As a little girl in Massapequa, Long Island, I wanted to do everything my big brother did. When he needed glasses, I couldn’t wait not only to get glasses but some just like his. When he took tap lessons, I wanted to quit ballet and take tap lessons. There’s a picture of me in his tap shoes, hat and cane resembling a miniature Jimmy Durante. When my father beat him I thought I should be beaten too. Whenever he and his buddies went to the park across the street, I wanted to go along.
So when he signed up for a prize-winning contest of a big race with battery operated toy cars, I wanted to do that, even though I had never operated one of them. It was something every boy got for Christmas that year. The cars were not radio operated. They were run from a control you carried and a cord connected the car. The manufacturer or a local store probably sponsored the contest. My memory pictures them all like colorful sleek little Thunderbirds, but they came out the next year, or the next.
I had no business entering the race. I don’t know if I talked my parents into letting me try or if it was spur of the moment. I do know I had never touched one of those gizmos that every boy in the neighborhood had mastered easily running a slalom course. I was about six in a little dress holding one of the push button controls. Here I was with motor skills that had barely stopped spilling milk at dinner and I was going to make a car go around a track. There was something like traffic cones set out for each car to go through. Everyone started out at the same time as in a marathon. We might have been in a parking lot with a makeshift track. Though somehow it seems even now that it was a real track.
All the boys went out front and had long finished while I was still trying to get a handle on how to get it to go forward instead of right or left; Or to get it to go at all. If I missed a cone I’d painstakingly go back and try again. All of this is very strange because I was so deathly shy. Every child needs attention, but not being noticed was usually my MO. All I could think of was finishing.
I have a sharp memory of me not only coming in dead last, but also being out on the course long after the race was won, tears streaming down my face, but refusing to quit. I was out there alone in agony. Everyone watching was in agony. I don’t know how long it took for me to finally go forward. I think it even started to rain, or maybe that was the tears. They couldn’t announce the winner while I was still racing in reverse, something that I’m sure completely mortified a brother who already couldn’t stand my guts. He now had public proof that I was the idiot sister he had to endure. But after that day my identity split from his forever.
It wouldn’t be the last time I did something I had never tried. Want to write a play? Just do it. Want to start a business? Do it. Want to write a screenplay? Do it. Want to fly a plane? Do it. Usually it was a success, sometimes not. It’s that tenacity I’ve described as my best and worst quality. I still haven’t always quite gotten a handle on the controls. But then who does?
During the years with #56 It Takes Two, our dinner party world, giving and receiving, meant his friends, not mine. I was pretty new to the area so I was thrown in with people who had known one another for thirty years. I’m adaptable so it wasn’t a big sacrifice except that I noticed how seldom people asked me a direct question. I kept adapting or allowing that. They were foodies, something I’ll never be. I was the shopper and chopper. Mr. #56 was the theatrical chef.
I found the women in these couples alarmingly shrewish, quick to tell a spouse to be quiet, or correcting his story or even telling him to stop telling a story. I had met a few of the wives early in my arrival to this region through a women’s organization. But I was not comfortable with most of them. Then one of the wives and I became friends through our couples dinners. We had little in common but there was more of an openness about her and sometimes she’d actually ask me a question.
When #56 and I were renovating a house, she was hired as an interior designer, not to choose materials but to keep an eye on the builder who was justifiably using inferior products. He hated Mr. #56 for reducing his fee days before construction began.
After we moved in she and her husband were occasional guests. She knew some of what I was going though in that relationship. Anyone who had known Mr. #56 long understood. When it was clear that I had to leave him she was supportive, even though they had been friends far longer. She and her husband included me from time to time for a movie. I was not part of her community groups or women’s clubs, but we lunched. Theirs was a marriage that confounded me because she was perpetually angry about his long hours. She really let him have it about once a week. Then they’d go back to their routine and bam, she’d get angry when he didn’t call working late again. He seemed to let it roll off his back.
When I went off to film school in New York I stored my piano at their house because she wanted to learn to play. She never did, but I didn’t have to leave it in a cold storage unit.
The following summer she announced that she was diagnosed with cancer. She had survived a different bout years earlier. I pledged right then to treat it as though it was my own diagnosis and be with her every step of the way. As a friend, I’ve always been pragmatic and try to provide support, errands whatever is needed when someone is in distress.
