Legs. Bare legs glinting in the torpid summer sun, pervading my senses and the sweet, egg-laden yeasty smell of plaited bread, challah, rising and heaving in my mother’s oven — those were my first impressions of women. The women drifted past my basement window, legs extended, their small forms and scanty shifts plashing past, their perfume, ahhh, the perfume wafting in. At age six, already I knew there was more to life than my life and more to women than my mother.
I wanted to tell the interviewer this, in answer to her question, “when did you first discover women,” but I didn’t. She asked the question with a lilt in her voice and partly in the faint but vain hope that I might discover her. Her main purpose, however, was to unearth my secret relationship history, which many women would like to be a part of. I know this. I understand this — sort of. I am a media sensation, albeit a far more unlikely one than they’d ever suspect. But since only a handful of people know who I really am, my essence, and because those few souls won’t divulge my roots under pain of . . . pain, I certainly wasn’t prepared to blow my cover. Instead, I told the interviewer I couldn’t remember when I first discovered women but that I thought the important thing was that I liked all women except forward women — whatever that is. But I liked the sound of the phrase “forward women.”
Perhaps an extended description will clarify who I am: I have ten-inch-long forelocks, pais, which, if left to their own devices, bob and twist unscientifically at odd angles, seemingly in defiance of gravity. That my forelocks are the result of purposive forbearance mandated by God and not a hipster’s hair choice has of late gone undetected by both observant Jews and the visually-astute. In short, I am an Orthodox Jew, a Chassid, albeit a surreptitious one. I am in fact unknown and surreptitious right now even to other Chassidic Jews. An underground Chassid, if you will.
I began my physical transformation cleverly, growing my previously militarily-short hair until it met and overtook my pais, camouflaging them, overwhelming them. In growing my hair for the first time in my life with the exception of my first three years when I remained unshorn according to Jewish law, I discovered my hair was exceedingly curly and thick and thus an asset in the very physical world I inhabit — Hollywood. I am an actor and occasional model, the occasions being when I am offered obscenely-remunerative photo spreads. One journalist once asked me if I ascribed some mystical, mythical, mythological power to my hair (I forget which “m” word he used) and asked me if, like Samson, I regarded my hair as a source of power, a question that did not cheer me. A cultural commentator wryly observed that as between me and Fabio, it was clear I was hair-apparent.
But the hair is where Fabio and I part company, if not hair. My ability to cause women to faint is not the result of any conscious effort but is a consequence of learned haplessness which I have learned to hide but on bad days borders on hopelessness and always passes for and is alternately characterized by the media as charm, dignity or restraint, which, it has repeatedly been reported, is uncommon in one as young as I. I am 20 years old.
My outer-self-scrutiny is, I hope understandable, in light of the fact that I am currently the subject of at least five PhD dissertations. One candidate analyzed, parsed, critiqued, and computer-analyzed my voice, with an aim toward determining my origin — animal, vegetable, or mineral. My voice quality has been described as jazzy, bluesy, and possibly containing a trace of a foreign accent — but no one can place it. They are onto something though. Although I am not, strictly speaking, foreign born, I come from the opposite shore: Brooklyn. But they’ll never guess where I am from. Through rapid and intensive voice training and with a great deal of struggle, my voice has attained a modicum of accent-neutrality. Would that there were syntax lessons, lessons to forestall my tendency to invert verbs and nouns, to yiddishly inflect sentences which need Jimmy Stewart-like flatness and atonality. Then perhaps my secret would be secure forever!
The only thing the press knows about me is that I am a male. But even that cannot be reported with any degree of certainty because to date my state of on-camera dishabille has been incomplete. The only people who know anything about me are those who knew me when, in which case they wouldn’t know me now and wouldn’t have a clue as to my present existence. Except my agent. Only he knows for sure.
My real name is Shaya Silverstein, a name which would be a dead ethnic-origin giveaway had I not adopted the stage name of Jacques Reynolds, a name which sounds strenuously Francophone-white Protestant and rugged. All of which I am not. Ragged perhaps — from fatigue. From others’ raw and inexhaustible need for me. Sometimes at the end of an interminable day of being an empty vessel, a purely physical being, I think of the rabbis of blessed memory whose bodies and faces were flayed and I think if I continue on this path, I will surely suffer a similar physical fate, except that my death will be at the hands of women’s fingers and fingernails in a mob-scene frenzy at a shopping mall. Except that my life will have been without meaning. Not that there aren’t compensations. Money. Fame. Adoration. But they pale next to the moral quagmire I am in. Odd. I spent the first 15 years being taught to use my mind for higher reasoning, Torah study, and prayer. I am now in a profession where I am paid for my mostly lower-life form abilities: to be. To be unthinkingly unblinkingly instinctively unerringly me. Physically.
