Fiction by Alan Swyer
During the Q&A after a Santa Monica screening of Rothman's documentary about the criminal justice system in Los Angeles, an attractive redhead raised her hand.
"It's seems to me that you've now made two films about social and cultural issues in Southern California –" she began.
"Three –" Rothman corrected.
"As someone whose accent shows he's obviously from New York –"
"Was there a specific moment, or incident, when you realized that life out here differs in ways that go beyond the 3,000 miles between the coasts?"
"Beyond right turns on red lights? Or more yoga studios than Mumbai?"
First Rothman related an anecdote about a Sunday brunch where the host, a psychologist who wrote books about women's relationship problems, asked for a show of hands of those taking the antidepressant Prozac, which proved to include everyone present except the newly arrived Jerseyite. Then came a tale about being asked after a regular Saturday morning basketball game what Rothman did for a living. He answered and politely posed the same question. The response – "I'm Gene Hackman's brother-in-law" – provided him with an entirely new perspective as to the definition of employment.
On a roll, Rothman proceeded to tell the audience about his experiences with what passed for theater when he first arrived in LA. His first exposure, he stated, was a production of "The Crucible," in which Charleton Heston played the lead as though he were still Moses. Even worse was a star-studded performance of "A Streetcar Named Desire," in which Jon Voight and Faye Dunaway, as Rothman saw it, should have switched roles as Stanley and Blanche.
But it was while driving home following the Q&A that it dawned on Rothman that his breakthrough insight into Southern California as a world apart – or as he often thought of it, a parallel universe – owed primarily to a woman named Colette Duchamp.
Ironically, it was thanks to someone Rothman never particularly cared for – an overly aggressive self-styled producer named Casey Olson – that Colette came into his life. For reasons Rothman never understood, Olson took to including him at dinner parties at the hilltop home he shared with Colette, which Rothman attended in part because of the free meals.
The dinners themselves were illuminating in several ways. First was the astounding array of diets, regimes, qualms, and no-no's. Whereas Rothman knew one on-again-off again vegetarian in New Jersey, and had an uncle with high blood pressure who was supposed to watch his salt intake, the Casey/Colette dinners were a look into a world where seemingly everyone had significant restrictions and scruples: vegan, lacto- or gluten-intolerant, Kosher, a raw diet, or something called paleo.
Then there was his entry into the realm of what he came to think of as “movie speak.” Though rarely did anyone seem to have an actual film in production, everyone, with the exception of Rothman, spoke incessantly of options, deals, first-looks, drafts, negotiations, and projects in development, with the most frequently heard word being “pending.”
But that ever-growing glossary of terms was nothing compared to what Rothman encountered once Casey and Colette announced to the world that they were calling it quits as a couple.
Despite having known them for less than a year, he was informed that he was their closest friend. Rothman was then asked to help not just with the heavy lifting on the day Casey would move out, but worse: with the actual division of property.
To his surprise, what he feared would be acrimonious began on an up note, with both Olson and Colette doing their best to be generous, cordial, and accommodating. Furniture was divided peacefully, with the pieces going to Casey then toted to a rented van.
Due to the lugging and the heat, emotions started to become a bit threadbare by the time the ex-lovers were to split the art work, the DVDs, and their large collection of CDs. But still they did their best to retain some semblance of equanimity.
It was not until their task reached the kitchen that pique really asserted itself. Rothman watched his putative best friends get testy over the Who Gets What with pots and pans, then downright argumentative over the division of knives. But it was only when the two of them turned their attention to the spice cabinet that tempers started flaring, culminating with Casey Olson, whose face had turned bright red, screaming, "Okay, you can have the thyme and oregano. But if you so much as dare to touch that goddamn sage, you're dead!"
In much the same way that the couple's possessions were divided, so, too, were the people on their respective Rolodexes. Though Rothman assumed that his days as Friend #1 were over, he was surprised to find himself getting ever more frequent calls, plus invitations, especially from Colette.
More to the point was that with each and every get-together with Colette, he found himself not just increasingly fond of her, but also happily intrigued.
