Janice Erlbaum is the author of Girlbomb: A Halfway Homeless Memoir and Have You Found Her, which was named one of the New York Public Library's 25 Books to Remember. A former columnist for BUST magazine, she lives in New York City with her partner...read more
Janice Erlbaum is the author of Girlbomb: A Halfway Homeless Memoir and Have You Found Her, which was named one of the New York Public Library's 25 Books to Remember. A former columnist for BUST magazine, she lives in New York City with her partner Bill Scurry. You can find her at www.girlbomb.com
I wrote this story in July, when I realized that I — along with most of Western society — was paying way too much attention to the impending birth of the Pitt-Jolie twins. I’ve had a thing for the Pitt-Jolies for a while, and was idly wondering, while on my way to work one morning, “How am I going to meet and become friends with them, as was obviously destined to happen?” Then I thought, “If I write a story about them and publish it in The New Yorker, maybe they’ll read it, and they’ll love me.” Crazy, I know, but people often ask writers, “Where do you get your inspiration from?” And the answer, for me, is always, “From being crazy.”
I hope you’ll enjoy it — especially you, Brad and Ange.
Twins By Janice Erlbaum
I read today that Angelina will only sell the baby pictures of her forthcoming twins to a magazine that does not use the term “Brangelina,” because she hates that term. And I shook my head at my monitor — this is news? It’s not news to me that Ange hates the term “Brangelina;” I’ve been aware of that for two years now, but all right; I guess it’s good that it’s restated for the record. If nothing else, it helps me to hear the conversation between her and Brad, held last month in the ground-floor living room of Miraval, their chateau in France:
Brad is making a fort with Shiloh and Zahara, couch cushions and throw pillows strewn everywhere; Pax is upstairs with his uncle James, taking a nap; Maddox is playing a video game in the next room over, the media room. Ange is reclining sideways on the denuded couch, one arm over the back, feet up, though she can barely see them over the huge pregnancy hump. “We’re definitely not giving them to the Star,” she declares. “Or InTouch. They’re always using it.”
“Right,” says Brad. Not dismissive, but not paying full attention — he’s heard this rant before, and he’s busy with the girls. Shiloh totters over on her stubby legs, and he peek-a-boos her from behind the cushion he’s wielding like a shield. She squeals with pleasure and falls backwards onto her diapered bum.
“It’s just so insulting,” continues Ange, trying to hoist herself up a few inches. “It’s like, if you’re a couple, you cease to have your own identity; you become this monstrous…mutant…blob thing.”
“Right,” says Brad again; then, “Where’s Shi? Where is she? There she is!”
Now Zahara is crawling up his back, trying to grab his hair like he’s a horse. Shiloh squeals, Zahara laughs, the sounds of the video game, bloop, bloop, bleed in from the media room. Brad has some calls to return, he wants to check his email, he wants to see if the director of their foundation has sent the reports he asked for. But he’s patient. Their personal trainer has been encouraging him to be more “in the now,” and right now, he’s with his three favorite girls, and though it’s grey and gloomy outside, that just makes it that much more comfy inside.
Ange’s moods, though, are very much affected by things like weather, light, and barometric pressure, as well as her ongoing bed rest. She frowns, picks at something on the bosom of her muumuu. “It’s not even accurate. If they’re going to refer to us as a unit, where are the kids?”
Brad reaches out an arm and swipes Shiloh closer to him, Zahara still riding on his broad back, his shirt hiked up so his fresh tattoo, the one Ange drew on him during the recent World Economic Forum, is visible. The urge to check email is like the urge to pee; once you identify it, it gets worse. “Brangemadpaxzashy,” he suggests.
She smiles from the sofa, a momentary twist of her famous pout. “Hah,” she says, so he says it again, this time into Shiloh’s belly. “Brangemadpaxzashy,” he says, and belly-farts her. Zahara slides down his back so she can get a belly fart too. “Brangemadpaxzashy, isn’t that right?”
Ange’s pout is still dueling with her smile. “And how come you’re always first? Why not…‘Zapaxshymadangebrad’?”
He places Zahara to one side, but she bum rushes him, shrieking. He corrals her, and looks at Ange seriously. “Because that would be ridiculous,” he says, sober.
This is what he loves, goofing around, making a pillow fort with the kids, bullshitting with Ange. She laughs again, for real this time, and he feels like he won something, a prize at a county fair; he got the ball in the basket. And for this, he deserves the reward of checking his email. He sits up straighter on his knees, then rises to his feet, starts to cross the room to where his iPhone is resting on a Max Lamb table, the girls chasing after him.
“Listen,” he says, “wherever you want to sell them is fine with me.” They’re going to give the money to the Pan-African coalition in Darfur; it will go to train and equip the forces fighting the Janjaweed. Turning pictures of their babies into guns for the good guys, the beautiful irony. Maddox loves drawing pictures of guns lately — Brad took one of the drawings and had it made into the necklace Ange’s wearing right now, the one she wore for the Vanity Fair shoot — and they’ve had several serious conversations with him about guns and how they’re used in the real world. Those are the good guy’s guns you’re drawing, right, Mad?
Their conversation is interrupted by my ringing phone. I look down at my desk, frown at it the way Ange frowned at the schmutz on her swollen chest, press the appropriate button. “Bildenberg, Stein, and Associates,” I say into my headset. “How may I direct your call?”
