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Confessions of a Nervous Shiksa
By Tracy McArdle
Downtown PressCopyright © 2005 Tracy McArdle
All right reserved.
DATE/TIME: 12/28/99, 9:02 A.M.
MESSAGE: She'll be back in the office tomorrow -- Call when you get in -- how was your Xmas?
DATE/TIME: 12/28/99, 9:05 A.M.
MESSAGE: Why did we pay director's friend Roberta (can't read last name) $10k on Late Nights -- we can pay her; just need to know what she did on film?
DATE/TIME: 12/28/99, 9:09 A.M.
MESSAGE: What is David's cell #? Needs to talk to him about music for the play -- how was Xmas in Vermont?
DATE/TIME: 12/28/99, 9:15 A.M.
CONTACT: Gail M./MPAA Ratings Board
MESSAGE: Late Nights clip of D.H. is disapproved -- cannot say "fag" or "candy-ass" on broadcast; re-edit and re-submit. Call if ??'s
DATE/TIME: 12/28/99, 9:23 A.M.
CONTACT: Your sister Molly
MESSAGE: Checking on you...Misses you and hopes you're ok after what happened at Xmas.
DATE/TIME: 12/28/99, 9:37 A.M.
CONTACT: Gary/Good Fun Promotions
NUMBER: You have # He's in St. Bart's til Jan. 3
MESSAGE: How many Late Nights hats do you want for Sundance? Late Nights condoms or thongs for cocktail party?
DATE/TIME: 12/28/99, 9:40 A.M.
MESSAGE: How was Xmas? Call me! Has a Littorai Pinot Noir-Theriot vineyard.
DATE/TIME: 12/28/99, 9:49 A.M.
CONTACT: Babette (D.H.'s agent)
NUMBER: Cell: 323-399-3947
MESSAGE: Needs 6 tickets to opening night parties at Sundance & schedule of what/where they are/who'll be there; plse fax to her home; 310-299-3987; will studio provide a car?
DATE/TIME: 12/28/99, 9:50 A.M.
CONTACT: Dr. Niblack
NUMBER: VCA Animal Clinic
MESSAGE: "Little" is due for her shots.
DATE/TIME: 12/28/99, 9:55 A.M.
CONTACT: Eugene R. (think it was Eugene, director of Shades of Gray, but he wouldn't say)
NUMBER: No # (called from pay phone in Central Park?)
MESSAGE: Why aren't we listed in N.Y. Times "Movies to See in 2000"? "Porky's 5 in 3D" is listed and we're not? "What the F*@!" (left on voice mail)
DATE/TIME: 12/28/99, 9:59 A.M.
CONTACT: Tracie Mansfield
NUMBER: The Tonight Show
MESSAGE: Has a hole in sched. this week for 2nd guest -- who do you have in town (No to Eugene R; she already knows he's available -- he called her). P.S. how was your Xmas?
And this was all before ten.
Returning to your call sheet after Christmas is never fun, but this particular year was profoundly un-fun. Adriane, my turbo-charged assistant, was a machine. Like any seasoned Hollywood assistant, she knew how to get to the point of each call quickly and efficiently. Normally she'd e-mail or fax me the call sheet each day I was out of town, but not during the Christmas break. How was Christmas 1999? The worst in thirty years (the title previously held by 1970, when, to my horror, my older brother gobbled up the prearranged cookies and milk before my eyes while wickedly proclaiming there was no Santa Claus and, adding insult to injury, refusing to share the cookies).
