Bird’s Nest In Your Hair

Chapter Ten

After Julie left, Tom sat in the office by himself and thought for a while. How many people could have the name Jedermann? What a name. He’d wondered about it when he’d first heard it twenty years ago, attached as it was to someone he’d known in college, a fraternity brother just a year or two ahead of him. In the end he realized that he hadn’t really known him as well as he thought he had, other than the fact that his name had shortly thereafter belonged to a girl he’d dated briefly himself. He’d liked Elizabeth quite a bit, actually, and twenty years earlier wouldn’t have minded marrying her himself. Elizabeth. Hard to believe it had been twenty years ago. A little more, actually. If Tom had been known for anything back then, it was the fact that he was serious about his girlfriend.

He’d spent hours waiting at her sorority, waiting for her to come downstairs. She would always come, eventually, all smiles to accept the flowers or chocolate or whatever it was that he’d brought. It all seemed ridiculous now, seen by the klieg lights of early middle age. Why trouble with all that when it was really about something else? It was supposed to be so easy – it is so easy, he realized now, but as a kid he’d had to make it so difficult. They saw each other for almost a year before they were physically involved to any significant extent. Tom had wanted to, and she seemed willing, but for reason he didn’t entirely understand he turned into a nervous wreck whenever they started taking off their clothes. He was much happier out in public, where he liked to be seen with her as much as possible. She was a beautiful young woman, and since he had just recently grown out of puberty and a bad case of acne, he knew he’d been lucky.

Unfortunately, this didn’t make the sex any easier for him; it probably made it even more difficult. It didn’t help that he thought constantly about marrying her, and he felt dishonorable whenever they came close to sleeping together. They went out for more than a year, and there were a number of times while making out that Elizabeth was the first one reaching for her belt. Tom on the other hand was scared, almost physically scared of sex, and had trouble making it worthwhile for her during his first couple of tries. After these desultory efforts Elizabeth gradually lost her enthusiasm. She just wasn’t as eager to take the initiative, and even as he realized he was losing her Tom was too shy to act more aggressively.

He may not have felt very comfortable with Elizabeth when he was alone with her, but his friends wanted to hear all about it. He’d talked about her so much before he actually started dating her that they were naturally curious about what kind of progress he was making. They were also interested because of her good looks, but the simple fact was that he had nothing much to talk about. They wanted to hear about sexual exploits, but Tom felt like he had to protect her reputation – not to mention his own. He and his friend Eric shared a basement apartment in the fraternity with four other guys, a room prized for its privacy, taken always by juniors and the few seniors still living in the house. Eric was a tennis player and a fifth year senior; he played for the school team and had always been popular with just about everyone at school, let alone the fraternity. Tom admired him greatly, and counted himself lucky to be in the same circle of friends. But as he continued blathering on and on about Elizabeth, everybody else in that circle just got tired of hearing about where the two had gone to eat and what movie they went to see, but absolutely nothing about their sex life. Eventually they just threw shoes at Tom whenever he started talking about her.

As their relationship continued, Tom grew a little bothered that she never seemed as interested in him as he was in her, and that she was often spending more time talking to some of his housemates than himself. He tried to tell himself it was nothing, but he knew differently.

So it really shouldn’t have been so much of a shock when he came home from work one evening (he had started the job at the video store about this time) to hear her laughter coming from somewhere in the basement. At first he was happy that she’d stopped by. Then he realized that the laughter wasn’t coming from his own room at all, but from Eric’s. By the time he recognized the rest of the sounds coming from inside the room it was too late to stop himself from pulling aside the curtain that worked as a door, and there was Elizabeth, looking right back at him while straddling Eric. With both arms stretched back behind her he then clearly saw the breasts he’d never seen so well before. He recognized a familiar notch in Eric’s crew cut even from that odd angle, and since Eric himself had been thrown off of his rhythm, he tried to turn his head around to see what the surprise was all about. While Tom gaped, Eric broke out laughing. Not knowing what else to do, Elizabeth crossed her arms across her chest, giggled briefly, and then simply said “Hello.”

