The Breath of a River
by R.M. Garabedian @RMGarabedian
This is how I found my way back.
Sweat is shining on Harold’s bald head and his dark, bushy mustache (still holding pizza bits from his airport lunch) is twitching. He shadows and harangues me as I perform chores on the ramshackle ranch I’ve rented in the mountains of southwestern Colorado. When I swing open the doors to the shed, he grabs a shovel, hoists it above his head, and yells: “Because this is all you’ll ever be able to do out here: shovel shit — horse shit!”
I am ready. A girlhood in mumbling, self-effacing Rhode Island notwithstanding, several years of Manhattan living had yielded me this clear positive: a sharpened tongue. I turn toward him with a little Hedda Gabler clutch of disdain (I played her eight years ago, in college at Brown) and use a word she would have loved: “As opposed to all the bullshit of a life in New York or LA.”
Being an actors’ agent, Harold knows from drama, and being the 37-year-old, shortish and hulking Bronx boy that he is, he knows how to shout when he thinks he needs to: “YOU SPOILED LITTLE …” “UNGRATEFUL…” “AFTER THE FIVE YEARS WE’VE PUT INTO …” “PLANET FILM NOMINATION …” “CLOTHES…” “STYLISTS …” “CANNES …” “RED CARPET AT THE PFs…” ending, for now, with “Ya know what most people would give to get even as far as you got now? They’d sell their frail, aged grandmuthas to Hitler. They’d kick their pleadin’ muthas into vats a burnin’ oil! Get ya stuff outta this shack. We’re flyin’ back to New York!”
“NO, I’M THROUGH with all that! I’m here to BUILD A NEW LIFE!”
Harold slams the shovel to the ground; it clanks and bounces.
When he’d arrived uninvited in his little beige rental car, I was watching through the kitchen window screen — the gravel of the driveway growls and crackles when driven on, and in this hot season, dust rises around every vehicle like an enveloping ghost. My warning system.
He’d stumbled on the hidden stones in the long dry grass of the front yard. I’d refused to let him in, which might seem ungracious after his long flight from New York with two transfers — he’d worked that part in three times — but his unannounced arrival and bellowing hadn’t exactly put me in a hostess-y mood.
I also didn’t want him to see that I’d already started to pack.
When I appeared on the front steps, he freaked out. “Whoa — ! What’d ya do to that leg?! Is that even gonna heal? It’ll take seven make-up people just to cover that up for every shot! You think you’re gonna wear pants in all the rest ’a ya movies?!”
The leg. I’d been white-water rafting on the River of the Lost Souls. At the outfitters, I’d asked advice: kayak or raft? Two young guys started showing off, tossing elaborate, insider-y pros and cons to each other over my head, when a beautiful old woman sidled up to me, never making eye contact, and whispered: “If you choose a kayak, you will ride the current of a river; if you choose a raft, you will ride the breath of a river.” She disappeared around the end of the aisle.
“Rafting it is!” I announced. Three weeks of lessons, including four solo runs, with no mishaps, just joy. Then a kid leading his first run spilled us all at just the wrong spot, and a boulder scraped a few layers from the whole length of my right leg. Forty-five stitches, and it looks like a pair of giant, elongated, swollen lips blasted with herpes sores. Sexy, huh? Angie Jay Randall, eat your heart out.
His opening act of raging at the idiocy of my life choices now over, Harold sizes me up. He all but checks my teeth.
“So, you’re lettin’ your hair just hang now?”
“I’m letting my hair just hang now.”
“You gonna let it go brown like those roots?”
“I haven’t decided.”
“You look better blonde.” It’s true, my real hair color is definitely a before, a shade you won’t find featured on any box, but I was hoping it’d take on a sun-dappled look here in the high country, and, frankly, I was enjoying just sort of letting everything go. For once.
He steps closer. “You have — freckles.”
He goes weird and silent, staring at me with half-closed eyes, hands hanging at his sides, mouth slightly open. He steps closer. Uh, oh: The Territory. I’d successfully avoided stumbling into it with Harold since that time he had feted me with a celebratory lunch back when I’d started with the agency five years ago.
I’d booked a commercial on my first send-out. I was one of three young women who flashed on the screen to show the effects of different colors of eye make-up. They had re-dyed my brown-but-dyed-blonde hair b-l-a-c-k and cut it so I had these Jazz Age-style mid-face bangs that bounced a lot and ran over my cheekbones in a sensuous way, and they put so much dark shadow around my light blue eyes that I looked like a silent screen star. I loved it.