I don’t get back to Brad and Ange for almost an hour. They’re always with me, but sometimes they have to be dormant, while I do things like transfer calls, file paperwork, take dictation, make reservations. I’m good at my job — “Quick,” says Bildenburg, approvingly — but I’m quick because I have to get back to my real vocation, which is being with Brad and Ange. They’re so unbearably misunderstood; it makes me well up sometimes. It’s like the Native Americans, who believe that your soul is stolen when someone takes a picture of you — Brad and Ange’s souls are stolen all the time by people’s ignorance, their hatred, their petty jealousy. I help restore it.
Especially on days like today. Today is a big day — the twins are coming. I can feel it. They’ve been squirming for a week or two, but they’re adamant now, and my bladder feels a sympathetic soreness from the abuse. I wasn’t fooled by the earlier reports, the false claims that she’d given birth early, the babies delivered prematurely to incubators; I could still feel them inside me, waiting less and less patiently for their debut. Shiloh has some of Brad’s stoicism, his solidity, his everything-will-be-all-right, and-if-it’s-not-then-we’ll-deal-with-it genes, but the twins are almost pure Ange — furious, fingers drumming, demanding, on fire.
I have them on Google news alert, and my email chimes more and more frequently as the afternoon wears on, bits of speculation filtering in from the rest of the world. She’s in the hospital in Nice to monitor her high blood pressure (as she has been for days now); they’re waiting for the babies to be big enough to get them out via C-section (we know, we know). I click, scan, delete, between duties — nothing new, nothing new. I check my newsgroups, my bulletin boards — the whole Angesphere is crouched over their keyboards, waiting for the same alerts I am, but still nothing. Only two hours, and then I go home, feed Schatzie, meet Bradley and go to the movies. We’re seeing Wanted. He hasn’t seen it yet.
I have a bad feeling, like when my pantyhose get twisted around my calves, and the cotton panel is riding low between by thighs, a humid storm in the gap between the crotch and my underwear. That queasy, too-much-coffee feeling. I want the twins to come soon, now, today, before I leave the office; I don’t want to miss the news. I need to be with Brad and Ange, as close to them as I can be; they need my psychic energy, and I need theirs. But I know the twins are not quite ready — close, so close, but not quite there.
My email chimes. It’s Bradley, confirming our date. I’ll meet him outside the theater near Lincoln Center; we can eat afterwards. I want to make the 6:30 show, and I want to be there early so we get good seats. If I’m not outside at exactly 6, I say in my reply, go in and get the two seats on the left-hand aisle, twelve rows from the front, and I’ll meet you inside. I frown at the computer screen, trying to think of an affectionate sign-off. All I can come up with is Thanks.
Bradley is my boyfriend, I suppose. I don’t know. Well, yes, he is my boyfriend. Or something. We met three months ago on the internet, I’m a little ashamed to say, on the dating website I joined after Jackie from one of my bulletin boards used it, and met a guy who happened to be a huge Ange fan, and moved to Oregon to get married in a Tomb Raider-themed wedding, complete with Cambodian catering, tank-topped dress, and gifts stacked on the table like a temple. I was envious, briefly, until I saw the pictures — frizzy, meaty Jackie, stuffed and sweating in her tight top, with bulbs of flesh squeezed out from under the armholes, clutching the skinny arm of her mustachioed husband in his fatigues, as he grinned and squinted nervously into the light. Not exactly Brad Pitt.
Which — neither is Bradley, not by a long shot. But I’d been inspired by Jackie to place a personal ad, and he’d been inspired to respond. He wasn’t Brad Pitt, like I was looking for, he wrote in his note, but he was an actor named Bradley, and that was close, wasn’t it? And I will admit, I do enjoy telling people, “My boyfriend is an actor named Brad.” Then I smile wryly, Ange-style, trying for that one ironic comma just to the right of my lips.
But no, after I get home, check for updates on the babies, feed Schatzie and pet her, and make it to the cinema at exactly 5:58, I am reminded again that the short, stocky, fiftyish man waiting for me with the evening sun reflecting off his bald spot is not exactly Brad Pitt either. “Hey, Ruth,” he says. His speech impediment makes my name sound like Woofe. “Happy Friday.”
He leans up to kiss me, and I lean down to present my cheek. “Happy Friday,” I reply in kind. “How was your day?”
When Bradley isn’t working on a show or a film, he makes a living by waiting on standby lines for Broadway shows and selling the tickets to scalpers. “Pretty boring,” he confesses, opening the door for me. At least he is a gentleman, most of the time; at least he has some manners, unlike some of the animals who answered my ad. “I saw a pickpocket get arrested outside of Avenue Q.” It sounds like thaw and awwested. “How about you?”
“All right,” I say. “Still no word on the twins, but it should be soon.”
Bradley doesn’t exactly share my sense of connection to Brad and Angelina, but he accepts it, and does his best to keep up with me. “I wonder what they’re going to name them,” he says, as we ride the escalator upstairs to the theater.
“Family names,” I say assuredly, though there’s been no advance confirmation of this. I just feel it. “She’s looking for a link to their ancestors these days.”
He sends me into the theater while he waits on line for refreshments. I choose the exact seats I wanted, and breathe out heavily, trying to relax and enjoy the air conditioning. The bad feeling has persisted for most of the afternoon, but I’m about to see Ange, so I know I’ll be feeling better soon. Still, the anticipation…
The first ten minutes of the movie are agonizing. I just want to see her, already, but they’re busy setting up the “plot,” which involves a hapless accountant who becomes an assassin. I already saw the film, of course — I went on opening night, while Bradley was doing some extra work for a movie about elves, and again last weekend, when Ange was hospitalized and I felt like she needed me close. So I know she’ll be on screen soon, I just don’t feel like I can wait anymore, my toes curling inside my shoes, calves pressed so tightly against each other I can feel sweat starting to trickle between them.
