Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others is the story of two women, longtime friends, who both become filmmakers, one of emotionally disturbing documentaries, the other of more commercial fare. Told in cinematic fashion, with texts and blog posts and transcripts, the novel, just published by Scribner, delves into a deeper story, of love and loneliness and the creeping alienation of modern life.
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“HOW I BEGAN” INSTALLMENT #32: MEADOW MORI
This is a love story.
My boyfriend used to, used to. Now he is. Enormous. He says he worries about exposure, books, articles, lies, truth. Everything.
“Trust,” I say. “Trust. One day I will be old.”
“You will be the one to leave me,” he says. “You’ll see.”
“That is such a cliché,” I say. He laughs.
“Yes,” he says. “It is. We are.”
I climb around him. He is very good at one thing. Everything happens slowly. He watches me, and I climb atop him, feeling his eyes. He laughs, and his laugh is deep and I feel it shake his body.
“Smoke,” he says. I light up a cigar. I sit, on the wrecked bed, in a camisole and panties, and I puff a little breath at the red coal.
“It smells awful,” I say.
“It smells delicious,” he says and laughs again. Sometimes I help him get dressed. I button his endless shirt. He wears a black shirt, black pants with an elastic band where a zipper should be, and a black sports jacket if he is going to meet someone. He is always going to meet someone, but I don’t go. He has a table at Ma Maison, by the door, and people have lunch and make deals there. People stop by, there is some talk, he makes them laugh, he tells them stories, and maybe something will come of it.
While he is gone, I roam around his house. It is a three-bedroom bungalow, with a bean-shaped tile pool in the back. His having lived there will one day be something a real estate agent talks about. The rooms are overfilled with things, mostly papers: notes jotted on envelopes, sketches, marked-up play booklets from Samuel French, storyboards, letters unopened, letters opened, photographs, screenplays—so many screenplays, towers of screenplays—receipts, newspaper clippings, unused sheaves of hotel stationery from Prague or Paris or Denver. I don’t clean or organize anything. He prefers I not touch things and misplace them. He will use his cane and start hobbling around, looking for this or that. He will find something else, a cocktail napkin with some scribbles, a matchbook with a phone number. If he finds anything funny—say a drawing, one of his cartoons—or if he finds something pretty—a postcard or an origami flower—he offers it to me, kisses my hand. He is generous, although I understand he doesn’t have money, but in that peculiar Los Angeles way of not having money where you still have nice things: a Mercedes, Cuban cigars, a housekeeper, a cellar full of wine from Échezeaux and La Tâche and Romanée-Conti. But I see the bills. He does whatever he can to make money. “Must keep the balls in the air,” he says. I say I will look for work, and I mean it. He insists that I do not. He wants me to stay at home, even if he isn’t there. I accept this, and I like having days of solitude and nights with him. I like it.
It is another day and he is doing another voice-over. My boyfriend is a disembodied voice on a very popular TV show. He is old and fat, but his voice is rich and strong. He sounds like the voice of America, of a confident, glistening, win-soaked America, full of possibility and ambition and verve. He sounds that way still, when he wants to, and everyone loves to hear that voice. It makes them think, Oh yes, weren’t we. And then it makes them sad, but sad in a pleasing way. His voice does all of this to people. Still.
He lies on the bed, propped up by pillows, watching me. I am wearing a short butter satin robe that gently opens when I move. There is a tray of food in front of me: a steak with grilled potatoes, a portion of haricots verts, a large glass of red wine. The wine lingers, silky and warm in my mouth, and after a few sips, it makes me laugh. He watches me eat the steak and drink the wine. I like his watching. I like how fascinated he is by my everything. He sighs.
“What?” I say.
“Old age is a shipwreck,” he says. He doesn’t stop looking at me as he speaks. “De Gaulle said that. The French know everything, and they know that too, even if you don’t.”
