A screenwriter after a life change meets a woman he’s determined not to love. 3,242 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Bender once wrote a screenplay about a man whose wife leaves him. Heartbroken and desperate, he visits a Voodoo priestess.
“Can you help me?”
“Yes, my darling. I can make your wife fall in love with you again or I can make you forget her. Which would you like?”
Bender could hardly believe his luck. On the other hand, it might have been his wit, recent weight loss, tooth whitener, and the really cool socks he bought in London.
That’s what Ms. Dworkin said, “Those are really cool socks.”
Adding to Bender’s sprightlier step was the feeling that he was finally over the pain of his divorce.
“Bender, I don’t know about you but I’ve had enough. We can’t go on like this. I want out.”
It occurred to Bender to suggest they stay together another ten years and then re-evaluate the marriage, but he knew he didn’t have the energy for more couples therapy or workshops at Esalen where he and Nina had taken Connecting Through Conflict, Recovering Resiliency And Reversing Depletion and finally, Letting Go And Moving On with Tom Marshalek, PhD.
Damascus occurred at a screening in the Writers Guild Theater. From his seat in the last row, Bender saw Nina enter with a middle-aged man in a Harris Tweed jacket and a brown turtleneck. Ordinarily, Bender would have pronounced him an asshole for trying to look like an English professor. Instead, he thought, my ex-wife is with an English professor. Bender’s conversion continued: the English professor looked like a nice guy and Nina seemed happy to be with him. He watched them settle in their seats. The man put a leather elbow-patched arm around Nina and she tilted her head against his shoulder. For the first time Bender realized the truth of Dr. Marshalek’s mantra: if you really love her, why wouldn’t you want her to be happy? Nina was in good hands. The cloud lifted and the movie began.
And now he was in a taxi heading to Aspen with Ms. Dworkin, the woman he’d met in the boarding area of the Los Angeles Airport who asked him about his socks.
“Where did you get them?”
“In a little shop on the King’s Road.”
It was so easy. They had half an hour of conversation before boarding the plane. It was open seating and they sat next to each other. By the time they landed in Aspen, Melinda Dworkin of Chicago and Bender of Beverly Hills Post Office were scheduled for dinner that very night. Bender would unpack in the condo Paramount rented for him and check in with the director of his screenplay. Melinda would catch a nap in The Hotel Jerome.
Bender thought her over: she didn’t look him directly in the eye and, between sentences, she tossed in a nervous giggle that was just short of annoying. On the other hand, she was interestingly pretty, Bender liked her smile and, if he was sensitive, gentle and a perfect gentleman, things might work out.
“That’s fine, dude,” the Director said, “We’ll start fresh tomorrow. I have some family stuff tonight anyway. How did you meet?”
“What the fuck does that mean?”
Bender remembered this was a man who didn’t like coincidences on screen and off.
“I’m not sure. We just started talking.”
“You’re the dog, man. I’m envious.”
Bender shrugged. A five million dollar director envious? Of what? An ability to chat up women? Bender knew he’d better be careful. In Hollywood, envy was first cousin to schadenfreude. If this director were envious, then Bender’s downfall would be his pleasure.
“Hard to tell. Dresses modestly. Definitely not Hollywood.”
“Cool. Well, have fun tonight. We’ll start at ten tomorrow, okay?”
Bender remembered The Jerome when it was mostly funky with a cowboy ambience. Funky was now starting at $400 a night. Ms. Dworkin must be a woman of means. He spoke to her on the lobby phone.
“What would you say if I insisted on taking you to dinner?” she asked him.
“Oh, thank you. I’ll be right down.”
Thank you? Bender recalled the words of Dr. Marshalek at Esalen: “Hold on, stand still, let go, move on.”
“What I mean is,” Bender told Melinda over dinner, “I was going out with a lot of women, and even getting involved. But I was still in love with my ex-wife. I couldn’t commit, but I wouldn’t admit it. The more miserable I was, the harder I fell for women. I wasn’t fit for human consumption.”
