Wednesday, January 5, 2011

At the Movies / chapter 4

And I wonder, when I sing along with you
if everything could ever feel this real forever
if anything could ever be this good again.
The only thing I’ll ever ask of you:
gotta promise not to stop when I say when.
Foo Fighters - Everlong (Skin and Bones)

As you might have guessed, this is the chapter in which you get to see what Jose and I spent so much of our time doing. Jose and I loved the movies -- I mean we LOVED the movies -- and we loved each other. In many ways we were the movies, flickering along together like the interplay of light and shadow, the dance of laughter and sighs.

At the Movies

Jose and I became friends over a movie, a really bad movie; worse, a bad film. Movie lovers, both of us, we were destined to become fast friends but we didn’t know that at the time. We didn’t even know each other. It happened like this. Jose, a student whom I tutored in the Writing Center, invited me to a movie about an impressionist painter -- I forget which one, but that doesn’t matter; it was our first movie together, and afterward we drove back to my house in that blank silence only people unknown to each other can have. I told this story to a friend once and her response was to say that Jose and I had not yet established our “movie protocol,” those unwritten codes of conduct and procedure people develop between themselves over time, but that’s not it. Jose and I were never as formal as all that. Or maybe it was love that could not be formal; love, even with its needs and its courtesies, that would not be contained by protocol. But forget all that, too. Think of it this way. This friend of mine enjoys the movies, art films too, but she isn’t what I would call a movie lover, not like Jose and me. A movie lover lives for the interplay of light and shadow. A movie lover is someone obsessed with the emotion of a camera angle, the truth of a close-up or a cut, the rhythm of the heartbeat behind the story behind the pictures on the screen. A movie lover is someone who gets to the theater in time to see the previews and the opening credits, someone who sits through all the end credits and all the music until the screen goes dark and the house lights come up. A movie lover doesn't expect a movie in which gratification is instant or continuous but is willing, happy even, to sit through an agonizingly paced film until the last frame transforms it, retroactively altering the entire nature of the story. Half a lifetime into the cave-like silence of our drive back, I blurted, "That was really awful!" Jose let out his breath. "Yes," was all he got out before we broke into laughter. “I promise to do better next time!” And so we were friends.

Going to the movies left Jose and me like children after a trip through the haunted house: laughing, gasping, waving our arms and contorting our faces, our truncated sentences all starting or ending with, Wow! That was incredible. The same thing happens whenever someone asks me to describe our friendship. My words fall out in a heap, or they careen out of control, first running amuck then abruptly dead-ending: inarticulation again. Me and Jose? I just shrug and smile. One day I asked my husband to describe us. "Best girlfriends," he said. "You used to get together and squeal." "Squeal?" He shrugged. "Well, Jose's was a manly squeal.”

I don’t know about squealing but we giggled a lot, and we went to the movies a lot where, eventually, we fell into a ritual. It started with Jose smiling one day and saying, “My treat.” It wasn't a you-got-it-last-time-so-I'll-get-it-this-time deal, nor was it based on who had money, since neither of us ever had much of that. It was simply our ritual, and I, whose idea of being on time is rushing around in a hell-fire hurry five or ten minutes behind schedule, I began to arrive early so that I might be the one to smile and say, "My treat." We went on like this for over four years, but my husband was right when he said we were still in the romance stage of our friendship. "A truncated courtship," Cliff called it. A movie lovers' courtship.

Being movie lovers, Jose and I attended the Cans Film Festival religiously. This festival is an entire day in November during which movie lovers can escape to the alternate reality of their choice for, at that time, two cans of food donated to the Oregon Food Bank. And when I say we attended, I don't mean we saw a movie or two in the evening, I mean we plotted a timetable. We calculated the quickest mode of transportation between shows -- my car, the bus, MAX, or our feet -- and we saw our first movie when the first theater opened, at eleven, shuttling throughout the day between three downtown theaters on one side of the river and a Cineplex on the other. We had two goals: to see the movies we wanted most to see, and, just as important, to see the most movies possible.