Christmas 1999 was markedly worse, because from its start, from the cheek-kissed drop off at LAX by the trusty Adriane, I knew, I knew something was not right between David and me, even before I saw him lolling impatiently at the Delta Skycab podium wearing the same tolerant expression he developed whenever we flew back East. I knew it was going to be a bad Christmas. But I pretended I didn't know, because pretending is fun, even if you're not an actress. Besides, the capacity for make-believe is an elementary survival tool. It's the very essence of an alternative reality, which later will be achieved through drugs and alcohol, and later, by work and television, then still later, by therapy of course, and when that doesn't work, meditation or yoga, and then finally at the end of life, through religion or bingo -- depending on what kind of person you are. Pretending is as essential to human beings as food, water and credit. That is why, while driving my parents' car on Vermont's windy, frozen road, Rural Route 114, on Christmas Eve of 1999, in the face of the new millennium, I was pretending that nothing was really wrong.
David, my fiance, was sullen, silent, uncomfortable. He had repeatedly deflected my questions, my attempts to root out the truth, with the deftness of a skilled goalie slapping a determined puck out of net territory.
"What's wrong?" I asked again.
"Come on, what's eating you? Tell me." He was as far away from me as the front seat of the Cadillac allowed.
"Nothing. I'm tired."
"David, you haven't said a word, you're tense, you're totally somewhere else, you didn't touch dinner, you couldn't leave my brother's house fast enough...please, tell me what is going on." I flicked on the wipers. It was snowing again.
"Alexis, I don't want to talk about it -- okay?" Ah-ha. Always a determined girl, I gripped my crowbar and pried away until the top finally creaked open the slightest bit. A waft of foul air escaped, ugly, gaseous truths begging for release: "Do you really want me to tell you? Do you really want to know?" His face looked at once defensive and angry, like I'd walked in on him smelling his own underwear. I took my foot off the gas and let the car coast into the turn, a long, unpaved driveway flanked by huge evergreens heaving with snow, a scene that, at any other moment in my life, would be soothing and picturesque, like Maria's approach to the Von Trapps' household in winter.
"I didn't want to bring this up over Christmas...but if you want me to get into it, I'll get into it."
The pine trees may as well have sprouted fangs and ripped themselves out of the ground. What could have been more terrifyingly tempting? We were at the bed and breakfast now, the charming, snow-covered, quintessential New England Christmas bed and breakfast, with its quilts and doilies, hearty fireplaces and old brandy, new gay proprietors and organic bran muffins. We had the smallest room. It was ten below and snowing as we exited the car and headed for the wreath-covered front door in silence. I loved it here. David had been the picture of vomit-ready misery since we'd left L.A. three days earlier. We trudged up the tiny, ancient stairs to our room.
He took off his coat and hung it on a wooden peg. I waited. He looked briefly at the snow outside and spoke. "Alexis, I didn't want to ruin your Christmas..."
I closed the latch on the 200-year-old door to our room and tried to hold in the tears while blocking out the truth that was headed my way. "You're already ruining my Christmas. Everyone in my family has asked me what's wrong. You've brought everyone down, you're obviously not having fun, it's making me tense and unhappy, David, I wish you'd just be honest..." But he said nothing.
"What the hell's going on?" I demanded halfheartedly, because being a woman, of course I already knew. I started crying. Sometimes, this helps. David sat down hard in the Yankee-backed chair with the happy couple in the sleigh painted on the seat, brushed aside the antique rag doll and looked directly at me.
"I can't...I can't marry you." He looked at the ceiling, then back to me with icy eyes. "Unless you convert."
Had this been a movie and not number two on the top ten list of horrible moments in my life, the music would have swelled, I would have backed slowly toward the door, then fled the inn wearing only a white cotton nightie as I ran wailing through the snow outside, and he would have followed, shouting my name desperately, and we would have collapsed together into a marshmallowy snowdrift, angry wrestling giving way to passionate lovemaking.
...Lex, I'm sorry, I didn't mean it, he'd say. I love you just the way you are.
But it was not a movie, so David quietly removed his socks, and I stared at my engagement ring wondering if it would be the last one I ever wore.