Tom took a long, full look at her before letting the curtain drop, and then never looked her in the eye again. He was certainly surprised, but even then realized that he should have seen it coming. All these years later he let his eyes shift back to the application he held in his hands, surprised again. The resemblance was hard to believe.

Afterward everyone had had a few laughs at Tom’s expense. He’d tried to laugh it off himself, pretended to laugh, not wanting to let anyone know how humiliated he felt. And of course he’d wanted Elizabeth all the more, since her desirability had now been so dramatically confirmed by one of his friends – less a friend, actually, than someone he admired. He cursed himself that he hadn’t siezed the moment and Elizabeth when he’d had the chance, and knew, just knew, that he’d never have an opportunity like that again.

The general consensus was that it would be good for him; no man should let himself get as wrapped around a girl’s axle the way he had. Eric was the one who had said this (for all the resentment Tom felt against Elizabeth, he never felt much towards Eric), and Tom gamely admitted that Eric was right. He’d let himself be turned into a lapdog. He admired his former roommate all the more, even as their friendship petered out. Eric soon moved out of the fraternity, and the rumor was that now he and Elizabeth were getting serious. A few months later they moved into an apartment together at a safe distance from the fraternity. Another rumor had Elizabeth pregnant, and that turned out to be more than a rumor. Eric was seldom seen on campus, and when he was seen he was always wearing the same serious face Tom had shown earlier. The rest of Tom’s friends advised him to consider himself safely inoculated against that particular form of lovesickness. “Look at what happens,” they said. They seemed to know what they were talking about, and wanting more than anything to avoid embarrassment, Tom went along with the spirit of their conversations. He cared a lot about what sort of opinions his friends had, and in the end he learned to laugh with them.

When Eric married Elizabeth at the end of the year, Tom sat with the rest of their friends and gave his blessing. He even enjoyed the reception, and quietly endured one friend’s joke about being the one to set the whole thing up.

In any case, Tom was growing older, he had his job at the store, and he couldn’t help but get more adept at talking to girls while pretending to care less and less about any single one of them. This went on for years, until he met Helen.

Their courtship began with the affability already described, due in most part to her irenic initiative. Helen, like his fraternity friends years ago, seemed to know what life was really all about. She knew what she wanted and knew how to get it. Although she began by talking about work, she didn’t seem to need his help. Far from it, she had even offered to help; had helped, in point of fact, as over the first few months they were seeing each other she made him realize how much he’d left behind in those years he’d spent managing the store. She’d convinced him of what he hadn’t realized he’d forgotten, or at least had chosen to ignore. He was even trying to write scenarios again, thinking once again that he could be the filmmaker he’d always wanted to be.

Besides this bit of business, there was obviously pleasure; as of course in her line of work business was pleasure. Pleasure they had, a lot of it, and he even maintained some his former arrangements on top of that. Not at first, of course – he was too busy for that. But just a few months after they were married an old friend was in town and invited him back to her hotel. Helen was minding her own store that afternoon, and Tom sheepishly accepted the invitation. Helen wouldn’t have been surprised, or that’s what he told himself. She was used to this sort of thing, he told himself. In fact she’d made absolutely no demands on him at all, other than taking responsibilities for his desires. He thought his afternoon with the old friend fell into that group, more or less. Helen was full of little motivational blurbs like ‘follow your dream,’ or ‘live the dream,’ or even some unaccredited Delmore Shwartz, ‘in dreams begin responsibilities.’ Near the beginning of their life together she had once told him in a moment of great seriousness, “We have one responsibility, really – doing whatever it is that we really want to do.” Of course by this she’d meant something more than sex, but everything always seemed to come down to sex. He didn’t feel great about his little affairs, but they kept falling into his lap. He managed to live with it.

Helen had long since moved her operations out of her apartment and into a small warehouse that housed both an office and an ample amount of room for several small film studios, and Tom started spending more time there. He had a number of eager young employees at Videosyncracy, perfectly capable of taking care of the day-to-day operations; it was time (Helen constantly impressed this on him) that he began thinking about what was important. The live pornography was fairly bewildering at first, as he’d never really indulged in adult movies or even magazines all that much before. He’d always preferred the real thing. Even now it helped if he thought of himself as a kind of sociologist on a research expedition. And he still enjoyed the real thing, which was why he was happy to steal away an afternoon every once in a while with an old friend.

