Gabrielle pulls up to a Conoco gas station. “I need to use the restroom. You need anything?”
“Some Diet Coke. Maybe a hot dog or something.”
She gives me the full-drama head tilt. “I’ll take a look at the bathroom, too, I guess. I’m not serious about the hot dog, by the way. Should we get a map?”
“We don’t need a map,” Gabrielle says.
“Okey doke. I’m just the passenger here.”
She holds the gas hose high, sights down the nozzle at me like a gun, then feeds the nozzle into the Range Rover, fastening the trigger lock. We walk inside.
There’s a fight going on. Two guys are flinging stuff at each other. The guy behind the counter is maybe fifty. He has a shaved head and rheumy eyes that leak. He squints our way. There are a few rogue hairs sprouting on the front of his head and a bulbous nose. If you put a derby on him he’d look like Mr. Magoo. A package of Twinkies flies past my cheek. I step out of the line of fire.
“We’re closed, pal,” says the Twinkies-tosser. He’s a smallish guy with brown stringy hair, wearing a dark blue mechanic’s uniform with “Romeo” stitched in yellow above his heart. He’s standing in the aisle of the convenience store, reaching for more Hostess products.
“Then why is the gas pump running?” Gabrielle says.
“Maybe we should come back another time,” I say, steering Gabrielle back toward the door.
“The fuck we will. I need to use the bathroom,” Gabrielle says, removing my hand from her shoulder.
“Don’t listen to Romeo, there,” says Magoo. “We ain’t closed. We just trying to reach a friendly understanding, here.”
Romeo flings another Twinkies, catching Magoo in the Adam’s apple. Magoo coughs, then spits, and picks the cellophane package carefully off the floor. He sets the package next to the cash register, and reaches for the telephone.
“Now look here, asshole, you got two choices. You can get your ass outta this store or you can tell your troubles to the Sheriff.”
Romeo launches a box of donuts.
“Fellas,” Gabrielle says, “excuse us. We’re going to use the bathroom now. Feel free to continue activities without us. Come, Jake.” She pulls me along by the arm.
The bathrooms are behind the beer walk-in, down a short grimy hallway that is dimly lit. There’s a woman sitting on a plastic milk crate in front of the men’s room with her hands dangling from her knees, her head down. I say excuse me, please. Nothing. She looks up, finally, and then rocks her crate half a foot sideways.
My cell rings while I’m at the sink washing up. I wipe my hands on my pants, then answer. It’s Anna.
“Can I talk to Mom?”
“Don’t you have her cell number?”
“Duh. She’s not picking up. Can you go get her, please?”
“Wait a minute,” I say to the phone. “Excuse me,” I say to the milk crate woman, who has slid back into place in front of the door. She’s dishwater blonde with a rode-hard-put-up-wet look to her, but with trace elements of sadness. She glances at me and slides back a few inches.
“Who are you talking to?” Anna says.
“Never mind,” I say into the phone. “Wait a minute.” I knock on the door to the women’s room and crack it open. “Anna’s on the phone.”
“Be right out,” Gabrielle calls.
“She says she’ll be right out,” I say.
“Where are you guys?” Anna says.
“We’re in a Conoco station,” I say.
“Jake! Try to focus here. Where are you in relation to Telluride, in relation to when the hell you’re getting back here? Your pal Henry and his girlfriend Kate have gone to bed. It’s after eleven. I’m bored beyond belief. You don’t want to see me bored, trust me. I’m disassembling things.”
“Un huh,” I say, nodding at Gabrielle, who has squeezed past the milk crate woman and is reaching for the phone. The woman glares at me, and starts writing on the wall with a tube of red lipstick.
“What’s the matter? Is my mom standing there?”
“Yes,” I say, mouthing just a minute to Gabrielle. The milk crate woman goes on writing.
“Um, your mom is out of the bathroom,” I say to Anna. “Here she is. We can talk later.”
“Wait! When are you guys coming home?”
“I’m not sure. We’re in Durango.”
“Durango? What the fuck! Let me talk to her.”
I hand over the phone. The crate lady has finished her work and moved on. On the wall she has written, “See how jealously they guard their nothing. God is hated here.”
Gabrielle stays to talk. I walk out alone. On the way to the car I see Magoo. He’s sitting in the Hostess aisle with Romeo’s head in his crotch. Romeo’s out cold.
“What happened to him?” I ask.