I was not always a public persona, my visage easily found on magazine check-out lines and untruthfully reported to be in famous women’s beds. My encounter with the larger world began with a bump on my head and a deep breath, the latter of which has since become one of my accent-containment aids. I rammed into Jesus, the artistic director of a small theater, in an alleyway of the street where I had lived all of my fifteen years. He was throwing out what appeared to be a mound of garbage which looked like nuclear meltdown but which I later learned was a piece of scenery from an absurdist play. I was retrieving a cryptic note which I had written to myself which I now realize was my urge toward creativity — else I would implode. So sedulously did I approach this task — with the same single-mindedness of purpose as an itinerant Torah preacher, that I did not see him. After we both apologized profusely — my apology however, seemed larger than his, having had the added component of guilt. I had been taught both that acts relating to creative impulses and contacts with the outside world would lead me to the direct route to Gehenna, Hell– we began conversing for the first time.
Our wide-ranging conversation began with Jesus’ stage makeup and costume. He was dressed as Othello and was wearing the appropriate black face makeup. My desire to converse with him, just that, had it been known to my community, would have been considered highly aberrant, especially in light of the fact that my father is an important person in a sect within a movement of my religion, the sect being the Mogrovers, the movement being Chassidic Judaism. The founder and charismatic leader of my group was born in a small town in Eastern Europe, Mogrove, 200 years ago. Adherents can most easily be identified as black-hatted, black-suited and possessing an amazingly rapid shuckling ability rivaling the hummingbird’s wing-flap speed.
My desire to talk to someone whose very name I had been taught should never be uttered by a Jew — the explanation being that so many Jews had died in his name that only atrociously bad things could occur by saying his name — made this Jesus’ appeal all the more forbidden, his mystery all the more thoroughgoing than if his name had been Haimyukle or Bob. So great was my desire to speak to him that I felt a pulsating inward-pushing sensation which I thought was either life-threatening angina — punishment for my sin — or an exercise of free will, I wasn’t sure which. I asked him a question of such scope, of such sweep — I forget the question. It was something about theater– it was all he could do to answer me on one foot. Or to put me off. He did neither. He engaged me, engaged my mind thoroughly. And at that moment, I suddenly realized my urge — or perhaps they were plural? — had to be reckoned with. I asked him many more questions that night, and I left his side only once to rush upstairs to my apartment, bid my mother good night and wad my covers up to give the appearance that I was in bed before returning to Jesus for further illumination.
Dad — a term I never used when addressing my father but which I use here because Tata, Yiddish for endearingly Dad sounds too much the spud, too little the object of respect that he was for everyone around him including myself — is the second most powerful man after the Rebbe. In addition to being in the inner circle of the Rebbe, my father is himself a rabbi. For a time, it was widely believed that I would take over my father’s position in due course upon my father’s retirement, until I turned 13 and exhibited a total lack of desire to study Torah.
Alarmed, Dad brought in a zaya zaya (very very) modern psychologist to administer a battery of tests to ascertain if my inability to apply myself to my studies was the result of an organic abnormality — my sect is heaven-bent on the notion of the need to conform and be normal or at least to give the appearance of it howsoever alien the impulse. But I wasn’t abnormal diagnostically and my father was forced to conclude that I had zilch desire to study Torah despite several stern lectures on the subject. It was a shock, a shame, a shanda. Such potential! Such a high I.Q.! Such charisma maybe? But the latter thought — that people might be attracted to me enough for me to be the future leader — was hushed up despite the fact that our Rebbe’s wife was childless, and the Rebbe and his wife were both rapidly becoming of post-fertile age, if they were in fact ever fertile.
Thus, our sect was without an heir, and unless divine intervention intervened — which everyone except the impious believed He would. After all, there was biblical precedent. Hadn’t our matriarch Sarah been 90 years old when she conceived for the first time — we would have no Rebbe-replacement. Followers purged any such idea from their collective consciousness. But what alternatives were there really? Surrogate pairings were out of the question, as were other alternative, extraordinary high-tech means either because they were either Jewish-law-wise unkosher or because they seemed just plain unseemly and thus improper on that basis. But when the Rebbe had a minor seizure while greeting a foreign dignitary, the group decisively, collectively overnight reached the only conclusion they could: Dad’s son (me. My father only has one son.) was the boy, or the man, or something in between — at the time, I was poised for puberty — for the job. The idea seemed so right, so inspired, so clear, to everyone. What biology didn’t provide the Rebbe with, God and my father provided: That my father’s loyalty to the Rebbe was total made the scenario all the more perfect and palatable to the group. That my mother’s side of the family had produced eleven children seemed to bode well for my future ability to both be an heir and produce one. That I was not willing to assume the role seemed for a while beside the point to everyone in the community.
