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Fiction

Despite Herself

by Suzanne Dottino


Image used with permission from Mentality Design
[Excerpt]

Even though he is across the room and reading I know he is watching me. My boyfriend likes to keep tabs on where I am so he can determine where we are. My boyfriend seems to think he has a sixth sense with me and annoyingly, I agree. But then again, that extra bit of wisdom comes from the thirty years he lived before I was born. I love that life advantage he has over me. I hate that life advantage he has over me. I rest my head back on my chair. I’m not in the mood tonight but usually I like to test his sixth sense abilities. I’ll play The Ministry of Misinformation game. I’ll tell him that I am somewhere that I am not--that’s when he’ll begin his interrogation. I’ll answer his questions, but not really. I’ll tell him he’ll have better luck if he uses a thermometer. He’ll laugh. By the end of the night I’ll have spun so many tales, woven so many lies, that really, I could have been a spider in another life. Still, he’s crazy about me. Gil and I are plugged together in such a way that moment by moment, beat by beat, I can feel him inside of me, on to me, beside me, between me, and on top of me-without him even having to look at me. Our love current is positively powerful that way; there’s no denying that. I love that about us. I hate that about us.

I hate it when he complains I leave piles around the apartment. He drops Index cards on them with a note telling me he is going to burn them.

My piles.

My stuff.

But then yesterday he said, Between you and the mountain, there’s nothing you can’t do. How could I not love someone who says something like that? But maybe he says it to them all. And then he stroked me and said I was his pinto pony-beautiful white flame. Oh, Baby, Baby and then stroked me some more. Kissed my neck. Showed me how. He did show me how. Love. Make love. Not fuck. There is a difference and it is not just with the vowels and the syllables. Who knew! He did. He let me know. Let me? Oh, and last week he shaved my legs in the bathtub. I stared at the interesting patterns and colors the water damage from the loft above made on the ceiling. I placed my hands on the chilly fat rim of the bathrub. Uck. Even his bathtub is old.

In his sprawling Tribeca loft, my legs are dangling over the arms of a rocking chair that is placed diagonally across from him. This is where I am. I can’t really pretend that I am somewhere else, not concretely that is. I exhale and he reacts like a sleeping dog that hears a noise that only another dog could hear and up goes his eyebrows. His radar is on but for the moment, at least, we are doing just fine, no games. I take a deep breath and sigh. My script is in my lap and I’m eating gummi-worms. I am in the process of nailing down my character’s motivation for my audition tomorrow for the role of Catherine in A View From the Bridge by Arthur Miller. I’ve promised myself that by the end of the evening and with Gil’s years of experience not just as a professional but as an adult, I will have it all figured out. Fulfilling that promise is what will make this night different from all other nights. His knowledge of these things is invaluable and essential. It’s also one of his most attractive qualities. It is a turn-on. Watching him think is a turn-on. I am watching him now as he is lying in our bed and reading Schopenhauer. I can almost hear his brain chomp, chomp, chomping away on the ideas and images that the words in his book are conjuring up. He becomes monstrously attractive. I toss a red gummi-worm across the room. It splats against the wall by his head, then drops behind the mahogany headboard. He fires a gaze at me. Oops! I shrug my shoulders, and then turn the page. I never was very good at being direct.

If I get the part I won’t get paid but who cares. It’s a good production with good actors and it’d be fun. So far I’ve worked mostly in TV commercials. I am lucky to work so much. I work hard though, I really do. Last year I auditioned and got an ongoing part in an NBC soap opera “Another World.” I played the part of Josie, a gum snapping teenage prostitute--I had a pimp named Silk, fancy clothes, long nails, shiny shoes and in the story line I had been to juvenile detention and was on my way to the slammer if I didn’t straighten up and fly right. Oh, it was a lot of fun! It beat playing the girl next door, or the girlfriend of the boy next door, all of which is why the experience of working on a legit play like this one would be good for me, good for my career. I open the script. I close the script. Gil and I are feeling so deliciously mellow--even right now--that I would almost prefer not to work on the script. This is very weird. Gil narrows his niggly eyes and scans my emotional state. I open my script and get back to work.