This was the beginning of the end. The end was long, months really. Extracting myself intact from three years with the wrong man whom I'd wanted to be right required careful, structured planning, like removing that frozen woolly mammoth from its Siberian ice tomb. It took equipment, specialists, commitment, knowledge and dedication, but mostly the thing none of us have enough of and aren't willing to give: time.
The couples therapist we saw when we returned from Vermont was a waste of time, but at the beginning of the end you still have to try. When you're already engaged, you have to believe there's something worth saving. Otherwise what kind of person are you? It was odd meeting there in the middle of the day, in the Century City office building. We fell into each other's arms in Dr. Kreezak's waiting room, beside the watercooler and potted fronds, both sobbing frantically by the time she came to collect us.
"Well, I see you two have gotten a start," she said with a careful sense of humor. She looked like Talia Shire after her Rocky II makeover. Black hair, wide dark eyes, plum lips always half open, expensive skin. As we explained our situation (he was from an Orthodox Jewish family, I was a fallen Catholic now sampling agnosticism; he was an actor, I wasn't; his parents were wealthy, mine weren't; I had a job in an office, he had one in a bar; he had a dog, I had a cat), I got the odd feeling that she didn't know what to say to us and possibly felt guilty for taking our money.
"I love Alexis, and I want to spend my life with her," began David. "But my heritage is bigger than me." He settled into his chair and crossed his arms. His tanned, strong, muscular arms that had held me so many times, in so many places...
Dr. Kreezak looked puzzled. "I have to have Jewish children," David explained patiently.
"Alexis -- ?" she'd probed.
I had prepared my statement, knowing I would unravel the minute I got here, and I did. "I don't see why I have to change who I am in order for the children to know how important their heritage is...I mean...what about me? What about my heritage?" I said cautiously in a small voice, knowing this was the button that released the warhead, erupted the volcano.
"See, that's just it," snipped David. "Her religion isn't even important to her!" This was true. But it had suddenly become more important than it had ever been, now that I wouldn't be allowed to have a Christmas tree or Easter basket or the occasional Mass for my unborn children. It was true I never went to Mass -- but David never went to services either. I suddenly felt sadly alone, vaguely Bridget Jones-ish, and yet true to my cause, like some discriminated hero. Sally Field as Norma Rae, Mel Gibson as William Wallace, Julia Roberts as Erin Brockovich. I wouldn't go back. I had nothing against Judaism. I loved the holidays, devoured the food, enjoyed the stories from the classes I'd made myself take. I sang the songs, wrote in Hebrew (badly, but with great effort). But I didn't want to convert. More than that, though I wouldn't admit it at the time, I didn't want to be with a man who would make me. A man who would probably struggle with his career his whole life. A man who wanted more than anything to be...famous. But even more than that, I didn't want to be alone.
"Alexis -- ?" Dr. Kreezak said encouragingly, scattering my thoughts.
I had a feeling she was on my side. "I just don't understand why we can't have both traditions, lots of families do that," I wailed into an oversized tissue. It wasn't that I wanted to deny the nonexistent, unborn children their Jewishness -- I just didn't want to have to fake my own.
"You don't have to believe it!" snapped David.
"Then what's the point?!" I demanded.
After an hour Dr. Kreezak pretty much told us what we already knew -- that we seemed to be at an impasse and that there seemed to be nowhere to go but apart. What more could she say? "I commend you both for being so honest...," she said. "Would one or both of you like to come back next week? No, I'm sorry I don't accept credit cards. No, I don't validate parking."
Then David and I argued about that, me allowing that it was permissible for her not to validate, him snorting that for $125 an hour, covering our parking was the least she could do. No, our differences weren't just religious. In hindsight, the Christmas Eve Conversion Ultimatum was basically the straw that broke the shiksa's back. When you thought about it really, we had nothing in common except our devotion to each other. He was an actor. I worked in the publicity department for a movie studio and didn't have much free time or, as the case was, sympathy for actors. He loved L.A. I yearned for the wet leaves and private seashores of New England. He worked out daily and had a deep-rooted fear of cheese. I seasoned movie popcorn with M&M's and Junior Mints. He was deeply committed to political causes. My idea of activism was snubbing the Gap. But we were in love, or rather, as I suspect with most millennial couples in demise, in love with being in love. Who cares if the person is right or not? When you have someone to pick you up at the airport, all seems right with the world.
