Photograph by Ilana Panich-Linsman
ANOTHER WAR YEAR
by Danielle Villano
It’s mid-February and it seems like everything has pretty much fallen into place and the Oscar nominations haven’t even come out yet. My therapist, who generally seems to go by “Call me Linda,” asks me if I think putting so much importance on the Academy Awards is healthy. She seems overly-curious about my need to base my life around the anticipation, arrival, and gory aftermath of the “Who Wore it Best” segment on E!, but I just shrug it off.
Issue #38 soundtrack: RIVKA "Kid Animal"
The way I see it, some people base their whole lives around getting to the Academy Awards. Living in Los Angeles, I’ve seen tons of people drop out of school and starve themselves and fuck movie people: people who “know a guy” that can get them a walk-on in the next Scorcese flick. I’ve known scores of girls who have emailed nude pictures to producers in hopes of getting an audition; these same girls had pictures of Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn hanging in their lockers in middle school, because they looked up to them and wanted to be them, and now they were trying and trying and couldn’t make the cut. So I pretty much grew up with the whole affair against my will, like someone who has to grow up with a mental older brother or something. So blame it on my parents, I guess.
Blame it on my parents. I think this happens in therapy a lot. You bring up one vague recollection of a childhood memory and all of a sudden all of your life problems can be traced back to that moment. I make one mention of a birthday party Daddy couldn’t make it to in second grade and suddenly, BAM, my therapist is scribbling on her little notepad like her life depended on it.
“I want you to write down everything you’re feeling,” Call Me Linda tells me after one particularly dull session.
“Introduce me to your life and the people in it. Talk about your interactions with others. Write about what you ate for lunch.”
She wants me to keep a journal? I’m thinking. What a waste of time. But here I am, sitting on my bed, writing in a composition notebook that I’ve scrounged up from the recesses of my desk drawer. I tell myself it’s because I have nothing better to do, that the episode of Friends tonight is a re-run and not worth the watch. I record this thought, along with some more vague, mope-y sentiments about adult authority, because maybe then Call Me Linda will suggest upping my dosage of Fluoxetine.
I do not write I am doing this because I want someone to read about my life and think it’s important enough to make a movie about it, and I or maybe Winona Ryder can star in it.
So yeah, I kind of mentioned it before, but the nominations haven’t even come out yet and everything about my senior year of high school is already awesome. Last year during this time, when the world waited with baited breath to see just how many nominations Titanic would get, I’d even say my life sucked a little bit. I was on a different antidepressant at the time, which made me gain twenty pounds and my mother became super into Buddhism and we had a Shaolin monk living in our guesthouse.
But life has turned around now. I remember seeing the trailer for Shakespeare in Love earlier on and I just knew: a year with a Shakespearean romance could hardly be a bad year. And so far I’ve been right. A quick switch to Fluoxetine and a few weeks of eating nothing but celery and I lost all of the weight I had put on. And Mom decided that she was so not into the whole Buddha gig anymore and has taken up spin class, instead. It’s my senior year of high school and everyone is exactly as they should be.
I’d say: yes, the class of ’98 certainly has it going on. I’m a drama club star with a promising scholarship to an east-coast film school that a lot of kids would kill to go to. I always get picked to read monologues in English class and make it a point to be seen smoking a cigarette in the courtyard every afternoon during lunch. And yes, that sounds fucking stereotypical, but hello, we’re living in the land where stereotypes are born. The Brat Pack? Yeah, we made that shit up. It’s expected.
Things that are expected of me that I get away with on account of my artistic temperament: Cry when I think of Sylvia Plath. Hack my hair into an uneven mess. Draw on my eyebrows. Storm out of classrooms. Eat only white rice and Sour Patch Kids. Shoplift things that I could easily afford. Take hallucinogenics on the days we’re supposed to dissect baby animals in lab. Know all of the lyrics to Patti Smith’s Horses album. Sell my Adderall.
Things that are not expected of me based on the role I’ve been given but I do them anyway to shake up the system: Excel at math. Date the son of a doctor, and not some thirty year-old folk musician.
