Smoke and Mirrors

by Shelagh Power-Chopra

She had been dating the aging movie star for a few weeks now or it could have been a month, she wasn't quite sure. I'm dating a man named Bob, she told her friends; he's a nice man, quiet, intelligent, ruggedly handsome. But the actual word dating seemed wrong somehow, wasn't she really seeing Bob? 
Seeing Bob was the appropriate term—seeing a movie star wash his back in your shower, seeing a superstar piss in your toilet. This suspension of belief; striped from the movie world itself, seemed to have wrangled itself into her own life. Reels of film, strips of life, edited together linearly but conveniently forgetting any sort of consequence.

And she hadn't sought the romance out, wasn't even a groupie—hell, she wasn't even a slight fan, when he came on the TV she immediately changed the channel, searched for someone else, someone younger, darker, a little seedier. Once at two in the morning she stumbled on one of his old cowboy flicks—one that had pushed him into stardom. She watched a few minutes with a drowsy curiosity. 

There he was on the screen—wrinkle-free, mustache laden and dust covered, holding a gun between his legs. But soon his costar came out, deftly steering a bicycle and she sat mesmerized by the smug curl of his upper lip, the eyes soaked in blue. When Bob came back on the screen her attention drifted as it usually did with Westerns and she dozed off, stilted monosyllabic dialogue swimming softly from the television. 

They'd met at his second cousin's house, a petite neighbor she had befriended from across her lawn. The woman often had small dinner parties—usually one or two guests proved interesting and she'd often find herself quibbling over something mundane in the corner, tipsy from too many whiskey sours. That night the neighbor introduced him giddily as if announcing the arrival of a new baby. This is Bob, everybody—my cousin! At first she didn't recognize him, he wore tortoiseshell glasses, a third-day beard and his hair was very short, cropped to the scalp—for a part, he explained to his cousin's guests over dinner.

A plate of Salmon en Croûte lay confidently on the table before her and she sat down—to her relief, very far from him, at the end of the table near a homely paralegal. It was a rowdy group and she barely heard him speaking, just brief snippets leaking toward her end of the table: haven't been to that market, Wyoming is beautiful this time of year, Yes, I do know Jack very well—first met him in '66. He laughed heartily, a commanding yet courteous laugh and smiled often—a warm glossy sheen that radiated across the table as if he were the source of light, the glow they were able to see and eat their food by. 

After dinner—coffee cups half-full, thick sheaves of cigarette smoke still above the dining room table; he told them all a story—an odd encounter he had had at a post Oscar party. It was funny and they all laughed uproariously but she felt it had been told too often, a rehearsed story he kept in a drawer in his brain labeled, “Entertaining Dinner Party Story”. Soon, she drifted away from the table, stood outside the bathroom door to look at photographs on the wall when she felt a tap on her shoulder. It was her host.

Whadja think of Bob? She asked like a proud parent.

He's, he's nice—a nice man. She heard herself answering but didn't really believe it herself for she hadn't had a single word with him. She wandered to the living room and sat within the oriental theme of the sofa, stationing her fourth glass of wine precariously near her feet. The TV was on and she watched Jane Fonda nestled in a maroon bikini hug a mailman in the movie, "On Golden Pond". It disturbed her how Fonda's face didn't seem to match her body, it was as if a casting agent had plopped an attractive librarian's head on the body of a bombshell, it was unsettling and she was instantly comforted when Fonda was dressed modestly in the next scene. 

She felt the cushion beneath her indent slightly—Bob had sat down next to her, the neck of his white turtleneck sweater stark against his tanned face. Hello, he said quietly, crossing his legs and sipping what looked like a glass of port.

I'm sorry, do you mind if I sit?

Oh, no, no, please do, she said wearily like the tired squeak of an old dog toy. She instinctively reached for her wine. They both watched the movie for a few minutes. Jane was arguing with her real/onscreen father. She turned to him, attempting small talk. 

You like her?

Who? Jane?

Yes, Jane. She liked the familiar, as if they were talking about a mutual friend.