Among other disagreements (religion, finances, careers, children, politics, cuisine, location) was the argument over how much money and aggravation David, not just an actor but a struggling one, was willing to spend on his dog Harve's cancer treatment. David and Harve's relationship was one of those things that had seemed so fresh and endearing at the beginning of our dating and had become unbearably annoying -- a potential deal breaker -- at the end.
According to the vet, Harve's condition was severe enough to warrant $8,000 in treatment thus far but was not visible in the dog (except for the occasional dime-sized tumor that the vet was only too willing to carve out for a few hundred bucks). In my opinion, the dog had suffered enough and should have been free to live out his days naturally. In David's opinion, Harve was to ingest as many drugs as possible and be regularly operated on, while we remained unable to purchase a new living room set. Harve, once a handsome and noble-looking bloodhound, looked like a homemade patchwork quilt gone awry and suffered bouts of unpredictable aggression as a result of his steroid prescription. Twice already I'd caught him threatening the refrigerator.
About a year before the beginning of the end, my "issue" with David and Harve's relationship went like this: We had noticed that Harve's "dimples" had enlarged in the past few months and thought that since he was an L.A. dog, maybe it was melanoma. A quick, astronomically expensive trip to the vet and the resulting lab work confirmed David's worst fears -- Harve had mass cell tumors, and they were malignant. The first surgeries involved removing a few of them, under local anaesthetic. Each one of these trips cost several hundred dollars. Still Harve showed no symptoms, but the clinic thought he should undergo chemo anyway. This meant additional expenses in pills and carpet cleaning services, for the pills not only made Harve sick to his stomach but also affected his bowel control and, consequently, his dignity and our ability to entertain at home. By the time Harve came home with half his ear removed, wearing a large, blood-soaked turban and stumbling into walls while wetting himself, I thought we'd all had enough.
I closed the door of our bedroom so Harve wouldn't overhear. "How much are you going to spend? Five thousand? Ten thousand?" I prodded, a little too irritably. "It's not like he's getting better...look at him!"
"I'll spend whatever I have to spend! I can't let him die!" David snapped, looking at me as though I had just sprouted horns.
I sighed irritably. "He's not dying. He just looks like he is because of the weekly torture sessions you put him through!"
"What do you care? It's not YOUR money!" And the games had begun. I was jealous of the dog, that was clear. The Relationship Pet God took notice and scribbled something in His notebook.
From the beginning of the end both of the animals sensed something was wrong. Harve, the cancer-ridden purebred, was overly needy and underfoot, while Little, my runty but authoritative gray cat, began to heighten her patrol duties, storming from room to room as if to root out the bad vibe that had infested our sunny world. Little was a rescued orphan, and human tension brought out her fear of abandonment (though she'd never admit it). I noticed she was losing weight. Harve's condition basically dominated the animal health issues in our house, though, and Little had to be in pretty tough shape to warrant a vet trip.
Little had never fully developed to correct feline proportions, hence her name. I found her one summer day while jogging through West Hollywood. A bunch of neighborhood kids were standing in a circle, poking something with a stick. I loped over and saw a tiny heap of gray fur. The eyes were stuck shut, and ants were crawling all over it. It looked like a small, angry dust ball. I can't get involved, I thought, turning to continue my run. We already had an oversized dog with cancer, and David's anorexic, bleached-blonde, part-time scene study partner had two dogs (one was eighteen) that she brought over constantly. The landlord hated us and the yard smelled. I didn't have time. Cats weren't affectionate. Cats peed in shoes. I still had three miles to go. I can't. I can't.
