The winter of 1987 was cold enough to freeze the Housatonic River and the town of Kent erected an elaborate float on the thick ice. Each year the townspeople organized a pool to guess the date when the ice could no longer bear the float’s weight. Two days after a January blizzard I picked March 21 and my writing partner, Monty, close April 4. Neither of us were natives to the town.
Coming from Maine I didn't consider anyplace west of the Connecticut River as part of New England, although Kent came very close with its private school, worn hills, and hemlock pine forests. The pale-skinned producer spoke with a Georgian drawl. His family bottled Coca-Cola there. Monty never mentioned the Civil War, as we wrote WHERE THE HIGHWAY ENDS, a screenplay about love and murder in the Florida Everglades. He was more a lover than a fighter, although he never mentioned his last girlfriend's name, for defeats in romance can cost as much as a TKO in the ring.
We lived in a turn-of-the-century cabin set on the shoulder of a pine-strewn hill. Monty had converted it into an Adirondack camp complete with a chandelier of deer antlers. It came from Scotland.
Every day snow drifted against the windows of the cabin. A big fire warmed the living room, as Monty and I discussed the the previous day's scenes during breakfast. He was a vegetarian. No meat was allowed in the house.
No eggs. No Bacon.
Soy milk. Tofu.
I lost weight.
We worked every day from 8am till 4pm. I typed out the interactions between a burnt-out drifter and a young heiress. Both the main characters were both good-looking; James Dean if he survived his car crash with Nico of the Velvet Underground. The location was the last untamed barrier island in Florida. The dialogue was terse. Seven word sentences with a few long paragraphs about love, nature, and wealth. We read the dialogues aloud after dinner. Monty got to play the male. I was the girl. Anyone peeking in the window would have thought we were mad.
On Wednesdays Monty drove into Katonah for health food supplies and I roamed through the pine forests with his dog. Maulwin loved chasing deer and one afternoon he pelted across the river in pursuit of a buck. The ice broke underneath the Shar-pei.
Twenty feet from shore.
His hooded eyes blinked with canine desperation.
I stared back at Maulwin.
Every winter people drowned trying to rescue friends and dogs from an icy death. Maulwin's paws scratched at the edge of the break. He wasn't getting out without help.
I crawled on my belly from the shore. The ice crackled like brittle glass. Maulwin whimpered with a hopeful shiver and I tossed the jacket to him. He bit on the sleeve and scrabbled from the frozen river. My reward was a sloppy hand-licking and we silently agreed that his master was better off ignorant of this near-drowning.
"Maulwin seems quiet." Monty observed upon his return from shopping. Maulwin lay on the floor, as if he were entering a deep sleep. Good dogs know when to play dead.
"Really?" I patted the Shar-pei's head. "Seems the same to me."
February laid more snow on the ground. March added a few more inches. The valley stayed cold until the end of the month, then a southern wind melted the ice from the eaves and on April 4 the float sank into the river.
Monty won $300.
A week later I wrote ‘The End’ to WHERE THE HIGHWAY ENDS.
The last line was "Everything is nothing."
Monty was more than satisfied with the result.
A beginning, middle, and a pay-off ending during a hurricane.
Monty paid my $5000 salary and added a bonus of a Triumph motorcycle. It was a 1964 Tiger. 650cc. I started it with the first kick. Monty kept his things in good order.
We celebrated with a last home-cooked vegetarian dinner. I hadn’t eaten meat in three months. Thankfully Monty liked a good bottle of wine. I preferred two cheap ones. Three even better. After the spinach lasagna and a stunning Chianti Monty proposed a round-trip ticket to Thailand.
"Bill is co-starring in a big-budget movie in Bangkok." Bill was a mutual friend. He had been nominated for an Oscar. Most people considered him a star. "We can fly first-class and stay at the Dusit Hotel. We'll talk to Bill about starring in HWERE THE HIGHWAY ENDS."
"You think he'd do it." Good as the script was, I wondered whether there was enough action. There were no car chases. No gun fights either. Only twisted love. It was my expertise.
"I have enough money to finance it." Monty's family had millions. Maulwin’s eyes said, “Say yes.”
