[I] may be crazy but I'm the closest thing I have to a voice of reason.

12 April 2010

Blues for an Indian Summer

Here’s what I learned today:
Sometimes love itself is worth more than the thoughts that others create about it.

I know that in my friendship with Jose I knew this truth in a way that I never questioned and I thought I would always know it, but today when I heard those words I was stopped short by the realization that I had, indeed, forgotten. Worse, I had turned my back on this truth. I haven’t quite recovered from that, and so I have little, no, really nothing to say about tonight’s installment, but I can say this. The shamanic work I have been engaged in these past six months has intensified to the point that I am mostly speechless about it. No one could believe what I am in the middle of. I hardly believe it myself. It was the same in my last six months with Jose. Just as I could never have predicted that I would be here, I could never have predicted what my journey with Jose would turn out to be. I just went, consequences and whatever the rest of the world thought be damned.

Here is part three of Chapter 4 of The Movie Lovers.


It was an Indian summer the first time Cliff and I stayed the weekend with Frank and Jose and our first afternoon was sun-soaked, luxuriously hot, languorous, and a little sad; not in spite of the sunshine but because of it. A short drive from their Mount Hood home that day brought the four of us to a wild spot where bushes grew thick with purple berries, huckleberries by the handful. Fanning out under the slanted sun, we began picking and very quickly found our containers full. We pooled our harvests and went out for a second time and a third. We picked till Jose was saying to Frank, for the second or third time, “I need to rest.” Even at this early stage in our friendship, when he was still healthy enough to pick wild berries and to weed his hillside garden, Jose was easily fatigued. It didn't help matters that Jose's brown skin broadcasted health and vitality; no one could believe he was sick. But I heard him, quietly almost to himself, saying "I need to rest," and I became his champion. Because of this, Jose told me things he couldn't tell his lover, things he couldn't tell his mother, things he needed to say but which, in his attempt at telling them, came out as nonsense to other people's ears. "It's the dementia," they would later say, and as he lay dying they said, "He's out of it. He doesn't know what he's saying," but I knew it was only that they couldn't hear him. So I became his voice. And I found that I was calmed by the sound of it rising from my throat, forming clear, delicately enunciated words on my lips.

The week that I learned we were no longer caring for a terminally ill man -- "He's dying," the hospice nurse said, as if her words could make us believe it -- was the week Jose quit speaking. That night, as water rushed and pots banged in the next room where Jose’s mother vigorously washed her sorrow along with the dishes, I sat by my barely conscious friend and listened to what would turn out to be his last words. Moonlight streamed in the south-facing window as Jose’s arms and legs threshed the bed, his heels moving back and forth as if he were going somewhere, and his breath coming out in little pants. Suddenly he cried out, "Why is it so hard?" I just stood there, not knowing what to say. More agitated, louder, though not loud enough to draw anyone’s attention but mine, he cried out again, "Why is it so hard?!" All I could do was say "What's hard, baby?" All he could do was repeat the question. So I promised to help him figure it out, and he quit talking. To me. To anyone.

In the year after Jose’s death, Cliff and I visited Garrett in the hospital room from which he would go directly into hospice. He lay sprawled over and around white sheets, skin bare, his thinning hair pushed into a kewpie curl, and as I regarded this man now become a doll, body wasted away but calves still chorus-girl beautiful, I recalled that Indian summer afternoon in the foothills of Mount Hood: how we all smelled of sun and summer dust when we returned to the house; how Jose, wearing white, looked the least marked by our hip-wading through the brambles; how Garrett, arriving late, immediately baked the marble-sized berries into a pie; and how we gobbled that pie as soon as it was cool, finishing it off for breakfast the next morning. I remembered that after Jose had rested and Cliff had finished a cigarette we crossed to the south side of the road where the bushes grew thick and close, the trees towered broad and high, and the land dipped and rose suddenly like the sea. We waded deeper into the forest, separated now, tossing the breadcrumbs of our voices.

Where are you?
This way.
Here, Jose. We're over here.

Picture this: The Movie House, one of my favorite places on the planet. On the street, a black and white awning marks an understated entrance into what was once a women’s social club. Inside and to the right popcorn is sold at a tiny counter. To the left a broad staircase mounts to a spacious double parlor: wicker furniture, chessboards, high-class magazines, back-to-back twin fireplaces; deluxe; arrive early, sip tea, be seen. Just off the parlor, and not much bigger, is a theater whose bright orange seats are as hard on the backside as the color is on the eyes, but next Cinema 21 The Movie House is my favorite film venue. It is the first theater where I got to make out with a boy I had a crush on, the first theater where I enjoyed soft chewy Milk Duds, having previously had only the jaw breaking variety at lesser cinemas, and the first theater where I learned to enjoy the pleasure of my own company.

