Excerpt

“The First Wife”

Christine Sneed

September 13, 2016 
The following is from Christine Sneed’s novel, The Virginity of Famous Men. Sneed is the author of Little Known Facts. Her book Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry won AWP's 2009 Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, first-fiction category, was named the Chicago Writer's Association Book of the Year, and the recipient of Ploughshares' 2011 first-book prize, the John C. Zacharis Award.

The famous do resemble the unfamous, but they are not the same species, not quite. The famous have mutated, amassed characteristics—refinements or corporeal variations—that allow their projected images, if not their bodies themselves, to dominate the rest of us.

If you are married to a man whom thousands, possibly millions, of women believe themselves to be in love with, some of them, inevitably, more beautiful and charming than you are, it is not a question of if but of when. When will he be unfaithful, if he hasn’t been already? It isn’t easy, nor is it as romantic as the magazine photographers make it look, to be the wife of a very famous, memorably handsome man. There are very few nights, even when you are together, when you don’t wonder what secrets he is keeping from you, or how long he will be at home before he leaves for another shoot or another meeting in a glamorous city across one ocean or the other with some director or producer who rarely remembers your name. Marriage is a liability in the movie business, despite the public’s stubborn, contradictory desire to believe that this particular marriage is different, in that it will endure, even prosper, with children and house-beautiful photo essays in Vogue.

There were always so many others lurking about, hoping to take my place, if only for a few days or hours. It was like being married to the president of an enormous country where nearly everyone was offering him sexual favors, ones he really wasn’t scorned by anyone but me for accepting.

* * * *

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He married me in part because I wasn’t famous, not as famous as he was, in any case. He was the beauty in our household, and I was not the beast but the brains. I wasn’t ugly or plain, and I remain neither ugly nor plain, but in college, when for a while I fantasized strenuously about becoming an actress, it soon became clear to me that I liked making up the characters more than playing them. I also realized early on that men age much better in Hollywood than women do. My husband will never be old in the same way that I will be. Even if my fame were as great as his, I would be called an old woman much sooner than he an old man. But I will never be as famous as he is, and although he can be blamed for many things, this isn’t one of them.

How did it end? Before I say what it was like to be courted by him, to fall in love, however briefly or genuinely, I prefer to talk about the end because it is rarely ever given its due. It is the filmmaker’s and the writer’s most reliable trick to seduce us with the details of a marvelous and improbable coupling while hinting darkly that things did not end well, that some tragedy or tragic character flaw in one or both of the principals brought on a heartbreaking collapse. And when the collapse comes, it is seldom given more than a few pages, a few sodden minutes at the end of the film.

My husband was Antony Grégoire; this is the name he was born with, not a stage name chosen for him by an agent. It is regal-sounding, I suppose, a name that demands our attention or at least a moment’s pause. His father was French, his mother Swedish, he their only son, the one masculine bloom raised in a garden of sisters. He and his sisters got along well enough most of the time, but he was the favorite—a fact their parents did little to disguise, despite the three daughters’ spectacular scholastic and athletic achievements. Antony was bookish, quiet, and sheltered during early adolescence, but then he became handsome and, eventually, the best-looking man in the room. He attracted the heated attention of his sisters’ friends, and in time, one of their fathers who was a film producer.

“If I’d met Anna’s father even a couple of years earlier than I did, I bet I wouldn’t have become an actor,” Antony told me not long after we met. “If I’d been seventeen instead of nineteen, I probably would have rolled my eyes and been a sarcastic jerk to him. I was the kind of dork who smoked alone in his room with his Doors albums and Kerouac novels. I used to spend a lot of time wondering if Jim Morrison and I would have been friends.”

I laughed. “You did not.”

“Of course I did. Every punk I knew was like that where I grew up.”

“You would have found your way to L.A. eventually. Especially since you were only an hour and a half away.”

He shook his head. “No, I’m telling you, it wouldn’t have happened. Bakersfield is like another planet. It was luck, nothing else.”

