Travis turned to Ann and forced a smile, but he was unable to completely stifle his yawn. “I love you,” he managed to say to her. Trying not to make the words sound completely hokey, he went for the save. “... but you already know that, don’t you?”
He hoped the sentiment had come across as something more than the correct buzzwords meant for the correct moment, but there was not a whole lot he could do about the distraction. You can’t swat a flea that has decided to fly up your ass, so you just try to get on with whatever it is you’re supposed to be doing. Even if what you’re supposed to be doing is saying ‘I love you’ with that flea up your ass.
He felt like adding a shade of subtext to his words, something simple like ‘Yabba Dabba Doo’ just for a little variety this time. Travis remembered the words he was supposed to say, but the words he had wanted to say were a different matter, and they did not come. He was not sure if they ever would again.
“Yes,” Ann finally answered. “I know you do. I’ve always known.” Without the slightest change in her expression she added, “So of course you know that I love you too.” Until that moment the woman had not even looked in Travis’ direction, pretending instead to be absorbed in watching the pigeons pecking at the scraps of food someone had left near the park bench that adjoined theirs.
When her eyes finally met his Travis read uncertainty in them. “I said that right this time, didn’t I?”
A park, two lovers seated on a bench on a warm Sunday afternoon, and pigeons. That made for one hell of a cliche´.
“You said the words,” Travis reassured her. He brushed a rogue curl from her forehead with a semblance of emotion that might have passed for tenderness at some other time. “It doesn’t make much difference how you said them, does it? So, do you want to kiss now? That is, if you can tear yourself away from those goddamned pigeons.”
His brief display of tenderness had vanished like the thin facade of spontaneity the couple had tried to reassemble to get themselves through this moment. Travis hadn’t meant to sound so cold, but this whole charade had gone beyond tedious a long time ago.
They kissed, but it was a dry and joyless effort that seemed poorly scripted and just as poorly executed. Like their words the kiss had been bled of passion. Together the couple sat silently waiting for the sky to explode. It always had erupted right about this time.
Nothing happened. Nothing at all. Someone had screwed up.
“Where is it?” Ann asked. “Damn it! I hate when this happens. You just wind up having to put everything on hold until they get it right. Where the hell is--?”
A thunderclap suddenly detonated above them and the world went grey. As the sun disappeared behind a misshapen thunderhead, the grumbling sky caused a dozen feeding pigeons to scatter.
The rumbles of thunder were the young man’s cue. Travis took the woman who sat at his side slowly - almost sluggishly - into his arms.
“The rain can’t touch you now,” he whispered to her, but what he was thinking was This is bullshit .
In the earlier times he had held Ann so much tighter on this park bench, but that memory had gone as cloudy as the sky. Physically the young woman had not changed much since those first times. In fact she was every bit as lovely as she had been then, her hair still cascading down her shoulders like a golden waterfall, although that hair had once been raven black. And the current flowery print sun dress had also changed colors since those earlier incarnations. The first time her outfit had been a simple pair of jeans with a pink blouse that had a button missing near her collar. Travis remembered all that nonsense with an approximation of fondness, remembered every bit of the minutia perfectly. He knew it in the same way he knew that he took his coffee black and preferred his eggs over easy, or like he knew that Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” was the best kick-ass three minutes ever pressed on vinyl.
But there were some things he did not know, some things he should have known ...
Like the name of his best buddy in high school, or maybe the first time he had gotten laid. Or the date of his birth, what his mother looked like, or maybe even her name?
One filthy looking pigeon had lagged behind the rest, tugging at what looked like a loose strip of baloney wrapped in tin foil. It was the same fat and ugly bird with the same mottled feathers that always pulled at the same sickly slab of lunch meat.
“Did you really expect this time would be different?” Travis whispered to Ann, his tone more reprimanding than soothing. The words came out all wrong. That was happening a lot lately because he had lost patience with having to go through the motions with such infuriating exactness. He had learned the rules well enough, but he could stretch them a little. Ann didn’t always like when he did that, but her feelings were just one less thing that mattered to him. Travis knew she didn’t much like that either.
And Travis didn’t much care.
