As Diane Kurasik neared the rapids of her fortieth birthday, her world seemed to be taking on the bittersweet tones of a life-change comedy from the 1970s, something starring Glenda Jackson or Jill Clayburgh. Although nothing in her own sphere had changed in quite a while, she was surrounded by movement: family, friends and acquaintances were giving birth, obtaining patents, marrying, divorcing, dying, coming out of the closet, traveling to and from exotic Third World dictatorships and going into and out of business with astonishing speed. Her niece was entering the sixth grade; her father was retiring from his second career; her longtime guitar teacher was closing up shop and moving to Brazil.
And Diane was showing Indiscreet
again at the Bedford Street Cinema.
On the bulletin board, Ingrid Bergman gazed at Cary Grant with offended longing in a publicity still. With five hundred cable channels, free videos at the library, and DVDs selling for $5.00 on the sidewalk, why would anyone go out in the rain to pay $9.50 to see Indiscreet
(Stanley Donen, 1958)? But if it was part of a series called “Heels, Cads, Sadists and Heartbreakers,” there would always be a few who would show up to see Ingrid Bergman explode on the big screen, “How DARE
he make loff to me and not be a married man!”
This was the premise of the Bedford Street Cinema, and the place was holding its own, barely, in a time of rampant multiplexia. Ms. Kurasik had not been the first choice for the job, but she hadn’t hesitated to take it three months after she’d originally been rejected. After all, fifteen other, bigger names had turned down M*A*S*H
(1970) before Robert Altman agreed to direct it. In almost ten years, she’d perfected a repertory formula that attracted partisans who lined up around the block.
A second screen to present new, independent features would expand the crowd, but until then, Diane confined new releases to a three-week festival during the summer, when she judged the audience to be more adventurous. Under her stewardship, the theater had achieved nonprofit status, landmark status, “best place to see a movie” according to New York
magazine status. She was pleased, she was proud, she was bored out of her mind.
The phone rang as Diane squeezed grapefruits in her kitchen on a muggy afternoon in late July. It was her old friend Lara Freed with a new man for her to meet: a newly divorced intellectual-property lawyer, no children, fascinating.
Diane hadn’t heard from Lara in perhaps six months. Come to think of it, she hadn’t heard from her old friend Claire Giancarlo, either.
“Does he like movies?”
“Who doesn’t like movies?”
“You’d be surprised,” Diane said, and because she had nothing going on, agreed to take his call, which came two minutes later, giving him points for decisiveness, and points off for desperation. She would meet him in a week and no doubt find something objectionable about him in person. Why had Lara and Claire stopped calling her? If Diane was noticing only now, did she really care?
She retrieved her mail and walked down Seventh Avenue South toward the theater, sucking grapefruit juice through a straw. The neighborhood had once had a Fellini feeling, and it was still possible to see someone walking down Barrow Street with his head wrapped in tinfoil. But over the past ten years the city had been tweezed, buffed, homogenized; the neighborhood now seemed entirely populated by bland white Banana Republicans driving silver SUVs, who were probably no less insane, but managed to conceal it in the collective uniform of the moment. The Bedford Street Cinema stood in a tiny, irregular curve of the West Village that was much photographed for its aura of old New York. The marquee projected its seedy glamour among the plate glass of a tobacconist’s shop, a boarded-up wall plastered with peeling posters, and a totemic brownstone with fire escape and stoop. On that afternoon, Indiscreet
was playing with The Talk of the Town
(George Stevens, 1942).
Diane paid attention to the marquee: it served the public as a light source, a meeting point, a billboard and a shelter from the rain. It could comment on the passing scene, as in the Weegee photo of a crowd gawking at a newspaper-covered corpse beneath a marquee announcing “Irene Dunne in The Joy of Living.
” A crank regularly denounced Diane at Bedford Street Block Association meetings for poisoning the neighborhood with cynicism when, for example, the marquee advertised a double bill of Contempt
A marquee could define an era: one Saturday night in a previous decade, Diane had waited at the Loew’s 84th Street beneath a marquee promoting Husbands and Wives
By the time she realized she’d been stood up, Husbands and Wives
(Woody Allen, 1992) was sold out. So she saw Singles
(Cameron Crowe, 1992).
