Three days to go, and I spent a couple of hours cleaning up my recordings and making a backup tape, and then I drove over to the production office in Santa Monica to deliver it. The delivery tape was on a reel, but I’d made a dub onto a cassette also, which I handed them in case they needed to check it. I sat down in an office with two production guys who listened to about five minutes of it and then shook my hand and said it was exactly like what Chernwick had described. I took that to mean they had talked to him on the phone that morning. I asked what they wanted me to do with it. They said nothing, consider it done.
I felt a little weird asking for payment on the spot, but Cadmon had said to. They gave me a bit of a weird look, too, but had no problem writing the check and handing it to me. I’d later learn that was kind of weird, but given what a weird emergency job it was in the first place, a small production company like them was happy to just pay me and get on with things.
I wasn’t sure if I could deposit the check here in LA anywhere, what with my bank being back in Boston. I didn’t think putting money in through the ATM was quite the same as getting it out. Well, I supposed I could probably mail it in somehow. Then I realized, duh, Digger must have some way of putting money into my account. I’d ask him later.
I guess because I felt good about having money, even in the form of a check, in my pocket, I stopped to buy bourbon and ice cream on the way home. I also stocked up some other things I knew we’d eaten out of Remo’s pantry: canned tuna, Campbell’s soup, eggs.
When I got home, I put the stuff away in the kitchen and was about to go look for J. in his writing room when I noticed he was sitting on the edge of the pool with his feet in the water. He was wearing cargo shorts, not swim trunks, so I guessed he was just cooling off. Then he put his face in his hands and I wondered what was wrong.
I hurried out the back door. “Hey, you okay?”
He looked up. His face was red and I didn’t think it was from sunburn. “It’s hopeless.”
I crouched down next to him. “What’s hopeless?”
His answer was a heavy sigh.
I recalled something Carynne and several other people had said to me in the past, about how I needed to eat to maintain any faith in the world. “Want to tell me about it over some ice cream? Or a tuna sandwich?”
He blinked at me a little. “That… sounds sensible.”
“I learned it from you. And Carynne. Come on.”
So we went inside and I attempted to make tuna salad. Fortunately for me the recipe is on the side of the can, and there was mayo and celery in the fridge. Unfortunately for me, I had neglected to buy bread, so what J. actually had was a half sandwich on the last piece of bread, and the rest on Ritz crackers. Then I kind of tiptoed around on tenterhooks. He was sitting at the counter in the kitchen while I put the things away and washed the knife.
When he was done, he wiped his mouth on a napkin, said, “Thank you,” and then burst into tears.
Okay. I just hugged him then, because I didn’t know what else to do. He was still on the stool and I was standing there with my arms around him, trying to think of what to try next. I figured he was like me, and if I waited long enough, he’d eventually come up with the words to tell me what was going on. I had no idea at that point what had upset him so. If I had to guess, though, I would have guessed it was something to do with the screenplay and not something like… his cat at home. He buried his face in my neck.
Confession: I thought about Ziggy when he did that. I thought about Ziggy collapsing in my arms after the MSG show, exhausted and unable to carry himself even as far as the green room, unable to even hold his composure one more second.
J. didn’t cry anywhere near as hard, or as long. But I figured if he needed to let go that badly, he must’ve also been really wound up and at the end of his rope. I racked my brain for suggestions of what to try to make him feel better.
“You want to go lie down?” I tried, figuring that could mean sex or rest, but leaving the interpretation up to him.
He shook his head. “I’ll be fine,” he said, his forehead against my collarbone.
“You don’t feel fine,” I pointed out.
I kissed him on the ear to be sure, and lifted his head, so I kissed him on the cheek, and he turned his head and caught my mouth with his then. But just when I thought I was sure–okay, sex–he pulled back. He got off the stool and splashed his face with water from the sink. I followed him to the living room. He was ready to talk.
Remo’s living room looked like it didn’t get a lot of use. He had leather sectional sofas on three sides around a round, glass coffee table, a couple of knick knacks on it, a stereo cabinet against one wall. J. pulled me down beside him.
“I know what happens in the end of my book,” he said, sounding miserable.
“The book you’ve been working on for years?”
“Yes. The same book that my agent sold the dramatic production rights to, the same one that I’ve been working on the screenplay for, the screenplay that I’ve been faking my way through.”
“Okay.” I had been under the impression that finding out what was going to happen in the end was the thing J. had been working on all this time. So the fact that it was upsetting him this much was confusing. “So, what happens?”
“He dies,” J. said, and squeezed his eyes shut again, as they began to leak. I put my arm around him and he leaned his head on my shoulder.
“And that’s a problem,” I said, after what I hoped was a respectful length of silence.
“That’s a problem,” J. said, nodding his head. “See, if I see things through to their natural conclusion, so that the book has literary integrity, that pretty much kills the entire Hollywood deal.”
