Chapter 24: I Will Never, Ever Marry You
Parting Glances, Woody Allen, a miserable acting career, love, regret, drugs and contrition.
When I met her, there was at least part of her that wanted to get married more than anything in the world, that wanted to have a family, that wanted to have a baby. You can’t imagine what that word meant to her and how she said it. She held the idea of that imagined baby so close in her heart you couldn’t see where the mother left off and the baby began.
And when she smiled, and this is what got me right away, right there in the early going, before the first morning walk home even, there was something in her eyes, some persistent and intractable doubt, under the laugh and behind the smile, something that held on for an extra moment when it looked at you, something that always asked if you loved her, I mean really, really loved her.
And with all my heart, especially in those early days, before the ugly, knock-down, drag out early Sunday morning fights, and the I will never, ever, EVER fucking marry you, do you hear me? I’d have to be fucking CRAZY – I was yelling with tears in my eyes and picking up my clothes and college books from her apartment stairwell – before all that, I would look into the eyes of that laugh softening into the one eternal human question, but still holding your eyes with her doubt and, at times, fathomless contrition, and I would race into the vacuum with a yes, yes, yes.
Of course, I love you.
We were born a day apart, on November 15th and November 16th, and if you’ve studied astrology for even half an hour you know that Scorpios barely stand a chance with any of the other signs let alone with each other. But even if you haven’t studied astrology then at least you understand that we must have celebrated our birthdays back-to-back. We were both literal about the dates, so there was no “let’s just celebrate both together on the Saturday before or after” like any reasonable astrological sign would do.
Your birthday very literally started and ended at midnight. And she always got depressed the day after her birthday (“because it’s over”), and for the two and a half years and three birthdays that we spent together we’d have an annual argument on the 16th about her ruining my birthday every fucking year. This never did get resolved, but you should also know that my birthday was not actually ruined three times, but this was how two Scorpios communicate with each other once they really get good and going and all warmed up.
Wipe your tears! Wipe your tears! You really don’t need to feel so terrible for me! My birthdays were just fine with cards and candy and little bags of marijuana she’d tied in curly red ribbon and gummy bears and the devil certainly knows what else arriving in makeshift origami pouch pockets with SweeTarts taped to the outside and Bic pen smiley faces. All your typical birthday touches.
For two decades after we hadn’t seen each other or spoken, I almost always stopped and thought of her on the 15th. And, when I did actually forget, and it was a few days before I remembered, then I’d be more likely to stop for a much longer moment, and find myself thinking about our whole time together, and how far apart we were, and then I wondered what the fuck exactly happened back there and went so incredibly wrong, although the birthday presents are both a clue and a dark omen.
We “met cute” in a New York fashion.
I was an actor in those days, and the night we met she had seen me in a movie called Parting Glances, and then there I was, the same guy from the movie, right there at the bar, but not actually gay like in the movie she’d seen, and probably shorter, too. (I was 6’1” in the movies.)
And I remember seeing the “he’s gay to he’s not gay” transition in her face. We were yelling to each other in a loud bar (not a gay one,) and this little firecracker of a short girl with brown hair in a bob dyed all black had been going on and on about wanting to introduce me to somebody, one of her best friends (a gay one), and then it turned out suddenly I wasn’t (gay at all) and then she didn’t want to introduce me to him anymore, and I felt her whole being shift around this new, not unwelcome, surprise fact, and I saw a race car doing a hellacious U-turn in the distance, throwing up a dust cloud, coming straight at me now, getting larger with every second.
She was there that night with her roommate, but she had a little surprise for me too, since my eyes and conversation were roving in that direction (oh, she’s gay) and (so is her girlfriend). And she changed gears faster than I could keep up and ordered more drinks for the both of us even when I’d already said I’d had enough for the night. I told her I was heading out, but she pulled me by the arm somewhere it turned out I had no choice but to go, and made out with me and drove through my tropical trees and polar snowfields and my upside-down nighttime bullshit highway, until she pulled into the winner’s circle at some point later in the evening. And, in this way, you could say I was seduced by a race car driver (who was herself, from time to time, but probably just for kicks.)
We moved in together in an apartment by Lincoln Center just across from ABC News. We lived on the 7th floor, and after her shift we’d stay up late watching Chuck Woolery hosting Scrabble. We’d smoke pot and eat miniature microwave Chinese rolls dipped in squeeze packets of sweet mustard left over from take-outs. One of us would stay productive, rolling little cordwood stacks of joints, proudly building miniature log cabin piles. You could never actually tell how much weed we had or really clean the place out if you hit a sudden patch of sobriety, because every time she bought weed, she would squirrel small amounts of pot all over the apartment in secret locations.