Gil did help me get this audition. He’s worked as a director in the theatre world for many, many, many years. He’s a big shot here, LA, and in Chicago. Gil knows a lot of people who know a lot people. He’s also one of the best teachers of life I could ever hope to have. He talks to me, he listens to me, and he has this incalculable method of drawing me out of myself. I’m sometimes astonished at some of the things I’ve said and done with him. I guess it is all part of getting in touch with my feelings, which, since I am an actress, is a good thing. Anyway, he wouldn’t have recommend me if he didn’t think I was good, which I am, so there’s nothing to worry about. If I do get the part it will be the first time I will be working on a project that he won’t, in some way or other have a say over, or attachment to; I’m looking forward to that, and of course he knows it. Actually, interestingly enough, he seems to be the one who has been worrying. I bite the head off of the gummi-snake, lean back on my chair, look up at the ceiling fan, and rock myself back and forth.

A half-full bottle of red wine, a bowl of grapes, a burning jasmine-scented candle, and remnants from our leisurely dinner are placed like a C├ęzanne still life on the rustic table that separates us. It is late, about one or so. Miles is playing in the background and I am naked but warm in his green flannel shirt that fits me like a dress. The wall to my left is ceiling high with books. The wall to my right is adorned with posters and framed tapestries. Trinkets from his travels are everywhere. The screen that divides the kitchen from the living area is covered in a chestnut colored embroidered silk. The cold November wind outside is rattling the flimsy windows of his old loft; it is fighting to get to where it is warm and cozy. It wants what I want. Who doesn’t?

I wrap my arms around my knees. Soon, very soon, I will cozy up next to him in bed. I hum “Girl From Impanema” and think about how nice it is to be surrounded by such sophistication. I am only twenty-three years old yet I feel insanely mature. I must be mature if I am living with a man so much older than me. It can’t help but rub off--I wonder if by the time I’m thirty I’ll have accumulated as many nice things as he has. But that’s light years away, right now it’s super fascinating to be surrounded by things from a man who has lived in the whole wide world. Oh, to be in love.

My attention is now undivided, as I stare at his bare feet. They stick out from the blanket at the bottom of the bed. I watch him use his cracked, calcified and yellowed, big toenail to scratch his calf. He skillfully avoids the small globules of clotted blood that are sutured gaily around his ankles, like purple barnacles. These particular veins of his are not as intriguing as his other veins. And yet I study them all, I like to touch them, kiss them, lick them and put my ear to them. I close my eyes and feign a yawn. What is sex going to be like tonight? I wonder. There he is. He is fifty-three, six feet three, and two hundred twenty pounds. He is lying on the bed, and wearing a die-hard serious look on his face. In comparison to me, he’s a giant, but I’m not afraid of giants. I’m tough. And besides, he’s crazy about me. I close one eye and gently hurl another gummi-snake across the room, a long green one. It lands on his belly. Getting closer, I blush. He smiles, and drapes the worm into his mouth. The light from the halogen lamp reflects his balding bulbous head and makes it shine in spots-squiggly blue tendrils run up the side of his right temple. With my eyes, I trace the bulging veins on his forearm, and images of last night rush into my head. I cross my legs and squeeze them tight. I must concentrate on my work.

Instead I look at the phone and I am grateful that it is too late for any outsiders to call in for Gil and take him away from me. Gil doesn’t let me answer the phone yet, and I don’t really know anyone, not well enough anyway, to call, so I don’t. Gil says that if I never spoke to anyone ever again, well that would be fine with him. That makes me feel exclusive, like I’m a player in some secret game of his, which is cool because I love games. Not everyone in the world is special enough to be in on a secret. This is my home now. I cherish moments like these. In silence, everything is safe. Everything makes sense and feels blissfully uncomplicated when he and I are quiet. Words can really trip us up.