“What’s it look like? Shot him.” He holds up a tranquilizer gun.
I nod stupidly, as if people are tranquilized every day at the gas station. “What’s this all about?” I ask.
“He’s my brother-in-law. That’s his sister you keep stepping over. The rest of it ain’t your fucking business, if you understand what I’m saying.” He waves the gun like a wizard’s wand.
Romeo’s sister is waiting at the car. She’s dragged her crate in front of the passenger side door. There she sits. In the freakishly bright halogen light of the gas station canopy, looking closer, she looks like she’s received some regular beatings. Gabrielle spots us. She snaps her phone shut and walks over.
“What’s your name?” I ask her.
“Rhonda,” she says.
“What is it you want, Rhonda?”
“You got any money,” she says.
Gabrielle opens her purse. She pulls out two hundred-dollar bills and hands them to her. Rhonda takes up her crate and walks back into the store.
Magoo comes out to watch. Gabrielle reaches into the cylindrical trash can by the pump, finds a discarded high heeled shoe, and flings it at his head. He ducks, smiles and makes the mechanical half wave of beauty queens and politicians as we peel out.
We cross into New Mexico on US 84. After Durango, Gabrielle talks nonstop. About her ex, who is hooked up in some bad business—some high-wall white collar Greenwich crime that I can’t quite fathom. About her bitch goddess magazine editor with the signature blunt cut. Gabrielle has opinions about slimeball Magoo, and the unfortunately named Romeo, and Rhonda of Many Sorrows. She talks about her boyfriend Andrew, who had rented the Range Rover in Denver and driven the three of them to New Mexico for Anna’s Thanksgiving break from NYU, only to leave them there because of some business deal he had to wrap up in New York. Which is how she and Anna happened to be in Telluride on the night I met Anna at The Last Dollar Saloon, after I had finished my dinner with Henry and Kate.
“Andrew is being re-evaluated,” Gabrielle says. I nod and grip the oh-shit bar on the car ceiling, as she wheels into a turn on the highway. She talks about her job in the city and how she is coming to dread it, and her days as a rocker and her nights out with Deborah Harry and her Blondie mates.
Two things happen as she talks on into the night. Three, if you count me trying to calculate where in the hell we are going. First, I miss Anna. And second, I begin to understand where Anna comes from. Gabrielle is funny, tough, and beautiful. She’s whip smart, cutting, ironic, and very New York. She doesn’t ask about Anna, which I appreciate. She does ask about my wife, Frankie. For the fourth or fifth time this Thanksgiving week I try to explain my situation, and get exhausted. I throw up my hands. She doesn’t interrupt. She gives me that.
She takes her eyes off the road to look at me. I start to say something. She makes the hand motions for zip the lip.
We drive. I study the pavement. The road looks more and more attractive. I like how it lies there, mile after mile, year after year, how it serves the needs of others without complaint, the traveling citizenry, how it sees everything, but from its limited perspective. It was road. It knew what it was and didn’t try to be anything more than that. It was variable. It stuck to earth, or was suspended above water. It didn’t care about us, but still made itself available.
At two-thirty we enter the mineral springs resort at Ojo Caliente, not far from Taos. Gabrielle reaches into her purse and produces a key to a cliffside suite. “I never checked out,” she explains. I nod and head for the bathroom, rubbing my eyes.
She raps on the door and hands me a swim suit. “It’s Andrew’s. He left in a hurry. You’re the same size,” she says.
It’s a black Speedo and a perfect fit. I find a robe hung on the door and put that on too. She throws me some flip-flops.
Gabrielle hooks her arm through mine. We walk out into the clear New Mexico night. The door seals shut behind us. Our flip-flops slap the pathway. She wears a black bikini under her robe, and carries her purse on her high shoulders.
We enter a large iron pool. There is not a soul in sight. The warm water bubbles up beneath us, rising upward from an underground vault. A massive rock looms overhead. We shed our robes and dip beneath the steaming surface of the water.
Gabrielle reaches back to dig in her purse. She tells me to open my mouth, and then places what looks like a brown earthen button on my tongue and tells me to swallow. I do as she says.
“What is it?” I ask.
“Peyote.” She swallows a button, and fastens her purse.
“Fuck, Gabrielle, what’s this shit gonna do?”
“Relax. Slide back into it, Jake. You have to trust me, OK?”
