A director stages and blocks the actors for his waning days. 1,868 words. Part One. Part Three tomorrow. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
The next morning, to combat his feelings of extreme insignificance, Myles insisted on bringing cappuccinos. He needed to make some sort of contribution walking to Ivan’s room in Gail’s company. But it was hard to feel helpful in a hospital setting.
Suddenly, they heard yelling coming from Ivan’s room. Gail lengthened her stride.
“How dare you, You don’t know anything about where I’m going. Who are you kidding? Forget global warming — the world is going to end when I die! Count on it, you motherfuckering-cocksucking-fuckface. People in Asia don’t exist unless I’m walking the streets there. You’re all here as supporting characters in my movie!”
The priest of Indian descent fled Ivan’s room, bumping the cardboard coffee tray in Myles’ hands. Myles bent over and dropped the recycled paper napkins that couldn’t adequately soak up three spills. At Starbucks the biscottis would have come in secure plastic pouches and could have been saved. Instead, the homemade and unpackaged ones that were purchased at the hippie coffee shop were now inedible, crumbling under Myles’s feet. Anyway, the mess in the hall would soon be someone else’s problem.
Myles walked into the room, nodding hello to Ivan for the first time in over a decade.
“I’m not only the star but the entire fuckin’ audience.” Ivan softened his last syllables as Myles drifted to his bedside.
“Myles. You just get here?”
Gail leaped in. “You were sleeping.”
Ivan racked focus to Gail, then back to Myles before moving Gail camera left, settling for a more unbalanced frame. Staging and blocking actors were Ivan’s stock-in-trade. No one could teach a director how to do this. You either had a feel for it or you didn’t. And if you did, your sequences unfolded effortlessly with polished nonchalance. Cineastes labeled it the “Lubitsch Touch.”
“You get a decent hotel?” Ivan was manipulating his actors and knew the answer to his own question like any good prosecutor.
The night before in the car Myles had reached across Gail, absentmindedly brushing her breasts as he fumbled his credit card into the machine to pay the exorbitant parking fee. When they drove out of the garage, he couldn’t help but notice how her fingers wrapped gingerly around the steering wheel. She clearly didn’t want to talk so Myles matched her silence street for street, until Gail’s two-seater Porsche Boxster went so fast around a series of curves that Myles became nauseous. He grimaced at the taste of uninvited vomit that coated the back of his throat and then took out his cell phone and put it back without looking at it.
“When is the wedding?”
Gail kept her eyes on the road. “There isn’t going to be one.”
“That’s why I came. He asked me to be his Best Man.”
“He asked me to be his wife. That we would be joining the likes of Hitler and Eva Braun with an eleventh-hour marriage intrigued him. So I went along with it, even bought a gown. But now he’s bored with the idea and I’ve already returned it.”
Myles swallowed the last remnants of upchuck and decided to show off his vast knowledge of the TV and film director they had in common. “With Ivan, you never know if he wants something or pretends he wants something just to have you convince him otherwise. He thrives on conflict by manipulating both you and himself simultaneously. No small accomplishment.”
Nothing else was said until they were in Gail’s apartment. The place had a 36- story view that overlooked the behemoth cruise ships that pulled in and out of the Port of Fort Lauderdale on the weekends. Even though Ivan had lived there half the week for the last two years, he also maintained a separate residence and therefore Gail’s place featured uncompromised female design touches throughout. Four-inch frills fell from curtained lampshades that appeared more New Orleans’ whorehouse than Hollywood beachfront.
“You want something to drink?”
Myles requested rum hoping it would provide cover for his breath. Gail brought out two crystal glasses that looked like they didn’t get much use. Myles relaxed, now that he had something to do with his hands. The two strangers circled each other cautiously like the ice cubes that swirled around Myles’ glass.
“Were you with him when he found out?”
Gail nodded just enough so Myles wouldn’t ask the question again.
“How was that?”
The answer came quickly. “I yelled, ‘Hooray!!!’”
Myles normally didn’t shock easily but couldn’t conceal it now.
Gail raised a corner of her lip mischievously. “I’m not kidding. I actually did say ‘Hooray.’ He said the tests were positive. I took it to mean positive as in good. An unfortunate interpretation. I had never seen him even need a Band-Aid before. As I’m sure you know, he refuses to appear vulnerable.”
Myles patted Gail’s arm, but then immediately felt guilty about touching her.
“Do you want to sleep on the couch or in a bed?”
Myles looked around. The condo had only one bedroom.
“In a bed.”
Things were moving faster for Myles than they were for Gail. But his boyish smile made Gail turn away with so much velocity that he realized he was overplaying his hand.
