Reel to Real
When I woke up and found that Jennifer wasn’t lying next to me—that she had left me like she said she would the night before—I washed my hands and face in the bathroom sink and then slept for an hour longer. We had been living together for two years—eating, sleeping and spending money together. We met in line at the video store. I was renting “Duel in the Sun” and she was behind me, eyeing the movie in my hand. She let out a stunted laugh to catch my attention and said, “Funny, my name is Jennifer Jones.” I told her that Jones’ name was really Phylis Isley, and we both laughed in understanding how nobody our age wanted to be named Phylis.
Jennifer had said before that she was leaving me because I couldn’t tell the difference between reality and films. “Things don’t work out in life the way they do on screen,” she said. “Tragic character flaws are not admirable in real humans. You are not a scripted actor! You’re free to choose your destiny!” Then she went out and didn’t come back.
I finished watching “Little Big Man”. Remember the part where Dustin Hoffman is caught selling snake oil and he’s tarred and feathered?
The day after Jennifer left I was going through some of the things she left behind. I came across a film that we both loved to watch. It was only a VHS copy and the tape was becoming worn—the strip of snow mixed with charcoal dust streaming a banner at the bottom of the screen like a cable news channel.
What I loved about Jennifer was that she would remain quiet through films, allowing me to get absorbed. I enjoy projecting myself into the film, letting it swallow me whole. Sometimes I feel as if it is projecting me. And why not if that is who we want to be, if that is where we want to be? The characters in films are just like us.
Haven’t you ever cried at a film? Not at a sad ending or a sweet moment—that’s too easy—but at a spot where you are not supposed to cry. A spot that no one had ever cried at; a point in the film where there is not a tugging at your heartstrings or where brightness dawns and the wrongs are righted; a moment that happens between you, only you, and the film that numbs your cheeks and swells your eyes with salty recognition; a spot that contains only the bland truth of life happening before you on the screen as it is in the everyday. That is your spot, embrace it. My spot came during “Random Harvest” when Ronald Coleman got discharged from the hospital under his new name and identity. The gates shut on his back and he looked both ways before deciding in which direction to head. He gave a look as if he had just discovered life—hopeful and frightened. Once you find one spot, you’ll find others. They become almost addicting.
Jennifer always let me enjoy my spots in films, sitting there silent and leaning into the crimp of my arm.
One time we were traveling up the coast to visit her parents. We stopped at a small diner along the way. The entire place, from the building façade to the waitresses, was cast in bright colors that were now faded by the sun. I could tell it used to be a more vibrant place that served truckers and travelers from all corners of the nation. Now, it seemed unable to keep up with the rest of the world.
We both sat down in a booth, turquoise seats embracing us from behind. While looking at the menu I fingered a hole in the seat cushion, pulling out as much foam stuffing as I could in one pull and then putting it back in. I wasn’t very hungry and was looking for something light to eat. The conversation that Jennifer and I had in the car on the way made me feel nauseous.
She lied to me on the first date, and strangely, I found this comforting. It wasn’t a lie that she had to tell. I didn’t ask her where she worked or how she spent her days and nights, made her money, she just started to tell me. “I’m a nurse,” she said, before the meal arrived. I didn’t respond because I didn’t know how to follow that up. I tried to think of myself as Gregory Peck and stuck out my chin and chest a little, digging down deep for the kind of confidence that comes with the easy made readiness of scripted lines.
“Do you enjoy it?” I managed after a silence that was too long.
“On some days. I figure it is probably like any other job. You hate it but you don’t know what you would do without it.” She spoke her lines perfectly, just how you see in movies. In real life, human speech is filled with ‘ums’ and ‘uhs,’ mispronounced words and stutters. Her speech didn’t have any of these. She spoke from the diaphragm, with a pitch that was perfect enough for me to hear clearly but would not be audible to the other diners.
