The pot had finally dulled his guilt. For a few minutes he had forgotten about Hedda Chase; he was able to suspend, in a dark little bubble inside his brain, the truth about what he’d done to her and what might become of him as a result.
“Tell me about this wife of yours,” Tom said.
There were many nice things he could have said about Marion, but for some reason the only thing that came to his mind was, “My wife is a mouse.”
Tom laughed. “You married a mouse?”
“I’m leaving her,” Hugh said. “I don’t love her anymore.”
“That’s a good reason to leave. Love is a strange thing,” Tom said. “It can be fickle. It can disappear.”
“She doesn’t know it yet. When I get home—” His voice faltered and somehow he couldn’t finish the sentence.
Tom took him to a nightclub where strippers pranced around deerlike on a stage to canned music. Hugh found it depressing but acted like he was having fun. Tom was traipsing all over the place in his baggy suit, spilling his drink, kissing strangers on the mouth, and then wandered off somewhere into the back of the club. Hugh sat there, waiting for him to return. It was three o’clock in the morning; he was getting tired. For a split second, he found himself wishing he were at home, in bed beside his wife.
Those days are over, he thought.
When Tom came back he tossed something at Hugh—a little square ticket that said PAID on it. “Go for it, Tiger. She’s waiting for you.”
Tom nodded toward the back. “Room sixteen.”
Hugh sat there.
“Go on, man. You deserve it.” Tom waved over a waitress and ordered another round and started talking to someone he knew, a man with a shaved head in a black suit.
Hugh got up and shuffled down the carpeted incline toward the stage. You deserve it, he told himself. There was an odor—of sweat and perfume and something else—wet money. The woman in room sixteen didn’t speak any English. Her yellow skin turned green under the strange blue lights. “You like?” she said. “You like me?”
He told her he did, but he didn’t, not really. He didn’t like her at all. Still, he was curious. The room was very small, windowless. She put his ticket in a jar. He watched as she took off her clothes. He noticed a tiny snag in her stocking. He could hear her wheezing a little as she danced and he thought she must be a smoker. There were sounds all around, the kinds of sounds you hear at night, walking outdoors, sounds you cannot place. The woman, too, was like some kind of nocturnal creature, something you might catch in your headlights that gave you the willies.
When he got back to the table Tom was gone. Hugh looked around the club then went outside. There was no sign of his friend. It had gotten cool and he shivered. The night had been long and he suddenly felt lost—betrayed by the fact that Tom had left him there. In the cab back to Hedda Chase’s neighborhood, he began to cry. The driver glanced at him uneasily in the rearview mirror. Hugh had not cried for many years. Bad thoughts crowded his mind. He had the driver stop on Los Feliz Boulevard, several blocks from Chase’s street, and got out. He walked on the crooked sidewalks, hearing the insects, the keening of the overhead lamps. Her house was dark; there was nobody home. He stood there for a moment, looking at it. A car came down the road. As it passed, he stepped into the darkness, its headlights brimming across his back. When it had disappeared, he continued down the sidewalk to find his car.
In the motel, he showered, scrubbing himself raw. Hugh had never been to one of those places before. His dancer had been a woman of uncertain descent. While she shimmied in the tight space, her face seemed disengaged, as if the batteries in her head had worn out, while the batteries in her body were still good. Her sweat had sprinkled his skin like sea spray. He dried himself off and got into bed and lay there listening to the night. In high school, he had been abused. It had been a teacher he admired, a short little man in a bow tie with a prodigious command of the romance languages. Hugh had had difficulty with languages. One afternoon it had simply happened. He wasn’t even sure if it fell into the category of abuse. He didn’t know, really. It had been a strange incident, a fluke. The teacher’s fingers had smelled of tobacco. The file cabinet shook. It wasn’t something he liked to think about. He’d never told anyone. Sometimes it came back to him and he had to try to shut it out. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair some of the things you had to deal with in life, things you didn’t ask for.
