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Kiss Me Like a Stranger My Search for Love and Art
By Gene Wilder
St. Martin's Griffin Copyright © 2005 Gene Wilder
All right reserved.
Chapter One FIRST MOVEMENT
I walked into Marjorie Wallis's small office on West Seventy-ninth Street. I was very nervous.
"What do I call you?" I asked.
"What do you want to call me?"
"I heard Dr. Steiner call you Margie on the telephone ... is that all right?"
"Margie it is! Sit down."
She indicated the plain couch in front of me. There were no pictures on the walls. Margie sat in a comfortable-looking armchair, with an ottoman-which she wasn't using-resting in front of her. Her face wasn't warm, but it wasn't stern, either.
"What seems to be the trouble?" she asked.
I couldn't bring myself to look at her.
"I want to give all my money away."
"How much do you have?"
"... I owe three hundred dollars."
She looked at me silently for four or five seconds.
"I see. Well, let's get to work, and maybe by the time you have some money you'll be wise enough to know what to do with it. In the meantime tell me about ..."
And then she asked me a lot of questions. "Your mother was how old? ... How did you feel when the doctor said that? ... Have you ever tried toblah, blah, blah?" I took so many long pauses before I answered each question that I thought she might throw me out, but she just sat there, with her feet up on the ottoman now, and waited. When I did start talking again, she made little notes on a small pad that rested on her lap.
What I couldn't understand was this: why on earth was I thinking about a fifteen-year-old girl named Seema Clark during all my long pauses in between Margie's questions? Seema kept popping into my head while I was talking about my mother and doctors and heart attacks and my Russian father and masturbation.
I thought Seema was Eurasian when I met her the first time-she certainly didn't look Jewish-but when we both came out of the synagogue together I realized that she must be Jewish. She was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. I was only fifteen, but I had seen a lot of movies and I thought she looked like a very thin, teenage Pita Hayworth. I was her date when Seema had her fifteenth birthday party. There were eight or ten other kids at her house that night, all laughing their heads off at some wisenheimer who was "hypnotizing" one of the girls. I thought he was pretty stupid, but I enjoyed watching the cocky little faker who thought he knew how to hypnotize people because he'd read his uncle's book on hypnosis.
Seema held my hand while we watched the "hypnotist" go through his fake talk. I knew she really liked me. She looked so pretty that night, with a pink barrette in her hair and wearing a brand-new yellow angora sweater. Her mother served all of us birthday cake and some delicious coffee. When all the other kids had gone home, Mrs. Clark showed me the coffee can, because I had said how good the coffee tasted-it was A&P's Eight O'clock Coffee-and then her mother said good night and left Seema and me alone.
We sat on the couch in an almost-dark living room and started kissing. I was shy, but I didn't want Seema to know how shy I really was, so I put on an act as if I were used to all this kissing in the dark with no one around. I thought that she was probably more experienced than I was and I decided that it was about time for me to feel a girl's breast. Well, I can't say, "I decided"-I was just going on what I'd heard from all the other boys my age, especially my cousin Buddy, who was nine months older than me.
It took me about eight minutes to get my hand near the start of Seema's breast-the hairs of her new angora sweater kept coming off in my fingers, which certainly didn't help any. After another three of four minutes, I finally put my hand on about one-third of her breast. As soon as I did, she jerked away. My mouth went dry. She looked at me with such disappointment in her eyes and said, "You're just like all the other boys, aren't you?" I flushed so hot I thought I'd burst. I couldn't understand why she didn't say anything during all the kissing and creeping up the fake angora. Why didn't she just say, "No," of, "I don't want you to do that," or anything but what she did say? I wanted to tell her that I wasn't at all like all the other boys, that I thought she would like what I was doing, that I thought she was waiting for me to do it. But I was too embarrassed to say any of those things. I just said, "I'm sorry, Seema," and then wished her happy birthday and got out of there as fast as I could.
Of course, this all happened in little pictures that popped into my head during the long pauses with Margie. The whole memory probably lasted only a few seconds. Margie's voice suddenly burst in:
"Where are you?"
"... What do you mean?"
"Lie down on the couch. You're not as innocent as you pretend and Dr. Steiner assures me that you're no dummy. I want you to start talking and tell me everything that crosses your mind-everything-however embarrassing or insignificant you think it is. I don't know whether of not I can help you and I don't know how many times you and I will be seeing each other in the future, but whether it's one more time or several years ... don't ever lie to me."
Chapter Two CAN A FEW WORDS CHANGE YOUR LIFE?
I used to be Jerry Silberman. When I was eight years old, my mother had her first heart attack. After my father brought her home from the hospital, her fat heart specialist came to see how she was doing. He visited with her for about ten minutes, and then, on his way out of the house, he grabbed my right arm, leaned his sweaty face against my cheek, and whispered in my ear,
"Don't ever argue with your mother-you might kill her."
I didn't know what to make of that, except that I could kill my mother if I got angry with her. The other thing he said was:
"Try to make her laugh."
So I tried. It was the first time I ever consciously tried to make someone laugh. I did Jewish accents and German accents and Danny Kaye songs that I learned from his first album, and I did make my mother laugh. Every once in awhile, if I was a little too successful, she'd run to the bathroom, squealing, "Oh, Jerry, now look what you've made me do!"
* * *
Some people-when they step into the ring-lead with their left; some lead with their right. I always led with my sister.