We sit there and soak, studying our skin. She takes one of my hands in hers. We are three-handed. Our hands have tiny clear bubbles on them.
“The giant rock guards the place where the ancient people of the mesa once received food and water during times of famine. Native American lore. The iron in this pool prevents fatigue. It’s considered beneficial to the blood, and to your immune system.”
Braced against the side of the pool, we lie silently looking at the stone citadel thrust upward into the starry night. It looks like the Acropolis, a miniature city in stone. We take it in, our necks stretched up like tourists in Midtown Manhattan. Off in the distance a coyote barks. Our four legs, crooked in the water below, rest on the pebbled floor.
“I could use some immunity,” I say.
Gabrielle laughs. “If you’re referring to Anna, relax,” she says. “I actually encouraged her. I do pick up my cell phone calls sometimes, you know.”
I raise an eyebrow.
“She called just after you met, Jake. I trust her judgment,” Gabrielle says.
“You do?” I ponder this.
“Of course, she’s my daughter.”
“Uh huh. So how’d she do?”
Gabrielle punches my upper arm. “She did fine. She made a good choice. You’re harmless, Jake.”
“Thanks,” I say. “I think?”
“My ex may not see it that way, of course.”
We bump hips like salsa dancers under the slippery water, and she smiles. Anna was right about her mother, she has cover girl teeth. I like the way the skin of her mouth moves. Her lips part slowly, pulling up her cheekbones slightly.
“In Italy, the age of consent is sixteen,” she says.
“Besides, I was fourteen when I made it the first time,” she says.
“Four years younger than me,” I say.
“I was in Italy, actually. In Venice, with a museum guide at the Gallerie dell’Accademia, while my parents were gamboling somewhere in Verona. His name was Francesco. He took me to a back room where they were restoring a Tintoretto.”
“I was in America,” I say. “At prom. At a Westchester country club. I came in my cummerbund.”
Our laughter echoes off the rock. I feel my heart rate speeding up. The water, or the peyote, is making me perspire. My skin feels slick and metallic. Underwater, Gabrielle places one foot on top of mine. She has long narrow feet, like Anna’s, minus the black toenail polish.
“You’ve got feet like Anna’s,” I say. I think about that a minute. The peyote is slowing me down. “Oops. That didn’t come out right, and is probably inappropriate. Hers are like yours, I mean.”
“Yours are hairy,” she says.
“I forgot to shave.”
“There’s only hair on top of your feet, I hope.”
“Far as I know.” I pull my wrinkled foot up to eye level. It takes some effort. I let it plop back into the water. She reaches over and grabs it, pulling it into her watery lap.
Gabrielle sits up straighter in the pool. She lets go of my hand. She waits until our eyes make full contact.
“Anna likes you, Jake. You do understand that, right?”
“I do,” I say.
“And you like her too?” she asks.
“Very much,” I say.
Gabrielle twirls her hair a second. Then she stands, and pulls me up with her.
“See,” she says. “That’s what we’ve got to work on.”
Gabrielle steers me over to an old pump. She places a hand at the back of my neck, pushing my head down, and then pulls the pump handle. Water pools at my feet. She guides my head under the flowing water. I drink deeply.
“This is the Lithia spring,” she says.
When I’ve had enough she takes a long drink herself. We look back at the lighted pools, shimmering. Everything is lovely in the pale light of stars and moon.
Gabrielle steers me back to the room. We walk carefully. “The lithium,” she says, “relieves depression and aids digestion.”
We reach the room. I collapse on the bed. I see Gabrielle pour herself a pretty drink in a heavy glass. She opens wide the windows. A light breeze blows cool against my fevered skin. The breeze blows the curtains. I close my eyes and see sunken tubs with copper fixtures, linen rugs from Arabia, the red mountains of Sangre de Cristo, the lemon trees of Capri waving against the azure sky.
I wake at first light. Sitting next to me in the ruined bed is Gabrielle. She sits with her back against the wrought iron headboard in a black lace bra and unzipped jeans, smoking. She stares into the middle distance and listens, I am guessing, to the gentle beating of a drum, coming from somewhere outside.
This may be a dream. Or not an actual dream, but surely something with dreamlike features? A small bird flits in and out of the open window. At the base of the window lies a suitcase of snow. A twisted strip of bed sheet is knotted around my ankle. Gabrielle sits smoking more peyote. I hear her lungs work. It is snowing outside, and then it isn’t.