His rise was fast and without real difficulty, a fact he admits to most people because he thinks it adds to his appeal. There is no odor of desperation about him, no stories of violent hand-wringing or sobbing before the security gate of some powerful director or casting agent’s Bel-Air mansion. He embodies the most glittering American dream—the version that dictates success is one’s birthright and should come easily. Americans romanticize struggle and hard work but do not, in fact, like to work hard.

It was January when our marriage split open, traditionally the coldest month of the year in North America, but in L.A., we hardly noticed, and it hadn’t taken me long to prefer winters in Southern California to those in my snow-choked hometown of Minneapolis. “You probably knew this was coming,” said Antony. He wasn’t lying next to me or sitting across from me at the dinner table, avoiding my gaze. He didn’t have to look at me at all because he said these words over the phone. I hadn’t seen him in three weeks. He was in Canada filming a movie about caribou hunters, and I’d heard that he was with another woman. She wasn’t in the movie and she despised cold weather, but I knew she was up there with him. We had friends in common, this woman and I. The film industry really is a small world, its tributaries and rivers and landmasses having all been mapped out by our mentors, our adversaries, our lovers past and future.

“I didn’t think this would happen so soon,” I said.

He hesitated. “You don’t sound upset.”

“I am upset.”

“You don’t sound like it.”

“I’m not going to yell at you, not over the phone. I want you to come home and talk to me about this in person. Ask Jeff for a couple of days off. Tell him I’m sick, that I’m in the hospital. Tell him to shoot some of the scenes you’re not in.”

“I’m not going to lie. He could easily check.”

“Then tell him that your wife of five and a half years has asked that you come back and talk to her before you try to divorce her.”

There was a tense pause. “Try to divorce you? What do you mean by try?”

I hung up on him. When he called back, I didn’t answer. He called me fifteen more times that night, maybe even twenty-five—I can’t remember the precise number, but I didn’t answer any of those calls, each new sequence of rings sounding more and more desperate and enraged. I didn’t turn off the phone because it felt better to hear his distress than to sit in stunned silence. There was no prenuptial agreement; we had talked about it, but the idea had deeply embarrassed both of us. He had ignored the advice of his friends and his agent before our wedding because, again, he believed in success, not failure. He also thought that as a writer of character-driven screenplays, of political and romantic satires, I was not as interested in money as other people were. He was right, maybe, but I was interested in revenge.

I wanted him to come home and tell me to my face that he was leaving me for another woman. As you can see, I wanted to make it difficult for him.

* * * *

When you are thirteen, a recent initiate into the tragicomedy of adolescence, you imagine yourself marrying the boys whose dazed or beaming faces greet you from the dog-eared pages of teen magazines. You imagine yourself marrying your girlfriends’ older brothers, those with driver’s licenses and beginners’ mustaches and possibly an alarming tattoo or two they have tried to hide from their parents. You imagine yourself, after the prom or on the night they propose, being deflowered by these boys, both the famous and the unfamous ones. You peer at your face in the mirror for hours after school and worry about your nose and cheekbones and slightly crooked teeth. You know yourself to be pretty enough, but probably not beautiful. Your legs are bony, or else they are too fat—you unwillingly, helplessly, wear the evidence of a loving mother’s after-school cupcakes and cookies, her pancake breakfasts and Friday-night deep-dish pizzas.

Antony Grégoire is only three and a half years older than I am. He was a senior in high school when I was a freshman, and from a young age, he did not carry with him the sense that he would be famous, as many other stars apparently do. The same night that he had talked about serendipity, he’d told me that he’d planned to become a structural engineer and design vast, intricate bridges; he had always liked science and math. He was not a spendthrift, not in the hysterical fashion that many famous people are. There was never any fear of bankruptcy, because he did not insist on having seventeen vintage Rolls-Royces in storage or a large staff of servants who all lived in his palatial home. We had a cook and a housekeeper who each worked four days a week. Someone came to do our landscaping; someone else came to take care of the pool. This is, of course, the manner in which many people live in the wealthier towns and cities of the world. I loved Antony and did not want to lose him. I thought that I might be able to forgive him if he appeared at the foot of our bed the morning after his call from Alberta and proclaimed that he had spoken too soon, that he had made a mistake.