The morning of the festival, Jose and I would meet for breakfast with our backpacks full of cans. This in itself required planning. Each year we scoped out the sales and discussed the cheapest, the most nutritious, and (since we carried these packs all day) the smallest can of food we could offer up in exchange for our tickets to movie lovers' heaven. Tuna always won, hands down, but we tried to give no more than one can at a time. We'd hand over tuna and a can of pork and beans, tuna and a can of soup, tuna and a can of vegetables. There wasn’t much variety in the menu we offered; we were poor. Sometimes Jose went to Esther’s Pantry for food, his AIDS status and poverty-level finances granting him access. The one time I chided him about receiving food for the poor only to turn around and give it away to the poor in exchange for a movie ticket, Jose said, “I don’t just take what I like. I take a little of everything,” and while I pondered the logic of that, the coup de grace: he offered me his extra cans.

Each year Jose and I started our festival date with a couple of movies at the Lloyd Cinemas, happy smugglers snacking on apple slices, cheese and crackers, grapes, chocolate. When it came time to go downtown, we would abandon my old car for the train. My husband, Cliff, would bus to the parking lot after work to pick it up, and sometimes he and Jose's partner, Frank, joined us for that movie or two in the evening. We always finished at the KOIN Center downtown, the only chain theater that played foreign films and art-house fare, and most importantly, the theater that ran the latest festival showings. One year, my festival total reached a record six movies in thirteen and a half hours. That was the year, the first year, Jose had to go home early. And the last.

Now I go to the Cans Film Festival alone. I don't plan the day. Sometimes I don't even plan the movies. I’ll see one in the afternoon at the Guild, maybe another in the evening if the day has gone well. The first year I went without Jose I saw only one movie, Pulp Fiction, and I cried all through the end credits; it would have been our new favorite. The next year I managed to take in three movies, the third late at night -- last showing -- after Cliff and I argued. Bundled up in Jose's wool overcoat, the tan one with the blue flecks, and driving Frank’s Miata, I put the top down, turned the music up, and took the long way to the cinema, speeding down Front Avenue into the pink sodium-lit industrial district, chanting with Rush on the radio:
... we are young
Wand’ring the face of the earth
Wond’ring what our dreams might be worth
Learning that we're only immortal
For a limited time.
The pocket of my Levi’s held a tiny blue ceramic vase with a cork, a chestnut-sized urn of Jose's ashes. At the movies, I curled my fingers around it.

It was an Indian summer the first time Cliff and I stayed the weekend with Frank and Jose, and our first afternoon was sun-soaked, luxuriously hot, languorous, and a little sad; not in spite of the sunshine but because of it. A short drive from their Mount Hood home that day brought the four of us to a wild spot where bushes grew thick with purple berries, huckleberries by the handful. Fanning out under the slanted sun, we began picking and very quickly found our containers full. We pooled our harvests and went out for a second time and a third. We picked till Jose was saying to Frank, for the second or third time, “I need to rest.” Even at this early stage in our friendship, when he was still healthy enough to pick wild berries and to weed his hillside garden, Jose was easily fatigued. It didn't help matters that Jose's brown skin broadcasted health and vitality to friends, strangers, even family; no one could believe he was sick. But I heard him, saying quietly almost to himself, "I need to rest," and early on I became his champion. Because of this, Jose told me things he couldn't tell his lover, things he couldn't tell his mother, things he needed to say but which, in his attempt at telling them, came out as nonsense to other people's ears. "It's the dementia," they would say, and as he lay dying they said, "He's out of it. He doesn't know what he's saying," but I knew it was only that they couldn't hear him. I became his voice. And I found I was calmed by the sound of it rising from my throat, forming clear, delicately enunciated words on my lips.

The week that I learned we were no longer caring for a terminally ill man -- "He's dying," the hospice nurse said, as if her words could make us believe it -- was the week Jose quit speaking. That night, as water rushed and pots banged in the next room where Jose’s mother vigorously washed the dishes, I sat by my friend and listened to what would turn out to be his last words. Moonlight streamed in the south-facing window as Jose’s arms and legs threshed the bed, his heels moving back and forth as if he were going somewhere, and his breath came out in little pants. He cried out, "Why is it so hard?" and I didn't know. More agitated and louder, though not loud enough to draw anyone’s attention but mine, he cried out again, "Why is it so hard?!" All I could do was say "What's hard, baby?" All he could do was repeat the question. So I promised to help -- we’d figure it out together --  and that’s when he quit talking. To me. To anyone.