And then, finally, there she is. Leaning against the counter in a convenience store, surprising the hapless accountant, staring at him with her giant, all-seeing eyes. She always looks directly at you, never tilts her head to one side — she’ll lift her chin and look at you down her nose, or, my favorite, she’ll duck her head a little and look up at you, knowingly. Or even over her shoulder — the over the shoulder look kills me, followed as it is by the toss of the head, the abrupt severance of eye contact. But it’s always direct. That’s who she is.
I try to relax into the sight of her, but this movie is poorly edited: too quick, too many jump cuts, not enough time spent focused on her, on her face. Not like Gia, with the camera lingering over her like a stoned junkie — no, I have to be content with these frustrating little flashes of her, with elbowing Bradley to whisper “fake” every time I see a tattoo that isn’t really hers, that was painted on for the movie. I have to live from scene to scene, waiting for those few frames where she fills the screen with her radiance, noting with an almost ravenous love the wide mandible that sticks out further on the right side of her face than on the left, making her cheekbone on that side even sharper, bestowing upon her that delicious asymmetry.
God, but she has the most perfect face in the history of faces, the Platonic ideal of faces, one that never could have been imagined until it was realized in the flesh. But she’s terribly thin again; I worry when I see her looking so thin. Of course, she was filming this shortly after her mother’s death, which is why she picked the project — she needed something active, something physical, to help her deal with the stillness, the lack. I feel heartsick just thinking about it, the same heartsickness I feel whenever I think about my poor Priscilla, dead three years now from feline leukemia, that bruised and sucking void under my ribs that still aches and will never cease. Ange, I know; I understand what it’s like to lose the first person that made you feel loved, and to know that they’re never coming back.
But here it comes, the release. I mouth the line along with her — “You’re wasting my fucking time. Why are you here?” Then crack! as she whacks the hapless accountant across the face for not becoming the assassin she’s training him to be. Ah! It’s like an orgasm, the flood of endorphins I get, my hand moving like hers in the empty space in front of me. What must it be like, to be that powerful, to have so much strength in those rope-like arms, those thick-veined fists? To be able to wield a gun, a sword; to fly a plane — all skills she’s mastered? I open and close my fists, feeling the chi flow through my hands. It feels fantastic.
The movie ends, and I am still high, even taking Bradley’s arm as we walk towards the Italian place on Amsterdam, Bradley detailing what he felt were the logical inconsistencies of the plot — “I just don’t understand where their orders came from. Was it supposed to be…thupernatural?” And then I spy a billboard.
I stop short and shriek a little laugh.
“What?” asks Bradley, grabbing me like we’re being mugged.
I point at the billboard. It’s Jennifer Aniston, shilling for bottled water. “Jen’s doing ads for bottled water,” I crow. “That’s pathetic.”
“Why?” he asks, and I sigh out loud. Dear he is, but dense.
“Because!” I shake my head and we move on. “Bottled water is emblematic of everything that Brad and Ange are against. It’s environmentally unsound — everyone knows that! — do you know how many billions of gallons of oil it takes to make those bottles, and to ship them? And it promotes the unequal distribution of global resources, which is everything we’re fighting! It’s just too perfect that she’d do a water ad.” I can’t contain a snort of disgust.
My chin is high as we enter the restaurant; I feel victorious. Not just because I spent the last hour and a half with Ange, though that never hurts, but the billboard — it’s vindication. Everyone who still holds it against them that Brad left Jen for Ange, now they have to admit — how could he not? Don’t they see? Jen’s the type of woman who would do water ads! He couldn’t possibly love her! Now there’s no reason in the world for people to discredit him, or resent his choice; Jen Aniston is a shallow, evil woman, and Ange is a crusader for the planet! Who would you choose?
I want to explain this all to Bradley, but more than that, I want him to just understand it without me having to tell him. My friends on the boards will understand. I can barely wait to get home and post: Has anyone seen Jen’s new campaign? Bottled water! Case closed! No, I could explain it to Bradley, but it would just frustrate me, just remind me that Bradley, while admittedly sweet and thoughtful, is not any brighter than he is attractive. What am I doing with him?, I wonder, not for the first time.
I dip my head, trying not to let him see the tears forming in my eyes. Ugh. Such an up and down day today — five minutes ago, I was as high as a hot air balloon; now I feel sick again, like I swallowed a lump of bad meat. Sick that this is my life: sitting across the table from a balding elf with a lisp, in a cheap Italian restaurant with tomato sauce and crumbs on the plastic tablecloth, waiting for babies that aren’t even mine, that will never be mine — at age forty-three, I’ve had to accept that. And sure, I could adopt, just like Ange; I could have my own little fauxhawked Maddox to come home to at night, but…well, why couldn’t I?
I could; I can see it now. I find the same adoption agency that Ange uses, and I’m there in the waiting room reading a defunct, sweat-crinkled issue of the New Yorker, and she walks in, the twins strapped to her chest in a double carrier — only she would be strong enough to wear them both like that, and the weight doesn’t even bow her, her angular shoulders erect as always. She approaches the receptionist, whose eyes flare at the sight of her — “Oh, Ms. Jolie, you’re early! I’ll see if they can…”
“It’s no problem,” she says, the left corner of her mouth higher than the right, her version of a polite smile. “You’ve got someone waiting, and I’ve got plenty to read.”
