The Unbearable Lightness of the B List – Part 3

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Lawrence Fremontaine was an enigma to me. Lawrence Fremontaine was Michael’s bodyguard, hired after jerks started picking fights in hotel bars and girls began appearing uninvited in hotel rooms. Dr. Raynes saw potential battery/paternity suits reflected in the face of every weirdo who came along, along with other, darker possibilities. And it did quickly become weird: one week—normalcy, the next—everyone looking at you. Studying you. People you didn’t remember were now your friends, constructing relationships out of speaking to you once or twice, claiming bits and pieces of you—today’s freshly baked cake for the ever-hungry.

At first no one knew any of us except the hard-core fans, people with whom Michael would have reasonable conversations, but then after a few key tournament wins, after a few interviews on the tube—that swagger coming across so well over the air: attitude for the male audience, those long eyelashes for the female—the tidal wave of everyone wanting it came crashing over us. We became leery of everyone. We moved quickly between cars and buildings; we never lingered. Everyone wanted to be bigger with you than they were, wanted to fill up your field of vision. We put Lawrence in to block.

Lawrence was a former football player who had started for the offensive line at Auburn. He played three years in the NFL, not distinguishing himself, and was released. He attended the training camp of another franchise the following summer in an attempt to hold on. Sadly, he was not picked up. United in one goal—keeping the man out of trouble—Lawrence and I were stuck together quite a bit waiting around for Michael and had an uneasy relationship. He carried around a pack of cards in his coat pocket, and we played various games (his favorite suit hearts, mine clubs), but that got boring fairly quickly. Once while standing together on the street in Philadelphia, someone threw a cup of coffee out the window of a passing car at us, screaming some pretty ugly opinions on interracial dating. What Lawrence did with his anger I never knew. I got to know him better, I think, than most among us, but that wasn’t saying much because he did not volunteer his thoughts, and I could only say that he exuded the air of a man who believed in the rule of law, however imperfectly applied. Impeccably dressed, Lawrence did not like disorderly thinking. My most vivid recollection of him was of him chewing, sucking on cough drops; years later the oozy, syrupy smell of eucalyptus could bring Lawrence right to mind.

So how rough could it get with this big man here at our side? We pushed down the accelerator leaving the normal world far behind. Michael and I had gotten into a jag at night where I sat on the bed at his feet applying ice packs to his ankles before we went to sleep, placing them, rearranging them, a towel under his legs; his joints were always aggravated. This was probably not helpful; it might have even been harmful, yet it was a quiet way to close out the day; that time was ours—the bed different from week to week, the routine the same. If we were tired, we’d lie together softly talking, our minds muddled. But occasionally we’d have a little more left in the tank, and the ankle sessions would degenerate—I’d slide my hands slowly further and further up Michael’s legs, massaging the muscles, resting my face on his thigh, while he’d look down contentedly at the woman collapsed at his feet. That was his favorite thing—mine, too, in a way, when he groaned, gripping and twisting my hair, letting it fall over his bare skin. I liked having him at my mercy for those few minutes.

But over time a chill settled over our nights. He partied solo more and more—I had no taste for it—and often didn’t come in until I had given up and gone to sleep. Sometimes I pretended to be asleep. Sometimes he didn’t come in till morning, but I would never acknowledge that fact, just would not deal with that particular slap in the face. We started to fight about what we wanted, what was important, began to generate separate gravitational pull. He didn’t have to live his dad’s fantasy, his fans’ fantasies, my fantasy, I would lecture. He was gathering endorsements as if they were sandbags needed for rising water; he didn’t take a step now without thinking of the commercial consequences. It embarrassed me. I began to see the person I’d been content, proud to follow slipping away. “I think you’re being way, way too cautious, Michael. Who cares if you screw up once in a while? Can’t you just be? Just be yourself.”

“Yeah . . . So I can be more like you?” He snorted defensively, “. . . like you?”

I wasn’t going to stay here and take that crap, but here I was. The more I tried to pull off the tentacles, the more he became ensnared in them, the nastier it got. The closeness, the tenderness dried up, and I found myself kneeling at his feet at night in an ever-growing silence. Everything had been ruined, the fragile things broken, deemed worthless. When he didn’t want to deal with me anymore, I started talking, to myself really, about my old cat, Izzie, during these quiet times, lonely for him, going on and on about the legend behind his breed—Izzie was a Birman, a Sacred Cat of Burma (my sister Maureen and I had taken up cat showing while in high school, but only I stuck with the fancy)—talking, talking, filling a growing void as numb as my ice-packed fingers, expanding on the legend, taking it on tangents here and there. It released both of us—Michael had long ago stated his indifference toward this, so it was understood he didn’t have to, and wasn’t going to, respond.

Centuries ago in the mountains of Asia, a tribe of people built a beautiful temple in homage to their gods. The temple housed the priests who worshipped there and their companions in holiness, a hundred pure white cats. So, as you know, it was believed that after they died the priests would return in the form of these cats. Each cat carried the soul of a priest. And there was a beautiful golden goddess in this temple with sapphire-blue eyes who watched over this transmigration of souls. The head priest, called Mun-Ha, could usually be found kneeling in mediation before this goddess with the cat, Sinh, his faithful companion, by his side. One night, on a night of a full moon, the temple was attacked and Mun-Ha killed. Why, I don’t know. Although the other priests drove the raiders out, Sinh didn’t move from Mun-Ha’s side. As Mun-Ha died, Sinh placed his feet upon his fallen master and faced the goddess. And then the transmutation took place. Sinh’s white hair turned as gold as the statue, his yellow eyes now sparkled like sapphire . . . as blue as yours . . .

I remember the boy who came to my senior exhibition, a graduation requirement for all art majors, held in a small gallery in the arts center on campus. I wore a cream silk blouse and black velvet pants to the opening—my idea of sophistication at the time. I had not expected him to show up; this was not his world. His arrival was a thrill, my classroom friend coming shyly in through the doorway, head bent, defenses down, looking at me provocatively from under his lashes. This is a good joke, isn’t it, he seemed to be silently saying, me being here. I’ve put on a clean shirt; I’m out of my element for you, a different persona altogether. Like kids dressed up playing grownups, we were self-aware, amused at ourselves. He graciously assumed the role of audience, unusual for him, hands clasped behind his back, looking appraisingly at the watercolors on the wall. “I like this,” he said, pointing to the last piece I had decided to include. His naiveté was charming. That was the beginning. We appeared now to be at the end.

The next morning the other cats silently entered the main hall, the place where Mun-Ha fell. They were all now reflections of the goddess: golden-furred beings with jewel-blue eyes. Sinh had not moved from the spot where his beloved Mun-Ha died, but sat staring unblinkingly at the goddess. For a week he sat there, refusing all food, until finally on the seventh day he died, carrying his master’s soul into paradise.

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