The director has some last filming to do before it’s the end. 2,792 words. Part One. Part Two. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
Ivan acted like a tyrant with a giant ego but Gail knew he was even tougher on himself. When the director looked back on his body of work all he could see were his mistakes. These two never watched TV together.
Gail was suppressing the real emotions waiting for her at the starting gate of the end of Ivan. “At least you’re still you.”
Ivan declared, “Is that a good thing?” His voice was weak enough for that to come off as funny.
Ivan was now the actor who had only a few more days on the picture and wanted to make sure it was acknowledged he could make things difficult until he was wrapped and his performance handed to the editors.
Ivan stared straight ahead for the next five minutes and reviewed his life, starting from his first memory of falling down the stairs before he learned to walk. Most people had no memories before the age of three but Ivan was different. He remembered nearly everything in moving images that he could summon with little effort.
Gail left the hospital room without any announcement and walked past Myles, who hadn’t gone for coffee and instead was pretending to read a bulletin on the wall about detecting strokes. Had he been eavesdropping on their conversation? He caught up to her in a few steps.
“Don’t be too strong. Let yourself be vulnerable.” Myles said firmly. He wanted to hug this moving target, but he could not when choking noises could be heard coming from Ivan’s room.
“Torturing me is the only thing that makes him feel better.” Gail kept walking down the hall away from Ivan’s room.
Inside Ivan’s room it was Myles who now hovered over his friend, helping him adjust his air mask. Myles started to question his decision to accept Ivan’s invitation. But it wasn’t really an invitation to officiate the wedding of a dying man and his bride. It was a summons from one man to another to reconfirm a friendship which was the residue of male hierarchical muscle-flexing.
Ivan leaned in close to Myles. “If you ever locate that kid of mine, tell him what a louse his old man was. His mother was right to jump ship.”
“I haven’t spoken to my ex-wife since Clinton was president.”
Myles said this with some vague emotion wandering between resentment and tenderness. Resentment because Ivan got their mutual ex-wife pregnant, which forced her to divorce Myles. Tenderness because Myles was sitting with someone who helped author his life and he now had worthwhile stories to tell because of it.
“Look, stop this charade, Ivan. People admire you. Gail and I wouldn’t be here if you were really a bastard.”
Ivan looked away, feigning embarrassment but satisfied he was again the center of attention. “I conquered alcoholism, gambling, drug and sex addiction in successive decades. Then get motherfucking Stage Four cancer.”
It got real quiet.
“Ivan, is there anything, anything, you need me to do?”
“Anything man, really anything.” Myles said “man” way too often when he felt emotional.
“You know why you’re here.”
“I hear the wedding is off.” Myles instantly regretted saying that since Ivan would now think he was having long private conversations with Gail.
“Mine is. Yours isn’t.”
“What does that mean?”
Ivan knew he had him left to right. “I want you to marry her.”
“Who? Gail? After you die?”
“You can wait that long, can’t you?” Ivan would’ve walked away on that button except he didn’t have the strength to move.
Myles was afraid to react.
Ivan continued. “She’s beautiful, complex, intriguing and can pay the rent. Do it. Before she ends up with an even worse choice.”
“Can we talk about something else… like how my life has been all these years you haven’t been in touch?”
Ivan didn’t miss a beat. “I know how you’re doing. I googled you. Nothing came up except that you were fishing for salmon in Vancouver and now there’s some nonsense about you being a Life Coach in Costa Rica. Weak shit north and south. Who’s directing your train wreck?”
Even Myles laughed at that. He reached into his knapsack and pulled out a CD. It had a photo of him looking all avuncular and wearing a silly-looking cowboy shirt with pearl snaps that was at least one size too large.
“I want you to get some comfort from my weak shit.”
Ivan made sure he didn’t look at the CD, especially when Myles stuck it in his hand.
“You tell people how to live. Do you tell them how to die?” Ivan said, making sure his eyeline didn’t engage his guest.
Myles looked directly at Ivan and said, “Yes. It’s the same thing.” That sounded more profound than it actually was but it was one of the few things that got by Ivan without a return volley.
Ivan picked up his iPhone and pressed play. It was a video of himself and Gail making love.
“You will never do better than Gail.”
“I guess you want to be alone,” an embarrassed Myles mumbled as he exited in haste.
Once Myles left, Ivan immediately killed the iPhone video and shut his eyes. He was asleep in a matter of seconds.
The next morning Myles accompanied Gail for a walk where the sand meets the surf. There were yachts in the distance but the real show was the acrobatic kite surfers who went airborne at twenty-five mph and did flips before returning to the top of a wave.
