A high school student finds a grimoire that shows how to make magical disguises.
|Previously: "It's the Pictures That Got Small"
Carmen Oliver flushes. Her looks are dark and Italianate, so her countenance blackens when she does. "I'm fine, thank you," she says.
"Well, now that we've gotten the small talk out of the way—"
"I don't consider what I just said to be 'small talk'!"
"I'm sorry. My mother's sick," you lie. "I came out to see her, not you. But now that we're here—"
Carmen bristles all over.
"I wasn't trying to stand you up at the school," you tell her. "I got caught by something and was running late. I didn't think you'd leave without waiting."
"Yes, I'm supposed to wait for you," she says with icy anger. "Always."
"Always?" You arch your eyebrows. "Are you trying to say you've been waiting on me for twenty years?"
It's almost like the bones beneath her face have fractured. If you had punched her in the face, Carmen could hardly have reacted with more shock.
And you? You have to wonder where all this strength of character is coming from. Not from you. You've been terrified of this meeting since Freddie handed you the printed emails and patiently waited for you—bewildered and eventually frightened nearly witless—to digest them. And not from the other you, who can barely bring himself to talk to a girl.
It must be a part I'm playing, you realize, and you can't stop your chest from swelling a little with giddy pride. Carmen—and Teddy Ruiz, the acting coach you took classes from as you hustled for your first jobs on the coast—always said you excelled at the improv. There's a real character in there, Teddy once said after one of your exercises, and her compliment left you preening for days.
So ... Scene. Mature lover, back for confrontation with estranged love interest. Man of the world, been through a dozen break-ups in his time, merely tired now by the melodrama. Was on the sauce but is firmly off it now, you add as your hand goes for the coffee.
You suppress a wince as the traitorous thought WWPRD?—What would Paul Rudd do?—goes skittering across the back of your head.
But it looks like Carmen has a character too, and she deploys it now. Garbo as played by Anjelica Huston, by the looks of it.
She draws herself up, and her mouth quivers raggedly.
"You were a boy," she says. "Would you have put such a burden on one so young?"
"Then why wait until now, instead of putting the bite on me three years ago?" When it would have made more sense?
She visibly seethes. "You think that's what this is? Putting 'the bite' on you?" She spits the words out.
You're playing it too "hot." That's the critique you'd give her. Too much affect. Just deliver the goods. The camera will pick up the emotion without you plopping it onto a platter for the viewer.
But she's still talking. "When did I ever mention 'money' in anything I said to you?"
You shrug. "So what do you want?"
Carmen draws herself up still further. Christ, is she this rusty? you think. Or was she always this hammy? How did I ever manage to learn anything from her?
She never even gave me any tips on how to fuck better.
But then she whangs you up the side of the head with her next words: "My daughter wants to know who her father is!"
* * * * *
Well, that ends the acting exercises, on both sides. You're left speechless, and Carmen, having finally delivered of what she's been wanting to say all this time, is also at a loss. When you do finally start to talk again, the words are raw, quivering, and exposed.
She tells you about her life since quitting teaching. She had an associates degree in accounting and she went to work as a bookkeeper for a local chain of grocery stores. It gave her and Rebecca—an allusion to the Daphne du Maurier novel? you have to wonder; it would be in character for her—a comfortable if slightly shabby life.
She's had lovers since, though she says she's tried to be discreet in front of Rebecca. But it's been hard. Mostly (she says) because she sees the question in her daughter's eyes. Which one of them is my father?
But now the girl is seventeen—the same age her father was when he conceived her—and a senior in high school. It's time, Carmen says, for her to get an answer to that question.
And you? Well, you feel like a churl when you tell her that that's probably all you can give her. You probably make more money than I do, you tell Carmen.
That doesn't matter, she snaps back.
Then when do I meet her? you ask.
Even though it's all been leading up to this point (or so she has claimed) the question seems to take her aback. How about tomorrow? she stammers.
You tell her you can be free all day.