While on the set he tried to pick up as much as he could about the technical aspect of making movies. He began by taking a job as a grip, a kind of electrician on the set, but Helen soon let everyone know that he was meant to have free reign of the premises. After a while the writers, the lighters, the cameramen, the actors and everybody else got to know him, not just as Helen’s husband, but as someone who was starting out in the business. And since Tom was already known as a capable man because of his success with the video store, they soon accepted him as one of their own.

Chapter Eleven

Julie’s first days on the new job were difficult, but the difficulty was due more to her self-consciousness than any real lack of ability. Up to this time her life had been like those of most teenagers, perhaps a little more sheltered. She’d had school, a few friends, but she’d had never worked with the general public before. In fact the only job she’d ever had was working for her mom, and now she constantly wondered what other people were thinking about her. Of course they were thinking about her, as people naturally think about others, so her suspicions and fears weren’t entirely baseless. It’s really a matter of degrees. Normal people are somewhat self-conscious. For Julie, however, working with a dozen different people during her first few days on a new job, it all just seemed a bit much. She had to learn how to operate the cash register and shelve movies in their proper locations, and she constantly had to ask questions. On top of this she had to talk to customers, and this made her the most self-conscious of all. She was convinced everybody thought badly of her. One day when she felt especially self-conscious she wondered whether she shouldn’t make an appointment with Dr. Cervantes. But no, she’d made her decision and she would stick to it.

On her third night on the job, while she was putting movies back on the shelves, a couple approached her for help finding movie.

“Say, we’re looking for a kind of horror movie starring Meryl Streep, but I’ve forgotten the title.”

“Merle Street?”

“Yeah, it’s strange, but she made a thriller a while back, but I don’t remember what it’s called…”

“Who’s Merle Street?”

“You don’t know who Meryl Streep is?”

“No, no… I’m sorry… let me go ask…”

So all of them went walking over to the counter, where a long line had built up. The man laughed and snickered, actually shaking his head as he walked behind Julie and in front of his wife. By the time they got to the counter, Julie was thoroughly embarrassed. Evidently this guy was a fairly famous actor, and now everyone at the store would know that she didn’t know who he was. She threw off her pride and asked anyway.

“Hey David, these people are looking for a horror movie starring Merle Street…”

“MERYL, Stree-PUH”, the man behind her said as her thrust himself past a huge cardboard cut-out of Jackie Chan guarding the counter. “I can’t believe she doesn’t know who Meryl Streep is!”

“Wow,” said David. “It’s Death Becomes Her, with Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton and Bruce Willis in a supporting role, and you’ll find it over there in Drama, up against the far wall.”

The man went away, snorting and shaking his head as he walked. David chuckled, shaking his head, and Julie went back to shelving an armful of movies, cowed by the eyes that she felt were all looking at her. Later, around midnight, as they were closing down the store, everyone had a few laughs about the day’s events.

David started needling her again. “So Julie, ever heard of Robert De Niro?”

“Yes,” answered Julie, matter-of-factly, and refusing to play his game.

Tom stepped in to keep them from piling on. “Give her a break guys. Why does she have to know who Meryl Streep is?”

“She’s, like, the most talented actress of our time…”

“Well why do you always sound like you’re reading the back of the box when you talk about movies?” That was a little heavy-handed; Tom had meant to step in at this point just to level the playing field, but then decided it would be better to just shut the conversation down.

Tom often joked around with his employees, particularly on those few nights when he remained late at the store, but it was rare that he gave anybody a hard time. He did so only when it seemed especially warranted, as it did here, and whenever he did step up, the employees immediately understood what was going on. There’s no better way to exercise authority than with a sense of humor, as it often allow people to consider an opinion or point of view they wouldn’t otherwise adopt as their own. All of the clerks were younger than Tom, so they were often looking for authority, which Tom was happy to provide in his own, lighthearted manner. It may seem odd to think of Tom as a moral authority of any kind, but that’s exactly what he was, at least in public situations pertaining to the running of the store. Here he was the king in his kingdom.

