“If Alicia Bright had learned one lesson in life it was that the more settled things seemed to be, the more likely they were to get messed up.” --Sex, Drugs, and Murder
The downside of writing sex scenes is that my mother reads my books.
Until I die I will be haunted by the memory of my mother confronting me after reading my first novel. She stood in the living room of my San Francisco apartment with one slightly arthritic hand resting on her robust hip and the other waving my book in front of my face. “I ask you,” she said, “how can a nice Jewish girl write such a thing? It’s not bad enough you should give me ulcers with all this talk of killing, but now you have to write about naked people too? I thought only shiksas wrote such things.”
I somehow resisted the impulse to run and made the stupid mistake of trying to reason with her. “No, Mama,” I said, “smut is nondenominational.” But my mother wasn’t satisfied with that, so she highlighted the scenes, took the book to her rabbi and asked him for his opinion of her daughter, the sex fiend. The rabbi, who in all likelihood was just slightly less mortified than I was, assured her that writing about sex between two consenting adults within a loving, albeit edgy relationship was in no way a violation of the Torah. After that my mother approached almost every member of the congregation, proudly showed them my book and said things like, “Can you believe this? My daughter the author. And you should read the sex scenes. Now if she would just do some of the things she writes about, I could be a grandmother already.”
I don’t go to that synagogue anymore.
Finding a new congregation was really the only way to avoid embarrassment, since blending into the background was not an option for me. With the exception of my father, I am the only black temple member that Sinai has ever had, which makes me pretty easy to spot. My nationality is an endless source of entertainment for the public. My skin is the color of a well-brewed latte (double shot), and while the mass of textured hair that hangs to my shoulders is frizzy, it’s not exactly ’fro material, so people are constantly mistaking me for Brazilian, Hispanic, Puerto Rican, Egyptian, Israeli -- you name it. I am spokeswoman for all people. Or at least all people with a slutty imagination.
I finished typing the details of my hero’s and heroine’s erogenous zones and switched scenes to the apartment of the gourmet chef who was about to be bludgeoned to death with a large toaster oven. How long would it take him to die? Ten minutes, fifteen . . .
I started at the sound of my buzzer going off and checked the time on the bottom right of my computer screen. Shit. My hands balled up into two tight fists. There’s nothing worse than walking away from a keyboard while on a roll. I tapped ctrl S and walked to the entryway to buzz in my guests. I listened as the sound of heavy heels trailed by rubber soles pounded up three stories’ worth of stairs.
“How are you holding up?” Dena gave my arm a quick squeeze before peeling off her leather blazer and draping it over a dining chair.
Mary Ann followed her into the apartment and threw her arms around my neck before I had a chance to respond. “Oh my God, Sophie, I’m so sorry! I’ve never known anyone who’s done anything like that. I think I would just be a wreck if I were in your shoes.”
I pulled away from the stranglehold and searched Mary Ann’s blue eyes for some clue as to what she was talking about. “Okay, I give. Were you speaking in code or am I just so sleep deprived that the English language no longer makes sense to me?”
Dena raised a thick Sicilian eyebrow and seated herself on the armrest of my sofa. “You haven’t turned on the TV news today, have you?”
“Well, I read the morning paper, but no, I didn’t see the news shows. You know me, when I’m writing I sometimes tune out --”
“Tolsky killed himself, Sophie. They found him last night.”
Okay, I was definitely sleep deprived, because there was no way that Dena had just said what I thought she said. “I can’t imagine how this could possibly be funny, but I’m waiting for the punch line.”
Mary Ann was on her feet. “Oh my God, I’m so sorry! I just thought you knew!”
I could hear the distant sounds of a siren screeching its warning. This was wrong. It was a misunderstanding of some kind. “I just talked to Tolsky two weeks ago.” I enunciated the words carefully as if by doing so I could help Dena and Mary Ann realize their mistake. “He said he couldn’t wait to see my screenplay. He told me where he was going to film the movie. He told me where he was going to be next week. He told me which actors he was going to approach. Do you see where I’m heading with this? Tolsky was going to do a lot of stuff. He had plans. I may only have spoken to him a few times, but I know this was not a man who was planning on taking his own life.”