“I’m happy to let you go first,” I say calmly, mirroring her arched lips. “You must have quite a schedule to keep.”
And she looks at me, just like she did in the film. Direct. She feels it as soon as our eyes lock — she has been waiting for this as long as I have. Here, finally, is a woman who understands her, a woman who is her equal. Even Brad is beneath her, though he scrambles to keep up, but this woman, with her kinky graying black hair somehow tamed and glossy today, her eyes deep and warm, her chin high and her voice unaffected, unafraid of her — how long has it been since someone has been unafraid of her? How long has she waited for someone who doesn’t bow and scrape, someone to recognize that she is human, that she shits and wipes her ass and has hemorrhoids from the pregnancy, that she is sometimes scared and lonely too, except she can never express it, because there is no one, not a single person in the world, who she can trust to alleviate it for more than two minutes at a time?
She sits a seat away from me, keeping her eyes on mine. I am smiling wryly, and so is she. The babies are asleep in their carriers; I assume that the bodyguard is right outside. But she doesn’t need him right now. She feels safe in this office, safe in my company, even as the twit at the desk is fawning and blushing and itching to text all of her friends; it’s almost audible, the girl’s desperation to get a piece of the famous woman.
“Where are you adopting from?” asks Ange, her voice rich and ripe, a thick red dessert wine that flows through your body, igniting a fire in your chest.
“Wherever the need is greatest,” I say, and she nods. Of course. From anyone else it would be a stupid question — what else would you base your decision upon? Of course you want to go where the need is greatest. But I know she just wants to talk to me, find out who…
Bradley interrupts us, jerks me back to the table. I press my lips together, a lump stuck in my throat from suppressing a shout. What? What do you want? Can’t you see I’m busy? What’s the matter with you? I grip the edge of the table, fingertips white with stress. “What,” I bark.
He looks abashed. “Do…do you know what you want to order?”
I gape at him, a rush of air escaping my chest. Do I know what I want to order? I am talking to Ange, we are comparing conditions in sub-Saharan African countries, she is giving me advice about negotiating red tape, offering me the name of an international lawyer. “The spaghetti,” I spit.
“Oh.” He dips his head; meek, weak Bradley. “I thought maybe I’d have the ziti.”
My heart is pounding in my head, beating against my eardrums like fists to the side of my skull. I take several deep breaths. It’s not his fault, I tell myself; he doesn’t understand. He doesn’t have my abilities, my sensitivity; he doesn’t know where I go when I seem to leave the table. I force a smile. This is what Ange feels like. She too has to slow down, stop herself, try to deal with people duller than she is without seeming rude or blunt, when really she’s just too brilliant, too goddamn full of life. But why should she have to inhibit her greatness for the rest of the world’s convenience? Why can’t they rise to her level? She is so much better at this than I am; I’m still learning patience with inferiors, which is why it’s been so long since I’ve even tried to be with anybody, and maybe this isn’t working out with Bradley — no, it’s definitely not working out, even though he is an actor named Brad, even though Schatzie has loved him, the few times he’s come over, purring and kneading in his lap like she’d never been pet before, and when I turned out the lights and lay underneath him, I was almost able to make it real, almost able to believe it was the real thing, that I was her and he was him and together we were making twins, until it was over, and I felt cold and clammy and electrically disheveled, like I’d been rubbed all over with greasy tinfoil.
“Ziti sounds good,” I say. I keep the smile, and my face relaxes into it. I’m an actress, too. “And maybe some garlic bread?”
A glass of wine later, and I am back to feeling all right. Bradley is telling me a story about the elf movie, and how he was placed right behind one of the leads, the guy from that CSI show, in a pivotal scene. He isn’t bragging; he’s just excited, and it’s sweet — Bradley is sweet, as I frequently remind myself. He is a dear. He wants to impress me, which is adorable — my smile is ironic and knowing, the end parenthesis next to my lips just like Ange’s when Brad is trying to impress her, as he always is. The most desired man in the world, her funny little marionette, jumping and twitching to satisfy her. He never had to work like this before her; all the girls before her jumped for him — Gwyneth, Jen, all the unsung ones before and in between. He was always the master, which is why they could never keep him. They didn’t understand that he needed to be mastered himself.
I am Bradley’s master, and that endears him to me. I ask him some more questions about the movie — so the director praised his “look?” Ah, the assistant director. Still, that’s wonderful, that he left such an impression. Does he think it will lead to something more — a line, perhaps, or another role? It certainly could, couldn’t it? And he thinks the CSI guy noticed him too? Well, that’s really exciting; that’s really exciting. That, and the callback this week for that sitcom — a recurring, non-speaking extra role, but still. Bradley’s career is poised to take off.
I am just starting to be able to see us together at the Emmys. Of course, I will have given up spaghetti, and hired a personal trainer, and Bradley will have purchased a gown for me. The jewelry is borrowed, but I can feel the scratchy weight of it against my breastbone, the cool of the platinum warming to my skin. We are walking the red carpet, and this is the year that Brad did that three-episode guest arc on Lost, a surprisingly dark turn as a malicious con man with ties to Sawyer’s past. There they are, just steps ahead of us, talking to E!, Ange holding Brad’s arm lightly and gazing up at him so that nobody forgets that this is his night — she’s so generous like that.
Our food is here. I snap to attention again. Bradley looks at me sheepishly; he wonders aloud if he was boring me. “On the contrary,” I say, drawing back with overblown surprise. “I was listening to every word you said. It’s just so interesting; I can’t help but reflect on it.”