Floyd was sweeping the carpet and Cindy was adding syrup to the soda machine when Diane got to the theater. The smell of popcorn, which had once excited her, now made Diane a little nauseated. Cindy gave her an update: The third toilet in the ladies’ room was clogged again. There was a new tear in the carpet. A ticket buyer had reported something dripping on his head during the early show. One of the regular patrons had exposed himself during the second feature. There were three messages from Jack Lipsky, her boss. The beginnings of an average day.
Or so she thought, until she sat down at her desk and saw that the stack of mail she’d brought from home included an eviction notice.
All New York stories are ultimately about real estate. Even stories that appear to be about something else–lust, love, money, jealousy–ultimately turn on the matter of space. New York is so densely packed with vertical life, so overflowing with noise, opportunity and heartbreak, that in order to survive one needs a lair to crawl into at the end of the day, if only to recover enough strength to face another round. Those whose lairs are too small, too dirty, up too many flights, in the wrong neighborhood, or lacking air, light, a view, or all three, live primed to pounce on something better.
There was a time when Diane chatted up anyone hosing down a sidewalk in hope of finding a better place. Until one wet spring, when an affair with an Italian sound engineer beset by legal troubles resulted in the ultimate Manhattan windfall: her name on the lease of a one-bedroom with a roof deck on a tree-lined street in the West Village. The rent was exactly half of what she’d been paying for a studio with an intractable roach problem and a view of the approach to the Lincoln Tunnel. When Paolo went back to Cinecittˆ, the place was hers to keep. The constant scheming for a better apartment had taken up so much of her time, energy and thought over the years that when she finally moved into this haven, she had no idea what to do with herself.
That was twelve years ago. It had been a good run, and now it was over. The building had changed hands. The new owner had also bought the vacant lot next door. All tenants were required to find a new place to park themselves, in order to make way for a swanky new six-floor condominium with health club and concierge. It was all perfectly legal. The constant had become a variable.
Diane couldn’t remember when she’d reached the Age of No– no smoking, no alcohol, no drugs, no fat, no thank you. No parties, no sex. No blind dates. No double dates with married couples and “the nicest guy you ever met.” An occasional man passed through her life, usually not for long. Was it harder as she aged because there were so few men available, or because she herself was less receptive?
This she pondered as she walked over rutted, damaged sidewalks to make the acquaintance of the newly divorced intellectual-property lawyer at a place on Spring Street. There was a feeling of high summer in the air, she was on her way to meet someone new, but she didn’t have an open outlook. She was tired and annoyed to be going through the motions of presentation, the tedium of decoding signifiers embedded in small talk. Thank God this was just a drink: she couldn’t possibly do something as intimate and sustained as eating a whole meal with a male stranger.
A man’s complete attention wasn’t a realistic possibility at this late stage of the game. All the generalists–the easygoing, well-adjusted fellows such as her father, her brother-in-law, the husbands of most of her friends–who were capable of giving their complete attention to a woman, had married before the age of thirty.
The remainder tended to be specialists, obsessed with something–often their work, but not always. In twenty-five years of dating, fifteen of them dedicated exclusively to specialists, she’d met Lactose Intolerant Man, Open Up American Trade with Vietnam Man, Blues Man, Bluegrass Man, Second Amendment Man, and Windsurf Man. Some men had one issue they talked about, so that any conversation, no matter where it started, returned to the topic–the imperative of legalizing marijuana, for example–as if to magnetic north. None of these men, no matter how childish or arcane his fixation (seventeenth-century French mortuary instruments included), bothered to ascertain whether she was interested in his interest, or, if not, whether she had an interest of her own.
Being a specialist herself, Diane had a slight contempt for the generalists who, although clearly happier and more pleasant as people, were vague, somewhat passive and easy to push around. On the other hand, who wanted to be lectured incessantly about the Detroit Red Wings? Given the choice, wouldn’t she rather stay at home and read the new Truffaut biography? Or stay at the theater and watch Indiscreet
for the nth time? So few people shared her enthusiasm, and when she found one who did, there were problems of competition and scope: she’d had a brief fling with a screenwriter who admired her complete mastery of dialogue from Double Indemnity
(Billy Wilder, 1944), but became impatient when she admitted she hadn’t memorized lines from any of Fred MacMurray’s other monumental pictures.
The fact was, she was bored with her specialty. She could remember seeing Children of Paradise
(Marcel CarnŽ, 1945) for the first time, at the age of fifteen, alone on a wet Thursday night at the old Regency on the Upper West Side. The trip into the city alone excited her, but the teeming energy of the film blew her head off. She was particularly intrigued by the way the mature yet ageless French actress Arletty received a compliment from a man in the street. The actress–playing an actress–didn’t run, didn’t put herself down, didn’t appear vain by accepting the compliment. And it was clear when she smiled at her admirer that she wasn’t inviting him home with her.