To sell me on the idea, my sect courted me. Women baked me pies. Men brought me sweets. All the men, even the dour ones, smiled and patted my shoulder as I passed. My Uncle Moishe, who was as close to a rebel as there was but who served the indispensable function of being the advance PR man for our sect on an as-needed basis, suggested to me that there would be no lack of available non-Orthodox nubile women — compliments of Uncle Mosishe — if I only cooperated. Nu? So nu? I was unwilling. Some of the men tugged on my sleeve and suggested to me that if I didn’t become serious about my studies and their plans for me, my father would suffer — as to how exactly, they left that to my overactive imagination.
Thus, it was in this climax of frenzy and fear that I met Jesus — who for the longest time I was only able to address as “Jeez” due to the fact that I believed my involvement with him and my love of the theater was a form of apostasy — how, exactly, I was not quite sure.
My rebellion up until that moment had been small, sly and calculating: I affected narcolepsy and fell repeatedly from the bench where I was expected to perch and learn in the yeshiva. Conjecture was widespread as to the origin of my malady: soft bones, perhaps? A frail constitution? Iron poor blood? The more assertive followers sent liver and broccoli. The more scientifically-inclined suggested visiting the “big men” at N.Y.U. (New York University) — perhaps my problem was nothing larger than a chemical imbalance or Attention Deficit Disorder.
The only ones who saw through my dissembling were my parents, who believe that it was better to leave a fallen yeshiva bucher lie than to force him to study while he felt the impulse to crawl into bed and remain there — I was becoming depressed at the idea of donning any sort of mantle. Little did I know at the time that there were mantles and mantles — to put an Oscar on. That I was unsuited for the bookish life and thus for heir-dom was apparent to the Rebbe, and he finally enjoined the group from hocking my chinick (hitting my head.) My parents told me I must prepare for the future and explore alternative career paths. I think my mother suspected I was artistic, and perhaps might have even encouraged it. When I was very young, she slipped colored pencils into my wooden pencil holder, which she told me I could use after hours as long as I did not attempt to draw images of the Almighty, thereby committing one of the big Ten thou shalt/thou shall-nots biggie sins.
At odds with how to fill my days — by this time, I had dropped out of the yeshiva — my parents placed me in a sheltered workshop, telling followers that there, my needs could be most carefully attended to, thereby giving everyone a sense that I had an attenuated understanding of the exigencies of the marketplace economy as well as my future place in the world. How could this have occurred, some sect members must have thought, but they kept such thoughts to themselves.
It should be noted here that the sheltered workshop was no picnic, having been created for those members of our community who clearly were unsuited for just about everything. And there, for three months, I actually attempted to fit in, scrutinizing my kippered herring sandwich with a look of near-religious awe as I recited the blessing over it. I think I already knew my true calling without knowing it. Until I met Jesus. And then I really knew.
Jesus’ theater was located in the basement of a local smoke shop down the block from my apartment. Looking back, I think his life and mine had once actually intersected previously, when my friends and I surreptitiously sneaked a smoke and he looked indulgently on, offering us his amber-colored translucent Bic disposable lighter even.
That first night, Jesus tried to explain Othello to me. He took me down into his small theater and we read several Shakespearean monologues aloud in unison, and then he let me read alone. He sat down unsteadily on one of his mismatched chairs — a cranberry plastic bridge chair with a large rip in it. His chest heaved and he just sat there for a few minutes shaking his head and rubbing his stomach absently.
“Kid, I know talent when I see it and you’ve got it raw, like James Dean.”
“Who’s James Dean?” I asked.
“Oh come onnnnn.”
“No, really. I’ve never been to the movies. And I don’t have a T.V.”
“Yeah, well, you must have copped a peek in the pool hall. Don’t play the innocent with me. I’ve seen some of your group leaving town in their civvies.”
“No, really. I’ve never even been to the movies.” He stared up at a painting of a deer on his wall.
“You mean to tell me, you never saw Bambi?” He narrowed his eyes to small slits that would admit nothing but truth.
“Not who. She’s a what. Unnnnn-bee- friggin’-lievable. I hope you’re not bullshittin’ me, and I don’t think you are ’cause it takes one to know one — ha. Well, look, if you’re interested, I’m casting ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ tomorrow. You’re too young for Stanley Kowalsky but I could use you to work the lights. Eight o’clock.” He extended his hand, which was soft and well-worn like my phylactery case. And he squeezed it.