On camera, I played with it all in a mock-seductive way, and the director shouted in this porno voice: “Yes! Yes! Do that!” which caused me to go into a shy, embarrassed, laughing-at-myself response — and that’s what made it to the screen. They played the thing forever. Well, it enabled me to get out of that slum share and pick my parts a little more carefully.
So, we were at this small restaurant table, and Harold was telling me of an upcoming movie audition for which they wanted a “sexy-but-innocent girl” and I did the laugh and mid-face bangs thing as I had on the set, and he suddenly clunked his chair next to mine, grabbed my hand between sweaty palms, and told me with hot breath that was like a combination of salami and attic air that he wanted to quit the agency to become my (apparently live-in) personal manager with only one client.
I immediately rendered my mid-face bangs immobile, quickly talked him back into his agency job, and from then on I put out zero — zero — sexual/sensual vibes whenever the two of us were alone.
Ironically, the sensible, straight-forward manner I thereafter adopted with Harold did not introduce a cold distance between us but, rather, seemed to bring us into closer, more effective teamwork than we might otherwise have achieved, and within the next three years I was on, as he’d put it in my yard: “Dat beauty-ful red carpet at the PFs.” I’d hit indie gold with Steps — the lead. The Toronto festival, Cannes, the Planet Film awards— click — click — “Here, Haley!” “Here!” Yes, it was fun.
Last year’s Path to a Hanging, which was good but went nowhere (the title?), started out at MountFestFilms in Telluride. I could not believe where I was. It was hard to get myself indoors to watch any screenings, even the one I was in.
Living there? Yeah, got umpteen million dollars? I drove a rented 4x4 throughout these ranges, more jagged and thrill-producing than anything I’d seen in the continental U.S., and found the region’s de facto capitol, a well-rounded little community, a place where you could do things, really live a life, and started dreaming.
Back, now, to the shed: Harold, gazing at me hard, closes in on me. I’m trying to think of something to say to gross him out when the phone rings inside.
“You said you got no signal here!”
“It’s a land line, belonging to the owners. I agreed to use it only in emergencies.”
“I gotta make a call! We are this close,” he pinches stubby fingers in front of a scrunched-up face, “to gettin’ Angie Jay Randall into the next In-Vision. Of that novel you liked.” He watches for my reaction. He doesn’t get one/he doesn’t not get one — I know how to play that kind of maddeningly indecipherable thing like one of the old pros. My film sisters of the 1940s would be proud.
He fast-motion waddles toward my back door. This time, I don’t protest. It’ll be good to be rid of him for even a few minutes.
There’s a nest atop a dead tree — Good for Angie Jay Randall — Big, but not big enough for an eagle — I’ve got a new life in Southwestern Colorado — Osprey, maybe?
“Haley! It was your landlord. I told ’im you were on your way back ta New York and would call ’im later.”
“I’m gonna call about Angie Jay’s part now.” Hmm. Subtlety and sensitivity about boundaries have never been Harold’s most prominent characteristics. But then, I suppose one rarely gets from the worst of the Bronx to a top Manhattan talent agency with subtlety and sensitivity about boundaries.
In the long, homey grandeur of this valley, the rock walls are red and tan and rust, marvelously corrugated, with impossible, draping folds, topped with happy-looking ponderosa pines. It’s been a relief to be here. I love the sun, the openness of the dry terrain, the self-possessed-looking mountain ranges — snow-capped and always enticing, but clearly okay to be grand all on their own — and I want to go home to New York.
Katherine. My middle name. That’s how I’ve been introducing myself around town. I’ve always thought “Haley” sounded like a spoiled little girl at a birthday party. Given the local vibe, I expect a rapid shortening to Kate, which I’d happily embrace as a tribute to my fave closeted lesbian of the silver screen. (All that “Spen-cahhh” stuff was just a beard for both of them — he was a same-sexer, too, it’s documented; read the latest bio that came out after she’d croaked so she couldn’t tirade. What obstacles, what threat, they must have both circumvented. And the cost…? An industry of illusion on illusion on illusion.)
I suppose the new-name thing also provides some distance, not that I’d be known much here — Steps wasn’t that big with the public, though the critics and industry insiders loved it. There was that woman, sweet and hysterical at the discount store and fumbling to point her phone at me as if I were a UFO that might disappear, but that was soap-related, and they’ve cancelled that show since I was on it.