Gabrielle wants to know how my brother died. We lie in bed. The window is still open. A fire sputters in the fireplace. Our heads are clearing and my breathing has slowed. Gabrielle places a warm washcloth on my forehead. “Tell me,” she says.
“My father used to joke that Yonkers is the biggest city in the world next to New York. As a boy I would walk to the Yonkers Public Library. The library sat high above Broadway near Getty Square, at the opposite end of Broadway from where we lived, not far from the Bronx.”
Gabrielle listens while putting her hair up. Loose tendrils drop down, blonde against her pale cheeks. “I liked reading Hardy Boys detective stories. My sister preferred Nancy Drew. We played boy detectives, my friends and I, roaming the woods above the park looking for clues.”
“Clues,” Gabrielle says. I see her breath. Someone should close the window. Neither of us makes a move. Her breath smells of peppermint. The room smells of peyote.
“I took Frankie on this same walk up Broadway once. It was not long after we had married, and she’d been spooked by my family on Thanksgiving Day. We had just witnessed a loud Italian family argument at dinner. Frankie was spooked in general. Her people were Scandinavian non-talkers who settled in Pacific Palisades after the war, for some reason. They all looked like Thor, without weaponry. Frankie is all about LA, an actor slash slash. I met her in film school at UCLA. I was a visiting prof there one semester. She felt disoriented when we moved to New York. She complained that the ocean faced the wrong direction. I showed her the place in Yonkers, not far from the little park with the Lincoln statue, where I would go sleuthing with my friends.”
I stop there, remembering that day in Yonkers. On the walls of the blasted rock cliff above our heads, lupine and snapdragons hung like garlands. I had explained to Frankie that day how sometimes on these adventures, away from my friends, I would look up at the big stone house on the hill on Prospect Drive where I was born and wonder why my family moved. The bare outline of the story was familiar to me. I learned later that there were parts missing. My grandfather owned the big house on the hill, but he surprised everybody one day by deciding to move to Miami. I never understood why. It was after my brother died. The big Park Hill house where I was born was sold.
“You all lived together in the house?”
“It wasn’t unusual back then. My parents were first generation Italian-Americans. When Grandfather left, my parents and us kids moved to a cramped apartment on Stanley Avenue, not far from the Hudson. My older brother died on the street outside that apartment one morning. He was hit by a drunk driver. It destroyed my mother. We watched her lose her mind a piece at a time. My father cut her down from the basement beam where she hung herself one day. I got to watch.”
Gabrielle adjusts the washcloth, passing one manicured finger across my forehead like a wiper blade. She reaches over and kisses me lightly on the lips.
What I don’t tell Gabrielle is that Frankie stopped dead in her tracks that day I took her for a walk on Broadway. “Think about it, Jake,” she had said. “Maybe you were doing all that reading and sleuthing for a reason. Things didn’t add up.” In the long history of our marriage it was the truest thing she had said.
Gabrielle gets up to fix us some drinks. We lie in bed, under the covers, with the bedspread pulled up to our necks.
“Tell me about your filmmaking career, Jake,”
“Not much to tell,” I say. “Not long after I met Frankie I landed a contract with a studio for a new film on the strength of a couple early shorts that caused a minor sensation at Sundance.”
“But you never made the film.”
“Nope. Hollywood is just a bank. I mean, I had no idea. I made my first two movies with actors doing their own makeup and hair, for chrissake. For cityscapes, I didn’t want the street blocked off for the shoot. The look I was after was uninflected images, one after the other, coming into the scene late and exiting early, with the story told in the cuts. I didn’t want the actors isolated in separate trailers, distracted and bored, then trying too hard to be interesting. I wanted to work my way again, but I was told repeatedly that this was impossible.”
Gabrielle smiles. “Impossible is a popular word in Hollywood.”
“Oh shit, don’t get me started. There were fights with producers, location scouts, set designers, costumers, agents, unions, cinematographers, screenwriters, script doctors, and the studio legal department. I just wanted to make my fucking movie, you know? Finally, I walked, and was told, quote, I would never work in this town again. Another reason why I hate LA.”
“So what did you do next?”
“I tried my hand at conceptual art for a while, experimenting with an installation that involved erasure of cultural artifacts in New York, but couldn’t figure out how to make a living erasing things. UCLA asked me to teach screenwriting and directing one semester. Things kind of went from there.”