At eight the following evening, among a houseful of people discussing the Torah portion of the week, one having to do with a red heifer — which I’ve always imagined to be henna-colored — I felt a bout of sleepiness coming on. I retreated to my room, not without first yawning ostentatiously. Before leaving, I thanked God for giving me a room facing the alleyway and thus egress. And lucky for me, my mother had long since stopped checking on me to see if I was still breathing through the night — well maybe not that long ago. And then I left the house unnoticed and unnoted.
I stayed out that entire night, watching Jesus cast the play and then, after everyone left, I read the text with him. I took the Stanley part, he the Blanche. In due course and under Jesus’ tutelage, I began going out on auditions to theaters whose most noteworthy an common features were their lack of working plumbing and where more than once I wondered if it were possible to get cholera from merely utilizing the facilities, howsoever felicitously. That these theaters had an air of plaguey unhealthiness to them did not seem to faze the actors and the directors at all, and, after a short while, myself. And in due course, I, like them, developed a fanatical attention to The Text.
And I began growing my hair — except the forelocks, which needed no further affirmative action. I hid the thick growth under my hat and tried to figure out new and inventive ways to my pais up. I took to wearing a loose broad cap, and when I was asked by members of my sect why I was wearing it, I explained that I was studying the texts of a scholar of sainted memory who wore a similar hat. This response was a real crowd pleaser. And I practiced, practiced practiced speaking uninflected English, which was my third language — after Yiddish and Hebrew. Jesus served the dual role of voice coach and acting teacher.
“You gotta stop adding syllables at the ends of your words, kid. You don’t wanna be another Bobby De Niro New York wannabe, do you?” he pleaded with me when his speech-transformation lessons weren’t taking. To emphasize his point, he slapped my cheek lightly. After a while — I’m a big one for pain-aversion — my accent became clipped, cropped and clean, almost British.
When I got my first lead role in a large institutional off-Broadway theater, I laid it all out on the oilcloth-covered table to my parents: I was an actor, I was moving out; I was going to Broadway. My mother passed out, my father was on the verge. And the Rebbe’s third-in-command and comrade-in-arms to my father, Benjamin, a cheerless man during normal time, let me know in no uncertain terms he wished he could do something extreme and physical to me by staring penetratingly, almost hypnotically at me with his hazelnut perpetually blood-shot sleep-deprived eyes. But there was no turning back. The reviews of my performances were uniformly good. The critics called me inspired. They called me gifted. More than one writer compared me favorably to the young Marlon Brando. Or was it James Dean? Some journalists would later wonder about my ethnic origin, saying such things as, “While Reynolds refuses to give interviews or release a bio, one can’t help but wonder from which hill or dale he rolled down from. Such finds are exceedingly rare.” I took up weight training and learned about the need to sweat on a regular basis. I developed pectorals, abs and quads, and if pressed, I could even identify them, albeit haltingly. There seemed to me to be something vaguely and oddly un-Jewish about grunting while weight-lifting but it didn’t deter me from lifting larger and larger weights. I developed a circle of friends and potential love-objects who were mostly blond-haired and who are generically known in modeling and casting circles as waifs and ingénues. I had no real interest in them, however, in part because I knew my mother would have objected (Shiksas! I could imagine her screaming,) and I still felt a need to please my mother. I began seeing movies by the dozens, starting with The Jazz Singer and working my way forward. Right away I knew I wanted to make movies, and I viewed the waifs and ingénues’ incursions into my thoughts as a potential career derailer and thus, swore them off. My game plan was to obtain featured roles briefly and then move on to leading roles, roles that in a very brief period of time, would lead the powers-that-be to the irreducible conclusion that I could carry a picture on my now well-developed shoulders, Samson comparisons notwithstanding.
For the time being, I decided that sex was out of the question. Before leaving home, I had promised my mother I would be a good boy, and although we didn’t go into the specifics, I interpreted that to mean that I ought to retreat into dark empty rooms at odd moments, thereby giving rise to my new worry: that I would develop repetitive stress syndrome.