I ran home to get a cardboard box and my car. As I hoisted the kitten into the box, it hissed and lashed out at me with its pathetic paws. Once at home I put it in the bathtub with some towels and heated up some nonfat soy milk. (It was all we had, unless you counted the scene study partner's staple of sugar-free, fat-free, Irish Cream-flavored nondairy Mocha Mix, which seemed inappropriate.) I dug out an eyedropper and squeezed the milk, which she did not want, into her mouth. I soaked a washcloth in warm water and cleaned her face until the crust around her eyes loosened and she could open them and see her savior. I would be a great mother someday. The kitten took in the situation, mewed irritably, and bit me.
When David came home from costarring in a Jack-in-the-Box commercial, I said, "Don't be mad...I have to show you something!" and I think he must have been expecting me to produce the brochure for business school or an eight-hour class to be a computer technician, because when he saw Little in the tub he looked delighted.
"She's so cute! You rescued her! What am I going to do with you, Florence Nightingale." He laughed, his lovely eyes settling on the new addition to the family. He grabbed me around the waist and planted a wet kiss on my head. "I love you, you know that?" he said.
Later, the vet informed me that Little weighed one pound and was lacking all the antibodies she would have gotten from her mother. This (I should have listened more closely here) would mean she would be highly susceptible to illness and infection for the rest of her life. She was presently filled with worms and ear mites, and she had an eye infection and a bad case of feline flatulence. But she was beautiful and she needed me. I'll save her! I thought jubilantly.
"She might be okay if you can get her to drink or eat, and keep her inside," warned Dr. Niblack, the vet at the VCA clinic on Melrose. He was a small, red-haired man with tiny spectacles, strange shoes and enough freckles for all of Ireland. Someone I probably teased in grade school. One way or another those people always get even. Kevin Bacon found this out the hard way in Flatliners. "Keep her inside," Dr. Niblack repeated ominously. "You need to limit her exposure -- "
Rowl! said Little, with the feisty spirit of a bear cub. She seemed to have no idea she was a cat. Harve's presence eased Little's dominance issues a bit, but even Harve, a good-natured, stupid inbred, grew weary of Little's bossy antics and occasionally cuffed her or pinned her to the ground with a full nelson and houndy growl. When this happened, David would laugh and I would yell, "Get him off, he's going to kill her!" David was like the parent of the playground bully. "Aw, it's good for her! Little needs to be put in her place!"
"That's not fair -- she's from the street, she has issues!" I said defensively. Harve was friendly, but Little was smart. Harve was fun while Little was complex. Little may have been emotionally odd, but Harve was just plain dumb. Still, we'd been a family. And now our tribe was dividing.
Fortunately, I couldn't dwell on it, because now I was back at the office, and I had a lot of calls to return. I was grateful that Viv, my boss, the executive vice president of marketing for our label, wasn't back yet from Aspen. I hadn't planned on dealing with a devastating breakup the minute I got back to work, and I wasn't prepared to plan for Sundance, deal with the egomaniacally crazy director Eugene R., or edit the movie clip reel so it wasn't morally offensive to the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America, or, as we in the studio marketing department liked to call it, Mostly Prudish And Annoying).
Adriane stepped tentatively into my office with a stack of bills and a week's worth of The Hollywood Reporter and Daily Variety, avoiding a rotting holiday fruit basket that Late Night with Conan O'Brien had delivered the previous week, before everything decayed, when my marital future itself was shiny and ripe.
"Are you all right, Lex?" she asked gravely but politely. I hadn't moved. In fact, I hadn't taken my coat off. She waited for my answer, and a wrinkle of worry crossed her flawless forehead. She was vacationed-fresh, with a glow to her caramel cheeks and a sparkle to her hair that hadn't been there before the break. Half Black and half Asian, and five-foot-ten with long, soft black curls, Adriane was the poster child for multicultural superhuman beauty. As patient as she was gorgeous, she was also scarily good at her job.
