A scene or sequence that identifies "what's wrong with this picture" in a protagonist's status quo; in romantic comedy, it implies that what's missing in the protagonist's life is likely to be fulfilled by a potential mate.
On my third night alone since Isabella left, our home feels so haunted that I can't stand to stay inside, so I bolt through the garden gate and go stalking the empty street, crazed and aimless, only to realize I'm also keyless--I've locked myself out.
Even as I curse I have to laugh. Nothing is the way I want it to be, so it's only perversely logical that I'm forced to return to our place to stomp around the garden, peering helplessly at the barred windows. Such nice bars, too, with their hip, zigzaggy shape, befitting this perfect little Venice Beach apartment, a sweet one-unit bungalow, its only drawback (formerly an asset) being that you can't break in.
And such a beautiful night! The kind of beauty you only get when you're desolate, when it's all gone wrong. Everything painfully clear--indifferent stars twinkling through the dark branches swaying in the wind, a rainbow-ringed silver moon for me to howl at. The extra key isn't hidden where it's supposed to be, in the dirt of the potted olive tree by the back steps. I should rustle up a pickaxe, a battering ram. Instead I stand staring at the door, wondering: Did romantic comedies ruin me, or was I born a sucker for such myths?
I could blame Cary Grant, him and a whole seductive slew of movies I saw in my youth, which imprinted me with a formula for how it's supposed to go. I could blame my parents, sixty-somethings, who on the afternoon of the forty-seventh anniversary of their love-at-first-sight-ignited marriage were found rolling around on a couch, giggling and making out. No matter. Either way, I'm warped. I'm a writer who writes romantic comedy, a cinema studies teacher who teaches it, and I have so much faith in the standard beats of the successful courtship story that being left by the love of my life has me totally discombobulated.
Those beats weren't cooked up in some mad movie scientist's lab--it's a codified structure that replicates what happens when people fall in love in so-called real life: Setup (dueling personal histories) is followed by a Cute Meet (sparks fly) and a Complication (romance mucks up everything else that's going on). Further on comes the Hook (the sex is good). Then this thing that could be love gets tested, there's a Swivel, or turning point before a big commitment is made, and then one or both of the lovers hits that Dark Moment where they seriously consider bailing. But inevitably they have a clinch-and-kiss Resolution, and the audience leaves the theater with warm and fuzzy feelings, or merely feeling horny.
Well, we had all that, me and Isabella. After four years of marriage I thought we were living the reasonably happy ending. So the only way I can make sense of her leaving now is to rethink the structure of our story. I thought we were in Resolution, our Dark Moment having been back before the wedding when she had second thoughts about living here in Los Angeles, but that wasn't it, no, we must've been in a prolonged Swivel, questioning our decision. Now we're in a real Dark Moment--the crisis/climax preceding the finale, where she'll realize she was meant to be with me all along and the marriage is worth saving. So what I've got to figure out is how to move from sixth beat to seventh, from boy loses girl to gets. Not a simple task when your wife has already left the country.
First, though, I really ought to find that key.
Isabella used it last, having locked herself out a few months ago, and when she said she'd found a good place for it, I forgot to ask her where. I'm tempted to call her in Rome, where it's morning, except being the last person in Los Angeles who doesn't own a cell phone, I'd have to be inside to do this, inside the home that's so horribly silent and empty precisely because Isabella is on the other side of the world.
I walk to Joe's, the one neighborhood place still open this late on a weeknight, get my vodka and tonic and claim a corner of the bar. The new waitress I like with the round, kindly face sits a few stools down, done with her shift, blowing on a bowl of soup.
"So who had the affair?" she wants to know.
"Neither of us," I tell her. "It wasn't about that. Isabella was loathing Los Angeles. She didn't like the rest of America much, either. She missed Italy and her family, and she couldn't get her career restarted over here, and then, there's, you know . . ." A cavernous hole to step over, where the bad feelings live, born of my part in all this: how my struggle to find screenwriting work had made me cranky and only made her feel more insecure, and . . . "The usual stuff you run up against in any relationship," I say. "It all finally got to her, and . . . she left."