* * * *

I know that contradictory examples do exist. Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward’s long marriage almost defies belief, but people forget that he left his first wife to marry her. If Joanne had been his first, I’m not sure it would have lasted.

I wonder about Elizabeth Taylor, hardly an example of spousal fidelity, but nonetheless—would she have stopped at three if her beloved third husband, Michael Todd, hadn’t died in a plane crash a year after their marriage, in a plane he had named Lucky Liz? Or would Richard Burton’s appearance have been inevitable, their own two marriages and divorces, and the 69-carat diamond he bought for her at Cartier, also inevitable?

* * * *

Other men I have had relationships with have not been as famous as Antony, but hardly anyone on earth is. He is in an exclusive club, the .01 percent of the world’s population with instantly recognizable faces. The members are musicians, miscreants, politicians, movie stars: Mick Jagger, Cher, Che Guevara, Hillary Clinton, Bozo the Clown.

I was seeing someone else when I met Antony, one of my former graduate-school classmates who was trying to earn a living as an actor. His name was James, as in Jesse, he liked to say, not Henry, which confused most people who heard this because James was his first name, not his last. By the time we started dating, he had been hired to act in a few commercials and had also had nonrecurring parts on four or five TV shows. He was funny and a little strange and often unpredictable in that he might tell me to meet him for dinner at a nice restaurant where he would show up wearing a police uniform and handcuff me to him. We would walk into the restaurant and he would tell people that it was all right, I wasn’t dangerous, no cause for alarm. He loved attention, and not surprisingly, I did too. I liked him quite a lot, though I couldn’t imagine that we had a real future. He was probably depressive and sometimes would descend into days-long funks when he didn’t get a callback, but most of the time he was sexy, spontaneous, enthusiastic. As far as I was concerned, we were having fun. We made each other feel less lonely, and in a big city, especially one like Los Angeles, this isn’t so easy to do. Ordinary people feel lonely in a way that the famous do not, and despite how it might seem to those who do not live in Southern California, there are so many more ordinary people than movie stars sitting in traffic jams or buying their coffee beans and wheat bread at Vons.

* * * *

What happened is nothing new or surprising: Antony left me for a popular actress, one he’d met a year earlier on the set of his fourteenth feature film. The film flopped, which pleased me. Before marrying him, other people’s failures had rarely made me happy, but when I began to sense that his interest in me was fading, I turned petty, often mean. The actress was his lover in the flop, and I’d known as soon as he told me that she had been cast to play the female lead that things I could not hope to control were going to happen. She was impossible to dismiss. It wasn’t only her beauty and fame, both greater than mine, or her age, which was less than mine. She is the type of person who cares about causes. She cares about them publicly but genuinely, I will admit. She has raised and donated sizable sums of money for the construction of schools and hospitals and women’s shelters in countries I had never previously considered visiting, let alone donating any portion of my earnings to. Hers, somehow, is a voice that people in power, here and abroad, listen to. More than any other reason, I dislike her because she reminds me that I am not good and kind enough, that my causes are laughable because few extend beyond my front door. I am aware that most people live their lives the same way that I do—no one is more important to us than ourselves. It is simply the nature of our species, of any species, I suppose, but this thought is not a comfort.

We had one phone conversation, accidentally, while Antony and I were in the process of divorcing. She picked up his cell phone one morning, probably forgetting to look at the display to see who was calling. But I also wonder if she saw my name in the liquid crystal, and for a wild, breathless second, she needed to know the words that I’d been saving up to say to her.

We both froze when we heard each other’s voices. I finally mumbled, “I guess Antony isn’t free?” I couldn’t even pretend that I didn’t recognize her voice.

“He’s not here.” There was something in her tone I couldn’t pin down—shame? Or only wariness?

“When will he be back?”

“I’m not sure. A few hours, maybe?”