I quickly found an agent in Hollywood, a hypertensive young-old man named Richie Lichtenstein– Jewish. What else? — who told me he had grown up in a kosher home. More significantly, he told me I could be the next male Julia Roberts and arranged for me to read for a part in a major motion picture for which it was widely believed no suitable person existed yet known to Hollywood, and therefore the casting frenzy was rapidly reaching enema-level intensity. To make a very short story shorter still, I was picked. I was anointed. I was the actor of the hour or more — if I knew how to sustain it. Media critics scratched their heads and hairweaves until they bled trying to figure out who I was, whose famous son I was, or which Shakespearian-trained school I had attended. They found nothing. To keep my secret, Richie hired a publicist who stated that I would not answer any personal questions or give interviews because I believed my private life should remain private, his redundancy being necessary to let them know I meant business. The mystique surrounding me thickened to globular consistency as thick as cholent, a 24 hour parboiled beans and meat dish guaranteed to reduce one to a near-comatose state on a warm Sabbath afternoon. Richie made his secretary, Rita, a consumptively thin young woman, swear my secret to eternal secrecy, made her swear on the Bible — I asked him not to, but he had already done it.
And then the real fun began. Richie and I had to decide how far my bodily exposure would be in my first movie. We agreed I could do a bedroom scene, so long as I was covered and the woman was covered somewhat, or if I was and she wasn’t, that might work too, if I wouldn’t look — which, I convinced him, I could do. If I hadn’t been quite so popular, contract talks would have been permanently stalled over this decidedly irregular clause. But Richie had inserted the clause and we insisted on it — a non-negotiable term, he called it.
The sex scene was a breeze because I didn’t have to do it: at the last minute the director opted for full-frontal nudity and my novel contract clause kicked in: a body double and not me, did the nude scenes. Nevertheless, doing the movie, the central theme of which was obsession and raw sexual desire — caused me to understand that at a bare minimum, to pun-it, I had to understand the mechanics of the sex act in order that I could act the before and after parts. To that end, Richie sat me down and made me watch some soft porn movies, filling in the dialogue-spare scenes with a running commentary and little how-to tips. He also suggested that if I was really feeling guilty, I could close my eyes at the parts I considered offensive. Suffice it to say I didn’t blink once even. When Richie worried that the lessons were not sinking in, he underscored his points with an assortment of outsized hand and body movements and more commentary.
“And then, when she’s ready, you reach under the covers and you kind of, you know, move your hips and adjust yourself, like um, when you’re finished peeing.” He reddened slightly. Ahah! So Richie was an old fashioned boychick at heart. I think he thought he was corrupting me, which arguably he was, and it bothered him. But there was no way out. I was a comet, if not Haley’s, then the kind that doesn’t come along more than once or twice in a good agent’s career.
When my first picture was released, both mainstream and trade newspapers went crazy because they didn’t have the goods on me. Only Jesus, Richie, Rita and my hairdresser knew my story for sure, and they weren’t telling. And then I went through my recurrent crisis of faith, worrying that I was straying too far from the faith, like when I had to fight with all my power to convince the director I could not genuflect during a scene that took place in a church — I told him I was hypoglycemic and that even after a full meal, bowing made me dizzy. What was I doing in a church, for any reason, I asked myself, career aspirations aside.
Picture Number Two was much more problematic. First off, it had a much larger budget and thus the stakes were higher. Second off, I had become an overnight sex symbol of the highest order and people wanted to see me in a sexy venue — which meant no body doubles. And thirdly, the female star, Lolinda Eames, was coming back after a hiatus that, rumor had it, was not of her making and was drug-related and she was therefore not in high spirits. Her recent marital split-up made her the least likely candidate for Person You Want To Spend More than Ten Seconds With.
To compound matters further, the second scene we were slated to shoot was a large and important naked scene. And this time around, despite my popularity, or possibly because of it, my nudity clause required me to do the posturing on-camera although, thank God, as with my first picture, I would be aided by an assortment of opaque fabrics, as per my first picture contract. Richie and I puzzled over how I would pull this off. The mechanics of the thing — that I thought I understood. But to act it out in front of the camera, that, I — and Richie — had a problem with.
“You take your hands and you pull her toward you, like this,” he said, and he demonstrated with a large potato sack that he had lugged into my trailer just for that purpose. “Except she’s going to squirm a little and you squirm a little and you cock your head the way the women go ga-ga, like this,” he demonstrated. He looked grotesque. “And then you pump it. . . .” As Richie pumped his hips, the sack opened and the potatoes thudded dully to the floor. He drifted out, taking his raunchy videotapes with him. He looked deeply troubled, and for good reason.
The first day on the set, Lolinda and I were fitted for our costumes and we were instructed to retreat to her trailer to discuss the naked scene we were to do the next day — an ice breaker, someone called it, with a snigger. In my previous life, being alone in a room with a woman was totally verboten — and it still was as far as I was concerned, unless we left the door open, which I did. I explained to Lolinda I felt a cold coming on and the only way I knew how to successfully stave it off was to breathe fresh air. She was unconvinced.
“Look, I don’t know what your problem is, except that you’ve got one. And your problem is my problem.”
