As the air to a bird or the sea to a fish, so is contempt to the contemptible.
My daughter tried to contact me in December. It was a shock to hear her voice on my answering machine. I hadn’t heard it in nineteen years. Inasmuch as she was nineteen years old, what I’m really trying to say is that I had never heard it.
In a sense—a very general, abstract sense—I had been aware of her existence all along. However, it was only when dropping the child-support check in the mail each month that I would acknowledge that she was alive. And then, upon her eighteenth birthday, when this financial yoke was finally lifted from my neck, she faded from abstraction into sweet oblivion. I don’t often celebrate anything—least of all my own birthday—but on the night my biological successor legally entered adulthood, I tried my hand at baking for the first time in my life with a tres leches cake. (Alas, in both structure and flavor, the cake was a disaster.)
There is no good time in a man’s life for him to be hailed by a child he did not raise. My child in particular could scarcely have chosen a worse time to attempt first contact. For starters, my dog had just died; he’d escaped the apartment in the night and survived the five-lane dash across a busy street only to be murdered by a pack of coyotes near the twelfth hole of a nearby golf course just as the Phoenix Valley was plunged into another violet half-night. My grief was still fresh, filling every second of waking life and dreams alike. Even as my daughter’s call rang out in the blankness of my bereavement, I could still hear poor Roscoe’s death cries, grinding all of the world’s meaning to ash.
This, against the backdrop of December, a month that always heaps a certain amount of anxiety upon the faculty of Copperhead College (myself included). For us, December’s onset signals not only a palpable winter but also the descent into the holidays and the various pressures this entails (reading final papers, awarding final grades, finalizing the syllabi for next semester—a wealth of finality). Even for demagogues of the Media Arts Department (myself included), whose jobs consist almost entirely of showing movies to doomed future indentured servants of the federal government, December is a curse.
To compound these considerable woes, I’d been working behind the scenes of the annual Phoenix International Film Festival all week. It was only for the sake of job security—that is, to promote the illusion of dedication to the cause—that I’d volunteered my assistance, which mainly consisted of posting flyers for the event around the campuses of Copperhead, Arizona State University, Mesa Community College, Scottsdale Community College, Phoenix College, etc. On the closing night of the week-long festival, I was almost too nervous to leave the apartment. It had been rumored that the Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki was in town; the festival’s organizers had sent him an invitation to speak after the screening of his latest opus. I just so happened to be writing a book about him—or I’d been planning to for close to a year—and meeting him in person would have been a real make-or-break moment. I alone among my colleagues was relieved when there was no response from the Kaurismäki camp. And when at last, the filmmaker neglected to appear, I was very nearly elated. (Although elation would sublimate into a sense of betrayal soon enough.)
On the following night, a Saturday—the very night of the call from my daughter—one of the festival organizers threw a party at her home in Tempe. The call came just as I was about to reach the conclusion that it would be better not to attend. Naturally, I allowed the phone to ring until the answering machine picked up. According to the caller ID, the call had come from an unfamiliar number with an outlandish 860 area code. To whom did I still owe money? No one; I was up to date on all my bills that month. No doubt it was a telemarketer, some philanthropic soul seeking to ease my suffering, improve my life.
Something prevented me from erasing the message immediately, without even listening to it. I won’t call it a premonition or divine intervention (I won’t stoop to vulgarity), but the fact stands that I still don’t know what it was. I had two choices, then: (1) Stay home and grapple with all of the horrors intrinsic to messages from unknown callers, or (2) go to the party. After mechanically refilling Roscoe’s water bowl and then realizing my mistake and kicking the bowl across the kitchen, I chose the latter, unwittingly granting myself a few hours yet to live my life before my daughter’s voice, my daughter’s words, would spill forth into my little world like pestilent vapors from history’s grave.
A funereal mood had already settled over the soirée in Tempe by the time I arrived. Was Kaurismäki to blame? Or was it a simple case of contagious seasonal affective disorder? The heat had dwindled, Christmas was near; people had a right to feel depressed. I spent most of the evening hovering near a table of hors d’oeuvres, attempting to look busy piling pepperoni and sharp white cheddar squares onto little wheat crackers. There were finger sandwiches too; if mingling was out of the question, you could always fall back on the finger sandwiches. Although I was not new to the Phoenix film studies community, I had so far failed (systematically it seems) to enter the circle. I was not prone to talking about film outside of the classroom. Frankly, I was sick to death of talking about film.