Yes I do. I do. She is—she's a very nice woman, did a few films with her.

She leaned over to reach her glass then wedged herself into the cushion more. Oh, I don't think I've seen any of them. Her regular voice had come back, a deeper and more assured tone. 

Oh, well. They're not bad really.

I'm sorry I haven't seen many of your films.

That's okay, I haven't seen many Schwarzenegger films.

I have, only because an ex-boyfriend loved action films. Extremely intelligent but a lover of action films.

Hmm. A good Kung Fu movie never hurt anyone.

No, I suppose not. Movie scenes were running in her head; Barbara Streisand popped up, skipping around with a compact hairdo and white vinyl boots. 

Weren't you in that movie with Barbara Streisand, On A Clear Day—

You Can See Forever. No, that wasn't me. That was—

The French guy. Sorry. 

Montand. It was The Way We Were. It's an oldie.

Oh, Sorry. She must be nice too.

Sure, sure.

She waited for more, a tidbit, a raunchy bit of gossip, but none came, he simply smiled, his red mouth shifting in his wrinkled face. They spoke for a half an hour more—a little about the dinner they had just eaten, the connection to the second cousin, a family with a million cousins—like a maharajah's brood, he said. They moved on to art—getting into a petty argument about limited prints. She told him she was a curator at a local museum, he was instantly impressed, his eyebrow curving into a well-seasoned look of interest. 

Soon after he asked her out—for a quiet dinner—he emphasized as if one always expected lights and glamor when going anywhere with him though she supposed one would and she pictured them ducking in the bushes, hiding from the paparazzi. Most of the other guests were leaving, and throughout their conversation he stood saying goodbye to each guest, the men pumping his hand affectionately, the women blushing as he kissed their checks.

They went out a few times, quiet meals in similar hole-in-the wall Chinese restaurants where all the owners appeared to know him—short, solid Chinese hostesses with broad cheeks fawning over him. Hewoo Bob, How you? They'd ask, then answer for him. Ok, you good—their heavy red menus masking small breasts. I like these places, limited style, limited talk; he would say always ordering Crab Rangoon and Subgum Beef.

At first the conversations seemed unnatural, she tried grasping onto a higher language as if her own inflection and syntax were somehow too common, then casually she seemed to slip into his vernacular; the matter of fact tone, the decisive language, each word measured precisely, as if carefully propelled from his mouth on tiny rollers. 

She found most actors spoke this way on TV, as if they had pre-written text tucked into special lobes of their brains—my tone should imply this, my topics condensed and kept to a minimum length. She thought it might be better for film stars to incorporate dialogue from their past films into their everyday language-wouldn't it be easier, she thought, to have these fabricated pieces for everyday use? People wouldn't catch on to quickly if you spoke them naturally enough. 

She demonstrated her own theory accidentally during their second dinner together. You just keep thinkin', Butch. That's what you're good at, she threw out jovially when he said something insightful about the Tutsi and Hutu conflict in Rwanda. His reaction was slow—a frazzled incapacitation as if an unknown creature has buzzed by his face then landed in his food. He laughed but it seemed out of irritation and when she encouraged him to continue the discussion he seemed to shrug it off, moving on to lighter subjects. 

When he expressed his admiration of horses—she did it again—just as she felt his excitement, the veins in his hands inflating when he spoke of their prowess, the subtitles in their strength—his expansive ranch. Well, you're a romantic bastard, I'll give you that, she mumbled offhand. This line hardly fazed him and she was sure he hadn't remembered it. 

Somehow the look on his face remained the same if he were talking about world famine or the merits of a really good shoe. He continued to speak of horses, his tone becoming venerate and reverential, his gesticulating reminiscent of a light trotting. Soon she felt the need to change the conversation, shift away from the horse-talk when images of manure and dirty stables popped in her head as he sipped his Oolong tea.