The first movie I went to alone was just out of high school. La Cage Aux Folles is a French flick about a gay couple confronted with the necessity of appearing "normal" in front of the parents of their son's fiancée; her father is deputy minister of morality, or some such, and the boy's father owns a nightclub in which the boy's other father performs in sequins, heels, and the not unoccasional feather boa. I'd been a fan of French cinema since my ninth grade French teacher took the entire class to see Cousin Cousine, so while I was teenager raised in the suburbs, subtitles didn't seem odd. A foreign culture didn't seem odd. No, what seemed odd was going alone. To a girl raised in the suburbs, going alone to a movie meant that you were somehow deficient, not sociable, not desirable, not . . . right. A loner. I'd tried to get my boyfriend to go. Tried to get my best friend to go. Tried my sister who had seemed so happy to have me living at home again. Even tried my mother. No, No, No, and No. I resisted going alone, I did, but in the end a movie was what I wanted. So I turned up the AM radio and steered my '64 Bel Air wagon toward what felt like the wilds of downtown.

I don't recall why I chose La Cage Aux Folles or why I decided to see it at The Movie House, only that I had the best time I'd ever had at the movies. I went again. This time I took my boyfriend and two more friends: all boys, all straight, and all stone-faced throughout the movie. Not even a grin. As for me, when la femme of the couple, the drag queen chanteuse, la maman, the swish-and-dish flaming better half shrieked in horror or surprise or delight, I shrieked; the man was a scream. (Yes, Nathan Lane and Robin Williams are funny in the later American remake, but I say it is impossible to be as funny as the French.) My friends didn’t seem to get the joke. I tried translating the quirky French humor, thinking that the French sensibility might need more explanation for American high school boys. Straight boys, all of them -- ah, the part I hadn’t considered -- and they shrugged off my translations with the same indifference they shrugged off a movie about a gay cross-dressing cabaret act. For my part, I shrugged off friends who thought the world turned only one way and became, until Jose, my own favorite movie partner.

I suppose it is worth saying here that high school for me was a long time ago, and so the time that I first saw La Cage Aux Folles was also a long time ago. Things that barely raise an eyebrow now could blow the average person out of his socks then. So, for all I know, this movie experience of mine doesn’t translate either. I think perhaps we do not realize how many things must come together for understanding to occur. That blessed state of understanding and being understood, not needing translation, is something we all experience too rarely and something I had so much of with Jose.

Over the years, taking myself to the movies became my primary source of solace, my cure for all discomforts from boredom to desire to heartbreak, and especially for loneliness. In college, I spent a term off campus with a group of students in New York City. I loved roaming the city and searching out new places to hang out and write on the cost of a single cup of coffee, but in many ways I remained lonely, displaced, homesick. When it got to be too much, I would take myself to the movies. One night I saw a movie that was set in the very city that had me pining for home but, and this shows how great a narcotic movies are for me, I laughed so hard and fell into the story so completely that I forgot: forgot my dingy residential hotel room, forgot the other students with whom I never managed to connect, forgot the darkness and the cold and the rain outside, forgot the entire city of New York. I was happy. When the movie was over and the credits rolled, I was still laughing, laughing and walking past Cliff's apartment on the way to my own, in my head anyway. Then the house lights came up and I rose to leave. That’s when it hit me: three thousand miles. This wasn't Cinema 21. Home wasn't a dozen blocks away. There would be no easy way home.

In February, the grayest, rainiest, crankiest month in western Oregon, my favorite place to watch movies is at the Portland International Film Festival. Jose’s the one who got me started, and while he and I usually went for the foreign films -- we could see a movie in English any time -- our final year included a British flick, a comedy. The Movie House was filled with people and with laughter, but whenever Jose leaned over to whisper that question moviegoers ask each other all the time, “What'd he say?”, I didn’t have an answer. I didn’t know. At first I blamed the trouble on language, American English versus British English, but no one else seemed to be having trouble with that. Then I tried listening harder, but nothing helped me understand the words. In retrospect, I know all too well this feeling of syllables sliding past without spaces, without markers to delineate the shape and sound that we call words. Not many years after this movie with Jose, I became so ill that the effects of the depression and the side-effects of the drugs I took for the depression slid all things together like raindrops into puddles. I could hear the voices of friends and know that these sound vibrations connected into discreet words with distinct meanings, but my ears could not translate. In the theater that day with Jose something was wrong, I knew it, I just didn’t know what. It wasn’t our hearing. It wasn’t the language. And it wasn’t because Jose or I resisted the picture of life that was playing on the screen before us, as my high school friends had, but we were resisting. As Jose neared his own closing credits, as his senses began to fail, as body and mind became brittle with premature age, we resisted the admission that we were losing each other.

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