He wore a corduroy jacket lined with lambswool that appeared to have been exquisitely preserved from the Seventies. It was the color of snow after a half hour of cars skidding through it. He was buying white tulips and a bag of candy with Asian letters on the package in a deli near Union Square. I didn’t notice who he was at first. I was too busy wondering what his candy might taste like. When I finally looked at his face (three days of scruff, a studied nonchalance), I might have lost my balance because the woman behind the counter asked if I felt okay. I bought some Asian candy too. It was almost Lent—time to cram one last sugar fix while I still could. He smiled when he saw my purchase. His lips barely parted, but it was definitely a smile—the same one he used on the woman in Spy Game when he was trying to keep their affair a secret. Painfully spicy, the candy stuck to the grooves of my teeth. I ate the whole bag on the way home. It made me feel connected to him. And upset my stomach.
When I told my roommates I’d bought the very same candy as Brad Pitt, they insisted on going for drinks to celebrate. We took the 6 Train uptown, because Priya knew of a swanky bar near the Scientology Center for Celebrities. It seemed fitting to be in the orbit of a religious hub devoted entirely to stars. We decided the god for famous people was a mix between Robin Williams and Dirty Harry, with a dab of Lenny Kravitz for cool and Oprah for compassion. The bar was perfectly suited to the Upper East Side WASPs who frequented it. Every table had the exact amount of oak-paneled space to give the illusion of privacy. Although it was lush with cigar smoke, I didn’t see anyone actually smoking. We ordered hot Brandy Alexanders, because it was snowing (and they didn’t sell beer).
We clinked glasses and burned our tongues and talked about the love scene in Thelma & Louise.
“I don’t care how hot he is, I’d never do it with someone that sleazy,” Sharon said. “Sleazy guys can’t empathize.”
Priya accused her of being prejudiced toward sleazy people.
“It’s the sleaze that does it,” she insisted. “If it weren’t for the greasy hair, he never would’ve made it big. Don’t you agree, Claire?”
I was looking at the next table to make sure our conversation hadn’t breached their imaginary privacy wall.
“I’ll put it another way,” Priya said. No one ever gave me enough time to answer. “Can you picture having sex with him in that hotel room or not?”
“Do I know he’s going to steal my money afterwards?”
“Would you or wouldn’t you?”
I hadn’t even let the guy who sat beside me on Amtrak last summer have my number. He was a computer programmer and kept a container of hand wipes on his lap. He talked a lot, out of nervousness; I said almost nothing, out of nervousness. I had the feeling we were attracted to each other. But there was something unbecoming about meeting a man on the train, even such a clean man. I would’ve felt less exposed with a formal introduction by someone who knew us both, maybe in a drawing room or at a carefully-constructed dinner party with boy-girl seating and preppy place card holders. (My mother had scores of these holders at home in Virginia, all embossed with dragonflies or cutish reptiles.) I preferred to conduct my romances by letter or by music, like those movie scenes when a catchy song plays and you never hear what the couple actually says. You just see by their expressions that it is superb: he’s so humorous, she’s so engaging.
Not that I ever got invited to dinner parties or drawing rooms. Mostly, I went to the movies. Sometimes I spent whole days inside them, emerging with near-fatal trepidation—eyes stinging, the real world having lost its gloss, having grown too many sharp edges and too much body hair.
The last time I’d had sex there’d been a lot of body hair. That was before the turn of the century, as Sharon and Priya liked to remind me. They always introduced me as their Victorian friend. Sitting on our lopsided two-thirds of a sectional couch last Valentine’s Day, my mother told them my lack of boyfriends had nothing to do with me being prim. No. It was my failure to chase down opportunities. “She lacks follow-through,” Mother complained, swinging her arm for effect, like love was a tennis stroke. (If it were, she’d probably make me take a class on it, stand in front of a machine that spits balls at me until I hit one.)
They all seemed more worried about my datelessness than I. They were convinced I was lonely like cancer. I wasn’t lonely. And, if I were, it was more lonely like a cold. (Just the sniffles, really.) I wasn’t storming the CVS for decongestants, wasn’t rushing at all, but rather walking reluctantly, almost walking backwards, because I knew that any man who got to know me truly and deeply would immediately discover my abundant and diverse flaws. Then he’d start rooting around in them like a dentist with a pick. He’d begin criticizing me all the time, how I didn’t floss right and shouldn’t chew ice. I’d stand there, mouth wide open, drooling, trying to muster enough inner Listerine to defend myself.