My throat hurts. I am tired of talking. I pull the covers off and go into the bathroom. Gabrielle calls Anna. I hear Gabrielle talking softly from the bed. I close the door.
In an interview at Sundance I was asked what my films were about and of course I said that they were about love, what else? By that I didn’t necessarily mean human love. My films were strangely depopulated. In the sketches and the stills and the dailies, there were often no people. Especially in the early scenes, I allowed the camera to linger on things in the room once the humans had made their exit. A scarf, a chair, a hanging shirt, the rumpled bed cover, the filament of a dimming light bulb—I wanted to create a world and sustain it with love. Apart from the human traffic, I was trying to portray the world that the characters inhabited and show how that world feels for the characters—how it feels for these characters to live these lives. I wanted my life to be as beautiful as art. In time I came to believe that beauty cannot return love. At the point that life got ugly, I lost interest in filming it, and then I just got bored. I sold my cameras and film equipment.
I used long tracking shots in my films, with jump cuts taken from the middle of long cuts, at first out of cost concerns, and mise en scene, which inevitably got the critics talking and comparing my work to Godard, Truffaut, and further back, Renoir. The voiceovers that I used were ambiguous, edited to create disorienting space that critics complained made no geographical sense, but I had in mind the mysterious geography of the heart.
I splash cold water on my face and study my appearance in the mirror. My eyes are red. The lines of my face have hardened around my mouth and eyes and chin, going deeper than I remember. I hadn’t looked for a while. The times in my life when I looked the best were always in airplane bathrooms. It’s the light, soft and recessed behind the mirror. It almost seems like your face is lit from behind, an old trick of the movies, to show you what you want to see, a less distressed version of you. Maybe it’s the FAA’s way of keeping everyone calm and centered in a fast-moving aluminum can at 38,000 feet.
I was not much of a student of film, but I knew what I wanted, and worked intuitively, trying to make films that pleased me, using images that had haunted or intrigued me since childhood. I couldn’t afford major stars, and cast young actors who were hungry and teachable. The two films that I made created two extended families—four weeks together had a profound effect on my relationships with these people. But I rarely saw any of them again. When I left, I left. We are always leaving something—whether we know it or not. I try to get out ahead of it.
Hours pass. The fire has gone out but the window remains open. Gabrielle presses her chest to mine. We’ve shared our histories and we’re in that awkward phase now, where at any given point in the story nothing necessarily follows and anything plausible may.
“About Anna,” I say.
She stuffs the cold washcloth in my mouth. “Not necessary,” she says.
I spit the washcloth. It tastes sour.
“It’s nothing. I mean, I don’t know. I don’t know what it means. But I need to tell you something. This is going to sound strange but when I was in grad school there was this girl I saw every day. We had a French class together. I sat in the back of the room and she sat in the front. Every day she wore a ripped pair of jeans and a T-shirt. Her hair was dark and long, half combed, and it swung in her face. She was throwing something off, there was something unusual about her that I couldn’t get, just watching her. So I took to following her, to see if I could speak to her. One day I saw her in the university cafeteria. She was alone, nursing her coffee, but I didn’t go up to her. I sat across the room and watched. Something in her was calling me but I didn’t know what.”
“So what happened?”
“Nothing happened. I just continued to be puzzled. And then one day I was going out of the library through the revolving door with my head down and I looked up and I saw my face looking back at me. It was me, watching me, except I looked again, and it was her.”
“You saw yourself in her.”
“No. I saw myself as her.”
I hand the washcloth to Gabrielle. She throws it in the direction of the bathroom. It lands funny, looking like a small white tent. We sit silent in the bed, our backs pressed to the headboard.
“Maybe she was your twin,” she says.
“It scared me. I mean, it was her body with my face. I walked away from her, and later I dropped the French class. I never saw her again.”
“You walked away from yourself. Is what you’re saying?”
“I don’t know what I’m saying.”
“I think you do, Jake. You’re saying it may have happened again. And that you’re going to walk away again. From Anna, my twenty-one-year-old daughter. Who, as we both know, is ridiculously too young for you.”
“That would be the plan,” I say. “Yes.”
Gabrielle pulls away to gain perspective as she looks at me closely. As she does this, the covers fall away. I reach down and pull the bedspread back up to my neck.
“And the mother?” she says. She yanks the bedspread off.
“The mother is a cover thief.”