John Domini

 

 

(USA)

 

 

 

BLINDED BY PAPARAZZI   (From MOVIEOLA!, Dzanc Books 2016. Originally published, in slightly different form, in Gargoyle #54)

 

 

 

 

A cherry role, with a breakout actress. A choice opportunity, a major bump up from cable TV. Matty was going big-screen while he was still young enough to do loss of innocence. It made no difference that, within the first minute of the phone call, he understood the project was mostly about the actress. Spada, she was the breakout. The studio, the brain trust, hadn’t failed to notice how much face-space she’d been getting. These days, while you waited in checkout, Spada was the wallpaper.

Who was Matty to argue with the brain trust? Brava Spada, he agreed, trying out the accent.

Born to break out, the double-helix of her introns and exons spiraling beautifully out of Libya and Sicily, the woman also had learned how to work it. She had a practiced gaze, slantwise. The package added up to #7 on some laddy-mag’s list of World Babes, and — the news was all over the wallpaper — she’d just left her boyfriend.  Spada had come into the Industry and left behind the Art, her b.f., one of those genius auteurs with a Citation for Excellence but hardly two quarters to rub together. Riding to the set on the back of a Vespa, she’d had enough of that.  Maybe she’d had enough of those complicated Mediterranean types, too. Maybe Spada was ready for an All-American.

The thought crossed his mind, sure. To hook up with Spada fit the career chart neatly: first the cherry part and then the World Babe. It was about the work. If the studio had guessed right, if the multiplex was ready for cappuccino, then Matty would enjoy a significant bump up. This regardless of whether he and Spada started swapping orgasms. He’d like to get the girl, but as it was he’d got an epic.

Time-travel. One movie, a dozen parts.

A typical sequence started with Spada the slave, Matty the master. He’s the master with a heart of gold, hardly more than a boy when he took over his father’s plantation. And his high-yaller house-gal, her handmedown bodice a tad limp at the hem, she’s been giving young Beauregard his bath since he was a pup. The people on the soundtrack came up with something crafty here, too, they synched the music so Spada’s crooning keeps time with the droplets running down his hips and belly. Her lullaby itself a caress. But no sooner does Matty’s innocence appear thoroughly lost than, boom, big twist.

No sooner do they kiss than they go straight into that wavy-seaweed effect — some tricks never grow old — and come out of it into whole different seduction.  The lovebirds go from a hot night in old Dixie to a steamy passage from the Book of Kings, a visit from the Nubian Queen. This time Spada’s the one with the whip. She’s haughty with her young scribe. You might wonder just what part of Nubia this guy comes from, with his golden curls and sapphire eyes, but mostly you’re watching the Queen, rising regally from the scented water of her bath while the potted plants in the foreground keep everything PG-13 (some tricks just never…).

Yet once the Queen and scribe move into the bedchamber, between the onyx and the ivory, it’s not what you expect. She doesn’t ask to see his quill. Rather, twist again, she understands she’s fallen into a mystery. She scans the troubled gaze of her new b.f.

My secret heart, she declares, I see you feel as lost as I. Do you read the glyphs with such a gaze? And in all the chronicles, was there ever love so strange?

The boy sets his jackal earrings a-clatter, shaking his head. He and his Queen, he replies, appear to play across the millennia as moonlight sparkles on the surface of a pond.

The woman smiles but remains thoughtful. We must recall all that we can of where we came from, she insists. We must delve beneath this golden inlay, this leopard-skin. Only, first kiss me again….

And when they do, the seaweed billows back up. The soundtrack’s got something wild going here, as well, thumb-piano and piccolo. A ticklish new earworm for every pivot in the narrative. Now Matty slips a coin under his tongue in one era so that he can spend it in the next, now Spada scratches a graffito on a wall of the Coliseum, just before she’s thrown to the lions, so that she’ll get a flashback centuries later, when she visits the ruin as a nun.

Totally cherry! Besides all the changes Matty gets to play, the variety of accents and body language — and besides the opportunity to spend one intense hour after another with so knowing and supple an eyeful — besides all that, he’s getting ten days in Rome. The brain trust figures they need to go on-location for final sequence, the confrontation with the Emperor’s evil Babylonian mage. The villain’s got a ram’s horn as twisted as he is. Blow the right note and it blasts a hole in the universal continuum, his rivals simply disappear….

The studio got the right man for that part too, one of those Royal-Shakespeare coots who can do the Wicked Sorcerer with a flick of the eyebrow.