If I’d been capable of organizing a coherent thought, I would probably have said something unforgivable to her then, something she would remember and worry over, possibly for the rest of her life. Something that she would think was true, even if it wasn’t—that she had no talent; that he would cheat on her too if he hadn’t already; that he was cheating on her now with me.

I only asked her to tell him to call me back, my heart beating so hard I was sure that it would have burst from my chest if my breastbone hadn’t been there to hold it down.

The caribou movie was his sixteenth feature film. It ended up doing very well, its box office receipts respectable, the director and one of the costars winning prestigious awards. I didn’t go to see it. Antony did not appear at the foot of our bed the morning after his breakup phone call. He did not appear in person at our home until two and a half weeks later, during a scheduled hiatus in the film’s production. Instead, he sent emissaries, three of his closest friends, one at a time, to tell me how embarrassed and regretful he was, how he hoped we could both be reasonable, how he hoped I’d eventually understand and forgive him. Coward, I said. Stupid fucking cowardly bastard. I wanted him to fall through the Canadian ice. I wanted him to get frostbite. I hoped that certain crucial body parts would fall off. I said these childish things to anyone who would listen, and at first there were many people who did.

Then, within four days, the news of our collapse began to appear in the papers, a big headline in a few of the sleazier ones, along with the most unflattering pictures of me that they could find, ones where my eyes were half-closed or I appeared to be snarling, ones where I looked drunk but wasn’t at all, each printed with falsehood- riddled articles. Antony looked angelic, innocent, desirable—the onus, somehow, on me, as if I had driven him into the arms of a more beautiful and worthy woman. In some photos, her head was superimposed onto pictures where my head had actually been: Antony with his arm around my waist, whispering in my ear, kissing my cheek, looking the adoring husband; his hand at the small of my back, his body leaning protectively toward mine. These were old pictures, ones from our courtship and first year of marriage. I wanted to sue these sleaze rags but knew that it would be wasted time and money. The pictures and the stories were already out there. Nothing could be done to take them back.

* * * *

“No.” When I thought about it, I realized this was a word we said to each other often.

We didn’t have any children. Nor did we adopt. We thought that we would do one or the other, possibly both, but after two years, then three more, it hadn’t happened. There was always a bigger, more important movie to make, more time to be spent apart, another topic that I hoped to research, another screenplay to adapt or write. I had known after year four that it wouldn’t happen. I had stopped wanting a baby as much as I did at the beginning, and he had stopped talking about becoming a father. There was, at least, no vicious custody battle to add to the war over our finances.

“You didn’t earn any of this money that you’re trying to take from me,” he said not long before the divorce was set in motion, angry that I wasn’t going to settle for four million in cash and the house in Laurel Canyon, leaving him the New York co- op and the Miami villa and over sixty- seven million in stocks and other, more liquid assets. “You have your own fucking money, Emma.”

“I know that,” I said, “but I’m not the one leaving you for someone else.”

He exhaled loudly. “You know that I’m really sorry this has happened.”

“That’s hard for me to believe.”

“You don’t have to believe me, but it’s still true. I don’t want us to be enemies. Maybe we could eventually be friends.”

I snorted. “Sophie would love that.”

“She’d understand.”

“I really doubt that, Antony. Not everyone wants the same things you want.”

When the outrage and jealousy dissipated, there was only abjectness. I knew in those moments that I would have taken him back. I knew that I would never be as close to another man like him. Whether or not I wanted to admit it, he was extraordinary, and being with him had made me feel as if ordinary concerns, ordinary disappointments and sorrows, had less to do with me than they did with other people. This is what celebrity signifies more than anything else—it is the strict refutation of the banal.

“How can you still care about him?” asked one friend, a divorced woman herself. “After all of the things he’s done to humiliate you? You have more self-respect than that, don’t you?”