Which was why he tried to allow David to step away from the encounter with his ego mostly intact. Although Tom generally held young men in their early twenties in pretty low regard, he was also a little wary of them. He realized they could probably pick out his own weaknesses as quickly as they caught onto the ineptitude of this new girl, like a hound sniffing out contraband in suspicious luggage. Tom ran the show well enough, and had the last word in his own store. Not that it was especially hard for David to give him this; Tom wasn’t around all that much anyway, so it was easy enough to defer to him when he was in the store. As far as David was concerned, Tom practically an old man now and didn’t have much else to look forward to.

Tom saw things a little differently; the question now was how to switch from his defense of Julie to an offense, preferably outside the store. There were a number of things to consider. One, there were four people working in the store right now, and he couldn’t (or wouldn’t) just boldly ask her out in front of everyone. That would be silly and awkward, and Tom wasn’t even going to consider anything that he thought might put him in a bad light. Two, he was married, and even though everyone else probably understood that the marriage was fairly open, he wasn’t sure how Julie would react to this. He didn’t wear a ring, so he might be able to bluff it, but it was all but certain that she’d already been informed of his status by Tweezer. It was also only the second time he’d worked with her, and he didn’t need to rush anything. It would be easy enough to schedule her hours to coincide with his own. But this really was a great opportunity; the ball was already rolling. Except of course that David and Tracy were still working as well, and he couldn’t very well just send them all home.

Answers come from surprising places. David offered it up while checking through a stack of returns, without the least trace of bitterness over their prior exchange.

“Hey boss, you’re here a little late tonight.”

“Yeah, I was going to check up on a few things. You want off a little early?”
“I was going to show Julie how to close up, but as long as you’re here.”

“Don’t worry about it, I can take care of that.”

“You want me to make the drop?”

“Nah, I’ll have Julie count the till, and then I’ll show her where to go.”
“Sure you don’t mind?”

“It’s fine, really.” Leaning back to see around one of the shelves, he yelled back to Tracy. “Hey, you can just take off too; we’ll take care of it from here on out.”

Although he wondered if David just wanted off early, or was just good at showing that he wasn’t sore, but then told himself not to waste too much time worrying about it. Already he was looking forward to the cozier surroundings of a booth at Queequeg’s, which would make for a better arena than the bright lights of his own store. It had worked well enough in the past.

After they closed the store, Tom walked Julie across the street to the bank and showed her where the drop was for the money bag. The bank was just a block and a half away; although they were walking there this time, Tom told her to drive over in her car, should she ever be left in the store alone. In reality he had an unwritten rule about having only guys closing down the place alone; it was just a sad fact that women are more vulnerable than men and stand a greater chance of being held up. Not that it was a very long walk to the bank, or even a dangerous area. It was just more dangerous at 11:30 at night, and that comparison determined the rule. In fact, Tom and Julie strolled through one streetlight after another without ever slipping into darkness. A late bus swished by them as they walked, a few sparks flew from the transom rods connecting the bus to the power lines about fifteen feet ahead.

From the bank it was another short walk to Queequeg’s, which they made, side by side, Julie with her arms crossed across her chest, her shoulders hunched over slightly because of the chill. Tom had his hands thrust into the pockets of his parka, fists balled up against the lining in the familiar darkness. He teased her just a bit about Merle Street, just to put her at ease, and rattled off a few titles to jog her memory. She’d seen The River Wild, as it turned out, and seemed to appreciate the effort he was making.

As they walked and talked he looked over at her from time to time, and it wasn’t Meryl Streep he thought of so much as a young Uma Thurman in Dangerous Liasons. The long, blonde hair. Features that weren’t model perfect, but for that reason all the more intriguing: her cheekbones, her nose, and the line of her jaw; what she lacked was the confidence that a movie star always seems to project. Years ago he hadn’t been the first one to comment on Elizabeth’s resemblance to the actress, and he was still amazed at how much her daughter resembled her.