“Well, he may not have been planning it two weeks ago, but he sure as hell did it last night.” Dena nodded to Mary Ann, and continued, “I saw an Examiner downstairs in the lobby, it’s probably in there.”
Mary Ann tugged nervously on a chestnut-brown curl before hurrying out to retrieve the afternoon publication.
“You weren’t close to him, right?” Dena asked. “You just met him that one time?”
“Yeah, just the one time he came up to talk to me about the possibility of turning Sex, Drugs and Murder into a movie. We talked about it on the phone a few times afterward. He seemed like a nice enough guy, maybe a little larger than life, but nothing that you wouldn’t expect from a Hollywood producer . . . Dena are you sure about this?”
“Oh, I’m sure, and if you thought he was larger than life, then wait until you hear how he chose to orchestrate his exit.”
Mary Ann breezed in with the paper in hand. I’m in pretty good shape but it seems to me that after climbing three flights of stairs two times over she should be sweating, not glowing. I took the Examiner from her and read the headline,“ Michael Tolsky Commits Suicide, Death Imitates Art.” I placed the paper against the unfinished wood of the dining table and sat down to read.
“Right out of a movie . . . literally.” Dena ruffled her own short dark hair and relaxed back into the cushions. “I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but what a frigging drama queen.”
I reread the description of his death. Tolsky had slit his wrists in a bathtub. The scene was right out of his film Silent Killer. He had even taken care to put vanilla-scented candles around the room, just as his character had done before his premature end. I tried to picture Tolsky lying naked in a pool of his own blood, his round rosy face devoid of animation. At our lunch meeting his presence had been so large that I had worried there wouldn’t be enough room in the restaurant for the other patrons. How could things have changed that quickly?
“Of all his films, why recreate that scene?” I used my finger to trace a circle around the paragraph describing the incident. “I don’t get it. In Silent Killer, it wasn’t even a real suicide. It was a murder made to look like a suicide. Have the police considered that this might not be what it seems?”
“Read the whole article,” Dena said. “There was a note.”
MaryAnn nodded vigorously. “Mmm-hmm,a suicide note.”
“Oh, good thing you clarified that one -- I’m sure Sophie thought I was talking about a piece of music.”
Mary Ann ignored Dena and continued to recite the information she had gathered. “He gave all the servants the day off -- the maid, the chauffeur, everybody. I guess he was really upset over his wife leaving him. His blood alcohol level was like double the legal limit. I just feel so sad for him.”
I focused on the headshot of Tolsky on the front page. So maybe he had planned it. Just woke up one morning and decided to check out. I probably should have felt sad for him too. Maybe I’d have felt more sympathetic if I had liked him more, or if I hadn’t always considered suicide a cruel copout, or if I wasn’t such a coldhearted capitalist bitch. What about my screenplay!
“You know, if he was so depressed about his marriage, why the hell didn’t he try to win her back? She only left him a week ago. I mean, did he try flowers? Diamonds? Marriage counseling? Anything?”
“Would that have worked for Scott after you filed?” Mary Ann asked.
“No, but Scott was a freeloading, adulterous loser, that’s why our marriage lasted less than two years. The Tolskys were married for twenty-five years, so obviously he had something going for him. You don’t invest that kind of time and energy into a relationship, and then just roll over and play dead the minute things start to go sour.” I winced at my own choice of words. “What I meant was . . . or what I didn’t mean . . . you know what? This really sucks.” I dropped my head onto the table and tried to suppress the frustrated scream burning my throat.
“Face it.” Dena stretched her short muscular legs out in front of her. “He was a man of extremes, and when he got depressed, he did it in a big way. The whole way he recreated his movie scene was a pathetic but successful attempt to get everybody to sit up and take notice.” She used her foot to gently steer my feline, Mr. Katz, away from her black pants. “This screws you up big-time, huh?”
“Damn right it does!” The chair screeched against the hardwood floor as I pushed myself back from the table. “He was just Mr. Enthusiastic about that project. Why did he even approach me about adapting my manuscript for him if he didn’t plan on hanging around long enough to see a first draft?”
“And you know that people are lining up at the video stores to rent his films,” Dena added. “If he could have just held off for a little longer, your little movie could have benefited from this postmortem media blitz.”