“I don’t know,” I said, because maybe I didn’t. I had the idea, obscenely childish and predictable but one that could have been a very potent kind of revenge, of writing a book about our marriage. In a self-r ighteous fever, I wrote ninety pages before I knew that I didn’t have the will to finish it. By this point in our separation, Antony doubtless considered me a hardened opportunist, but I was not completely unhinged. In spite of my lingering bitter feelings of betrayal, I knew that it would be better for me to retain my self-r espect and the notions of decency that had been ingrained in me by my Midwestern upbringing: you do not let people know what you’re thinking, especially if your thoughts are uncharitable; you do not profit (emotionally or financially) at other people’s expense; you do not intentionally hurt the people you care for or once cared for very much.

I missed him fiercely at times and awoke in the middle of the night, my face damp with tears, wondering if I could win him back. The clock on the bureau ticked ceaselessly, its answers all in riddles. After several consecutive nights of this, I couldn’t bear the sound of its ticking and threw it away.

Friends, my parents, my one sibling (an older brother who liked Antony quite a bit) thought that if nothing else, I should have been relieved that the pain and anxiety and implacable jealousy were ending: the innumerable days during our marriage when I had been at home, trying to work, picturing him having a very good time with the other cast members in a film that was shooting in Moscow or Key West or Nairobi or Paris or Kuala Lumpur, picturing all of the fans who hoped to get close to him, to smile at him and be smiled upon in return, the fans who wanted to touch him, hold his hand, look him directly in the eyes and then go home to remember this one-minute interlude for the rest of their lives.

As I saw it, he was always off somewhere, living the best days of his life. If I went with him on a shoot, I wasn’t precisely welcomed, by him or by anyone else working on the film. I was a potential fuck-i t-upper, though some people were kind and decorously curious about my current writing projects. Antony needed to concentrate, memorize his lines, rehearse, get into character, which I understood but resented. I wanted love, physical proof that he needed only me—an outrageous and absurd desire.

N.B.: No one who marries someone famous knows precisely what will happen to their self-esteem. You might search fan sites, as fruitless and stupid as this would be, to determine who your far-flung enemies are, who has proclaimed the most ardent love for your husband, who plans to act on it as soon as possible. Despite how pitiful these sites and their custodians are, you feel corrosive jealousy. You want to go through the fan mail that arrives at the studio before your husband sees any part of it, throw most of the letters away, threaten with bloody bodily harm those who have sent lewd photos, written bad erotic poetry: “I Want to Suck Your Dick for Sex Days Straight, Mr. Grégoire.”

If they all weren’t so stupidly earnest, it might have been funnier.

After seven months of bickering, I got much more than four million in cash and the Laurel Canyon house. As soon as we both signed the papers, we didn’t speak again for two and a half years, not until our paths overlapped at a fundraiser for an AIDS research foundation that his second wife had insisted he attend with her. He married her a year after leaving me, and this time he insisted on a prenuptial agreement. Five months later, they were parents.

I’m not sure why I did it, but I started seeing a married man. He had been a friend for a number of years, one I was always mildly attracted to but didn’t do anything to encourage. His name was Otik, a Czech man who directed commercials and music videos. Barring the gambling addiction, he wanted to be Dostoyevsky. I had read some of the novel he was writing before I became his lover and it impressed me, though it wasn’t likely to be published—there was nothing American about it, no irony or levity in its pages, false or otherwise. I did not see how it could possibly sell. I didn’t tell him this and I turned out to be wrong. When his book, The Monk’s Arsenal, sold, he sent me three dozen roses—red, yellow, and pink. I tore off the tissue paper and felt the heated rush of tears because this was something Antony had done during our first two or three years together. Enormous bouquets with quotes from Keats or Shakespeare scribbled onto the cards would arrive for no reason. I liked to imagine the people in the flower shop, the young girls who took the order from Antony’s assistant, knowing that this Antony was the Antony and wondering if they would ever be loved by a famous man who supposedly could give them everything they desired.

I met him when I was in graduate school at UCLA, where I spent four fevered months in my second year writing a screenplay for him. In a moment of bravado, I sent it to his agent. And then, as if it were an elaborate waking dream, Antony called a dozen weeks later and said that he loved it, he wanted to meet me, he was so flattered and impressed. I was twenty-seven, prematurely cynical about love, but then suddenly, every woman I knew hated me.