Oh, God, Harold’s right. Self-sabotage?
Yet at the Planet Film ceremony, my favorite experience — I actually cut short a conversation with Kyle the Chief (in his single period) to stride over to Simone Jack, gushing at her like a fan — and she’s only one year older than I am — because of that scene with her rushing onscreen on a horse, hair flying, eyes full of life, casually beaming an extremely confident smile, when she’s introduced as this hot rodeo gal in Riders West.
I wanted to be her. Not her her — the character she played. (But not the married-to-a-gay-guy part.) I made sure to touch Simone when we spoke … for luck, in hope of some kind of transference, something in common. She looked at me oddly for a second, but just for a second, then photographers along with that wild video maker SoJo called out to us both (thank God to us both! — although she did have five to my one), which resulted in the pic and clip that both went viral via that snazzy new site Latest.
So is this just me wanting to play cowgirl? Or is it me growing up?
Harold calls out: “And I guess ya don’t wanna know who’s been askin’ about your availability!” I turn my back, stroll farther from the house, toward the river with its deliriously rushing current and overhanging cottonwoods.
If it had stopped at prestige and the pittance for Steps, Harold wouldn’t be here. It took the commission for my follow-up, sell-out-all-your-principles summer film extravaganza part, and the prospect of more, to get him to fly out here. It’ll be out later this summer. God, I hope it fails: I have the money, the script stank, they did something weird with my hair, and the production team was a bunch of hacks.
So that would be the next stage of my life: the chaotic, insinuating jumble of LA and all those dirtbag guys with money and power who slither at you, one hand just accidentally brushing your breast as they say, “Oh, Haley, you’re wonderful” (or worse, and worse, and worse). Someday they’d all be done — and yes, by then there’d probably be money — agents and managers and publicists and bodyguards and cars and show homes and gardeners and lawyers and personal assistants and constant cosmetic work aside — but I have some now, clear, several times more than my father ever made in a year, and I want to move my life with it.
I want kids. Not bratty, entitled-acting LA or New York showbiz kids, but kids who play outside, get dirty, smile, and call out, “Watch me, Mom!” when they first get in a groove with a horse.
Across the river, that dashingly goofy neighbor guy with gapped front teeth is riding up the steep slope amid boulders and juniper and sage. I admit it: the occasional cowboy hat drives me wild. Could any man ever be cuter than when he’s wearing one?
And aren’t there men who, flaws and drawbacks and common male issues aside, just, well, have their feet on the ground? All idealization aside, isn’t there just less here to tempt any man or woman into the aforementioned bullshit? This country’s got a big corrupt game goin’ on, and New York and LA have its dirtiest players. I’ve been around the wealthy of those cities, and I wasn’t favorably impressed. Youth is wasted on the young? Money is wasted on the rich.
Even in Rhode Island, my best times were in those huge open fields (now big-box shopping center parking lots) near the apartment, playing Annie Oakley and Unsinkable Molly in my cheap little fringed cowgirl outfits while I shot cap pistols … oh, how I loved the smoking scent they gave off — burned, pungent!
What have the past seven years been about? I must have wanted it, to go through what it took to get even this far. There were times when I loved it, really wanted to act. Masha at Waycross Rep, amo, amas, amat, amamus, the whole theater program at Brown. Collaborating. The goodbyes, after a few weeks on a set, to the quick “families.” I don’t want that. Not surprising for a girl with no mother and a father who was never at home. I want someone to be home. I want someone to stay home.
How about collaborating on a life?
I’ll be thirty this year.
I walk to the river. I sit on a rock.
I do love to act. Bringing forth an aspect of yourself to express the thoughts and feelings of another — to learn by seeing the world from a different angle. But of what use the lessons if you don’t apply them to your life?
Harold is wheeling my suitcase along the back of the house. It fights him. The protruding sleeve of a blouse drags along the ground. He calls out: “I helped you finish packin’!”
I could simply get in the car right now. It will never again be so possible.
I stretch along a boulder, I put my hand in the river. The water churns above my wrist like a small, crystalline tornado. A breeze picks up, riding the riverbed, tickling at the long strands of hair at the sides of my face.
I amble over and plunk down on the big, fallen tree trunk near Harold’s car. He sits next to me (closer than I would have wanted). Across the valley, in the late afternoon sunlight, the top of a ridge is in full relief … spot-lit, shadow-deep.
“Pietrowski. The junior.”
“San Juan Theater Company. The founder.”
