Literary Salt  
 fiction | Maryanne Stahl | issue 2
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Dog Hair

I am flipping between an old episode of thirtysomething and Emergency Vet when the call comes. A program in which a black and white collie is shaved for surgery has inspired me to brush the dog. He hates to be groomed; I have to trick him into it. So I have taken to keeping the brush in my night table drawer and sneaking it out when he least expects it, like now, after midnight, when he believes he has only to lie at the foot of my bed to protect me.

I pick up the phone on the first ring even though there is no one sleeping whom the ringing might disturb. My son is away at college and I have been divorced two years. There is only the dog, sniffing at the phone as I answer.

When I recognize the voice on the other end, when he says more than hello, I stop in the middle of a broad stroke down the dog's back and stand straight up. I clutch the phone with both hands. The dog takes the opportunity to scurry out of the room.

"I am fifty years old today," the voice says and I recognize Zane.

Accidentally, I press the off button. I fumble with the phone to reconnect, but he is gone. I don't know where he was calling from or how he found me.

***

Twenty–five years ago, I studied film at New York University. During my freshman year, I lived in the not–then–trendy East Village, sharing a grungy apartment with two girls–a waitress/actress and a model/waitress–neither of whom were college students, though I'd ripped the roommate–wanted notice from a university bulletin board. The space for rent was in a third–floor walk–up on First Avenue and First Street, around the corner from the Hell's Angels building, a railroad apartment boasting a bathtub in the kitchen, a separate toilet, a middle room, and an end bedroom, which the two girls shared. They liked clothes and drugs, and they needed money, so they'd decided to add a roommate.

"Which room do I share?" I asked and the girls exchanged a glance.

"You don't have to share a room," the actress/waitress said. "You get the whole couch." They had figured on some college kid too poor or too cheap to afford anything else. Me. I sat down in the center of the couch, a faded green plaid with odd, white (animal?) hairs sticking up from between the cushions. The cushions were lumpy and large and puffed up around me. "I'll take it," I said and moved in that afternoon.

That night the girls threw a party. They filled the bathtub with ice and beer and then fit a thin board over it to use as a table upon which were set plates of food and bottles of wine. Whenever someone wanted a beer, he had to lift the end of the board very carefully, slide it partly off, then snake a hand in to the wet, slippery cold to feel for a can. I sat on my couch and watched as friends and friends of friends of the waitresses filled the apartment and ice–fished for alcohol. An assortment of people sat on the couch to either side of me, and occasionally someone spoke to me or passed a joint.

Inevitably, as I watched, dishes slipped off the table, spilled, broke, and crunched underfoot as people walked by. After a while a thin, blonde guy who looked a little like Todd Rundgren began clearing off the board, piling the food and wine bottles into the kitchen sink.

"Now that's progress," said a low voice beside me. I turned to a man I hadn't noticed sitting beside me, a burning cigarette held between long fingers. He wore a faded black t–shirt and jeans, had scraggly brown hair–fairly standard, and yet something about him made me suddenly alert.

He gestured as the Todd fellow leaned the board upright against the side of the tub. "It seemed like a good idea at the time," I said, attempting to suggest an intimacy with the goings–on in the apartment, though beyond a nascent territoriality regarding the couch, I felt none.

He reached toward an ashtray. I smelled vanilla in his hair and thought he must have a girlfriend. "What happened to the dog?" he asked.

I didn't know. "Dog?"

A long–skirted girl stopped to draw on the board with the burnt end of a wooden match. We both watched her sketch an animal of indeterminate species. "Art imitates art," he said. I met his glance briefly and smiled.

He shifted on the couch, stretching his legs. I imagined I could feel the shape of his knee, though we were not touching. Then, as I stared at my own knees, the weight beside me lifted, and he was gone.

The beer went quickly after that, and eventually two people collected money for a run to the local bodega. As far as I knew, they never came back. Neither did the guy with the vanilla–scented hair.

But when my screenwriting class met later that week, he was there. I recognized him immediately; his name was Zane.