We met for lunch on Olvera Street, Antony’s bodyguard, who was also his driver, waiting outside on a chair the restau- rant owner smilingly set by the entrance for him. I couldn’t speak for the first several minutes without laughing nervously. My face was flushed, my legs unreliable, my palms so sweaty my napkin became damp. I was terribly lonely and had feebly hoped for someone like him for a long time. It was why I had moved from Minneapolis to California. I had the same dream as millions of other hopeless people: to be discovered and declared worthy by someone far above me in stature.

He was tall, taller than I was by several inches, and smelled like he had just stepped from his bath. His hair was longer than when I had last seen it—in a film that had been released a couple of months earlier, one in which he had appeared naked and raving over a brother’s death—and he touched my arm several times as he told me that he already had a director and a couple of producers interested and they were probably going to film my screenplay if I would allow them to. They would buy it from me, of course, for a fair price. I shook my head, incredulous. “It’s a gift,” I said. “I couldn’t possibly make you pay for it.” He laughed. “If someone offers you money for your work, you take it. Rule number one. Maybe the only rule in L.A. Do you act too?”

I was smiling so hard that my face hurt. “I wouldn’t dream of it,” I said.

He touched my arm again. People in the restaurant were leering at us. I could feel them trying to decide what was going

on, who I was. How in the world had I arrived at this table? Why not them? “Really?” he said. “I thought everyone did.”

I couldn’t tell if he was being facetious, but I didn’t think so. “I’d rather direct,” I said, hoping he’d laugh. More than feeling his hands on me, I wanted to make him laugh. Other women, prettier ones, probably couldn’t do that, not often.

Instead, he winked. “It’s always one or the other. Often both.”

They paid forty-two thousand for my screenplay, more money than I had earned in a year, two years, probably, at that time in my life. The film, Two Things You Should Know, was a success. Later I learned that I could have gotten a lot more if I had tried to sell it through an agent. The film made money, sold overseas to European and Asian distributors, won a few big awards in the United States. Suddenly, I had become someone kind of important. A year or so later I wrote a sequel, Two More Things You Should Know; it wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t ever produced. By then, Antony was being sought out by the Italian American directors he had always fantasized about working with.

For a while, we were friends, nothing more, and met from time to time for lunch or dinner; we talked on the phone and went to parties where we knew we would see each other. I was in love with him from the beginning, more or less, but didn’t admit it to myself. I felt an immense, heart-h eavy gratitude toward him; he was, it seemed, responsible for my life becoming what I had long hoped it would. He appeared to care about me too, and not just because the film I had written for him was the first one where most of the better-known critics took him seriously.

I told myself that I didn’t want to get involved with him. I could see that he had every woman’s ardent attention wherever he appeared. From what I knew of him, he did not date any one woman for more than a few months. He was as restless as many famous men are believed to be—there are so many options, so many willing participants. If you don’t feel the pressure to make one momentous choice, you don’t; it is easier to make a number of small choices, to keep making them.

But I loved that he liked me, that he kept track of me, sent me gifts, called occasionally. I knew that it was better to be his friend than his short-lived lover. But after Two Things debuted, a year after he finished filming it, he bought me an expensive German car because the film was such a remarkable success.

After Antony delivered the car, he started to court me. I didn’t know it was a courtship, but to most others, especially to James, my depressive boyfriend, it was obvious. “You’re being obtuse,” he said. “Or else you’re just lying. I can’t believe you can’t see what he’s up to.”

“He has so much money that I’m sure it’s not a big deal to buy me a car.”

“No, probably not, but the gesture is the big deal. You don’t buy a car for someone you don’t expect something from in return. How often does he call you now?”

I looked at him, feeling his unease, his desire to give up on me, but he didn’t want to, and I didn’t want him to either, not yet. His lips were very red right then, as if he’d been pressing them together hard. He was an attractive guy, a tall, sturdy man who had played high school basketball well, something he was still proud of. I liked his long limbs and solid frame, his tangled dark hair. I liked, too, that other women noticed him.