"Did she take the dog?"
I nod. The waitress tactfully sips her soup. I know what she's thinking, but still, there's a closet full of clothes and everything else Isabella's left behind. To look at the mess, you'd think she just went round the corner to get cigarette papers. And isn't mercurial the very definition of her nature? Oh, hope! Hope is the thing that does you in. But what's the thing that will bring Isabella back?
The waitress sighs. "She's so beautiful, your wife."
Isabella on the beach, pale cheeks reddened by the sun, windblown bangs in her brown Modigliani eyes, squinting at the small group of people standing on the bluff above her. After every gallery she'd approached in town had rejected her work, she'd invited her friends here to face the ocean, watching her use a stick as a brush, drawing in the wet sand only yards from the water's edge, an improvised series stretching down the beach: minotaur, mermaid, a child's face made of stars. Isabella called this self-curated exhibit "Non Esiste," her tribute to all the work, made by human hands or by nature, that didn't exist in the eyes of the professional art world. I knew she thought she was the one who didn't exist, the invisible foreigner in an insensitive city. Later, when the rest of the group was gone, I sat with her watching the tide splash up over an angel and recede, erasing the lines of its wings.
"Bella Isabella," I say, agreeing with the waitress. "And still my wife. It's only a separation."
"Maybe you should go to Italy."
Don't even think about it, she'd said, when I was thinking of nothing else. When I threatened to fly over there, Isabella claimed she'd leave town to avoid me, the point being . . . "She needs some time alone."
The waitress nods while I think, How much time? The longer she's gone, the scarier this gets. It's scary enough already. I have a sense of how the waitress sees me: I'm the teacher-sometimes-writer from around the corner who's got the gorgeous Italian artist wife and the fabulous dog. If Isabella steps out of the frame, who really is that guy left in the picture?
"You think she might see other people?" she asks.
"I hope not."
She looks down the bar, and I follow her gaze to where a svelte dark-haired woman in black velvet sits paying her bill. "Maybe you should," says the waitress.
"Date someone. If you want to get her back. If she's the jealous kind . . ."
The night we came home from the beach after "Non Esiste" was worse than bad opera. Isabella lit into me about a buxom blond friend of a friend who'd come to the show, someone I'd talked to for a few minutes.
"I'm surprised you saw anything I did, you were so busy staring at her. That's what you like, eh, those big American breasts!"
"You're being ridiculous."
"I'm ridiculous? You were the bavoso, like a dog with his tongue out!"
When Isabella loses it, her decibel level gets high enough to break glass, which was what I did then, finally, in an attempt to out-mad the madwoman. Figuring the only way to shut her down was to be more crazed than she was, I rammed my fist into a framed painting on the wall. And this did terminate my wife's hysteria, turning it to concern at the sight of my bloody knuckle and cut thumb, the tiny glass shards she picked out of my pants cuffs, and then, huddling with me on the bathroom floor, she erupted in gales of laughter, throwing her arms around my neck, apologizing for her accusations, and predictably we ended up making love with a ferocity that had been missing for a while, so . . .
"The jealous kind? Yeah," I say. "You could say that."
The brunette down the bar glances at me, appraises me quickly, then looks away. She's pretty, but wounded as I am, the prospect of even attempting to get close to another living, breathing female human being frightens and exhausts me. All that time and energy invested in trying to fit together two disparate psychologies, when I'll only end up confronting my newly defined shortcomings? I wasn't even able to muster the semblance of a smile when she looked my way, but let's just imagine, against all odds, I got lucky. My place? Well, actually I'm locked out of my apartment because my runaway wife misplaced the extra key, and I'm only interested in a quick fling to make her jealous, anyway, so . . . how about yours?
"Thing is, I'm not good dating material," I tell the waitress, and ask for my check.