They slid into a booth along the wall when they got to the Q and asked for some beer when the waitress came by for their order. Julie didn’t bother telling him that she wasn’t twenty-one yet, and of course couldn’t have known that Tom had already done the math himself and decided to take the risk anyway. Luckily, the waitress hadn’t asked. She seemed to know Tom, which probably had something to do with it.

Julie ventured first. “So you must be good at the Kevin Bacon game.”

“Yeah, I guess so. When it was a big deal a few years ago some of the others at the store were really into it. As many times as I’ve rented his movies out, I haven’t bothered watching too many of them myself. And I don’t keep track of the casts all that much. I guess the game must be getting a lot easier.”

“I would think it would be tougher with all the movies.”

‘Well, tougher to care about, because there are so many movies with so many actors that nobody knows. But the actual connections are probably getting innumerable, so in theory in ought to be easier.”

“I guess so,” said Julie

“So … are you connected with anyone?” asked Tom

It took a second before she realized that he was asking if she had a boyfriend. “Uh, no…”

Then she realized she would have been better of asking him what he meant. “I meant, not right now. I just got a new place and the new job, I mean, it’s not as if I’ve never had one.” She was completely flustered, mentally scrambled, and now scrambled to get back her footing in the conversation. She realized that this was something more than flirting.

“I mean, two weeks ago I was at home, wishing like always that I’d gone off to a college, like a lot of my friends. Then I moved out of my mom’s place, into a building I’d never even noticed before, even though I’ve lived around here all my life. When I moved into my new place I met Tweezer. . . what’s her name?”
“Whose name?”

“Tweezer – girl who works at the store.”

“Well. . . Tweezer.”

“Yeah, but her real name …”

“That is her real name.”

“That’s weird. How’d she get it?”

“Her parents, I guess. I don’t know. Everybody just calls her Tweezer, and she answers. I think it might even be on the application.”

“Well anyway, I met Tweezer, who’s really nice, actually, and she told me to get this job, and now here I am with you and David and Tracy and everybody else at the store.”

“Yeah, well, life is like that.”

“So how long have you owned the store?”

“Couple of years. But I managed it for a few years before I owned it, and I worked there for a few years before I was the manager.”

“What else have you done?”

“Well, I’ve dabbled in film a little myself … short films – documentaries, you might say. And I think I’m getting pretty good with my Nikon. But this is great. It’s a good living, doing something I like. Not too difficult. We’re pretty well known now, which is obviously good.”

He was tired of talking about himself, he realized. He was already looking ahead to what might be made from their conversation in the future. This led to a longer pause than he’d allowed up until then, and then he realized that she was just waiting for him to say more.

“So what about you?”

“I guess maybe I’ll start taking classes up at the community college, eventually. I really don’t know. I just want to get out on my own a little.” She was starting to feel self-conscious again. Tom picked up on that and went back to a more neutral subject.

“Yeah, there are a lot of good people at the store. They’re all really into their movies, so you can learn a lot about if you’d like to. And there’s a lot of film makers and actors connected with the store. It’s a natural crossroads for people in the theatre, or just about anyone in the city when it comes to entertainment, actually. You’re bound to meet some of them.”

Afterwards Tom and Julie walked back across the street to the parking lot, where he offered Julie a ride home. The few blocks to her house took all of two minutes to drive, and Julie filled most of it by talking about classes she’d like to take at school. Accounting, computers: all of it so boring. Maybe she could take something more creative, like acting. This had been the subject of some of her counseling sessions, and she was reluctant to bring out into the open something she’d considered such a secret for so long.

Tom set the brake but left the motor running.

“Yeah, you should. It’s not all that hard, you know.”

“I don’t know.”

“Why not? ”

“It seems so shady, all those modeling agencies – it just seems hopeless. All those girls at the one place I went to, anyway, they seemed hopeless.”

“That’s not a good reason for not trying. And whatever it looks like to you, isn’t hopeless for them, or they wouldn’t be there. ”

“But how many actually make it? There’s has to be a better way.”

“That’s the same thing I used to tell myself for years,” said Tom. He then came to the uncomfortable realization that he was playing for Julie the same role that Helen had played for him.