“Is that your attempt at a pun? I am not in the mood. Everyone knows I haven’t been seen for two years and people are waiting for me to fail. No, they’re rooting for me to fall on my ass in advance of the fact. Which leads to you and me. For all your supposed sex appeal, uh-uh, nope, you just don’t do it for me. In fact, you’re as appealing as a . . .” she searched for a sufficiently insulting phrase — “fart.”
“I’m sorry you feel that way. But I’m trying. I washed my hair. I took a bath. Wardrobe told me you favor the color blue, so I’m wearing blue.” I realized I was both blathering and lying, but there was no stopping me. She frightened me.
“Look, I don’t know what rock you crawled out from and frankly, I don’t give a shit, but you’re not going to fuck with my career. Capice?”
I knew capice from Jesus, who liked to use capice as a variant form of “you dig?”
“Look, Lolinda, we both need this movie to succeed equally. Hell if I’m going to be a one-picture wonder,” I told her.
“Good. Now let’s go over our lines.”
“Don’t you have a script girl?”
“Oh, shit, just what I need. One Shot Wonder’s also a prima donna. How old are you anyway?”
“What’s the difference?”
“I just want to know if you’re jailbait for real just in case I get real dumb and unselective.”
“Thanks. I’ll consider that a compliment.”
“Don’t. I don’t fuck my leading men ever. You know why? Cause then it’s not acting.”
“I wasn’t thinking along those lines.”
“Like hell you weren’t. You young shlongs, all you think is dick and, if you’re really messed up, your old man’s and how it compares. Not to mention from your Last of the Mohicans hair to your manicured toenails, I smell a homo. Am I close? Not that I care. What’s that I smell? Tommy Hilfiger. Or Egoiste?”
“Are you finished?”
“Oh, babes, I’m just getting warmed up here. Wait. I think I’m growing a penis. Does that make things easier for you.”
“You’re vile, Lolinda.”
“Good word. Good word choice. And by the way, while we’re on the subject of you, I deeply resent that your trailer’s the same size as mine when you’re probably 1/3 my age.”
“I had nothing to do with it.”
“You’re college-educated, aren’t you, Lolinda?”
“What’s it to you?”
And at that, she thrust her hand into my hair and pulled, pulled at my scalp until I cried uncle, or in this case, Lolinda. She assured me that our on-screen relationship was supposed to be sado-masochistic and thus a heavy hair tug would be right in character, she being the sadist. She also informed me that, “just so you know, I’m not into that shit in real life.” I wasn’t convinced and I reflexively held my hands in front of my vitals, in case she had trouble separating reality from film.
But then a funny thing happened. She flicked her long blanket of hair at me, one two three — the latter time, the hair grazed my cornea, causing my eye to tear copiously — and then she threw herself into the scene and stayed that way until after the cameras were turned on the following day when we shot the scene. Amazing! She was no longer Lolinda. Her face, even her body language changed. And I liked it, liked the thoroughness of her transformation, her talent. I also liked her ample lower lip which reminded me of Ingrid Bergman. Although she was only in her early thirties, she had already attained mastery of the film medium. She knew the important things: how to grab control over everything: her make-up — who did it, how it was to be done; the lighting, especially for her all-important close-ups; the color of her clothing even. In short, Lolinda knew the business of her business. She had begun acting as a teenager and had never stopped. And now, she so dominated a scene that it was believed only two or three men weren’t blown off the frame and into a different time zone when sharing the screen with her. Was I one of them? I didn’t think about it. If I did, I wouldn’t have been able to do the scene. Lolinda also taught me the importance of pausing long enough and of valuing myself and my time on the screen.
The night before our big scene as I was stepping into my boxer shorts, Lolinda stormed into my trailer without knocking. I grabbed a nearby dishtowel and held it up strategically in front of me. She grabbed it away.
“What’s this shit about using multilayered gauze material between us or else you won’t do the scene.”
“I’m a prig.”
“Nah, you’re fucking with me and my career, and you’re not going to get away with it.” She thumped me on the side of my head for emphasis.
I took a large breath, my way of staying conscious for the count. “All right, I’ll tell you the real reason. I promised my mother.” Lolinda stepped forward menacingly. I shut up. There were sharp objects nearby, scissors, a wire hanger.
“We’re going to rehearse this scene until we get it right and then you’re going to sleep so you don’t look like shit in your close-ups. And if you’re really a good boy, I’ll even tuck you in bed.”
“With you, Lo?”
“Don’t get cutesy.”
“Now, so tell me, Jacques, other than your mother, what is your problem?”
“There’s a clause in my contract that everyone has to abide by. Like it or not.”