Funny the way things sometimes just snowballed, he thought. You keep at something long enough, and sooner or later it gets to you, it gets to you real bad. A pretty girl smiles at a guy in that funny way she has, and a man thinks he will love that crooked little smile until the day he dies. He is certain that smile will inspire him to climb mountains, maybe compose a few sonnets. But of course none of that happens and one day the poor jerk just wants to smash his fist into every tooth behind that same crooked smile.
“I’ve always been scared to death when it thunders like this,” Ann said right on cue. “I had this dog - a little black cocker spaniel named Shadow - and one afternoon we got caught in a storm like this while we were in the park. Shadow became so frightened--”
“---that she ran in front of a ‘Jack and Jill’ ice cream truck. Yes, I know. I know, Ann. I’ve heard the same story a dozen times. Maybe two dozen. Do you think you could at least change some words?”
“Well, maybe it wasn’t an ice cream truck,” she said. “Maybe it wasn’t a truck at all. Maybe she just ran away. I’m not sure any more. And I’m not so sure about you either.”
“I love you, so be sure of that,” Travis said, then wondered why he had said it. His words and thoughts did not correspond as if neither were really his, and the resulting insincerity leaked through like sludge in a paper bag. That kind of disjointed response had been happening a lot, and Ann wasn’t buying it. He didn’t blame her. His lovespeak was getting pretty lame.
“Travis, cut the crap and tell me what’s eating at you. I think we’ve pretty much blown it this time anyway. Shoo!” Ann kicked at the pigeon near her foot and it flew off. For a moment Travis thought that this variation on routine had been a nice touch for her. It was different, anyway.
“Aren’t we supposed to get caught in the rain right about now?” he asked. “Where’s that romantic downpour in which we kiss while shimmering beads of rain drip down our faces because we’re too much in love to get out of the storm? I was sort of looking forward to this part.”
“It’ll wait until you tell me about this beehive you’re sitting on. Talk to me, okay? This is hard enough without your taking it out on me.” Ann’s words sounded more genuine than anything he had heard her say in a long time. And she was right, of course, just like she was right about the
downpour waiting for them to finish. He leaned toward her and looked directly into her eyes.
“Tell me what’s going to happen next,” he asked.
“You know what’s going to happen next,” she answered. “We’ve been through--”
“Tell me anyway.”
For a moment she closed her eyes, rewinding a videotape inside her head. When she reopened them she was almost smiling.
“Well, we kiss. Lightly at first, then we go full tilt boogie. We promise to love each other forever. We talk about how long we’ve each waited for this moment, waited our whole lives for each other.”
“And then ...?”
Ann sighed deeply and smiled her crooked smile as if fortifying herself for what came next.
“ ... and then a bolt of lightning strikes me, and I go into a coma. For days you sit by my hospital bed, and you make this little pact with God about how you’ll change if He allows me to pull through, how you won’t drink or chase women and - - Damn you, Travis! You know all this. What are you trying to--?”
“Now tell me your mother’s maiden name.”
“Your mother’s maiden name,” he repeated. “Dammit, Ann. Who doesn’t know their mother’s maiden name, for Chrissakes?”
She looked at him as if he had just asked her about the last time the Pope had masturbated.
“I don’t know,” she finally admitted.
“And that little dog you mentioned, that Shadow mutt who has been crunched by the ice cream truck at least six times today? Where did you get her? Tell me, did you find her at the kennel? Was she a gift from your father? And speaking of the old man, just what did your father do for a living? Do you remember once in his entire life when he acted less than perfect?”
Ann’s lip quivered, a sure sign that tears would follow soon if Travis kept this interrogation going.
“I remember what he looked like--”
“No, Ann. I don’t want to hear any of that crap about how handsome a man your father was, or the way he knew how to treat his little girl, or how you hoped you would someday marry a man just like him. That’s all bullshit, Ann, a syrupy fairy tale. It’s like all the really important information has been completely erased ... or maybe it was never there.”
Travis reached for the woman’s hand and this time the spontaneity spilled from him with an urgency that felt alien and outlandish. “Ann, how long do we have to pretend that we can’t remember anything important about our lives? Have you ever considered the possibility that maybe nothing of what we think we know about ourselves is real? That maybe all this is some madman fantasy that is only as real as the moment we’re in right now because it’s been filled in for us, here on this idiot park bench that exists only because we’re sitting on it?”