"It's you," he said when he walked in late and slid into the chair across from mine in the back of the room. He pulled out a pack of cigarettes–in those days you could actually smoke in the classrooms–and leaned back, sticking his legs far into the aisle. My eyes kept sliding toward him, but I allowed myself only a narrow, lateral view, forcing myself to face straight ahead, seemingly absorbed in the lively anecdote our professor was telling about the French New Wave.

After class Zane followed me out of the building and explained to me that Vittorio de Sica had changed his life. When we reached the bottom of the steps he gestured, said, "Well, I'm headed that way," and walked off.

During the next class, Zane spoke about wanting to devise a way of fading to black as an opening shot, but our professor, you could tell, was sick of that genre of student experimentation. When he berated Zane about "narrative sense," I slid down into my black turtleneck. But Zane calmly lit another cigarette, as though his thoughts were already elsewhere.

The next class when I came in carrying a coffee, Zane leaned over my shoulder and sniffed. His 2–day stubbled chin grazed my ear and his hand reached around to lift the Styrofoam cup from my hand. He took a sip, then asked in a low rasp, "Didn't you bring one for me?" The following class, I arrived with a thermos of Viennese coffee and two Styrofoam cups. Afterwards, Zane asked if I wanted to go for more coffee. Already buzzing with caffeine and anticipation, I did.

We sat at a table by the window in Pie City. In the plate glass behind him, Zane's reflection was reflected and reflected again like a repeating image in a strip of film. He lit a cigarette, and I watched the tiny, blue flame multiply. He exhaled and told me that he was starting work on a 16mm semester project, Dog–Faced Mackerel. "Do you act?" he asked, glancing toward something that had caught his eye out on the street. "Yes," I said, "some," though my acting experience had peaked when I'd played the fifth–grade lead in The Princess and the Pea.

Zane turned toward the window, backlighting his profile, highlighting his jaw line. "Would you like to read for a part?" he asked, his eyes–actually I could see only one eye––a shade deeper than the smoke sifting out from between his lips. "What's it about, your screenplay?" I asked, not wanting to seem too eager. In fact, the thought of him directing me, of his long fingers readjusting the tilt of my chin or the fall of hair across my cheek, made my chest go hollow.

Zane nodded at someone waving to him outside, a sophisticated–looking blonde wearing expensive Frye boots. She didn't look like a student, and I wondered how he knew her. Zane turned from the window, and I glanced down into my coffee cup, then up again to meet his frank stare. His gray eyes narrowed and fixed on a spot to the right behind my head. The clock? Did he need to be somewhere else? Was a girlfriend waiting? "My script," he said finally, "is about the essential solitariness of existence. And the randomness of connections and their consequences."

"Hmm." I lifted my coffee cup. I would never tell him about the screenplay I was writing, which was about a young girl's search for love.

"But in terms of plot," he over–enunciated the final t, "since I must pay attention to narrative sense: A guy oversleeps because his alarm doesn't go off because he turns over in bed and accidentally knocks his clock to the floor, causing him to miss his bus. He decides to walk to work and along the way picks up a wallet lying on the street which belongs to this beautiful woman…"

I stopped listening, terrified and thrilled by the possibility I could play the part of the beautiful woman.

"I intend," Zane finished his explanation," for the film to express the visual equivalent of chaos theory."

I nodded gravely, then reached for more sugar and knocked over my coffee. "Think about the part," Zane said, getting up. He dropped a wad of napkins on the spill. "See you in class."

As it turned out, Zane had recently broken up with a girl, and I did play the woman in his student film, though by the time the project was approved her character had been redefined from beautiful to possessing of an animal sexuality. As a point of pride, Zane and I didn't sleep together until after the film was shot, though not edited.

The day we finished shooting, Zane accompanied me to the animal shelter to look for a dog. By now I'd heard the story of the waitress's dog–a beagle, it had been hit by a car–and Zane and I had decided that to celebrate the end of the shoot, we would supply the apartment with a new pet. The shelter's building was grim looking, and I hesitated at the door. "How will I know which to choose?" I asked, already worried about the ones left behind. Zane shrugged. "Maybe one will sit down next to you."