She had panic attacks in MRIs so I took her, talked to her throughout the test. I’d never had that fear but sympathized. We agreed that I would take her for all her chemo treatments. I was no longer with the magazine. In fact she had come to help me clear out my office. Suddenly my schedule was wide open. Her daughter took her for the first treatment but it made more sense for me to go since I had the time. And it was a privilege. I met women battling years long cancers. They talked to me, and we all laughed whenever possible. One time my friend’s blood work wouldn’t allow a treatment so I took her back a few weeks later. The side effects went through the horrible roller coaster. Even though I’m not much of a cook I’d take an occasional pot of chili or soup to them. I sent her encouraging cards and got her out for an occasional errand or drive.
I was beginning research on a screenplay about a civil rights murder in this state in 1969. It had been much in the news because two murders went to trial after thirty years, the third oldest case to go to trial in American history.
As my friend was recovering from the successful but brutal chemo treatments we talked about getting her involved. She’s a film lover and always wanted to write something. I thought of it as great company because I was about to attempt something requiring a huge amount of research, while trying to get attention in a film world that didn’t know I was alive. Once again I was about to do something I’d never done before, with no prospect of an income. As she got stronger and stronger she wanted to get involved. I knew she didn’t know how to type but just having the company and moral support was important.
I made some calls and set up interviews in the town where the 1969 murder had taken place. I wanted to talk with the detectives who had worked so hard to get the case to trial, the DA who had pushed to go back decades and several of the defense attorneys who had represented the multiple defendants. My friend wanted to go along. She was with me for three of the interviews. I taped them so I could transcribe and be accurate in any dialogue. I asked her to take notes in case I missed something.
A pattern emerged. When we introduced ourselves to the lawyers, her first words were, “My husband is a lawyer.” It was a screech on a blackboard to me as if that made her their equal, but I never said anything. They always looked at her wondering why she mentioned it.
Another pattern developed. She never did give me a transcription of any notes. I loaned her my spare printer for her notes and for the research she had volunteered to do about the murder victim. But neither she or her husband or their daughter for that matter could get it to work with their computer.
I had plans to go to a movie with my friend and her husband and suddenly a man I had met called to see if I wanted to do something. I told him if he could get there in time he could join us for the movie. And he did. It was our first date, so not exactly what we had in mind. The husband asked my date questions making him feel welcome. After the movie they wanted to get a bite to eat. This was awkward because we had hoped to have some time to talk but we all agreed to go to dinner, which was a lot more than a bite. My friend started flirting shamelessly with my date. Once she found out he was a fisherman, she told all her fishing stories. I swear it seemed as though she was on a date with him. I watched in amazement, much the way I watched some of my mother’s behavior. He finally thumped me on the back to signal it was time to go. Not very romantic but clear.
I had gotten boxes of all the transcripts from one of the defense attorneys so I could get the trial scenes right. We both sat on the floor of my office reading through them as I took notes on actual dialogue. I also had many of the police reports. I had one vital transcription of the first witness in the case, the only interview they taped out of 443. It was time for me to begin constructing the story.
I had two table desks in my office. I offered to put them face-to-face for my friend so we could talk about what I was writing and why. Instead she chose to sit on the couch behind me. On the first day of writing she asked if I minded if she did her nails. I said nothing. Then she brought along fashion magazines to flip through. On the days when she came to my office we’d go downstairs to the coffee shop for lunch. So a lot of time got chewed up visiting. I was keeping a journal then so I knew exactly what days she came over and for how long.
Soon her company wasn’t helpful. I was the writer, and she was watching me write. It helped to talk about the transcripts, but she wasn’t making any writing decisions, knew nothing about screenplay format and I was frustrated. I offered her books on screenplays. She declined them. I asked about her notes from the interviews, which she kept promising. The only person I spoke with about all this was the man I was dating. He said I must terminate the arrangement because it would only get worse. I just couldn’t do that. I saw this as an extension of her physical healing.
Years earlier I built a house with a friend and had no written agreement about when it would be time to sell. I lost a fortune just because I didn’t know how to protect myself from a friend. Here I was again unable to confront her on how little she was doing. It wasn’t helpful; it took extra time and effort to explain to her what I was writing. She said, “I want Miramax to make this movie.” As if I’d have anything to say about it. I didn’t know how she could be so naïve. I didn’t know how to tell her she was naïve. I couldn’t know how many drafts it would take for me to feel confident about showing it to anyone. I’d gotten beaten up plenty writing plays and searching for a home for them. I just couldn’t find a way to bring her down to earth. Something in the back of my head nagged at me, but I couldn’t make myself sit her down. She was my friend. I just couldn’t make myself have a business conversation. We didn’t have an arrangement about my helping her when she was sick. When we first talked about the project she told me that helping me was like that. But it wasn’t.