“Gee, thanks for making me feel better about this.” I squeezed my eyes closed and took a steadying breath. Let it go . . . there’d be other chances. They may not materialize for another ten years but that only brought me to forty. I might still be able to wear a size-six gown while collecting my Academy Award at that age. Sarah Jessica Parker was forty and she looked pretty good. I opened my eyes again and stared up at the halogen lighting above me.“ Maybe I should put a rumor out that I’m terminally ill. Do you think I’d get another offer to turn my books into screenplays if I were facing imminent death?”
“Terminally ill doesn’t count,” Dena said. “Either you stop breathing or you’ll just have to trudge along with the rest of us.”
“Maybe I could do a Van Gogh thing and cut off my ear or something. That might get people’s attention.”
“Didn’t do a lot for Van Gogh.” Dena brought her hands to the back of her head in order to administer a self-indulgent massage. “From what I understand, it didn’t even get him laid. Didn’t his girlfriend break up with him after he gave it to her as a gift? She probably sent him a note in reply reading, ‘I said earring, you idiot!’”
I couldn’t help but laugh at that.
Mary Ann went to the kitchen and pulled a bag of microwave popcorn out of the cupboard. “Well, if all he wanted was to keep his name in the papers a little longer, wouldn’t it have been easier to just make another movie?” she asked. Her eyes widened and she dropped the popcorn bag on the counter that divided the kitchen from the living room. “Oh my God, maybe it was an accident. Maybe he was shaving and he cut himself by mistake!”
If anyone else had said it I would have immediately assumed they were joking, but I knew Mary Ann well enough to be sure that the poor thing was totally serious. I bit down hard on my lip and tried to think about starving people in Africa, or the destruction of the rain forest, or anything to keep me from laughing.
Dena was not so kind. “I cannot believe we share the same gene pool. If anyone asks, please point out that you’re my second cousin, and if you can fit in the ‘once removed’ part, I’d appreciate it.”
“It could have happened. ”Mary Ann crossed her arms and glared at Dena. “He was drunk, right?”
“So he got into the bathtub and tried to shave his arms?”
“Well, maybe he had hairy arms.”
“And he accidentally slit both his wrists? At which point, what . . . he thought to himself, ‘Well shit, this sucks. I guess I’ll wait for all my blood to slowly leave my body and if it still hurts after that point, I’ll call 911.’”
“I don’t know,” Mary Ann said. “Maybe he passed out. Maybe he was embarrassed . . .”
“Right, that must be where they got the expression ‘embarrassed to death.’”
“Okay, whatever. I still say it could have happened. If you’ll excuse me, I have to use the little girls’ room.”
“Be careful you don’t accidentally slit your wrists while wiping yourself.”
“You are so crude,” Mary Ann said as she made her way down the narrow hallway.
I finally allowed myself to give up the battle for self-control and broke into a fit of giggles. When I caught my breath, I unsuccessfully tried to give Dena my most stern look. “You were kind of harsh, weren’t you?”
“I’m sorry, but there are times when her immense ignorance tries my patience. And what does she mean ‘the little girls’ room’? She’s so fucking delicate she can’t even call it a bathroom for Christ’s sake.”
I shook my head. I knew Dena loved Mary Ann in a big sister kind of way. My mind wandered back to the time when a boyfriend of Mary Ann’s had slapped her across the face. Dena had repaid him by breaking his nose.
Mary Ann emerged from the bathroom, an experience she seemed to have managed to get through without incident, and began to search my refrigerator for a more fattening alternative to the popcorn. She settled on a jar of peanut butter and a spoon. I eyed her size-four form enviously before refocusing on Dena, who was now examining the Blockbuster rental we had originally planned to watch. “I have a big shipment of vibrators coming to the shop first thing tomorrow morning, so if we’re going to watch this we should do it soon.”
Mary Ann made a face.“ And you’re embarrassed to be related to me.”
“Don’t knock it before you try it. If those Neiman women you wait on started using vibrators, they wouldn’t have to spend so much money on face cream to look rejuvenated.”
I rolled my eyes. “Maybe Lancôme should make it their next gift-with-purchase.”
Mary Ann started giggling and even Dena broke into a smile. She waved the movie in the air. “So should I put this in?”
