|Kenney Mencher, Icon 10"x8" oil on panel|
by Gigi DeVault
The trouble with me is that I am one of the first to chime in, “Yes, we can!” I want badly to believe that the politicians I trust are good-hearted and ethical, especially if I happen to fall in love with one. It’s the same brand of optimism that causes me to order an ice cream cone on the first really hot day of summer. It looks so good that I am completely taken in. I order a triple dip. But that first sweet infatuated taste is soon eclipsed by the inevitable mess all over the front of my shirt—or all over my life.
Brent was a great story teller—a talent I suspect he inherited from his mother, who could deliver punch lines in a manner belying her sixth grade Branson-based education and decades spent behind the grocery check-out stand. In twelve years, I only saw him in the spotlight at a political function two times. He was a man transformed, exuding confidence, energy, and power. He performed, and his likeability needle hovered at FULL ON. Brent projected such a polished image that it was as though his long-lost twin—the one who had trained for the stage—had stepped out from behind the curtain. The entire time I knew him, he carried a bottle of liquid foundation (The same bottle for 12 years – what does that mean?) in his travel kit, just in case he was ever asked to speak in front of a camera.
The only child of a second marriage, Brent was the declared mascot for his much-older siblings. He learned early that an innocent face and a skewed tale could go a long ways toward distracting prying adults. His sisters—and their boyfriends—rewarded him well for his willingness to embellish or diminish stories about their adventures and assignations. In the late 50s, a dollar could buy a bucketful of lies.
I was far from being a spring-fresh ingénue. I’d read the research on the benefits that accrue to attractive people in business, politics, or entertainment. Still, I could never quite get over the fact that a former Hollywood star had twice been elected President and proceeded to sell his misguided Star Wars program to an enamored public. Those days, I was in a doctoral haze. My myopia kept any interest in politics at the margins. I couldn’t remember. Had I voted for Brent? It seemed to be important because he had become my boss and I worked with him regularly—often one-on-one. Regarding a gorgeous face on a movie screen fifty-feet away in a darkened theater was very different from gazing back at the handsome face that beamed at me from across my desk. I mean, it should be shouldn’t it?
|Kenney Mencher, Starlette, oil on canvas 20"x20"|
Brent was well-to-do, well-regarded, well-traveled, and well-educated. (A Columbia brain has massive appeal. I had three graduate degrees from a public university. Like, who cares? So has everybody.) Brent could pass through a crowded room leaving a wake of turned heads, admiring eyes, and forgotten conversations. That his best looks were presumably gone with much of his hair made him seem trustworthy and wise. Through my starry-eyed cataracts, I thought his bald spot gave him a monk-like quality (I would soon learn it was the only monk-like attribute you could grant this man). Oh, yes—I was drawn to the nectar of his smooth and sophisticated ways, but I ended up stuck like a wriggling bug on flypaper.
I was unprepared for intimacy with someone in Brent’s league, unprepared for the intensity of my feelings, unprepared for the trajectory of our relationship, and unprepared for getting naked in front of a stranger at age 47. I’d spent the last twenty-five years as a typical overachiever. I was Gidget, I was Mrs. Blandings building the dream house, I was Carol Brady after the re-marriage, I was Kate Hepburn in the Desk Set. And I experienced daily the foot-stomping despair of Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinnie, except that my biological clock had already stopped dead, and my angst roiled up from a sense that I was running out of time to find a man that I could truly cherish and admire.
He gave generously, if sporadically. Expensive trips: We had our Roman Holiday and April in Paris. In the blissful wake of his business travel, we shared meals at superior restaurants and engaged in shopping excursions a lot like the jewelry showroom scene in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. He could be as charming and solicitous as Robert Redford playing the millionaire (multimillionaire in today’s economy) in Indecent Proposal when he finally figures out that he cares for, not just lusts after, Demi Moore. Brent gave me closet space. I claimed a nightstand and installed my exercise equipment in his spare bedroom.
Brent’s ex-wife popped in on us whenever she felt like it—and she mostly felt like it first thing in the morning. Picture Julia Roberts in Stepmom, but with an all too healthy ex-wife. Brent’s ex often phoned him to suggest they go out together or that both of them take their only daughter, Devony, to a social event. The emphasis was solidly on a public appearance by the couple or family unit. These calls and drop-in visits continued for years until Brent’s ex became another man’s wife. The film Dr. Zhivago was our lingua franca. He’d point out the significance of the balalaika as the link between father and daughter; I’d lament Lara’s entanglement with the wealthy Komarovsky and Yuri’s inability to leave his wife Tonya. We broke up and made up as often as there were reruns of Seinfeld.
Brent and his ex-wife seemed committed to assuring Devony that I was not a permanent installation. Brent bought the DVD of Paper Moon so Devony could watch over and over how Moses and Addie would be together always— just the two of them—after Addie drove off the girlfriend. Okay. To be fair, maybe a girl named Trixie Delight is not destined for a permanent commitment. Brent’s ex, working on her plan to actually get mommy and daddy back together, took Devony to see The Parent Trap. In this film, the flaky, gold-digging girlfriend (reasonably christened Meredith) comes to understand her unsuitability as a stepmother—thanks to the creative efforts of the twins. (As the mother of twin daughters, I frequently gave thanks that there was only one of Devony.)