I am not a big talker like other actresses. I know that, but that’s ok when I am with Gil, because it means that I am a good listener. My last boyfriend Richard helped me to understand this. He said that coming from a large family like mine with seven brothers and two sisters he could understand why I didn’t talk much but that in time I would get better. When I was a dancing ballet professionally nobody cared if I spoke or not; all my teachers and choreographers cared about were my lines, speed and weight so it is not like I had all that much practice. But now, I have help from all over: my acting teacher for one, Oh she is very grand. She stood up from her chair one day in class as though she were Cleopatra and Mussolini combined, she raised her arms, and said, “Daahling, you must fill the air with your words.” And she was right. Madame Adler was always right. Talking can be fun now, especially if I’m using the words of Tennessee Williams, Chekhov and O’Neil. Oh yes, I feel very adult as I sit here studying my character’s motivations, while at the same time, my boyfriend is surreptitiously studying mine. It just proves the point that you don’t need words to make a scene alive.

Gil places his book on his belly and stares at me. I feel his gaze on me and I like that he has caught me in a responsible moment. I consider using my studious pose for an upcoming scene. I furrow my brow for greater effect. He takes his glasses off and crosses his arms on his chest. He is looking at me, no, he is gazing at me ... no, not quite that. He is staring at me, certainly, but ... he is doing more than that, most definitely ... yes, I am being analyzed. It’s just like what my father does, as though I were a specimen in one of his whack-ass science experiments.

“I can see what you’re going to look like when you’re an old woman,” Gil says as he uncrosses his legs, and props himself up, high against the pillows.

“What?” I say.

“Your face; under that light. I know what your grandmother looked like.”

“What are you talking about? I’ve never even seen my grandmother. She died before I was born.”

“Your bone structure ...” he persists calmly.

“Really, what will I look like?” I ask.

“Older,” he says.

“Humph,” I say. I roll my eyes and think about the shrunken face that in time will be mine. “What do I look like now?” I ask.

He strokes his chin. “You look like you need me to be inside of you. You look like you want me to take you on the rocking chair. You need me.”

He is right, that is what I want. Is that what I need though? Well, yeah, maybe, I guess he is right about that too. He has no bones about cutting to the chase. I respect someone who can say the obvious. But who is in charge here? I cross my legs. I take a worm out of the bag, and bite off its head. As I chew, inspiration strikes.

“Sometimes I feel I can hear the way you listen.” I say smugly.

“Oh really, and how is that?” he replies with a delighted interest in his eyes. An interest I decide needs milking by performing. I sway my head and hands like a metronome as I speak. “Relevant, relevant, irrelevant, relevant, irrelevant. Like that.” I bite the tail of the worm into three sections, and wait for his response. A serious two seconds goes by. Come on, Mister.

“I listen for what’s important,” he says.

“According to who?” I ask.

“To whom,” he corrects. “You’d be a better actress if you were a better listener and certainly a less unnerving girlfriend if you didn’t wire your brain with all that sugar. How many gummi-worms have you eaten tonight?”

I sweep my head dramatically to the right, giving him my profile. I pause. The gummi-worm topic bores me and the actress topic annoys me. Let the games begin!

“I’m going to say something right now, and when I’m done, I want you to tell me what the important words are. Okaaaay? One, two, three ....”

“I shouldn’t have let you leave the table without finishing your dinner ....”

“No sex tonight,” comes coolly out of my mouth. A serious, almost dangerous silence grips the space between us. Our eyes lock together and I feel close to him. I feel powerful and alive. If we were on a stage right now the audience would be at the edge of their chairs waiting for the next line, the next bit of business. I rub my eyes nonchalantly before I continue. “Ok, so when you listened to what I said just then, what did you hear? And which of those two words was relevant: sex, or no?”

He opens his book and turns the page. I wait. He’s buying time by dismissing me, a classic Gilbert move. The phone on his desk to the right of me rings loudly. I jump. A ringing phone in a large loft at night is startling. I decide, before thinking about the consequences, that I am going to answer it. I stand up. We stare at each other with animal stupidity. I inch forward and with needle precision he says,

“Don’t.”

