The past fell out of a book last night.
I caught a glimpse on television of Lawrence Olivier in John Osborne’s The Entertainer the other evening, and it prompted a thought that led to a thought that led to… You know how it goes. So I pulled down my copy of Osborne’s play to look for a quote.
Because I used to be an actor, I have a pretty extensive collection of plays. It’s not as extensive as I would like, but it’s a hell of a lot more extensive than Darleen would like, she being an advocate of the Zen-Clarity School of Interior Design, while I lean toward the Absent-Minded, Cluttered-and-Dusty, But Comfortable school. I have shelves of Samuel French editions, many of them dog-eared and frail, packed with histrionic and directorial notes from over thirty years of studying and earning my living as an actor. I have shelves of paperback editions, hardbound editions, collector’s editions, anthologies, books on set design and lighting and costumes, theatrical history and criticism, multiple copies of every Shakespearean play (you can never have too much Shakespeare), entire shelves devoted to nothing but Shakespearean analysis and exegesis, a massive copy of the Norton Facsimile of the First Folio… The list goes on.
But I knew exactly where my copy of The Entertainer was, and I curled up to read it again for the first time in almost forty years. A card fell out.
It was an elegant card on heavy bond paper, with beautifully printed calligraphic font on the outside. It was John Donne’s famous quotation from Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions: Meditation XVII:
“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
On the inside were the handwritten words, “Just to say I love you, Ellen, 3/5/76”
Ellen. Ellen Parker. No relation, just a coincidence of name. We were in acting class together. That particular class catered to professionals, which included models, so some of the most beautiful women in the world were in that class. (Yes, yes; some of the most handsome men, too, but we don’t need to dwell on that.) Among all those towering beauties, you might have expected Ellen to go relatively unnoticed. She wasn’t tall, and she didn’t have the classic dying swan look that seems to reign supreme on the covers of fashion magazines decade after decade. Her beauty was of the clean, healthy, fresh-faced, good humored variety. She always looked as if she might have just stepped out of the shower after milking the family cows. (In fact, she was born in Paris, and her parents were restauranteurs.) She did not go unnoticed, however, at least not by me nor, later, by stage and screen directors who recognized her talent immediately: her career has included Broadway, off-Broadway, movies, and both nighttime and daytime television, including an Emmy award for her work on the soap opera Guiding Light. She had a sort cheerful confidence to her, and her eyes were extraordinary: large and luminous, and with something in them that hinted at intelligence and passion, laughter and tears, but mostly laughter. She always smelled good, soapy good, not perfumey, and her skin was the flawless kind that begs to be touched.
We did a scene together. Time steals so much that I can no longer remember what the scene was, but I do remember rehearsing with her in her apartment somewhere downtown. I remember her coming to a party or parties at my apartment. I remember having dinner with her (Once? Twice? Multiple times?) at a restaurant or restaurants. I remember her telling me about a cross-country motorcycle trip she took with her (then) actor husband, and possibly because of that I have either a memory or an image, a fantasy, of her stepping off a bike in blue jeans and a leather jacket, pulling off her helmet and shaking out that glorious mane of hair, sexier than hell, but I don’t know if it is real or not. Mostly I remember those rehearsals at her apartment.
If it sounds strange to you that I should remember rehearsals without remembering what scene from what play we were doing, then you know how I felt about Ellen. Don’t misunderstand: she was married, and I was married, but I always felt so comfortable and so right in her presence, and there something kind about her, something thoughtful one doesn’t often find in actors. I remember too a rehearsal when I had a cold and she gave me a tea I had never had before, chamomile possibly.
“And she feeds you tea and oranges
That come all the way from China…”
But there was one rehearsal, one moment in particular, that lingers. We were finished. I was leaving, standing by the door, turned back into the room—Spartan, like all impoverished actors’ apartments—and she came up to me and kissed me on the lips, briefly, gently, and then stepped back and looked up at me, smiling. What she intended by that kiss I do not presume to know, but what she achieved was overwhelming desire. I wanted her at that moment more than any woman I had ever known or held or touched or kissed. I wanted her so much it left me breathless, breathless and confused. But she was married and I was married. I left.
What she meant by her note in the card I also do not presume to know. I have no memory of the occasion for the book—birthday? Christmas? A random gift?—nor why she chose that particular play, but I know she must have given it to me, for I would never have thought to save a card from her in a book she hadn’t given me. Was it just an exuberant expression of affection from a girl in a profession given to exuberant hyperbole? Was she expressing a desire for something my conscience would not allow me to give? Was she expressing a longing for something her actor husband could not give? She is married to a doctor now, so I very much doubt it is the same man who was off doing a play in Boston back in that long ago time. How did that card make me feel back then? I don’t remember. I only know it meant enough to me that I carefully preserved it, and I know what it means to me now. And I know too how it makes me feel now:
“And would it have been worth it, after all
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worthwhile,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: ‘I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all’ –
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say: ‘That is not what I meant at all.
That is not it, at all.’”
This is what happens when the past falls out of a book.
Several years after we were in acting class together, just before I moved out to Los Angeles, Ellen was cast in the Broadway production of Peter Shaffer’s brilliant Equus. My (then) wife and I went to see it. If you’re unfamiliar with the play, it’s about a very troubled teenaged boy’s religious and sexual fascination with horses, and there is scene where the boy and a teenaged girl who works at the stables both strip totally naked on stage. The play deals with themes of social norms and conventions versus individual desires and passions, the religious versus the sexual, the conforming and commonplace versus the rare and spontaneous, the confining orthodoxies of society versus the vital pagan within. There is a very moving speech by the psychiatrist who is treating the boy where he admits he envies his wild young patient, envies his pagan passion and freedom:
“…He’ll be delivered from madness. What then? He’ll feel himself acceptable. What then? Do you think feelings like his can be simply reattached, like plasters? Stuck onto other objects we select… He’ll trot on his metal pony tamely through the concrete evening – and one thing I promise you: he will never touch hide again! With any luck his private parts will come to feel as plastic to him as the products of the factory to which he will almost certainly be sent. Who knows? He may even come to find sex funny. Smirky funny. Bit of grunt funny. Trampled and furtive and entirely in control…”
I heard all this and I watched Ellen’s naked body as I sat next to a woman I already knew I should never have married, and I thought of that kiss and remembered a line from another play, The Dream Play, by August Strindberg: “…For sins one never sinned remorse is felt…”
Faulkner was right in Requiem for a Nun. The past is never dead. It’s not even past. Sometimes the past can fall out of a book. The past is not in her sixties, married to a doctor, with an adopted daughter. She is still in her twenties, smooth-skinned and sweet-breathed, shaking her mane of hair out from under a motorcycle helmet, lovely, luminous, and laughing.