In the year after Jose’s death, Cliff and I visited Garrett in the hospital room from which he would go directly into hospice. He lay sprawled over and around white sheets, skin bare, his thinning hair pushed into a Kewpie curl, and as I regarded this man now become a doll, body wasted away but calves still chorus-girl beautiful, I recalled that Indian summer afternoon: how we all smelled of sun and summer dust when we returned to the house; how Jose, wearing white, looked the least marked by our hip-wading through the brambles; how Garrett, arriving late, immediately baked the marble-sized berries into a pie; and how we gobbled that pie as soon as it was cool, finishing it off for breakfast the next morning. I remembered that after Jose had rested and Cliff had finished a cigarette we crossed to the south side of the road where the bushes grew thick and close, the trees towered broad and high, and the land dipped and rose suddenly like the sea. We waded deeper into the forest. Separated now, we tossed the breadcrumbs of our voices.
Where are you?
This way.
Here, Jose. We're over here.

Picture this: The Movie House, one of my favorite places on the planet. On the street, a black and white awning marks an understated entrance into what was once a women’s social club. Inside and to the right, popcorn is sold at a tiny counter. To the left, a broad staircase mounts to a spacious double parlor: wicker furniture, chessboards, high-class magazines, back-to-back twin fireplaces; deluxe; arrive early, sip tea, be seen. Just off the parlor, and not much bigger, is a theater whose bright orange seats are as hard on the backside as the color is on the eyes, but next to Cinema 21, this is my favorite film venue. The Movie House is the first theater where I got to make out with a boy I had a crush on, the first where I enjoyed soft chewy Milk Duds, having previously had only the jaw breaking variety at lesser cinemas, and the first theater where I learned to enjoy the pleasure of my own company.

The first movie I went to alone was in the late ‘70s, just out of high school. La Cage Aux Folles is a French flick about a gay couple confronted with the necessity of appearing normal in front of the parents of their son's fiancée; her father is deputy minister of morality or some such, and the boy's father owns a nightclub in which the boy's other father performs -- in sequins, heels, and the not unoccasional feather boa. I'd been a fan of French cinema since my ninth grade French teacher took the entire class to see Cousin Cousine, so while I was teenager raised in the suburbs, subtitles didn't seem odd. A foreign culture didn't seem odd. No, what seemed odd was going alone. To a girl raised in the suburbs, going alone to a movie meant that you were somehow deficient, not sociable enough, not desirable, not . . . right. A loner. I'd tried to get my boyfriend to go. Tried to get my best friend to go. Tried my sister who had seemed so happy to have me living at home again. Even tried my mother. No, No, No, and No. I resisted going alone, I did, but in the end a movie was what I wanted. So I turned up the AM radio and steered my '64 Bel Air wagon toward what felt like the wilds of downtown.

I don't recall why I chose La Cage Aux Folles or why I decided to see it at The Movie House, only that I had the best time I'd ever had at the movies. So I went again. This time I took my boyfriend and two more friends: all boys, all straight, and all stone-faced throughout the movie. Not even a grin. As for me, when la femme of the couple, the drag queen chanteuse, la maman, the swish-and-dish flaming "better half" shrieked in horror or surprise or delight, I shrieked; the man was a scream. (Yes, Nathan Lane and Robin Williams are funny in the later American remake, but I say it is impossible to be funny in the same way as the French.) My friends didn’t seem to get the joke. I tried translating the quirky French humor, thinking that the French sensibility might need more explanation for American high school boys. Straight boys, all of them -- ah, that was the part I hadn’t considered -- they shrugged off my translations with the same indifference they shrugged off a movie about a gay cross-dressing cabaret act. I shrugged off friends who thought the world turned only one way and became, until Jose, my own favorite movie partner.

