premiered at the Goodman Theatre (Robert Falls, Artistic Director; Roche Schulfer, Executive Director) in Chicago, Illinois, on October 27, 1997. It was directed by Joe Mantello; the designer was Robert Brill; the lighting design was by Beverly Emmons. The cast was as follows:
LILLIAN: David Cale
LILLIAN: An Englishwoman in her early forties.
The PresentChrysanthemumsStage is bare except for a stool, a microphone, and a small wooden table with a vase of yellow chrysanthemums and a glass of water. Wayne Shorter's "Moto Grosso Feio" plays.
LILLIAN enters holding a single bloom. She stands at the microphone. Music ends.
Chrysanthemums are considered to be late bloomers. Originating in China, they date back as far as five hundred years BC. The wild native version of the species has now almost disappeared. Having been completely overshadowed by its more colorful domesticated relative. For optimum results, chrysanthemums require a clay soil, a sunny yet cool location, ideally facing south, and loam. They are what's known as short-day plants, meaning they are light sensitive and produce buds only as the days become shorter and the nights grow longer. To improve the quality of the flowers the first bud that appears should be pinched, that's according to most chrysanthemum experts, in whose ranks I now number myself, thereby increasing the radiance of the subsequent flowers.
(She places the bloom on the stool.
The other day I overheard a landscape gardener talking to a woman I know who designs plaster gnomes to put on your front lawn: a garden ornament whose appeal has frankly always eluded me. Anyway the landscape gardener says,
"I realized recently that I have been mildly depressed for the last fifteen years."
The gnome lady asked,
"How come you only realize that now?"
"Because I don't feel that way anymore."
It's funny what you just happen to overhear.
I wonder if it's true that all the secrets of our lives are whispered into our ears at birth. That the secrets then attach themselves to our unconscious. As years pass occasionally a secret will break free, and make its way up into our daily thoughts. They are then referred to as premonitions. I think we know everything that's going to happen to us.
People come into your life for a reason. There are no accidents. There's nothing haphazard about it. Or coincidental. What may seem random at the time, I think in the end has a kind of correctness.
(She picks up the flower.
I mean, in retrospect, when you look back on your life, if you're able to be honest with yourself, I think you come to realize, it could not have happened any other way.
(Lights fade. She places the single bloom in the vase.
Seven Years EarlierThis Jimmy Thing
(Seated on the stool.
"The thought of someone else inside you
is something I could never come to terms with,"
Keith had said to me before he went up north
on that job.
"I could get over somebody kissing you, or cuddling,
but if someone else went inside, I don't think I could
ever touch you again."
"Don't be dramatic," I'd said,
"Nobody's going anywhere with me."
Then almost the minute the door shut,
Keith was hardly in his precious Volvo,
when I meet little Jimmy in the store,
fifteen years my junior,
with a look on his face that could drag a shipwreck up
from the bottom of the ocean.
"Wipe that dirty look off your face, Jimmy Foyle," I said.
"And stop trying to put your fingers in my mouth.
I'm a married woman."
I couldn't believe the words were coming out of me.
It was like my husband just flew out the window.
A Jimmy was really what I had in mind for a lover before I said yes to Keith. He was the kind of person I always wanted when I was his age, but who never seemed interested in me. I wasn't generally a Jimmy's type. Jimmys didn't generally give women like me a second look. We seemed too tame. Jimmy was a wild one. Rough around the edges. He was a bit of a devil. Didn't give things a lot of thought the way Keith did. And he was funny. Keith had nothing approaching a sense of humor. Actually Keith was the only person I knew that didn't find me funny in any way.
"I can't believe that Lillian," Jimmy said, "you're a riot."
"How refreshing," I thought, "to be found funny again."
It was really the idea of a Jimmy coming along that kept me from completely giving over to Keith. I'd been holding out for the thought of a Jimmy for a long time. So when he aimed his eyes at me and came on so strong that day, something in me was saying, "It would not be a good idea to turn Jimmy down. It'll be a little fling. You have to work out this Jimmy thing. Lillian, it's between you and yourself."
