Monday, June 23, 2008

Article #2: Google Goggles

Alright, it has been brought to my attention that many of the illustration assignments you have received thus far may reflect some bias toward guns, explosions, and other XY-oriented imagery. In the interests of keeping everybody happy and, more importantly, involved in this purely voluntary activity, I have posted another article that John gave me at one time or another. It didn't used to be part of the curriculum, so I sincerely apologize if I've yanked this one out of any new lesson plan, John. No guns, no explosions, and everyone's happy. See how good I am to you guys? Fair warning, it's a somewhat twisted, bizarre story, and in order to do this, you need to stay focused on the broadest themes involved, or else the image will get muddy awfully fast. Go team!

Google Goggles: A Cautionary Tale

Dek: In less than a second, he peered into his past and found his first love. Then things got weird

It starts innocently enough. The insomnia-filled hours between my six-month-old son’s nighttime feedings give me time to fill. Too much time, in fact. One night, sick of contemplating the ever-expanding contents of my navel, I make a vain attempt at doing something useful: I log on to the computer to track down a replacement filter for our humidifier. One mouse-click leads to another, and all of a sudden I’m hot and heavy with the ghosts of girlfriends past.

I enter the name of the girl to whom I lost my virginity and press return. Even though the trail is, I'm embarrassed to admit, nearly 20 years old now, Google finds my long lost love, Jennifer Miles, in just 0.27 seconds. (I've changed her name and other details to protect her identity. Yes, it's ancient history, but it still seems poor form to kiss and tell.)

Jennifer Miles is now an attorney-at-law, who, according to the online newsletter for Baker, Reardon and McCloud, just made partner. But is that my Jennifer Miles? Or is my Jennifer Miles the soccer mom who felt the need to take her recipe for noodle salad and give it to the world? The confessional poetry that Jennifer Miles posted on bruisemysoul.com sounds like it could be the work of my ex-Jennifer, but it turns out that this Jennifer Miles is now a freshman at Harvard. The last time I saw my Jennifer, this aspiring Sylvia Plath hadn't even been born. I keep searching.

***

We met when I was 17. She was 19. I had run off see the world but only got as far as Minneapolis--and an experimental high school affiliated with a regional children's theater company. The artistic director was a man whose love of children was unfortunately later revealed as a love of children, but that's another story. Jennifer, an actress apprenticing with the company, lived down the hall from me at the big white boarding house on Stevens Avenue. It was a grand old Victorian lady of a place that you could almost hear clucking her tongue as she presided over her shifting population of young bohemians, all, like me, intent on throwing away the only thing we owned: our innocence.

I had no hope of winning Jennifer, which is, of course, why I had to have her. Blond, model-pretty, with a sublime distaste for underwear and the sort of permanent pout I had only seen in the magazines underneath my older brother's bed. At 17, my post-pubescence was still warm. It had been ugly, gawky, geeky, my molting. Finally, I had emerged from the Oxy-10 cocoon of puberty not as a butterfly but as a fully formed walking erection. Anyone who bought stock in Kleenex or Vaseline that year did very well.

It seemed to me during this period that everyone, everywhere, was having sex--but me. As with many an oppressed minority, my only hope for real change seemed to be through acts of civil disobedience. I did everything short of hunger strikes and parades to draw attention to the harrowing plight of my erection. Jennifer couldn't so much as go to the bathroom without crossing my picket line of one. I was determined to get laid by any means necessary. No justice, no peace.

And then one night, I just “happened” to be passing by her room and she just happened to invite me in and then, like so many of those moments in life when everything changes all at once, it just sort of happened.

“You're not so bad looking.”

“I'm not?” Had puberty been kinder than I thought?

“I invited you in, didn't I?”

“Yeah . . .” I didn't know what else to say. The ball had never been in my court before. Hell, it had never been in my zip code.

“Just say, ‘I want you. Right now.’”

“Ah, sure. I, ah, want you. Right now would be great.”

She smiled, not unkindly, and without much ado took me by the hand and led me to a place where I actually, literally, felt as if I had left my body. I floated above the bed, fascinated, almost like a bird watcher who, after years of sitting in the woods, finally spots that rare bird heretofore only studied in guide books (or, in my case, my brother's copies of Penthouse). Breathlessly, I watched as that fairest of all fowl, the Bobbing Headed Woodshiner, perched between my legs and began her distinctive mating dance.

