Viola in reel life, p.11

Viola in Reel Life, page 11


Viola in Reel Life

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  “The bathroom is across the hall,” she says. “Girls only.”

  “Too bad. I think Romy was hoping to share with Kevin,” I joke.

  “Viola! Am I that obvious?” she says.

  “Not as obvious as that lip gloss.”


  “See what happens when a girl likes a boy? Her sense of humor goes right out the window,” I say. Marisol and Suzanne laugh.

  I find a plug and commence recharging my phone. Jared promised to text me later and I want to make sure my battery doesn’t die. Suzanne checks her BlackBerry while Marisol and Romy check theirs. I can’t stand it another second, so finally I say, “Suzanne, why is your dad in a wheelchair?”

  “I’m sorry I didn’t say anything before,” Suzanne says with a sigh.

  “You can tell us anything.” Marisol sits down next to Suzanne on the bed.

  “I know.”

  “What happened?” Romy asks softly.

  “He has MS. You know, multiple sclerosis. And he was fine for a long time, and just in the last year it’s gotten really bad. He can’t walk now.”

  Romy, with her many parents, and Marisol with hers, and me with mine—well, we don’t have this kind of problem. And to be honest, I don’t think about it much. My parents are healthy and Grand seems even younger than my own mom.

  Now I understand why Suzanne cries at night. She has terrible sadness, and probably worries about her father getting worse. “I’m sorry, Suzanne.”

  “It’s okay.”

  “No, it’s a lot to deal with,” Marisol says. “You’re away at school and it must be really hard to be away from him.”

  “I didn’t want to go to PA. I wanted to stay here. But it was always in the plan and my dad insisted. He wants all of us to be completely normal—and that includes ignoring him sometimes and disobeying his rules. He said there is no room for perfection in the Santry house.”

  “Why didn’t you tell us?”

  Suzanne looks away. Her eyes fill with tears. “I don’t know. I guess I thought that if I didn’t talk about it, if I didn’t say he’s sick, maybe he won’t be. That maybe I just dreamed the whole thing up.”

  “I get it,” Marisol says. “You don’t want it to be real.”

  Mrs. Santry knocks lightly on the door. “Everything okay?”

  “Yeah. Oh yeah,” Romy and I chirp.

  “I heard you girls wanted to go to the Art Institute.”

  “We would love it,” Marisol says.

  “Freshen up and meet me downstairs.”

  We unpack quickly, placing our clothes neatly in empty drawers in Suzanne’s dresser, then toss the big, empty duffels in the closet. We grab our purses and throw them over our shoulders.

  Before we leave the room, Marisol gives Suzanne a hug. Romy looks at me and I look at her, and we go to Suzanne and Marisol and throw our arms around them.

  “Okay, okay, I feel the love.” Suzanne’s misty tears turn to laughter. We all laugh.

  “Now, if only Romy could feel the love of Kevin. That would make for the best Thanksgiving,” I tease.

  “I am totally gonna ratchet down my desire,” Romy promises. But I doubt it. She’s laying on more lip gloss as we go.

  The Art Institute of Chicago is near Grant Park. It’s a grand building, and while it doesn’t seem as big as the Met in New York City, it surely is as wonderful. The greatest painters are represented here in the permanent collection: Georges-Pierre Seurat, Edward Hopper, Vincent Van Gogh, and Claude Monet. And these artists are just for starters!

  Marisol wants to see some modern works. A favorite artist of hers is the late New Yorker Margo Hoff, known for her enormous and whimsical collages.

  I don’t really have anything specific in mind to see, I just want to soak up city life and mill around hordes of people wearing headsets. I want to be on the move, banging into people without saying “excuse me,” see new and interesting things, love or hate those new and interesting things, take in art, talk about it! This museum trip will be the closest thing to being in New York City that I’ve had since the school year began. I hope I get shoved and pushed and cursed at, then I’ll really feel part of things!

  Mrs. Santry gives each of us a small metallic admissions button to clip onto our collars. “Okay, girls, you have two hours. Meet me back here at four thirty.”

  “Hey, look.” Marisol hands me a brochure. “There’s an installation on old movies.”

