CHAPTER 17 -- HOME AGAIN
Paul sleeps for three days straight, only getting up to eat, shower, and go to the bathroom. Maggie spends those nights on the couch so he can sleep better, only coming in to stroke his forehead and coo at him. In the morning, he’d hear quiet puttering -- coffee cup, toothbrush, keys and the door -- before the sound of her car fades away as he drifts back to sleep.
One night he gets up at one a.m. to pee and peeks into the living room and sees that she is not there, but the next morning she shows him all the food in the refrigerator that she bought for him in the middle of the night. Shopping at night is a new habit she developed in the past eight weeks, she says.
When he is asleep he drifts in and out of the same dream -- he is back at work holding the boom and recording sound while the room slowly catches fire but no one else in the room notices. Sometimes it’s Victor shooting, sometimes Dwight. Sometimes they are all in Joel’s office, or in Maggie’s living room. But Duncan always lights the fire, and no one moves until the room is filled with flames.
On the afternoon of the third day he bolts awake and looks at his watch, terrified that it 5:30 p.m. -- then realizes he doesn’t have to be anywhere. He lies back down and grins. The nightmare is finally over. He doesn’t have to catch a bus, he doesn’t have to carry a boom pole until his shoulders ache, or endure Dwight yelling at him. No more dance clubs, bus rides, pancake houses, squat fires, and no more homeless kids.
He wonders how the kids were doing. He has a vision of Ilima sleeping in her hospital bed with an IV of antibiotics dripping into her arm, while Trent and Jodi and Duncan hold hands around her bed, praying for her. He’d done the right thing, and hoped he’d made a difference by giving them the money.
But more than likely Ilima is alone. Maybe Trent is too scared to go in because of the cops waiting inside, or maybe they will get kicked out because Duncan will take things from other people’s rooms. Or maybe they don’t know where Ilima is and have given up looking. And the money he gave to Duncan? That’s probably long gone.
He doesn’t regret giving up the money, but now he realizes just how badly he needed the extra two thousand dollars. He made less than the five thousand he’d anticipated. They ruined Andy’s expensive gear, but he should have insurance, so he’s probably safe there. But he should pay Maggie back first, which leaves even less for the car payments and the credit cards. He’s nowhere closer to paying off the lab and getting his film back. Maggie first, then a portion of the car, and then some credit card debt.
Damn. Except for some new vivid movie moments for the mental file drawer, he is back to the same existence he always has had; looking for work while hiding from creditors and the repo men.
He gets up and looks in the closet. His black suit and pants are the only clean clothes he has left, which means he’ll have to dress formal while doing the laundry. He dresses, fills two duffel bags with clothes and towels, put on sandals, peeks to make sure the repo men aren’t parked out front, then walks to the Laundromat on Third Street.
There’s a pile of newspapers from the week sitting in a hamper and Paul scans through them looking for news of either Xander being injured, or the kids, Ilima going to the hospital, or the TV show. There are stories about crime, road closures, and Los Angeles raising taxes for earthquake retrofitting, but no mention of a clandestine TV show with homeless kids. Why would there be?
No one will ever call me, Paul thinks. His job is over, he’d been paid in cash and Joel and Dwight will now take their battle into the edit room.
He thinks about the tiny tape sitting in his desk drawer, with the footage he shot of Duncan carrying Ilima, calling 911 and the paramedics loading her onto the gurney and into the ambulance and then driving away. It’s the only proof he has that it happened.
They are shooting a music video in the coffee shop across the street, and Paul watches the action while his clothes spin dry. The director has shock white hair and is dressed in black, and is very young, twenty-two or twenty-three tops, and he dances around these four black guys, trying to amuse and inspire them to try something in a shot he’d set up, but they were having none of it. Then he realizes that the music group the director is cajoling is XXX-TRA, the hip-hop group Andy produced in his studio two months prior.
Paul can’t believe it. It’s two months after Big Andy produced their demo and they already have a record contract that includes a video shoot. These guys are moving faster than a gun out of a bullet, while he has nothing...nothing except Maggie.
Paul hurries back to the apartment to cook dinner. He opts for a stir-fry concoction with rice and he opens a bottle of wine. Tonight, they’ll have a “talk,” and for that, they’ll need wine. Lots of wine.
Paul hasn’t been around Maggie enough in the last two months to judge where her head is at, but her body language tells him that it’s not good. The last two mornings she took a shower, had coffee, got dressed, found her keys and left for work like she always does, but she no longer rewards him with long gazes or punishes him with extended pouts anymore. She just moves from room to room while he gazes at her. She is the enigma now, not him, and it’s unsettling.