“Silver Shadows on the other side of town?” I knew the place and nodded in recognition. I had passed it many times before, always trying to figure out exactly what it was—a hospice, retirement facility, or just a place for older people in their declining years. She explained how most of their patients suffered from some form of dementia. Sometimes their bodies were being attacked by cancer or their muscles had atrophied or gone limp to the brain’s commands. Certain organs had failed on most of them, showing scars from replacement and orange bottles piled high to ease the pain. “We’re actually kind of famous. A camera crew came out last year to film Admiral Quincy. He’s this cat that predicts when the residents will die.” I didn’t need to say anything. She could tell from the look in my eyes that I wanted to know how such a thing was possible. I was all too ready to believe her every word. “I don’t know exactly how he does it either. But it works. For the past three years, he has been attached to twenty-three people. He camps out in their room, follows them everywhere and sits in their lap. He is friendly toward others, but does not cling to them like he does the ones who will die soon. All twenty-three were dead within three months of being chosen. That’s what we call it: chosen.”
“Do the residents want this cat around? I wouldn’t. Let me die without me knowing it first,” I said.
“No. They’re quite comfortable with the fact that they are going to die soon. I think they find the fact that a cat knows when they are going to die before even the doctors do, quite comforting. Charming, in a way. You should see the smiles on their faces when Admiral Quincy starts to get attached.”
“Are you sure the cat isn’t actually causing the deaths?”
Looking down at her lap, she mumbled a half sentence that I couldn’t hear. Then our dinner arrived and she changed the subject. Afterwards, as we were leaving, she took my arm and whispered to me, “All that stuff I told you earlier about my work was a lie.” Her voice was deeper and slightly scratchier than before. I nodded and thought about the cat that predicted death and all the old, sickly people who loved him.
Her father Larry liked to be called Lars. “Call me Lars,” he said. His handshake was strong, but sweaty. My hand slipped away slightly when he grabbed it. I didn’t want to make a show of wiping my hand on my pants, so I let it dry out in the breeze.
Lars’ neck ran with sweat, soaking the yellowed collar of his plaid shirt. The weather was humid, and millimeter long insects swarmed around our dripping pores. Above the screen door there was a piece of flypaper covered with the same insects. Her mother’s name was Meredith. I never told Jennifer this, nor would I ever want to offend anyone with the name Meredith, but the name sounded sinister to me. Marry Death, Merry Death, Mrs. Mary Death. She made a cake, and told us about the robbery on Toole St. last week. The murder that happened not that long ago outside the convenience store on Seventh. “That’s the same store that you got caught shoplifting from,” she said to Jennifer. Jennifer looked down at her nearly empty plate, concentrating on mashing the fork into her cake. “She stole a candy bar,” her mother said to me. “And two cans of cat food. For Biscuit.”
“I never knew you stole anything,” I said to Jennifer.
That night her parents heard us having sex, as they said so in the morning.
“We heard you having sex,” her father said. “Please, a little quieter.” He nodded to us, took a sip of coffee and left the room. Jennifer grabbed my hand up and kissed it.
Jennifer started to feed birds in our backyard. She fed them more than just birdseed. Cheap generic brands of cereal, chips, and crackers—the ones we bought because we thought we would eat them, but they just sat neglected on our shelves—were strewn out onto the lawn. Waking up at 6 A.M. to go out there, she would put on her light blue bathrobe, terrycloth, the first birthday gift I ever gave her. Now it has stains, pulled and dangling threads, discoloration around the neck, and its pockets occasionally used to hold bird food.
She would throw them our stale bread. Even the bread that wasn’t stale would get thrown in sometimes. The crows would caw in excitement at the center of the feed, while the smaller birds—sparrows and starlings—pecked at the outside. Sometimes she would come back to bed and have a hint of the outdoors lingering in her hair. I would slide toward the nape of her neck to kiss her and she would lean into it. Sometimes she didn’t come back to bed and made herself breakfast instead.
