Viola in Reel Life, page 14
While I’m studying for the bio exam, an email pops up from my mom to turn on the video conference camera. I push my hair behind my ears and sit up, waving to my mom through the computer.
“Viola, you look tired.”
“It’s final exams. I am tired.”
“Are you drinking your fizzy Emergen-C powder every day?” she asks.
“Good. That will ward off colds.”
My dad nestles into the shot next to my mother.
“Hey, kid,” he says.
“Dad, you have to shave that beard before I come home. Your face looks like Davy Crockett’s hat.”
“Don’t you like it?”
“No. I want my old dad back.”
“Sorry.” He smiles.
My dad usually grows a beard when he’s filming. My mother also lets her personal appearance go when she’s working. I see a half inch of gray roots on top of the brown with the caramel highlights from early fall.
“So, how are you?” Mom says.
“Well, I think you will be happy to know that I’ve decided to embrace this place for another semester. I’m going to stop bugging you to quit your movie.”
“What changed your mind?” Dad wants to know as he takes Mom’s hand in victory (for now) and solidarity.
“I’m making a movie.”
“I got your proposal. It’s terrific,” Dad says. “I’m happy you decided to enter the competition.”
“Thanks. I think it will be an amazing experience to make my first film here. There’s something to be said for creating works of art in a quiet vacuum….”
“Now, Viola…” Mom begins to correct my lousy attitude.
“Just kidding. I’m getting into it. I have it slightly cast—my roommate Suzanne is playing the lead—and I’ll write the script when I’m home.”
“We want to talk to you about that,” Mom says, making a face that sends a web of small lines across her forehead.
“What’s the matter?”
“Honey, we can’t get to the States for Christmas.”
“What are you talking about? Marisol is coming with me—didn’t you get my email about driving out to get us?”
“And we would have, except that now we can’t be there.”
“I can’t believe you’re putting your stupid project before me,” I say, furious.
“It’s not like that at all. This is very painful for us. And we talked to Mrs. Grundman, the headmistress—”
“You told her before me?”
“We had to make arrangements with her,” Dad interjects.
“This is just great. You go behind my back and make plans without asking me first?” Tears sting my eyes.
“It’s not as bad as it sounds. We actually have good news in all of this.” My mother looks at my father and then into the camera to me. “Grand is going to go to South Bend and spend Christmas with you.”
“That’s supposed to make up for you not being here?”
“Now, Viola, you love Grand. You’ll have a ball with her.” Dad’s tone is stern.
“She’s starting rehearsals for a Broadway play after the first of the year, and this will be her last vacation for a long time,” Mom says. “She’s dying to see you, honey. And Mrs. Grundman assures me that they have a wonderful Christmas dinner planned, and one of the guest rooms in Curley Kerner is reserved for Grand.”
“You planned all of this without once thinking to ask me.”
“We knew how disappointed you’d be and we wanted to make sure you could have the best Christmas possible if we couldn’t be there with you.”
I think about home. I think about my BFFAA Andrew and how our friendship is basically in tatters, shredded to the point where I may have to drop the AA and go to plain BFF. I think about my room, and the East River at night, and the Christmas moon over Brooklyn and how it feels like I’m never going to see any of what matters to me ever again. I’m a refugee from normal family life. I have no place to go. I’m more marooned now than I was when I landed here in September.
“Viola?” Dad says gently.
I wait before answering him. Then I wipe my eyes on my sleeve. “What?”
“I know you can’t understand this now, and that this is really difficult for you, but in the realm of choices we had regarding Christmas, we chose the best one for you.”
“Our hearts are broken that we can’t be with you.” My mother begins to cry. “You’re our world.”
Well, that’s not exactly true, is it, Mom? But I don’t say that out loud. If I was your world, as you say, wouldn’t you leave the one you’re in to be with me?
Jared Spencer puts his arm around me outside Curley Kerner. The maintenance man, Mr. Jackowski, clears the benches of snow. Maybe because some of the faculty of PA are so decrepitly old that he’s afraid they might keel over in the drifts, freeze to death, and not be found until Easter break, if they don’t have a place to stop and rest.
We wander for a while across the campus. Jared got a ride over to PA with an upperclassman who was meeting one of our senior girls so we could see each other before Christmas. Jared Spencer is a good advance planner—it makes me like him more, and of course, makes him an organized filmmaker. Jared’s dad is picking him up at GSA tonight, and Jared will go home for the two-week break.
“What do you think you’ll do for the break?” Jared asks.
“Marisol will be here, so I guess we’ll hang out. And my grandmother is coming. And I have to write the script for my movie.”
“I’m going to write my script over break too,” he says. “Though I’ve already done most of the work.”
“You’re kidding. When did you find the time?”
“I like writing more than just about anything, so I do it before school work. It won’t be a good scene when my grades arrive.”