"How was your Christmas?" she tried hopefully, setting the pile of mail next to the call sheet I was staring at. In the state I was in there was no avoiding it, so I just told her. Everything. At the studio, in the movie business, you are the immediate family of your coworkers, like it or not. You spend at least fifty hours a week with them, usually more. There is no escape from the world of your job; it stretches from days to nights and weekends and vacations and sick days, and relationships have no boundaries, because that is the price for getting to work in Hollywood.
"Oh God, I'm so sorry...," she gasped, genuinely shocked. "Is there anything I can do? Do you need a place to stay or anything?" The phones were chirping wildly, but her eyes were unwavering. Having a loyal assistant who is also smart and hardworking is like having the number one movie every weekend.
"No...thanks, though," I managed. "It's not violent or anything, we're both still in the apartment for a while, just to figure things out." Adriane nodded understandingly and silently, a move she had down pat from being a publicity assistant. "I'm just going to roll a few calls, check e-mail and probably take off," I said.
"OK, could you -- sorry -- these invoices need to be signed...today. If you can...," she trailed off apologetically. Like I said, Adriane was a machine.
When I got home, David went straight to work and I went right back into therapy -- at the Music Hall Cinema on Wilshire. I had to exit the freeway of my head for at least ninety minutes, and that's where I always went to do it, ever since I'd moved to L.A. five years earlier. I never minded going to the movies alone -- in fact, I preferred it. Most people don't take movies seriously enough, don't understand the importance of the right seat, the power of timing the parking and popcorn purchase. The foreplay of trailers and previews, the sweet anticipation of the animated dancing candy, the honeyed tease of the dimming lights and that tender, infinite pause between the crowd's hush and the emergence of the studio logo that leaves you breathless with the potential of the imagined. If that seems a bit much, well, you don't love movies like I do. That moment is as close to perfect happiness as I've ever been.
You'd think that was something David and I had in common -- the movies. In actuality what we shared was an innate inability to live in reality. I preferred to dwell in the world of celluloid heroes; David's mental distraction of choice, like that of many struggling actors, was denial. When we first met, I admitted my problem when he asked me on our first date what I considered my "biggest flaw."
"Well..." I liked him, so I told him the truth. "My friends say I've seen too many movies." He laughed, because he could not know then how serious a problem it really was. We used to go to the movies, David and me, and suddenly I was sad with detail, the details of all the things we did together and all the things we would never do. We'd never have a fight where he dropped me on the side of the freeway, yelling, "So then walk home! Fine!" We'd never get drunk at Oktoberfest. We'd never go to Montana and worry about grizzlies. We'd never watch another movie and talk about how much better he would have been in the role, or how I could have improved the publicity campaign. My best friend was about to become a stranger. You'd think that wouldn't matter, since I hated him. The whole thing was very complicated.
While I was lost in Being John Malkovich, Little waited loyally in the car outside the Music Hall. A strange cat with peculiar preferences, Little loved the car. Meanwhile Harve was at home, busy taking David's side. Because David was still living in the apartment. It was still the beginning of the end, that terribly bleak period after Christmas, before I grew the balls to actually answer David's ultimatum, give the ring back or ask him to move out, when I pretended that our differences were manageable, that everything would be okay, that we'd wake up the next morning and he wouldn't be a Jewish actor, or I would be. Because it was safer this way, endless limbo, surreal nothingness on Planet Indecision. It was like the moment before you look at the pregnancy stick to see if it's blue, or that pause of eternity before you break the news about someone having leukemia. Before you fish or cut bait and you're just sitting in the boat, praying someone will tip it over or tell you what the fuck to do.
Copyright © 2005 by Tracy McArdle
Excerpted from Confessions of a Nervous Shiksa by Tracy McArdle Copyright © 2005 by Tracy McArdle.
Excerpted by permission.
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