They slept together quickly after the second Chinese dinner. Drunk on four bottles of Sing Tao, she wobbled in the doorway, her jaw hanging open at the sight of his gangly body sprawled on her bedspread. At first it seemed a rough and ready cowboy had entered her bed for he felt like a giant callus, his skin tough and rubbery. I spend a lot of time outdoors, he whispered when she flinched slightly while stroking his thigh. 

When they made love his body moved sporadically like an elongated and splintery marionette, his dry arms and legs brushing sharply against her thighs and calves. But he was surprisingly attentive without being overbearing and she felt attractive in his presence, the beautiful understudy he showered undue attention upon. 

He slept often at her house, the anonymity of her bland suburban neighborhood comforted him and she often sat beside him as he slept, framing him with her fingers like a director, perfecting poses of him in her tiny framed hands. Did he look better with a mustache? She put her finger under his nose, picturing that quasi-handle bar he donned in some of his old films deciding she was indifferent, not caring one way or the other. Should he cut his hair? She wasn't sure about the tousled blond mop-wasn't he too old for that look? Did the cropped look suit him or was it too severe—a wizened mental patient? He woke up, his eyes suspicious, looking up at a woman he hardly knew. Can you separate the myth from real life? She asked sheepishly as if the question were naive and superficial. Only if I want to, he answered, winking up at her then quickly slipping back into a deep sleep.

They continued to see each other for a few weeks, like a drowsy older couple breaking from an afternoon of reading for brief stints of napping, fucking and eating, then at once pressing their noses back in their books, their shirts and pants disheveled. They had meaningful conversations, some about art but after them she felt tired as if she had lectured too long or led a disorganized tour through a museum. 

One afternoon after he had gone home, she found his underwear, a pair of expensive white briefs lying by the foot of the bed. How could one forget their underwear, she thought, wouldn't they notice when they slid in their car and felt a feeling of general unease? How could he forget his underwear in any woman's house? She picked them up gingerly at first, then held them cautiously in her palms like a full dinner plate, folding them neatly and putting them on the dresser as if a whimsical pop art display. 

Later she would walk by them, eyeing them suspiciously as if they may start to glow in a movie star way and she leaned over and gave then a sniff, the scent of something familiar rising in her nostrils. An image of a cow being slaughtered rose in her mind—its cut throat dangling precariously from its head—it was the deep scent of leather, aged and worn. The image never left her, and later whenever he stood before her, his underwear slipping down his lean legs, passing over his seasoned penis she thought of cows dipping their neck to graze. The underwear stayed there for weeks, their absence unnoticed, until one day she put them away, storing them in a plastic bag in her drawer.  

Had she acquired him, like the underwear? After all it was her job to chose exquisite things, cull and display, amass curios from around the world. She imagined a future exhibit, “Evolution of the Stars” it could be called, walls lined with photos of movie stars in various stages of decay, clear plastic boxes beneath each series holding samples of fingernails and dead skin, the amount of hair shed everyday. Liz Taylor's assortment of diseases and disorders, the progression of the hood enveloping Paul Newman's eyes. Bob would be there too, a guide to his wrinkles below his photos, a plaster mold of his face where one could trace the creases with their fingers. 

Yet she liked his presentation, his hammered down countenance, his jagged afterglow. She liked his company, she was fond of him—the way an old English gentleman might be fond of his terrier—I've very fond of her, you know, he says, rubbing her bristly back. But the fondness never seemed to grow, it lingered on in a state of listless appreciation; she appreciated who he was, what he had become, what he was to others.

He seemed to fit in her life like a cleverly designed piece of furniture, beautiful to look at but hard on the ass. She ran after him examining his voice, his actions, his disposition, seemingly labeling him for each new adventure he was to be in next. It seemed a futile endeavor, like dusting everyday yet never really seeing the dirt you had just removed.

They seldom went to his home, it involved an assortment of proclamations and maneuvers—getting buzzed into two gates, being suspiciously sneered at by two balding chefs looming near his stove and drifting through what seemed a wooden labyrinth of walls, ceilings and furniture fashioned from a knotty pine. The one dinner they did have there, he had invited a few friends—another movie star and a couple. Around the other actor he seemed subdued, his movement softened and shadowy as if he had to step down to let the other perform. 