As Julie talked about how much she needed to make for rent and how little was left over, he thought about his own question. He thought about how much he sounded like Helen when she was encouraging him. It was infectious. How well could he take his own advice? It couldn’t be all that much tougher than acting to make movies. He was learning the trade. So he wouldn’t be the next Luis Bunuel. “What was the big deal in that?” he wondered to himself. He could still have fun making movies. He’d learn what he needed to while making the porn flicks, as Helen suggested, and then move on to really important films. He’d use a fake name in the credits. Although in this day and age, maybe the association might actually help him a little.

Julie watched him for a few seconds as he absentmindedly looked out the window, and then she reached for the door. “Thanks for the drink, Tom.”

Tom came to and said, “Sorry about that … spacing out a little, I guess. See you next time, okay?” She was smiling down at him as she shut the door.

From then on Tom always scheduled himself and Julie to close the store at least one night a week together. It was probably obvious to everyone else at the store, and it might even have been obvious to Julie herself, but this time he really didn’t concern himself too much with what the others were thinking. He was thinking about what a short time twenty long years were. In college he was afraid to do anything more than daydream about the woman he wanted, and in the months that followed his discovery of Elizabeth in Eric’s bed, the mere thought of her had just made him feel even more powerless. He couldn’t compensate for this demoralization, so he did the next best thing and ignored it; even better, he joined in with the laughter of his friends and turned on himself and what he’d first wanted. He felt differently now. Now an opportunity for amends had more or less dropped in his lap. Twenty years ago all his friends liked to watch him playing the fool. Not that anybody would necessarily find out about his compensatory conquest, and certainly not his friends from school. The only witnesses were the employees in his own store. He felt like he was evening an old score, and still he told himself he didn’t care what the others were thinking.

Chapter Twelve

The next time Julie was at work, she was careful not to be caught off guard. In just a week on the job she had learned this much about herself: she needed to be much more wary. She needed to learn more, a lot more, even if it was only the names of all the stars and the movies they’d been in, and until then she needed to be a lot more careful with her ignorance. This meant thinking twice about questions that she might already be able to answer for herself, but it also meant just keeping her eyes and ears open. She was pleased that some of her experience with Dr. Cervantes had come back to help her. Specifically, that another person might be just as insecure as she was, and in their insecurity might be trying to take her down a peg or two. As Cervantes himself had once put it. Wasn’t this true about David? She had no idea what he had to feel insecure about, but did it really matter? That he had so much fun with someone else’s mistake pointed towards some kind of character flaw. ‘If only I didn’t think so much about what other people were thinking,’ she said to herself, repeating what she’d said a number of times in Cervantes’ office.

For the most part the days were fairly uneventful. She learned what she needed to know about the job fairly quickly, which consisted mainly of learning where different movies belonged and how to operate the register. She realized after a few days that her run-in with David had been an isolated experience after all, and after a few good shifts with Tweezer she found that she was enjoying her time at the store. Her new friend liked to gossip, and wasn’t shy about bringing Julie into her orbit as well.

“So is it true?”

“What?”

“Don’t play dumb, sis; I heard you were out for drinks the other night!”

“Oh that – that was nothing…”

“He’s a dog, Jules, I’m telling you. He and his wife must have some kind of ‘understanding’, if you know what I mean.”

“Puh-leeez. It was one drink!”

“I’m telling you he’s a dog.”

As a matter of fact, Julie did have feelings for Tom. He was a little older, certainly, but not that much older, or if he was, he was still in great shape, which was really all that mattered. The age difference was actually appealing, when she stopped to think about it. Was she appealing to him though? He was nice enough, but what where the odds, anyway? He was so much older!

Old though he may have been, they turned out to be pretty good odds. He usually stopped by the store when she was working, and they exchanged a few remarks. Flirtatious and exciting in the moment, even if it seemed fairly innocent when she thought about it later. The next time they closed together he asked her out for a drink after work again. This time they didn’t go to Queequeg’s, but to a bar at the top of a hotel just down the street from the store, on the shore of Lake Union. They slid into a booth next to a window with a nice view of the city. She realized that she was inexperienced, but since it was experience as much as a boyfriend that she was after, it all seemed to be shaping up perfectly fine.