“No,” he says, waving this away and digging into his food with extra vehemence. He’s actually hurt, I can see, and I frown, perturbed by his peevishness. “You were probably thinking about the twins.”
“Hah!” How funny — for the first time in weeks, I wasn’t. “I wasn’t,” I swear. “But I can understand why you thought that.”
He puts down his fork, face screwed up like an infant’s. Whatever he’s about to say is difficult for him; I cringe a little with sympathy. “I…I have to say, Woofe, I don’t really understand why you’re so…obsessed with Brad and Angelina.”
My hand stops abruptly, fork halfway to my mouth. I stop for a second, place the fork carefully back onto my plate. Speechless. I am speechless.
“It’s like…you don’t ever think about anything else.”
Again, I clamp my lips shut, try to breathe through my nose. The breath comes hard and fast; I am snorting like a bull. What is he…does he not…I can’t even think, much less speak.
“I mean, they’re decent actors, I guess, but…why are they so important to you? I just don’t understand.”
My eyes narrow, despite myself, and a wave of rage courses through my veins. No, you don’t understand. You miserable little worm, you sub-worm, you maggot. You little…rat turd. I keep breathing through my nose. You’re not even fit to speak their names; you’re not even fit to think about them. How could you understand?
Now Bradley is nervous, his blush reaching all the way to his bald spot, making his whole head purple. “I…I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to…I just feel like sometimes…”
I try to speak, choke on it, cough for a second, clear my throat. “No,” I say, reaching for my water glass. “It’s okay.” I force that smile again, assemble my poise. Jolie. It means beautiful. I am beautiful. I am jolie. This is what my boss Bildenberg calls “a teaching moment” — I have the opportunity to enlighten someone here. This is not a stupid, ugly question; this is not narrow-minded meanness. This is just someone who is not very well-informed.
“Well,” I say slowly, as though addressing a moron, which I might well be. “They’re very special people.”
“Okay,” he grants me, skeptically. “But…what makes them so special?”
Oh, nothing! Just the fact that millions of people around the world know their names! The fact that they’re celebrated internationally for their talent, their charisma, their commitment to world affairs, their supernatural good looks! I hardly know where to begin, or whether I should even bother. Maybe I should just take this as a sign, as the last straw, and just walk away from the table right now. But look at him, his forehead knit, his eyebrows slanted like hypotenuses on his brow — he does look as though he’s trying to understand. Maybe I can explain it to him so that he’ll finally catch on; then we could really be happy together.
“Okay,” I tell him, leaning forward like a conspirator, resettling my buttocks in my chair. “I’ll tell you what makes them so special. Everything makes them so special. I think God made them special. No, listen, I really do.
“It’s obvious — just, superficially — it’s obvious that they’re exceptionally attractive. Can we agree on that? They’re two of the most physically beautiful people on Earth. And that’s not even a subjective opinion. That’s a fact. Biometrically, if you look at their faces, they’re perfect, according to what scientists have discovered about the way people perceive beauty — there was that article in the Times about…okay, never mind. Let’s just agree: Many people find them beautiful. Most people. Right?”
Bradley shrugs, as though to say okay, but… I wave aside his objection before he can state it and press on.
“So they epitomize human beauty. Now why would they be invested with beauty like that if it wasn’t for a reason, you know? It’s like they’ve physically evolved past the rest of the race in that respect. And I do sometimes think that there was a — okay, don’t laugh, but — a divine purpose to making them the way they are. Because they’re not just beautiful; I mean, it would be one thing if they were just the most beautiful man and woman on the planet today. That would be special, but that wouldn’t be…that wouldn’t be enough. What they have, it starts with looks, but it’s so much more than that. So much more.
“It’s who they are as people. Who they’ve chosen to be. They could just be movie stars, or celebrities, right? That’s enough for most people in their position. Look at…look at Julia Roberts. She’s pretty, she’s successful, she’s talented. People like her work, right? Right. But what has she chosen to do with her celebrity? How has she chosen to use her gifts? Does she petition the US to intervene in the affairs of Somalian refugees? Did she set up a foundation to help rebuild New Orleans in an environmentally sustainable way? No! She gets her hair done, and she works out, and she takes care of her kids, and that’s it! But not Brad and Ange.” I roll my eyes and laugh, sardonic, at the idea of Ange relaxing poolside, flipping through a magazine while someone paints her toenails — as if!
“You and I, we might pick up the newspaper and see something — a humanitarian crisis, or a famine, or a natural disaster, right? And we read about it, and we go, ‘Oh, that’s so sad, I wish I could do something about it, but I can’t, so I guess I’ll just forget about it and think about something else, and I’ll let the government take care of it.’ The government. Like they’re going to do anything about it!
“But Brad and Ange, they see something, and they say, ‘Let’s do something.’ And then they do it. They do whatever it takes — they personally do it, with their own two hands; they don’t just throw money at a problem; they take the time to learn about the issue, and to investigate it from all sides, and then they take the appropriate action to make sure that, whatever it is, they’ve made whatever positive difference they can make in the world. They’re like saints! No, Bradley, I’m serious! Don’t scoff — see, this is what frustrates me so much. It’s like, why can’t people see? When Mother Theresa went around the world setting up orphanages and clinics, they called her a saint. Brad and Ange have done even more for the displaced and impoverished than Mother Theresa ever did! And does anybody give them credit?”