  I flip through a series of old black-and-white photographs from the 1920s. The title of the show is The Roaring Twenties on Celluloid. My mom and dad would love this. They took me to NYU last summer to see The Birth of a Nation on the big screen.

  “How great.” I’m thinking I can buy Jared a set of postcards or even a T-shirt. No, T-shirt says going steady, while a set of postcards says three kisses by the bus. I can’t believe it: I’m already getting the hang of dealing with boys! I can thank Suzanne for that; she’s the voice of reason when it comes to them since she’s been dealing with them all of her life. Sometimes I wish I had a brother to talk to.

  “I’m going through the permanent collection,” Marisol says. “For the fundamentals. And then I’m going to check out the moderns.”

  “I’ve seen the moderns a billion times,” Suzanne says. “But I’ll go with you. A billion and one.”

  “I’m going to the sculpture garden,” Romy says.

  “Great. And I’m going to meet an old friend of mine in the cafeteria for a cup of coffee.” Mrs. Santry smiles. She really is very pretty and she’s gone out of her way to make us feel at home. When we left, Mr. Santry was watching football with Kevin, so we didn’t feel bad leaving him behind. Mrs. Santry seems happier, lighter, being out of the house for a while.

  “I’m going to the old movie exposition,” I tell them.

  “I went last week. You will love it!” Mrs. Santry promises.

  “See you guys later.” I walk toward the pavilion housing the old movie show. As much as I like hanging with the girls and living in our quad, sometimes I miss being an only child where I can set the agenda alone. I liked when I didn’t have to consult a group. I liked when I could read late into the night with the light on and nobody would wake up and ask me to turn it off. I liked lazy Saturdays where I’d read a little, then play on the computer, fix a sandwich, and eat half, or listen to music really loud. Although living with the girls has made me less selfish, I’m still going to savor being alone in the Art Institute.

  I unravel my headset as I walk, looping it around my neck. It’s so relaxing to be in a large crowd where nobody knows me; I don’t even mind waiting on the long line into the exposition. I listen to the audio commentary.

  A woman’s deep and honeyed voice on the CD says, “Welcome to the Art Institute of Chicago. We are proud to present the traveling exhibition, The Roaring Twenties on Celluloid, in conjunction with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Enjoy the show!” Kicky flapper music ensues.

  I move through cubicles filled with black-and-white photographs shot by a set photographer. Images of Rudolph Valentino fill one wall, the center of which is a virtual silver screen that runs images of The Sheik in rehearsal. A movie about making movies—how perfect.

  The Rudolph Valentino section is filled with a tourist group of Italians who are led by a woman carrying a red, white, and green flag. There is hushed awe as they listen to the guide talk about Valentino’s artistry.

  I turn the corner and speed through the CD to get to Our Own, a display about Midwestern talent in front of and behind the camera.

  I peer into dioramas of set models from actual films. Then I turn and face a large wall with a slideshow of faces. The images flip through: actors with slick hair, pale, white powdered skin, and straight teeth with spaces between them; then images of actresses, platinum blond with bobbed hair and pencil-thin eyebrows.

  I recognize a very young Joan Crawford from Our Dancing Daughters. She’s a little chubby yet exuberant in her first feature fi
lm. The biography card to the side says that Joan lived in Missouri and attended Stephens College. Who knew?

  I move to the next section, which says Talent from Central U.S.A. Here, life-size cutouts of actors and actresses in black-and-white grace a virtual set. There’s a grouping of smiling women in drop-waist dresses wearing satin shoes tied with enormous ribbons. They have gorgeous multiple strands of pearls around their necks. One of the ladies drinks gin out of her shoe. I move along the exhibit, taking in the Roaring Twenties, an era of parties and more parties.

  In an instant when I turn the corner, the display turns to Technicolor. As my eye settles on the platforms full of images bursting with color, I see a lady in red.

  The image of the lady is pure Hollywood glamour. She is propped against a box, smoking. She wears a vivid, red, drop-waist dress. She has matching red shoes, dressy, with a square heel tied with red satin ribbons. Her blond curls peek out of a small black cloche hat. She looks directly into the camera through the mysterious haze of her cigarette smoke.

  I stand back and squint.

  I know her.

  I have seen her.