It was a Saturday night. I was eleven. My sister, Corinne, was sixteen and she was giving an acting recital at the Wisconsin College of Music, where her teacher, Herman Gottlieb, had his studio. It was a small auditorium stuffed with about two hundred people. While everyone sat and waited for the show to start, there was so much loud talking that I wondered how Corinne would stand it. When the lights started to fade, everyone talked louder for a few seconds. Then they all whispered. Then ... darkness!
A spotlight hit the center of the stage, and there was Corinne, wearing a full-length aqua gown. For the next twenty minutes she performed "The Necklace," a short story by Guy de Maupassant that she had memorized. All eyes were on Corinne. The audience was listening to every word. You could hear a pin drop. Everyone applauded her at the end. I remember thinking that this must be as close to actually being God as you could get.
I went up to Mr. Gottlieb and asked if I could study acting with him.
"How old are you?" he asked.
"Wait till you're thirteen. If you still want to study acting, I'll take you on."
When my mother was in pain, the fat heart specialist came to our house. I say "fat" only because Dr. Rosenthal died of a heart attack a few years later, and even though I was very young, I instinctively associated his death with how many Cokes he drank whenever he came to our house. One day he came because my mother felt a terrible pressure in her chest. Dr. Rosenthal told me to go around the corner, where they were putting up a new house, steal a heavy brick, and then wrap the brick in a washcloth and place it on top of my mother's chest, over her heart. It sounded crazy. I waited until all the workers had left the new house, at the end of the day, and then I picked up a good-sized brick, tucked it under my sweater, and walked home as fast as I could. I wrapped the brick in a washcloth and placed it on top of my mother's chest.
"Oh, honey, that feels so good."
In the months that followed I would substitute my head for the brick. I'd push my head down with both hands as hard as I could, and she liked that even more than the brick.
One Sunday afternoon my dad dropped me off at the Uptown movie theater, so I could see a Sunday matinie. I didn't tell him that I'd taken his flashlight out of the utility closet and hidden it in my jacket.
After I paid the cashier and bought my popcorn and Milk Duds, I went into the theater, which was almost full. The picture had already started, but in those days most people were used to coming in after a movie started-they would stay until they saw a familiar scene in the next showing and then leave. This Sunday the movie was Double Indemnity, with Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray. It was in black and white.
I watched for about twenty minutes, but when it started getting mushy (kissing), I took the flashlight out of my jacket and began shining it onto the screen. When people looked around to see which punk was doing this, I shut the flashlight off, fast. When the audience settled down again, I switched the flashlight back on. I started making circles on the screen-my beam of light competing with the beam from the projector. I got such a feeling of joy from doing this, until the manager came down the aisle with a horrible look on his face and told me to come with him. I followed him into his office.
"What's your name?"
"Jerry Silberman. Please don't tell my father."
"Give me the flashlight."
He took my father's flashlight and kicked me out of the theater.
It was drizzling outside. I felt ashamed, standing under the overhang in front of the theater, wondering whether of not to tell my dad about his flashlight and about the manager kicking me out. I decided it would be safer if I waited till my dad noticed the missing flashlight himself ... and that might not happen for months. He was born in Russia but came to Milwaukee with his family when he was eleven. He wasn't dumb, but he was very innocent, and I knew what I could get by with if I wanted to evade a situation.
After I waited in the rain for an hour and ten minutes, my father drove up. I jumped into the car.
"So-how was the movie?" he asked.
"It was great, Daddy. It was really good."
I started taking acting lessons with Herman Gottlieb the day after my thirteenth birthday.
* * *
I was eleven when I learned about sex-from my cousin Buddy, naturally. We were both in a co-ed summer camp. I couldn't believe what he was saying.
"Oh, Buddy, what're you talking about?"
"It's the truth! You put your poopy into her thing-honest to God."
"Well, how could that ever make babies?"
"Because you've got to put your germs into her germs. That's how you do it."
"... Well, what it you're embarrassed? I'm not going to take it out in front of a girl."
"Are you telling me you wouldn't like to show it to her if she showed you her whatcha-call-it?"
"... Well ..."
Then Cousin Buddy told this crazy idea to Alan Pinkus, another one of our friends. Alan was more shocked than I was.
"Well, how do you think you get babies, Alan? Do you think the stork brings them?"
Buddy tried his best to make Alan feel like a baby. Alan was embarrassed.
"No, of course not.... I just thought it came from ... putting your saliva in with her saliva."
"You mean spitting at each other?" Buddy laughed so hard that I started laughing too. That was when I figured that Buddy must be right. He was an expert about these kinds of things.
We never talked about sex in my family when I was growing up. The only time I came close to asking about it was when I was in second grade and I was walking home from school with two other boys. We saw a naked lady through her living room window, lying on a sofa, scratching her tush while she read a book. When she saw three little boys staring at her, she jumped up and closed the curtains. We tan away, and I heard one of the boys use the word "fuck." When I got home, I didn't tell my mother about the naked lady, but I did ask her what "fuck" meant.
"You want to know what "fuck" means?" she asked, as she pulled me into the bathroom and turned on the faucet. She ran a bar of Ivory Soap under the water and stuck it in my mouth. "There! Now you know what fuck means."
Excerpted from Kiss Me Like a Stranger by Gene Wilder Copyright © 2005 by Gene Wilder. Excerpted by permission.
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