“That doesn’t make any sense, Travis,” she said. “How can two people be having the same fantasy? I’m here too, in case you haven’t noticed. So what if I don’t remember all those things? I remember meeting you at that bus stop on the corner of 5th and Main last summer and talking with you for so long on that afternoon that I missed my bus. And I remember--”
“-- You remember the same things that I remember, Ann. Things about us as a couple. But what about before we met? What about our lives, our whole lives as separate individuals? Dammit, I feel like the two of us are trapped inside some insipid Barry Manilow song and all we know to say to each other are the lyrics. I’m sorry, Ann, but I know my life did not begin the day I met you! So how come I can’t remember anything about my life without you except a few fragments of irrelevant bullshit?”
Ann’s lip was quivering again. “You’re scaring me, Travis. Please, don’t say any more, please don’t--”
“Ann, wake up! We’ve been playing this sappy scene over and over today. Sometimes the words change, sometimes your clothes are different, but the pigeons, the thunderstorm ... It’s like we’re goddamned puppets being pulled across someone’s stage. In a minute that lightning will strike, there’ll be an ugly black smear across your forehead, and then you’ll go into shock. I’ll fall on my knees and curse at the sky, and then I’ll suddenly find myself at your side holding your hand in some hospital room I could describe right now with my eyes closed. Jesus, don’t you think there’s something a little screwy going on here? Don’t you think--?”
“This is all wrong! You’re ruining everything!” Ann screamed. And now she was crying for real, crying and shaking like a little girl who had just lost her pet cocker spaniel. Or maybe like a woman who had met a man whom she thought she had loved because he reminded her of the handsome father who had loved her so very much, a lover who had greatly disappointed her because he was not really like her father at all, and that made her cry even harder.
He wanted to stop her tears, so he kissed her with the rain splashing on their faces. He kissed her lightly at first. Then he kissed her hard.
But she was still crying when the lightning struck ...
“This is all wrong!” Nancy said to her husband, handing him back his manuscript. “Damn it, David! You were only supposed to write a simple romantic television screenplay and you went and turned it into another one of your pulp horror stories.”
“I can’t get a handle on this, Nance,” David replied, defending himself from behind his keyboard. “I must have rewritten this park bench scene a dozen times this morning and the sucker just won’t come out right. The studio wants this lame sudser from me by tomorrow, but ever since they turned the Travis/Ann story-line over to me it’s like these characters have minds of their own. At least this guy Travis does.”
“It seems to me more like they have minds like yours,” Nancy added.
“Well, maybe so. But look at the cornball lines those boardroom bozos told me they want Travis to say in this scene, for Chrissakes. ‘The rain can’t touch you now.’ Jesus, Nance! Add that to the pigeons in the park, the runaway puppy, and that stupid bolt of lightning and we’ve got five minutes of pure polyester. I can’t believe people really watch this kind of shit.”
“Believe it. Every afternoon and by the millions.” Nancy forced a crooked smile and tousled her husband’s hair. “And just as long as someone keeps writing it, they’ll keep watching it, thereby keeping the feminine hygiene industry in the black. Lover, that’s why any writer who intends to eat pushes himself into doing this sort of thing. Just think of it as stretching yourself, okay?”
Of course the woman had a point. David had not sold a horror script in over a year. The networks were a mite uneasy about all that blood n’ guts stuff running during prime time, what with the FCC breathing down their corporate necks about violence on television. But love and romance in the afternoon, maybe a little healthy titillation? Now there was a market that was alive and kicking.
How hard could it be to write page after page of mindless clichés? June, moon, spoon ... Hell, if it opened a few doors, what could it hurt to let the mundanes win this round? A writer writes. A television writer rewrites. A good television writer eats.
Stretch yourself, Nancy had told him. Yeah, and that’s what they probably used to tell those guys on the rack during the Spanish Inquisition. Smile, pal, this won’t hurt a bit.
Nancy kissed David lightly on his cheek and brushing her lips against his ear, she whispered into it. “I’ll fix you some breakfast and you can get back to that park bench again with your pals Ann and Travis. You want ‘em over easy, as usual?”
David turned to his wife and forced a smile, but he was unable to completely stifle his yawn. “I love you,” he said to her. “... but you already know that, don’t you?”