While New York rages on as the pandemic epicenter now, Angelenos are supposed to stay inside if they can at all help it this week, avoiding even grocery stores and pharmacies. Aside from two eggplants that have gone bad and a now-soggy box of matzah that I dropped in a sink full of water, we’ve got what we need. And having what you need right now is an un-earned stroke of luck. Thinking about it that way, which you have to do if you’re trying not to be part of the problem, produces an almost chemical chain in your body — twisting ropes of rage and sadness and gratitude. Humans like to untangle things, but this chain is as tight as DNA.
Our dog Pepper started scratching her ears and shaking her head repeatedly the other day, like she was trying to get swimming pool water out of her ear. We looked inside those giant triangles and didn’t find any obvious culprits. Then we noticed tiny red bumps along the pink part of her belly, some with white pus. So we may need to head out to the vet despite it all. For her part, she seems in perfectly bouncy spirits, chewing on a crusted stuffed animal duck in the corner and oblivious to the catastrophe in the human world around her.
Things in the apartment are as good as could be expected. I think about the very tiny boxes I’ve inhabited in New York, and though our place is still a small box compared to homes in other cities (and certainly non-cities), Bryan and I can at least shut a door to separate ourselves from each other, or sneak onto our narrow porch to get some air without a mask on and stare at the smog lifting over Griffith Park just northwest of us. I think about how we can afford food and rent for now, even though Bryan was laid off. I think about how we’re not immunocompromised. And we have a dog! That helps. Even though she’s pimply and just began scratching the bejeezus out of ear once more.
Two nights ago we watched On the Waterfront. I’d never seen it somehow, though I knew the big “I coulda been a contendah!” line. This spurred on an unexpected new interest of mine: Marlon Brando. I mean…oooof, whatta man. Bryan, being a good sport (and an actor) (and having his own celebrity crushes (hi, Zoe Saldana)), has allowed me to indulge in this deranged weekend obsession of mine. He’s accompanied me in watching A Streetcar Named Desire (damn), and Guys and Dolls (the lesson here: great voices translate not into great singing voices). On deck is Last Tango in Paris, though apparently we’ve got to clear over four hours to do it. But one thing we’ve got is time.
Naturally, I’ve now plunged into the bowels of the internet to get the scoop on all of his tempestuous relationships, his ridiculous roster of lovers — Rita Moreno! Marilyn Monroe! James Dean and James Baldwin! (Maybe.) — his whole bad boy, I don’t care about the establishment, I don’t care about this award, I’m going to support civil rights and pontificate about philosophy while gaining a lot of weight in French Polynesia… thing. Brando is so Brando, and just like everyone with a libido in 1951, I’m totally taken in.
It’s a weird kind of nostalgia. To learn about, and maybe try to understand, some dead celebrity of another era. To be moved by them and wildly attracted to them. It brings to light the nature of celebrity-dom in general: how it spotlights these random beautiful people — and we feel we know them in some way, or don’t, or understand them or don’t, or care or don’t. But nonetheless, celebrities are collective touchpoints available to us. And in times of global isolation, perhaps these touchpoints mean more.
I haven’t been fascinated by a celebrity in so long. There’s Britney Spears of course, always my girl, but this kind of panging curiosity feels like I’m 11 again, cradling the radio to my heart, tuning into the B96 “Nine Most Wanted” at 9(pm), waiting for Backstreet Boys’ “As Long as You Love Me” to come on. There was Nick Carter — a big love, though I didn’t even know what I wanted to do with big loves at the time — and then things really took off with Leo, followed by Josh Hartnett. There was almost an anguish to the feeling, a deep sigh for all of them (and also a cut-up collage poster of Josh Hartnett I made that kind of looked like a ransom note). Unfortunately, out of my many too-distant loves in this life, I’ve got the lowest probability of hooking up with Marlon Brando, all things considered.
People need things to lead somewhere, Brando said, otherwise you’re just sitting on a pile of candy. So I’m thinking about who’s got the goods: Trump on his throne. People with disposable income who donate to solve problems instead of some institutionalized system that takes care of people in the first place. My own nonsensical privilege and the ability to watch Marlon Brando movies on my reclining couch, with the rent freshly paid, while people struggle for air on ventilators that can’t be supplied to the poor parts of town. It seems that for so much of human history, the world has offered piles of candy to some and dirt for others and if I knew why I’d be the genius among us.
So what can you do? I mentally call out what I’m grateful for once more, and try to think of new ways to help — volunteer, get my building to write notes to healthcare workers, call my congresspeople, brainstorm with friends — and hug my boyfriend, and pet my itchy pimply dog, and cook a meal with no eggplant, and Google “james dean marlon brando hookup” again.
In some ways I’m relishing in my escapist fantasy right now. I’m finally watching all these classic movies, the kind that embarrass you when you have to publicly admit you’ve never seen them. I’m learning the ecosystem of Old Hollywood, seeing extras become stars and connecting the dots of the B-list names that pop up time and again. Who knows why humans need storytelling so much, and why we sometimes find ourselves consumed by an actor or band or movie or book or video game, moved at that particular moment in our lives by the world that these things have created or exposed to us? I don’t know why it strikes when it does. And in the face of a global pandemic, one thing you’ve gotta comfortable with is I don’t knows.
Alas. So here’s a scene. You heat up some tea, and discover some ex-love who treated you bad publishing beautiful vignettes in impressive places, and try to salvage your dying snake plant of all things (they’re supposed to be nearly death-proof), and read the news again, and watch your boyfriend put a mask on before walking the dog and think, Who could have imagined this scenario?
Well, if I may, it’s at this point that you may want to think of what Marlon would say, with that beautiful intensity in his eyes and that nearly trademark-able smirk on his face: “Life is a mystery, and it’s an unsolvable one. And you just simply live it through. And as you draw your last breath, you say… ‘What was that all about?'” You may want to let out a real, deep laugh afterward, because you do know something. You feel in your guts something like hope, and remember that whatever amount of candy ya got or don’t got, it’s not ordained by heaven.