Over the years, taking myself to the movies became my primary source of solace, my cure for all discomforts, from boredom to desire to heartbreak, and especially for loneliness. While in college, I spent a term off-campus with a group of students in New York City. I loved roaming the city and searching out new places to hang out and write on the cost of a single cup of coffee, but in many ways I remained lonely, displaced, and homesick. When it got to be too much, I would take myself to the movies. One night I saw a movie that was set in the very city that had me pining for home but, and this shows how great a narcotic movies are for me, I laughed so hard and fell into the story so completely that I forgot: forgot my dingy residential hotel room, forgot the other students with whom I never managed to connect, forgot the darkness and the cold and the rain outside, forgot the entire city of New York. I was happy. I was still laughing when the movie was over, laughing and walking past Cliff's apartment on the way to my own -- in my head anyway -- as the credits rolled. When the house lights came up, and I rose to leave, that’s when it hit me: Three thousand miles. This wasn't Cinema 21. My apartment wasn't a dozen blocks away. There would be no easy way home.

In February, the grayest, rainiest, crankiest month in western Oregon, my favorite place to watch movies was always at the Portland International Film Festival. Jose’s the one who got me started, and while he and I usually went for the foreign films -- we could see a movie in English any time -- our final year together included a British flick, a comedy. The Movie House was filled with people and with laughter, but whenever Jose leaned over to whisper that question moviegoers ask each other all the time (“What'd he say?”) I didn’t have an answer. I didn’t know. At first I blamed the trouble on language, American English versus British English, but no one else seemed to be having trouble with that. Then I tried listening harder, but nothing helped me understand the words. In retrospect, I know all too well this feeling of syllables sliding past without spaces or markers to delineate the shape and sound of what we call words. Not many years after this movie with Jose, I became so ill that the depression and the side-effects of the drugs I took for the depression slid all things together like raindrops into puddles. I could hear the voices of friends and know that these sound vibrations connected into discrete words with distinct meanings, but my ears could not translate. In the theater that day with Jose something was wrong, I knew it, I just didn’t know what. It wasn’t our hearing. It wasn’t the language. And it wasn’t because Jose or I resisted the picture of life that was playing on the screen before us, as my high school friends had. But we were resisting. As Jose neared his own closing credits, as his senses failed and body and mind became brittle with premature age, what we resisted most of all was the admission that we were losing each other.

While I was in college, I lived in Northwest Portland and was within walking distance of Cinema 21. I met Jose years later, when I was in grad school and living on the opposite side of town, but that theater has remained my favorite. Whenever Jose and I went to Cinema 21, we always sat in the front row of the balcony. Anyone who went there with me sat in the front row of the balcony. It’s my place; some of those seats bear twenty years’ imprint of my bony ass. I saw Eraserhead there. I sat through Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God and through Tarkovsky’s Solaris. All through my twenties I returned yearly to watch Picnic at Hanging Rock and Days of Heaven, to see Siddhartha showing with Steppenwolf, Nosferatu with Freaks. Cinema 21 is where my junior high French class, mouths agape, watched Cousin Cousine. It's where Jose took me and his mom to see Twist, a movie about the first coupleless dance and the downfall of Western civilization as our parents knew it.

Frank, Jose, and Cliff and I saw Tongues Untied at Cinema 21. A documentary, it was originally scheduled to show on OPB (Oregon Public Broadcasting), which had also aired Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City the previous year to much acclaim, but this time OPB balked. Tongues Untied was just too much: too much about being gay, too much about being black, and most subversive of all, about being black, gay, and out. Inside the dark of the theater the four of us we felt the drum-beat-poetry, rap, snap-queen power of the movie enter our blood and dance us out into the heat of the summer evening. We celebrated Tongues Untied by going out for dessert and listening to Frank’s coming out story, beginning to end, about a skinny white kid touring with a black Southern Baptist choir. Jose never did tell his story, not really. Neither he nor I shared any ritual telling of the past. We focused on the present, and we paid attention to the past the way we paid attention to illness and the encroachment of death. We went to the movies.

