Florence, the Film Critic
Exclusive new fiction by Greg Gerke
With her defenses down she found a man she’d deigned to sleep with, even dragging him back to her apartment rather than insisting on the probable cruddiness or overly antiseptic atmosphere of the single man cave. His body wasn’t remarkable, but his conversation cut hard and he acted as if he’d overcome a lot to attain more income in a year than she’d done in twenty. A wealthy man who would have been a prig to her any other week of her life, he had started in theatre and knew his Shakespeare, and they parlayed about the Bard so qualitatively she softened, though still fought the blossom his warm boutique of air produced in her, trying to align herself with the army of flowers, more so the fennel and columbine, Ophelia carries into watery death. Mousing around in Berlin for a few years, he soon created a very important app that helped people live their lives easilier (his word), somehow. Florence wasn’t too interested and blocked out the long explanation, preferring to hear of his adventures in Ashland, Oregon’s Shakespeare Festival and the lighting travails (slicker or blacker?) of a much bloodied version of Macbeth. Yet what made every difference, like a forty-degree day in the mountains versus the plains, was his evincing little fear of her. She rushed and he parried. She presented a mordant face and he smiled. She said he was full of shit and he went on gabbing. But when he pressed her to dip condom-free, she quaked, sitting him down for a lecture on priorities and the ills of unprotected sex, which he heard with a penis staying erect for the first minutes until her verbal acrobatics and the phrase “my unfortunate venereal disease” shouted it down and it depressed and lodged against the divot in his scrotum. While she spoke, a hectic little angel laughed at the back of her head because she assumed she’d never see this person again. Rarely did she speak forthrightly of her past to a man who, by her strict definition, would still be a stranger until she’d spent five Platonic evenings with him. The laugh signified she’d either gotten old and weakened or her standards had suffered degradation — she had no Victorian willpower left, even after her Hardy marathon over the winter.
Although it was 2:30 in the morning, she made Irish Breakfast tea and they sat with their vestments back on, legs crossed, sharing a joint and looking at the uncommon plenty of stars visible in the Brooklyn sky. And as they spoke and the dialogue trilled naturally off their tongues, a new uneasiness began, because it seemed inevitable he wanted to not just “see” her again — as that paltry, wishy-washy, little girl verb didn’t have the stamina to remain in their air — but truly be with her, to accompany, commiserate, and laugh with her: in that order if necessary.
The early dawn of late May announced itself with the first garbage trucks, followed by the queer coos of the pair of pigeons who’d perched and stained the sills of her living room windows for almost the duration of her five years of residency. At times she admitted they could be different, and not the stalwarts, but wouldn’t that eliminate her one city fairytale? At first they irritated her to no end and she faithfully poured out containers of cayenne and coriander, but the rains and wind wiped the spices away and eventually the pigeons returned, nursing themselves to sleep there somehow — though she never saw them sleep. Each of the six thousand times she’d looked at them, no matter the hour, their eyes had been open or blinking as they assumed an expression of: Jesus Christ, do you have to do such scary shit like that? Make a little noise before you burst our idyllic bubble.
The man, Woodbridge, supposed he should get home and sleep as he had an important meeting at eleven and she told him his supposition, even without the excuse of a meeting, even if truly important, was the correct one. She walked him to the train, a mammoth giveaway that she or anybody really liked the person they were walking with, but on the way he said he’d walked people he knew he’d never see again because he felt sorry for them; because although it appeared they really wanted to see him again, he knew the future and he thought he could bring himself to tell them, as they approached the stairs, some sweet nothing like, I think you are a soulful person and I’d just like to level with you that we as a couple won’t work. Don’t be dismayed. There are many other people in the city. The last two sentences bordered on patronizing and he thought he could not utter them with a straight face, but it turned out he couldn’t utter anything — ever. And so, at parting, he’d waved enthusiastically at women who carried the mystery of a first meeting home with them and it did make him sick — to act with so much equivocation when the answer had already been filed with the shadowy superior court overseeing the mesmerizing ways, means, and metrics of New York City dating. So saying it made you sick is quite a stretch? Florence said, casting challenge. It was a few minutes’ sickness, he answered — with a seemingly detached truth. And really, he added, you could be doing the same thing to me now, hearing my spill of secrets and calmly watching me, to fulfil the same destiny. Anything’s possible, she said, aware that she held all the cards, per usual. If I didn’t want to see you again, she said, you wouldn’t be with me and you’d be pining after a mirage. They said these words at the foot of the stairs and looked semi-lovingly and semi-destabilizingly at each other and at that second, with all the pregnant ping-pong and ironic talk, it seemed most fitting and most sardonic that nothing should come of them. It kept blowing this way as she went into a long, restive sleep with the thought that being a thirty-nine-year-old woman, it would be better for her health to shrug off the long day’s journey into night type of connections. They were of a people decades younger than her. Her age must be respected. It shouldn’t cower, doglike, from the moments her ego grasped after, to be someone more than she was in the hope of holding a melting satisfaction and stupefaction at the same time. Real connection at forty moved as slow as a tortoise.