After watching “Laura” together, I asked Jennifer if she would dress up like Gene Tierney. She said that would be kind of difficult. “There’s no costume or style. She’s just naturally beautiful. I probably wouldn’t even be able to get the hair right.” I told her to try it, and she did. She went upstairs to try and came down two hours later. She didn’t look anything like Gene Tierney. “You were right,” I said. She went upstairs and I watched “Night and the City”. A loud group of neighbors across the way could be heard listening to music and working on cars and motorbikes in their driveway. It went well with the music of the film. A certain points, I would mute the film and listen to the soundtrack that the street provided.
Before we went to bed Jennifer asked me to open the window in our bedroom. “Close the window,” she said. “My clothes are sticking to my skin.”
“Take them off,” I said, and laughed at my own lame response. She laughed too.
We fell asleep to the sound of the neighbors revving their car engines. The sounds wafted in with the humid air, creating an enclosure around us as we slept.
I’m not sure if Jennifer ever knew the extent to which I confused movies and reality before she moved in. Real people make films, I would assure myself. And films are made about real people, I’d say. And real people even imitate or are inspired by movies, I thought. “Seeing a film is like seeing real life,” I told her one night. “No,” I corrected myself, “Watching a film is like watching a life.” No, I don’t think she understood any of that.
At some point I said to her in the middle of a movie, “Don’t you feel that this has all happened before?”
“I’ve never seen it,” she said.
“Neither have I,” I responded.
The birds came in bigger droves as the months went by. First it started out small and then we had to buy bigger bowls. More food. The back lawn was yellow with malnutrition, the sun scorching it during the day while the birds ate off it.
Jennifer started making necklaces out of cereal. She would pile them up around her neck and then wait out in the center of the lawn for the birds to feed off her. Four or five would flutter around her, scrape and claw for a foothold and begin to peck away. I asked her if it hurt, and she probably said something like, “It tickled so much I didn’t even notice it was bleeding,” or, “That scratch was there from before.”
The peck wounds on her neck were sizable. Most of the time they just looked like a giant hickey. Only occasionally would flesh be pierced and a kidney bean sized wound spotted her neck. These marks were scattered across Jennifer’s neck from her collarbone to the top of her throat. They would linger there for a few days with Band Aids for cover.
She was out there in the backyard wearing the cereal necklace once, and I was inside watching “The Birds”. I could see Jennifer and Tippi Hedren from where I was sitting. Birds attacked them both at the same time, and I couldn’t figure out which one was the movie and which one was happening out the window. Both frames were about the same size containing similar pictures. A flutter about a body, wings flapping, arms peeking through the feathers. The movie cut to the next scene eventually, while the scene in the window continued to play out.
Jennifer told the checkout girl at the grocery store that we shopped at that we were lawyers. I was with her when she did it. We laid out our produce: lettuce, carrots and tomatoes, and a loaf of bread. Paper towels and toothpaste were mixed in, then the cereal: ten boxes of the generic look-a-like of Cheerios and ten boxes of the generic fruit rings that looked like Fruit Loops. They rolled along the conveyor belt and the middle-aged woman behind the register plucked them up, typing in sale prices and produce codes.
“You two are always in here so late,” she said. It was a little after eleven.
I nodded and wasn’t inclined to comment. “We have to come here after work,” Jennifer said, swiping her credit card. This wasn’t true. I kept my own hours and Jennifer left work at three every day. “We have a legal practice that keeps us at the office late.” I looked over at her, but kept my face from showing any shock. She looked at me and her smile asked me to play along. We weren’t dressed in business attire—me in a t-shirt and jeans while Jennifer had on a tattered skirt, sweatshirt and carefully-wrapped scarf. We also lacked that self-assured quality that often goes along with the legal profession. The cashier didn’t ask any more questions. She gave a half-hearted sound of understanding while we grabbed our bags of groceries and left.
