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Pajamas from Paris
Movieland - Chapter 8
Falling in love with love is falling for make-believe.
Pajamas from Paris
Tom gave Eden his bed, the entire master bedroom.
“No, you stay put. I’m sleeping on the futon tonight. No, no, it’s quite comfortable. My daughter says it’s great for the back.”
“Oh?… you have a daughter?” She was fighting to keep her eyes open. “But where will she sleep?”
“In Paris. In the glow of the Eiffel Tower, I always like to think. It’s all lit up at night, and she can see it from the balcony in her bedroom. Sometimes the light carries into the room and creates a pattern on the wall.”
“That’s right,” Eden said, snuggling into the pillow. “And Helen?”
“Your wife. Where will she sleep tonight?”
“With her husband, I assume. In their very grand townhouse on the outskirts of the Bois de Boulogne. We’re divorced, a long time now.”
“I used to know a Helen…”
“My ex-wife’s name is Brett.”
“Mmm,” she agreed sluggishly. “I need to get a divorce.” Her lids opened heavily for a moment, then sank again. “But I can’t remember why.”
Tom sat on the bed and listened as her breath came out in sharp, weary exhales, slowing gradually to a steady pace. She had fallen into a profound sleep.
He took off his glasses and rubbed the spots where the nubs bit in. Is this what his life had become? Tom Day: older man, younger woman…what a mean cliché. Taking her home just like that. So easy, so willing… to be conned?
He had been without a woman beside him for too long: was that it? Sure, there had been companions over the years, wives of colleagues who were no longer sleeping together, charming women met at symposiums, film festivals. All make-do measures, brief, cordial, with no hard feelings on either side at the end. But in the main, there was little passion in Tom Day’s life outside of his work.
Had he become finally a lonely academic, disappearing himself within footnotes and dialectical monographs? The tweedy professor in a Tashlin film? — bumbling four-eyed Terry-Thomas stumbling over snazzy co-ed Tuesday Weld, and somehow they end up in his apartment to get her out of those wet clothes. Was he now just a ready mark for the most outlandish prank from a pretty … no, a dreamily beautiful young woman?
He stopped himself.
It wasn’t a prank. He was certain of that … almost. This was a confused woman in need of help, determined to live out a fantasy that he happened to be uniquely versed in.
It was odd, but one of his first memories of a Thorncraft film was getting a sweet, heartachey ten-year-old’s crush on Madeleine Gray in Fog, not so much the actress, as the drifting, haunted woman she portrayed. He had seen the film on a TV with shaky reception, which made him pay attention more intensely. Now that he thought about it, it was during that rainy, rolling viewing when he got serious about movies as art, checking out the library, beginning a campaign of reading weighty critiques and directorial memoirs in his preteens that would end up with a master’s degree in cinema. Later he would write a book devoted to Fog alone. He knew the nuance of every shot, the tone of every scene. In this young woman’s fantasy world, Thomas Day was the scholar in residence.
And her fantasy was quite advanced. He found that out when he was helping her into his car. He had caught a whiff of a perfume he knew well, a favorite of his ex-wife’s, Chanel No. 5. The actress Madeleine Gray had been part of the Chanel ad campaign during her prime, probably when she was on the set of Fog. If Eden had a scent, it would surely be this one, with its deep alcoholic notes, followed by a sting of sweetness.
Then there was the odd business when they arrived at his apartment complex. Eden, as he now agreed to call her, leaned on him, and Tom steadied her as they made their way up the steps from the dank underground parking garage. They emerged into a courtyard full of light, flanked by two identical condos known as “The Twins.”
The steps from the garage opened up directly on a small, very small, kidney-shaped pool that glittered in the afternoon sun. It was more an ornament than anything else, placed as an afterthought at the back of the property. Tom never saw anyone use it, except that one time someone had visitors from the Midwest, and then a whole slew of little boys were jumping and screaming into its pointless confines all day and all night. As Tom and Eden passed, a breeze happen to tipple the pool’s surface. Eden shuttered. “It's rippling," she said in a mysterious whisper, cringing a bit into his arm.
No mystery at all, it took him a moment to realize, when you remembered the plot of Fog.
Strange, wasn’t it? Here now by some cosmic jest was an astonishing facsimile of the dream woman from his boyhood, asleep in his bed, the reason his life had taken the turns it had.
For he had been in love once, really in love, the way only a fresh-faced 22-year-old could be. He met Brett at NYU when they collided in the bookstore, “meeting cute” as he would always describe it. He helped her pick up her stack of books and then took her to lunch around the corner. She was a stately, handsome girl three years ahead of him, also in grad school, but for business, not the arts. Two years later they were married, with a young infant, little Jean. Brett was supporting them now, while Tom stayed home writing his thesis, placing the crib near his desk so he could look over at the little girl from time to time as she held on to the bars of her crib, trying to stand. “Baby go boom,” he’d say each time she landed with that enormous look of utter astonishment. She never cried. Even in her infancy, she seemed a self-contained little person.