“I guess not,” I finally said.
“Was he dirty in person?” Priya asked. “Did he look like he’d just had sex? Doesn’t he always look like he’s just been fucking?”
My roommates took pleasure discussing sex acts in front of me, as if by saying them to me, words like cum and blowjob could reclaim their taboo. They were rising stars in NYU’s Gender Studies program and were planning the 2003-2004 syllabus for an undergrad class titled Sexual Diversity. Plenty of blowjobs on that reading list. I always acted shocked when they said cock or cunt, because my faux (not quite faux) prudishness seemed to please them tremendously.
“The dirty thing’s just a persona,” Sharon chimed in. “He’s married to Jennifer Aniston, for God’s sake.”
I rolled and unrolled the edges of the napkin under my drink. I should’ve said that. I should’ve been the one to come to Brad’s defense.
“Do you really think he’ll still be married in a year?” Priya asked. “I bet he’s already doing someone else.”
I rewound Brad in my mind.
“He was scruffy, but clean,” I said. “The white tulips made him seem pure.”
The next day, there were white tulips all over the apartment. Priya spent her weekend money on them. They were deli flowers, so they died a day later. We left them in their vases (empty Diet Coke bottles) as the petals rotted off, one by one.
Two weeks later (filthy snow leftovers on the ground), the Film Forum was doing a retrospective: all Woody Allen, all weekend.
“I thought your advisor wants a second chapter this week,” Sharon said when I invited her.
“I’m making a career out of procrastinating it.”
“I hear that’s not too lucrative.” She untacked the letter I’d posted on our bulletin board and slapped it against my chest.
The note—a “gentle reminder” that my grant money would soon expire—had been appearing in sweaty nightmares. The dreams were invariably set during my dissertation defense in a room that was a cross between mahogany-paneled library and Mad Tea Party ride at Disney. Kaleidoscope: Love in the Jane Austen Novel. How would I ever defend that title without gagging? Page twelve was the only borderline-defensible page, and even that I rewrote every time I sat down to the computer. I’d add a clutch of semicolons and then remove it again. Sometimes I’d take my pages to Bobst Library like they were children in need of a field trip. But instead of working on them, I’d wind up in the Fales special collection room, where I discovered that, if I asked politely, the librarians would bring me diaries and letters and address books from the 1800s, one at a time, on black foam cushions made specially for nestling fragile books in the open position. My favorite were the thin pages of Elizabeth Robins—actress, novelist, suffragist. Her whole life, all seventy diaries of it, had been shelved, forgotten. I was the only one who’d requested them this year. She sewed flowers into her journals from “wild romantic places” and wrote things like “Mrs. ____ abuses him roundly” and “Mr. ____ bade us adieu” and “I am like a straw in a great river, + for a moment I bowed my head + sobbed like a wretched child.”
I bowed my head, stuffed the gentle reminder in my backpack, and went to the movies alone. Wretched. The letter sat there, a low hum, through three Woody films. I tried not to dwell on it, or on the whole sleeping-with-his-adopted-daughter affair. But watching Woody’s sex scenes (inappropriateness, lurking disaster, interruption), I couldn’t help but imagine him and Soon-Yi going at it roundly on her toddler bed over top of my dissertation notes.
The image made me realize Woody must have directed the love scenes with my only college boyfriend. Claude, who used to make calls while we were fooling around—to his mother, to order Hawaiian pizza. He hummed morose things in bed like the Smith’s “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want” and stationed the full-length mirror he’d inherited from his Parisian step-grandmother next to us as witness. It reflected light from Claude’s bedside lamp into my face. Elizabeth Robins’s actor husband committed suicide just two years after they married, leaving a note to her that read, “I will not stand in your light any longer.”
Waiting for Bullets Over Broadway to start, I decided to fire Woody. (Can anyone besides Mia fire Woody?) Even the guy who directed Thelma & Louise would be an improvement; a smidge of raunchiness wouldn’t be so bad. I tried to picture myself leaning on Brad in the back of a convertible. His supernova eyes and hairless chest were roaming all over my brain beside a very hairy version of page twelve of my dissertation when I caught a glimpse of his slush-colored jacket. His actual jacket. He must really love that coat to risk Us putting him in the “Stars—They’re Just Like Us” section. (“Brad Pitt Doubles Down on Duds.”)