Some days it gets dull because there’s only so much sexy, slimming black a girl can wear before she gets bored out of her fucking mind, but I don’t mind keeping my dark cherry lipstick (the same shade Drew Barrymore wore on the cover of Vogue) close at hand. I especially love seeing the color on the collar of Paul’s white lab coat after an intense makeout session in the midway break of organic chemistry lab.
Paul is my boyfriend of a few months and aside from being totally smart and funny, he is ridiculously attractive. He could easily be an actor, for certain, only that he stutters the “t” sound sometimes when things get t-t-t-tense.
Paul’s the son of a famous plastic surgeon (everyone in LA goes to him – my mother included) and is quick to let everyone know that fact. I think he’ll probably take over the family business one day, and he doesn’t seem to mind that idea, although he really, really loves NASA and space exploration but no one ever goes into that for money, I don’t think, and his dad would probably freak out if his son came up to him and said, “Dad, I want to be an astronaut.”
But Paul is sweet and puts up with my bullshit and doesn’t think I’m crazy when I prattle on about Elizabeth Taylor’s wardrobe in Cleopatra. He knows lots of really interesting things and he smells really nice and sometimes I think I love him.
The first time we had sex, we were sitting on his bed in his room and he was telling me about the different type of sedatives they use during plastic surgery, and his voice was kind of lulling me to sleep.
“I kind of like the idea of slipping away,” I said, and leaned back against his chest with a yawn.
“There’s a quote by someone,” he spoke into my neck, “that goes something like: She fought her enemy, consciousness, with sedatives.”
I smiled, because at that moment I figured that Paul totally got it; he totally understood the importance of fighting against the bullshit of daily routine. I turned around and kissed him hard on the mouth.
He started unbuttoning my shirt with doctor-like precision and kissed my neck, still murmuring about barbiturates and benzodiazepines, and I fell back onto the bed thinking: Maybe this is what closeness feels like.
What makes me sad is the fact that I know if Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan wins Best Picture (it will get a nomination of course; the Academy knows what it’s doing), then I’ll have to break up with Paul. This imminent breakup is especially sad because I’ve already bought him his birthday present: a pair of Swarovski crystal cufflinks that would look delicious paired with his prom tuxedo.
When Call Me Linda asks me why I feel I’ll have to break up with my boyfriend if Saving Private Ryan wins, I calmly explain to her that in the years war movies win Best Picture, bad things happen and everything goes to shit. This can be seen in 1986 when Platoon won and I fell off my bicycle and broke my ankle, or in 1978 when The Deer Hunter won and my parents decided the best thing that could possibly happen would be for the two of them to get married.
My parents sometimes like to pretend that they’re supportive. Once a week my mother guilts me into having dinner with her and my dad. I don’t think she actually enjoys sitting down to eat with us (she normally leaves the table before she even finishes her salad and grilled chicken, complaining about a headache), but I think she feels that she needs to force the whole family bonding thing on us all so she can feel like she’s telling the truth when she confirms for her own therapist, “Yes, I am trying.”
My older sister is lucky because she’s away at school and only has to deal with my parents during Christmas and summer vacation. In her absence, I have to bear the brunt of the incessant prodding and analyzing.
“Linda says you’re very fascinated with the Academy Awards, still,” Mom says during one excruciating dinner. “Do you think you want to go into the film industry?”
I shrug over my glass of water.
“It’s a very hard industry to get into, you know,” my father says.
My mother nods. “They’re always asking something different of you. New hair, new cup size.”
Dad starts to push the food around on his plate. He’s become increasingly interested in making his pile of green beans into a miniature log cabin.
“Linda says you’ve been showing resentment towards us in therapy. Do you resent us?” My mother reaches around her wine glass to grasp my hand. “Because, dear, it’s just that we love you. You know we love you, right?”
I almost say, “I know you do,” but Mom has launched into a story about some woman in her book club, and in a moment Dad has finished his chicken and gets up from the table without a word.