All I remember of the week that followed is a warm glow and a pleasant soreness. And that I was in love with her. To question whether this was true love or just sex is to miss the point. When you're 17 and a virgin and a beautiful woman has sex with you, you love her for that. True, deep love.

All life-altering things must come to an end, though, and that's where David comes in. David, Jennifer's ex-boyfriend, appeared in our kitchen one morning, fresh off the plane from Houston, all dark and adult, his lawyerness hanging on him like expensive cologne. David took Jennifer off to some hotel downtown where expensive lawyers go to have sex like grown-ups, while I sat by the door like a dog waiting for his master to come home.

In the end, David got the girl and I got a dear John letter that opened with “I'm sorry” and closed with the oddly poetic “I love you in the dark and in the day.” But, I guess, just not in Minneapolis. Jennifer disappeared in a cloud of David's cologne, and I never saw or heard from her again.

Life went on. Jennifer's room was taken by a smelly lesbian from Iowa who would stand in the kitchen with her hand down her pants blathering about Brecht to anyone who passed by the fridge. I tried throwing myself into my work but it didn't help. I’d been cast as the ass end of an elephant in the theater company's production of Babar the Little Elephant. It was a role for which I was a little too qualified.

***

Finally, my Googling takes me to a Web site devoted to all Jennifers great and small, a monument to some poor guy's losing battle with obsessive compulsive disorder. There I find a listing for a Jennifer Miles, actress, and a list of credits. A respectable little TV and B-movie career that petered out in the mid-nineties.

I happen to own the one film of the alleged Jennifer's that received a wide release. It's one of my favorites, in fact. After nearly 20 years of wondering what the hell happened to her, was she right here under my nose the whole time? I watch the movie with my finger on the pause button, like a hunter with a gun, lying in wait for my elusive Jennifer. In the credits, she is listed simply as “woman in red dress.” During the opening sequence a construction worker whistles at a woman in red dress, and she says what sounds like “Save it for somebody who cares” as the camera cranes up and away from the street and some Executive Producer's name flashes across the screen.

Is it her? She's a small figure in the back of the shot and when I pause the DVD, her face is little more than an impressionistic smudge. I study this 17-second piece of footage with feverish intensity, as if it were the sequel to the Zapruder film, analyzing the movement of her hips as they sway back and to the right, back and to the right. Maybe it's her. Maybe the angle of the shot just makes it difficult to tell. Maybe there was a conspiracy. Maybe there was a second shooter up on that grassy knoll. Maybe I'm going insane.

So what if it is her? Where is she now? Los Angeles? Isn't that where former TV actresses go to die? The Internet white pages has only two listings for a Jennifer Miles in the entire L.A. metro area. I can't imagine the Jennifer I knew, or anyone else for that matter, ending up in a place called “Rancho Cucamonga” so it has to be the one in the Hollywood Hills. It takes a stiff drink but I dial the number. One ring. Two rings. Three rings. I start to relax. It looks like we're going to voice-mail.

“Hi, this is Jennifer. I'm looking for something to restore my faith in human nature. If you'd like to take a stab at it, leave me a message.”

Yeah, that's actually the message, word for word. Somehow, I don't think crank calls from sentimental losers in their boxer shorts (that would be me) is what she had in mind. I call back three more times just to listen to the message. Is it her? Maybe--the quirkiness of the message, the not so subtly veiled flirtation, the hint of an Oklahoma twang. I try one last time.

“Hello?”

I freeze for a moment and then, thankfully, remember to hang up the phone. I know that it's her, but it can't be her. It can’t be that easy after all this time. But it sounded like her. How do I know it sounded like her? After 20 years I remember what she sounds like? I could call her back. And say what? Is this Jennifer Miles? I know it's Jennifer Miles, the Jennifer Miles of 9880 Spring View Way, Los Angeles. So what do I say then? Are you the Jennifer Miles at 9880 Spring View Way, Los Angeles, the Jennifer Miles who humped me, dumped me, and left me in pieces? She's going to think that I'm some crazy loser stalker weirdo. Am I some crazy loser stalker weirdo?

“Honey? What are you doing?” calls my wife from the bedroom.

“Nothing!” I fumble and drop the phone in my haste to hide the evidence.

“Will you check on the baby before you come to bed?”

“Yes, honey!”