But things were fraying at home. Brett was now all about her “primo job on Wall Street” at which she excelled, and why wouldn’t she, she was brilliant and ambitious, working late, working weekends, rarely home. And more and more, Tom’s great love, having nowhere else to go, transferred to the little girl he watched over, sucking her thumb so thoughtfully.
She was a delightful baby, always smiling to herself at some private thing. He would sing to her when he carried her about the apartment, cooing “Jean Genie” because it fit her name. He’d make up songs too. “Teeny Genie,” he’d begin as he lifted her way up high and brought her down to wild giggles, “you live in a lamp … Teeny Genie…out you fly with a puff and a stamp!” The percussive way he said “puff” made her eyes go wide, stunned for a moment, then the happy squeals as again she flew up in his arms. Her wispy baby hair flipped about, and he had never held a baby this close before.
Tom’s thesis on the tension between fascism and Film Noir produced a stir, and after his solid dissertation in front of the judges, he was quietly urged by one of his advisors to turn the thesis into a book. To do that in any substantial way, Tom would have to go to Hollywood, where all the ‘40s source material was, most notably the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences archive at the Margaret Herrick Library.
He celebrated the success of his thesis alone that night, and when his wife came home after midnight, dropped off by a chauffeured car the firm provided for the late-working staff, he announced his crazy, wonderful plan for their future, his face flush with wine. They would pack up and move to Los Angeles, to Hollywood! She would love it. The weather. The beaches. L.A., he told her giddily, was the financial hub of the West, and she could—
But she just looked at him with that silent forbearance he had come to resent. She’d talk about it in the morning — they slept now turned away from each other — and in the morning she said what had been in the air for a while:
A separation would be best for both of them. It was time to reassess, to add up the pluses and minuses (she even talked like a spreadsheet now). For her part, she was dead tired of pulling the weight in this family. Dead tired, she repeated. He could at least have been looking for a job as an adjunct professor all this time. Didn’t matter now. She needed time to herself; how long, she didn’t know. So go, Tommy, go to Hollywood. He was about to get his grant money, she reminded him, finance ever paramount in her mind. He could live on that out West, plus there was the stipend from his father. In any case, she was done.
The announcement — it was funny — came as a relief. Tom was stunned in the moment, but he certainly wasn’t surprised.
With gritty optimism and the sincerest intentions, Tom promised he would return by Christmas. But the holidays came and went, in sunny, chilly L.A., in snowy, freezing New York. By mid-April, without fuss, without fanfare, just sign the papers, they were done.
Divorce became Brett; she was excellent at it. It brightened her spirits, and on the phone, his wife, ex-wife, sounded younger, warmer, more generous, and it made him long for that brainy girl he had once taken to lunch around the corner from the NYU bookstore.
By that autumn Brett Chandler (she had never relinquished her maiden name) was making frequent trips to Europe for the firm. She was so efficient they relocated her to Paris the following spring to run the Paris office, taking with her his little Jean, all dimpled knees in her short blue coat, to be raised as a proper French child.
“It was for the best”— that was the rubric Tom had for many years lived under. It was for the best that his child had been removed, for the best that he no longer had a wife, otherwise, how could he live this gypsy life of a writer at loose ends? His book was followed by another, then another, to small, if select, acclaim. This led to a semester here and there as a guest lecturer: a brutal East Coast winter at Syracuse University, a humid spring at the University of South Carolina, a smattering of colleges in the middle states. In between, he returned to his low-rent apartment in Silverlake to research another book. For a grown man on the crest of 30, Tom was barely eking out a living.
But Thomas Day, as his name appeared on book covers, was just about to cross over into the non-scholarly world of mass popularity. It started with a monograph on Edward Thorncraft’s masterpiece A Visitor from the East for the Museum of the Moving Image. Tom had a breezy, colorful way of writing, and a sharp acquisitions editor at a big-name publishing house decided to take a gamble.
Hollywood books were selling quite well just then, and Thorncraft’s movies had remained fresh, becoming an enduring feature of pop culture right into the late decades of the century. Tom was approached to turn his hundred-page monograph into a glamorous coffee-table book on the films of Edward Thorncraft, copious with stills and rare behind-the-scene shots, aimed at the Christmas market. The book became a runaway hit, the movie lover’s go-to gift that Christmas, and for many Christmases after.
On the wave of this popular success, Tom was approached by a serious name in university publishing to write a thorough explication of the directors’ work. “Thorncraft by the Numbers” soon became a standard textbook in cinema courses, not only because of Tom’s easy, accessible style but because of his strong, memorable examples that made of the Thorncraft oeuvre a universal case for the principles of classic filmmaking.
A steady income was now his, which doubled when the book was picked up by schools throughout Europe. Tom no longer needed to scratch around for the stray university engagement. He had his pick of elite universities, and for the fun of it, because he had always wanted to travel, to see the Great Barrier Reef and Botany Bay, Tom chose one in Australia, then England, and finally the esteemed La Femis in Paris so he could be near, if only for the two semesters, his young daughter.