I hesitate. I relax my stance but cross my arms over my chest. “Why don’t you let me ever answer the phone. It’s after midnight.” I say as the phone rings again. I stare at it, hoping my gaze will burn through the force field between me-and-it. I shift my weight and examine my fingernails, which quite frankly could use a polish.

“I think it’s weird, I protest! I live here. I told Richard about you not letting me use the phone and he thinks ....”

“When did you see Richard?” Gil asks jealously. “You would have been a Park Avenue Bimbo married to a Wall Street Zombie if it weren’t for me. I saved your life.”

I missed Richard more than ever. So what if we fucked instead of made love. He was my best friend. I want to scream this but something in Gil’s look scares me. I back down,

“He called me when you weren’t here. Just one time, I answered the phone once when you weren’t home. I did it just once--promise, “ I say meekly.

The phone rings a fourth time and in a last ditch effort to hold onto my dignity, I take a step towards the phone but stop short before picking it up and then turn my back to it, as if I could care less, but awkwardly.

“Who’s calling so late?” I ask. “And why don’t YOU pick it up?” Trying to deflect his attention and induce some normalcy into our elliptical argument. I stare at the phone as it rings a fifth and last time. A deafening silence ensues. I slump in my chair and wrap my arms around my legs, defeated, in this round. I want to tell him that I hate him and that I wish him dead. Instead I say,

“Why don’t you get a regular phone? Nobody has a rotary phone anymore. It’s too loud. It’s not modern.”

His face drops. What just happened. I did it again. Don’t panic. I need to think. I’ve hurt him, I hate myself. Okay let me start over. I love myself (I am testing this out). I did hurt him, I think, or maybe it’s a ploy to make me feel sorry for him; with him I can never tell. He told me it is crime. Hurting people is a crime. He said he is going to reform my criminal mind and diletantte ways. I thought it sounded cool, at least. And then he says he wants to share his life with me. As if there is an urgency to decide. He does share. He shares what he has. That is true. Whatever he has he shares. Except for his peanut butter--that he won’t share. He’s got this thing with the peanut butter. I hate his dumb organic peanut butter anyways. He’s such a baby. He is so full of them. Words. And yet, he looks like a hurt nine-year old boy whose mother just scolded him for being in the way. Oh I just hate it when he gives me that look, it is so confusing. I wish I was like my friend Ruth, she is the captain of her ship.

The rain has lightened up, or stopped. A group of pigeons huddle and are coo-cooing on the ledge outside the window. I catch a glance of myself in the mirror. I have the same petrified look in my face that the little red wolves had when they heard a click from my brothers BB gun. They stood wide-eyed and stiff, as if someone had pressed the pause button, disrupting their nightly pursuit of terrorizing the pheasants, peacocks, chickens and roosters in the nice pens that my father built in our back yard.

My mind is going a million miles an hour thinking of a way to escape but I can barely nod my head “uh huh” because every sight, sound and gesture is so magnified it hurts to move. I do what I always do in situations like this, I start counting. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 ... tandu, plie, tandu, plie ....

I look at Gil’s large nose, his thin lips and the reddish sagging delicate flesh of his cheeks and neck. He could have been a hen in another life. He reminds me of Eddie in A View from the Bridge. Maybe I can use the moment for my audition tomorrow. 



Suzanne Dottino' photo

Suzanne Dottino received her MFA in writing (nonfiction) from Columbia University. Her work has appeared in The American, http://www.theamericanmag.com/article.php?article=2817&p=9 Esopus.com, Heeb.com, The Bloomsbury Review, The Brooklyn Rail, Brooklyn Review, Portable Muse. Her plays have been produced at The Culture Project, Artists of Tomorrow Festival, Horsetrade Theater and was a finalist in the Samuel French Short Play Competition. She is the Literary Director for Sunday Night Fiction Series at KGB Bar.

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