Jimmy knew Keith was out of town. I think he'd even been watching the precious Volvo to see if it was still in the front. He invitted me over to his house to see his lizards.
"Lizards!" I said.
"Yes lizards," he said.
"How peculiar," I said, "all right Jimmy."
He drove his car like he'd just robbed a bank. We ran a red light.
"Hold on to your seat Lillian," I thought. His car didn't have safety belts.
"I cut them off," he said, "they were uncomfortable."
I thought about Keith. Keith wouldn't start the engine unless everyone was strapped in.
Jimmy's house was lined with tiny aquariums. He got all excited as he told me what the various lizards were, and where they came from. He was quite the authority. Outside of the store he looked much younger.
"God Lillian," I thought, "what are you doing?"
When he made his move on me it was so sudden. Talk about a pounce. Even the lizards scuttled behind their plastic rocks. I immediately felt like I'd been thrown into a wrestling ring. As we were rolling around on his leopard blanket, I must confess my first thought was,
"Am I really enjoying this?"
He was so rough and young. There was no warming up with Jimmy. In fact much to my surprise, it was dreadful. It's funny, I realized I'd gotten used to Keith's mouth. Jimmy had a smaller mouth. I think Keith's tongue was wider too. There was nothing sensual about Jimmy's tongue. It just sort of flickered around in my mouth like the tongues of one of those lizards of his.
Whatever was wrong with Keith, the sexual part was all right. Or maybe I'd overrated it a bit. But he was considerate. Sexually speaking I'd say Keith was like a really good waiter, in a pretty good restaurant. Very good service, but ultimately disappointing food. Jimmy seemed to approach the whole thing like it was some form of kung fu, or that I was something that needed to be overthrown, but really I was just laying there. He was nervous, bless him. I tried to get him to ease up.
"Slow down," I said, in a voice that was supposed to sound seductive, but I have to admit did come out rather motherly.
"If I slow down," he said, "I'll lose the erection."
"God," I thought, "this is dreadful," as he's pulling my sweater over my chin.
Then he breathed into my ears.
"Can I fuck you Lillian?"
And I thought about Keith and what the thought of somebody else being inside me would do to him, and how it really would be the final straw and I said,
"Yes Jimmy, if you want."
He got all excited and ran into another room. Came back with a Rubber Johnny, and he had trouble opening the packet. And I'm thinking, "If I let Jimmy inside, then there's no going back."
He lays back down on top and I put my hand on the erection he was so afraid of losing, which I realized I hadn't even looked at yet, so I took a peek.
"Oh dear," I thought, "Men's penises are all starting to look the same," as I helped it find its way inside.
"Is it in?" Jimmy said. He was nervous, bless him.
"Yes, it's in," I said.
Jimmy takes this as his cue to start pounding away at me with his eyes scrunched shut.
"Christ look at me!" I thought.
I hate it when men shut their eyes and lock off into their own world.
"You're in my world now," I felt like saying.
And I'm thinking of Keith on that oil rig. Wish Keith had gotten more excited about doing things. We should have gone on holidays. Little adventures. It was such a routine. Wish Keith would get all riled up. Wish he'd get passionate about something. Oh I don't know, about life, or me, or lose his temper.
"You know I love you," he'd say, "I don't need to keep telling you. I wouldn't dream of looking at another woman."
And he wouldn't.
And I'm looking at Jimmy's lizards. Can they really be happy in those little tanks, with a lightbulb over their heads morning and night? And I look at Jimmy on top of me, and his face looks like it's in such pain. His eyes are still squeezed tight. There's sweat forming on his forehead. And he took so long. God I wish he'd have his orgasm and this could be over. It's starting to feel like a visit to the dentist's, more than a sexual fling. Then Jimmy makes a noise like he's been shot in the leg, and I realize (thank God), he's having his little eruption, bless him.
He rolls over to the other side of the blanket.
"That was sexy," he says.
"Yes," I said, "it was very. Thank you."
Oh Lillian, polite to the end!