And chops like that, one flick and you’re thanking the Academy, wasn’t that really what this project was about? Wasn’t it about the work? Matty would never have gotten this far if he’d left his career up to his curls, his dimples. Curls and dimples, any club girl out on Sunset had that much. He put in fresh hours with the voice coach, extra practice on timing. He enlisted the help of a couple of his old crew from USC, guys still in the business, happy to pitch in so long as Matty showed their screenplay to the right people. He did it, too; he kept it real.

But then early on in the filming — talk about real — the switcheroo from the movie came barreling into his life. Into his life and Spada’s too, the uncanny came walloping, knocking them far and deep across the timeline. And there were no mikes, no blocks, no crew. Matty may have caught a faraway blare of the Arkestra, a crescendo of sax, but that was something from the movie, something the people doing the sound had sampled for the players to help them prepare for the next scene. But when Matty heard it this time, he went straight into the impossible. And all he and Spada had done was step out for the evening. Her suggestion; she’d felt it would be good for “the choreography.”

Were they going to dance? He might’ve asked, but before he got the chance, they were whisked away through fluttering kelp.

All they’d done was pose outside the restaurant. Part of the business, the buzz, and Spada wasted no time getting her smile in place, slantwise. It wasn’t for Matty’s sake alone, her bare shoulders, her lamé sack-top, as if this were Bowie’s first date with Iman. But then in the middle of the laser flash, that yellow Morse Code, the two stuttered away, dah-dit-dah, into old trolley-riding LA, the LA of bungalows and bakelite. When the visuals stabilized, Matty was wearing a fedora.

And when he spotted the woman at his side he needed to confirm, blinking, frowning, that this was his exotic lead, because he’d never seen Spada looking so mannish or so white. He needed to remind himself that women’s suits in those days had tended towards the mannish, a lot of shoulder and no waist, though on second thought it struck him as all the more bazook that Spada should be wearing a suit at all. Where had the glam thing gone? And when had she gotten her skin bleached, a Dorothy Dandridge fade? Nonetheless this was Spada, as startled by the jump-cut as Matty himself. Didn’t take a sorcerer to see that, her looks all at once overripe. Spada might never have been so easy to read, her face glowing beneath the tiger-pelt slashes of the shadows of the blinds. The rest of the set was underlit, the potted plants like black silk, but before Matty could get a decent look his date or his victim or whoever burst into speech. She gave voice to a wordless and fitful music, full of pain it seemed, yet bristling with sarcasm. A woman with a past, turning her pocketful of secrets inside out. Didn’t take a psychic to see that. Though Matty was nowhere near sure of himself, even as he tipped back his hat and murmured in hard-boiled understanding. Really, understanding? Where had he gotten this stuff? He couldn’t recall seeing any pick-ups tacked onto the script.

Not that he didn’t enjoy it when the woman seized him in a trembling embrace. Not that he didn’t like to think he was the last good man standing. Spada seized him in a terror that might’ve left bruises, he may have heard her whimper in Italian, and as they fell into a longing kiss the entire scene started to tremble. They went to dissolve with no more than a hint of the rollicking seaweed. Matty and Spada came back to the restaurant. They came back to empty salad plates and a speaker playing “Moondance.”

The inevitable “Moondance,” the greatest hit of white wine, and in fact on the table beside the plates there stood two nearly-full glasses. Spada was likewise well into some anecdote, something that had to do the photographers out at the entrance.

If she suffered surprise, dislocation, she took care of it with a gesture. She wiped away something on the air.

As for the wine, this hadn’t been their first. Matty sensed the burring across the underside of his brains.

Intoxication, he recalled, used to work for the soothsayers. They had a swig or took a puff, and then the cosmos revealed its innards. Yeah well, not tonight. Not with the music in the background going from predictable to moreso, Tony Bennett, and Spada was no help either. She allowed Matty to drive her back to the Chateau, but she offered zero to his attempts at making sense. What he had to say was mealy-mouthed, granted: Did you notice…?  Was that…? Still, the woman didn’t have to spend so much of the ride looking out the window, or where the window would’ve been if he’d had the top up. When she at last turned his way, at the drop-off, she revealed less. Spada gave him the full photogenic glitter, so that Matty’s only fitting comeback could be more of the same. A grin like one billiard ball clicking off another.

He wound up with a club girl. A votive to help unveil the mystery. Over on Sunset he had no trouble scoring a serviceable bit of eye-candy, but later, when they had a chance to talk, she creeped him out. When Matty found the words to describe what had happened, the girl came back with some handmedown mumbo-jumbo about how the Divine always appeared in disguise. The Divine might spill its guts, but only beneath a duplicitous screen, a burning bush or the writing on the wall.