“Must be nice to have all this in your backyard,” said Myles.
Gail maneuvered around a jellyfish marooned on wet sand next to a candy wrapper. “This used to be this vapid region but now it’s the cultural mecca of Latin America. Waiting in line at the DMV I overheard some South American guapo declare, ‘South Florida has the aspect of sleaziness that we from the third world can understand and appreciate.’”
Fittingly, a girl walked by half-naked in a Brazilian string suit that advertised her butt lift, but Myles deliberately kept his focus on Gail and made sure she knew that. “This is very pleasant, but shouldn’t we head to the hospital?”
Gail didn’t break stride. “He wants us to spend time together.”
“Are you sure about that?” Myles said and then regretted that he said it. Did Ivan really want to keep them apart or was he manipulating them to the opposite effect? Did it matter? Myles hated being a pawn in someone else’s game. Especially since he was certain he was developing feelings for Ivan’s girlfriend, despite his best and worst efforts to resist.
Gail jogged off alone without answering his question.
Myles paused, hastily applied sun block, then followed Gail’s trail, doing his level best to fit his feet into her footprints. After a few strides, something inside him made his legs pump and before he knew it he was tackling Gail from behind. As they tumbled onto the sand, Gail permitted this sudden aggression, and even accepted a kind of kiss before freeing herself and resuming her walk on the beach.
Myles, two steps behind, wanted to brush the sand off her pants but after his impulsive outburst he was too afraid to do anything. A moment later he was under a beachside shower trying to wash his eyes of the horrible sting of sweat mixed with sunblock.
Ivan had been sleeping for three hours when Gail checkmated Myles.
“You’ve already humbled me three times,” admitted Myles.
“I was captain of my high school team,” Gail replied without a hint of pride.
A groan coming from the bed changed the subject from chess. “Tell them to increase the fuckin’ morphine, Lucifer.” Ivan didn’t open his eyes and the air mask muffled his words, but that’s what it sounded like to his guests.
Myles looked at Gail sympathetically. “You going to spend the night?”
“I don’t know. He doesn’t even know I’m here.”
“He knows,” Myles said with uncharacteristic authority.
Gail stood and let Myles help her into her jean jacket. His over-enthusiasm caused one of the decorative metal sequins to pop off the left shoulder epaulet. But when he crawled under the bed to retrieve it, Gail accepted the tiny metal diamond with barely a “thanks” and then flipped it into the waste can.
After they left, Ivan popped open a mischievous eye, finished a quick inspection of his penis for no reason in particular other than to make sure it was still there, pressed the intercom button and in a breathy whisper said, “Nurse, can you bring me something to drink. Gracias, mi amor.”
The nurse wasn’t attractive but as she cleaned Ivan’s air mask he flirted with her as if she were a diva. He liked seducing, even when there was no discernible agenda. When she finally stepped away, Ivan slipped off the mask, picked up his iPhone and pressed the video record button.
“Gail, Myles… you guys are probably wondering why I played God when…”
In the apartment Gail and Myles were on their second bottle of Pinot Noir. Myles had finished all the olives and eight of the ten pieces of prosciutto which Gail had laid out alongside chunks of Parmesan Reggiano. Myles knew he sometimes ate like a hog but had trouble restraining himself nonetheless. The drama of the last two days granted him permission to be totally authentic. He even took a sip of Gail’s wine, not expecting, after she excused herself and went to the bathroom, that she would return with a second bottle.
Another hour passed with two healthy people trying to make themselves sick, bingeing on appetizers and wine as they avoided the inevitable.
Gail shook her head. “He told you we met online? No, it wasn’t online, it was in line. At Whole Foods. He was telling the cashier how to do her job and in this case he was right.”Gail unscrewed her neck and shoulders. “I’m so tight.”
Myles waited a beat, not knowing when or if to make his move. “Do you want me to give you a massage?”
Gail didn’t answer. So he took that as a yes. He started to touch her. She started to relax… almost. He waited about three minutes, then his hands started to explore.
“I can’t do this.” She got up abruptly.
“Do what?” Myles said without a hint of genuineness.
Gail stared at Myles. Myles stared back. As Gail started to undress, Myles followed her lead.
A minute later they stood naked in front of each other… awkwardly, like two teenagers who’d rather just get their first time over with.
“You want to go in the bedroom?” Myles ventured.
Gail laid down on the air mattress, face first. Myles laid beside her. He didn’t dare touch her this time, allowing his hands to drum on mattress so she could monitor their activity at all times.
“You go visit Ivan tomorrow without me,” the naked woman on the mattress finally said.
“You won’t say that tomorrow. It’s his birthday.”