Gail opened the door to her pale yellow bedroom and emerged a moment later with a heavy pouch that concealed an inflatable bed. While Myles stood there embarrassed by his misguided sexual fantasy, Gail plugged the bed into the wall outlet. The noise was deafening as the light blue monster sucked in air and slowly ballooned its ribs. Gail and Myles stared at each other uncomfortably as it inflated. He smiled, she didn’t. Gail put her hand on the mattress and pushed down — it passed the test.
“He and I were never friends, just lovers.”
Her cryptic comment further confused Myles and, although he pretended to know what she was inferring, she decided to elaborate. “Ivan wouldn’t allow the tension to become familiar. Exact opposite of all my other relationships.”
Myles agreed by spinning her statement into his own words. “He’s a stranger I’ve known forever.”
“You guys go way back, right?”
“My high school girlfriend dumped me for him. He was my first fistfight.”
“Typical of your gender, you became best friends.”
“He was mine. I don’t know if I was his,” Myles declared after a momentary silence.
Gail spread a sheet over the air mattress. Myles didn’t know if he was supposed to sleep under it or over it.
“Marriage or not, you’re a big improvement over his ex-wife… Mine, too.”
“I guess that’s a compliment. You and Ivan were married to the same woman?”
Myles nodded indifferently to prove to himself that he had come to terms with Ivan’s transgressions. “He liked to steal my gals. The second one hurt less than the first. My shrink thought Myles was really in love with me but I didn’t.”
“I’m going to pretend to sleep. Good night.” And with that Gail headed toward her bedroom.
Myles unbuttoned his top shirt button then raised his voice, asserting, “He told me that after he is gone I’m not allowed to pursue you.”
Gail didn’t smile. Or frown. Or even turn around. Myles wasn’t even sure if she had heard him.
The door to Gail’s bedroom closed. Myles still felt like an intruder. He stood there doing nothing until he let go a volley of farts, yet another reason to be glad Gail was on the other side of her door. Still, he opened his nostrils super-wide until they almost hurt to inhale his own escaping body odors in case Gail found a reason to return.
How would Ivan know what went on after he left the planet?
“He’s staying with us,” replied Gail, smiling at Ivan and then nodding to Myles. She was feeling guilty for having done nothing wrong. The game was on.
“He’s staying with you. I’m sleeping here. Alone.”
With that statement, everyone pondered whether Ivan was working from a secret script or making it up as he went along.
“Gail’s been great. Great.” Myles felt stupid for repeating “great” and then mumbled it again to spite himself.
Ivan looked away. Was he jealous… or just pretending? Spotting his own wan reflection in the metal tray that held his painkillers, Ivan decided that his sudden weight loss actually had improved his face. Mirror shots were something he found a way to include in almost every drama he directed.
“You seem more alive than yesterday,” Myles proffered.
Gail was surprised that Myles had a dark sense of humor.
“You can get some damn good drugs in here. Anyone interested?”
Ivan expected no reply and got none.
“So Myles, are you still doing both your girlfriend and the married woman across the street?” Ivan’s volley had the intended consequences. Gail looked away, embarrassed by the frank guy talk even though she sensed the inevitability of this joust.
Myles had always loved, admired and despised Ivan and now needed to recalibrate his feelings towards his sick friend but was clueless how to accomplish that.
“That ended a decade ago. You and I haven’t stayed in touch much.”
“And that’s my fault?” Ivan blurted, still looking to throw punches even after KO-ing the priest in one round.
Gail stepped away. “If you guys want some time to yourselves…”
Ivan interrupted, “Actually Myles is about to leave me and my fiancee alone until further notice.”
Myles jumped up like he had orchestrated this turn of events. “I’ll get coffee refills. Need anything in particular, Ivan?”
“Just for you to do what I asked,” insisted the dying man who was indeed improvising. Years helming pictures had taught Ivan how to pretend to be more angry and frustrated than he really was in order to quiet the set.
Now Myles didn’t move. He didn’t know what he felt besides mild humiliation, so he would hold his ground to prove that he wouldn’t be a submissive schlub. But his mind was blank. His indecision anchored him to the floor. He hated everything about himself at this moment. He waited till Ivan saw Gail look at him and took that as a lifeline.
Myles looked at Ivan, puffed up his chest and exited the room like a man who had screwed his best friend’s girl and felt good about it. But he hadn’t screwed her and Ivan knew it.
“That was rude.” There was no need for Gail to underline the obvious but she did it anyway.
“I told you one thing, my last dying wish, that you and he were not to get involved no matter what.”
“Oh, please.” Gail knew Ivan wasn’t done with it yet.
“He slept on the couch?”
“No.” Then after the initial tease wore off… “The inflatable bed, of course.”
Like a lot of professionals who were used to making a thousand decisions a day, Ivan knew the end of a conversation when he heard it. Still, he couldn’t resist one final redundant remark on the subject.
“Promise me you will never sleep with him. Not now. Not ever.”
Gail kissed Ivan’s lips for the first time that week. “You make this so hard.”
Part One. Part Three tomorrow.