She’d hide them when she was high so that she wouldn’t remember where the hell she’d put them, and then it was impossible to tell when we were actually getting low because a quick treasure hunt would always turn up more. We’d be working on the last few desperate roaches, burning the tips of our fingers to shiny nubs when suddenly she’d yell out “Guess what I-E-I just found?” from the back of the coat closet or standing on the kitchen counter or dismantling the oven hood top or chucking the winter socks out of the bottom dresser drawer.
“Ha-ha-haaah,” she’d cackle, all pirate-smiled and full of mischief, and I would laugh, too. That smile was the best thing about her. Maybe it is the best thing about anybody. I loved that smile, but looking back, and I’ve had plenty of reasons to look back, the excess was frightening.
Early on I had an audition for a Woody Allen film, and it had gone well. I had learned my lines sitting in his projection room beforehand, focused on the pages I’d been given and memorizing everything as fast as I could so I could get off-book. I sat there on a desk looking at pictures of Mia Farrow and the children on the shelf. It was surreal to be in his personal space. In its way, for both my agents and myself, it felt like the tantalizing edge of stardom.
I’d been told by my lead agent like six times not to try to shake his hand or go over to him or be ingratiating in any way, but in the audition, he was friendly and welcoming. He shook my hand pleasantly and was completely normal (except there was the weird sensation I always have with celebrities, thinking this is actually Woody Allen, he’s not somewhere else right now, he’s here with me, and he had those big, sad, basset hound eyes and his thick glasses and button down shirt, and I couldn’t stop thinking he always looks like his owner is away.)
I came home and told the story of how after doing the scene Allen had made an aside to Juliet Taylor, his casting director, and he’d said, “That was great? Wasn’t that great?” He asked the question like the matter was settled, and I’d got the part. My heart leaped. I’d finally done it. Taylor was the one who wanted to get me in there to meet him in the first place, and she’d gotten me into another movie and also the Michael Jackson Bad video, but now we were talking the real deal. Woody Allen. The movie was called September.
Juliet had initially said this audition was more of a look-see, more a chance for him to meet me than anything else, or that’s what she’d told my agent. But I was more than a good fit for the part, and I’d proven it. But I did remember she hadn’t answered Allen’s question either.
The two of us took a bus out to Niagara Falls that weekend and we could feel a shared future shaping up. I’ll bet my bottom dollar it isn’t this way anymore, but, back then, getting cast in a Woody Allen movie was like a ticket for five other movies just because you had him on your resume, even when the movie hadn’t come out yet. It was like making it for an actor, and we were both completely amped up.
And when we got to Niagara Falls, I checked in with my agent on the five-dollar-a-minute hotel phone I couldn’t afford, and he blew my world apart. He said that Woody and Juliet both thought you were great – really great – but the part was to play Harvey Keitel as a young man in a flashback, and you really, really don’t look like Harvey Keitel.
“You were great. He loved you,” my agent did his best to assure me. And you already know Juliet loves you. But he was disappointed, too. The endless near misses were a death by a thousand cuts for both of us.
“That fucking bitch,” she called Taylor, scrunching up her entire frame. “You look like Harvey Keitel.” And about ten minutes later, maybe just to break up the long, depressing silence and maybe to get me to turn face up from the hotel bed:
“I hate his movies. Bore you out of your fucking mind...” She did a sort of trailing-off impression of how everybody talks in a Woody Allen film using sounds more than words. And then, after a long beat, I hear her say from the bathroom, “Just pick up the lobster yourself, you pussy.” She made herself laugh with the Annie Hall joke, and reluctantly I had to stifle mine.
I didn’t lift my face from the pillow, but I did put my arm straight up and backwards in the air so that she could come lie next to me on the bed. She did, but later that day I practically wept through the entire Maid of the Mist boat ride like the ship was named for me, and I made sure the whole rest of the miserable weekend was ruined after that, and to be totally honest, maybe the whole rest of my miserable acting career.
One afternoon I came home to our Lincoln Center apartment with a small Casio keyboard I’d bought at Manny’s for a hundred and thirty bucks or something like that. Plastic everything. I carried it home under my arm on the subway. I didn’t have a stand for it, but I found a way to prop it up on cardboard boxes and evenly stacked college books.
The keyboard looked horrible in the living room, but she put up with it. I had also purchased the sheet music for Whiter Shade of Pale at the same time, and for months I played the same eight opening bars on the “rock organ” setting until she was probably ready to tear her hair out, but she’d just come over and listen for a bit and say that part’s a little better. And I’d ask which part, and she’d be able to tell me. She’d know because she was actually listening.
Even after things blew apart, it meant a lot to me, that.
Feel something. For free. Twice a week.