They invited me to join them at the house they took every summer on Nantucket. I’d never been there. We’d all pitch in equally on food. There would be another couple and her mother. We caravanned to Massachusetts and they were on the ferry several cars in front of me. When the ferry was landing, I called him to find out where we would meet on the other side just as the attendants told me to pull forward. I didn’t notice that they had parked the car with the wheels toward the wall. I scraped my wonderful van. One guy said, “That’s was an expensive phone call.” It was at $500. There went my free vacation.
I was put in a musty moldy little room. Oh joy for my sinuses, which never cleared up all week. I learned that I was probably there for the same reason she had traveled out west with me to see my mother. Only she hadn’t told me. The tension with her mother was just awful. Also she was annoyed with her husband the whole time. Again, I never understood that kind of couple’s behavior in front of others. She’d whine about being cold, he’d go up in the attic to get her a blanket and she’d send him back again because he brought the wrong one. If he napped she’d wake him and holler at him for being lazy. It was his vacation. He said he just wanted to read and rest. The other friends were nice and we each took responsibility for meals. We went into town to stroll and sometimes eat there. One day I found a beautiful bowl to get them as a thank you. And he was buying her a special necklace, so I found a bracelet to match that I’d save to give her for Christmas.
One afternoon on the deck I was working on the screenplay at my laptop. My friend sat down with me. I sensed that she wanted to impress her mother so I showed her what I had on the screen and we talked about a scene that took place in a 1969 kitchen. Her entire contribution was what kind or radio to have sitting on the counter. I realized that she saw this as a decorating project. She hadn’t yet read anything I had written. I was doing her a favor in front of her mother, but how stupid could I be? Still no conversation about how we would proceed. Did she understand anything about how hard this was? No. Did I bring it up? Only very passively.
I was kind of missing the man I was dating during that week. So I went on long strolls alone on the beach. Her mother kept taking me aside to complain about her daughter and the way she treated her husband. I tried to ease the tension there, but it was miserable. And no amount of nose spray was helping my sinuses. The beach wasn’t long enough to get away.
After that trip I was preparing a draft of the screenplay for a friend who was putting his foot in the film world. He had attended the same film school in New York. I was on about my fourth draft, which was far enough along for him to read. I was going out to San Diego to help another friend who was having surgery. So that was my deadline. I’d get it done in time so he could read it while I was away.
I was determined that she be there at least to see what it took to go through every word while printing to make sure it was okay. She still hadn’t read one word of one draft. So I taped each page on the walls so she could see how it was laid out. It was futile but if I didn’t have the courage to talk with her, I was still trying to teach her. As I made a change I’d call out a page number so she could look it up on the wall. It meant nothing. It took a few hours to get it done. And she agreed to drop it off the next morning at the law offices of the friend who was going to read it. I had to fly out early for California.
As I was printing at my desk and proofing the last pages, (she never even helped proof) my back was to her on the couch. It was nearly 11PM and I was exhausted. I had been working about twelve hours straight and she joined me late that afternoon. Suddenly she asked, “What credit am I going to get?” I swung my chair around shocked by the question. She had never transcribed notes. She hadn’t even done the research she had volunteered to do and now she was asking for credit? I would have nothing to say about anyone’s credit if and when anyone actually agreed to read the script. As an unknown I might not even get credit if it sold. My brain was traumatized by the eleventh hour question. I was angry and exhausted, so for that draft I just put her name on the title page. I asked if that made her happy and she said that it did. It would mean nothing in the long run. Or so I thought. There would be so many drafts to come. But on the flight west I knew I’d have to get this straightened out when I returned.
California was a draining trip. My friend there didn’t tell me her father the doctor flew out to help. She knew I wouldn’t have come. I drove to Oregon first to interview someone and Washington State to see my nephew when the California friend called to say she had fallen and could I come sooner? So I nearly killed myself speeding to Seattle for an earlier plane. I was shocked when she picked me up at the airport. If she had fallen, she healed mighty fast.