I tried to muster up some enthusiasm for a movie night, but after reviewing the details of Tolsky’s bloody death I no longer felt in the mood for Hannibal Lecter. Maybe I could use the rather vivid images floating around my head to add some realism to my crime scenes. At least that way I could feel like I was accomplishing something instead of sitting around idly after some razor-loving depressive screwed up my career.
I repositioned my chair so that I could easily address both of my guests. “Would you hate me if I ended things early this evening?”
Dena did a quick double take. “You want us to leave now? Thirty-five minutes for parking, Sophie!”
“I know. It’s just that the whole Tolsky thing has kind of knocked the wind out of me. I promise to make it up to you next week. We’ll do a double feature or something.”
“Don’t even worry about it, Sophie.” Mary Ann put the popcorn and peanut butter back in their respective places. “It totally makes sense that you would need some alone time.”
Dena let out an exacerbated sigh and reached for her sixties-style handbag. “Fine. I didn’t even get to fill you in on the intimate details of my date last night.”
“Anyone I know?” I grabbed the mailbox key before accompanying them to the lobby.
“No, new to the city. But I tell you, if last night was any indication, I’ll be adding another notch to my bedpost by the end of the week.”
Mary Ann’s color rose, and I let out a short laugh.
“What, I’m not entitled to a little fun?”
“You’re entitled.” I paused by the glass door. “But if you keep this up you’re going to have to break in a new post.”
Dena grinned. “Hell, I’m already on the fourth one. Soon I’m going to need a whole new bed.” She smoothed the lapels of her jacket and gave me an exaggerated wink. “If you really want to make tonight up to me, promise me that after you’ve finished with this manuscript we’ll celebrate with a bottle of wine at the Bitches’ Circle.”
“Oh, oh, I want to come this time!” Mary Ann flung her hand up in the air like a schoolgirl trying to get her teacher’s attention.
Dena looked at her through lowered lids. “You can’t, you’re not a bitch.”
“I can be a . . . I can be mean.”
Dena’s shoulders sagged at the evidence of her cousin’s impenetrable sweetness. Dena and I had been visiting our affectionately named Bitches’ Circle periodically for the last fourteen years. It was a little spot in the Redwood section of Golden Gate Park Botanical Gardens that consisted of a cluster of benches surrounded by high brush. There was a small podium made out of a redwood trunk, from which we surmised that the area was either designed for poetry readings or séances, but Dena and I used it as a place to drink and get catty.
“You’ve taken Sophie’s hairstylist. ”Mary Ann stuck out the lower portion of her heart-shaped mouth. “It’s only fair that if he went, I should get to go.”
“Marcus? Oh, please, that guy could put Joan Rivers to shame. You, on the other hand, could barely hold your own with Marie Osmond.”
I stepped between the two of them. “I promise we’ll invite you. Just practice your swearing.” I took Mary Ann by both hands. “The word is ‘bitch.’”
I heard the unpleasant sound of Dena’s teeth grinding together, and I knew when the time came she would find a way to take me to our spot without the presence of any unwanted guests. But for now Mary Ann was pacified. She waited as Dena fished out her keys.
“Do we have to listen to Eminem again in the car? I just got a great new CD and I brought it with me . . .”
“We’re not fucking listening to Britney Spears.”
I held the door open for them and watched their backs retreat into the darkness. Why was I bothering with screenplays when two of my best friends were a sitcom ready to happen?
Before heading up to my flat, I inserted my key into my box and pulled out the mail I had neglected to pick up the day before. Fairly standard stuff -- two credit card applications, one postcard from Macy’s announcing yet another “biggest sale of the year” and . . . and what? I studied the last envelope as I absently closed the apartment door behind me. No return address, just my mailing info typed neatly on the front. Weird. I opened it and read the one-sentence letter. “You reap what you sow.”
That was it. No greeting, just one typed turn of phrase. Okay, so we had moved from weird to downright freaky. Of course, I was used to getting a certain amount of fan mail from people who were a little whacked. Most of them were sent to me care of my publisher, but an occasional letter found its way to my home address, so this wasn’t anything all that novel. Still, “You reap what you sow”? What the hell was that about? I looked over my shoulder and then laughed at myself. Who did I expect to find there, Freddy? It was just a stupid note -- and it’s not like it had been hand delivered. I rubbed my thumbs against the black letters. No reason to let a juvenile prank make me more rattled than I already was.
Copyright © 2005 Kyra Davis