Having to deal with all of this bullshit, I think I’d be lost without Alaina. Alaina is my best friend right now mainly because she doesn’t seem to care if sometimes I cry when I think about the ending of Citizen Kane, and she’s also the same shoe size as me, and she has a collection of beautiful patent-leather pumps by knockoff designer brands. She has honey-blonde hair cut into the best “Rachel” I have ever seen; I think even Jennifer Aniston would like the cut on her, and Jennifer Aniston has never liked her Friends haircut, as she told People magazine.
Alaina’s always chewing Vitamin C tablets because she’s afraid of getting sick, and the slightest complaint of a headache or backache has her overly-cautious psychiatrist mother refilling her prescription for Vicodin, which I gobble up greedily despite the annoying itching it causes in my arms and legs, like little pinpricks.
“I’m going to stick with holistic medicine, rather than put all of my faith in some little white super-pills,” Alaina chirps. She’s started hanging out at the organic food co-op and is totally into herbal remedies. I think she’s decided she likes weed, too, even though she complains about only ever getting bad highs.
Alaina never really has much to say about boys aside from expressing appreciation over Leonardo DiCaprio’s charm (we all want to be Kate Winslet, which is the reason I had hennaed my hair this winter in a desperate attempt to reach the same red shade as her Titanic character). She remains close-lipped whenever I mention the phrase “double date.” Most people assume she’s some kind of modish, high-fashion lesbian, but I have my doubts about that kind of chick existing. The only lesbians I’ve ever met brew beer from scratch in their garage and keep pitbulls they rescued from the pound. Blonde, sun-tanned Alaina does neither of those things, and so I assume that she’s just laying low until Prince Charming blips on her radar.
“I don’t know why you insist on letting yourself be tied down,” she said to me one morning as we stood on line for coffee before school.
I poured a packet of sugar into my palm and pushed the crystals into a diamond shape.
“Paul’s hot,” I responded. “He’s fun to hang out with. I get to have sex regularly. And he totally has the hookup when it comes to pharmaceuticals.”
Alaina was quiet for a little bit. We got our coffee and were heading down the sidewalk towards school before she said, “I just think you might be missing out.”
Alaina certainly has a lot going for her, what with her scholarship to UC Berkley (she has the bumper sticker with their motto, Fiat Lux, slapped on the inside of her locker) to study business and all, and some days I feel jealous of the fact that she has a beauty mark on her cheek and doesn’t have eczema on her stomach like I do. My older sister’s always told me I must have been adopted, seeing as how my skin doesn’t seem to be made for the California climate. Some days I’m jealous of the fact that Alaina can use that lotion that smells like raspberries, the kind of lotion that would make my own temperamental skin irritated and inflamed - but then my jealousy kind of floats away, because that’s Alaina. She’s just sweet and perfect and if she could be anything on this planet beside a human, she would probably be a summer fruit.
She’s the only girl I know who doesn’t let her Los Angeles upbringing go to her head (this conclusion was reached based on the fact that she always says “thank you” to cashiers and isn’t opposed to shopping the clearance racks). I think one day if I ever get famous I want her to star in my first film; even though she says she doesn’t “give a shit about Hollywood,” I’m pretty sure she’d be gorgeous on the screen.
And it all starts happening: The nominations came out today and I get that familiar warm feeling behind my eyes. My fingers tingle and it may be from Alaina’s Vicodin, but I think it’s just excitement over the names of films printed in shiny black newspaper ink:
• Life Is Beautiful
• Saving Private Ryan
• The Thin Red Line
• Shakespeare in Love
• Steven Spielberg – Saving Private Ryan
• Roberto Benigni – Life Is Beautiful
• John Madden – Shakespeare in Love
• Terrence Malick – The Thin Red Line
• Peter Weir – The Truman Show
This list of nominations goes on to the next page and I’m satisfied and already circling my predictions in my head. I’m already envisioning the perfect Oscar ensembles for Cate Blanchett and Meryl Streep. I’m already wondering who Edward Norton will have draped on his arm as he strolls down the red carpet.