I have tears in my eyes now, tears of frustration, but also of joy. At least I’ve been allowed to see, to feel the power of their achievements on Earth — not everybody has been given that gift. Other people pass them right by, deprived of the happiness and comfort they could be deriving from the presence of these two on the planet; others choose to stay in the dark. They choose not to confront the example that Brad and Ange have set for the rest of us. Well, not me, thank God. I’ve been granted the opportunity to bask in them, to learn from them, to feel them — to feel them more fully and more profoundly than I’ve ever felt anything else in my life. And I do.
“So they’re beautiful — they’ve got this God-given beauty. And they’re talented, really brilliantly talented. And they’re effective. They’re more effective than ninety nine point nine nine nine nine of the rest of humanity, in terms of making the world a better place. And they love art — all kids of art, architecture, and painting, and sculpture, and music — they’re incredibly creative, not just as actors, but as fully rounded artists. And they’re educated. And they love their family — I know, everybody loves their families, but they love their family. You know, they don’t have a huge household staff, and a fleet of nannies, and a bunch of people raising their kids for them; they’re fully invested parents. And they’re fully invested lovers. Like she said in Vanity Fair…okay, you didn’t read it. But she wasn’t bragging, she was just saying, ‘This is how we do things.’ You can use it as an example for yourself, or not; you can take it or leave it. But the fact is…”
I am literally at the edge of my seat, leaning so far over the table that it’s pressing me under the ribs; I can barely breathe, I’m so exhilarated. “The fact is, they are living life at the peak of human potential. They are the most fully realized people on the planet today. There is no one currently living who is as effective in advancing the species as they are. They’re as close to perfect as people will ever get.
“And that’s what makes them so special.”
I lean back in my chair, ecstatic. I’ve done it; I’ve articulated something so great, so powerful, so undeniably true that there can be no more argument, no more confusion, no more suffering. The rest of the world need only to hear the speech I’ve just made, and they too will understand the opportunity they’ve been given — the opportunity to live and love more fully than they could ever have imagined. I am glowing, I am electric; people seated tables away from us can feel the power of my conviction, and they are staring in awe and gratitude that I have made things as clear as I have. Bradley’s confused eyebrows have melted from triangled lines to sympathetic arches; he nods, his lower lip puffed out in recognition of something irrefutably true.
“All right,” he says. It sounds like aww wight. Then his brow knits again, his eyebrows back to forming pleas. “Do you want dessert?”
The twins come the next day.
I am doing laundry, getting cat food, stopping at the donation box at the pet store to give ten dollars to homeless animals — I, too, am a philanthropist, within my limited means. I feel wonderful. Bradley declined to come home with me last night — he had a long week, he said, as he dropped me off at my building, and “a lot of thinking to do”— but I kissed his closed lips firmly with mine before we parted. I very nearly told him, “I love you.”
It’s almost one, and I’ve finished my errands, and dropped off for a tiny nap with Schatzie on the sofa, not even long enough to start dreaming, when I’m jolted awake. I sit bolt upright and look around the room, dazed and alarmed at the same time. Nothing. The apartment is quiet. Schatzie makes a noise of annoyance, then replaces her head on her paw and slowly closes her eyes again, resuming her little cat smile.
I rise cautiously from the sofa, unsteady on my marshmallow legs. I have the unmistakable sense of a presence in the room, but there’s nothing — nothing I can see, anyway. It’s just a superstition; I want to look under the sofa, in the closet, just to reassure myself, but I won’t let myself be ridiculous. Come on, Ruth, I urge myself, standing there in the living room, poised and listening, arms out and fingers spread like antennae, trying to feel the source of the sensation. Get it together. Everything’s okay.
Where is the goddamn bodyguard? The helicopters are outside the hospital again, and though the windows have been blocked, the airspace supposed to be cleared and protected, I can hear the thwack-thwack-thwack of the rotors, like machetes in the jungle. The paparazzi outside — did one of them get in somehow? Did one of them have his wife check into the emergency room under false pretenses, so he could sneak up to Maternity? Something, something is happening. Zahara is crying in the waiting room, she wants Mommy; Uncle James says, Mommy’s working on making the babies come out, honey; she wants to see you, too, but she can’t until she’s finished. I am tense, freaked out, ready to cry myself; I want to see Ange, I want to know that she’s okay, and I know she isn’t. Her blood pressure is too high. One of the babies is breech. Brad is doing that thing where he’s grimacing, his lips tight against his teeth, saying, everything’s okay, babe, everything’s okay, but you know he doesn’t mean it. He’s not that good an actor, when it counts.
The doctors — what are they doing? How many of them in the room? Is this another false alarm, or is this the real thing? She is pale, so pale — she didn’t gain enough weight for twins, goddamn it — Ange, I told you, I know there’s starving people in the world but you don’t help them by not eating. She is dizzy, in pain. It’s okay, croons Brad through his grimace, and she’d laugh at him, oh, it is, is it?, but she’s too fucking dizzy to — ouch. She is grasping his hand, wringing it like a sponge, then slacking as she swoons; grasping again so he can barely stand it — so frail, and so brutally strong, she is — and yes, she is grateful for him there, even as she desperately wishes he’d shut up, or trade places with her — if everything’s so fucking hunky dory, why don’t you get over here and take my place? But no, she thinks, setting her jaw, raising her chin; she wouldn’t miss this for the world. This is her martyrdom, this is what she has to do in order to give the world her twins, and the world must have her twins. She urges her body forward to meet the pain; she bears down.