Air. I hit the pavement, Abbot Kinney Boulevard all but deserted, the full moon looming larger now in the sky, wind rocking the palm-tree tops. It's the time of night I'd usually be out walking Maxi. I remember my last glimpse of the old mutt, in his carrier case at the airport as an attendant wheeled it away: his black-tipped nose poking out between the bars, one front paw rhythmically tapping at the door with the persistence of a prisoner demanding a call to his lawyer.
Memories like this are just what I need to keep at bay, but too late--the worst of the bad feelings are back. Ever since Isabella left, the fact of it has been gripping me physically. It's like the veil of daily life has been ripped away to reveal nothing but an enormous emptiness at the center of me, a hollowness so heavy it threatens to pull me right through the pavement.
I really should've ordered a second drink.
Ahead is a cluster of people on the sidewalk, bruisingly young and hip, muffled techno music emanating from a club. I'd consider braving it, for want of any other destination, but I'm as up for such revelry right now as I am for root canal work, so I keep walking. I stop short when I get to the corner of San Juan. Here is Stroh's, the best deli in the neighborhood, full of European gourmet foods. I'd rejoiced when they opened a few years back, excitedly ushering Isabella in there to see the chains of Italian sausages, the stacks of cheeses, the pile of brightly wrapped amaretto cookies imported from Rome. But their wares hadn't been enough to keep her here.
I peer through the window into the dark depths of Stroh's. Fluorescent lights in the fridges and display cases bathe soda bottles and pasta salads in a ghostly glow. A mound of blood oranges gleams on a countertop, casting a long shadow. The inanimate world is speaking to me, now that I have the time to listen. I'm abandonment, says the emptied salad bowl. Here's loneliness, whispers a solitary lime.
I'm listening. I understand. But though it will take more than a better imported mozzarella to manage it, I am going to get my wife back. I am. I just need to find that thing, the thing that will turn her around. Like I need to find that key. Realizing that there are only so many places she could have hidden it, praying that I won't have to deal with trying to find my landlord or a locksmith at this hour, I trudge homeward.
Turning the corner onto my block, I see the dim figure of a man sitting against the curb in front of my building, long legs stretched out on the asphalt. A black man, skin-and-bones thin, his clothes ragged, pants split almost all the way up to his hip on the right side. He smiles at me as if I'm a friend arriving just in time for an appointment.
"Well," he says. "Here we are."
I nod. The man's gaze is clear, his expression amiable. He's holding an unlit filterless cigarette in one hand, and as I watch, he brings it to his lips, inhales, eyes briefly closing in pleasure, and then drops his hand again, exhaling a cloud of invisible smoke.
"Need a match?"
The man shakes his head. "Nope, but I could use a little cash. Got a hundred dollars?"
I laugh. He jerks a thumb over his shoulder. "You live here?" I nod. "Then you gotta be doin' all right." He assesses me. "You not an actor. What, a writer?"
"Actually, yeah. I write."
"Anything I mighta seen?"
"No," I say, then add, a reflex: "But I did just sell something."
He nods. "Could be all you need, get it green-lit. Who picked it up, Paramount? DreamWorks?"
"A producer named Rumer Hawke."
The man gives a low whistle. "You workin' for Rumer Hawke, that's like Spielberg money."
"Nah, not yet," I tell him. "He optioned a novel I wrote. The big money only comes if he actually makes the movie."
"So you a novelist."
"No, I just wrote the one."
"And that's it? That's all you wrote?"
Amazing, the force of the culture here. Even in the pit of your darkest despair, you feel compelled to present your credits. "No--New Line optioned it seven years ago. I came out from New York to do the adaptation, but by the time that didn't happen, I'd already got the screenwriting bug, so I've kept at it. I've gotten a few things optioned," I hasten to assure him. "Just haven't gotten one made yet."
The man nods, takes a drag of his cigarette, exhales air. "So's Rumer Hawke gonna make this?"
"Well," I say, "in the one minute I spent with him when we met, he sounded enthusiastic."From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Imagine Me and You by Billy Mernit. Copyright © 2008 by Billy Mernit. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.