I looked into his crinkling eyes and he kissed me and we never got a dog. Instead, we went back to my couch and we made love. Then we went to his place and made love again. Only many years later–when I was selecting my dog, in fact, from among the dozens of love–starved creatures at another animal shelter–did it occur to me that Zane and I had been writing screenplays about exactly the same thing.

***

I walk from my bedroom to the kitchen, still carrying the phone. I don't know what to do. Apart from one chance meeting, I have not spoken to Zane in nearly twenty years. But the odd thing, the really disturbing thing to me right now is that the other day, out of the blue, I remembered it was nearly Zane's birthday. With a chill, I suddenly recall what he once said about being dead at fifty. I know he is turning fifty because last month I read a profile of him in the Sunday Arts section.

I open the refrigerator and stare into it. What do I want? The dog comes out from a corner wagging his tail. I reach for a take–out box of leftover Thai food and move it aside. I lift a container of yogurt to look at the date. It's okay, but I don't want it. Something to drink. Maybe diet soda? Or a real drink? I shut the refrigerator and open a cupboard.

The dog whimpers and sweeps the floor with his tail. He is expecting a treat for being brushed. Dogs have no sense of time, they say, so to him one brush stroke is a whole day at the salon. I am not convinced, but I get him a milk bone from the cupboard. He grins gratefully as he receives the cookie between his jaws and takes it to the living room rug to eat.

I pull out a half bottle of Tomatin, an inexpensive single malt. There was a time after my divorce, even though it was mutual and "amicable", when I drank scotch every night. Recently, though, I've been cutting back on drinking, trying to watch my weight. Several friends have lost weight on one or another of the no–carbohydrate diets, but their faces now look drawn and older. I remember Marilyn Monroe supposedly said, "a woman has to choose between her face and her ass."

I pour a few fingers worth of scotch over ice and splash in water from the tap. For comfort, I remind myself Marilyn was sometimes a size 12.

The phone rings, far away, or muffled, startling and confusing me. Where is it? I set down my drink and hold still, listening, waiting for it to ring again. When it does, I realize I have left it in the refrigerator.

***

I never moved in with Zane, but we spent every night together unless we were fighting. That first summer, Zane and I stayed in the city for acting classes. I moved from the waitresses' couch and got a one–room place of my own above a drugstore. Zane lived in a sublet in a better neighborhood in the West Village, but my place offered the reassuring vibes of my own furnishings, and so mostly we went there.

Our second summer, we both stayed in New York to crew for senior film projects. Zane switched apartments again, and once I went to the old one, looking for him, and woke an old man from his afternoon nap.

Zane's apartment was always disordered. He said he meant to "straighten it all at once" someday, but sooner or later he always moved instead. In my place, I'd hung framed black and white photographs of people and animals from the neighborhood on my walls, painted my ceiling a lightened aquamarine blue and arranged flowerpots on my windowsill. "I've made a nest, "I told Zane once as I surveyed his third, and most hideously furnished, apartment. "Don't you want your own things around you?"

He shrugged. "Just passing through."

By our third year of film school, it became clear that Zane was cut out to be a director. His scripts were always among those chosen to get made. Pragmatically, only one of us could seriously make films if we wanted to have any time together. So, I passed my classes and helped Zane with his projects––acting, lighting, keeping track of continuity––as excited and worried as I'd be for my own. Later, of course, I was embarrassed to recall my "subservience", mostly because it hadn't, in the end, done me any good. But at the time, I was happy to place Zane and his career and his preferences at the center of my universe. It seemed right. It seemed like love.

I took photographs and kept a journal on the set during the making of Zane's films. In senior year I turned those entries into an article which I sold to an independent film magazine for two hundred and fifty dollars. Zane was screening rushes against the wall in my apartment when, going through my mail, I opened the envelope that held the check. I whooped.

"Dinner on me tonight," I said, lighting a cigarette to conceal the flush of excitement I felt warming my cheeks.

Zane reached to examine the check, then feigned biting the edge as though it was a coin. "You're a success," he said, smiling, but he didn't let me take him to dinner. He had booked time in an editing room. We never celebrated my success. While Zane finished the final cut on his senior project, I decided I wanted to go to journalism school. I applied to Columbia, but I waited to tell Zane until I got the acceptance letter. "So, you want to be uptown," he joked, but there was an edge of accusation in his tone. I told him I would still live downtown.