"Don't take this the wrong way, but I want to write a novel." A story about a black pimp in Hamburg. I had trafficked in money for Cali. His partner had charged $10,000 for my affair with Stephanie. It was a story that wrote itself.
"Most writers would die for this opportunity."
"Name me five famous screenplay writers." I could think of three.
Monty came up with four. My goal was fame, not fortune, and I envisioned my short story collection climbing to the top of the NY Times Best Sellers’ List, plus I was tired of eating tofu burgers.
Monty and I split in New York. He flew west to LA and I remained in New York to write a collection of short stories. The book on Nigger Cali could wait for another year. My friends and I drove our bikes around the city. I worked at a nightclub. Elana was my romantic interest that summer. The flamenco dancer from Madrid shared my bed for the summer. Her boyfriend called from New England in late-August. My next-door neighbor, Mrs. Adorno, cursed me in Spanish for not asking Elana to stay. The super from Honduras translated her words to inform me that I wouldn’t have sex with another woman for years.
I laughed thinking it was a joke. I should have known better. Witches have no sense of humor.
Nothing happened with WHERE THE HIGHWAY ENDS. Monty formed a film production company, yet never asked me to write another screenplay. My first shot at the big time was a failure. It wouldn’t be the last. Even worse women stayed out of my life throughout the fall and winter. I asked Mrs. Adorno to rescind her curse. She cackled in my face.
After pleas came threats.
The old bruja was four foot-two. Size didn't matter to a woman that short. Everyone was big to her.
Judging the curse as strictly American I crossed the Atlantic in the summer of 1989. I didn’t stop in Paris and caught an early-morning train out of Gare De Lyons. My best friend, Bertram, arranged a beach shack on the Mediterranean. He was too busy with his nightclub to vacation with me, but his parents greeted his friend as a long-lost cousin, because I spoke a little French and played a decent game of tennis. Familial ties in the South of France are vague at best. That first evening I drank wine in the medieval port of Collieure and the next morning attacked the typewriter with a hangover from two bottles of Cote Du Rousillion.
I wrote every day from 9am to 4pm.
Evenings I went for long swims and imagined falling in love with a girl from the South. None of the bikini teenagers on Carnet-Plage bothered to look at me. At 35 I was old enough to be their father. Sometimes the police followed me down the promenade. They regarded all foreigners as suspect, but my only crimewas loneliness.
Despite my dyslexic typing and 6th grade grammar, I completed fifteen stories by the middle of August.
Hearing my Boston-accented ‘au-revoir’ Bernard’s mother made me swear an oath to return to the South. I drank several pastis with her husband, Do-Do. The next morning I hitchhiked north to the Luberon. My English friends had restored a farmhouse in Oppede. The ancient valley was ripe with grapes. I read my best story at dinner for their rich guests. Tiki’s wife declared they were in the presence of new Henry Miller. I believed Annabelle and toasted her with wine from the neighboring vinyard. The bottles were big. I danced on the table and fell asleep on the lawn. Ants bit my legs and mosquitoes targeted my neck. I woke with my manuscript on my chest and read the first page, then another. The stark sunlight was a cruel critic and a repeating whisper evaporated the previous evening’s acclaim.
“Everything is nothing.”
This spike of self-doubt was more than a hangover.
My friends in the Luberon had jobs. They slept with their wives. Children played tag in the 19th Century villa. I was depending on a collection of badly-typed tales to carry me into the future. My bed held one body and I didn’t even have a pet. I walked to the top of Luberon Plateau. A quarry had created a sheer cliff. I was committed to certain death, except at the very edge of eternity I was attacked by wild pigs. My body smashing on the rocks was an acceptable death, however being gored to death by boars would only ridicule the emptiness of my existence. I ran for my life to climb a wind-seared tree.
That evening I entertained my friends with my tale of the close escape without mentioning the attempted suicide. We had porc au moutarde for dinner and it was delicious. upon leaving for Paris Tiki wished me luck in New York and drove me to Avignon train station. Three hours later I was in the city of Light. I had dinner with artist friends and ran into an actress with whom I had been in a film two years earlier. Gabrielle asked if she could drive me home. I said her place would be better. We had a good four months.