“Hank?” She flung the door open and our director, Hank, stood sheepishly nearby.
“Jacques, I know there’s something in your contract about the boundaries of the nudity, but the scene’s not going to work if you don’t cooperate with Lolinda.”
“Everyone cooperates with Lolinda,” I offered.
“Or dies trying not to. I’m warning you,” Lolinda thundered.
Hank tossed his car keys to me.
“I think you two need to settle this,” he said.
“I’m feeling awfully tired. I have a sleep disorder. I’m asleep right now. This is all a bad dream, actually,” I said weakly. I felt my knees buckling. Or had she sucker punched me?
“Why don’t you two see what you can do? Just for a bit. Lolinda’s always been a quick study, and I think you are too.”
“It’s called premature ejaculation, Hank.” Lolinda glowered under the bare bulb of my overhead fixture. She looked feral now. More specifically, she looked like one of the animals who is on the definite no-no list of unkosher foods.
The thought occurred to me that I might try calling Richie to back me up but at that moment Richie seemed a million miles away despite the fact that he was five miles away. And the image of me bleeding profusely while trying to dial Richie seemed very real. Lolinda and I drove out to a deserted parking area off some semi-rural highway — Lolinda worried about paparazzi and did not want our names to be linked off-screen. I drove, to use the term loosely. I had recently passed my driver’s test, and we lurched about until Lolinda started pounding the dashboard.
“If you do well in this role, you’ll earn enough money to hire a chauffeur. And then maybe you’ll live to see your next birthday and they’ll stop calling you the next James Dean.”
“Can’t you say one nice thing?”
“To you?” She laughed explosively and I felt her breath on my arm. It was warm, warm and inviting.
Suddenly Lolinda leaned forward, and her breasts grazed my arms. She pulled the keys out of the ignition, threw them toward a patch of trees and scrambled to get to them before I did. We struggled on the grass, until I realized I would never find the keys without her full cooperation and a set of industrial-sized floodlights.
“What are you doing, Lolinda?”
“We’re not leaving here until we get it right. Focus. Focus.”
“I can’t. It’s too dark. I can’t see.” Lolinda stuck the keys in her shoe, and hopped awkwardly back to the car.
What is your problem?” she asked me.
“I have no problem.”
I paused for a moment. Could she be trusted?
“What’s your real last name, Lolinda?”
“Close but no cigars.”
“With a t-z at the end?” She nodded. “I knew it! You’re Jewish.” I felt slightly comforted.
“I’m Jewish too.”
“So what does that have to do with the price of tea in China?” She stared at me, slack-jawed, her eyes equal measures of raw contempt and pure hatred.
“You don’t like being Jewish, do you Lolinda?”
“Just do the freaking scene, will ya?” She shoved my rolled-up script into my lap.
“I’m real Jewish.”
“Like what? Like you don’t eat lobster?”
“Very interesting.” She grimaced.
“Like I pray three times a day, put those funny boxes on my head, and promised my mother I’d be a good boychick.”
“You’re a virgin, you mean.”
“No kidding! You Orthodox — she said the word drawn-out, — never do the co-ed thing. Although I read somewhere you go to whores a lot — she pronounced whores “who-er’s.”
“Untrue. Or at least I don’t.”
“Please tell me you’re sworn to secrecy, Lolinda. Please?” She stared at me hard.
“You think you’re superior to me, don’t you, Jackie?”
“Bullshitter. But wipe those smug little holier-than-thou feelings away because if we don’t get our nudie scene right the first time around, we’re never going to. I’ve seen it happen. You do it twenty, thirty times, laying like a dead fish, all sweaty, your Mitchum’s 24 hour anti-perspirant doesn’t kick in. It’s beastly bad. Hah! Listen to me! Suddenly I’m English.”
Lolinda relaxed. She arched her back against the front of her seat and let out a long low whistle. And smiled for the first time, a charismatic sweet smile. She put the palm of my hand in her hand and squeezed it, a patty-cake handshake of sorts. And then she unfurled my tense fingers and pulled them toward her.
“I can’t believe I’m doing this. Why? Why?” she whispered more to herself than to me. And then she nipped at my fingers, not hard, not hard enough to draw blood, but just hard enough to get my circulation going where it counted. And I had this urge, this impulse to kiss her hard on the lips. But not enough to hurt her. And for just that moment I forgot all about my promise to my mother. I was in love with Lolinda’s neck, which shone in the dark like a small crescent moon.
“Listen,” she said. “I’m going to walk you through the whole thing. We can fake it almost as good as the real thing. Or better even.”
I barely nodded my assent. I felt weak. Weak and enormously grateful.