Most of his time, however, was spent back in Los Angeles, in a much more swanky apartment in Westwood, “The Twins,” turning out a popular series on the various Thorncraft masterpieces. Occasionally he was asked to opine by satellite on the network morning shows or dash off a magazine article when some Thorncraftian expertise was needed to decipher a particularly challenging new movie. This kept him current, a name the public recognized, boosting the sales of his Thorncraft series.
By far, the star of that series was his passionate exploration of the film Fog, which some rival Thorncraftians in academia took comfort in snubbing, complaining of suspiciously purple passages when “the ubiquitous Thomas Day,” as one of them bitterly wrote in a little-read film journal, lingered too long on “the trembling comings and goings” of the haunted, disappearing heroine, Eden Windess.
The woman who thought she was Eden lay sleeping.
He thought: how charming she looks in my oversized pajamas, which were swimming around her, too broad at the shoulder, too long in the leg. Lovely. Womanly.
When they first got in, he drew her a bath, laying out fresh towels and a just laundered bathrobe, so she could wash away the oily, tugboat-soiled waters of the San Francisco Bay, or wherever it was she had really come from. The gray suit and blouse were grimy and sodden. He would take them to the dry cleaners tomorrow to see if they could be salvaged, but the cashmere coat would never be worn again.
It was streaked with black grease and had taken on a tarnished green hue. The coat, the original one in the film, was meant to be immaculate. Thorncraft had chosen a pale actress in a white coat for the Eden character to suggest, visually, a ghost, a woman who was there and not there, a haunted and haunting presence. To see the coat, even a copy of it, in this disgraced condition was almost sacrilegious.
He hung the damp, heavy coat at the back of the closet, where it would be little seen, and as he did, he found another item he had hidden from sight, a neglected box with a smart French name on it, a gift from his now grown daughter a few birthdays ago.
The box contained silk pajamas with shiny burgundy stripes on a darker burgundy field, all very subtle, very chic, certainly expensive, very much the quality her mother had brought his daughter up to prefer. The pajamas were handsome but too fancy for him. Like every man he knew, he slept in his boxers, and so when he received the pajamas he had folded them back into the orange Hermés box and put the box on the shelf in the closet, at the far end. His eye would catch sight of the bright orange color when he was hunting around for a shirt or matching tie, and then he would think of his daughter, who had grown into a lithe young woman, and it would give him a moment of pleasure, followed by a small pain.
He now laid the silky, never-worn pajamas on the chair outside the bathroom and returned to the closet where, as he was replacing the orange box, he was reminded, for they were still there hanging prettily on their hangars, that his daughter had left some dresses behind when she visited that summer of her sixteenth year. They too would be at the disposal of his guest. He brought the dresses forward in the order of clothes so they would be close at hand.
That summer when Jean had visited … she was almost all done with growing up. Her mother had sent her to ballet school as a young child, and Jean had matured into a striking teenager, with the self-aware posture of a ballerina. She was completely European now, pronouncing her name “Jhahn” in the French way. To her cultured eye, Los Angeles was a funny Plastique Fantastique circus, full of American nuttiness. So he took her to all the accommodating sites: Tail o' the Pup's hot-dog stand shaped as a giant hot dog in a bun, Venice Beach with its enduring hippies-on-acid freakiness, Sammi’s Tomorrow Diner where the waitresses still roller-skated up to the car window in silver-lamé space cadet uniforms.
One evening he took her to the Griffith Observatory, and Jean was finally, unironically, impressed by the august classical domes, the creamy white facade in the floodlights, the manicured park overlooking the night city. From the vantage of the park’s perimeter, they gazed down on the municipal arteries of the city lit up with streaming cars. All alive, all in motion. Yes, Jean allowed, there was a kind of beauty in Los Angeles too.
She was politely bored during the Universal Studios Tour, and it was clear she had never paid much attention to movies, didn’t understand Hollywood, much less her father’s lifelong work analyzing its product. In this, Jean was very much her mother’s daughter. Brett had no particular fondness for novels or movies or fiction of any kind, just a tolerance, which always felt like generosity when they were in college and in love.
At the end of the summer, a laughing, tan Jean promised to return. She never did. Eventually, she confessed she hated L.A., a waste of a summer when she could pick up another course in biotechnology at the Sorbonne. “You don’t mind, do you, Papa?” she asked heartbreakingly on the phone. No, of course, he didn’t.
On his birthday now she always sent a gift, and sometimes his ex-wife and her second husband would add a postscript to Jean’s Christmas card, all of them wishing him a Joyeux Noël. It was all very cordial, Brett’s fine breeding shining through. Recently Jean, now in her 20s, had gotten a plum job in biomedical research at the Pasteur Institute — like her mother, starting off life very near the top.
And that was how he had loved and lost his little Jean Genie. So he thought now, as he watched the stranger in his bed, slumbering in the gift of the burgundy pajamas.
Throughout the night, he came back to check on Eden, and as the night became cool, he quietly shut the window and covered her with a sheet, only to find the next time that she had tossed the sheet off in her sleep. Now and then the young woman would turn restlessly on the pillow. It was the strangest thing, but no matter at what angle, even in the darkened room, she always seemed softly lit, as if by unseen lights.
Preview: The Great Wheel spins. What was up is down, what was down is up.