Max says, “I’m writing an opera. Actually, I’m writing the book for a movie about my life, a bestseller. I planned on calling it ‘Love is the Exchange of Bodily Fluids,’ but then I took out the sex.”
“But everyone likes sex,” I say.
“Not this kind of sex,” she says.
“I have 40,000 words,” she says, “discounting 90,000 words about sex, although I’d like to use some of those words again, tie them in somehow. I want to call it ‘Baby Girl.’”
The next day, she is down to 20,000 words. “You’re a poet,” she says,
I change the subject, admiring her sexy red plastic shoes.
This is a true story. None of the names have been changed to protect the innocent or the famous, the best or worst dressed.
Max is wearing fishnet stockings. Soft music plays while no one listens, tapping out a line of morse code.
Eventually she says, “I have a box of pastries in my purse.
We walk into the dining room, where a big dinner is going on, with many artists and writers. Frank McCourt is at the far end saying, “I had a terrible childhood.”
Max walks over and brings him a pastry.
“I had a terrible childhood, too,” she says. He is clearly skeptical. “Where were you raised?” “California,” she says. “I was raised by religious freaks in California.”
He considers this for a moment then says, “Can I have another pastry?”
Then he says, “You should write a bestseller.”
And for the rest of the night I think:
“I should write a bestseller.
Max shows slides of the antique car show and of a glacier with ravines so deep you cannot see the bottom. She leaves her glasses on the piano. Apples fall.
After a long period of silence, she says, “I used to have a Norwegian boyfriend who was very fond of fish. His family developed color swatches for the scales, so you could buy them redder or more orange.”
I say, “Who wants to buy orange scales?” But she appears not to hear me.
She is thinking of the Norwegian fish boy:
The next day, she is clearly wistful:
“Without him, I stopped smelling salty. I loitered in the supermarket checkout lane, reading trash about lovers in saunas and bleeding, gutted fish. I thought I was dying…”
“That’s wonderful,” says Frank, taking copious notes. “But can you try it in a thick, Norwegian accent?”
Max recalls several other scenes from her past. She remembers her Floridian boyfriend, lying on the floor of a concert hall, his eyelids waxy like those of a frog. He is writing a letter to his wife, an opera singer, who takes many tinctures to intensify her voice.
Max: Are the changes reversible?
“O he was pompous all right,” says Max, “but so raw and vulnerable. And his lectures could be quite entertaining…”
Boy (at unexplained podium): The mind tries to divide music into signatures of twos and threes, and when it can’t the effect is ‘simulated chaos.” It’s how to make the music feel freer, less orderly, yet still easy for the singer to interpret and understand: 5/4 time, 7/4 time…
“We went to see an experimental opera,” says Max, “in which the most famous Spanish bullfights were reenacted with a flock of penguins. In the final act, one of the penguins went lurching after a swatch of red cloth, moaning loudly—at the dramatic highpoint—“But I’m pregnant!”
By now, Max is living deep in the past. One day, she relives the chicken pox, making a valiant effort not to scratch.
“Did you never have chicken pox as a child?” asks Frank McCourt.
“I was raised by religious freaks, remember?”
“Did you never have contact with other children?” I ask.
“No,” she says. “When my son got chicken pox, it was the first I’d seen
“You have a son?” I ask.
“Maybe.” She pauses. “I had him when I was eight to spite my parents.”
“I was an only child,” she says. “I had a terrible childhood.”
That night, I dream I’m walking across the state of California. There are many doors at the far end of a field. If I pull on one, I can extend it, like pulling on the nose of the face. Sometimes, it’s the nose that’s wooden, sometimes the tongue. Sometimes I drop heads from the edge of the field, creating a vast expanse of broken eggs.
F. Franks (Or, F: Finale)
The next day, Max confronts Frank McCourt at breakfast. “Some people say your childhood wasn’t as bad as all that. That you exaggerate.” He looks hurt.
“I’ll need to cut another 40,000 words,” she says, accusingly. “You didn’t tell me it was like this…I’ll have nothing.” They appear to be at an impasse, ready to weep together or come to blows.
But then Frank O’Hara appears in a doorway, a little out of breath, sorry he is late, and the rest of us, startled, turn around.
“Let’s not fight,” says O’Hara, gleaming at McCourt in particular. “Let’s roll oranges down the road and call them eggs.”
“Let’s jump into the sauna and let our sweat commingle,” he continues. “It really is a beautiful day.”
Max rolls her eyes, but not without a certain reverence.
Then the Franks go off together into the woods, creating ripples on the surface of the air, and Max and I hold hands, transfixed. She hums the opening notes of an opera, composed entirely of two boys chopping wood, and I am silent, not wanting to break the spell, afraid of changing even one small thing.
For days, Max and I test ourselves against the sound of a refrigerator, the pitch of doors, oranges and falling leaves. B minor, B flat, an ice pond littered with sardines.
“You can acquire perfect pitch,” Max tells me, “but you can also lose
it over time. You have to practice.”