I am standing in my living room, my everything room, my one room with the bed and the sofa and the kitchenette, the TV on the dresser, the computer on the coffee table. I know where I am. I am not delusional, thank you, as one particularly jealous colleague once intimated. I am here in New York City, it is Saturday, July 12, 2008, our current president is George Bush, and I am not happy about it but he will be gone soon, thank God. My name is Ruth Calacanis. I was born in 1965. I have a cat named Prisc…a cat named Schatzie. Priscilla is dead.
Priscilla is dead, and now I am wailing, trembling. It’s so useless. Everything is so useless. Everything you love is going to die, Ange’s mom, only fifty-six and dead from ovarian cancer, and Ange wasn’t ready to let her go. Schatzie is going to die; I’m going to come home one day and she’s going to be dead on the sofa, and what am I going to do then? Where am I going to bring her body? Who will comfort me, who will make it up to me that she’s gone? She can’t go, she can’t. I am standing in my living room, and then I am crumpling, hitting the floor with my knees, clutching my empty abdomen, sobbing. No, no. It’s not fair. There is torture, there is no end to torture, people torture animals and you can’t stop them — I can’t stand it — Priscilla, being tortured; Schatzie, set on fire by some drug-crazed burglar; I am being raped and my throat slit and I can’t do anything to save my Schatzie. It takes days to find my body, Bildenberg calling my brother in Wisconsin, Ruth is dead, and he doesn’t care; nobody cares. They empty my desk and they snicker at my pictures, the ones I keep in my drawer, clipped from the tabloids: Maddox, Pax, Zahara, Shiloh. My babies. They will be safe, at least; they will always be safe; there is money and there is love and there is enough energy surrounding them; they will always be safe, and it’s because of that fact that there’s a smile on my dead face, in my steel drawer in the morgue, because I knew in my final moments that the babies will be safe. They will be fine. I hear Brad’s voice, calmer now, more assured — everything will be fine.
I struggle to my knees again, then my feet, arms out for balance. I stop crying, wipe my face with my sleeve. I laugh aloud, for the benefit of whoever is watching — ha ha! — even as a few last sobs escape me. I can laugh at myself, along with my invisible audience; I know I am ridiculous. Yes, there is torture in the world, but none of it is happening here, none of it is happening to me right now. Schatzie is still sleeping on the sofa, her piebald chest with her fine fur, more like feathers than like fur, rising and falling with her breath. I have been doing it again, freaking out over nothing — anxiety, no doubt, from waiting for the twins. Brad is right; everything will be fine.
Ha ha. I go into the bathroom, sit heavily on the toilet, and pee, door wide open because there is nobody here, nobody watching. I know this because I am not delusional. I am fine. A little shaky, but all right. Hungry, even; I didn’t eat lunch yet. Maybe I will treat myself, go to the fancy diner, the one they’ve dressed up to look like it’s from the 1950s. But first, I will check on the babies.
My hands are still trembling from my silly episode as I type, click — and gasp. They’re here. Vivienne Marcheline and Knox Leon Pitt-Jolie, born in Nice, France at 6:27 and 6:28pm, French time. “Oh my God,” I say aloud, scanning the Associated Press report; then I shout it. “Oh my God!” I jump up from the sofa, grabbing Schatzie, swinging her around above my head as she meows in protest. “They’re here!”
Oh my God! My heart is dancing in my chest, rhumba, salsa, da da da da da da da da da da da. They’re here! And Ange is fine! And I was right about the names — Marcheline for Ange’s mother; Knox for Brad’s maternal granddad — of course I was right! Who knows them better than me? Who knows the truth about the birth? The doctors are on the record saying everything was fine, but I was there, I know what really happened, how frightened they were when Knox was turned around feet-first, how Brad’s forehead was furrowed an inch deep, how Ange nearly lost consciousness and faded away. But oh God, they’re all right, and — they’re here!
All my anxiety has become elation, as I click around to various sites, reading the reports and the responses on my favorite bulletin board. HOORAY! writes Jackie, the first poster in the new thread titled “Vivienne and Knox!!!!!!” God bless, writes Stephanie, aka ByHisBlood; God bless these beautiful children and their parents, and may they all find their way to God’s love!
Thirty-five responses, while I was busy napping and crying over nothing. I compose mine quickly. We are all so lucky that Vivienne and Knox are finally here and healthy, and that Angelina is all right. It was a difficult pregnancy, and a very difficult birth — thank God that the family is healthy and present on this Earth! These children, like all of their siblings, are destined for an incredible life, full of spectacular achievements, and I have no doubt that we will learn so much from them in years to come. I am so grateful and overwhelmed with joy!
I rise from the computer, unable to sit still; I want to throw the windows open and shout into the streets. They’re here, they’re here! Schatzie has repaired to her spot under the bed, unwilling to dance with me; I whirl around by myself, looking for something, someone to share it with, some way to take this terrific pressure from my chest and thrust it from me, into the world. My phone! I will call Bradley. He will be so happy to hear the news; after last night, I know he feels the same way I do. I can’t wait to hear his voice, his adorable Elmer Fudd accent — Woofe, that’s tewwific! He’ll want to run right over — I’ll have to tidy up — maybe we’ll even…
Two rings, and he picks up. “Hello?”
“Brad, they’re here. The twins are here!” Just saying the words aloud — I knew it would be thrilling, but I didn’t know how thrilling. My whole body vibrates with the words, strummed like a harp, a zither, a zing. Like saying I love you, like saying I do.