He sat three rows in front of me and kept turning around to look. I caught a glimpse of that delicious vulnerability hiding under his Fight Club virility. I wondered if he was waiting for Jennifer Aniston, worried she wouldn’t show. The seats on either side of him went empty until two women flush with shopping bags and popcorn needed anchorage. He stood politely to let them by. Their backs brushed against him. If I were a star, I’d sneak into dark theaters alone too, for the relief of it, to let the actors on screen diminish the light I cast. Look at the shoppers beside Brad. They didn’t realize who was next to them, and it’s not like John Cusack was even a heartthrob.
Jennifer never came.
It was the first Sunday of Lent, and I’d given up junk food of the salty persuasion. (After my Asian candy binge, I decided not to forego sweets.) The theater stunk of popcorn, a nauseating smell. Yet I had the urge to reach into the tub on the lap of the woman next to me—an obscenely large supply that could have fed us all. She finished the whole thing, down to the kernels, by the time Dianne Wiest first pleaded, “Don’t speak.”
No one so much as chuckled. It was the funniest line in the movie—the way Wiest put her hand up to John Cusack’s mouth. “Silence!” she said to the playwright who was supposed to have such a flair for dialogue. I suppressed my giggles so as not to appear gauche to this artsy crowd. It wasn’t until Jennifer Tilly came on to the gluttonous Jim Broadbent and Jim paused to eat a gigantic, greasy chicken leg before kissing her that a single laugh rang out. A beautiful, boyish Joe Black laugh. My heart lunged sideways and bumped into my stomach.
Holy Mary Mother of God. Brad Pitt and I shared the same sense of humor.
Soon we were goading each other on, laughing harder and louder at things that weren’t funny. We even laughed at the credits. Brad stayed for every single one. I’m no credit monger, but there was no way I was leaving before him. Soon we were the only ones in the theater. (Clearly, it was a pseudo-intellectual audience; true sophisticates stay to see who the grips were.) I looked down at myself: cream-colored turtleneck, khaki pants, thrift-store camel hair coat. I felt nude. If I’d known I might see him, I would’ve worn something from Priya’s closet. Dressed as myself, I was too plain. My mother (classic beauty) revealed this fact to me on the way to school when I was twelve, and I never doubted its veracity. I’d tried to tuck into piles of color at the mall, to streak my lackluster hair. Once I even purchased a black boa like Elizabeth Robins wore in a photograph of her playing Hedda Gabler. But I was simply more comfortable in monochrome. Featherless monochrome. When it came to shades of off-white, I could experiment with the best of them though. Maybe my vanilla would appeal to the same place inside Brad that Jennifer Aniston did.
As he left the theater, he gave me that quintessential Brad Pitt smile—right side of his mouth curled up a bit more than the left, like he’s letting you in on the secrets he hides in his diaries. (Does he write diaries?) This simple gesture rendered me completely unable to rise from my chair for a period of minutes. By the time I did, he was at the concession stand, waiting in line just like anyone else. I was proud of him for not taking on airs, for being an everyman. I don’t know what I thought gave me the right to be proud of Brad Pitt, but I felt proud again as he waited so patiently for an excruciatingly anxious woman to decide between popcorn and gummy bears.
“Good choice,” he said when she went for the bears.
He seemed to intuit that popcorn-versus-gummies was a monumental decision for this lady, a cry for affirmation. I put a check in my mental notebook: Brad Pitt can empathize. He purchased a box of popcorn and left the theater. I wondered what kind of person waited until the end of the movie to buy snacks.
“It’s a star thing,” Priya explained later. “They can’t be seen eating real food in a crowded theater. Too human.”
“You’re a movie slut now,” Sharon said as she scooped up the shriveled tulip petals littering our floor.
It was true: I was going to as many movies as humanly possible in the hopes of seeing Brad again. On a rational level, I knew the odds were infinitesimal. Stars shifted constantly from city to city, from film festival to film shoot. If they stayed in one place too long, they’d collapse into a black hole.