  OMG. She’s the Red Lady from my video diaries. It’s her. A feeling of complete anxiety grips me and I look around for someplace to sit down. A small bench in front of the display is empty. I go to the seat and look up at the Red Lady, to study her. To make sure.

  I read the biography cards under the life-size photograph.

  May McGlynn born in Winnetka, Illinois, October 11, 1900, was a favorite go-to comedic actress for writers Frances Marion and Anita Loos. The starlet was destined for great roles in the American cinema when her life was tragically cut short in an airplane crash in South Bend, Indiana, on September 3, 1925, days shy of her twenty-fifth birthday.

  She died in South Bend, Indiana! Where?

  I continue reading.

  Her plane dropped from the sky and into a cornfield, part of the Prefect Academy, a boarding school for girls.

  I don’t know whether to be relieved or terrified—or both. So I continue to read to understand this May McGlynn.

  A true flapper, a good-time gal, and a lush, according to reports, Ms. McGlynn personified the era of good feelings and scanty morals that was the 1920s. Ms. McGlynn was featured in chorus roles until her breakthrough film, Wilderness Cry, where she proved her mettle as a dramatic actress.

  I pull the headset off my ears and stand. I look up at May McGlynn, my May McGlynn, the Red Lady, who is as real to me now as my own camera, in my own hands. She was real—she lived!

  I didn’t make up the ghost. What I saw was May McGlynn. She lives on reels in canisters in the basement of the Art Institute of Chicago, and when she’s not on film, she’s at the Prefect Academy trying to tell me something. But what exactly?

  Now I wish that I had Marisol with me. Or Romy. Or Suzanne. Or even Mrs. Santry who I just met, but who seemed empathetic. This is a very bad time to be alone. My hands begin to shake.

  I look up at May. The expression in her eyes comforts me. I search the crowd as it moves slowly through the exhibit, but I don’t see her here. No one in red. No one in a hat. No one with those cool shoes. And for sure no cigarettes. A couple stops and reads May’s bio on the display.

  Looking at May is like looking at the photographs my roommates and I keep on our desks of people we know and love and miss. Just seeing the images brings connection.

  Maybe this is what Mrs. Zidar meant; maybe May is real to me because I need her to be. After all, she was in movies, and I make them. That’s what Dr. Fandu in horticulture calls a “symbiotic” relationship. And everybody knows that when there’s a symbiotic relationship, something is born of that. I just have to figure out what that might be.


  ROMY, SUZANNE, AND MARISOL ARE EATING CUPCAKES at the museum café as though nothing has happened. I run to their table and Romy looks up at me.

  “What’s wrong?” she asks.

  “You guys. You have to come with me. Right now.”

  “Why?” Marisol looks concerned but continues to eat her cupcake.

  “I wanted to tell you guys but I was afraid you’d think I was nuts.”

  “Tell us what?” Suzanne adds Splenda to her iced tea as though this were the most normal moment in the world.

  “I was filming my video diaries the first day of school and I saw something strange on the footage later—a lady dressed in red in the field—and I had no explanation for it until now. And then, when I was doing the scenery for the Founder’s Day show I smelled this heavy perfume in the theater and I looked up and saw a flash of red. And now I think it was her.”


  “May McGlynn! Oh, just come with me. See for yourselves.”

  The girls finish their cupcakes quickly but I can tell that they’re only coming along to the exhibition to humor me.

  At the exhibit with May’s photograph and information they read and take it in as I back up the CD so they can hear the commentary on the headset.

  “This is really interesting,” Marisol says.

  “It’s supernatural,” I correct her.

  “You mean, you think you’ve seen a ghost and you didn’t tell us?” Romy asks.

  “It wasn’t like I was withholding information from you. I just didn’t want to believe that I was seeing something that wasn’t there. I even told Mrs. Zidar in therapy….”

  “You saw Mrs. Zidar in therapy?” Romy is hurt.

  “I made her go because of the insomnia,” Suzanne explains.

  “You have insomnia?” Romy is even more hurt. Why does she turn everything into something she didn’t know in the first place?

  “Well, you wouldn’t know because you’re sleeping through it.”

  “I’m so out of the loop.” Romy sighs.