There were about ten of us standing around the living room, an even mix of graduate students and faculty, most from Copperhead—nobody with whom I felt especially inclined to speak. To my left, a professor and her graduate assistant were deep in a gratuitous lament, instigated by who knows what, over the current state of American film. It was the professor’s feeling that there was something a little sad, a little unselfconsciously nihilistic about this current trend of dark and glossy prestige pieces that dominated the independent sector, these aesthetically sumptuous yet manifestly empty depictions of tragedy unfurling in a vacuum. To which the T.A. added that the whole trend was a crypto-corporate backlash against the free spirit of the independent movements that had dominated the 2000s: a malicious attempt on the part of petit-Hollywood (the major-studio subsidies masquerading as independent entities) to squash the vitality of truly independent cinema. Wedging himself into the fray, a nearby director of photography from Sedona (ponytail, palm-print shirt, shorts, and sandals in December) stipulated broadly that nothing produced by the quote-unquote American independent sector “felt true anymore”; he was squirming with nostalgia for the noble violence of the American cinema of the ’70s.
I could easily have noted that what American cinema was missing, what it had always been missing, was a sense of carnal innocence. Sure, there was plenty of prudish sensuality on one end of the spectrum (let’s call it the unabashedly commercial end), and plenty of cynical eroticism or outright rape on the other (the aforementioned “petit-Hollywood”), but the center was absent, and this absence spoke thick volumes about the American audience’s prevailing shame and loathing over its own carnal essence—its own humanity. Alas, there was no need for me to toss in my proverbial two cents; the pontifical rheum was already thick enough.
Nibbling nervously on a wedge of cheddar, I turned away and almost plowed into a woman from my department who taught a course in digital editing. Early-thirties, unmarried, a bright smile and soft voice, the face of an angel perched atop a woebegone surplus of flesh: Monica Barnes. She apologized effusively for the collision. I offered a tight smile.
Strictly speaking, not our first encounter. She had come by my office one afternoon near the end of the previous semester under the pretense of borrowing my DVD copy of A Clockwork Orange and lingered on after the transaction’s completion in order to update me on the irrelevant details of her life: the cat she had just adopted (“Boots”); the deteriorating structural integrity of the one-bedroom apartment she had lived in for the past three years; the house in Maricopa she was thinking of buying now that the housing market had officially bottomed out and prices were, on average, one quarter what they had been three years prior. . . . Since then, she had made a few similar attempts to befriend me, to which I’d found it difficult to respond. On the whole, I think I treated her coldly, with disinterest; I didn’t want to lead her on. I couldn’t really picture going to bed with her; at best, I could conjure up some bleary image of allowing her, out of pure compassion, to suck me off in a vacant classroom, in the quiet evening hours. . . . It was not even her modest obesity that repelled me, for indeed, I too was moderately obese, perhaps even immodestly so. No, the true obstacle to our hooking up was her naked, screaming availability, unsurreptitiously signaled and bordering on solicitude. To her credit, I suppose, she persevered.
“How are your students?” she asked.
“Passable,” I said.
She looked into the glass of punch clutched in both hands. For some reason, she had started to blush—or maybe she was always blushing, suffering some problem with circulation or some hereditary skin disorder. Or perhaps it was evidence of a little alcohol problem—which is understandable in these harsh times of economic and political uncertainty. “If I remember correctly,” she said, “you mentioned you were thinking of writing an article about Aki Kaurismäki.”
“A book, actually,” I corrected her, perplexed as to when or why I had divulged this bit of deeply personal information. I couldn’t remember doing so. It must have been a momentary lapse of character; it does happen from time to time. In any case, I had absolutely no intention of talking about it now, in part because I’d hardly written a single thing. I’d spent all summer and fall trying to view the filmmaker’s oeuvre from some kind of fresh perspective . . . but alas, all thoughts of Kaurismäki had quickly led to nothingness, sucked into the all-devouring heat and light of the Sonoran Desert, where all articulated dreams of civilization go to die. “It’s going well,” I summarized, sealing the lie with a more relaxed, reassuring smile. I’d already knocked back two and a half vodka tonics; smiling no longer presented a substantial difficulty.
Contrary to my plans, the conversation did not end there. I ran into Monica again on the stairs, on the landing between floors, coming back from the bathroom. This time, she had me trapped. “It was stupid of us to think Kaurismäki would ever show up in Arizona, wasn’t it?”
I could tell she was tipsier than when last we’d crossed paths; the top button of her sweater had come undone, her elocution was suffering. “I think so, yes,” I offered. “I can see him visiting New York, Seattle—San Francisco at a stretch. But, sadly, Finns are not biologically equipped to survive even brief exposure to a desert climate.”
Monica laughed, an involuntary little chirp that she tried to muffle with her hand. Did she get the feeling she was getting somewhere? The sad reality—the truth of the pall hanging over all of us—was that there was no place for cinema in Phoenix, no scene, no reason at all for any filmmaker (or artist of any kind) to bother visiting. For the past few years, certain desperate and deluded individuals had been circulating rumors that Phoenix was coming up in the world, that it was the “New Hollywood.” I’d been living in the valley for nine years; if there were a solitary grain of truth to the hyperbole, I’d yet to witness evidence of it. (They’d shot some scenes for a recent blockbuster starring Nicolas Cage in a desolate stretch of southern Gilbert, but that was about the extent of it.) Had dear Monica been involved in attempts to foster this chimerical Phoenix Scene? I didn’t ask; I was anxious to get back to the hors d’oeuvres.