Relationships take months to end sometimes. Has she already decided it’s over? Is she planning her exit? Maybe it’s just a lull and she is mulling over giving him another chance? He hears the stereo go on in Rupert’s apartment upstairs. He doesn’t want to think about that. No way, he thinks. That could never happen. Just in case, he lights candles for dinner and pours two glasses of wine.
Maggie walks in breathless.
“Good timing,” Paul says. “You just have time for a glass of wine before dinner.”
She drops her bags, sips her wine and watches him stir the rice.
“Look at you, Mr. Homebody. Do you do windows too?”
“Ask, and you shall receive.”
“Oh, goody. I’ll make a list. Let’s see, caulking in the kitchen, grout in the bathroom, polish the wood floors, clean under the refrigerator...”
He presses against her, wooden spoon in hand. “Housework? Is that all that’s on that list?”
She doesn’t giggle or push him away, but meets his gaze. She knits her brow and examines him closely, switching from eye to eye. He chooses her left eye to focus on and watches her pupil dilate, like a camera lens opening.
“See anything real in there?” he asks. “Is there truth in this soul?
She purses her lips but doesn’t answer. “Let’s eat.”
Dinner and three glasses of wine and one Al Green album later, Paul still waits for her to bring it up. He hates that. They both know what’s going on, and she is making him bring it up.
Paul remembers a phrase that Andy uses that summed up this romantic situation: “He who cares less, wins.” And right now, Maggie cares less about having a talk than he does, so he’ll have to do all the work.
“Earth to Paul,” Maggie says.
“You’ve been staring at that candle for five minutes.”
“Five minutes? More like two.”
“Fine, two minutes. I’ll do the dishes.” She gets up.
“Wait.” He grabs her wrist.
She yanks it away. “Don’t grab me like that.”
“Calm down, I just touched you.”
“You grabbed my wrist while I had dishes in my hands. I don’t like being grabbed, so don’t do it.”
“I’m not some stranger in the street threatening you. Stop overreacting.”
“No, you grabbing me is overreacting. We’re in a tiny apartment, I’m not going anywhere. If you want my attention, use your voice and ask.”
Paul closes his eyes and exhales slowly. “This is getting off to a bad start.”
“You got that right.”
“I’d like you to sit down again so we can talk.”
Maggie sits back down and puts her hands up in surrender. ” I’m ready to talk.”
“Now that the job’s over I want to discuss where you and I stand.”
“Are you asking whether I think we should continue this relationship?”
“It depends on what your plans are,” she asks.
“My plans haven’t changed. I want to finish my film.”
“Then we have a problem,” she says.
“How is wanting to finish my film a problem?”
“Because you’re not living in reality. You must get a job, get out of debt, and then find the money and time to finish a film you’ve been working on for five years. And once it’s done, this film will then do what for you? Change your life?”
“I don’t know what it will do. I just know I have to try.”
“You’re living in some dream world of what might happen to you, while life is passing you by. Meanwhile, my life is passing me by too. We’ve never taken a vacation together, not even a weekend trip. Do you realize that?”
“You want me to give it up? You know how much I love film.”
“Well, it doesn’t love you. You haven’t even worked on a film job in months. You’re doing hard labor on crap TV pilots that are going to air once and then disappear.”
“You don’t know that.”
“You said yourself that this reality show was a waste of your time. There’s nothing real about it.”
“That car accident was real. The assault. The eighteen-hour days.”
Maggie sighs and touches her temples. “I know. That’s not what I meant.”
“And that girl really was sick. There was more real life going on in that brewery than in your office building in mid-town. And Duncan trusted me. I liked him and he liked me. We had a real connection there, no matter how lame the TV show is.”
Maggie reaches out across the table and holds his hands. “Paul...you’re smart and you work hard. You would’ve succeeded ten times over in any other career by now. Give it a break.”
Paul sees something in her eyes he’d never seen before. Pity. She pities him.
“Are you making me choose between you and my film?”
“That’s very dramatic, but I didn’t say that.” Maggie gets up, goes to the coffee machine and fills up the filter with coffee, facing away from him. “I’m saying that I want you to pay me back for rent and groceries.”
“I can write you a check right now.” Paul jumps up and goes to the writing desk, pulls out his checkbook and scribbles her a check for the back rent and groceries.
She fills the machine with water, hits the red button and turns to face him again. “And I want you to pay half the rent and half the bills from now on. I also want you to make the creditors stop calling, and I want to park my own car in my own garage. And I want all this to happen by the first of the month.”
“That’s in less than three weeks.”
“It’s exactly twenty days. I’m not saying I want to break up with you. But if you can’t do it by then I want you move out.” The coffee machine bubbles and clicks. Maggie pours herself a cup and adds milk.
“That’s not much time.”
“You can do it.”
Paul grabs the newspaper out of the recycling pile and found the want ads.
“What are you doing?”
“Looking for a real job. I don’t have much time.”