But then Jimmy did some really sweet things. He ran a bath. Put something blue in the water. He showed me his muscles.
"Oooh," I said.
He lit candles. He was quite romantic after all. He was a boy really. I half expected the police to come barging in and arrest me.
"Did I disappoint you?" he said.
"No, of course not," I said.
And for a moment he looked so vulnerable that I thought my heart would break.
We sat in the bath. He was behind me. He did my back. Drew objects on my shoulders in soap and had me guess what they were.
"It's a giraffe," I said.
"No, it's a crane," he said.
"You win," I said.
He was laughing. He looked even younger with his hair wet. He has lovely olive eyes. I didn't realize till we were in the water lit by the birthday candles, bless him. "One day some young woman's going to really lose her bearings just looking into those eyes," I thought. And I got a little rush of sadness, but not anything so big that it would register on my face.
He dried me with a fresh towel. He fixed a snack. We watched the tele. He had his hand on my thigh. He asked,
"How does your pussy feel?"
"What did you say?"
"You heard me."
"That's for me to know and you to imagine.
I smiled. He laughed.
"Oh Lillian, you're a riot," he said, for the second time.
What could I say?
"Actually I'm in distinct discomfort."
It would have broken his heart, bless him.
And he was playing with the nape of my neck with his fingers, and it was tickling me in a sort of irritating way, but I didn't say anything.
And one of Jimmy's lizards is watching us with a large cricket in its mouth, which it's in the process of crunching on. The cricket's antennae are waving slowly as its body disappears.
And I'm thinking of Keith in his Volvo, following the taillights of another car, with his radio on. He was probably near Scotland by then. With that perpetually anxious look on his face, that he inherited from his father. And Jimmy's giggling at a commercial on the television. Looking all of sixteen.
And they're both nice men. Sweet men. You know, good people. And as the damn television is chattering away in the background, all I can think is,
"Well my dear, now what?"
(Wayne Shorter's "Antigua" plays. Lights fade.)
Five Years LaterBrighton
(Seated on the stool.
When I was young my school reports all said the same thing.
"She has potential, but she has a tendency to procrastinate."
I didn't know what the word meant. Neither did my mother. She was always saying,
"I must buy a dictionary tomorrow and look up that word."
That little memory has always nagged me for some reason. That, and memories of Brighton.
I've always felt a special bond with Brighton. I used to go there as a child. My grandfather had a place. In Hove, to be more precise. Hove is literally next door. They're right side by side. But some people get quite upset if you confuse them.
"The working people go to Brighton," my grandfather would say, as if he didn't work. "This family is on its way to Hove." It's so silly really.
On the train down I found myself becoming quite reflective. Keith used to say I spent too much time with my head in the past, and he was probably right.
"Don't dwell," he'd say. "The past is gone."
And he'd bark out the word "gone."
Riding trains always makes me reflective. I'm sure it's all those sights passing you by at such speed does it.
My ex-husband hadn't crossed my mind in a long time but for some reason I found myself thinking about him on the train to Brighton. One thing that's always stayed with me about Keith was the way he'd say, "I know that one day you'll leave." I'd tell him not to think like that, but I knew he was right. Deep down. The moment I met Keith I imagined myself saying good-bye to him.
I'd been working in a bookstore in London for six months, which I did quite enjoy. It was a comfortable position. Civilized kind of customer. There were many days when it didn't seem like work. I've always liked being around books. It's funny, I rarely read them, I just like being in their presence. As if at any point you could pick one up, open it and enhance yourself. I don't know why I won't read. It's as if part of me has always shied away from the idea of any kind of enhancement. It's made all the more peculiar by the fact that I buy books all the time. My house is lined with unread books.
Anyway, I had decided to take a week off work. It was drizzling in London. February. The store was quiet. "Brighton will be empty this time of year," I thought. Time to take some time to recharge. Soon as I get out of the train station there I always feel a sense of both relief and release. Oh the times I've gotten on a train and run back to Brighton.
Excerpted from Talk to Me by Eric Lane and Nina Shengold. Copyright © 2004 by Eric Lane. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, 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.