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* * *
Halfway through Twister, when Helen Hunt was about to run down another relentless force of nature, I turned to Paula and said, "Please don't do it."
"Shh." Paula put her finger to her lips. She was really into the movie.
I hadn't been able to concentrate on the film since the first tornado. In fact, I felt like a tornado was churning inside me, destroying all my fixtures, and I knew I had to get Paula's answer.
"I really mean it, Paula."
I saw her turn toward me, her face reflected in the glow of the movie screen.
"Why are you talking about it now, Mark?"
"I can't stop thinking about it."
"We already talked it out."
"You talked. I went along."
A shush issued from in front of us, like a snake hiss.
"Can't this wait?" Paula whispered.
"No." I surprised myself at my own insistence.
"We're coming back to see this," Paula said emphatically, then got up and started for the exit. I followed her out.
The bright lights of the lobby and the smell of popcorn-that odd theater smell, somewhere between fresh popped and yesterday's laundry-hit me. So did Paula Montgomery's glare.
"Do you think," Paula said-her hands were in front of her, palm to palm, fingers pointing at my chest like a spear-"that this is an easy decision for me?"
"No, of course not." I was only vaguely aware of the old couple shuffling into the theater next door, showing the Tom Cruise movie Mission: Impossible.
"Then why bring it up again?" Paula said. Her eyes suddenly filled with tears. They gathered on her lower lids like rain on lily pads. I hugged her, burying my face in her midnight hair, which smelled like honey and cinnamon. Her shampoo. Which I loved.
"I'm sorry, baby," I said. Baby. "But I want it. I want our baby."
"And I want to marry you, Paulie. I do."
She pushed me away and cursed at me. The old couple stopped in the maw of the theater doors and the woman's mouth dropped open. Paula turned and ran away.
I found her crying at Pretzels Plus in the heart of the mall. I hardly knew how to approach her. There was a big, fat pretzel lying under the glass, dotted with chunks of salt. Another twister, of a sort. Everything was twisted now.
It wasn't fair to spring this on her in the middle of a movie. She had struggled hard with the decision. I knew that. I knew pregnancy wasn't good for her career. Not at this point. She'd have to be written off the soap if they couldn't get her pregnant in the story. Maybe she could sue them, like that one actress who sued Aaron Spelling. But Paula didn't want to sue. She wanted a career. And hers was just starting to take off. She'd gotten a cover on Soap Times. "Up and Coming Vixens" was the title of the article.
Abortion was the logical thing. I had accepted it. For about a day.
But it gnawed at me until I had to say something. I didn't want her to do it. But not wanting that probably meant I had lost Paula Montgomery for good.
"I'm sorry," I said.
Paula was leaning against the yellow tile wall next to the pretzel glass. "All right," she said, her voice a thin reed.
I touched her shoulder. "All right what?"
"I'll marry you," she said.
Half my heart filled with new life.
"And the baby?" I said.
She looked at me, eyes red and wet. "Do you know what this is going to mean?"
"No," I said.
"Well, you better learn." She hit me in the shoulder as hard as she could, then threw her arms around my neck and held me like I was now her tether to earth.
* * *
One would have thought that a Christian wedding would have pleased all concerned, especially Paula's Bostonian matriarch mother, Erica. After all, I was "doing the right thing" by marrying Paula. But Erica the Red, as I called her only to myself, did not like me. Never had. Not good enough for her daughter. I had the feeling no one ever would be.
The Christian part of the wedding was Erica's choice, too (Paula's father, Franklin, had died two years before). I was not a Christian yet. I worshiped at the altar of Brando and James Dean. My view of Jesus was that he would be a good role to play if Steven Spielberg or Antonio Troncatti directed me in it.
Paula was not a Christian, either. She had some sort of Buddhist leanings. But we both enjoyed the pomp and circumstance that attended us in the big church in Hollywood. The Presbyterians might have been a mystery to me, but they sure had themselves a good land deal and a wonderful architect.
And Paula Montgomery was stunning in her wedding dress. I couldn't believe she was walking toward me.
We had met at a party a year and a half before, thrown by my crazy friend Roland. Roland was a gifted jazz musician by night and a writer of jingles by day. He could sit at the piano and create an ad line for any product you cared to name, right on the spot. He was doing just that when Paula walked in the door.
And knocked me out. As she did maybe half a dozen other guys there. She had hair the color of a Malibu night and violet eyes that ran on their own electricity. I had to do a lot of broken field running to get to her. But I finally managed to get her out to the balcony for some air-sweetening the deal by snagging a bowl of peanut M&M's-and I had the chance to work my magic.
Which she didn't fall for. After my few, fumbling attempts at charming small talk, she looked me in the eye and said, "Why don't you put a hold on the fluff and just tell me what you're passionate about?"
Her eyes were not just hypnotic, they were intelligent. I told her I loved acting, old movies, and baseball.
She smiled, and my heart pounded for mercy inside my chest. "Me, too."
I was so in love my mouth refused to work. I'm sure she thought I was a babbling idiot.
So the next night, when I called to ask her out (I practically assaulted Roland for her phone number), the Yes I heard from her was a shock on the order of holding a winning lottery ticket.
I took her to Micelli's, where working actors liked to eat. It gave hope.
"Too bad LA is not a theater town," Paula remarked at dinner. "I'd love to do Rosalind someday."
She was a serious actress, in other words. Shakespeare was not something a lot of young actors attempted anymore. It's scary to do the Bard, but also the best feeling when you carry it off.
