Thursday, December 28, 2006

Reviewing Innocence

Working out a long-since inconsequential act of weirdness in 1994. Feel free to visit parts I, II and III and play along at home.

1987 to 1992. Let’s move on.

Want more details? There’s remarkably little. I attended York University in the film program at around the same time that I stopped thinking that the events in my life might make an interesting movie. Go figure.

I was there just before the digital revolution (we were still using linear editing suites, cutting 16mm workprints by hand and using Betacams for the most part). I did some acting in University productions (which apparently don’t count), in some Fringe and Summerworks shows (which, to some, do count), and finished up my credits at U of T taking a Philosophy of World Religion course along with the Philosophy of Sex (I figured that one course would balance the other out quite nicely). I won’t mention the fact that the Philosophy of Religion prof was later thrown out of U of T for (among other things) being a cult leader in his spare time since that would just be cheap.

University must have been a success since I graduated with the degree I wanted. Of course it was the early 90’s, the economy was still in full lousy mode. The tech boom was a few years away. The Zelda saga picks up when I was working in a well known retail chain where I introduced fellow staff members to ‘Mr. Biffy’, an aggressive sock which lived on my left hand and was my ticket to being labeled insane and thus kept in the stockroom where I would not be bothered with customers. It actually worked marvelously.

It was during the glorious T-shirt folding days (and let the record state I could cut a mean crease) when I met Zelda at a kinda-sorta high school reunion. It wasn’t a reunion proper, it just happened to be an anniversary of the start of the performing arts wing of my high school. Alumnae were invited to visit.

At the time I was convinced that it was the last thing in the world I needed, but it turned out to be very therapeutic. The post-ceremony pub evening offered the solace of shared experience. A one time musician (now sound engineer) stood up and said to the recent university grads (or non-grads):

“Okay, show of hands…who’s unemployed?”
(an impressive forest of palms)

“Looking good. Now who feels under-employed?”
(more hands, I joined their number)

(a few enthusiastic hands)

(a few resigned, if adamant hands)

“Living in sin?”
(back to the enthusiastic hands)
…and so on. Zelda was there, offered a warm hug, a few pints of beer and gave me her new address, and we were back to corresponding and meeting for coffee when she came to town.

This takes us from 1992 to 1994. I’ll skip the details of the letters but they could not be seen as intimate or even vaguely flirty. She had broken up with the high school boyfriend, was seeing a guy in Albany (where she was doing some Veterinary work) and wasn’t entirely happy with her situation.

Nor was I. I had been seeing a woman I’m going to call Louise for a long time and have nothing negative to say about her in his forum, or in any forum. Our particular story isn’t unfamiliar to the universe I’m sure - we were together for a long time. We changed. Things became difficult despite the best efforts of all involved. And that story has nothing to do with Zelda, other than the fact Zelda arrived a few months after Louise and I were no longer a couple.

I had been delivered from retail folding duties into a day job in software. I had written around 300 pages of dialogue and mission scenarios for an outer-space adventure game, and had the weird thrill of hearing my dialogue delivered by a cast of actors in a studio somewhere in California (the game, alas, was past its best-before date in technological terms by the time it was ready for release and was quietly shelved). The company had R&D money and all was well for awhile, but this R&D cash eventually ran low and the company was close to selling some products to an investor which was almost a sure thing, but wasn’t…quite…together…

…and the paycheques dropped to around half of what they were initially. It took care of the rent. And sometimes some groceries. That’s about it.

I won't blame my boss - he knew what was happening and what he was asking of his staff, and a job in software looks a hell of a lot better on a CV than retail or dragging cables on Due South or videotaping weddings. So we all bit the bullet and carried on. He was optimistic but honest when approached for dough:

Koyla, are we getting paid on the 15th?”

“Yes. On the 15th. Well, on-ish.”

“On-ish. So, the 15th-ish.”

“No no, on-ish the 15th. It’s a bit like the Amish. The on-ish.”

“How so?”

“Er…I’ll get back to you on that. On-ish the 15th or so. But let’s talk about the Amish instead. They eschew material goods, did you know that? A fine example to us all…”

And so on. Repeat until you realize that no cheque is forthcoming.

I wasn’t broke, but I was damn close to it. I was in a better mental state as a professional writer than I was as a professional t-shirt folder, but the stability/viability of the writing gig was very much up in the air. And the break up with Louise (and the firm conviction that I was not going to talk about it with anybody since it was none of their business) left me ...bitter might sum it up. Frustrated. The sense that a lot of time had been wasted and not being sure exactly what would have fixed the situation, sickeningly sure that the differences between us were decidedly irreconcilable.