Beyond being excellent company, Colette was also, at least from Rothman's frame of reference, a singular study in contradictions. Though blessed with patrician manners and social graces the like of which Rothman had never before encountered, Colette was also capable of telling salacious jokes, as well as revealing, in an off-handed way, incredibly sordid incidents from her past. When it came to drinking, though her capacity was seemingly boundless, she somehow never appeared drunk. But most striking was her surprising intelligence, and her offbeat sense of humor, which included an ability to laugh at human foibles, including her own, especially those specific to Southern California: weird diets, exotic religious practices, bizarre fitness trends, and odd expressions of sexuality.
Paradoxically, despite Colette being stunning enough to turn heads when entering a room, plus Rothman's overwhelming interest in women – it was once said that he would schtupp a snake if he could keep it still – they never seriously contemplated getting into bed together. That owed partially to Rothman's taste running in a different direction than aristocratic blondes. But more telling was his reluctance to tamper with a friendship that he increasingly cherished.
Through Colette, Rothman came to know an entirely different group of people than the ones who frequented the dinners given during her days with the forgotten Casey. Attractive, patrician, and not the least bit involved in show business, those Colette considered her peers were initially a conundrum for Rothman. They were well-educated and sophisticated in the sense of having traveled to many and varied exotic places. Nonetheless, they seemed almost alarmingly disengaged from the real world.
Despite having come to view Los Angeles as the worldwide mecca for people with no visible means of support – populating coffee houses, gyms, pilates and yoga studios, and tennis courts, and bars at all hours of the day and night – Rothman found Collete's crowd strangely different. Instead of surviving thanks to hustles, scams, residuals from re-runs, royalties from songs recorded long ago, sugar-daddies, or wealthy paramours – her crew breezed through life thanks largely to trust funds. A few held nominal, undemanding positions in family-held businesses or charities, but most didn't even have that – which translated, as Rothman saw it, into little reason to get out of bed in the morning.
Aside from making him wonder not merely what Colette saw in such people, but also why, with Casey Olson gone from her life, she spent ever-increasing amounts of time in such company, the glimpses Rothman got into that rarefied atmosphere enabled him to see his own situation in a drastically different light.
Having grown up in a blue-collar world in which a need for spending money meant having to work – mowing lawns and shoveling snow as a youngster, then umpiring Little League games and stocking shelves in a warehouse until he was old enough to drive a delivery van – Rothman had spent years with a chip on his shoulder. But that very resentment, he started to understand, had a positive side. Expecting nothing from others provided him with the motivation to work hard and create opportunities for himself.
As Rothman grew impatient with those for whom gilded indolence was a way of life, the mystery was not just what Colette, who was infinitely more vivacious than they, saw in them. Even more difficult to understand was where he, who was so different as to be almost a different species, fit into her universe.
The answer, Rothman came to believe, was that Colette was torn between the person she was raised to be, and the one she dreamed of becoming.
Soon Colette acquired a big, bouncy rescue mutt whom she named Bernie, but often affectionately called Bambino. Rothman frequently accompanied the two on hikes through LA's hills and canyons.
While at times he and Colette spoke about the state of the world, the current crop of films, or their respective lives, almost invariably they would at some point focus on Colette's dream of becoming a writer. Technical issues about writing were often discussed, as were the differences between short stories or novels on the one hand, and scripts on the other. But overriding all else were the pep talks that Colette solicited, which Rothman provided not just dutifully, but happily, since he genuinely believed that she had tales to tell, plus a voice unlike anyone else's.
Instead of the hoped-for pages of a work-in-progress, what he received from Colette a few weeks later was something that induced a surge of jealousy: an invitation to her wedding. It was not because he felt betrayed romantically that Rothman cringed, but rather that he had been so completely in the dark about what had been a whirlwind affair.
More troubling – and bizarre – was the realization, once Rothman arrived at the event, that aside from a few family members, plus a handful of friends, the only others in attendance were the minister who performed the service, Colette's gynecologist, and the man responsible for fixing up the bride with her husband-to-be: their mutual psychiatrist.
This was it – the defining moment for Rothman in differentiating Southern California culture from the one in which he was raised.
Yet despite his amazement and, if the truth be known, a measure of amusement – as well as Colette's whispered admission that the wedding could qualify as California Crazy – Rothman was struck by an unsettling thought. Given who was catalyst for the union, it was impossible not to fear what might befall Colette if, for any reason, the marriage did not succeed.
Rothman's first premonition that all might not be peachy occurred when he stopped by for a walk with Colette and Bernie.
"Bambino!" Colette hollered, promptly eliciting twin responses. "Yes!" came a cry from new hubby Errol, while from another part of the house came a simultaneous "Woof" from Bernie.
