A NOVEL BY RICH LEDER
Laughter is the great aphrodisiac that no one talks about. I was thirty-five, and I had never been in love. The joy in her voice as she laughed at something she saw in a magazine while sitting in the sun on Fairfax changed all that in a single heartbeat. I crossed the open courtyard and stood before her. “What’s so funny?” I said.
“Fashion. It’s hysterical. Look at this and tell me your sides don’t split.”
It was a photograph of some supermodel walking the runway in a sheer silk blouse that was open to her waist. “Why wear the shirt at all?” I said.
“Exactly,” she said. She had soft brown hair pulled casually to the side, chocolate eyes, a touch of blush on her cheek, a hint of red on her lips. “I have great tits, and I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing an outfit like that.”
“You do have great tits,” I said. “What’s your name?”
“Julie Bowers. What’s yours?”
“Do you really think I have great tits?”
“I’m sure of it.”
She was from Easton, Pennsylvania, a small, almost-charming town directly across the Delaware River from Phillipsburg, New Jersey. She was reared on The Hill, which is where Lafayette College sits. I had graduated from Lafayette before I took the corporate real estate job in New Jersey.
“I can’t believe you lived in Easton,” she said. I had carried my coffee and notepads to her table and was sitting across from her.
“Small world,” I said, “though I wouldn’t want to have to paint it.” She laughed again; it sounded like music. “So what are you doing in Hollywood?” I said. “How’s your script coming along?”
“You mean like a movie script? I’m not writing one. I don’t write movies.”
Within a month, I had moved out of my place and into hers. Two months later, we were engaged. Two months after that, our families flew in, mine from New Jersey, hers from Chicago, and we were married on the beach in Santa Monica on one of those perfectly clear days that demonstrate without question that the weather is a harbinger for exactly nothing.
We honeymooned in Antigua and returned to Dickens Street in Sherman Oaks to start our new life. Sherman Oaks is a pleasant town in the San Fernando Valley, which is a suburb of Los Angeles that cascades down the north side of the Santa Monica Mountains and spills across Ventura Boulevard until it runs out of steam. The Valley, as it’s commonly called, is renowned for its smog, which is as brown and ubiquitous as a UPS truck and veils the low-rising mountains that rim the northern edge of the vast valley. Sylmar is one of the towns out there. It might as well be New Guinea, it’s so far away.
On certain days, few and far between, the sooty haze dissipates, and residents who live along the southern rim of the valley can see the northern mountains with their naked eyes. “I didn’t know there were mountains there” is an oft-repeated statement on the streets of Sherman Oaks, Studio City, Encino, Tarzana, and Calabasas on such days. Further and even fewer between are the days when the sky clears to a dazzling blue and the mountain range behind the mountains of Sylmar becomes visible. Car accidents along the 101 are commonplace on such days. Hospital emergency rooms fill with disoriented citizens, their geographic reality altered forever with the knowledge that there are mountains behind the mountains. The Mountains of Brigadoon, Julie called them.
She was supportive of my screenwriting, brewed me green tea to energize my inner artist, and made sure I had plenty of private time to make magic out of words on paper. She even told her friends that I was a magician, and that—it turned out—was the harbinger of everything.
We were happy as clams for exactly three weeks, and then Warner Brothers decided it was time to make a war movie about two grizzled sergeants with a deep personal disdain for one another that would tragically and explosively play itself out in the fiery jungles of Vietnam. Out of nowhere, Full Force was a go project.
They paid Bruce Willis all the money in the United States Mint to play one of the sergeants and electronically transferred all the funds in Fort Knox to a bank account in Switzerland belonging to Arnold Schwarzenegger so he would play the other.
A seventeen-year-old European cameraman, who had shot two fast-paced music videos, was hired to direct. Though he was sketchy on the war’s longitude and latitude, he knew the location of the Caribbean and bought an island there with his paycheck.
I received enough cash to buy my Coldwater Canyon house on stilts and live modestly off the interest of what was left for more or less the rest of my life.
For Julie, success meant pressure, and she cracked after we closed on the house. Before we even moved in, six months after our romance had begun, she was gone.
It turned out that her innermost secret, her most profound belief, her deepest dream, revealed for the first time by my sudden success, was that she was born to be a juggler. Her life was without meaning until and unless she mastered the art of juggling.
I’m not half bad with words, especially when they’re coming from my heart, but no amount of professing my love for her could stop the packing of the suitcase, the marching through the house, and the disappearing down the driveway in a cab.
I called her father, Dr. Bernard Bowers, a psychiatrist, but there was no medication he could prescribe, and he blamed me for pushing her over the edge.
“This is all your fault, Mark.”
“How do you figure, Bernie?”
“Your newfound money and power represent a penis the size of Rhode Island. Julie can’t cope. Juggling is simply a metaphor for her sidestepping your enlarged member. You changed the rules, and Julie is juggling your testicles to find her footing.”
“She won’t come back until your genitalia have returned to normal size.”
“How will I know when they have?”
“Own your guilt, Mark.”
Even more than I felt like killing him, I often felt like killing myself after speaking with Julie’s father. That’s how I knew he was a real psychiatrist.
I left for Canada, which doubled as Vietnam, Washington D.C., Miami, Mexico, Nebraska, New Orleans, and a dozen other Full Force locations. For six months, the time it took to shoot the film, I ate craft service muffins and burned through thousands of cell phone minutes trying to locate my wife. She was nowhere, and I gained ten pounds.
Willis and Schwarzenegger were brilliant as the war-crazed sergeants. And the European director blew up everything in Canada that resembled a Far Eastern jungle, which is to say anything green. He used real explosives because the producer was able to hide them in the massive tax rebate that he then pocketed. Canada rebuilt the decimated landscape into golf courses, so everyone was happy except me.
After Full Force wrapped (and immediately imploded in post production), I moved back into my Coldwater Canyon house alone, heartbroken and confused. The harder I tried to find Julie, the further away she seemed to get. I worried myself sick that some terrible wickedness had befallen her.
She’s found someone else was a thought I couldn’t shake. She’s living in Romania, the center of the juggling universe, with a hairy man who can juggle flaming animals eating fresh fruit. (It makes no difference whether he’s the one eating the fresh fruit or if it’s the flaming animals, he can still juggle them.) His name is Bela and he makes love to her three times a day.
These thoughts drove me crazy. I had a recurring dream of Bela and my beautiful Julie discussing the secrets of juggling over the green tea she had brewed for him to bring out his inner magic. She was telling her new Romanian friends that he was a magician. She was wild-eyed, her hair wind-blown, wearing gypsy clothing and trinkets, juggling madly in the town square. In the dream, while she juggles, she tells passersby that she has great tits. If this is not a nightmare, then what is?
I called her friends; maybe they had heard from her. They had not. I went to the ad agency she worked at. The people there had no idea where she was. When I returned home from the ad agency, there was a message from her on my voicemail: “Have faith in me, Mark. The course of our lives is beyond our control. We must follow our paths to the end no matter where they lead. My father says your penis is gigantic. It doesn’t matter. I’m a sail in the wind. Bela says hello.”
I only imagined the part about Bela.
I went into a tailspin that lasted more than two years, right up to and including me walking down the driveway to my car as the ground shook, on my way to LAX and then Paramus, New Jersey. I had hope that this trip home would ground me, reset my compass, and put me back on track. Instead, my life, like a foolish ball of twine, rolled off the table and entirely unraveled.