“Anyway,” she said, “the festival was a success, don’t you think? There were more people than last year.”
I nodded sagely, looked down into my drink, focused on an ice cube with something small and black frozen near its center. The narrow design of the staircase presented a dilemma: I couldn’t simply push past her, which limited my choices to (1) standing there and enduring her increasingly inexplicable insistence upon keeping the conversation alive, or (2) fleeing back the way I’d come. But how to extract oneself courteously? In the end, I shrugged and held up my glass, jiggled the ice around to emphasize the absence of vodka or tonic. The signal went straight to its mark. “You need a new drink,” she said with deep empathy, stepping aside.
It was getting late, and I was a bit more intoxicated than I’d planned to get. I wasn’t the only one: Someone had unloaded a liter of Everclear into a batch of sangria, which took everyone down a notch or two. Thinking it best to catch a light nap before driving, I wandered out onto the back patio. There was no one else out there, it was too cold to socialize outdoors; a thermometer hanging near some wind chimes read sixty-six degrees. I fell onto a wicker bench. Like that of virtually all houses in the greater Phoenix metropolitan area, the back yard was a small, depressing square of red and brown gravel with a few treelike weeds sprouting along the perimeter, climbing up the high stone wall that encased the property. Beyond the wall, the second story of a house identical to the one I’d just exited was visible: Its reflective shades were drawn; it looked more like a large mausoleum than a home. Although my view of the night sky was clipped by the awning that shaded the patio, I could just make out a few slivers of pinkish, starless light pollution.
I don’t know exactly when I passed out or for how long. When I woke, Monica Barnes was sitting next to me. The smell of sangria—half fruity, half caustic—drifted off her in waves. Apparently, neither one of us was getting along well with our colleagues; she had unilaterally decided that it was us against them.
“I’m sorry—did I wake you?” she asked.
I shook my heavy head, looked about groggily. She took this as her cue to resume whatever conversation she imagined I’d cut short on the stairway. Though I couldn’t make much sense of it, I remained polite, attentive; in any case, I turned my face toward her as she spoke. Bizarrely, she was talking about herself: She’d been born in Utah, studied film production at UCLA; she was slated to teach the Hitchcock course in the spring; she hoped she would be considered for tenure next year. It seemed to confuse her that I had no similar goal in mind—which did nothing to stop her from abruptly pushing her hand down my pants. I froze, unable to respond, forced into a space of tangled cognitive signals by her audacity (fueled at least partially by the high-octane sangria, no doubt).
After a bit of a search, her fingers found their prize. Haphazardly milking it, she put her mouth next to my ear and whispered, either nervously or seductively, “Am I taking advantage of you?” I groaned with total ambivalence. On the one hand, despite the Venusian splendor of her face, I was not sexually attracted to this woman in the least; on the other, to balk at a free hand job would have been tantamount to spitting in the face of every man who has gone his whole life without being presented with such an offer. . . . And while I dithered between acceptance and repugnance, Monica’s tactations intensified.
There was a rather large window of opportunity for me to return the gesture out of courtesy or sheer pity. She’d undone two or three more buttons on the sweater, and underneath she wore something uncharacteristically low-cut, showcasing her full B-cup breasts, their corporeality maximized by some sort of gravity-defying brassiere. I allowed the window to close. There was no chance of achieving a full erection: I was too shocked, too inebriated—and, let’s face it, too depressed about being blown off by Kaurismäki, by Roscoe’s brutal demise. Monica persisted for another minute, although I could tell she’d grown discouraged with the semi-flaccid thing in her grip. “Are you okay?” she asked.
I touched my brow as if to check my temperature. I could only imagine what my face looked like in that moment: a bewildered rictus, pale and diseased. “It’s the cold,” I murmured idiotically, adding for good measure: “Or I think I drank too much.”
With a whimper, she withdrew her hand from my pants. She looked away, as if to shield me from the transient flicker of anger (at me? at herself?) that suddenly marred those divine features.
Guilt pierced me—guilt and atrophied gentlemanly instincts—and I tried to repair the moment by telling her the story of dearly departed Roscoe. “He was . . . a mutt of some kind,” I fumbled. “He . . . well . . . the damned coyotes got him.”
“Oh no,” Monica gasped, hand to heart.
I was in too deep. Her compassion was as intolerable as her ire, the wound of Roscoe’s murder too fresh. I stood up, muttered something vaguely apologetic, and rushed straight to my car. As I braved the gauntlet of police cruisers between the party and my apartment, I was disheartened to realize that the odds of crossing paths with Monica again before the end of the academic year were high, and that when it happened, I would stand in the umbra of shadows cast by my limp dick and my dead dog.