I wrote for ACTUEL and played a gangster in another French movie. Gabrielle made dinner every night in her Marais apartment. She was a great cook. We had sex every night. She had access to a France of power, beauty, and wealth. Luis Bunuel’s son and I saw HOTEL TERMINUS. The three of us attended the Biarretz Film Festival. I surfed the beach and nearly drowned twice.
That night I told her that I loved her. She cried for an hour. She said she loved me too, although her words sounded as if she had read them off a cue card. Back in Paris she received a phone call from Berlin. A director had cast her to star as Marie Antoinette’s friend in a costume epic. It was time for me to leave. Our good-bye at Charles de Gaulle Aerogare was final. She didn’t even send a Christmas card. The curse of Senora Adorno had a long shelf life.
During my extended absence my subleasee on East 10th Street hadn’t paid the rent. The sale of the Triumph stopped the eviction process. I spoke with Bill. Monty and he were working on another project for Propaganda Films. I was still out, but confident that my collection of short stories would free me from a 9-to-5 existence. My New York agent loved the writing and the book publishers hated the typos. The short story collection was retired from the submission circuit after twenty rejections.
Without money my writing block rivaled the Berlin Wall and my fingers were exiled from the typewriter for a year. I worked six months as a press agent for a fake jewelry designer. She screamed at the staff every hour of every day.
I was planning her murder, when my friend Richie tore his ACLs skiing at Jackson Hole. He needed someone to schlep diamonds around 47th Street. I wasn’t family, but we were friends and I became the shabbatz goy for Manny Winick and Sons. Richie groomed me to be his star salesman. I learned how light travels through a diamond at half the speed of light and that customers understood less about diamonds than love. At the end of six months I sold a 10-carat diamond. The commission for that sale amounted to almost 5-figures and I contemplated a six-month writing vacation.
“You earned more money with me than six years of your stories.” Richie liked drinking with me and also liked my getting up early to open the store. He liked sleeping late.
“My one payday with Monty was big.”
“Working as McDonald’s trainee pays more than writing and you earned more in three hours selling one diamond.” Richie was selling money and I wasn’t a buyer.”
”You going skiing next year?”
>“Of course.” His casts came off the week before.
“Because it makes me feel alive.”
“I feel the same way about writing.” I sat Richie down and looked in his eyes like he was my lover. I wanted to see the world and said, “I’m not going forever.”
Truthfully it hurt to be in New York. I asked Mrs. Adorno to lift the curse. The 8O year-old was deaf to my pleas. Her ears were husks of flesh, but her curse wasn’t the only reason for my celibacy.
A 36 year-old male without a million dollars in the bank was a pariah to New York women. They sought a paycheck to support their shopping like a rich divorcee and I couldn’t blame them for looking over my shoulder at a party, so I worked six days a week and saved money.
The Sunday New York Times travel section advertised a NYC-LA-HONOLULU-BIAK-BAIL-BANGKOK-KATHMANDU-DELHI-PARIS-LONDON-NY trip. My commission for a 15-carat diamond sale covered the cost of the ticket plus six months of easy living. Richie said my job would be waiting. Honest people were rare on 47th Street. Richie was one of them. I was another.
On the LA stopover Bill raved about Bangkok. He had recently finished another film there. Monty had produced it.
“Temples and go-go bars. A heaven of sin. Just don’t fall in love.”
“Love will tear us apart.” I didn’t know what else to say other than the title of a Joy Division song.
“You say that now, but I’ve seen it with my own eyes. Smart guys falling in love with bar girls right off the rice farm.” Bill had lived with the same woman 13 years. The scandal sheets had yet to link his name to an actress or singer or model. His devotion was either an admirable abnormality or a tribute to Oscar-winning discretion.
“I’m done with love.” This trip was dedicated to completing NORTH NORTH HOLLYWOOD. Nothing could be further from love than a novel about pornography.
“Done with love. I know you and you want to be in love worse than anything else.”
“I’m living under a curse.” I explained about Mrs. Adorno and he laughed, “That’s all in your head. There are plenty of women in New York for you.”