“Distraction,” Dr. Gladstein said looking down at Bender on the green leather couch in Westwood. “You try to solve your depression with distraction, but in the end it is quite useless.”
Bender, who was also getting laid like crazy, didn’t quite see it as useless but he hummed in agreement.
“Did you break many hearts?” Melinda asked.
“I think I’m okay. No, I am okay.”
With that in mind, Bender decided that he would not get this woman to fall for him, or he for her. He decided not to tell his funny stories, and not to be charming, compliment her, listen well, or eat lightly, and most of all not try to get her in bed. But it didn’t make any difference. She wanted him to come up to her room and she said so.
“Will you come up to my room?”
“Thank you. I’d like some more wine, please.”
Did she close her eyes as they made love? The room was too dark to tell. Afterwards Bender smoked a cigarette on the balcony. Under the full moon, the ski runs stripped of snow were merely vertical lawns. The night air carried Brahms from the Aspen Music Festival tent a few blocks away.
Melinda switched on the bedside light. She was sitting against the velvet headboard, the sheets bunched around her like a movie star who won’t do a nude scene.
Bender said, “Would you drop the sheets so I can see how beautiful you are?”
“Do I have to?”
She did and Bender saw whom he had felt but not seen. Black hair over ivory white skin, an ungymned body. Slightly uneven breasts, a tiny stomach roll and a delicious scrape on her knee that hadn’t quite healed. She wore a thin gold chain with a cylindrical Mezuzah. It was the same one Louise wanted him to buy her for Passover.
“We give gifts for Passover?” Bender said.
“In my family it’s a tradition.”
“My rabbi forbids me to spend money on Passover.”
“You don’t have a rabbi. You have hostility issues.”
“They run in my family.”
“I’m glad you’re going to Aspen, I think we need a time out.”
“Bender?” Melinda said.
“The cigarette.” He was naked, he couldn’t stamp it out. Should he toss it over the balcony on a Festival cellist?
“Bring it with you..”
She made room, and he handed Melinda the cigarette.
“I think it’s two hundred bucks if they smell tobacco,” Bender said.
“I can afford it.”
They sat at opposite ends facing each other. When it was her turn to pass the cigarette, he leaned forward and kissed her.
“Are you rich in Chicago?” Bender asked.
“Sort of. Are you in Hollywood?”
“It’s a company town. I’m middle management. I live modestly and can afford anything I want except blue chip art.”
“How do you live in Hollywood? Isn’t it kind of superficial?”
“Where life is possible, then it is possible to live the right life; life is possible in Hollywood, so it is possible to live the right life in Hollywood.”
“Oh, Bender, you’re a Stoic. How sweet.”
This wasn’t going well, Bender thought. She knew Marcus Aurelius and the King’s Road, her body was perfect in its imperfections and she was from Chicago. To Bender, a Los Angeles provincial, the city of Studs, Nelson, Clancy and Ernest was as exotic as Katmandu. Find flaws, he murmured to himself, you must not fall in love with this woman.
“Do you mind if we watch the last quarter of the Lakers game? They’re playing Denver, and it’s on now.”
“Sure. Should I order some popcorn?”
The next day, Bender sensed grumpiness in the Director.
“I’m thinking I want to get rid of the flashbacks,” he said.
“I’m open to that. We probably don’t need them,” Bender said.
“Sometimes you can explain too much.”
“I agree. In the hands of a lesser director they would be useful. But with you at the helm, I’m happy to cut them.”
The Director’s mood improved. “So how was your date last night?”
“What can I say? She’s a big fan of your work.”
“That’s nice to know. Did you consummate?”
Consummate? Where was this guy coming from, Bender wondered, Havelock Ellis?
“Frankly, I don’t think it’s going to happen. No chemistry, if you know what I mean.”
“It’s all chemistry, man. Well, shall we turn to the discovery scene?”
Bender drifted off while the Director expounded on his belief that the audience needed to know exactly how the ransom money ended up in the Dean’s office. “I don’t think you’ve provided a credible explanation,” he said.
