Emma Gennaro, our hero Gil Freeman’s non-theater friend, demands to go to one of his theater parties… which, predictably, she hates. She drags him away and back from Manhattan to their familiar stomping grounds of Brooklyn:
“Can we go?” Emma asked, distressed about something. “You’re right, you’re right, I don’t fit in here; you said wouldn’t like it and you’re right.” She punched me playfully in the arm. “How about Sal’s, huh? Don’t you want some grease? The Grease Plate Special? Grease cut in strips and deep-fried in more grease?”
And so we slipped away, unnoticed, a little drunk, a little nauseated from cheap off-Broadway cocktail-party snacks, and we made for the 42nd Street subway station. Soon we were bound for Brooklyn where our Manhattan lives seemed a little larger and the world outside of it very much quieter and slower, and soon there was Sal’s, open all night, a blue fluorescent glow, Edward Hopperish, on a now dark commercial street of ware houses. On the subway Emma pulled out her spiral notebook and began scribbling. I said let me see, she said no. We moved automatically to our booth at Sal’s; on that hot night the cold Formica tabletop felt good on our arms, and the waitress brought us a small pitcher of lukewarm water.
Emma after a moment, a scribble or two, tore off a sheet of paper and handed it to me. “That theater party clinched it for me,” she said. “Ten words, listed there, are now officially banned from usage. All people caught using them will be taken summarily into custody, suspension of habeas corpus if necessary. This is Emma’s Great Reformation… no, Emma’s New Order, I like that better.”
EMMA’S BANNED WORDS
Work, I asked?
“Yes, as in ‘I have my work,’ or ‘I enjoyed watching his work in that production.’ Actors are just jerking around up there, it’s not work, you know that.”
Art is a pretty useful word though, I pointed out.
“It’s just banned from possessive uses: as in ‘my art’ or ‘the key to the actor’s art, his craft…’ Like that.”
Yeah, I admitted, that did have to go.
Emma demonstrated in a high, hollow actress’s voice: “Well I felt acutely burdened by the demands of that role, it was a difficult piece, a hard piece of work, it took all that I had to give, all my art, my craft…”
“Actors should never discuss their joy in the role, the joy of their craft. I tell you Gil, there was much JOY at the party tonight.”
“As in ‘I felt this support, this approval coming from the audience that could only be described… yes, as Love…’ As in ‘What I Did for Love.’ As in ‘The only way to describe what goes on between the actor and his audience… is Love…’”
I laughed. I’ve heard people talk that way all my life.
“Of course I will expand the list for all the professions. Like in writing, there’s nothing worse to my ears than the word text. God,I hate that. And in the music industry when they talk about product, as in someone’s shitty disco record was ‘good product.’ Hate that too.”
Coffee was brought to the table.
“Emma’s New Order,” she repeated, pointing a prophetic finger. “I promise you, the world is in for a rough time if I come to power. Heads will roll. ”
I ordered the breakfast special which I could (and can) eat at any hour of the day; Emma went for a chocolate shake and a plate of french fries which she doused in steak sauce.
“I’m not writing, Gil,” she said, munching. “I make fun of your theater life because I’m jealous: you have an artistic life. Lisa’s got her painting. If I’m not going to have sex, I damn sure have to be writing, don’t you see? Something has to justify my existence.”
I could take care of the sex end of the problem, I said.
“No you couldn’t,” she said, smiling, ‘it would take analysts ten years to make headway. Want some fries?”
Not all gooped up, no.
“This is even better when you stir mayonnaise up in the steak sauce. I do that in the apartment when no one is around to comment on it. Sometimes I have fries with Thousand Island dressing. Do you still love me?”
After those admissions, how could I?
“I mean, so many neurotic women are writing novels now,” she went on, “I could name you half a dozen. All they do is write about how frigid and screwed-up they are and the critics are even tolerating this junk, awarding all this self-indulgent trash all the big prizes. I mean, I should be writing! This is my era! Self-involved, neuro, I’m hopeless. Writer’s block.”
Maybe if you had sex again it would help, I said.
“Nah, forget the sex. It’s a distraction. Besides, I’ve passed my one-year mark now. I’m going for the record.”
I sloshed around my buttered toast in the runny egg while Emma pointed out that some sensibilities would rate that an equal atrocity with the Thousand Island fries…
“I’m coming up on twenty-three, and do you know what that means?”
“Two years left.”
Emma never told any of us her birthday – to this day I do not know it, though I gathered it was in the fall sometime. She refused to acknowledge it, celebrate it, deal with it, for contemplation of aging gave her Death Obsession or a Mortality Crisis (concepts utilized enough that they became abbreviated D.O. and M.C. around the apartment). At twenty-three she had two years left until twenty-five, and twenty-five was the age Keats was when he died. There was a fragment of a poem in [the journal she threw away and I stole], now that I think about it…
COUNTDOWN TO KEATS
Immortality or bust-
when I consider how my light, etc.
Laforgue’s still a year beyond (minor, thank god)
Shelley almost four, Byron way down the road.
I have my nightingales too, you know,
but frankly I’m not measuring up.
Some drawbacks, John:
Grecian things do not move us in this age,
but then again, no TB and that’s a plus.
You, John, are the first to confront the mediocre,
the gauge of true gift,
the one who puts the poets in their place,
and I had hoped to improve my song
within your span.
. . . which I took to mean that she was using Keats’s checkout time as her own gauge for success; this poem, as the others, was crossed out with an expletive written on top of it. With each passing death-date of a great writer, she said, it was one more nail in her coffin. I remember her distinctly, looking down at her plate, nothing to say in defense against her own accusations, trailing a french fry around a plate of steak sauce and grease.
Keats didn’t have to temp every afternoon and work at Baldo’s Pizza, I pointed out.
“That’s a point,” she said, now smiling again, smiling for the rest of that evening, making plans for the New Order, smiling (it seems at a distance) for the rest of the summer, which may well have been the summer I was waiting for all my life. You say the word summer and I think of that one. Gee, it seems horribly fragile to look back at it: you’re aware that if you moved this straw or said those words or did any number of things someone eventually got around to, that you could have ended it all much sooner. I can’t quite retrieve the young man with all that faith – where did he get that energy? Didn’t he know the odds against being an actor — or Emma being a poet, or Lisa being a painter? How did he have so much faith in the world? No, it wasn’t all stupidity and it wasn’t all innocence and youth. I think New York was in there too, egging us on.