In addition to the film buff's classic favorites, Jose loved the movies of South American directors. Our favorite was Santa Sangre -- Sacred Blood -- about a family of circus performers. It is a Dadaist film. Completely surreal. Completely real. Broken hearted and enraged, a man pins his wife to the red and white knife-thrower's wheel, slices her arms off at the shoulder as their son stands by helpless. The boy kills his father and spends his life being his mother's arms. When she needs to do her hair, it is the boy now who stands behind her, and slipping his own long arms into the red sleeves of her dressing gown, he raises first the comb and then the mirror to her black hair. When she wishes to play the piano, it is his arms in her white silk blouse sleeves and his manicured fingertips moving up and down the keyboard. By the end of the story, the son is a grown man desperate to escape the mother who has murdered his every girlfriend. He tries to escape but cannot; his mother is already dead. Her memory lives on in a life-size rag doll that her son slips into, his arms drawing a hug around her from behind as he becomes his own mother. In the end, it is his girlfriend, the only girlfriend his mother has not killed, who quietly leads the man to raise his arms in surrender to the police. Her name is Alma. Jose whispers to me, "Alma means 'soul' in Spanish." Under my breath I say it, "alma."

* * * * *

Jose wanted to die at home. Like many men of his generation dealing with AIDS in the ‘80s and ’90s, Jose assembled a circle of friends to help. First we helped him with eating. Then bathing. Then other bodily functions. A “good” night meant that Jose would get up four (or five or six) times to pee, to eat, or just to talk. With a little assistance he could use the plastic urinal, but because of the dementia, he sometimes got his signals crossed and couldn’t say he had to pee until it was right now. Or too late. After the urinal came the Depends, first at night, then around the clock, just in case. Jose could still move under his own power with the help of a walker, and he usually had enough warning before a bowel movement to get out of bed and head for the toilet. But, like the Depends, we were there in case.

It was my first night to stay with Jose after he began using Depends. I was asleep on the couch when he called out. He had to go, he said, Now. So, I scramble to get him out of bed and down the hallway, but halfway to the bathroom he can’t walk. Such complications happen without warning for those with dementia, and Jose and I find ourselves in a slow-motion race, he with diminished strength trying to push the walker while I pull him along with words of encouragement. When we get to the bathroom, my suspicions are confirmed. Jose’s legs could not move because his bowels were. Standing over the toilet now, Jose grips the walker while I remove the Depends, and then it’s shit everywhere. Loose. Copious. Like applesauce, a quart of it. By the time I get the diaper off but before I can reach for a cloth, Jose’s bowels have begun again and it’s shit hitting the toilet seat and shit on the walker, shit dripping down his bare legs, shit on the legs of the walker and shit dripping down onto his white socks and the floor. Shit. New fathers squeamish about diaper duty got nothing on this. Eventually I think to grab Jose around the middle, the way the nurse showed me, and I lower him slowly to the raised toilet seat. I let him finish while I dispose of the diaper.

When I wrote this scene I tried making it comical and in a movie perhaps it could be, but it just wasn’t. Corey Baker, who helped hundreds of men in Jose’s situation, had arrived earlier that evening to walk me through the protocol. First I must ask permission. Is it okay for me to care for you in this way, Jose, to change you and clean you? Yes. Then I asked Is it okay for Corey to walk me through it? Yes. Once I’d been shown the ropes and Jose was finally asleep, I went to the bathroom to brush my teeth. With Tinactin cream for athlete’s foot. And so I learned that my methodical calm masks anxiety.

By the time Jose is finished I have gloved up -- protocol -- and with latex between us, I help him to stand. He braces against the walker, bare from the waist, shaking, shit covered, determined, hunched like an old homeless man leaning into the wind. The linen closet is to the left of the commode. I reach in. There is one washcloth, white with peach stripes; one. Not even a towel. So I pick up the ten square inches of terry cloth, put my arms around my friend, press my cheek against his and whisper in his ear, “I love you.”