Bender was daydreaming about a writer he knew who was fired from a Sydney Pollack movie because he could never satisfy Pollack as to how Jane Fonda found Robert Redford in the middle of the Nevada desert. He tried everything, from bloodhounds to helicopter flyovers. Pollack rejected every one of his ideas and another writer replaced him. When the friend saw the film, there was the scene; Redford asks Fonda how she found him. She says, “It was on the map.”
“Bender, are you with me?”
“I agree,” Bender said. “It’s something that we need to solve.”
The rest of the session was about cuts to the screenplay and changes from nights to days to save money.
“Do you have plans tonight?” The Director said.
“I have a hot date with my computer and your notes.”
“What about your girlfriend?”
Bender shrugged. The less the Director knew the better.
“I think she’s going to the Music Festival. You?”
“Dinner with my agent. He’s flying in.”
Bender got up. “Email tonight or hard copy tomorrow?”
“Either way. But can we start in the late afternoon? We’re going mountain biking tomorrow,” the director said.
“Do you ride?”
Bender, who knew a non-invitation when he heard one, said, “Not since junior high school.”
He walked back to his condo serenaded by the barking of fenced-in dogs.
“I have to do some work tonight. Are you up for a late dinner here?”
“Do you cook, Bender?”
“I do, but…”
“I’ll bring food. What time?”
The screenplay rewrite went smoothly. The Director was smart and his suggestions for cuts made sense. For Bender it was just a matter of making sure that the story stayed coherent. Changing nights to days was more complicated but Bender moved one scene indoors and finessed the others. How the money got into the Dean’s office would come to him eventually. So, for now, fuck it. Bender was through by eight with an hour to kill. He took a long shower, dipped in and out of some television, set the table, turned on the radio and settled into one of the Adirondack chairs on the balcony to wait for a Rocky Mountain sunset and the arrival of Ms. Dworkin. Both events, he realized, would be accompanied by All John Denver All The Time on the radio. As Bender hoisted himself out of the chair to change the station, he heard his phone ring in the bedroom. Bender, who wrote conversations in his mind before they happened, began this one with Melinda saying, “I changed my mind about dinner, Bender, I don’t think we should see each other. You live in Hollywood, I’m committed to Chicago, my job, my family, and before we get any deeper we should just call it quits.”
Bender struggled to get the ringing phone out of his briefcase. “I don’t agree, Melinda. Will you allow me to say love conquers all, we can make it work, absence makes the heart grow fonder and a foggy day in London town?”
“Oh, Bender. I take it all back. I hope you like barbecue.”
The ringing stopped. John Denver naseled on, “You fill up my senses like a night in a forest.”
The number on the phone was 310, a Los Angeles area code. Not Melinda. He tapped ‘call back’.
“Where are you?” She asked.
“I’m in Aspen. Paramount sent me here to work with Dennis.”
“Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” she said, in the voice that meant she wasn’t.
“What’s wrong, Nina?”
“I think we may have made a mistake. Sorry, I may have made a mistake. This divorce thing isn’t working out. I miss you.”
He reached over and changed the station. Waterloo Sunset came on.
“What happened to the boyfriend?” Bender said, “He looked like a nice guy.”
“It’s a long story. He wasn’t a nice guy, okay? He just dressed like one. Then it turned out he was a jerk. Can we see each other and talk? When do you get back to L.A.?”
There was a knock at the door.
“Wait a minute.”
Ms. Dworkin was holding a large shopping bag.
“Chinese,” she said.
Bender led her in. “I’m just finishing this call. A minute.”
“Take your time,” she said.
He took the phone into the bedroom. Melinda was singing along with Ray. “As long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset, I am in paradise.”
Bender took a deep breath and found the courage of a man who turns down a blindfold at a firing squad. “Nina, I don’t think it’s a good idea. We have to move on. I’m ready to do that. We can’t go back. It wouldn’t work.”
“Seriously? For two years you’ve been telling me you still love me, you can’t live without me, we should get back together, and now all of a sudden you’ve changed your fucking mind? Bender, you’re pathetic.”
She hung up.
