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Boxing the Octopus: all content copyright 2008 Colleen Thompson and Joni Rodgers all rights reserved.
My life has been excessively strange lately. In the course of working my memoir guru mojo for a truly delightful client, I’ve made the acquaintance of an important (iconic, really) writer/producer who has for some odd reason decided that we should be friends. He’s one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met. Generous, kind, whipsaw funny, scary smart. (He’s also endearingly geeky. Friday night, while the fireworks were going on, he wanted to tell us about the little known history of the Declaration of Independence, and tragically, I was geeky enough to want to hear it.)
I enjoy conversing with him, but his famousness is weird. Distracting. Intimidating. Every time I say his name, I’m reminded that he’s this intimidating famous guy, so I’ve taken to calling him “Studs Mulligan”.
Friday, since the 4th was my client's only day off this millennium, Mulligan hosted the final read-through of the manuscript at his place – an ultra-moderne but not grossly huge house on a hill overlooking LA. It’s the squarest, hippest, whitest, cleanest house I’ve ever been in. The sparse bachelor pad furnishings are complimented with typical mega-star knick-knacks, my favorite being a Gibson Les Paul autographed by Amie Mann.
My client, her assistant, my daughter (who’s been working as my assistant), and I arrived at noon to find the kitchen stocked with beverages, treats, and a deli-catered lunch spread. I distributed manuscripts, and I’d had one printed for Mulligan, but he respectfully withdrew to his office, wanting to give my client the time and space she needed to speak freely.
During the first six hours of reading and notes, he joined us only when invited to hear one particular chapter or another. (He’s filled in major gaps in my understanding of the world of television, and I wanted him to reality check me on those chapters.) My client, a boundless ball of energy, wanted to blaze on to the end, and even though I’d been working without stop since 4 AM in order to have the manuscripts ready, I was prepared to accommodate her. We both insisted we were good to go, but Mulligan gently insisted we take a 30 minute break. My client and the girls went for a swim. I went to a chaise in a shady corner and was asleep about three seconds later. At the end of the 30 minutes, my daughter woke me up, and I went to take a quick whiz before resuming the read-through.
The nearest of the five bathrooms in Mulligan’s house is just off the space age kitchen. I went in and locked the door, and for some reason found myself utterly unable to pee. Something about the square fixtures, the shininess of the hardware, or the whiteness of everything – I don’t know. It’s ridiculous. I just suddenly realized I was about to be bare-assed on the john in this incredibly famous dude’s house. I’d been drinking one water bottle after another. For six hours. I seriously needed to pee. I turned on the water in the Star Trekish sink to see if that would help.
No. Couldn’t do it.
I finally decided the best thing for me to do would be to go out and say that I’d forgotten something at my hotel, which was only five minutes away. I’d run over there, use the comfortably middle class facility, dash back to Mulligan’s, and continue the read-through without consuming another drop of liquid. I hitched up my jeans, rinsed my hands, and wiped them on my pants rather than touch the pristine white towels. But when I tried to open the door…
It wouldn’t open.
I clicked the little space age locky deal in and out a couple times. Bent down and gandered at the chrome knob. All I saw was my own sheepish face reflecting back at me. I squinted at the locking mechanism, which was like a skinny little pin. I pulled at it, and heard a small click. Breathing a sigh of relief, I turned the knob. The door did not open. The little lock pin, which probably cost more than my car, plinked onto the floor like a bullet casing.
“Shit!” said my reflection, and I agreed.
I heard my daughter’s voice in the kitchen, and I hissed her name a few times, but she drifted back out to the lanai, laughing with my client’s assistant. I jiggled and toggled and worked at the door knob for what seemed like a very long time. Then I started laughing, and then I realized there was no way I was going to make it back to my hotel to pee even if I were to get the dang door open and sprint for the rental car this very second.
The ridiculousness of it! For crying out loud.
I dropped trou, took care of whiz biz, washed my hands, and dried them on the towel hospitably offered for that purpose. I decided that before I swallowed what was left of my dignity and started yelling for help, I'd give the door knob one more try. Click. The door opened as easy as you please.
Back out on the lanai, I set the lock pin on the table next to Mulligan's hand.
“I broke your house,” I said. “Sorry about that.”
“Nah, it does that. You have to kinda go like crr-chk-a-chkk.” He demonstrated with sound effects. “Use the one off the music room.”
My client and I read on while he went out and fetched Italian food. I read to the table while everyone else ate, then Mulligan took a chapter while I ate. I resumed reading to the end, which left my client in tears.
With the task of the book behind me (other than a few small clean-up items), I’m thinking ahead to my next project. When Mulligan suggested I should “come over to the dark side” and try screenwriting, I said, “That’s just not my world. I’m a book person.” But this morning, I woke up wondering why I’ve set such arbitrary (and stupid) boundaries in my life. Some destuctive little part of me is telling me I’m out of my league. It’s singing that old bluegrass song, “Don’t Git Above Your Raisin’”.
Getting locked in that bathroom was a blessing. It slapped a leash on me just as I was about to take flight, which would have been an idiotic waste of time in the middle of a hardworking day. And it would have reinforced the utterly wrong idea that I could not function on the most basic level in what was, for this day at least, my workplace. Nothing about Mulligan’s house – or Mulligan himself – could have possibly been more welcoming. The only thing telling me I didn’t belong there was my own insecurity. I don’t have time for that crap. (No pun intended.) I need to be able to function comfortably wherever my work is. That means being able to use a hole-in-the-ground outhouse in rural France or a Frank Lloyd Wright toiletron in Hollywood as unfussily as I use the loo off my own kitchen (which is, by the way, wallpapered with pages from my first novel).
I can’t describe what it meant to me to have someone understand and honor the emotional journey of this book. It’s possible that Mulligan was just trying to score points with my client, whom he adores with schoolboy blue devotion, but whatever his motives, the experience was wonderful for me. Finishing a book is a big deal. I’ve always felt a bit of an ache as I honor that alone. This is the first time the celebration was even close to being in balance with the enormity of the journey.
After I read the final chapter, Mulligan poured wine, raised a toast to my client and I, and gave us both roses. Then we all sat around the fire pit shooting the bull. Lively conversation covered everything from Cyrano de Bergerac to Barak Obama. Watching the far off fireworks, I felt that click that tells you you’re in the right place at the right time doing the right thing.
The world I belong in is writing. Everywhere it takes me is home.
Penguin Shorts: Is Short the New Long?
Simon Prosser, publishing director of Hamish Hamilton, blogs for us in the final week of November, as Penguin Shorts (our celebration of short form fiction) ...