Just Our Imagination
In all the Buddhist teachings I’ve studied, they say something or other about this life, this world
being an illusion. This body that we lug around, these feet and this stomach that we carry full of food all over the city, into our cars, in and out of living rooms and stores, is all non-existent. The stomach will disappear, deflate like a balloon. This whole body will fall and sink into the ground. This boss of mine with a personality that is as lively as anything, jumping up and down like a bunch of clown suits, is actually nothing. The slow-going eyes of my friend Derek and the thoughts that he always seems to be thinking behind them are also nonexistent, a show that nobody will watch or care to anyway in a hundred years.
This is even the case with people like Art, one of the subjects of this essay. Art is my ex-boyfriend Harry’s father and he died a week ago. He towered over everyone with his gargantuan shoulders and broad chest. Large hands and feet, a thick crop of hair that never thinned out, even in his last days. I knew him before drugs had done him in, at a time when he could engage a listener for hours with his stories.
Stories are another subject of this essay--those that we tell, those that Art told. I think about that fully alive, intensely thinking, feeling and talking Art who told one story after another, as he tapped out one Virginia Slims cigarette after another, putting his hand through his thick ruff of graying hair. There was the Art who talked about growing up as a Jew in Atlanta in the 1940’s,
the son of a bar owner. There was the Art who watched baseball and basketball games and told stories about teams he’d seen in the 50’s and 60’s, players he’d seen--Babe Ruth, Johnny Bench, records he’d watched broken, legendary plays that took place on the fields and faces of these long-gone players. There was that Art. Then, there was nothing. All those stories. All those
conversations from his brown, reclining chair and blue sofa that looked like a 1970’s sandwich,
seemed so important at the time. Then, all of it just went.
My mother was a professional storyteller for much of her adult life. She told legends, fables, myths, folktales. I saw people become transfixed by these stories. Fairies and ghosts, talking frogs and foxes were some of the featured players. Many of these stories were created to impart a lesson. But the moral was often less interesting than the sound of the squirrel’s voice, the stoop of the wicked magician, the contorted face, distorted voice. These sounds and movements kept the moment alive a little longer. In that moment, one could lose all anxiety, fear, sadness, dread.
My mother also told an assortment of stories from her life—the stories of the gurus she’d kneeled before in the 70’s and 80’s, the stories of the bosses who yanked their pants off in front of her in the pre-feminist 50’s and 60’s, a story of being chased with a knife, going through a windshield, receiving the last rites. There were the stories of jazz clubs she sang in and attended, in her twenties, the famous people she met, even dated. Everything reminds my mother of a story--a name, a type of car, a color, a food, a song lyric all help to replay some light or dark, sad or funny and often wild and astonishing story.
Tonight, my mother and I watch a documentary. It is about Marlon Brando. One of the more
interesting stories of my mother’s life is of the day she met Marlon Brando. She met him in Lenox, MA, in 1992 at The Rosewood Café. The Rosewood Café was owned by an Italian-American man named Jerry. When I later came to know the Italian-American side of my family—my mother’s side, I would say that he reminded me of them. Like them, he had thick features that looked like rolls of ricotta or mozzarella rolled up on his face. Like my cousins, Jerry also gesticulated a lot, his hands reaching into the air, as if he were squeezing pieces of dough, crescents of lemon, as if he were plucking heirloom tomatoes off the vine. What accompanied the gesticulations were stories. When he ran his palms down the air in front of him, as if it were a Roman statue’s body, he told stories about his time in L.A. as an actor, producer and screenwriter. I don’t remember any of his stories. However, I can say with near certainty that when he told them, the memories jolted his face, his eyes, caused his hands to flip the air back like it was a curtain and opening night. I can say with near certainty that the stories revolved around idols of Hollywood, featured Hollywood studios, scripts, production lots and some of the most legendary, golden names. He told stories about his time working at Paramount. He most likely told stories about the way Hollywood ended up wrangling his soul and wringing it dry.
Jerry was old then. If he’s around now, he’s really old. If he’s around now, he’s probably still telling those stories, waiting for them to turn into something. To step outside of him, put on clothes and walk around like real things and not the ghosts that all of us and our experiences are.
Many of my own stories took place on the porch of The Rosewood Café. They feature Gregory, a poet and my mentor. I never paid attention to the stories he told but only memorized their general tone and atmosphere. In his stories, it seemed, he or someone else was always the tough-guy lead. When he told his stories, he chewed, bit the words off at the ends, as if trying to hold them, keep them hanging there on his lips, inside his mouth, sliding along his teeth.
For years, I repeated his way of telling stories in my mind, and even with my own body, sidling up to words, or else biting into, sucking on them hard. If I couldn’t have him, perhaps I could become him, live him out like the living, breathing story he was. Even now, there is a back room in my mind where Gregory can be all that I imagined. Here, he can still rant about things I didn’t actually hear because I was too busy trying not to look at his eyes, too busy attempting to adjust myself, my words and body for them.