PSSSSSSSTTT — the air rushed out as the mattress couldn’t support their combined weight. Myles knew what was next. Or at least he thought he did, for he now made a living interpreting signs and symbols, invisible powers that guided behavior. He knew that Gail would either screw his brains out or take the deflation as an omen.
She grabbed her clothes and walked across the flat mattress into her bedroom and shut the door.
Myles approached her bedroom door, was about to open it, then thought better. He backpedaled and fell back on top of the couch. Little did he know that the “Life Coach” CD he’d handed to Ivan was spinning inside his dying friend’s hospital room.
Ivan’s room was in sight when Myles took Gail by the sleeve and slowed the pace. There was no need to hurry. Gail hadn’t seen Myles hand Ivan his CD. He did not want her to hear his affirmations.
“The universe is all-bountiful; you can have everything you visualize if you are held accountable to your goals.”
Myles’s smooth voice ricocheted off Ivan’s walls:
“Identify the results you are committed to achieving. It won’t be easy. But the solutions to most problems are pretty obvious. Don’t make everything out to be so complicated, as if having problems makes you more interesting. ‘There’s not that much behind the curtain,’ Dorothy told the Wizard.”
Myles stared at the floor, glad the CD was getting to the end.
Gail wondered why they were standing there, treading water. “That sounds like your voice. Coming from his room.”
“Determine who you are and where you want to go — and what are the obstacles that detour you from fulfillment. Together, we’ll create a game plan. I will guide you to places you never thought you could reach. But before we begin this new journey together, what was holding you back has to die.”
Myles was now embarrassed by his decision to gift Ivan with his “Life Coach” CD. He could hear the echoes of Ivan’s screams at the priest from the day before. He was expecting to receive similar punishment.
“Today your decision to go forward together with me is your first step to a new you. Tomorrow turn the CD over and play side two — the first day of the rest of your life. Life Coach Recordings. Available on CD and Internet download. Copyright 2017 Myles M. Fellows. Headfirst Productions, Costa Rica. All Rights Reserved. www.headfirst.com”
Before Myles’s recorded voice finished the speeded-up boilerplate legalese, Gail yanked Myles into the room.
There was no one in there except the two of them.
Myles turned to Gail. “Do you think?”
“It’s finally over?” Gail said it softly without much feeling.
Myles embraced her awkwardly but embraced her nonetheless.
“Hey, what the fuck!!!”
Ivan’s voice, rocketed around the room. Myles and Gail jumped as if they were seeing a ghost — but it was just Ivan stumbling out of the bathroom, using a walker for the first time. He had pulled out his catheter and gone to the john to pee a thimbleful. He let himself be carried into bed and then waved Gail and Myles to huddle closer.
“Move two inches to the left, Gail. No my left. Your right.”
Ivan was re-staging the scene, checking eye lines, positioning his actors for the climax. The death rattle was sounding, and he wanted to get it on the first take.
Then Ivan did something that probably even surprised Ivan. He stuck two fingers in Myles’ mouth and tugged his hair. Then Ivan summoned his last reserve of energy to pound Myles’s chest, elbow his throat, and rip his cowboy shirt. He also attempted a head butt that came up pathetically short.
Ivan desperately wanted Myles to fight back, perhaps kill him, to even the score while making himself a hero in the process. Ivan desired a big dramatic ending.
But he had cast the wrong guy. Myles would not fight back. And throughout the ordeal, Gail sat incredibly still, for the first time feeling Myles’s estimable strength as he weathered the storm.
It would take another two days for the final curtain. But die Ivan did. In the middle of the night. All by himself. But not before the seldom-used TV high in the corner of the hospital room broadcast a rerun of a cop show that Ivan had directed. He didn’t make it to the final credits but he did get to see his signature mirror shot and it was one of his most memorable.
Gail kept the news to herself for a few hours. She had just seen Ivan and didn’t miss him yet. When she finally told Myles, he buried his head into his folded arm. When he looked back up at Gail, she was gone.
At the hospital, a nurse handed Ivan’s iPhone to Gail along with his last set of clothes. It was another week before Gail played Ivan’s video for Myles.
It was raw and unedited, but what Myles saw was dutched shots of Ivan’s hospital room mixed with exquisitely framed close-ups of his various appendages underneath his nearly inaudible V.O.
“You’re probably wondering why I played God when I didn’t believe in Him. It’s important for me not to answer the question as much as to admit you were the two most important people in my life. And you knew me better than I knew myself. So you answer because I can’t. Certainly, not now. So do whatever you like until you can’t. Then let others do it for you. You stay alive until the people who know you die.”