The next day, Zane announced he was moving to California. We had just made love. He lay sprawled across my mattress on the floor, my Indian print bedspread bunched between his knees. I got up to get my cigarette lighter from my bag–and to hide my face. "For how long?" I asked, inhaling. My nose burned with rising tears. I stood naked, not looking at Zane, drawing circles on the dusty shelves of my cinderblock bookcase.

"I don't know," Zane said, his voice stretching with his body. "I just need to give it a shot, you know?"

I knew but I couldn't believe it. I polished the brass cigarette lighter with my thumb. He was leaving. Leaving. I glanced sideways at him.

Zane rolled over and kicked off the bedspread. He raised himself onto his elbows. His shoulders were wide and bony. His chest was smooth. His hair hung in his eyes.

"Cut," I said.

"Huh?"

"You're playing a role. I'm supposed to feel for you."

Zane held out his hand for a cigarette, which I tossed him. "But you don't feel for me?"

I squeezed the brass lighter in my hand, feeling the hard edges of its wheel score my flesh. "Please," I said. "You're hurting me. You're leaving when you know I can't come with you." Zane lay his cigarette on the edge of a book and stood. He crossed the room. "I'm not leaving you," he said. "I'm going to something."

I looked down to where his penis hung, soft and sticky between his legs. "Oh, please," I said, hating the tears forming in the corners of my eyes.

He grasped my shoulders with his hands, the long fingers I was savagely possessive of. "I have to give the industry a try or else I would always wonder. That would be death to us." I was still holding the lighter, in my hand behind my back. "Death," I repeated. I felt the muscles in my face screw into concentric circles.

"You know," Zane said. "I've always had the feeling I'd be dead at 50."

"Stop," I said. "No, really," he said. "That seems like a good, round age to cut out."

He drew me to him, bent his mouth to my mouth, pressed my hips into the bookcase. I kept the lighter in my fist, cold and hard like a piece of ice, and while Zane showered I slipped it into the bottom of his backpack and sent it with him to California.

***

"Please don't hang up." The gravel of his voice has grown deeper through the years. It makes for an appealing interview. I saw Zane a few years ago on Charlie Rose, stopping my then–husband as he flipped through the television channels. "I didn't mean to," I say, feeling foolish. I take a drink, holding a finger against the ice in my glass so it won't tinkle.

"Can I see you?" So Zane. No preliminaries.

I shift the phone to my other ear. The ice in my glass clinks and I speak quickly to cover the sound. "When do you mean?" I ask, realizing too late how the urgency in my voice might be misconstrued.

"Now, if you can," Zane says without the lilt of a question. "I'm not far from where you live–where I think you live."

I look around at the blandness of my surroundings. Aside from the wall of photographs that are how I make my living, there is little of interest. I haven't put much heart or effort into this place, though I keep it neat. A movie director would immediately catch the cheerlessness of the mise en scene. I pick a dog hair from the rim of my glass. "Let me meet you somewhere," I say. "I'm free." Then I realize it is one o'clock in the morning.

Zane names a blues bar that stays open after hours. As it happens, I know the owners, a gay couple active in neighborhood preservation. It is a place where I can hold my own. We agree to meet in half an hour, but I still don't know why. "You can buy me a drink," Zane says.

***

Zane went to L.A. and I began seeing someone in J–school, but we kept in touch, for a while. For a few months we exchanged phone calls and letters and poor–quality cassette tapes. Eventually, perhaps in a last–ditch effort to rekindle jealousy and longing, we started soliciting each other for advice about other lovers, and soon after that we lost touch.

For years, Zane edited horror films. He wrote screenplays he didn't sell and honed the one he wanted to make himself. When he'd rounded up enough money from parents of his friends and friends of his parents–the local doctors, dentists, lawyers and accountants in the Westchester, NY neighborhood where he'd grown up–he made his film. It won awards at Sundance and Cannes, and his career began.

"Look," I'd say to my son, pointing out the full–page Academy Award ad in the Times. "I knew this guy in college."