I hope it’s me.
(I don’t write that last bit in the journal, about Edward Norton, because during my last session Call Me Linda read the summary of my dream involving Billy Bob Thorton drinking a vial of my blood and she asked me if I had ever felt sexually attracted to an older relative.)
Alaina and I have been having all kinds of fun adventures together over the past few weeks, usually with the aid of the credit card my workaholic father has decided to give me out of the guilt of never having been there for me as a child (his own therapy is paying off for him and me, I guess). Like last weekend we met some dark Italian or Hispanic guys on the strip who told us they would rent us a boat for the afternoon for a few hundred dollars. So maybe this sounded a little sketchy but I was feeling rebellious and the men were kind of fawning over Alaina even though she didn’t give them a passing glance. She shrugged and said, “Why not,” so I went to the ATM. We laid out on the deck of the boat in the sun and got tan and one of the guys brought out a Polaroid camera and asked us if he could take our picture. He said he knew “movie people,” and although that’s the oldest trick in the book we let him take our picture because we were bored and it was kind of thrilling, too.
But we’re just as happy to spend weekends barricaded in my room with a stack of Elle magazines and the television perpetually blaring MTV. It sounds like a Valley Girl life, and maybe it is, except we look nothing like that Clueless bunch, and certainly we dress better. We hotbox the room, stuffing old t-shirts underneath the door and around the window. We sit on the floor with the multicolored bubbler between us and I fawn over the idea of starting a pop-rock girl band, something like The Runaways in the 70s, but much cooler, and Alaina presses her perfectly manicured fingers to her eyelids and says, “I wish things would stop fucking happening.”
And it’s finally here: the night my fate is decided. You can find us in my room now, on Oscar night, high and buzzed on a bottle of expensive rice wine. MTV is certainly not playing, though; the television is turned to ABC because everything’s getting serious.
“Seventy-one years,” Alaina whistles. “This show is older than my grandma.”
Alaina, it’s safe to say, could care less about the Academy Awards. She may be the only person in Los Angeles to feel this way. But she’s content to nurse her chipped highball glass filled with wine and sigh in a kind of dreamy way when Aerosmith sings “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” from Armageddon, so maybe there’s hope for her, still.
Saving Private Ryan has already won Best Film Editing and Best Cinematography and Best Sound Mixing and Sound Editing, too, so I’m quiet and tearing at the skin around my fingernails. Even the sight of Kim Basinger in her beautiful, pale green vintage Escada gown cannot lift my spirits.
I can’t have this be another war year.
You’re already born half-dead in this town, because when you’re born they suck most of the childhood out of you and throw it to the paparazzi and the gawkers and the aging divas who thrive on youth potions, so by the time you reach age ten you may as well already be thirty, for all you’ve seen and heard and experienced. And if this is another year for war movies, they may as well just ship me off to The Betty Ford Center now because that’s sure as hell where I’ll end up, after all of this bullshit.
I’ve resigned myself to my miserable fate and motion for Alaina to pass the joint my way.
She hesitates before handing it to me. “I worry about you sometimes, you know?” she sighs. “I know that sounds stupid.”
I inhale, letting the smoke fill my lungs. It burns the back of my throat and I don’t say anything.
“You have so much fucking potential. I just feel like sometimes you’re just kind of floating there in limbo, and no one can help you because you won’t let anyone in.”
I exhale and shrug, my eyes still glued to the television screen.
“How’re we supposed to know exactly what we want?” I ask her. I turn to glance at her, and she stares back at me with big brown eyes that remind me of warm syrup.
“I mean, God. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told my parents I want to be a movie director,” I say. “For some reason they can’t seem to get that through their minds. They talk to me about acting. And then, after hearing about it so much, I start to think: Should I want to be an actor?”
Alaina tucks a stray blonde hair behind her ear. I continue, “And at school. I have people from the drama department up my ass about what I want for the next production. I have my guidance counselor asking me what I want out of my high school career. And on top of everything else, I have my therapist sitting there and flat-out asking me: What do you want?”