“It does. You’re not allowed to kill off a main character in Hollywood. For one thing, it messes up the possibility of sequels.”
“Plus, no one wants to go see a downer of a movie. And this is actually kind of a miniseries now that we’re working on, and that’s even worse. I mean, I know they say the secret to a happy ending is to end the story at the right place, right? But now that they’re trying to make a series? Who’s going to invest night after night of their time in a show if it doesn’t have a happy ending? Not the studio who’s making it, certainly.” He let out a long breath. “My career as a screen writer would be over before it even began.”
I had something to say to that, but I decided to hold it until he wasn’t so upset.
“It’s the ultimate artistic Catch-22, isn’t it? The classic one. In order to keep the gravy train rolling, I have to betray my art. Betray my principles.”
“Um, but don’t lots of books have different endings from their movie or TV versions?”
He made a dismissive noise. “I hate the thought it would be one of those,” he said. “This would be worse, though. I mean, usually the novelist doesn’t get any say in what they do with the adaptation. If they chop the head off and stick Ronald Reagan in it there’s nothing you can do. But this would be me chopping the head off my own baby.”
“Oh.” Yeah, that sounded bad all right. I decided to try to say what I was going to before. “How much do you want to be a screen writer, though? You’ve got a great career as a journalist, and novelist on top of that wouldn’t be so bad…?”
“It isn’t enough,” he said. “The money, I mean. There isn’t much more upward I can go in rock journalism, and I still barely make ends meet. My parents cover my rent whenever I can’t. But I don’t want to mooch off them forever. I don’t… I don’t know if this writing thing is really going to ever work out.” He started to shake again, drawing a ragged breath. “Even if this gig works out, then it’s over and who knows if there’ll be another one? Even if I don’t kill off my main character… what’s the likelihood the show does well and the book sells well enough to put me on the map? Pretty slim. I don’t know why I’m even trying and putting myself through this much grief.”
That was the point where I understood this wasn’t about the industry or the actual thing he was writing, but was a total collapse of artistic self confidence. I’d seen it before. At school. The night before a big recital, the most talented oboe player or singer or whatever on the hall would have a massive meltdown, as if they were totally unaware that they were the best singer out of anyone there. Thing is, they are unaware of it. They can’t see their own talent. The ones who don’t make it are the ones who let that collapse of confidence cripple them. The ones who do make it are the ones who act like they’re the best, even if they suck. They’re the ones who think they’re the best, even if they’re not. And it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because they’re the ones who survive.
The only way I got through without it myself was two things. One, I never took conservatory that seriously because I knew being a classical musician was not going to be my thing. Two, I didn’t finish.
Jonathan, on the other hand, how did he know how good a writer he was? Writers didn’t get standing ovations. I supposed until they were famous, writers didn’t get fan mail or really any kind of feedback other than paychecks and maybe rewrite advice from editors or agents. Right? “What did your agent say about it?”
“I haven’t told her yet. I’m afraid she’s going to chew me out.”
“And if she does? You’ll quit writing, or what?”
“Serious question, J. Is she the right agent for you if you’re afraid to tell her what your artistic aims are?”
“Um.” He shifted. “Why are you so short? I’ve got the worst crick in my neck.”
“Lie down, then.” I squished him between me and the back of the couch as we lay side by side. “And don’t dodge the question.”
“I guess maybe I’m afraid… that she’ll hate the idea, it’ll put a rift between us, and I’ll be back to square one, looking for a new agent AND a new writing gig. Do you have any idea how hard it is to get a literary agent?”
“No. I’ll assume it’s hard, though.”
“She’s a good one. She makes deals. She goes out and finds money. I like her.”
“But you’re afraid she’s going to say you’re nuts for killing this character.”
“Maybe I am nuts for killing this character. Maybe this is all an elaborate form of self-sabotage.”
“Maybe you don’t really want to be a Hollywood screen writer and that’s why you’re sabotaging it.”
“Hm.” He appeared to be seriously considering this as a possibility.
The tearful kiss in the kitchen and now being pressed up against him had my libido rearing its head again. But I refrained from doing anything, waiting for him to say something. When he didn’t, I went with a truism. “You have to be true to yourself, J. But only you can figure out what you really want.”
He ran his hand up my leg then. “Feels like you know what you want.”
For some reason, that made me blush. “Yeah, well.”
He pulled me into a kiss then. It wasn’t long before he was under me. I was more than willing to talk more, but it seemed talking time was over. We didn’t even go back to the bedroom. I took him right there au natural, using just spit and patience. I felt his pain and I wanted to take it into myself, and if I couldn’t do that, I wanted to at least make it better for a while.
He was gorgeous and wanton under me, never more beautiful than in those moments, and I’d never felt closer to him.
And I thought everything was going to be okay, then, but J. himself had said it, you have to stop at the right point to get a happy ending.