We stand by the trees in front of the Geier-Kirshenbaum classroom building and look at each other. The wind carries a clump of snow from the trees that falls on my face, stinging me. Jared quickly wipes the snow off with his gloved hands and then looks at me for a long while. Of all the things I like most about having a boyfriend, and believe me, the list is pretty long, the best is when we’re alone—and we don’t say anything—we just look at each other. Suzanne says every person ever born likes to be adored, and I guess I fit very comfortably into that group.
“Are you ready to exchange gifts?” Jared asks.
Jared and I planned to see each other before Christmas. It’s not been easy, with finals and all the school activities centered around the holidays, but we have managed to get together because he made it happen.
We each pull packages out of our backpacks.
“You first,” he says to me. I open a slim, square package. It’s a black-and-white clapperboard and comes with its own box of chalk. The gift is so perfect and so personal and so supportive of my dreams that I don’t have to fake how thrilled I am. Jared Spencer thinks of everything.
“I love it. Thank you!” I throw my arms around him and give him a hug.
Then he opens his package from me.
“This is great. I really need this,” he says, looking down at the updated two-disc set computer program for the Avid. “I can’t wait to try it.”
“It’s all the bells and whistles. You can even do subtitles and crawlers with it.”
“Yeah. I can show you how. After Christmas.”
“Cool,” he says.
“Hey, Jared?” Jared’s ride, a GSA senior named Paul, waves from the parking lot. “Gotta go, brother,” he says.
“I gotta go,” Jared says.
“I heard,” I say and smile.
“Sorry.” And then Jared Spencer leans down and kisses me softly, gently—perfectly. “Merry Christmas,” he says. “It’ll go fast.”
One dance, one
As I walk back to Curley Kerner, I think about all the positive things that have happened to me since I came to the Prefect Academy. I’ve made good friends and I’ve had challenging classes and I’m planning my first movie. I met Jared. There are many good things to be grateful for, so why do I feel abandoned? My parents sent me to PA for the education and the experience, and I could accept that, if only I were able to go home for Christmas. I wonder if I’ll ever find my way back home. Brooklyn seems like a million miles away.
“Where’s my girl?” I hear Grand’s voice thunder in the entrance hall of Curley Kerner. My grandmother’s loud, deep, and clear voice is truly her signature as an actress and as a human being. It’s the kind of voice that can clear a gymnasium full of people with one well-timed holler of: “Fire!”
“I’m on my way!” I call down the stairs. I’m happy that she’s here—three days with only Marisol and six other students with no place to go for the holidays has been boring. I’ve been working on my movie script, and when I’m not writing, I join the girls for down time. We watch DVDs, hang out, and go to the University Park Mall with Mrs. Zidar in the school van…to shop. For whom? I always wonder as we board the van. But I ended up getting Grand a pair of Isotoner gloves (she’ll need them around here in the bitter cold) and a chic thermos for her dressing room when she’s in a play.
Grand stands in the center of the entrance hall with her hands on her hips. She wears a black cossack hat and a white down coat with small, puffy stitched windows that reaches to her ankles. “There you are!” She beams at me, wide and full just like my mother, who has the same smile.
I skip down the steps and into her arms. “Thank God you’re here.”
“I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else!” she says.
As she hugs me for a long time, I let her. I really need a good hug from someone I’m related to. Grand smells like oranges and cream, and her skin is soft. She’s always bugging my mom to take care of her skin too, but Mom just doesn’t have the time to follow through with a beauty regimen.
The doors of the entrance hall swing open. A tall, very handsome man carrying a bunch of suitcases pushes through and puts the bags on the floor.
“I want you to meet George,” Grand says, well, grandly.
“Hello, Viola. I’ve heard a lot about you.” He has one of those very white, very bright smiles that you see in the after pictures in dental ads.
“I’ve never heard a word about you, George,” I tell him honestly.
He and Grand burst out laughing. “I told you she was funny,” Grand says to him.
“George and I are friends,” Grand says, dropping her voice about two octaves when she says the word friends, like it’s a secret or something.
“I’m nuts about your grandmother,” he says.
“Doesn’t he look like Cary Grant?” she says. “You know, sophisticated and uptown?”
“Viola won’t know who he is,” George says.
“The heck! I taught her everything there was to know about screwball comedies, right, Viola?”
“Yep. My favorite is Cary Grant and Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth, and you do look like him.”
“Yeah, well, I’d like his film career,” George says without sounding one bit jealous.
My grandmother (the good news) showed up for Christmas break, but she brought her boyfriend (what?). And this man is, like, my mom’s age, somewhere in his forties, I’m guessing, because he has gray hair at the temples—or maybe he’s in his fifties and gets facials, I don’t know—but any way around it, he’s a lot younger than my grandmother, who happens to be sixty-four years old exactly. But she doesn’t look sixty-four. She has long blond hair and a trim figure, and she wears very good pancake makeup with a bronze blush that makes her look robust. Grand is described as willowy in theatrical reviews—from her ingenue days until now.