“I’ve unwittingly landed in a Rob Reiner rom-com, and I need to play my part. I’m going to see him again. I just know it.”
“That’s delusional,” Sharon said, pointing her index finger toward the sky like she does when talking to her students. The petals inside her palm rained back to the floor. “The only fiction you should be shacking up with is Northanger Abbey.”
There were two unanswered voicemails on our machine from my advisor about Northanger Abbey and three asking what the hell I was doing. Jane Austen had written six novels, and Elizabeth Robins had written fourteen. Not to mention all those diaries. Why couldn’t I scrape together a chapter? I flopped onto the sectional, my eyes erupting with heat.
Priya brought me a wad of tissues and cash.
“The movies are my treat,” she said. “They’re his habitat. You’ll find him. I promise.”
Priya filled me with so much hope that, when I finally spotted Brad in the concession line at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema, the only surprise was the jacket. He was still wearing it. Like a security blanket. When he turned to carry his popcorn upstairs to the exit, I realized he’d already seen his movie. The intimacy of knowing his habits was like an Afrin hit. It alleviated my sniffle-loneliness and semi-dissolved my guilt about cheating on my dissertation.
I watched his Pumas climbing up and up. I loved those Pumas. They were so perfect on his perfect movie star feet. They were so retro-hip. So ultra-suede. Perhaps it was the latent stalker inside me, inside all of us; I threw my ticket on the floor and made a run for it.
He was already gone when I emerged onto Broadway. The avenue seemed so bright and impossible. I looked down to Columbus Circle where a single row of arched windows at the top of a latticework building stared at me disapprovingly. The building looked like it had lived there forever. I couldn’t believe AOL/Time Warner had constructed a giant mirrored status symbol beside it. It was like building New York across the street from Tibet. Seven Years in Tibet hadn’t been my favorite film, but Brad with ice in his beard now strengthened my resolve. I desperately scanned Broadway for signs of him. I could hear him in Tibet: “When you are climbing, your mind is clear, free of all confusion. You have focus and suddenly the light becomes sharper and sounds are richer.” Indeed, all the clutter of Broadway and Northanger Abbey lifted, and I saw him—skimming his fingers along the outdoor tables at the Lincoln Center restaurants.
“Excuse me, excuse me,” I yelled to the people I nearly trampled while my mind was free of all confusion.
He paused to look over his shoulder, so I ducked behind a column, wondering if celebrities had a sixth sense for stalkers. He stood under a “Post No Bills” sign on a blue plywood wall. It enclosed a construction zone, protecting civilians from a giant pit below. Brad peeked through a crack in the wood and ate popcorn, until a man in a hard hat told him to move along. When I passed the same spot myself, I couldn’t help but glance at this construction-site peepshow. The view of earth’s exposed bowels made me dizzy in the voyeuristic and repulsive way that looking at other people kiss does.
Brad ducked into the Barnes & Noble in the triangle of useable retail space between Columbus and Broadway. I’d hated that Barnes & Noble ever since You’ve Got Mail—even though, before that, I’d bought dozens of books there. (I secretly still bought books there.) Shouldn’t Brad be in a specialty bookstore I’d never heard of—like Hugh Grant’s in Notting Hill? I crossed two streets at a time, diagonally, making it through the revolving door just in time to see the Pumas ascending again—via escalator to book heaven (I mean, book hell).
I hung back until he was almost out of sight before resuming pursuit. He disappeared into the bathroom. It shouldn’t have come as any shock that Brad Pitt had to relieve himself too, and, yet, it did. I waited for him in the self-improvement section, staring at the spine of Kissing a Frog: Four Steps to Finding Comfort Outside of Your Comfort Zone. I’d need at least fifteen steps and dozens of naps for that. When Brad emerged from the bathroom, I buried my face in a more encouraging book—14,000 Things to Be Happy About. It was really just a list. Roast pork. Stickpins. Wet babies. I had a hard time getting happy about pork. I found the wet babies mystifying. I tried to picture them, these drippy children, propped up on bath towels. (Were they naked?) I waited for the image to make me happy. But it didn’t. I searched the book for Brad, but he didn’t make the cut. One woman’s Brad Pitt was just another woman’s stickpin, I supposed.