Through the open window, he could hear people on the street, a drunken crowd outside of a bar. A car alarm went off. He got out of bed to have a look. The men outside the bar had begun to fight, one man shoving the other against the car. A helicopter erupted overhead and they scattered. Another man came out of the bar to check his car and silenced the alarm. He stood there, cursing, looking left and right, then spit into the gutter and went back inside.
Hugh lay awake thinking about Hedda Chase—trying to picture her inside the trunk in a fetal position, her hands tied behind her back. When he had tied her up he had felt something real, something like hate. Reflecting on it now, he felt worried; ashamed. Who was the man on her cell phone? he wondered. And where were they now? Had he opened the trunk and discovered her yet? And if he had, what had he done next?
Ever since that night Hugh had tried to convince himself that what he’d done to her had only been a joke that had gone awry—he’d never intended for her to disappear, really—perhaps he hadn’t thought it through—perhaps he’d been in some kind of a mental state—yes, a deranged state at that—but he was better now, he’d come out of it. He wasn’t a bad person, he
Somebody else had her now. That man who’d answered her phone. It was his crime now. He was the real criminal.
SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF
It begins in late September, when you first see the car. It is raining and you are happy for the rain because you have grown irritable with so much sun and the rain soothes you somehow and reinforces the fact that you were not born in this sun-bleached emotional wasteland, but back east where people are moodier and unapologetically disenchanted. The sky is grim, the air cool, and you are driving home from the studio as on most afternoons around this time, only today is different because of the rain, the long line of traffic down Los Feliz Boulevard. The car is parked on a grassy corner, adjacent to one of those prehistoric mansions, an enormous, mushroom-colored Spanish Colonial entrapped in vines. It is a blue BMW, an older model, a For Sale sign taped on the windshield. You think of stopping, but in truth you are not the sort of person who buys things from strangers—you have come to rely on the expertise of people you trust for getting you what you need, when you need it, and you are not really comfortable pursuing things on your own. For the several weeks that follow, you notice the car as you pass by, as the grass grows up around it, dappled with fluffy dandelions, and you begin to dream about owning it, driving home in it, showing it to your colleagues at the studio, your small collection of important friends.
Then, days later, again on your way home from work, you happen to notice a van parked in the driveway. It is raining again, the clouds hauntingly black, a yellow fluorescence to the light as if the sky, the air, is sick. The driveway runs up off of Delacroix Avenue, a side street off the boulevard. The van is black with gold lettering: COUNTY CORONER. Instinctively, you take your foot off the accelerator and turn onto Delacroix, pulling up alongside the curb with the car idling. They are bringing a body out. It is covered with a black water-repellent sheet. It is an eerie thing to witness and you watch with apologetic fascination as they load it into the van. You have felt the same uncertain empathy whenever you pass an accident on the freeway—that morbid anticipation—you can’t help thinking of the famous scene in
, the Godard film, a ten-minute tracking shot of a traffic jam caused by an accident—or when you are behind an ambulance and can see inside, the EMT’s diligent face, his solemn concentration as he works on the patient. It is an expression reserved for the saving of a life, and it is rare, and fine. As a filmmaker, you have come to know about expressions and there are certain expressions that are not for everyone and that are difficult to duplicate for the camera. You have come to realize that both saviors and executioners wear the same expression and there is, of course, a heady irony in that.
The rain begins to fall harder and you see a woman come outside with an umbrella. She is Mexican, in a housekeeping dress, holding the umbrella over the coroner’s head. At one point he takes her hand and guides the umbrella over her head, and she smiles gratefully. It is a brief and touching exchange and you make a mental note to work it into a movie. Thinking about the car, the strange dark house, the alarming appearance of the body, you drive home to your rented bungalow. Death is something you fear and you can never gauge its proximity. Sometimes you sense it encroaching upon you like some thief in the night, looking into your windows. Sometimes you lay in bed, brittle, waiting for evil to find you. Images sprawl through your mind, arbitrary scraps of terror that have become all too ordinary. To some degree, you have been nurtured on fear.