Creeped him out, utterly. In the morning Matty treated her to her favorite smoothie, but once again he found himself speaking in tongues. Out of nowhere, he announced that she would be his last club girl.

She didn’t get it, anyway. She told him she already had a b.f., on tour now, playing Jim Morrison.

Matty had others he could talk to. He had a therapist, no glamour-puss, a man who worked with the industry people who didn’t buy into Scientology. He had his Mom, back on Long Island, and he’d been planning to get in touch with her. He’d figured she needed to know about his upcoming scene as the sensitive Gestapo agent. Gestapo with a heart of gold, risking everything for the lovely half-caste who might be a spy…. And Mom, though she got her potato pancakes out of Fannie Farmer, had family that went back to the shtetls. But as soon as Matty got her on the phone, this morning, he found himself tongue-tied. He stumbled over the first euphemism, and they wound up covering old business, the danger of confusing the work with the life.

The mother asked, sympathetically: You remember Tom Cruise on Oprah? You remember him doing Mission: Impossible all over the woman’s furniture?

Mom was great, actually. She and Matty hadn’t gotten around to what he’d wanted to talk about, but they’d gotten somewhere. One good resonant pong on the sonar. By the time Matty came back on-set, by the time he slipped into his storm-trooper breeches, he knew that the person he had to do something about was Spada. This movie might change his life, and the nature of the change came down to Spada, and his Mama hadn’t raised a boy who couldn’t suck it up and tell the truth when he had to. Tell it even when the person across the table was a jet-set hottie with higher billing.  Spada was no more the Lord of Darkness than he was, and she could probably use a hamburger. Tonight, that’s what Matty would suggest — he’d make the invitation — burgers and blues. Tonight he’d do something about the magic between them.

Then as he and Spada headed into a joint he knew of, The Bottom Feed, why shouldn’t they pose for more pictures?

They took a moment outside the club door, enjoying the thump from inside, the tragicomic swing from A-minor to B-minor. They paused for the cameras, the lasers, and here it came again. The thing, the abracadabra. One moment Matty stood working up a People-worthy grin and the next he’d roiled through surf greenery into the middle of a chanting crowd. His hair is down his shoulders (a good look for him, with these cheekbones) and he’s chanting himself, his neck straining against the weight of a cast-iron peace medallion. Around his hips runs a fat rawhide belt with a hash pipe as a buckle. The crowd sounds angry and the air smells of chemicals, part pot and part worse, and he has no idea what they’re protesting, he and this fine sistah beside him, her with the Foxy Brown ‘do and the ragged jean mini. Are the two of them here about escalation or brutality? The Panthers or the Man? The Movement or the Wall? Matty can’t sort it out, especially with that projectile kiting past overhead, so colorful and yet so ominous, maybe a brick and maybe a canister, kiting across the sky and trailing an elongated flicker of cartoon-candy, cartoon-crumple, psychedelia. Now he spies the psychedelics everywhere, bristle and overlap, rotoscoping, except he never signed on for something like that, Waking Life: The Sequel. He must be tripping. Spada beside him must’ve licked the same tab. What else could’ve given her such a maniacal shimmy and pop, dancing the terror down, her chant smack on the groove? What else could’ve so bugged out her eyes? Talk about cartoons, her eyes call attention to how black she’s become, practically cannibals-and-missionaries. She jerks like a Zulu.

Now he’s warning her, pointing to the sky, somehow right on the beat himself though once again he can’t be sure of the words. Pigs, gas, guns, whatever, she’s frightened yet ecstatic, her own mouth not so much moving in answer as framing a kiss, her arms spreading wide as if she wants to be an easy target, because didn’t she and her surfer boy come together precisely in order to defy the machinery of death, the weapons of hate? And they go into the clinch sloppy with inebriation…

So he came to. Popped out of the wormhole about as much in the moment as a man can be. He was naked, Matty. Flushed with effort, slick with sweat.

He lay stretched out on the king-size, in her suite at the Chateau. Out beyond the gauzy inner curtains dawn was coming on. On Spada’s side of the bed an iPod setup was playing wordless Euro-disco, just audible, a weave of synth and soprano as dense and exquisite as the woman’s nakedness, here calling to mind a Sicilian olive, there suggesting Niger River clay. Truth to tell, though, Matty wasn’t certain he’d seen such things outside of the movies. Maybe the olive in The Godfather, the clay in Roots.