“Not that often,” I said, which was a lie. Antony was calling me every few days. Sometimes he wanted me to read a script, which I always did, scorning most of them. But mostly he wanted to talk and flirt. He told me he didn’t know anyone else like me, and of course this was the best compliment I could imagine, aside from “I can’t live without you.”

“He’s just thanking me again for the screenplay,” I said.

“He paid you for it.”

“He’s still just my friend.” I had never told James that I’d written the screenplay specifically for Antony. It would have been a stupid, possibly cruel thing to do.

James rolled his eyes. “If that’s what you want to call it.”

* * * *

He asked me to marry him when he was sitting next to Tom Petty on the Tonight Showsofa. Petty had just played two songs and talked to Jay for a few minutes, and then Antony came out wearing a beautiful shirt, one made of indigo linen, which I had bought for him during a trip to Chicago a few months earlier. They chatted for several minutes before Jay, with his friendly, squinting smile, asked him about his love life. Antony smiled back and said, “Everything’s going well. But it’ll be even better if Emma, my girlfriend, says yes to my marriage proposal.”

Jay looked at Antony, blinking several times, and said, “Have you asked her? Are you telling me that you asked her and she said she wasn’t sure?”

Antony shook his head. “Actually, I’m asking her now. I hope she’s watching.”

The audience started shrieking and hooting and kept it up until the producers broke for a commercial. I was with my friend Jeanie, another transplant from the Minneapolis area, and hadn’t been watching as attentively as I usually did when Antony appeared on TV (it was later, after I saw the show again, that I memorized every detail of Jay and Antony’s exchange), but when I heard my name and realized what was going on, I started shaking so hard that Jeanie had to hold both of my hands for several minutes before getting up to pour us both a large glass of wine and then another. The show had been taped only a few hours before it aired, much less lead time than usual, and no one had leaked Antony’s proposal before then, at least not to me. Very soon my cell phone began to ring without stopping for most of the night. Friends from home, my parents and other relatives, were calling to congratulate me, to weep and exclaim with me. I could not believe that he wanted to marry me, and I suppose I should have paid attention to this disbelief, but who says no when someone you love, famous or not, asks you to marry him?

Soon after his proposal, a few of my friends started to show their jealousy and doubt but tried to pass it off as bracing observation, meant only to make me think.

One friend from home said, You’ll always have money now. What’s the point of you working anymore? Why don’t you go with him when he’s shooting his movies and try to have fun?

A second friend said, What about all his gorgeous ex-girlfriends? Is it really over with all of them? How would you even know for sure?

A third friend said, Is he actually going to go home with you for Christmas and family reunions?

Someone else, my brother’s girlfriend, asked, Will it be an open marriage?

Antony’s favorite joke:

What did the bra say to the hat?

You go on a head, I’ll give these two a lift.

For a while I thought that he didn’t take himself too seriously. After all, he could easily have ignored the script I’d sent to him, never bothered to meet me in person to tell me that he liked it and wanted to buy it. He could have had his agent contact me instead. He could have gotten swept up in the cult of his own fame and completely left everyday life behind.

I suppose it was inevitable that he would meet another woman who interested him more than I did, one who did the same work he did, who understood all of the lurid fan mail and far-away meetings and the sheer exhaustion he felt on some days simply being who he was.

* * * *

James did not say that he hated me when I admitted to my feelings for Antony. For one, he was a little in awe of him. He might even have hoped that somehow he would benefit from my new fantasy relationship, that I would feel guilty and ask Antony to go out of his way to introduce James to directors or casting agents. He was probably even more talented than Antony was, and for a while, I thought that he would succeed—it might have been on television rather than in film, but his eventual success did not seem at all far-fetched. His depression, his self-sabotaging tendencies, his impatience and manic intensity, however, conspired to keep him from the breakthrough he hoped for.