“My ex-wife,” Bender said to Melinda. Jesus, he was telling the truth. Where would this end?
‘Everything all right?”
“She’s having a hard time.”
“Just be nice to her.”
Bender made tea; they ate the beautiful Chinese food and had two enjoyable conversations. The first was about intervention in the Ukraine and the other about conceptual art. Melinda was against intervention and Bender hated conceptual art. It would have been too much to ask her to figure out how the money got in the Dean’s office because, if she did, he would have to propose on the spot. Still, there was one little rat in his brain gnawing away at the paradise of a Waterloo sunset. He couldn’t see the rat yet, but he knew it was there. Who says ‘thank you’ after sex?
The next day, Sunday, he borrowed one of the Director’s Carreras and drove her to the airport. They were early so they walked to the edge of the runway and watched the planes land.
“One week I was here, working with Dennis on a script, and I decided to take glider lessons.” Bender said.
“That sounds like fun.”
“Up to a point. I was on the verge of getting my license; the last requirement was a solo flight. I suddenly realized I shouldn’t do things where a mistake will kill me. So I quit. I also don’t sky dive, rock climb or ski jump.”
“Are you a coward, Bender?”
“I wrestle with it. Can I visit you in Chicago? Can you come to Los Angeles?”
“You’ve been wonderful, Bender. But I don’t think so.”
As stories went, it was a pretty good one. He debated telling it to the Director who had called and cancelled Sunday afternoon’s work session.
“I fell off my bike coming down Spar Gulch. I didn’t feel anything at first. But when we got to the base of the mountain, the guys in the bike shack turned a hose on me to wash off the blood. You ever see a CAA agent faint?”
“Man, I’m sorry.”
“In winter, you ski on those trails and you forget that when the snow melts those little rocks are as sharp as diamonds. Can you stay an extra few days? I’m still kind of fucked up on the oxy. What’s the latest with your girlfriend?”
“She went back to Chicago.”
“You going to see her again?”
“I don’t think so. Different lives. You know how it is.”
“Tell me about it.”
He knew the Director only meant this as an expression of agreement, but Bender considered it.
Melinda said, “I was a junior at Northwestern and living at home. One day I couldn’t come out of my room. I just couldn’t. I read, I watched TV, I took on-line courses for credit, but I was afraid to leave. It was too terrifying. Agoraphobia. Classic.”
“Don’t they have meds now?”
“I tried them. Didn’t work. My mother found a psychiatrist who made house calls. He finally got me out of my room. Took a year. But then I was afraid to leave the house. That was another year.”
“How did he do it?”
“Talk therapy. And assignments. One was to walk to the front door. And then another assignment was to walk to the front door and touch the door knob.”
Bender knew he was way ahead of her.
“And eventually, he got you out of the house.”
“Do you work?”
“My father owns an art gallery. I sit in the back and do billing and inventory.”
“You still see the shrink?”
“And he continues to give you assignments?”
“I had to go to a karaoke bar. And sing.”
“I had to start a fight with my father. Then quit. Then find a new job.”
“I had to pick a place I’d never been and fly there and back by myself a few times. I chose Aspen.”
“How many times?”
“I had to meet a man and spend the weekend with him.”
“I see. Why Aspen?”
“John Denver, I guess. I love John Denver.”
“You’re fucking kidding me,” the Director said.
“It’s true. I swear.”
“Do you think there’s a movie in it?”
“Yes. We could make the shrink crazy. He’s manipulating her to kill somebody. We could call it The Last Assignment,” Bender said.
“I like it. Who do you see playing her?”
“ I hear she’s looking for something dark.”
There was more but he didn’t tell the Director.
“Do you feel used, Bender?” Melinda said before she boarded the plane.
“It’s okay. Used is also being useful,” he said stoically.
“I am getting better. You helped. Thank you.”
“Why don’t you ask your shrink to assign you to come to Hollywood, and I’ll arrange a dinner party with agents.”
“I don’t know. That sounds pretty scary.”
“Is your name really Melinda Dworkin?”
She kissed him. “No, but I know yours.”