Maybe it’s the alcohol, but I can’t stop myself. “And everyone’s pestering me about this fucking awards show. They keep asking, ‘What makes this so great?’ But you know what it is? I just love it so much because everyone goes into the awards knowing exactly what they want out of it. And unfortunately that’s not how life works. So please tell me you have an answer for me. How’re we supposed to know exactly what we want?”
She doesn’t have time to answer because the tables have turned: The Best Original Musical or Comedy Score goes to: Shakespeare in Love! Best Original Screenplay: Shakespeare in Love! Best Supporting Actress: Judi Dench for Shakespeare in Love!
I think I may have started crying, and at the same time smoke is pouring out of my nostrils thick and hot, and Alaina doesn’t quite know what to do so she kind of places a hand on my knee and squeezes.
Best Actress: Gwyneth Paltrow for Shakespeare in Love! I’ve fallen onto my back and I’m suddenly struck by how solid the floor is beneath my palms, and I can feel the pain biting at my fingertips where I’ve peeled away the skin out of nervousness, and I vow that if this good luck keeps up I won’t ever bite at them again, and maybe I’ll even calm it down with my artistic antics for a little while. And maybe it’s the weed that’s making me feel this way, but I suddenly have this idea like I have been let in on some perfect Hollywood secret but I can’t quite pin it down yet.
It hardly even registers that Spielberg wins Best Director (because I am now operating on a higher plane), but when Harrison Ford steps onto the stage holding the envelope with the winner of Best Picture I am brought crashing back down to earth. I sit up quickly and the stale air in the room is choking me but I try to hold my breath, anyway.
And suddenly I am jumping up and down like Roberto Benigni, hollering and waving my arms, because it’s all Shakespeare in Love, and Alaina with those big brown eyes grabs my face in between her hands and kisses me hard on the mouth. And it’s kind of scary but I find myself melting into the softness of her lips and she’s saying, “You just know!”
I break away because I realize that I actually just kissed my best friend, but I don’t feel horrified or nauseated or anything like that; more than anything I feel kind of pleasantly surprised, like I just witnessed some underdog independent film sweep all the categories, and maybe I kind of knew it would all along. And I feel so grounded in the moment, with Alaina smiling at me in this really goofy way, and the pot and alcohol thrumming through my system. She reaches over and squeezes my hand and at least for a moment I can easily say that is all that I want.
Danielle Villano is from Northern New Jersey and attends SUNY Purchase, where she majors in Creative Writing. She was featured in the 2011 Poetry Ark Anthology and Italics Mine, and was the 2011 Ginny Wray Prize recipient in Fiction from SUNY Purchase. When not writing, Danielle enjoys photography, movies, and attending theme parties. Visit her fashion and lifestyle blog at loveandlookpretty.blogspot.com.
Ilana Panich-Linsman is a photojournalist and multimedia producer in Western Massachusetts. She is a graduate of the Platypus Workshop (2005); Eddie Adams Workshop, Barnstorm XXII (2009); and the International Center of Photography’s Documentary Photography and Photojournalism full-time program (2009), where she was awarded the Director’s Fellowship. In 2009, she was a finalist at the New York Photo Awards and was nominated for the World Press Photo Joop Suart Masterclass. Her work was on display in July 2010 at the Foto8 Summer Show in London. In June, 2010, Ilana was awarded the Lumix Multimedia Award at the Lumix Festival for Young Photojournalists in Hannover, Germany. Visit her online portfolio at ilanapl.com.
RIVKA is a Pittsburgh-based electronic band comprised of Reggie Wilkins and Rivka Rose. "Kid Animal" is the opening track from their 2011 self-titled release. Stream or download more of their songs on Bandcamp, or visit the band on Facebook.
P.S. Did you miss Storychord's "Around the Campfire" CMJ event? Artist Andrea Sparacio (Issue 36 and event backdrop creator) has posted a full write up that includes photos plus streaming audio of that night's spooky story readers and musical sets from Will Stratton & Katie Mullins!