Everyone believed what she told them about herself. She was so convincing in her smile and enthusiasm for whatever she pretended to be. To her doctor she was a freelance interior designer; her dentist had no trouble believing she was a florist; the woman who cut her hair never thought to think that the stories she made up about her firefighter husband and her two kids—seven and nine—were fabricated. “It’s just playing a role,” she said to me once. “If I believe it, others believe it.” I asked if she really did believe it. Was she a lawyer, or florist? Did she really know what it was to be like those people, have those lives, and work at those jobs? “Every single time,” she said.
The magazines tend to like my pictures of things rather than people. They like places too: dilapidated scenery, rusted signposts, quaint country shacks that no one really wants to live in.
The way I used to think about photography was that it captured a moment in time and let that last forever. It preserved time. Now, it is the camera that is the distraction. By using a camera, I am called to focus our attention elsewhere other than the subject or moment being photographed. Even if only a slight diversion, the attention given to the taking of a picture causes us to never fully embrace the moments that we believe should last forever. I still take pictures though, and magazines still pay me for them.
The last picture I took before I started the assignment was of the cratered spot in the bed next to me—Jennifer’s indentation. If the only information I had about Jennifer’s body was from the shape she left in my bed, I would guess that she were only four feet tall, rather wide on the side, and had an elongated head. The picture captures this pretty well. I took it in black and white to show the contrast.
Before I took the picture, I bent down and smelled her side of the mattress. The fruity smell of her body wash on the pillow. Then I moved down to the smell of laundry detergent. She only wore a t-shirt and underwear to bed and the subtle smell of her vagina and ass lingered. More laundry detergent. Then I took the picture.
Meredith once told me that Jennifer wanted to be an actress.
“That’s a lie,” Jennifer said, when I asked her about it. “She wanted me to be an actress. I wanted to be a veterinarian or a zoologist.”
“You never told me that,” I said. There was a silence, and then I asked if she liked working for the county. “You could go back to school, if you want,” I offered. “Get another degree.”
“I like my job,” she said, but I wasn’t sure if she sounded honest about it. In film, I can always tell if a person is honest by the way they speak. If I were still unsure, their eyes would give it away. I couldn’t see Jennifer’s eyes and her tone was indecipherable. Her words were never scripted so it was sometimes hard to understand their true intention. But, like a great actress, she made me believe it.
Jennifer had lied to her parents about getting into law school. She also lied when she told them she graduated. Naturally, this leads to the fact that she had to lie about working as a lawyer. I never got the impression that her parents cared whether she became a lawyer or not. There was no family tradition to uphold or any overwhelming expectations put on her. Pretending to be a lawyer seemed to matter more to Jennifer than to her parents.
When I asked her why she felt she had to lie to them, she shrugged. “Because it’s the story they want to hear. It’s the one they want to believe. The one I want to tell them,” she said to me.
“It’s everyone’s favorite movie,” I said back.
When my father told me wrestling was fake, it didn’t ruin my enjoyment of the sport. We were watching it on cable one night. A gigantic man in overalls hit a man in a kilt over the head with a trashcan. There was blood and people cheering. And then he told me. He described the fake blood and the half-assed punches, the hours of rehearsal and scripted lines. I said that they really do look like they are hitting each other in there. “They are,” he said.
“But you said it was fake.”
“It is. The story lines are fake, like soap operas. They have writers and then they act out the scenarios. Those guys really hit each other, but they know to take certain punches. Make it look like it hurts more than it does.”
“The blood,” I said. “They bleed.”
“Like the movies. Fake.” He laughed and we watched a little bit more of the match. At the commercial break he grabbed the remote control and switched to a boxing match. I asked if boxing was fake. My father shook his head adamantly, as if any such suggestion to the contrary was out of the question. “No,” he said. “That’s why it’s a real sport.”
I asked him why the two men were fighting. In wrestling, there was always a grudge that one person had against the other. Or it’s payback for what was done to a friend. I’ve seen a few where they fight over a girl. Sometimes it’s a re-match, and no one remembers why they are fighting in the first place. “Because they are next in line to fight each other,” he said. “The boxing organization has a whole system worked out to rank each boxer, and how they fight for the position to take on the champion. Eventually.”