I was still acting occasionally. I had appeared in and co-produced a two-hander as a benefit for an AIDS hospice the year before, and when Judy (a friend of Louise who continued to speak to me, for awhile at least, after the breakup) asked me to appear in another two-hander that she was directing, I thought it would be a good opportunity to do something that didn’t feel like being broke, lonely or bitter.

A good theory, at least. On the first day of rehearsal, Judy brought me a garbage bag filled with shirts, sweaters, a few books, some CDs. “Louise asked me to bring these back to you,” she said, with the distinct air of somebody who wants nothing to do with the fallout that such an act might incur.

I didn’t blame Judy but wasn’t impressed with Louise. “These aren’t mine,” I said. “I gave all these to her. She can keep them or throw them away. They weren’t on loan. They’re hers.”

Judy looked pained, and I didn’t want to put her in the middle of anything. I didn’t think that Louise or I were quite at the stage to scream something like ‘Are you telling me that these things aren’t good enough for you now that I’ve had them?’ into a telephone, but there had been a few truly awkward phone calls and that kind of response didn’t seem entirely impossible.

For that matter, the mature thing on my part would have been to quietly thank Judy for the delivery, speak of it no further and drop the bag into the nearest Goodwill box for distribution to those who required long sleeved t-shirts, heavy-knit sweaters or a copy of Tom Stoppard’s ‘The Real Thing.’ But I said “You can keep it. All of it. Or give it away to somebody who needs it. Or throw it out. It’s not mine. I can’t take it. Sorry. It's not mine.”

So much for not feeling bitter.

Judy sighed and kept some of the sweaters and probably gave the rest away. I was well on my way to deciding that I was either wrong for the part and that I didn’t want to deal with the woman she’d cast in the second role since I didn’t know her very well and had the distinct feeling that she didn’t like me very much. I wasn't fond of myself at the time, so at least we'd have something to chat about during the forthcoming cold, brittle, and seemingly pointless rehearsals.

To top it all off, after rent, phone and hydro I had around $100 to get through the month. $100 in 1994 was around as much as $100 is in 2006 in that it is not a lot to get through a month with. The only high point was being taken to a preview screening of The Age of Innocence, which is a film that’s much easier to admire than to actually enjoy.

But if you like Wharton, or have a weakness for strangled-passion films (or just for Michele Pfeiffer), there’s something wistful and beautifully sad about it. The short version - Newland Archer manages to find the love of his life and lose her due to propriety and society. And yeah, this is a rather simple reading of the book/film.

Call me a sentimentalist, the sense of longing in it is palpable, and reminded me that I was not happy at the time, and reminded me of lying around not kissing Zelda years before and getting a too-long hug from her months before and maybe…in all those letters…something was in the subtext. From either side.

Not a lot to go on.

And one of the weirder moves of my life up until then, and feeling inexplicably like Newland Archer (mostly the throttled repressed part), I sent her a letter with one of the better reviews of The Age of Innocence. I think I underlined this passage:

For him (Newland) it is a tragedy, because he has been made aware of joys anticipated, delayed, crushed. Frequently he rewrites the tryst in his mind: one moment when Ellen might have caressed him, another when she could have turned around, smiled and changed his life.

I also remember writing “You should see the movie, it’s a good version of the Wharton novel and maybe we can both relate to it.”

Let’s call the above exchange some kind of a leap. Into what, I don’t know. Maybe just the idea that Zelda would read it and understand that if there was an unspoken chemistry or attraction, maybe one of us should clear their throat and see what happens.

Oblique? Hell, yeah. I was 25. I thought that if she understood it, then maybe there was something out there worth coming to Toronto for.

Or in simpler terms, sum it up to the fact that reaching out for something that might be out there was better than being lonely. I’m not saying any of this makes sense or was the smart thing to do or was even sensible. It was what felt like sense at the time, at least as far as leaps of faith go.

And she came less than 2 weeks later, which led to an afternoon, which led me to standing at the Bus Depot wondering whether or not to go to Albany. But there’s still a lot left between point A and B. With patience, all will be revealed. And if you're lucky it might get a little blue.

Click here for part V. And it doesn't really get blue at all.


Mr. Knight said...

It appears that I missed something when I was out west. And you think that you know someone....
Still feel strange reading this, but do go on.

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