When she had told her mom that she’d never had a boyfriend she had been telling the truth, but the image of the young woman she’d presented to Dr. Cervantes hadn’t been entirely accurate either. She’d slept with one of her classmates for the first time when she was all of fifteen, if by ‘slept with’ it’s understood that it had all happened just before her 9:00 curfew, in the space of five minutes and in the back of a company van belonging to the father of the young man. He had kindly pushed aside a stack of traffic cones and spread an orange moving blanket on the metal floor, at which Julie had felt both touched and a little mortified. Of course it hadn’t amounted to much, although at the time she was glad to have gotten it over and done with before she was sixteen. Word got out, some of her fellow students called her a slut, some were jealous, but every one of them took some sort of salacious enjoyment out of the news before using it to measure the level of their own sexual activity. From then on her relations with other boys had been similar, however sporadic, and usually with the pretense of a relationship that lasted a week or two. She thought about all this while Tom was up at the bar ordering a couple of sea breezes, realizing how much more civilized this was. She enjoyed thinking of herself as an adult.

Tom came back with a highball in each hand. He’d taken an extra minute at the bar in conversation with a fat bald man sitting sideways on his stool. Although Julie couldn’t have known it, this was his standard m.o., developed in his twenties, refined in his early thirties, and still yielding solid results now as he approached his forties. Smile and laugh, try to have a good time and let others have a good time with you. Laugh at other people, but let them in on the joke, and give them a chance to laugh at themselves. This worked well with most people, women as well, and now it was working well with Julie.

“Hey you’ll never guess the name of that guy at the bar!”

“Okay, I’ll never guess.”

“Merle!”

“Merle?”

“Yeah, you know, as in ‘Merle Street’!’’

She feigned recognition before remembering the name halfway through her laugh. “Oh yeah, the famous movie star!”

“From such fine films as Death Becomes Him and Opie’s Choice.”

“Opie who?”

“You know – ‘Opie’s Choice’, the one about the little redheaded kid who has to choose between his two parents… You don’t know that one do you? I mean Sophie’s… He realized that the joke had been lost. Which was a good thing, since it was terrible. He realized as well that this could be tougher work than he’d first thought. He’d been aware for some time now that he was quite a bit older than the clerks he employed, but while there had been differences in taste he’d always thought that he was working in the same general field of reference. More often he was beginning to sense the generation gap, and while he still preferred his own generation, he didn’t much enjoy thinking about it.

Tired of trying to find something that would interest her, he did his best to encourage her to talk, beginning with another round of drinks. He asked her about movies that she’d seen and tried to have her fill in the plots for him. This she was reluctant to do unless he asked her direct questions.

When conversation stalled Julie took her turn and asked questions about his own efforts at moviemaking. Answering definitely required a little more alcohol, making it easier for him to embellish his story. He said that his latest efforts were more in the line of documentaries.

“Like what?” she asked.

“Well you have to understand that at this point they’re not really my documentaries. I work with another director, you see, I’m really a kind of assistant director, trying to develop my own material…”

“So what kind of documentaries do you make? Nature and stuff?”
“Yeah… nature… wildlife, animals, that sort of thing…”

“Like on the Discovery channel…”

“Right, yeah, just like that…”

By this time they’d both drained away three drinks, and she had lost much of her self-consciousness. He felt like the worldly man he liked to imagine himself being, and alternated between putting his arm around her shoulders and sitting with both elbows on the table, seemingly indifferent. Julie responded to the latter by drawing up close to him, as if to ask for an arm again.

After four drinks he had his right hand on her thighs, first one, then the other, and then in the dark crevice in between. They were both whispering and giggling about Merle, trying to continue the sex-change gag with other actors.

“What about Melanie Gibson?”

“Brenda Frasier?”

“Wilma Smith, star of Women in Black, One and Two”

“Julian Roberts, The Runaway Groom.”

“That still sounds like a girl’s name.”

“Okay, what about ‘Bunny Afleck’…”

“Bunny?”