Brad sauntered out onto Columbus. When he got to 67 Wines, he turned back toward Broadway. He became erratic, half-jogging, and once did a full circle around the block. His indecisiveness was probably a celebrity trick to avoid the paparazzi. Except there weren’t any photographers, and suddenly he was stopping in the middle of 70th, turning around, and waving. At me. Instead of waving back, which is what any normal stalker without a weapon would’ve done, I turned abruptly toward the undersized bakery beside me and pretended to be interested in the pale blue wedding cake in the window. A snow couple held hands among frosting snowflakes on its top layer. The snow bride wore a demi-veil, and the snow groom had a black top hat. Out of the corner of my eye, which was welling up at this display of snowman love, I saw Brad, blurry and watery, walking toward me.
A bell rang when I opened the bakery door and lurched inside.
“Can I help you?” the shopkeeper asked.
Brad was outside, head down, eyes up, watching me through the window. He took a bite of popcorn.
“I’d like a piece of snowman wedding cake,” I said. “To go.”
The woman scrunched her eyebrows into one long caterpillar. “It’s not pizza. I don’t sell by the slice.”
“How much is the whole cake then?”
“Five hundred dollars. It serves a hundred.”
I did the math in my head. “Do you have one for, say, five people? Six, tops.”
My five-person wedding seemed to distress the woman. It was like I’d told her they’d stopped making pantyhose.
“How about just the newlyweds? How much would the bride and groom be?”
She scratched her nose, as if terribly confused. Even though she wore latex gloves, I wondered if this was entirely sanitary.
“I can give you a scone. Will that make you happy?”
I looked at the unstructured lump of beige and thought how much it resembled me.
“No thanks,” I said. “It’s not one of my 14,000. You only get 14,000.”
She smiled like she understood. Maybe she read the book. (Had anyone read it?)
“That man who was following you is gone. Would you like me to call 9-1-1?”
He was fumbling with keys at the glass doors of a brownstone when I caught up. There was a slew of metal mailboxes inside. I couldn’t believe he didn’t have the whole place to himself and a butler to let him in. I straightened my habitually rounded shoulders, rested my hand on the column at the bottom of the stairs, and angled my body. Sharon said sideways slenderized—a red carpet trick.
“Wait!” I yelled.
Brad gave me a smile. Both lips got in on the action, and I could see his teeth (more askew than I remembered). I wasn’t sure if women could still swoon in modern times, but, if they could, I came close.
“Can I help you?”
He waited for an answer for an incredibly generous amount of time while things unspooled into slow motion for me. It took at least ten thousand frames for him to walk down the stairs. His opening the gate took a thousand more. My sniffles returned. Sneezing ensued. Brad was so close I could touch him. He extended his free hand. I looked at his fingers, imploring myself to do something, shake his hand at least.
But I pressed fast-forward too hard. Before I could stop myself or consult a mental health professional, I grabbed his tub of popcorn and started running. I was running and running and thinking, “Jesus Christ! I just stole Brad Pitt’s popcorn!” I made it to the park and dashed under the vine-covered trellis outside Strawberry Fields. A Lennon fan had left a bouquet of fresh carnations beside the Imagine mosaic.
I reached into Brad’s popcorn and grabbed a fistful. It tasted buttery and salty (and dirty). I looked over my shoulder as I ran, taking bite after bite. He was chasing me in his Pumas. He was gaining on me. I couldn’t believe how much he cared about his popcorn. I ran over a holdout patch of melting snow and past a toy-like police vehicle made for storming park paths. (Could I be arrested for stealing Brad’s popcorn?) I fled down the steps to the Bethesda Terrace, becoming more and more indignant. How dare Brad Pitt chase me for a lousy box of popcorn?
I came within inches of bumping into a woman in a fluttery puffball wedding dress posing for a portrait. There was always a bride somewhere in Central Park, making love look so accessible and photogenic. Like it was just a matter of showing up at the park with a camera. She stomped her foot at me, exposing Doc Martens boots beneath wads of crinoline.