Because her father had the guest room, I had to camp out on a mattress on the floor in her room. One morning I woke to find an army of black ants walking over me in a perfect line all the way from the garage at the other end of the house, over me, and into the closet. I got up and found some spay to end their march.
I was annoyed that I had gone all that way when her father could have been her advocate at the hospital. Once again someone had me as the middleman with a parent. After that I slipped away from that friendship for several years until I heard from her a couple of years ago to learn that she was dying of cancer. She is gone now. I was supportive at the end but we never resolved that event.
I gave a lot of thought to the subject of “credit” on that trip. I knew I had to tell my friend that I could not credit her as a co-author. Only time would tell if she finally contributed more and a mythical producer would agree to give her some sort of credit. We were having lunch the day after my return.
I flew back to Pennsylvania and the next morning I went to the offices of the friend who had read the screenplay. He had represented a book I’d written a couple of years earlier. No matter who it is, there’s anxiety when someone reads a draft of your work. He wasn’t an expert then but he was learning more and more and beginning to act as producer on some local films. He gave me feedback and we had a positive conversation. That is until he told me of the surprise visit from the husband of my friend. She not only didn’t drop off the script as agreed but sent him. Talk about awkward. Now the lawyer husband was quizzing the lawyer friend who had read the script about what our arrangement was. He was correctly told that we had no arrangement. It was just a friend giving feedback. I was stunned that someone just showed up like that to grill him. Why didn’t they just ask me? I still didn’t see the damage done.
It was time to pick her up for lunch the same day. At the restaurant I told her what I had thought about and how it was such a surprise when she asked about credit. I put her name on it out of exhaustion and frustration. I could not name her co-author.
She burst immediately into tears. I couldn’t believe the pitch of emotion. People in the restaurant looked to see if I was beating her. Finally she stopped crying and apologized for her response. I asked why her husband had gone to talk to my friend but she deflected the question. She continued to apologize for crying and we seemed fine by the time I dropped her off at her house.
Fine that is until I got a letter from her lawyer asking me to meet. I could barely catch my breath. My close friend whom I had seen through chemo and other traumas, had a lawyer contacting me. I knew enough not to go see someone else’s lawyer. I was living on the last of my savings and I did not have money for my own, which they knew. I contacted Philadelphia Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts. They accepted me as a pro bono case. And I met the most wonderfully efficient man who listened. I showed him my journal with the record of hours. I told him everything and he wrote an eloquent and precise document to her lawyer.
I was just searching for my registration for that screenplay and came across another letter from her lawyer. Ugly language accusing me of trying to purposefully do her out of credit, everything based on my mistake of putting her name on that draft that night. Think this qualifies for the “stupid list?”
A few days later an item I had bought at an auction at her charity arrived dramatically by messenger. Then her daughter contacted me to stop by for something or to drop something off. She was in a terrible position. She knew her mother’s capacity for drama. I got out the bracelet I had bought on Nantucket to send for her mother. But she knew it wouldn’t be accepted. Great. Now I had a gold bracelet I had no use for. I didn’t try to sway her. I knew not to drag her into this. But we hugged, both in tears, said good-bye and that was that.
I was very alone in this. Must be nice to have someone else to fight your battles. Because I had only talked about it with the man I dated for a while, no one knew what I was going through. I never wanted to complain about my friend to others. It’s a small town. I was always taking care of her in the same way I took care of my hysterical mother. And my heart was breaking.
Now I had a project that would forever have the stain of her childishness on it. I’ve done fifteen drafts of that screenplay and anyone who writes in that format knows it’s excruciating. I have no easy path to getting it sold. It isn’t an easy subject. What was important to me was that the story be told.
A couple of years after that someone told me that the former friend was now telling everyone that I, “can’t be trusted.” Even then, I didn’t talk about it. But now I realized why her reaction was so emotional, so strong and so angry. She had been bragging to people about writing a screenplay with me. Even though she is well established in the community, it made her feel good and gave her a different identity. But writing a screenplay isn’t about fun; it’s hard work and rarely works out. She was embarrassed and her reaction was to attack me and call me names. Sometimes I picture a liable suit but that just escalates an already insane situation. She had no idea what that project really meant or how the real world of film works. She was dabbling and had her heart set on a new fantasy status. And, she was going to cry to get it.
In the film Nebraska, when late in his life people think the central character has money and they want some of it claiming it’s owed, they’ve forgotten all he did for them decades earlier. If you don’t get that straight at the time, it doesn’t get fixed, ever.