Stopped at a traffic light you review the facts of your life: You have achieved so much, and yet your heart is empty. It is the truth; it is something you know. You have come to a point in your life—success has garnered certain privileges—you are grossly overpaid, and yet you are overworked; you are rarely alone, and yet you are intensely lonesome; you have accomplished what you set out to, and yet you feel your ideals have been compromised. When all is said and done, you feel a weary sense of ambivalence.
You are forty, which in Hollywood is not a good thing. Not that you are actually
because of course you are not, but you have begun to feel slightly invisible at meetings with certain people, the younger directors for example, most of them men, who grow impatient with your lengthy discussions of character and plot—your questions about context and rationale—and your desire to tell stories that resonate in the hearts and minds of the American public—yes, it is true, your ambitions are lofty—and some of them actually rush you through lunch. In a town like this, where passive aggression is something of an art form, you have invented your own special version of subliminal espionage. In order to survive as a female you are forced to behave like someone with a personality disorder, limiting your range of expression to a deadpan grimace. The smile, that old-fashioned symbol of genuine assurance, has become obsolete, replaced by its nasty cousin the smirk which, when coupled with the cruel but effective once-over, conveys to its recipient that he or she is a complete waste of time. The only time people sustain a genuine smile is when they are certain you can make them money. On your way up you had acquired your own battle scars. And even now—even with all your success—you are besieged with doubt. You have not entirely outgrown the need for approval, the lavishing praise of an expert. Doubt is your compass. It prevents you from feeling happy. Your unhappiness is a strategic part of the mechanism that drives you, the feverish self-loathing that shoves you forward, toward that shimmering light of your destiny.
Most of the people you know are married, either married with kids or gay with kids. Even Harold is more married than you—you have caught yourself envying his lover, Mitchell, whom he showers with love and attention—and you get the sense that people, your friends and acquaintances, have begun to pity you for being unattached—you can see it in their eyes as they evaluate your rather gaunt frame, your jaded eyes, your inexcusably hooked nose—unlike many of the girls you grew up with in Short Hills, you don’t believe in nose jobs—and when they have you to their homes, making excuses for their disagreeable children at whom you smile too much until your cheeks hurt, and their cluttered family rooms, you always leave feeling somewhat bereft, as if, somehow, you have profoundly missed out. The truth is, you’re not interested in having kids—you don’t really even like babies—and you don’t really see the need for having a husband. If it weren’t for Harold inviting you out to things, insisting you make an appearance, pushing you like an old Jewish mother to meet someone, someone
you would rarely even date. You are a Hollywood anomaly and people resent you for it—and yet, you are one of the most powerful women in town. They resent you for having secured a place as one of the industry’s elite, without even fucking anyone for it. Still, your power is subject to conditions. You have few real friends. Your success has created a certain dynamic in your relationships and everything that comes your way is contingent upon something else—you carry other people’s destinies around in your pockets like loose change. You think of yourself as a kind of emperor. They would tell you anything if they thought it might get them a deal, and you have witnessed the continual mental jostling that occurs every time you meet with somebody, you can see it in their eyes as they attempt to calculate what you want to hear, what need they might fill, and how, ultimately, you can benefit their career.
Admittedly, your experiences with men have been limited and you realize that there is a part of you that is still a fat little freshman at Yale and yet, when you think about it, you were lucky to be ugly and fat, because it informed your sensitivity, it taught you lessons about life, about communication, that other people—your beautiful colleagues for example—have never had to learn. It helped you in your business dealings, because you understand that making deals is less about the money, the project, the actors, than it is about the machinations of the human heart. What you have come to understand during your Hollywood tenure is that every deal you make is personal. In the rooms where deals are made, a thousand things are going on at once. There are the lurking ghosts of broken dreams. There are the pressures of trying to maintain an existence in a town that is not a real town but only pretends to be real, and where certainty is an ambiguous concept. A town that pretends to be exclusive and yet, in truth, it is open to everyone. It is a hard-working company town and yet, unlike the production of steel or chocolate, the manufacturing of ideas, those fragile little creations, is time consuming and costly. Vulnerable to the elements, ideas must be carefully nurtured. Unfortunately, they cannot be mass-produced. (And yet if they could, you’re sure that the studio head would have done it by now). On second thought, they have come pretty close.