"I'll do Orlando," I offered.
She laughed and said, "It's a deal."
I fell more deeply in love. It was like Shakespeare had written the scene for us, in modern lingo. I promised myself we would do As You Like It someday. As husband and wife.
And now I was marrying her. When it came time to promise to love, honor, and all the rest, I said I do with more intense joy than anything I'd felt before in my life. And then she promised the same. It was too much like a dream.
The nightmare was still five years away.
* * *
Throughout her pregnancy, Paula continued to act on the soap. Her character was having an affair with the respected town doctor, who was pressuring her to have an abortion. I wanted to go into the TV and slug the guy. It felt good to want to do that.
Paula did have her moments of disquiet about the upcoming birth. I was often not very helpful.
Once, after our Bradley natural birth class, we went to Ralph's Market to pick up a few items. I grabbed a straw from the deli counter and then went to the produce section and selected a big, ripe cantaloupe. I took the items over to Paula.
"See," I said. "All you have to do is pass this-" I held up the cantaloupe-"through this-" the straw. "It's easy!"
So when the call from the hospital came on the cell phone, I did not hang around. I was about to become "young father" in real life. How could Lucky Charms compete with that?
Paula was in labor for eight hours. It was not smooth sailing. There were times when this beautiful woman took on the face of Lucifer's less attractive sister, glaring at me with knives, because I was responsible for getting her into this.
When I told her I had given up a Lucky Charms spot to be here with her she said, "Get me drugs."
They gave her an intravenous injection of Demerol, which at least softened her back into the beautiful wife I knew. And she was beautiful, even without makeup, even with sweaty strands of ebony hair stuck to her forehead like wet string.
We knew we were going to have a girl, and we had decided to name her Madeleine Erica Gillen. The Erica, of course, was for Paula's mother. I didn't fight her on that, because one does not do battle with the Montgomerys and survive.
The Madeleine, though, was my idea, something I just hit on one day, reading through a baby name book. For me it had a classic quality to it, but also suggested just a little bit the madness that I felt for Paula. As in madly in love. As in the woman of my dreams.
The Demerol did not last, and finally an anesthesiologist gave Paula an epidural with a needle the length of California.
That's what I remember most, up until the time Madeleine's head slid out, followed by the rest of her, into the hands of Dr. Malverse Martin.
I began to believe in God at that moment.
* * *
The next few years passed like a montage in a family movie, complete with musical score. The bad scenes-the tensions, the arguments, the pressures, the finances, the auditions, the juggling of two careers and one baby-these ended up on the cutting room floor of my mind. I kept the good shots on the front of the reel:
The baths. Maddie's skin so soft and my thumbs nearly the length of her tiny head.
My skill as a diaper changer. How I could wad a used Pampers up into a ball of almost impossible density.
Holding Maddie all night in a recliner, because she was so stuffy with a cold she could not breathe when lying flat.
Bringing her to Paula for midnight feedings.
The early, fuzzy sprouts of Maddie's hair.
Her first word, Dada, which really upset Paula. Her third word, Kaka, which to her meant cookie, and cracked me up completely.
The big day we bought Maddie her own potty, and she decided it would be a bed for her bear. Much discussion ensued.
When she was three, we announced we were taking her to Disneyland. Even at that age, a child in Los Angeles knows what Disneyland is. It seeps into their heads while they sleep. When we told her, her blue eyes got huge and she said, "My heart is beautiful!"
I still can't think of a better way to express happiness than that.
* * *
And then the time we were watching It's a Wonderful Life on TV one Christmas. Maddie was four. Donna Reed and Jimmy Stewart started singing "Buffalo Gals" as they were walking home from the high school dance. I glanced at Maddie and she seemed mesmerized.
Aaaaannnd dance by the light of the moon.
Jimmy and Donna, singing.
Maddie looked at me then. "Can we do that?" she asked. Paula was on the phone in the kitchen. I alone had to field this one and knew from experience that Maddie's questions sometimes threw a bolo around my head.
"Do what, honey?"
"Dance by the guy in the moon?"
"By the light of the moon."
"You bet we can."
It was one of those things you don't stop and analyze. I think God implants a certain instinct in fathers (who are somewhat slow on the uptake) that tells them to heed their children without extensive cross-examination.
"Sure," I said. I lifted her off the couch-she in her soft cotton PJs with rabbits and me in my cutoffs and Dodger T-shirt-and went to the kitchen to tell Paula we were going up on the roof of the building. Paula, phone at her ear, put her finger in the air, telling me to be quiet.
I carried Maddie up to the roof.
The moon was almost full. It seemed huge. It cast a glow over the hills, where million-dollar homes gawked somewhat incredulously at the apartment buildings below. The kind of homes I dreamed of living in, with Paula and Maddie and a big, fat $20 million contract to star in the next Ridley Scott movie.
But tonight I did not care that I was on an apartment building roof. Maddie had her warm arms around my neck, and I held her and swayed, swayed, swayed. Time went completely away as we danced by the light of the moon.
Excerpted from Breach of Promise by James Scott Bell Copyright © 2004 by James Scott Bell. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted January 5, 2013
If you have ever loved and ever been a parent this book is for you! This author takes you through numerous emotions while keeping you glued to the story. I definitely look forward to reading his other writings and think this is an excellent book for a club discussion.
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Posted March 5, 2013
Posted June 29, 2013