Whenever Devony suspected that I was staying over at her dad’s place, she would call to report that her mom was being impossible (I tended to side with Devony on this point), and ask to sleep in her room—at her dad’s house. What ensued after these last-minute calls resembled the clean sweep efforts of Tom Cruise in Risky Business. Brent would rush around hiding all my photos in his bureau drawers so that Devony would not find evidence that her father was actually in a relationship with me. Out I would go, just minutes before the gloating teen came in. It was the reverse of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off—a race to get out of the bed, not in. I really got quite adept at the routine, but sometimes our cars (hers and mine) would pass in the cul-de-sac. She never saw me. She was always looking at herself in the rearview mirror.
Other friends of mine had established the sort of pairing that Brent and his daughter had. The formula: Take one divorced or separated parent, pair him or her with an only-child offspring of the opposite sex, and substitute for an adult couple, as desired. One can argue whether or not this type of relationship is good for the single parent or the only child, but it is inarguably not “good” for the adult romantic partner external to the Gorilla® glue bond. And should an intrepid girlfriend venture in, the father-daughter bond can create some really big fireworks. There is little doubt in my mind that there would never have been a transcontinental flight by Sam Baldwin’s offspring to find Annie Reed in Sleepless in Seattle if Jonah had been a Joanie.
There are many names for a relationship such as ours. Saying almost anything in French can make it sound better, so let’s just say we shared an amitíe amoureuse—a companionable romantic friendship. (Have you noticed that most relationships that can be described in breathy—or throaty—French terms work well for the men involved, but ultimately are not so good for the women. There’s ménage a trios, la maîtresse, courtesan, le marriage. Is there a French term for casting couch?)
Once, following a long road trip for business—ostensibly when he had a lot of time alone to think or, well, just be lonely—Brent told me he loved me. The rest of the time, he stringently avoided the appearance of coupleship. I overheard Brent tell his best buddy that marriage wasn’t for him; he’d just as soon do his own laundry—the trade-off was too great. In what I would later see as a move to keep his options open, Brent didn’t talk about our evolving relationship to his extended family, friends, or colleagues. I was the “mystery woman” in The Blues Brothers, and when we seemed to get too close, Brent would employ the famous John Belushi move: Release his embrace and let me drop.
We shared a keen interest in cinema and would peruse local video stores together. Brent once remarked that Diary of a Mad Housewife had been misplaced in the drama section. He was adamant the film’s genre was comedy. I would only concede it might be considered satire. He pointed out his favorite scenes, but failed to recognize himself as the character of Jonathan Balsar. By this time in our life together, Richard Benjamin’s portrayal of the chronically dissatisfied, provoking, and combative mate to Carrie Snodgrass was Brent’s doppelgänger.
I’d sometimes wonder about women in the tabloids who became involved with politicians or celebrities. It’s impossible to avoid the onslaught of familiar clichés. Other women are calculating predators (Barbara Stanwyck in No Man of Her Own and Double Indemnity or practically any other film in which she starred) or starry-eyed bimbos (Goldie Hawn in Shampoo). They either knew exactly what they were doing (Barbra Streisand in The Prince of Tides) or they should have known better (Ilsa Lund in Casablanca. We detest these women, envy, or disregard them. Or we simply ask each other, “What could she have been thinking?” Girlfriend Daphne Rubin-Vega in the movie Sex and the City had an answer—“She was a smart girl until she fell in love.”
It wasn’t until I realized that Brent was one of those men that I recognized that I had become one of those women. Like Norris Church Mailer who discovered all at once about the many years of Norman Mailer’s womanizing by looking in his desk drawers, I uncovered the trails to Brent’s infidelity…in his e-mails. (This is fair, isn’t it? I mean, if we can overlook a disconsolate Julia Roberts employing a little e-mail espionage in My Best Friend’s Wedding ….) It seemed Brent’s weakness was for women like me: The underlings—secretaries, mostly—who fawned over him. His pattern of seduction is an old, familiar one. Brent collected intimacies like charms on a bracelet. Adoration was his lifeblood. I could almost hear the Greek chorus: “He brought us joy. We loved him well. He was not ours.” To which I add, along with Isak Dinesen, “He was not mine.” It was probably time to get Out of Africa.
Finding his cache of notes, letters, emails, and lists—carefully catalogued indiscretions— brought me to a dead stop and a fork in the road. I could begin to think of myself as a cuckolded female, the equivalent of a mari complaisant. (See how these French terms can work for you?) Or, ignoring the matter of more than a decade of old movies—and sunk costs—I could break away. Shortly after his liaisons were, if I might say, laid bare—Brent suggested that he continue his new relationship (with his old high school girlfriend) and his relationship with me at the same time. He may have been picturing Vicky, Christina, Barcelona, but the very idea gave me Heartburn. In my best imitation of Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada, I said with finality, “Go!” (This last directed more or less at me since I didn’t have her wardrobe and couldn’t quite swing a chauffeur for my departure.)
Just Like at the Movies is a fictional short story. Any relationship to real persons or real events or real things is patently coincidental (unless it’s not) (you know who you are Brent!).
Gigi DeVault is a writer errant. Her current projects include linked short stories and a screenplay, and a play—she used to be a type-A, but now, believe it or not, she is a type-Z (Z for zen). She is also writing and illustrating a children’s picture book that has nothing to do with politics.
© Bluebird Press© Bluebird Press
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/ or send a letter to Creative Commons, 171 Second Street, Suite 300, San Francisco, California, 94105, USA.
A waiver of Non-Commercial restrictions has been granted to Kenney Mencher, Kenney Mencher's Agents, Entities and affiliates, legal representatives, assigns, agents and licensees for royalty-free, non-exclusive, licensed First North American serial rights for a period of one year from publication or distribution.