“So they have no reason to fight? There’s no personal score to settle?”
“They have a reason. They all want to be champion. All that storyline in wrestling is fake. Stuff like that doesn’t happen in boxing. All of that gets left outside the ring.”
“Don’t boxers get paid to throw a match sometimes? In “On the Waterfront” and “Body and Soul”, the fighters—”
“Those are movies,” he cut me off with irritation in his voice, my questions covering up the commentators’ voices. “In real life, things like that don’t happen very often.” He turned up the volume and continued to watch the two men slowly beat at one another. I couldn’t quite believe that they were giving it their all. Without a reason to fight—a story of deceit or betrayal—how could they truly be motivated? Sometimes they would hug, but my dad explained that they were just resting. Both of them took forever to start bleeding—maybe in the eighth round. I sat there with him for the duration of the fight, thinking how much more real wrestling was than boxing.
When Jennifer dressed up like Jane Fonda from “Barbarella,” she came out holding a real gun.
“Put that away,” I said, not really frightened, just shocked. I kept my grandfather’s Luger in a locked box in the nightstand, unloaded, and I had to look twice to make sure it was the same one. She was pointing it at me, then to her left side, then to her right, getting down on one knee and looking as if she were in danger. She didn’t seem to hear me.
“Is this how she does it?”
“Something like that,” I said. “Just put the gun away. I could do without so much realism.”
She scratched a scabbing peck wound at her neck with the nose of the gun, then holstered it in a leather strap attached to her right thigh.
The scabs put me off a little, and it would take a little extra effort initiating sex. I would be kissing her on the mouth and then naturally stray to her cheek and down to her neck. My lips would glide over the jagged edges of her scabs. It turned Jennifer on when I kissed them, used my tongue to make circles in and around them. The ones on her legs and arms weren’t nearly as sensitive as those on her torso, her breasts and stomach.
“You should wear a scarf and a hat, long pants and sleeves when you go out there,” I said one night after a particularly scab-heavy session of sex. As I was lying at her side, naked as she, and exposed to the friendly elements of our life indoors, she took my left hand and extended the index finger. There was a wound that she had above her right ear—it had been there for months and didn’t appear to get better or show any improvement at all. That’s where she put my finger, in that fleshy crevice that the birds pecked out.
The next time I saw her with the gun, she was pointing it out into the backyard at one in the morning. I asked what she was doing, and she said that she was afraid that raccoons and possums were coming at night and stealing the birds’ leftover crumbs. “Does it matter who eats it?” I said.
“Yes. I gave it specifically to the birds.”
“Would you really shoot an animal over it?”
“Yes,” she said, “But this isn’t loaded.” She pointed the gun at me and pulled the trigger. The hollow click resounded in the quiet room and she laughed, holding her arms out and begging me toward her.
I went to a movie the day after she left. As soon as the lights began to dim, I started to feel sleepy. There were only maybe ten or fifteen people in there. I slunk down in my chair as the lights continued to dim even further. That is one of the beautiful things about this theater: only small portions of the lights dim as the first coming attraction is played. As the previews go on and the start of the film nears, the lights dim more and more, incrementally bringing the audience unnoticeably from lightness into darkness, as not to damage our sensitive eyes in the process. Once the lights were out completely and the screen came to life, my eyes had completely closed. I jerked my head up as the loud music of the soundtrack started, but thinking about it now, I can’t really be sure. Was it the film I remember or a dream that came over me? If it was a dream, huge chunks of the plot were missing from the story line, most of it not making any sense and jumping in chronology and setting, no recognizable actors. If it was a film, then it probably meant that I should find a way, at some point, to talk to Jennifer again. When the lights come on in the theater, it happens in the exact opposite way as it does when turning them off. Upon the disappearance of the final studio graphic, the lights beam down quickly and forcefully, waking us up out of our film. The same happens when waking up from sleep. I found myself, suddenly, back in reality. That’s how I knew to leave.
[BIO]: Erik is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Chapman University.