In his bewilderment her color spun a towline.  No resisting how she reeled him in, this daughter of Mediterranean fisher-folk, but as Matty got his hand on her he could tell this wouldn’t be their first go-round. He could hear it in her luxuriant giggle, and he could see it in his excuse for an erection. Spada should’ve had him solid as a bridge-girder. This wasn’t their first time, and the tone of her giggle shifted. At that he groaned with unlikely pleasure, as much aggravation as pleasure, and it made him think about, of all things, the movie. He realized he should bring this sensation, its tone and grimace, into one of his scenes. He’d come back to the work, Matty. It was time to speak up.

Spada, what is this? We’re traveling through time!

Strano, she agreed. Un mistèro, truly.

But she sat up easily. The actress went into lotus posture, so unfazed by the bizarre itinerary she’d shared with Matty that she struck him as more foreign than ever. She spared him the indignity of a smile, but what could he make of that pout? What, when it wasn’t on the screen or in the centerfold? Whenever a camera set her searching for the best way to inhabit its framing, she went back to some Mama or Nonna Matty couldn’t begin to know. He hugged his knees and became aware of Spada’s perfume. Opium.

The actress, so practiced at the line she spoke it artlessly, suggested they might be confusing their work with their life.

Oh, don’t, he said.  Let’s keep it real.

Real — eh.  Then perhaps we are falling in love.

When she straightened her back, Matty didn’t notice her breasts so much as her muscle. When he shook his head, it seemed only to get the perfume out of his nose.

Falling in love, she repeated.  It’s nothing to be ashamed of.

She wiped away something on the air.  He ventured that they were both professionals.

Eh.  Two professionals who have an affair — what that could do for the movie is hardly a mystery.

He agreed that the brain trust had an eye on the tabloids, when they brought Spada and him together.

Yes, but where do we have our eyes, caro?  The windows of the soul?

I’m scared, he said finally.

But perhaps we are only two people in love, going to the cinema.  Un film noir, then les hippies.  We go together, we kiss —

I’m scared.  It’s too weird. It’s not what’s best for the movie.

Spada gave it a moment, a beat beyond a moment, then shrugged. Somehow she shrugged and straightened her back at the same time, a combination impossible as her iPod’s club-mix in the brightening morning, and with that, to Matty, the two of them appeared terribly fragile. They might’ve been a pair of origami.

But when she noticed him staring, huddling, she had just the thing. She fixed up her gaze, slantwise.

They finished the movie, of course. Went ahead and had the affair, too. A woman like Spada, a man should have her while he’s conscious. While he has his wits about him, and particularly when he’s trying to learn all he could for the work. Couldn’t go on doing loss of innocence forever. Besides, she was a lot more fun once they got to Rome. There the woman really came into her element, shining it on while the press went hysterical. They called him Casanova d’America, the headlines were everywhere, and during Matty’s and Spada’s first night out together — she insisted on sharing a Vespa — they found themselves blinded by paparazzi. At the cameras went off, it did seem as if the Matty and his g.f. were again somersaulted into a different time and place, an epoch of swords and robes and sand. Or it might’ve been an Easter spectacular. He and Spada might’ve been a couple of stock characters, the legionnaire struck down by the angel and the woman who discovers the tomb is empty. Who knows? The strangeness of experience, who knows? Matty figured he could wait till the final edits, and anyway by then he’d spent some hours on his own in the city. Done it incognito, in a Dodgers cap and earplugs (though in fact he had no music; the cord ran to an empty breast pocket). On foot for the aerobics, he’d hiked the Etruscan remains, the Imperial honeycomb, the ghetto from the Dark Ages, the Baroque overkill of the waterworks and the burly quadrangles of the Fascists, also cruising the memorial on Via Veneto for Fellini and La Dolce Vita.  After all that, time-travel — eh.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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BIO

 

John Domini has won awards in all genres, with fiction in Paris Review and Threepenny,  non-fiction in The New Republic and The New York Times. Books include three story collections and three novels, all well-received, as well as a selection of criticism. The Italian translation of the novel Earthquake I.D. was runner-up for the Domenico Rea prize. 

 

“Blinded by Paparazzi” comes from his latest set of stories, MOVIEOLA! The book has enjoyed a gratifying reception; J.C. Hallman, in The Millions, called it “a new shriek for a new century.”  

 

Domini has s taught at Grinnell, Harvard, Northwestern, and elsewhere. Fellowships have come from the National Endowment for the Arts and elsewhere. He is currently at work on both a memoir and another fiction.

 

More information is at www.johndomini.com.

 

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