She didn’t want to see him for a week, at least, and then she saw him a day and a half later. He wanted to take her on a carriage ride in Central Park and she told him he had the wrong century for her tastes. Even if she did enjoy reading the Victorians, she didn’t want to pretend to be them. She despised the rich, money didn’t impress her, and wasn’t it ironic that someone who thought of money all day would be attached to her? But, truly, wasn’t it so fucking grand that she could be attracted to him anyway? She kissed him, caressing his tongue all ways in order to ground and take him away from his life. Trying to make him understand his tawdry existence would be nothing without love and she suddenly pulled away from him as they walked up the Mall of American Elms past writers few read anymore. She smoothed her yellow sleeveless dress, dropped her chin and peered askance as she knowingly duplicated one of Monica Vitti’s many disenfranchised regardings of male cluelessness in Antonioni’s L’Eclisse, where the female character, a woman of deep emotional acuity, tries to love a stockbroker… oh wow. A distant saxophone provided the soundtrack for this moment. Or was it a test? An ending? Florence couldn’t decide which.
Woodbridge simply stared. What had he said? It had to be a test and he lifted his arm so his hand extended, displaying something stoic across his face. Florence couldn’t hold the look too long without mascara to cover the eye strain — a position someone might take as bemoaning her own lack of makeup due to forgetfulness, but she prided herself on little or none of it. Not granola, she just didn’t need it. Must have been all the vegetables and Kombucha. She continued to walk without taking the hand and he followed after. It was what she wanted, a chase leading to no consummation, no resolution — like the best of narratives. But it chagrined her to have stooped to game, drama, and plays of feeling. Brought up short by the Vitti impersonation, she figured she had “hung fire” in the Jamesian sense (delaying), which of course made little sense to most, but her mind outflanked many near it. However could she explain herself? She felt all the time, even in her sleep, when she told herself stories with that same self always the main character, alongside a host of animal friends transmitting covert messages mostly by means of iconography. And when she wasn’t feeling, she ranted inductively, whether to another person or only to herself in her mind. Starting with her particulars, she flowed on to her life situation and then proceeded effervescently to discourse upon the plight of the world, the wars, the weather: so, clambering onto New York’s pesky May weather, she jumped from bad to bad: Why can’t I start a relationship with this man? Well, I’m glad you asked. I’m sure you’ll have time for me to answer. Okay, yes, proceed. I came from a highly nervous and ill mother, who died when I was seventeen. She didn’t like to cook. I could say more, but no — My father, he… ah, well, not now. My classmates made fun of me and although I developed early, I didn’t date, didn’t kiss. I read D.H. Lawrence and Molly Bloom’s soliloquy — Joyce taught me about sex, but I didn’t do anything with it except write bad poetry. Weird things went on like that — things that didn’t cancel each other out, but worked at cross purposes. My home-life was a mélange of unsatisfying. Someone would be unhappy, but the other two people were happy, yet the unhappy someone was a special someone and they were catered to, their mood changing the whole house’s weather. Eventually the unhappy special someone dragged the energy down, the others began to doubt their happiness and started to look for reasons or, better yet, people to blame for flipping their happiness to not happiness. Plus, I was never the unhappy one. Since there were only two other people in the house and one of them (me) had the vocabulary of a thirteen-year-old, though she was ten, all arrows pointed to the adult. You son of a bitch, the once happy someone thought, turning unhappy, and said to the special someone (even though my parents played interchangeable roles — one could stump the other) so that the special someone leaked a holy sort of grin because he or she reacted to the fact that the other had been leveled down, while their stock had risen, because the other had successfully gaslighted them, the rage at life displaced onto the other and now someone else needed to take a chill pill, needed to be reasoned with, because emotional sabotage worked well when playing with someone who would easily fall into the set trap and not do the more docile, Buddhaesque arabesque of speaking non-violently, saying, When you act like you are, I’m sad because I feel ignored. And the ten-year-old me watched this and wondered, in thirteen-year-old vocabulary (though I could be called for projecting), how had love been severed and where had these people come from that they would take to treating each other in such supercilious ways? This scene gets constantly re-enacted during my life. Do I have to say it for you to hear it? This is why I watch Cassavetes — I want goddamn love in my life. If I can’t experience it directly, I’ll take it from characters and soap myself with their smiles, hugs, and soulful words. That’s a start. You want to love me? Love Cassavetes. All of this she said silently to Woodbridge as he walked behind her.