“He wants you. Even more after I said ‘unavailable.’”
“ — and School.”
“Teachin’ rich little ski kids theater games?”
“Teaching theater games.”
“Why not just one more film, to finance your little kiddie company?”
“I know how that game would go, and so do you. That’s why you want me to play it.”
He comes in for the kill. “I see wrinkles ’round your eyes already. You wearin’ sun block all the time here? I noticed somethin’ ’bout the women in what they call the downtown: they’re in great shape, cute butts in those jeans, but when they turn and you see their faces you go ‘aarggh!’ — they’re like those shaaa-pay dogs. That’s what happens to women up here in these rock piles. Their skin ends up hangin’ off ’em like one of those movies where faces melt.”
On the ground, there’s a long thin curved switch of a branch. I could whip him across the yard by the calves of his tan pressed slacks.
“Yeah,” he continues. “I read about it on the plane. It’s high up here and you got the sun’s violent HOV rays devastatin’ ya skin follicles, they penetrate down into the elastical layers, and then you don’t have the rain. If you’d’a stuck around here much lon-gah, we couldn’t a passed you off no more as mid-20s.”
I snatch up the switch. He shuts up.
He’s right. I’ve noticed it myself; even many of the younger women here have sprays of wrinkles around their eyes. They often look, also, as if just ten minutes ago they were skiing, white-water rafting, hiking up slopes, eating backpack lunches on 14k summits, laughing.
Harold now has a loafer off. He slaps it. His sock reeks. A pebble drops to the ground with a little puff of dust.
“You know what else you can note,” I ask, “about the women here?” I turn to him full-on. “How often they smile.”
I stand. I toss the branch into the brush.
He puts fingertips on my forearm. “Sit down, Haley.” I sweep off his touch with a glance. He puts his palms flat on his thighs. “Please — ”
“Harold, I have meetings this week with three potential financiers. And they won’t care if I have the Leg from the Black Lagoon, nor will they demand that at the age of twenty-nine I get myself botoxed until I look like an animated blow-up doll. They’ll simply want to know if I can establish and run this theater. First season: Blanche in Streetcar. And the older I’ll look for that, the better.”
“Okay, I hear you — but please, just siddown here … ” I do. And this is the part I wish he hadn’t said: “Haley, I get this. You think I don’t get this. I get it. There is a lotta bullshit out there. You get where you are, you expect it all to open up. Then you date that cheatin’ Wall Street jerk. That hit-and-run hits you in LA.” He leans toward me. “How is your neck, anyhow?”
My hand flutters up.
He goes on: “Okay. So, here it’s beautiful…like you’re in a country or somethin’. I was at that MountFestFilms thing once like you. But I also know somethin’ that’s in you, that you can’t forget, and they can see it, too. You keep goin’ like you been, you can get the best parts in the best projects, you’ll be loaded with dough, and you can just do vacations — hike mountains, eat snow, whatever.”
“That’s like that laugh ’a yours at the end of Steps that had ’em cheerin’ at the credits up there in Toronto. You can’t take that away from ’em, Haley. When they…look at you on the screen, they…love…what they see.”
“Harold,” I want to place a hand on his, in comfort, but I know I’d better not. I want to hug him, but it isn’t possible. “I want the reality and not the image.”
I slide off the log and walk away a few steps. When I look back, tears are in his eyes. I can’t notice.
He stands, does a slow-motion version of his waddle to the rental car, eases it away. The gravel is nearly silent. The dust stays low, quickly settles.
For a moment, I wonder if he’s really been here. Yes: by the shed, the rusty shovel is on the ground. I put it away. I had used it to turn over soil along the path to my front door. What would grow here?
It now feels heavier in my hand.
Rivers. In Rhode Island, they were sluggish, blocked, polluted. I rode them anyway, as a child by herself — in half of an old broken Styrofoam skiff with no sail, just a paddle; in a leaky rowboat (bailing it with a plastic pail); finally, with the college team, by scull.
As much as the mountains lift me, make me want to climb every peak and mount every ridge I see — even that outcropping above the discount store! — it’s the rivers. I will take a raft, leg healed, and I will ride the course of that river again and again. I will find a man who’ll raft it with me, bouncing on a cushion of air and water, smiling big. My kids will be river rats, they will climb mountains, they will place their palms on the necks of horses.
My neck seizes up, as it would before those early performances of mine at Brown, as it did after the accident on La Brea.
I am scared nearly to death, but this is the way.