  Marisol stands back, looking up at May McGlynn. “Okay, this is a sign.”

  “Of what?”

  “Well, there’s a reason that you came to the museum and found her here. She’s trying to tell you something.” Marisol puts her hands on her hips and squints up at May. “She’s so beautiful.”

  “She’s a movie star,” I reason.

  “And you make movies,” Suzanne says.

  “That’s what Mrs. Zidar said—she said that the Red Lady was somehow related to my subconscious where art is born.”

  “Maybe there’s a movie of hers that you’re supposed to watch or something, to make some kind of connection,” Suzanne says.

  “There are no accidents,” Marisol says definitively. “There is something here.”

  But what? Who is May McGlynn to me? And why did she show up in my video diaries? What does she want from me?

  “Now we have to buy the exhibition book,” Romy says. “Come on. You need her picture.”

  We turn to go to the gift shop. I look back at May. I swear she smiles at me, almost relieved. Or maybe I’m just imagining it.

  Preparing Thanksgiving dinner at the Santrys’ is about the most fun I’ve ever had on a holiday. There’s a lot of laughter in this house, even with Mr. Santry’s illness. If my dad were sick, I’d be crying all day and night, but not the Santry family. They are made of something more durable than the Chestertons for sure.

  Mrs. Santry has Marisol and me peeling potatoes—sweet (for candied yams) and white (for mashed with butter). We’re sitting on the screened-in porch outside the kitchen. Mrs. Santry has spread newspapers on the floor to collect the peels. I’m pretty good at peeling potatoes, but Marisol is a machine. She peels off the skin without taking any hunks out of the good stuff. Plus, she’s fast.

  “You okay out here?” Joe, the older Santry brother, pokes his head out of the screen door. He’s also home for the holiday break. While Kevin is college cute, Joe is man cute. He has dark brown hair and blue eyes and looks a lot like Mr. Santry. He doesn’t get impatient with us (not that Kevin does either), and he seems genuinely interested in where we come from and what we know.

  “We’re fine!” Mariso
l and I say in unison. Joe goes back into the kitchen.

  “He is, like, ten times better-looking than Kevin,” Marisol whispers.

  “You know, I find it so hard not to fall in love with every older guy I see. Do you?”

  “Not really. I guess I’m picky.” Marisol takes the end of her potato peeler and removes a brown spot. “And I’m probably scared of them too.”

  “I didn’t say I wasn’t scared. I just find them so handsome. And they’re so easy to talk to.” I think of Tag—who, like Joe and Kevin, is just so easy—period. “Boys our age have too many pauses in their conversations. I almost think something is wrong with them.”

  “This coming from a girl who has a boyfriend,” Marisol teases.

  “Jared is not a real boyfriend yet. I don’t even know him that well.” I am getting to know him, but I don’t like to lord him over Marisol, who had a lousy time at the dance except for the conga line. I always remind myself that not everyone met a cute boy and kissed him three times at the GSA dance. I had a fluke experience, like a rainbow that comes out after a tornado in Indiana. I never brag, and I wouldn’t anyway—anytime a boy likes a girl, and she likes him back, it’s a delicate situation.

  I look through the screen where Romy is helping Kevin make apple dumplings. She is in total bliss. Kevin seems to enjoy talking to her too but it’s like talking to a little sister. I don’t think Romy cares. She’ll take Kevin any way she can get him.

  “How’s Romy doing?”

  “Okay. If Kevin is Mario Batali, Romy is Rachael Ray. She’s all chipper and attentive and it’s like she’s doing a cooking show with him,” I say.

  “Do you think he likes her?” Marisol asks.

  “I can tell he thinks she’s sweet, but he’s in college,” I remind Marisol. “This is a love that will never be.”

  “Not yet anyhow. She won’t always be fourteen. And, they do have sports in common,” Marisol says practically.

  Suzanne pushes her dad into the kitchen, which has been transformed into a bakery, and up to the table. Mr. Santry places two sticks of softened butter in the bottom of a bowl, takes a couple handfuls of walnuts out of a Ziploc bag, and throws them in with the butter. Suzanne measures brown sugar into the bowl and Mr. Santry adds some cinnamon.

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