Other times, after he has done a talk show, a voice-over taping, a phone conference, a lunch meeting, other times he is not in the mood to watch me. We go to sleep. Tonight, things must have been quite grueling. When he comes in he looks gray and worn. This is what age is to me—that naked, worn-out face. Because a young person, if she feels bad, fed up, she must really make a show for you to get it. But old people, the only thing that keeps their faces from looking hopeless all the time is a lot of moving and a lot of expression, a lot of what my boyfriend calls flimflam. The minute they stop working at it, they look like hell.
He goes right to bed. Sometimes when he is like that I stay up and watch a movie on my own. But tonight I decide I should lie in bed beside him. He sweats and I can feel how restless he is. It is hard to move on the bed, his body sags and pulls him. He turns on his side, his face red and washed in sweat. He takes leaky, noisy gulps at the air.
“Do you want more room? Should I leave?” I ask.
“No, no.” He looks at me. Whatever was building in his breath seems to pass. At last he whispers to me in the dark: “I just panic sometimes, which makes it worse. This body, this flesh—I feel like Fortunado in ‘The Cask of Amontillado.’ Do you know the story?”
I shake my head. I wipe my eyes with the back of my hand.
“Oh, it’s marvelous,” he says. “An elaborate murder by immurement, by being walled in. You see? I am not exactly suffocating, but being slowly immured behind a wall built of flesh. Brick by brick, until I am obliterated. Do you know how many stories and fairy tales concern immurement? Or being buried alive? It is the most elemental of fears.”
He pauses, and I can hear him taking noisy breaths in the dark.
“You must stay, darling. See how just talking to you calms me down,” he whispers.
I move up on the pillows, I put my hands on the sides of his face. I make him look into my eyes. His eyes are dark and wet. They look like a boy’s eyes with laugh wrinkles at the edges. He presses his cheek against my hand. He presses his lips against my hand. I kiss his forehead, I pull his head in close to my chest. He rests against me and goes to sleep at last.
I told you this is a love story.
One day, one of the very last days, it will be a different story. But before I tell about that part, please let me tell this part. The very beginning part. The how-we-met part. I was just finishing my senior year at Wake School, a private arts high school in Santa Monica. It was 1984. I was a very good student; I had no need to rebel and actually felt comfortable at school. I did my senior project on him. It was a kind of stunt. I have always liked stunts (and also, as you may have guessed, pranks, hoaxes, games). I had read how he said he learned everything he knew about filmmaking from watching Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights twenty times. My project was called, “A Response to My Favorite Filmmaker’s Response to Watching City Lights Multiple Times (From Emulation to Extravagance).” Short official title (as it was too long for the school course credit form): “(From Emulation to Extravagance).” It consisted of me watching my boyfriend’s most famous film—his brilliant, wunderkind, iconic film—twenty times over three days. That is, consecutively except for when I slept. The school let me set up in a room with a couch/bed where I could be comfortable, and I had meals brought in. (It was that kind of school.) I kept a record of my thoughts as I viewed the film and posted the pages on a large bulletin board in the adjacent hallway. People were welcome to watch the film with me, or simply watch me watch the film. My notes were the record of those twenty viewings and I still have them . . .
. . . At graduation I was awarded the senior prize. The summer was suddenly upon me. I found his address on a map of the stars’ homes. I sent him a copy of a school article about me and a letter explaining “A Response to My Favorite Filmmaker’s Response to Watching City Lights Multiple Times (From Emulation to Extravagance).” I told him how in homage to his watching City Lights twenty times, I watched his most famous film twenty consecutive times. I also told him how an idea of him came to me as I watched: that he was everything Americans were, writ large. Written in giant, bold, back-lit sans-serif letters. I realized, as I sat in the dark, that he conjured up our past and our future, the glory and the disappointment. We lived in it, but we didn’t like it. In fact, we hated it. We hated him. So now he was trotted out for quips, and sometimes he said disturbing things, uncomfortable things. He couldn’t help it. He never learned, and I loved him for it.
He wrote me back right away. He said he would like, very much, to have lunch with me.
Excerpted from Innocents and Others by Dana Spiotta. Copyright © 2016 by Dana Spiotta. Reprinted with permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.