WE CAN ONLY EMBELLISH: a radio-play script

we can only embellish

A: that was good.

B: thanks.

A: good is such an understatement sometimes.

B: thanks.

A: good is vicious slander in this case.

B: ha. you want some more?

A: i’d burst. i’m happy just to savor the aftertaste. and the breeze…

B: the breeze is temperate, isn’t it?

A: very.

B: very.

A: picture where it came from and where it’s going to after touching us.

B: okay. that’s nice.

A: are you awake?

B: huh?

A: awake?

B: yes.

A: i thought maybe you dozed off.

B: i guess maybe i did. were you watching me sleep?

A: off and on. i was watching those people on the little boat out there.

B: you were?

A: yes.

B: what were they doing?

A: i couldn’t tell. at first i thought they were clowning around.

B: yes?

A: but then it seemed like they were having a furious row.

B: oh.

A: now they aren’t doing anything.

B: they’re both just standing there or leaning over the edge of the boat?

A: one of them is. the other is just probably napping and dreaming of long-ago summers on the bay.

B: interesting.

A: what?

B: how we make up stories.

A: that’s what we do. but are we making up stories or reinterpreting the stories that are given to us nonstop by the story of the world?

B. okay.

A: like if you see a trail of drops of blood in the sand, that’s already a story.

B: so we can only embellish.

A: exactly.

B: exactly. and you’re happy to be out here?

A: extremely.

B: you don’t miss ‘god’s gift’?

A: who?

B. ha. not even a teentsy bit?

A: not even. but is it ‘teentsy’ or ‘teensy’?

B: we all make life-altering mistakes.

A: these are genius.

B: huh?

A: genius. these. they’re genius.

B: they were your idea. what time is it?

A: two?

B: i’d only ever seen hammocks on TV before. my hip loves it.

A: hammocks are one of the necessities. a hammock, a breeze, binoculars and some keylime pie.

B: not to mention a summer rental. what are they up to now?

A: i can’t speak for both of them but the one i can see seems quite busy all of a sudden.

B: may i?

A: they’re yours. here.

B: thanks.

A: well?

B: you’re right. busy as a bee.

A: you’re not thinking…?

B: of course i am.

A: we’re awful.

B: what is it with us?

A: well as moderns we’re reluctant connoisseurs of the worst-case scenario. what’s the worst thing that ever happened to you? or,  no, name the worst thing that ever happened to you in college. let’s do college tales first. your worst.

B: that’s easy. happened on the very first day.

A: auspicious.