“Yeah, and her lesbian lover, ‘Tammy Damon’.

They were both a little drunk. After five drinks, they were stumbling out of the booth. She slipped once on the way out, he was a little wobbly himself, but by pulling each other close they were able to draw strength from one another, as long as they didn’t trip. Tom dropped three twenties on the table and waved to the fat man sitting at the bar, whose name may or may not have been Merle.

Alone in the elevator, he put a hand on her back and turned her around 90 degrees so that she naturally flopped her head on his shoulder. Giggling again, she turned her head so that her chin was resting in the small space by his collar, then pulled back so that she was staring up at him with a laughing, leering smile. He waited for her to close her eyes and then bent down to brush her neck with his lips. She wasn’t surprised when the bell rang and the doors opened up on a floor instead of the lobby. She said as much, laughing the entire trip down the hallway and going over the name game they’d been playing in the bar.

When they got to the room they leaned up against the door for a second and then practically fell into the entryway when he opened the door with the card key. For some reason the radio was on when they entered the room, and he pulled her along in imitation of a dance towards the bed. Going along with the joke, she spun out of his arms, flopped onto the bed, and immediately turned on her side to present as alluring an image as possible, which of course wasn’t the least bit necessary. She had a little trouble trying to prop up her head in a seductive angle, as the heel of her hand slid out from under her hair and her head clumsily jerked forward. Once she righted herself she got the other arm right, balancing her wrist on her hip, fingers curling down towards her thigh as a kind of invitation.

Tom took it, of course, bounding over to and then bouncing on the bed, so that whatever composure the drunk girl had managed to pull together was then knocked apart. No matter. It wasn’t elegant, but soon their clothes were off and everything turned into the familiar confusion of tongues, hair, and pressed flesh. He felt like a teenager experiencing it all for the first time. He was shouting, if only silently and to himself: “Her daughter! Man oh man, I can’t believe I’m here with her daughter!”

Comments

  1. Matthew Lickona says

    Excellent ending.

  2. Anonymous says

    Tom is a repulsive character.

  3. Quin Finnegan says

    Just because he's shagging a girl 20 years younger than him, because she's the daughter of a woman whom he failed to shag, and because for him this little assignation has as much or more to do with revenge than even simple lust?

    Seems kind of judgmental of you.

  4. Anonymous says

    Yes, repulsive is too strong. Cold.

    When is this set? I thought it was 1984. Before six degrees of separation. And is it credible that Julie wouldn't have heard of Meryl Streep. Or that a heterosexual couple would play a game involving changing the sex of famous actors and actresses (sorry, I can't seem to leave this subject alone).

  5. Quin Finnegan says

    Oh, I don't know that I mind 'repulsive' all that much. Although I never pictured Tom as such – if only because he looks young for his age, is reasonably attractive to younger women, and has developed a fair amount of lotharian charm. "Tom Giovanni" seems about right.

    Tom started at Videosyncracy in about 1984, but that was merely the backstory to the events that take place 20 years later – 2004, or thereabouts. So it's after six degrees.

    I do think it's credible that a girl of 20 has not heard of Meryl Streep, although she probably does know something about Milly Cyrus, which is just a name to me; in fact, all this is meant to 'date' Tom (as it dates me, and apologies if this dates you).

    As for the game … maybe it's a little odd, but they are drunk after all, or at least flirting when they make it up, and all sorts of things fly under these circumstances that wouldn't be as likely at other times. And I just find the issue of gender confusion interesting (and sad, as it affects most people in at least minor ways at some point in their lives), so I took it up in the way it presented itself while I was writing.

    I will add that I personally know two individuals who have gone through gender reassignment surgery; both male to female, and both were incorrigible womanizers. That's definitely not a significant statistical sampling, and I'm certainly not suggesting that one leads to the other. But I found it interesting, and since it fit the bill, liked the idea of planting that particular seed (pardon the metaphor) in Tom.

    Thanks again for reading.

  6. Anonymous says

    If it's 2004, then you've left out Kiarostami.

  7. Thank God I don't know anyone who's gone through gender realignment surgery.

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