Once, in my mid–thirties, I ran into Zane in a dim sum place in Chinatown. I was early for lunch, waiting for my husband, who'd balked about coming because he had papers to grade, when I saw Zane walk in, alone. At this point he'd made a couple of films; he had been critically acclaimed, but most people wouldn't have recognized his face. "Zane," I blurted, surprised to recognize him so easily, surprised to see him now, so near to where we'd been together.

He immediately came over to my table and kissed me. "Wow," he said. "It's you." He'd gained some weight, let his hair grow into a long ponytail down his back. He still wore black T–shirts and Levis. His eyes were a bit squintier, but that only added a good–humored aspect to his demeanor.

"You haven't changed," he lied to me.

"Nor you." I lied back.

He sat at my table and selected from the carts that passed, eating and speaking quickly and then was gone, late for something. He slid me a card and asked me to call him, but of course I never did. I kept the card for years, though. In fact a certain box in my desk might still contain it.

When he left the restaurant that day, I felt as though pieces of me went with him, slivers of flesh peeled from bone. What was it about Zane and me? Chemistry, but what did that mean? In what terms did one explain the elemental reactions between men and women? It wasn't that Zane was better looking than my husband arguably, he wasn't–and yet his electrons called to mine, his skin called to my skin, in a language known to us alone. And apparently always would.

When my husband arrived I said nothing about who had warmed his seat.

That winter I received an invitation to a screening of Zane's next film, starring a well–known actress I admired. I meant to attend, but I couldn't find a way to talk about Zane to my husband. I stuck the invitation in a paperback and never mentioned it.

***

I am sitting at the bar with a view of the door. Zane hasn't arrived yet, though I am five minutes late. I wonder whether he has already been and left, but Patrick, the owner who serves me a scotch and water, says no man with hair in a ponytail has come in tonight–he would have noticed.

"He must be something, this guy," Patrick says as he draws a headless beer from the tap. "You haven't been in here since I don't know when." He shakes his head and carries the beer to a customer at the end of the bar.

I wish I still smoked cigarettes. I nurse my scotch and mentally review Zane's movies; each one imbued with a distinctive black humor that has become his signature. Was it there, this humor, when we were together? Was I unaware of it? I have been aiming, lately, for touches of humor in my stills.

The bar is filling up. The second wave, I know, for the after–hours performer. Half–price cover. All around me, people meet, separate, join, as if randomly, but I know my view is fragmented, disconnected. I suddenly see myself as I must look to others, solitary, apart.

"You know," Patrick says, wiping the bar in front of me, " this hirsute Godot of yours may never get here, but you should stay, enjoy yourself. The singer who's about to go on is amazing."

I nod, taking a half sip of what's left of my drink.

"No, really." Patrick waves his finger at me. "I mean it. Life is short."

He is staring me down and I am too chastened to look away. I know he has lost several very close friends in recent years. I push my empty glass toward him. "Okay," I say.

I have moved to a table nearer the microphone when Zane finally arrives and pulls a chair next to mine. I barely glance at him as he sits–my eyes are stuck to the frail–looking, powerful–voiced woman singing in front of us. But I whisper, "hi," and for a moment, I meet his eyes.

He takes my hand and I squeeze back as though I have only been waiting this one hour, as though there have been no years between us. Up close, his face is lined.

"Sorry I'm late," he whispers hoarsely. "I got this call…"

I wave my hand as though wiping off a window. "You're here."

He removes something from his pocket, something small and hard that catches light from the candle on the table. In the scant glow I can make out a curved edge, and though I can't see clearly, I recognize the shape of my old, brass lighter. He's kept it. Or found it. He lights a cigarette.

I look at Zane, whose expression is guileless and calm, and then back at the lighter he has placed on the table. The worn brass is brilliant, colors dancing in the flickering light. "Happy Birthday," I tell him. "You're fifty and alive."

And Zane smiles and I know he remembers.

He moves closer and a dog hair floats from my shoulder and lands on his hand. I smile but I don't remove it and he smiles and we sit still like that, arms touching all the way from shoulders to wrists, listening to the music.

Maryanne Stahl

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