As I stumble in the dark over to the screened-off corner of our New York City apartment that we grandly refer to as “the nursery,” I am half afraid that the sound of my heart knocking against my ribcage will be enough to wake the baby. I bend to touch the warm down of his baby hair and feel ashamed. But of what? What am I guilty of? Nostalgia? Dialing a wrong number? I'll tell my wife about it and she will laugh and that will be that.

“Honey?”

“Mmmm-hmmm . . .”

She's asleep, or almost. Why wake her? Why trouble her over nothing? I spoon with her in the dark. Our efforts to restart our sex life after the baby was born have been bittersweet at best, like coming back to a house that once was yours after someone else has moved in and renovated. She has been depressed postpartum, self-conscious about her weight, anxious. On the rare occasions when I take the time to shave, she quizzes me on my plans, asks if I have a date.

“Mmmm-hmmm?” she repeats.

“Nothing,” I say. I take comfort in the thought that a secret is not a secret if there is really nothing to tell. I am taking care of her, protecting her feelings. What a considerate husband I am.

***

Months pass. I forget about Jennifer Miles. Really. But then one day, I just happen to be out in L.A. on business, and just happen to have a couple hours to kill between meetings, and just happen to drive all the way across town against traffic to find myself here, parked in front of her house, sticking to the vinyl upholstery of my rented white Taurus in a cold sweat. I look up at the modest stucco house, perched at the top of one of those impossible little cul-de-sacs in the Hollywood Hills. Behind the screen door, the main door is open. Only a few millimeters of wire mesh now separate me from Jennifer, that and almost 20 years. Will she be anything like I remember her? Will she remember me at all? I tell myself that in one more minute I will get up the nerve to go knock on that door.

The minute passes. And then one more. I debate with myself which would be more pathetic--to have come all this way to see her, or to have come all this way just to turn around and go home? It's a toughie. I open the car door, close it again. No. Too naked, too desperate. Maybe a “chance meeting” at the coffee shop, a grocery store? Much better. I visualize the whole thing. Looking at her. That first taste of eye contact. A flash of recognition in her eyes. I “casually” go over to her.

“Jennifer? Jennifer Miles?”

And then what? Only now does it occur to me to ask what it is that I want from all this. It's not about mending fences or picking up where we left off. Our entire relationship, such as it was, lasted a week. She is just an icon of my youth, memorabilia of my becoming, some souvenir ashtray that an accident of history--that she was “my first”--has rendered a priceless heirloom in my memory. I think what I want most, actually, is just that flash of recognition. As if, within that momentary flash, there might still be a glimmer of the big bang that created my adult universe; a window back across the light-years of marriage and fatherhood to the precise moment I became a man in the arms of Jennifer Miles, now a stranger living in Los Angeles.

Maybe if I knocked on that door, I would see that magical flash of recognition. Or maybe I would just see a harried almost-40 woman, a little thick around the middle, graying at the temples, frayed around the edges. It wouldn't be magical. It would be like looking in the mirror. I don't know if it makes me a romantic or a cynic or just older, but I prefer the unlined reflection of memory in which both me and my Jennifer are forever foxy.

I don't really miss her. I miss my youth. I miss when weight was still something I wanted to put on, and when I still believed that “making love” and “having sex” meant the same thing. I miss problems I could just grow out of, and summers I really thought would never end. I miss not understanding all those things that my parents told me I’d understand when I got old enough. I bet Jennifer does, too.

I start the car. And with a little wave, to wish her well, I drive away.

6 comments:

Rachel Newborn said...

Oh my. I love it

John Hendrix said...

Oh, this is a good one.

TRUST ME.

Squeaks said...

i rather like it

Jenny said...

*yawn* mid-life crisis

Sam said...

I am struck by the fact that this stumps me right now. What a difficult problem to solve. right now all i can think about to solve this is a collage.
One of the things i've learned recently(though to be fair I should have grasped it during the year, it has just taken a while for my brain to catch up) is that the majority of the "work" is done in the idea stage.
Here in florida I've seen and have experienced myself the struggle of thinking and drawing for a good 6 days before even starting the finish. Makes me wish I hadnt wasted time for the last 3 years worrying about good pictures and instead focusing on developing draftsmanship skillls. but thats a story for another time.
The point is this piece offers opurtunity and challenge. I hope to tackle it ASAP.

meredith said...

this article may be more interesting that the other one, but way harder to illustrate. i have no idea what i would do for this article.