B: tell me about it. i had moved all my stuff into my dorm room and i was hanging around the first floor lounge, not sure where to lean or what to do with my hands. i didn’t know a soul there because i chose an out of state college. i strike up a conversation with someone who looks equally out of place, some nervous-looking kid with shoulder-length brown hair and the over-sized eyes of a popular cartoon waif. to be known hereafter as the waif. the waif, it turns out, is from North Dakota. i wasn’t exactly a libertine myself but even at that unseasoned age i could detect all kinds of hang-ups and inhibitions in this person. subtle but insistent waves of primal skittishness are radiating from this person like a distress signal from a radio beacon with a dying battery. i don’t know if you’ve known people who catch themselves and deflect their eyes sheepishly if they’ve maybe giggled a little too hard at a slightly off-color joke? that was the waif to a ‘t’. i’m picking up these interesting psychological vibes from this person my first day at school in the student lounge as the sun is setting and it’s going to be my very first night living on my own, a rite of passage, i guess. i mean, perhaps i should have been more careful about who i was proposing to spend this milestone with but i was a thousand miles from home and i knew literally nobody and this waif i’m chatting with mentions there’s a movie showing at the famous campus cinema. would i like to go? sure, i say. so the next thing i know i’m exiting through the glass double-doors of the student lounge with this unknown person as we step out into the electric fizz of my first adult twilight. like actors making an entrance in the first scene of a movie after the bombastic credits have run. it is incredibly exciting, in a way, and a little nerve-wracking, and so vivid i can still remember some of the cars that drove by as we were waiting to cross at the first stop light i was encountering as a certified grown-up. there was a white station wagon barreling through the intersection and i remember thinking that i’d never seen a white station wagon before and was this some kind of omen?  it’s like a  freak combination of symbols of suburban domesticity and morbid medical conditions, this barreling white station wagon but was it a good omen or a bad one? the driver is a dead-ringer for WC Fields. an omen about my first year in college or an omen about the coming evening or an omen about the rest of my life? i remember being proud of myself for not trying to take the waif’s hand in my hand as we crossed the street. like, okay, i know how to play it cool, i can do this, i can learn to maintain and control this take-it-or-leave-it attitude one must master in order to count as one of the cool kids. we walk about five blocks to the campus cinema. there’s kind of a long line to get in. all these big kids are lining up to see their first film away from home. all those eighteen, nineteen and twenty-year-olds are part of a community that i am now a part of. we buy our tickets and the waif goes right down the aisle ahead of me and gets us a couple of seats in like the fifth row back from the screen, dead center. which strikes me now as the default behavior of some kind of film buff or,  more specifically and less optimistically, a person with a chronic estrangement from reality type of thing. i had no idea the film we were supposed to be seeing until it said so onscreen. the film was not new. the campus movie house was the kind that played Fellini, Truffaut and Godard festivals, arty nostalgia for scattered enclaves of pretension dotting the rolling green map of the flyover. the film we were seeing that evening was CATCH-22. never heard of it. it’s a so-called black comedy, a savage satire of the absurdity of war, so far so good, and also Art Garfunkel is in it, which is both strange and reassuring. first few minutes of the film, no problem. i have to glance to my left, from time to time, to double-check the waif is still sitting there: not a peep. it’s like the whole history of our chat in the dorm lounge has mysteriously been erased and there is nothing between us. the movie seems like a watered-down M*A*S*H. i’m just sitting there wondering if we’re supposed to have sex after the film. this is uncharted territory. as kids, historically,  my little pals and i would traipse off to films, to the pictures my mother called it, we’d take the bus together and pair off, two by two, a pantomime of things to come,  and the high point of the ritualized experience was always the opportunity to make informed choices at the concessions counter. sex was not even necessarily on your mind and officially it was a no-no anyway. but was it now, my first night at college,  supposed to be different or, like, the opposite? is sex between grown-ups, at the end of an evening of social activity they have spent alone together, mandatory? ‘sexy’ is not even the issue, that’s years in the future, you don’t even develop a notion of the sexy until some degree of experience teaches you what your preferences actually are or will become. name me a natural teen who uses the term ‘sexy’ unselfconsciously. it would be like having a vocabulary for the nuanced degree of difference between various experiences of the bodily function of defecation. you don’t wonder how good it will be, you wonder when you will do it. my thoughts in the plush velour arthouse cinema seat were restricted to the urgent question of will the evening be chalked up as a failure if there is no sex waiting, for us,  at the end of it? will my first grown-up evening be a wash-out? if so, should i just pack up all my stuff, quit college and go right back home the morning after? pregnancy is not even an issue. herpes are not even an issue. practical matters in the broadest most self-protecting sense are wholly forgotten. i’ve got one eye on the screen and the other on my own troubled hypothetical thoughts, when that eye isn’t swiveling left to check on the waif… and then the first grisly thing happens on screen. to tell you the truth i cannot now remember if this is the very first grisly thing that happened in the film but whatever the firstly thing was, it came without a warning because one was not expecting a grisly image in a film featuring Art Garfunkel. a biplane or something, one of those old propeller aircraft? it flies too low and cuts this guy in half. this guy is on a sandbar or standing on a raft or something in the ocean and the pilot is flying in a crazy fashion, maybe playing games with the guy, and he flies too low and cuts the guy in half, the propeller just chops this guy up like a lawnmower dices crabgrass and all you see for a second are these legs standing there and then they collapse, like a marionette precipitously shorn of strings, they just collapse into the water. it was an impressive special effect for those days and the waif lets out this scream. not super loud or very long but attention-gettingly intense like it’s just a taste of a tremendous resource, a wee taste of things to come. people sitting around us turn to stare and a few mellow 1970s chuckles are heard. and it just kept getting worse and worse, grisly violent stuff keeps popping up in this film like every ten minutes, it’s like getting through the ordeal of labor, the violent contractions, a physical ordeal. and at some point i’ve started trying to anticipate the little shock points in the narrative in order to warn the waif in advance: better close your eyes, i think this one’s going to be bad. i have defined my role in the relationship. i’m already so embarrassed i’m wishing i’d never been born. the waif is now just quietly weeping the whole time, a snotty red bag of jelly and bones and sort of calling out in hoarse outbursts when my warnings don’t arrive in time, pleading with the merciless screen up there to stop. there’s this ongoing narrative bit, it’s like a fugue in the film, the main character keeps having a recurrent dream. and the dream involves this tail gunner who has been hit by enemy fire in the gunner’s turret in the plane up there and has lost lots of blood, is eerily pale and shivering in this tail-gunner’s turret. this dream sequence keeps coming back, the lead character is trying to help this wounded tail-gunner, trying to stop the loss of blood i guess, and the protag keeps waking up before it’s possible to unzip the tail-gunner’s coat and get to the wound in the dream. and every time it looks like the lead character is about to open the jacket and get to the wound i warn my unhinged date: close your eyes! but then the character wakes up out of the terrible dream and it’s okay for the time being. after three or four of these false alarms i become slightly complacent and the waif is a continuous animal mess now, face in hands, the triggers are rooted in a horrendous childhood and i’m no longer wondering about the ins-and-outs of grown-up sexual etiquette  on a first date, i’m trying to think of a semi-polite way to bail out, to flee the theater and get back to the safety of the dorm and some kind of baseline social normalcy. my golden first night as a grown-up away from home at a blessedly far-away college is becoming tarnished to say the least. like, should i announce quietly that i’m going quickly to the bathroom and just never come back? and it’s exactly as i’m working up the selfish courage to try to implement this last-chance maneuver, i’m saying uh hey, hey excuse me instead of ‘watch out’  when the recurrent dream returns to the screen with a vengeance and the lead character finally manages to open the young tail-gunner’s coat and the tail-gunner’s guts, his intestines, his liver or what have you, all of it spills out onscreen, it looks incredibly realistic, i’m not sure if you know the term moulage but whoever was in charge of it was the champ, i had never seen anything like it, it is very very shocking and the waif lets out this keening, unearthly, banshee-summoning death-howl like i don’t know what else can describe it and jumps up and stumbles past me and runs up the aisle in inconsolable hysterics. rows of people are standing up like for a standing ovation at Carnegie Hall to see exactly what the hell is going on in this innocent little campus movie house and all the lights go up, the house lights go up and my face is numb as a block of wood. all eyes are on me as i put on my coat and gather up the waif’s coat with whatever dignity i have left and limp up the aisle in the brightly lit movie house in the showstopping wake of my hysterical date. like, behold the weirdo who accompanied the nutcase to this movie.

A: wow.

B: yep.

A: whatever happened to the waif?

B: now don’t be upset but that’s the story i’ve been trying to tell you all weekend.







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