The sound of my feet falling changed when I hit Bow Bridge. I could hear the hollow under me. Inside me. A cramp set in. It was cold in the stitch, like the snow couple was there, pushing against me from the inside, trying to knock me down, to give Brad time to catch up. Like I had a shot with Brad Pitt. The Brad Pitt. (Stupid snowlyweds.) I put a hand under my ribs and pushed hard into the cramp. I tried to picture myself with him. I could see his Legends of the Fall hair, hear his Ocean’s Eleven voice. But my own image was dim and flat. Like someone had pounded me with tennis rackets and Gutenberg Bible-sized volumes of Sense and Sensibility. I couldn’t be sniffly and monochrome and shy with Brad Pitt. I’d have to be someone else, someone who didn’t get so emotional over snow cake. (It was an exquisite cake, though. I mean, it deserved all my emotion.)
I decided I was done with Brad Pitt. I would tell him so. Take that, Brad Pitt. I don’t want your popcorn anymore. My boots made solid pounds against the wood, and I quickened to a run. I ran so hard I overshot him. I turned and waited for him to turn as well. I was panting and light-headed. Soon he was standing so near I could hear him panting too. I no longer owned my doneness. Not at all.
“You’re the pretty girl from the deli. From Bullets over Broadway.”
For once, silence didn’t feel like a character flaw. I stood quietly, waiting for the moment to unfold like origami. (Did he say pretty?)
“You were following me, weren’t you?”
We waited together for the words to form. He grabbed onto my arms, as if to the sides of a ladder. I gripped the tub of popcorn firmly between us.
“I like being alone—” I whispered. “Working on my dissertation. Chapter Two.”
His hands slid down to my wrists. “You look fantastic in winter white.”
Winter white. The word was so much more nuanced than beige. More Brad. (Was Brad nuanced?) A kaleidoscope shifted from one frame to the next. His lips were so close, so real and warm-looking. I kissed him for his winter white. A fluttery kiss that reminded me of that fluffy bridal gown—peppered with a touch of workaday boot. He kissed back. I couldn’t believe he was kissing back. The popcorn box crumpled as we pressed it between us.
“No. Don’t kiss me,” I whispered. He was married, after all.
“The line was don’t speak.”
I laughed, and he laughed too. A hermetic seal broke. Laughter didn’t fit into this scene. My Brad went about his romance with more craftsmanship. There was no Woody Allen in my Brad Pitt. I ravaged my memories of Brad, trying to whip myself back up, to stoke the desire. But I had lost my taste for the buttery voice, the self-possessed walk. I imagined someone else, someone a little less than Brad. (Or maybe a little more.) I tried to fit my lips to this new person.
“What about Jennifer?” I asked.
I was about to say, “You know, your wife?” But I sensed I’d said something wrong. Our rom-com soundtrack wobbled. The audience could hear our words spilling out under the music. It dawned on me: this man only owned one winter coat. In white. Winter white. The most easily soiled color.
“You once looked like Brad Pitt,” I said, 1/14,000th happy for that word like.
“I get that all the time. I hate that.”
He kissed me again, but I wasn’t paying attention to his lips, to his hands on my body. I was scanning the other 13,999 bits and pieces of happiness that suddenly unfurled on a list before me:
- Leather diary with broken clasp.
- Picture of flowers in a vase on first page of cloth-bound journal.
- Photograph, Elizabeth peeking from behind stage curtain.
- Page dated January 19, 1882, containing list of items stored at Mr. Pernselis’ Furniture—Mama’s plaid silk, Isabel’s garnet silk, Aunt Edith’s blue brocade, pillowcases, a box of odds and ends.
- Encyclopedia entry stating that Elizabeth Robins remained “steadfastly single” after Mr. George Parks found her light too bright.
Elizabeth’s penmanship was illegible in places and I got headaches trying to decipher it. She wrote too much about her breakfasts. My mother would hate this about her; Mother despised indulgent breakfasts. Worst of all, her novels were not deemed literature by the professors to whom I’d have to defend her. But I was dumping Jane Austen. I was done dating celebrities; they weren’t what I longed for. I unlocked my lips from Not-Brad’s lips without the slightest sniffle. Indeed, my entire sinus cavity was congestion-free. We made that pleasing sound of suction cups releasing. I took hold of the popcorn box smashed between us (I was still hungry) and began running again. I ran all the way to the Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, past the floor-to-ceiling lattice work in the lobby, under the sunlight that poured down from the glass ceiling, into the Fales special collection. It was a wild, romantic place.
“Adieu, Mr. _____,” I yelled over my shoulder.