Though stunned that both man and dog had come to share the moniker, Rothman chose not to acknowledge his dismay.
Still, he was far from surprised when, just a couple of weeks later, Colette mentioned on a hike near the Hollywood reservoir how few interests she and Errol seemed to share. Since Errol seemed to be decent in a dull sort of way, Rothman took the high road by not asking what interests Colette expected him to possess.
Less than six weeks later, the marriage crumbled. Shortly after, so did Colette.
Rothman tried his best to help. Though Colette was determined to hide from the world, he managed to lure her out for walks with Bernie, and even occasionally for meals. In addition, he often sat in the dark with her in the living room of her now empty house.
When Colette did finally rejoin the living, it was in an unexpected way: by enrolling in a course on play writing.
Suddenly, that was her focus, her main interest, and seemingly her lifeblood. She decided quickly and relentlessly that she personally would reinvigorate, even reinvent, Los Angeles theater.
Though pleased to see Colette doing rather than vegetating, licking her wounds, or pouting, Rothman had serious misgivings. As someone who took more of a plow horse approach to writing, grinding away day after day, he believed that perspiration counted far more than the kind of inspiration that erupted in manic bursts. Further, ever since his experience with both "The Crucible" and "Streetcar," he never quite succeeded in thinking of LA as a theater town. But most telling was his sense that it took years – not just a series of once-a-week classes – to master a form with which novelists as talented as Henry James and Kurt Vonnegut had found little success.
Not quite half a year later, Colette told Rothman that she was going to become the co-director of a fledgling artists colony in the mountains east of San Diego. She was leaving LA, and hoped that he would drive down not simply to visit from time to time, but rather to spend six or eight weeks as an artist-in-residence.
Though the two of them spoke occasionally by phone in the months that followed, Rothman's trip never materialized.
Inevitably, after the conversations became less and less frequent, the two of them lost touch. But a couple of years later, while searching for a way to breathe life into a character in a screenplay he was commissioned to write, memories of Colette came to mind, providing Rothman with personality traits for a love interest he named Camille.
That led Rothman to wonder – not every day or week, but every so often – what had become of his erstwhile friend.
Periodically, while driving, or flying, or daydreaming during a boring meeting, he would think about reaching out to Colette, or trying to find her.
But with work becoming progressively more complicated once he started directing as well as writing – and even more so after his two sons were born – that never quite happened.
Ten years of filmmaking went by.
While shooting a documentary about Eastern spirituality in the Western world, Rothman made arrangements to film the transmission of what's known in Hinduism as Shaktipat, in which a guru imparts what's known as a kundalini awakening. Arriving at an ashram, he was stunned to hear the sound of an almost forgotten voice.
To his dismay, seated amidst a throng of white-clad believers, was Colette. Hugs ensued and phone numbers were exchanged, plus a promise to get together soon.
The rendezvous took place the following Tuesday at a lunch spot in the beach town of Venice. This Colette proved to be light years removed from the person he once knew. It was not simply a matter of having aged. Nor was it her vegetarian diet, her yoga practice, or her incessant references to her guru.
Gone, as far as Rothman could tell, was the spark he remembered so fondly, along with the sense of humor, the playfulness, and the vitality. Gone, too, was the irreverence, as well as the vivaciousness that made Colette so special. In their place he found a kind of emptiness that seemed less like the positive form of stillness of which mystics speak than a vacuousness reminiscent of a living death.
Colette's claimed that she, a Midwesterner who had divided her adult life between Los Angeles and San Diego, had finally, after years of hard work, become a full-fledged Californian. Rothman, in the aftermath of the lunch, took stock of himself.
Though he loved SoCal life – running at the beach, eating tacos, going to see the Dodgers and the Clippers, eating regional Chinese food in the San Gabriel Valley and Ethiopian food on Fairfax, and torturing himself twice a week on the famed Santa Monica steps – he was happy that a part of him was, and likely would always remain, a Jersey guy at heart.
And above all he was pleased that the Colette he chose to remember had been memorialized on-screen, albeit as Camille.
Alan Swyer is an award-winning filmmaker whose recent documentaries have dealt with Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the criminal justice system, diabetes, and boxing (ElBoxeoTheMovie.com). His fiction has appeared in Ireland, England, India, and in several American publications.