* * * * *
In fact, you rather doubt that any of this drama was really about telling a teenage girl who her father is. You drive around town, your brow tensed with concentration, as you come to terms with the afternoon's revelations.
(And, internally, you are amazed at how calmly you are taking all this. Forget being freaked out at finding that you have a daughter. You'd be freaked out at finding you that you had sex with a girl!)
This is about Carmen, you decide with a jaundiced certainty. The woman you met is going through a mid-life crisis. Her daughter is about to fly the nest—She's very mature for her age, Carmen bragged to you, she started looking at colleges last year and she set it up herself to take the SATs—and the woman is looking around and realizing that her life is basically over. There's no prospect of a husband, not at the age of fifty and she has no family and has no future. Only a past, one entirely defined by the three times she took you into her bed.
I'm the one who made her into what she is today, you conclude. Well, I'm not, she's the one who did it all to herself. But that's what this is about. That's what she wants to tell me.
Giving her daughter a name and face to her father is only an excuse.
Sydney has given you lots of time to deal with the melodrama of your new life, but by seven o'clock she has apparently figured you need rescuing, for she sends you a text asking if you can break free. All done, you text back with one hand as you pass the mall for about the fifth time on your drive around down. Where meet. She tells you she's still at the basement. Do you need a mask? You tell her you'll talk when you see her.
* * * * *
"Then it sounds like we can leave town tomorrow," Sydney says after you've told her all about the talk with Carmen. It left her unimpressed—almost bored. "You meet the girl tomorrow, say your howdies and goodbyes, then—"
"Well, how are you going to leave town?" you interrupt. You're bothered by her cavalier attitude toward the crisis in Paul Griffin's life, even though you understand it, and are in a mood to scratch at her. "I left somebody behind to cover for me, but you—"
"We've got a pedisequos, Will," she reminds you with a sigh, and she looks up from the metal band she's carving runes into. "Remember? It's how we met, you were digging in a graveyard, and it wasn't that long ago."
It wasn't? You blink. The days have been packed since then.
"So am I supposed to drive out to L.A. with you in the trunk?" you ask. "Or in the passenger seat? Because you're jailbait, Sydney, if I get pulled over—"
"Why are you arguing, Will? We'll just say you're my dad. Or you can take your guy's mask off and drive us out under your own— Oooh!"
You look over. Her eyes have gone big and wide. "What about Carmen?" she asks with a mischievous gleam. "Any chance of resparking a romance there?"
The question almost knocks you backward. "No! And why would you—? Wait." Your jaw falls open as Sydney's smile sharpens. "You're not thinking—"
"Why not? You and her shared a special moment—"
"Seventeen years ago! And she's fifty now!"
Sydney shrugs. "She doesn't look bad. Actually, like I said back in the theater this afternoon, she looks perfect. Perfect for—"
"And she's got a daughter. Are we going to take her out too?"
"We could. We could make a family. We need to convert ten people anyway, Will, and mom and daughter could be our first. Well, our second and third after—" She reaches over the table to squeeze your arm.
You're not sure what to say. It's seriously squicky.
Or is that Paul's reaction? As soon as you ask yourself the question, a lot of the squickiness abates. A family of fakes, you muse, behind which to build and run your Hollywood cult.
But Sydney has mistaken your silence for reluctance. "Or what about just the kid?" she says. "If you don't want mom along— She wants you to connect with the girl, right? Be a dad?"
"She didn't say as much. And I don't think—"
"Well, suggest it. Suggest taking her—your kid—back to L.A. with you. For a week. To get to know each other."
"I don't think—"
"And then she'll her mom," Sydney continues in a low, thrilling voice, "to say, 'I love it out here with Paul, I want to transfer to a local high school.' One, you know, with lots of kids whose parents work in movies and TV."
"I still don't think—" you start to say, but your objections are weakening as Sydney's picture gains more detail.
"Fine." goes back to work on the band. "It's your call."
That's all for now.