* * * * *

It's spring in Northwest, Portland’s only truly urban residential neighborhood, the trees are leafing out, it’s cool and sunny, and Jose and I have just been to Cinema 21. We didn’t sit in the balcony this time because Jose's legs can't manage the stairs, two flights. We don't discuss this, just as we never discussed sitting in the balcony our first time together at this theater; we just headed there. This time we head to the double swinging doors on the main level. I get Jose settled in our seats -- not too close for him, not too far away for me -- before I come back out to grab us some popcorn and cinnamon tea. I don't recall which movie we saw; a movie lover isn't necessarily someone who remembers the title of every movie. Oftentimes a movie lover can't even describe the plot. It’s the meaning that is important, the force of feeling conveyed that defines a movie. When Jose and I leave the theater through the twilight of the lobby, he is wearing his black and white hound’s-tooth scarf, the soft one I now wear as he did, around the neck and then tossed back over each shoulder. The sunlight is blinding. It darkens our sight and we have to stop to let our eyes adjust. When we start up again, it is Jose's walk that I notice: measured, each footstep something I can both feel and not feel, just like Jose's feet, numb and cautious with neuropathy, guessing at where the sidewalk is.

We walk from Twenty-first Avenue to Kornblatt's on Twenty-third, and as we walk Jose is talking about his novel. I feel spring in his words and in the two of us strolling to lunch after a matinee. Jose might have been wearing that canvas field jacket, the one he wore constantly and had nearly worn out, the one that had me saying to Frank as we sorted through the clothing, "What jacket? I don't remember that jacket." I can't say for sure. All I remember is the walk, paced as I would later pace myself with my infirm grandmother, walking hand in hand through the Chicago neighborhood of her youth. At Kornblatt's, Jose and I order cheaply. Surrounded by the corned beef smells and big city sounds of this New York style deli, we talk over the whole movie, the previews of the next movies, and the movies we want to see after those. We eat slowly -- Jose is the first friend since my best friend in second grade who eats as slowly as I do -- and we make the grumpy, tip-scrounging waiter bring us napkins and more napkins for our matzo ball soup and our half sandwiches of pastrami and our rice pudding dessert. When we're full, we thread our way through the crowded tables, and I hold open the heavy glass door as we exit to the sidewalk.

As for what happens next, I can’t say for certain. Some scenes play over and over in your mind while others become blank tape. Suddenly, Jose isn't beside me. I turn: he's standing four steps back, stock still. Somehow I know this is because he will fall if he tries to move. I can see that he can't see me; he stares straight into my face, not registering a thing. I walk back and take him by the arm. I help him to sit in a plastic chair by a white metal table on the sidewalk. I command him, Stay right there, like I'm speaking to a small child, Stay, don't move. Then I run. Past the new leaves and the spring smell and the sun on everything, I run to my car though I can't recall where I parked it. I don't recall driving back. I don't recall whether my car was big or small or whether it was easy or hard for Jose to get into it. I only remember the beauty of the white car parked at the curb, between Jose and me. No place to park, so I stop in the middle of the road, right next to this pristine Chevy Bel Air with picnic table fins carved into its flanks like horizontal wings. 1959. A very good year for cars. I have one eye on Jose; one eye is admiring the Bel Air; one eye is on the rear view mirror and the traffic, always thick and ornery on Twenty-third Avenue; and one eye, my internal eye, is clamped shut and I can't pry it open. Did Jose make his own way to the curb, slipping through the narrow passage between the Bel Air and the car parked behind it? Did I open the passenger door for him? I don't know. I know the Bel Air has smooth clean shiny white paint. Like new. I know the day is bright and suddenly hot, but I am cold. I know, as if it were my own body, the stillness of my friend, the quietness of his legs as he tries to rise and walk over to me. I know the distance, the long distance, of six feet.

On the way home we didn't talk about what happened. We drove home after hours of sitting side by side in the dark watching the same flashing figures, sighing the same sighs, sharing tissues; laughing, I think we laughed on the way home. After I had dropped Jose off and parked the car in front of my rented white house, I don’t recall what I did. Cry? Smile at my husband and say, "Jose gave me a little scare today"? It doesn't matter. All I saw, what I see still, is a beautiful man at an outdoor café on a fashionable city street. He is in white: white shirt, white pants, black boots, no scarf or jacket. The sun shines brightly as he sits at a sidewalk table in a white halo of light while I am stuck in a too large and empty vehicle with an insistent line of traffic pressing in behind me as I sit with my foot on the brake and my eyes on Jose.

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