I’ve studied Buddhism on and off since I was in my twenties. In these teachings, life is referred to as a dream, nothing more than smoke. Perhaps this is true, in one sense. We are nothing and yet, I think, at the same time everything because we are all we know.
For some people perhaps even an imaginary life is too much and stories a necessary way to cool off, to shut down the massive switchboard of emotions--the rage, the sadness, the grief. As Joan Didion said “We tell stories to live.”
This was certainly the case with Art, as he reclined in his armchair and relived a scene from college, from early marriage, his time working in a top security government position. It was usually at the end of the night, after the spool of stories had run out. It was at the end of the night, that he took one or two—sedatives, muscle relaxants, sleeping pills, pain killers, hypnotics. It was after the glass ashtray was filled with half-smoked Virginia Slims. It might have been in response to one of the arguments that his son and I enacted on a nearly nightly basis. “Why don’t you just take a pill,” he’d slur, pulling his giant drooping limbs out of the chair. He said this as he shuffled in big feet to his room. If one argued that he did, in fact, feel things more deeply, one wouldn’t be reaching far. His stories included a nervous breakdown, visits to numerous psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, doctors of various types.
For this reason, he died half in a stupor, half in a panic, as they pumped him full of more and more drugs. His anxiety got so bad that the medications were actually kicking off bigger and bigger panics. Taking them was like jumpstarting and shutting down an engine at the same time.
We find out from a post online that Art passed away. Someone puts up a picture of him at age thirty or so. In it, he is bending down, hands on his knees. His younger body only slightly resembles the older one, which looked like a body tossed, tumbled around for years on end. In this picture, a quintessential 1950’s haircut lines the top of his head still young with dreams, looking forward, a head probably beginning to tense underneath the pressure of family life. I wonder what he did, what he thought the moment before and after that picture. What stories happened there, alongside those tract homes.
Still, I am waiting for the prankster to call off the joke, to stop the silliness, stop the press, as always happens when people die. With someone like Art, especially, you can’t imagine them as anything but alive. In their stories, they seem to multiply, so that they are alive many times over. Death can’t possibly take down all of their various lives and forms.
A few hours before we got the news about Art, one of the most terrifying historical events in recent history, occurred. Terrorists attacked Paris. Just like 9-11, at first everybody is reacting by laying out their hearts and souls for Paris. In the moments, the days after it occurs, nothing else seems to exist for many people. People litter their online walls with flags of Paris. Many, like me, watch movies or television shows, just the type of stories to make the swelling go down, so to speak.
As I read the posts about Art’s passing, about his memorial, the red letters, “Breaking News”
flash on the T.V. screen. There is screaming and there are swat cars on the dark, Parisian streets. It is night there, day here. This big news, this world-changing story is on the same day that Art has left all his stories behind, folded up and put away, like old, worn-out sweaters. I wonder what story Art would tell about his own death, being the week of the Paris attacks. He would tell it with a reverential heart or with self-deprecating humor. It would most likely be a story to wash the whole tragedy down or away, to stop it from leaning in too close.
The Marlon Brando documentary chronicles a star taking all these different shapes over the years, his many identities, the different roles he played. It makes me wonder if he’s less dead because of it. He’s a sweaty Stanley Kowalski, popping a cork on a bottle beneath a single light bulb. Later, he’s the seasoned, salty middle-aged man of Last Tango. He’s The Godfather. Then, later, obese and all but retired. This was around the time my mother met him and I watched from nearby in The Rosewood Cafe. She walked over to his table, the only other occupied one in the place. She handed him a small notepad and a pen. “Aren’t you a little too old to be doing this?” he said. She told him that he was the greatest actor who’d ever lived. He then gave her a lecture about how he was just a figment of her imagination. What he was, this idea of him, was all in her imagination. They spoke for a few minutes longer. He gave her advice on how to lose weight--told her to eat like he was eating, pointing to a plate with something like a pear and some cottage cheese. He signed the paper and gave it back to her. “To your imagination,” it read “Yours, Marlon Brando.”
On this night when Paris is still a raw nerve in everyone, we watch the Brando documentary. I remember that day we met the legendary actor, how he sat with his young wife, the restaurant arranged perfectly around him. He sat there, just as Art sat in his chair, just as Gregory sat in his. Now, all of them just stories of people that left their bodies behind like old coats. Again, I wonder, how do those stories end up mattering in the end. Maybe they don’t. Maybe we use them just to trick ourselves. With stories, maybe we can fool ourselves into thinking that life’s illusion, as the Buddhists call it, really matters. As we sit here now, like the Buddhist dream of life, like something out of someone’s imagination.
About the Author: Nicole Hoelle's nonfiction, drama and poetry have appeared in "Gulf Coast," "New American Writing," "The Adirondack Review," "Third Coast Magazine," "Barrow Street," "Sundog Lit," "Jacket Magazine" and "Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review," among others. In 2013, she was a semi-finalist in Four Way Books' first book contest. She lives in Southern California. where she teaches at several colleges.