“What about LA?” I wouldn’t mind living there. Palm trees, swimming pools, and freeways.
“Sorry, but the love ranking in LA goes this way. Producers, first, directors second, actors third, and valets before writers.”
“Great.” It sounded like another curse. “I guess I’ll keep moving on.”
“You know I wish I had traveled more.” Bill’s stardom determined that his life was not own. “We were filming atop this mountain in the North of Thailand. A little village was about a mile away. It was in Burma. The valleys stretched one after another all the way to China.”
“Sounds like someplace I want to go.”
Bill scribbled down the name of the mountain and I promised to check out Chiang Dao.
Jungles, waterfalls, a cheap bungalow, good food, and cold beer were an ideal location to write NORTH NORTH HOLLYWOOD, which was loosely based on my cousin’s exploits in pornography. Sherri had performed more than two thousand XXX films. She lived on the other side of the Hollywood Hills in the Valley. I wanted to speak with her before I left and called that evening. She answered with a raspy voice muddled by too little sleep.
“Where are you?”
“Hollywood, you want to meet later.” I figured 7 was a good time.
“Sorry, I’m not going anywhere. Yesterday I crashed my car into an earthmover.”
“Are you okay?” Sherri’s driving skills were bordered terrifying, since she was near-sighted and colorblind.
“Yeah, but I can’t find my glasses. You have any money?”
“Some.” She wasn’t looking to pay an electric bill.
“Can you spare $100?”
“What about $50?” A C-note of Mexican tar was a death warrant.
“Can you make it fast?”
“As fast as I can.” Sherri was in a bad way.
Giving her the money was a mistake, although not a fatal error. I took a bus to the North Hollywood bus to her bungalow off Ventura Boulevard. The swimming pool was empty, but the garden was in full bloom. Her parrot squawked out either a welcome or warning. My cousin opened the door. She looked like she hadn’t slept in a week, but Sherri’s beauty before the camera came from within and I saw her as I always saw her. An 18 year-old girl from New Jersey coming out of the Port Authority Bus Terminal.
“You got the money?” I handed her the $50. Junkies like to take the high moral ground anyway they can and she said, “So you’re going to Thailand? What to get laid by whores?”
“I’ve never been with a prostitute.” I protested without conviction, for TIME magazine had published a long article about sex in Asia and the thousands of lone male tourists hadn’t flown 10,000 miles to visit Bangkok’s Emerald Buddha. I had read the story three times for future reference.
“What about that girl in Hamburg?” Sherri was dying for a hit. Her dealer was late. “The pimp gave you a bill for $10,000.”
“I didn’t know she was working.” The blonde lingerie model confessed that she loved me. “Ich liebe dich.”
I had taken German in high school and repeated the three words, meaning them very much. Right before Christmas the pimp appeared at the bar with an itemized account of our coital activities. Everyone in Hamburg was on the game and I handed him the BMW keys as a down payment on my bill. The front end was shot from my hitting the curb on Eppendorfer Weg and I left Hamburg that night.
“I didn’t pay him and never saw her again.”
“Nothing wrong with paying for it. All men do some way or another.”
“I guess so.” I was a romantic at heart. My love was free.
“Just don’t fall in love out there.”
“You’re the second person to tell me that in the two days.” I suspected she wouldn’t be the last. I had seen THE WORLD OF SUZIE WONG and lived on the Reeperbahn. I assured Sherri “I’m no stranger to the ways of the flesh.”
“If you think you’ve had all the answers, then you haven’t heard all the questions.”
The doorbell rang and Sherri jumped from her sofa. The transaction took five seconds and she was already preparing her arm for the needle by the time she reached the sofa. Once the spike touched blood, she would be gone and I said my good-bye.
“I’ll send you postcards.”
“You can be my eyes and ears in Asia.” She was already nodding out. I would say prayers at temples and churches around the world. Some would have to help, because my cousin was no longer capable of helping herself.
The next day I left the USA at LAX.
I wasn't coming back this way either.
This was a trip around the world. All my tickets were for westward travel. First stop - the Orient.