Increasingly, charming French movies put Diane to sleep. Every day, six or so new films seeking distribution arrived in the mail; making headway against this flood of DVDs was at the top of her to-do list every day. Watching anything on a small screen was not conducive to attention or respect. It was somehow less than a sŽance–
the French word for screening, which Diane liked because it conveyed the otherworldly side of the movies, the irrational and perhaps “fixed” channel into the spirit world. She presented Children of Paradise
at least once a year, and although she appreciated it, she didn’t feel transported by it, even on the big screen, even in a private sŽance.
Most movies barely aroused her interest now. Was she nostalgic for a time when she was susceptible to nostalgia?
The blind date was waiting inside, reading Outside
, as he’d specified. He was a less handsome, twenty-first-century version of Joel McCrae, in his late thirties, on the short side, muscular, with leathery skin and sun-bleached bangs. He was drinking sparkling water, and he began by quizzing her about her athletic pursuits.
“No sports,” she said, signaling the bartender.
“Oh?” Clearly the wrong answer.
“No watching sports on TV,” she declared, “no attending sporting events in person, and certainly no playing sports.”
The blind date blinked disapproval and scanned her body with his eyes. Diane had made whatever kind of peace was possible with her proportions: like a long line of women on her mother’s side of the family, she wore a size 4 top and a size 10 bottom. Her rear end had been the subject of much torment in her adolescence. But most people suffered in some way during adolescence, and no amount of stair climbing changed anything. Diane chose to put it all behind
She ordered rum on ice. He looked impatient. Clearly the wrong drink.
“I had a blind date last week with a woman in love with her cat,” he said, violating Diane’s Number One Rule: Never mention any other dates when on a date. No doubt she’d have to hear all about his failed marriage, too.
He must have noticed her face darken. “Oh, you’re a cat person?”
“No cats,” she said, taking a swig of rum. “No cats, no dogs, no ferrets. No rodents of any kind, no thank you.”
He nodded; apparently that was the correct answer.
She asked polite questions about his professional life, which he answered politely.
Then, as if opening the curtain to reveal an exciting new spectacle, he leaned forward to say, “Every day, I wake up and wonder: What can I do today to become a better rock climber?”
The bar got very loud. A fanatic even as specialists go. Still, she was intrigued by the focus, the energy and the ambition. He showed her his hands, which were scabbed and scarred. His schedule involved climbing rock formations every weekend. She told him about “Heels, Cads, Sadists and Heartbreakers,” and invited him to a movie. He declined–he was due at the gym at five a.m. for speed drills. He walked her back to the theater and she shook his calloused hand under the marquee, which proclaimed: Carnal Knowledge
and An Unmarried Woman.
She took a seat near the back just as the lights were dimming. Two women behind her continued their chitchat. She shone her flashlight in their eyes, and when they didn’t stop yakking, she beeped Floyd, who arrived instantly to escort them out.
This was the best part of her job.
She settled in to watch An Unmarried Woman
(Paul Mazursky, 1978). She had seen it for the first time as a teenager and felt a profound kinship. All her life, she’d felt forty-two and divorced. Probably when she hit forty-two and got divorced, it would be like coming home. As she watched, she did some math: Jill Clayburgh couldn’t have been forty-two in the film. She had to have been somewhere in her mid-thirties. This made Diane uncomfortable.
She dropped by the concession stand to get some popcorn and soda for dinner. She was thirteen weeks away from eviction. She had to do something. She went back to her seat to await Carnal Knowledge
(Mike Nichols, 1971).
And she wondered: What, at this late date, was the burning issue around which she structured her life? What did she wake up every morning determined to become better at? Every once in a while she became excited about a film at a festival–most recently, a Venezuelan heist comedy–that she knew no one else would pick up, and then she felt that what she did had value. Of course, the night it played, it was pissing rain, war was being declared, and there were all of five people in the theater. If she reached five people with something wonderful, had she done something of value?
Was it possible that she had outgrown her specialty, and was now just an easygoing generalist, albeit a single one, without a mate and offspring? If Children of Paradise
no longer had the power to move her, what did?From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Don't Make a Scene by Valerie Block. Copyright © 2007 by Valerie Block. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.