“. . . For this to work, you have to know what you’re doing and what part of the body you’re doing it to. So I’m going to show you. Show and tell, so to speak.” She slid my hand into her dress. She put her hand over mine. Her fingers were tapered and small. Her breasts felt large, cool and curved like my father’s best silver kiddish cup.
She looked out the front window of the car, as if she saw something beyond the dark horizon that only she could see. She shivered a little. She had a nice profile, the chin strong, the nose thin, the nostrils slightly flared. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply and suddenly I understood her and admired her enormously. And I understood that nothing came easy to her. Everything was sheer will, sheer work, the sheer doing it and daring to do it.
“Tomorrow, I’ll lay odds that Hank’s going to want to do a shot from below, your head directly below my breast. For some reason, he likes that Madonna and Child image howsoever inappropriate to the intention of the characters or the scene.”
I looked at her blankly.
“The Madonna is Mary. As in Mary and the Infant Jesus. Don’t worry about it. Um, Jacques, did your mother breast feed you?”
“I think so.”
“Well, if that specific memory comes into your head tomorrow while the camera is rolling, suppress it because it’s not useful. Tomorrow on the set, I’m your lover not your mother or your wet nurse or whoever other asexual woman was the Freudian formative influence in your life. And look at me while we’re doing the scene even though it’s hard, even though Hank’s going to tell you to do something stupid like look at a fly on the wall. You gotta understand, he doesn’t give a shit how we look as long as we don’t look butt ugly. Now let’s try it.”
She unbuttoned her dress slowly but in a workmanlike way. I smiled sheepishly.
“It’s O-K,” she said evenly, sympathetically. Hey, you’re young. The crew expects you to get a hard-on. They probable take bets on it even, not because they’re mean but mostly because you’re not chummy enough with them yet and you’re fair game. Ya gotta get friendly with the crew.” She moved her body closer to mine. And then we arranged ourselves in as close an approximation as we thought the shot ought to be. She tilted her head up at me in an appealing, obliging angle.
“And stand up to him. If he tells you to do something and you really don’t think your character would do it, then argue the point with him. He’s not an ogre; he’s just a mindless asshole. I hope he doesn’t tell you to suck on my breast, I really don’t like it.”
“I’ll tell him my character wouldn’t do it. I’ll refuse to do it.”
“Thanks. Now take off your pants and I’ll take off mine.”
I froze for a moment and absently twirled my pais.
“…But leave your jockey shorts on. I’m leaving my underpants on. See?” She plucked at the elastic band on her skimpy white bikini. She had a tough resolute look to her face, like a 1930’s film moll. And then she softened.
“You know, up close you’re not that bad looking, Jacques.” She smiled. What’s your real name?”
“Shay-a.” She said it haltingly. “I’ll call you Sean if that’s okay with you. It’s easier to remember.” I nodded. My mouth felt incredibly parched, a river gone dry. She took my hat off and spread my hair across hers — mine was longer and thicker than hers.
“Your hair’s not bad, either. A little feminine for my taste but. . . .” She slid herself closer to me and put her small derriere next to mine.
“What’s your real name, Lolinda?”
She hesitated. “Ruth.” She screwed up her face. “It’s plain. I hate it.”
“Don’t. She wasn’t plain.”
“Ruth. It’s a wonderful name. Very Jewish. ‘Wheresoever you shall go,’ I shall go.”
“Hmmmmm,” she said, considering it, although I don’t think she knew the story of Naomi and Ruth. “Hmmm,” she said again, sleepily. And then she laid her head on my shoulder, and there we slept in that deserted field while Hank had at least three conniption fits when he discovered we were both not in our trailers at bedtime. He watched us, horrified, as we pulled onto the set the next morning at dawn.
“We were rehearsing,” we said in unison.
“Look, ma, no bags under the eyes,” Lolinda said, drawing her fingers dramatically across our eyes like a Thai dancer’s.
Later, much later, when the cameras stopped rolling, Lolinda and I became friendly. Very. But that was only after I got my chauffeur, and they stopped calling me the next James Dean and she announced to the world her real name was Ruth. But I’m getting ahead of myself here. I introduced her to my mother, who taught her to make challah and chicken soup. And eventually, much much later, I even considered letting my pais hang down in clear view. But that’s another story.
Ellen Pober Rittberg is a fiction writer and poet whose work has been published recently in Slow Trains, Wheelhouse, Flutter, Long Island Quarterly, Burning Bush, and the upcoming Raintiger. A 2007 winner of the Mid Island Y’s Annual Poetry Contest, Ellen also paints. Her art website, which includes some of her poetry is: www.ellenpoberrittberg.com .