Woodbridge came close and put his arm around her waist. She wiggled away, and again he raised his arm to retain her in a vaudevillian manner. He didn’t do the things she expected, so she continued to try and engender them. Yet she also considered his will might be greater than she could envision — he had resources many men lacked, the same ones had made him successful and rich. And yet, they were stuck — it was nearly all about sex now. If they didn’t consummate, something was wrong. If it was consummated, surely then there’d be something amiss.
Even after she counseled friends of both genders never to sleep too soon with someone, she often did so, leading to great calamity, hence her constant warning of others. She kept flaring muscles and tried to flush her face, but her body language didn’t work worth a shit. What if she just said what she had to say to him? Hey, hey you. I know it seems like we should sleep with each other, and obviously we both want to — but think about it. When heterosexual people sleep with each other, the man often loses respect for the woman because he’s conquered her, he’s taken what she probably didn’t want to share until the time was right — yes, there is such a time. The man wins and we’re fucked. And so, incredibly, she said that to him, but without the punctuation. They’d come to Bethesda fountain full of tourists and picture-taking on an incomparable scale. She hated it to be in such a public place bereft of any anonymity except the fact that no-one wanted them ruining their photos.
She waited. Had he even heard what she’d said? Maybe it was an early stroke, but more likely a ploy developed in the oily business world. I imagine you must be hungry for dinner now, he said.
Late on Saturday morning, they were in Woodbridge’s bedroom, smelling of condoms, nectar, and sweat. They passed a joint as they lay in a platonic Kama Sutra pose, her left foot nestled under his armpit. Intermittently, his phone made weedwackerish noises. He picked it up.
Do you have to do that?
Just for a second.
She watched, her other foot cradled in the crook of his neck, while he held out the phone in front of him, obscuring his view of her. If it would happen at this supposed intimate moment, it would happen at all the lesser ones and at a much higher degree. His tongue touched the top of his lip with a different kind of excitement, something tantamount to an internal exhilaration — something a step further on from his reactions while she came, or he did, or when they both did together on a lark an hour before. That little angel sprung from her consciousness again, bearing with her the bad news, but Florence tried to tell the angel she already knew what she’d say. He lived his life for money and whatever connection they had was fleeting. She gently displaced her foot so it didn’t touch his sandpapery neck. The whole experience had been of her choosing. And it was enjoyable, he knew how to wriggle more pleasure out of her then most men. Plus, he seemed to understand his money didn’t impress. A gigantic moral victory. Howard Zinn would bake her a cake. Her life without him, after two weeks with, colored itself in and she saw herself lying on her bed, thinking of what had been and what she felt and what she would wager to get that back, even if it was retrograde, ersatz, and a little dishonest. Then she reconnoitered about the validity of what she felt, though she had already considered all of this days ago while right next to him, scratching through many hours to get at peace — handing down brief messages of doom or nagging or celebration to make something happen, to keep his stock up. Descartes, precisely reincarnated as a mollusk in the Southern Indian Ocean, stood as only a mollusk can stand, which is not at all, and applauded. The colors and shapes in the climax of 2001 poured through her like quicksilver and she smiled with delight at the rush and he looked up to see her Janus face. She expected him to be bold enough to spot the flaw, the minute crack that gave away everything, but his emotions were those of a collegiate athlete, with his maturity in relationships sacrificed for something he found much more gratifying.