“Hello?” he says again, uncertain.
I laugh. Dear man; dear confused Bradley! “Bradley! It’s Ruth! The twins are here, and everyone is fine! It was a rough birth — ” I chuckle at my own understatement “ — but they’re here now, Vivienne and Knox, both of them just over five pounds, and beautiful, Brad, they’re so beautiful…”
I have one hand on my chest, feeling it pound, the echo through my arm, back to my chest, a closed circuit, recycling the happiness. I take in a deep breath, and the air smells sweet, like a bakery, like confectioner’s sugar, so sweet it almost stings. I can see them so well, their soaked, wrinkled, violet faces, their impossible little hands, their adamant expressions, What took you all so long? Where is our kingdom; where is all of our due? You dare keep us waiting? Oh, they will rule the world, these two; they are messiahs; they will eclipse even their parents. I can already see.
“Woofe,” says Bradley. “Uh…”
I laugh, impatient. “I know, I know! It’s even better than I knew it would be. They’re so powerful, already! I’m just astonished by them…”
“Woofe,” he insists. “Did you get my email?”
I stop and listen, eyes asquint, mouth slightly open, pound, pound, pound, my heart in my hand. What is happening here? Something in his voice — is there a problem with the twins? Something I don’t know? “No,” I say. “I was…I didn’t get it. Why? Is everything all right?”
The pounding speeds up, a violent acceleration. I am already turning to the laptop, seeking the right keys, fingers fat with dread.
“I just…I’m sorry, Woofe. I have to go. I’m sorry.”
It sounds like sowwy. He hangs up on me.
I have the email on my screen, the dead phone dropped next to me on the couch.
Ruthe I don’t know how to say this but I don’t think we make a good match for eachother.? Your a nice person but I don’t think we should date anymore.? I hope this won’t hurt you to much because your a nice person but I am looking for someone who can aprecaite what I have to offer and I think you have other priortes.? So I hope you understand and I hope you find what your looking for to but I don’t think we should date anymore.?
I have to read it three times before I can even begin to comprehend it. It’s not the spelling — that, I’ve trained myself to overlook, lest I allow myself to recognize how intellectually inferior he is to me — nor is it the way his emails always seem to auto-punctuate, adding incredulous question marks after every sentence, like they can’t believe what he’s saying. Of course he’s misspelled my name, too, managing to mispronounce it in writing as he does in speech. Did in speech. Because, if I am reading this correctly, he is breaking — he has broken — up with me.
I…the twins! The twins are here! I am still reeling from the twins, and now…well, this. Bradley, who I very nearly said I loved last night, does not think we make a good match. The irony! The fact that I stooped — literally stooped, as he is a good six inches shorter than me — to date this man, this homunculus, this balding, lisping troll; the fact that I put aside my pride, my aspirations, my better judgment, and accepted him into my life, into my bed, as my boyfriend, as my lover — and he rejects me?
Hah. I can’t see myself in the mirror, but I know my lips are twisted into that famous smile; that mirthless, tortured, lopsided smile that must be maintained because there is nothing else to do when life is as completely upside-down as it always is, but to smile. To give our beauty to the world, even when the world rejects it — rejects it! — they way they rejected A Mighty Heart! — how could they be so shallow? How could they not see the intrinsic value; how could they not, as Bradley said, aprecaite what we have to offer?
I raise my chin, square my shoulders, shake my hair so it tickles against my back, my heart still throbbing in my chest. I am one of the most powerful and beloved women in the world, the sexiest, the most compelling; and what is he, after all? Just a funny, sad little man. A lonely, pathetic, silly little loser. And I might feel a little silly myself, a little stung, considering what I’d just been thinking of doing with him, but I won’t — I won’t let myself feel badly about myself. I won’t let myself feel sad. I won’t let myself mourn, not for some stupid romantic fantasy that could never have come true. Not today, when there’s so much that’s real to be grateful for.
I close my eyes, and I’m there, peering through the window of the nursery into the incubators where the twins lie, separated for the first time, fidgeting and curling their fists under their plastic domes. Brad is beside me, running one hand through his hair again and again, turning away on one foot and then turning back around, his eyes wide and wild. “They’re beautiful,” I murmur, and they are, their sage little faces already showing the gift of their lineage: the lips that will pillow, the jaw that will square. Brad nods and rakes his hair, does his funny two-step pace.
I lean forward and let my forehead kiss the cool glass, watching as Viv reaches out and grabs the empty air, and I can almost feel her determined fingers around mine, tight as a vise. They will never have to feel lonely, these miracle spirits; they’ll never have to feel freakish or unloved. They will always have each other. They will always have me. They glow and they hum like expanding stars, and I can barely tear myself away, but I have to go back to the room to see Ange now. She’s been fighting sleep since the babies came, anxious and elated in equal degrees, her head whipping around like Brad’s — are they still there? Are they still okay? Let me look at them one more time…
I pull my hand away from the glass, leaving a ghostly outline of mist that dissolves with no trace. The sounds of monitors and pagers follow me down the hall, the squeak of rubber-soled shoes on the linoleum, the smell of cleaning solution and bedpans. I’ll enter the room and see her searching face, the relief when she sees it’s me, the pungent warmth of her as she pulls me close for a hug. They’re beautiful, I’ll tell her. They’re perfect. I’ll press a cool washcloth to her face, and tell her how well she’s done, and she’ll laugh, delirious with exhaustion and joy. You can rest now, I’ll tell her, smoothing her hair. You can rest now, Ange. I’m here.