This is something few people talk about in Hollywood, or anywhere else, despite how obvious it is: most people don’t succeed as actors simply because they can’t handle the near-constant rejection that confronts most beginners. Rejection is the relentless, powerful hazing that disables ninety-seven out of a hundred talented people. No one tells you that for your first two hundred auditions, you would be lucky to land one or two parts, minor ones at that. No one says this because it is stories like Antony’s that have convinced most of us that it should be easy, and if it isn’t, if you’re not immediately chosen and declared the next Harrison Ford or Robert De Niro or Meryl Streep, then you’re just not good enough.

* * * *

Otik, the married man I started seeing after my divorce, never asked what it was like for me to be with Antony, whether I expected to be as happy again, or as miserable. He did not care to know, nor did he seem concerned that his life was not as glamorous as Antony’s, at least not in the same highly visible way. He was a dozen years older than I, and due in part to the close relatives and friends he had lost to various wars and self-destructive habits, he was unimpressed by the things that impress most of us.

He said a few things at the beginning of our affair that I thought did have to do with Antony, though he was never named.

“Certain events that happen to us,” he said, “we spend a lot of time trying to forget, or else we try to live as if they are about to happen again, even when we know they won’t.”

Immediately I felt defensive. “I don’t live in the past,” I said.

“That’s not what I’m saying, Emma. I don’t mean you in particular. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. My wife is dependent on me for things she believes I provide for her but I don’t. Half of what we see isn’t really there.”

I didn’t believe she was as needy or as deluded as he made her sound. She ran a Montessori school and was raising two children on her own before meeting Otik. She intimidated me with her direct gaze, her air of always knowing the answer before anyone else. “She seems very grounded to me,” I said.

He shook his head. “She doesn’t have a lot of confidence in herself. She thinks that I keep her life from falling apart.”

Along with Dostoyevsky, he idolized Milan Kundera. I think this was part of the problem. Not that I didn’t like Kundera too, but in addition to their celebratory sexiness, his books had a surreal fatalism to them, as did Otik himself, and sometimes when we were together, it seemed as if I were facing a grinning cement wall.

“I don’t feel like that,” I said. “I know what you do and don’t provide for me.”

“I’m not worried about you. Your weaknesses are well policed.”

I stiffened. “Thanks.”

He laughed. “That’s a compliment. Most people can’t wait for the chance to tell you what’s wrong with them.”

* * * *

As a lover, what was Antony like? Was I too nervous to enjoy it the first time? Or was it so extraordinary to be alone with him, naked in his embrace, that it was the best time of my life?

These are a few of the questions my less discreet friends have asked.

Whether or not they realize it, these are also the questions everyone who reads celebrity magazines asks themselves about the featured couples as they turn the pages. What could it possibly be like for them? Is each time always the best time?

I have heard that a man in New York, a clever guy with social influence and connections, holds parties meant to seem like old-fashioned salons where he and his friends discuss questions such as Do people who can afford it deserve to have more than one or two kids?

Is sushi a big con?

Is sex overrated?

My answer to that last question is a qualified no. The actual physical rewards of sex, because they are so often inconsistent, probably are overrated, but its emotional heft, its implicit statement that another person desires you, possibly more than anyone else, if only in that moment, is, in a way, unrivaled. I loved sleeping with Antony because in those moments, no one else was as close to him as I was.

The first time was at my home, not his, and I wasn’t ready for it, not amply perfumed or dressed in something ridiculous and remarkable. He came over unannounced, and it was raining and February and the previous day had been Valentine’s Day. He’d sent me a card, and flowers, and four pounds of Swiss chocolate. He was in New York that day, doing publicity for his latest project, apparently dateless. When he appeared at my front door, his hair was damp, his face tired but smiling; he asked if he could come in, if he could stay for a while, possibly for good?

This isn’t real, I kept thinking all that night and the next morning. This is a joke, isn’t it?

 

From THE VIRGINITY OF FAMOUS MEN. Used with permission of Bloomsbury. Copyright © 2016 by Christine Sneed.


  • tomthumb3

    That was great! I couldn’t stop reading. This woman is the kind of woman I would love to be with. Beautiful, beautiful.

  • Pingback: Capsule Cocoon – coolpeppermint()



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