“Go ahead, Viola. Tell George what you know about screwball comedies.” Grand removes her cossack hat and shakes her head. Her blond hair tumbles out onto her shoulders.
“Right, right. Sorry. I like to focus on films made in Hollywood from 1933 to 1943,” I tell him.
“Which ones?” Grand steps back and gives me the floor to speak.
“Well…I like movies about runaway heiresses. Three of my favorites are It Happened One Night, Midnight, and My Man Godfrey, which had particular social significance because it was released during the Great Depression and dealt with themes of homelessness in the form of the ‘forgotten men’ as portrayed by William Powell. Now, if we’re talking Cary Grant, there’s the aforementioned The Awful Truth and Bringing Up Baby where he uses physical comedy to express his inner emotional turmoil. And you do resemble him, George, but I think you look a little more like Rock Hudson in Pillow Talk.”
“There’s nothing to sneeze at in terms of comedy with that one,” Grand interjects.
“It was very good,” I tell them. “But Pillow Talk came out in 1959, so it doesn’t exactly fit my screwball list. So, are you an actor?”
“Just a working stiff, Viola.” George smiles at me. It’s hard not to like him.
“Darling…,” Grand says. She turns to me. “He’s modest! George is a brilliant actor. He’s the lead in the revival of Arsenic and Old Lace.”
“Who do you play?” I ask Grand.
“Aunt Abby. With a lot of age makeup.” She makes a face. “We start rehearsals after New Year’s at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. The very same theater where I triumphed as Ophelia,” Grand explains.
“How did you guys meet?” I ask.
“At auditions.” George puts his arm around Grand.
“I always pooh-poohed the idea of soul mates, but when I met George, I believed at long last in the concept of it. Two people…” Grand waves her hand through the air like she’s unfurling one of those Japanese twirling ribbons. “Two lives yet one perspective, one world view. Am I right, George?”
I don’t want to interrupt Grand as she defines her love for George, and I remind her that she said the exact same thing about her last two boyfriends, one of whom was a director and the other a venerable lighting designer. Evidently, you can have a lot of soul mates in one lifetime. Grand unpeels them out of the pack like Life Savers out of the foil wrapper.
“You’re right, doll,” George says and smiles. I find it so funny that he’s calling Grand a doll, when she’s the one who looks like she’s playing with one. That wasn’t very nice of me—to even think such a thing—but this Christmas is so deeply and profoundly ruined anyhow that being Princess Snark isn’t going to make it any worse.
“Would you like to see your room?” I ask.
“We spoke with Mrs. Headmistress…”
“Right. Right. That’s the name! And she made sure we have two rooms reserved.” Grand looks at George with the “I’m setting a good example for my granddaughter” look.
“Great. Whatever.” I shrug. I figure when you’re sixty-four you can do whatever you want, but if Grand wants to set a good example, why not let her? They’re going to be performing their own screwball comedy running from her room to his or whatever in the cold hallway of the guest wing, but that’s none of my business.
George picks up the suitcases. I help with a small carry-on and show them down to the basement, past the laundry room, beyond the rec room, where the guest rooms are located at the end of a long hallway.
As Grand and George follow me down the stairs, they laugh and joke like a very happy couple. I notice, for the record, that Jared and I are way more low-key and dignified. Grand and George a
“Here they are.” I point to the entrances to the furnished guest rooms. “No smoking in the building,” I remind them.
“Oh, I haven’t smoked since the sixties.” Grand laughs.
“And I wasn’t born yet,” George jokes.
“Oh, you!” she says and laughs again.
This is going to be one bizarre Christmas, I think as I climb the stairs back up to our quad.
“NOW, GIRLS. EVEN THOUGH WE’RE HERE IN…” Grand has to think. A true actress, she has to think what town she is in when she lands, because she travels to a different city every night when she’s on tour. “South Bend, we want to make this Christmas as homespun as possible, don’t we?” Grand says as she sits on the edge of my bed.
There is not one thing homespun about my grandmother, and to put her in charge of anything cozy spells disaster. She is not a woman who keeps antique dolls on her bed or has anything crocheted in her apartment—except for a bikini from the seventies.
Grand’s home is an ultra-modern apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, a rent-controlled (this means that my mom doesn’t worry about my grandmother ever losing the apartment and its low rental fee), sunny one bedroom with a terrace. She has wild plants and a Buddha shrine on the terrace (the only Buddha on the terrace of an Upper East Side apartment, she believes). She has simple tangerine leather furniture and giant paintings of single peaches and a giant artichoke. She’s not an arts-and-crafts grandmother with a ceramic beehive cookie jar at all. I don’t know if I can trust her with our Indiana Christmas.
“I suppose we’ll need a tree,” she says.
“That’s homey,” Marisol agrees. Of course, she sleeps under a quilt patched together with uneven stitches and actual handwriting on it, so she’s totally into rustic.
“We should celebrate the holiday with a tip of the hat to our various ethnic backgrounds,” Grand says. “Now, I’m of English and Irish descent—as is Viola.”
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