It was a current star, someone younger and new to the life of stardom, they had done a few films together and he was fond of him in paternal way. The younger actor was charming and engaging but before long she felt a member of a distant audience—she and the couple sat passively before him as he paced the hardwood floor—merely a group to try new-sprung techniques upon. Throughout dinner, he and the actor discussed the nature of directing; giving more detail then she cared to know. 

The couple left before dessert and she felt abandoned, sitting awkwardly next to Bob, examining a mole on the young actor's forehead, nudging at her chocolate pie with her fork. After that evening they seldom talked about show business, it seemed to become a spurious career he toiled in during the day. But then one afternoon, he told her he needed her for a part: We need an art restorer, I thought you'd work wonders—it was one of his low budget films, a project he really cared about, it was a small role, she'd be onscreen for just a few minutes. 

The following Friday, she arrived on the set to find Bob sitting on a tiny stool behind three frail looking men who appeared to be assistants, each clutching legal pads and red markers in their hands. The star of the picture sat nearby—an attractive redhead who looked bright and perky, a cup of something hot steaming in her hand. She felt instantly disillusioned, she had expected grandeur­—the cardboard bullhorn and pouting star refusing to be pacified. 

Bob placed her on a scaffold, donning a dirty smock and clunky loafers, one or two brushes posed in her hand. The setting was a museum—late 1940's: she was to be restoring a painting above Bob and the starlet as they questioned the merit of a particular painting before them. Bob's character would say: The arrangement is misleading—he wants you to lean this way but with our perception of sight—Yes, yes, the starlet chirps back. 

Then in a resonant, pedantic tone, reminiscent of the age, the art restorer snarls: Damn fools—perception rests on guarded obliqueness—destitute meandering of sight—guttural vicissitude kept well hidden behind the eye allows us to envision cold tomorrows without the trumpeting of the glib future—Bob interrupts her: Who are you? She stares down at them, waving her brushes vindictively: I am the restorer…She pauses for emphasis...of greater things you will never know nor see.

Later as they drove home in his car, she remarked how silly the line was—chuckling explosively at his side. She soon regretted her remark after seeing his face. He appeared genuinely sad, his mouth rigid, his eyes folding up into a forged serenity. She recognized the look in the one or two films she had seen him in. 

I'm sorry you feel that way, he seemed to mewl out, turning away from her slowly to look out the window. He dropped her off that night without staying. After that evening their conversations seemed limited to the telephone, they were perfunctory and full of foggy derision, a dialogue rehearsed and recited for a bad part. Soon the phone calls stopped and she threw away the plastic bag with his underwear inside, it lay in the bottom of the garbage bag like a lump of contained medical refuse.

When the film came out she went to see it, slithering through the rain in a trench coat, sitting in a corner seat by herself. He looked good on the screen, fresh and alert; he was Nick, a cheery, cerebral schoolteacher in a teal linen suit and ivory shirt, his thin mustache shimmery above his nose. The museum scene came and he walked in with the Nancy—the secretary, his arm lay pleasantly over her padded shoulder. 

As they stood in front of the painting, she saw her own feet—the clumsy loafers standing on the scaffold above them. Nick spoke but his dialogue had changed. Look at the lines—swept towards us like sea waves—dissolute and hurried beings, resolved of language. He stops talking and turns his head towards Nancy, a slight mist forming over his eyes. She backs away whispering, I'm a resilient traveler. He passes his hand behind her neck and brings her forward—they kiss. Then the scene fades out and we see Nick and Nancy tossing about on a large, lacy bed. 

She had enjoyed the role; she had always wanted to live vicariously in that world of prying detectives and glacial beauties, that realm of shadowy urbanity. Yet he had cut the restorer from the scene, she wasn't needed after all—her speech momentary and too whimsical. Nick needed to carry the scene himself; he was the able hero, the vainglory mentor. She had slipped shoddily to the editing room floor, her singularity not needed.