day, and all the car trouble and phone calls.”
“You’re being paranoid.”
Before Roger could answer, Mia told him about Samara, the second unit director on “Here Comes Trouble 3: Raise the Woof!”, who was fighting stage three breast cancer with a strict diet of dark-hued berries and tempeh tacos, and who, too weak to work, lay on her couch all day taking virtual tours of the world’s Seven Wonders. Mia had seen her a month before and they’d watched extraordinary aerial footage of Machu Picchu together, and Samara’s husband was no help, had collapsed in the face of her illness and was probably having a midlife crisis. Roger stopped trying to interject.
Later that afternoon they picked up Anne and went to dinner at La Mer, which had run out of tuna but had a superb special, shark fin soup, which all three ordered, and Roger didn’t look at or talk to Anne, and then back at the cabin Mia put her on the third floor, in a bedroom directly above his. Either he would hear Anne’s footsteps and go up and ask her to walk more quietly, say Let me show you what I mean and enter her room and see her clothes strewn about, or he’d stay in his own bed all night, inhibited from visiting her by the squeaky steps between the second and third floor. Mia sat in her study and didn’t call Brody, who’d said before she left for Colorado that he wanted to be with someone more dynamic, which meant younger. She’d expected it from him. Some people, you knew right away what they’d do in the end. The arc of their lives had been drawn many times before and you just had to ask yourself whether the design, however familiar, was worth living with for a while. She heard a squeaky step.
Two years later Mia’s movie premiered at a small theater in downtown Los Angeles that normally screened independent documentaries and curated double features. Roger flew into LAX beforehand and took a train through neighborhoods once known for drive-by shootings and malt liquor and elementary school metal detectors, now with inspirational murals and after-school tutoring programs and freshly painted porch swings. It was the kind of cityscape a giant wouldn’t touch, knowing that once he made peace with being alone, he’d be free. Roger met Anne at a coffee shop on Broadway and learned that Mia was running late and wouldn’t see them until after the premiere. Over weak green tea Anne told him that college was hard because her major, marine biology, required time-consuming field work, but overall she enjoyed it more than she’d thought she would. He told her that his marriage had ended. She was sorry to hear it. It was okay, he said, really, because every divorce was for the best, unlike every marriage. They left the coffee shop and joined the actors, journalists, editors, and industry flacks filing into the theater, where they sat and declined bottled water, and the lights dimmed.
The movie, in black and white, opened on a farm where a young woman lived with her sisters. Their father was often away and they had no mother. Every morning they milked cows, chopped wood, tended a garden, mended clothes, cooked, sang madrigals, and prayed for their father. One day a stranger knocked on the door when the young woman was working alone inside, and said his horse had broken its leg and he was far from home and could he impose on her kindness for a cup of water? She invited him in and said he could stay the night. He would have to be quiet, though, because if her sisters knew he was there they’d tell her father, who would send her away and kill him. The stranger, who had been smiling gratefully, turned pale and asked why she would make him such an offer. Because, she said, it obeyed the natural law of charity and answered the purpose of her father’s farm. Why procure milk and firewood and vegetables, why make clothes and meals and music, and why pray for her father if not to share his bounty? Wind through an open window blew the stranger’s hair out of its careful side part, and he said that obeying the natural law of charity and answering the purpose of her father’s farm were pointless if it cost her her home and him his life. The young woman folded her hands on the table, and the man rose and went to the door. Aren’t you tired of being afraid? she asked, staring straight ahead. We’re deaf and blind because that’s how they want us to be, because that’s how they are, but we can be different. The stranger walked outside and shut the door behind him. The clouds overhead were the color of slurry. He went to the gate, on the other side of which was the path that had brought him there, and then stopped and turned around and walked back to the house.
By now people in the audience were checking their phones and whispering and going to the bathroom. Roger, jetlagged, closed his eyes and opened them when the credits were rolling up the screen, to polite applause. The lights came on and Mia walked onto the stage for a conversation with a local film critic. The critic was reminded of Bergman’s medieval allegories and Ibsen’s proto-feminist dramas, and yet the movie struck him as essentially a comedy, despite its dark tone and texture, and despite all the deaths in the end. Roger remembered reaching the third floor of Mia’s Colorado cabin, and Anne looking down the hallway and asking him to help unzip her suitcase because it was stuck. The critic wondered how Mia felt about releasing something so unlike her past work, with such—to be frank—modest commercial prospects, and Roger had struggled with the zipper and Anne had sat on her bed in a pair of boxing shorts and a sleeveless T-shirt that read, I won’t be long. Mia had disliked commercial success, so she was ready for whatever reception her new film got. Anne had scooted off her bed and dropped slowly to the ground, as though kneeling for a benediction, and Roger had felt in his pockets and found them empty, which hadn’t mattered, for the pills no longer worked, and the house had been silent except for their breathing. The critic asked what Mia wanted people to take away from the film. Take away? she said. Nothing. Or that real life is less frightening than fairy tales. And less exciting. And there’s no way to know which is better. Roger leaned over to say something to Anne, but saw that he didn’t have to.
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[G1]See? Evident that he’s popping pills like an old pro.
[G2]This is such a trippy line on the page. Imagine it’s one of those things that mess up a translator or something, huh?
[JE3]Agreed. Even I’ve read it a couple of times and thought, “It sounds like she’s saying that never arguing means that they’re not in a caring relationship,” instead of what she’s really saying, that neither cares what the other says. I like the momentary confusion, though. It’s kind of like the line in DeLillo’s Underworld when a character says, “She’s got a great body for how many kids?”
[G4]Not much of a pill guy so don’t have much to go on, but his pace throughout—how much we talking? Any research on this? Not a huge thing, but it seems like he’s going a bit too much too fast?
[JE5]Alas, I’m pretty informed about this stuff. Everything depends on dosage and the amount of acetaminophen in the pill. If it’s low strength, which is what Roger has, it’s got 5 mg of hydrocodone, the active painkilling ingredient, and an unspecified amount of acetaminophen. Addicts can take 50 mg of hydrocodone without batting an eyelash. The problem is that too much acetaminophen (more than 4000 mg per day) damages the liver—can be fatal—so some people might raise their eyebrows at “a small handful of Vicodins” for that reason (but a small handful might be five or six pills, which isn’t “too much”).
[G6]I like the flow in this piece, the way the clauses jam into each other and create some strange pairings, but this one seems a little off, implying some weird causal relationship between the yogurt sauce and the sound system. What do you think? (Pretty sure I only balked at this in one other instance, but it’s not a huge thing, either.)
[JE7] I like the strange-pairing effect, but if you want to split the sentence in two, I’ll be cool with it.
[G8]This is capitalized, turns out. *shrug* Had no idea myself.
[JE9]Thanks for catching it. Along with G-force and G-men, the 20th Century was good to that letter.