Years ago, I loved a boy named Mathias, a film history student who did coke when he was feeling expansive. At the time, I found this aspect of his behavior normal, yet I imagined film criticism to be a kind of mania. My references were actors, not directors; I was impressed by displays of emotion, suspicious of anyone who acted smarter than me. He was one of these people, but we had a familiar, teasing rapport. After we’d slept together for the first time, I stupidly announced to him the tentative title of a story I was writing; he was silent for a long moment before he touched my cheek and said, That sounds like a bad TV movie about bulimia. I was so surprised to hear myself laughing that I flung my head back as if I had been joking all along. He also spoke German and resembled a young Marlon Brando in certain slants of light, which helped.
I still can’t say precisely why Blue Velvet ruined us for each other. We saw the film on the last night in August, the summer we lived in on 112th st, in an apartment that belonged to a former professor of his who was on sabbatical. I would start a yearlong exchange program in Paris in the fall, and I was attempting to save money by working as a cake-icer in a bakery in Greenpoint, while Mathias, who had a trust fund, slept late and spent his afternoons in bookstores and air-conditioned movie theaters. Sometimes when I came back from my shift I would find him hunched over the professor’s huge antique desk, doing lines of coke off the covers of her Film Quarterlies. I don’t think his being high the night we saw Blue Velvet bothered me so much, though I remember avoiding the eyes of a classmate who worked as a ticket-tearer at Film Forum. I followed Mathias down the aisle to find seats in the front row, pretending to want that closeness, the feeling of being physically transported up onto the screen, although I was actually (am actually) more inclined to sit somewhere in the middle.
In the opening sequence of the film, a man has a violent seizure while watering his front lawn. The garden hose seems to attack him, coiling itself around his neck. A younger, dopey- looking man goes walking in the woods and finds a moldy, severed ear. I don’t remember much about what happens between this business and the first time Isabella Rossellini appears onscreen. From then on, I see things more clearly– the dopey-looking man knocks on the door to Isabella’s apartment, and moments later it opens just slightly, as far as the chain will allow. I remember most of all this partial glimpse of her, slouching indolently in a red dress, how her features emerge disembodied from the dark–the curve of her swan neck, her full lips and heavy, aqua-blue painted eyelids-and the slowness, the languorousness with which she undoes the chain.
I remember leaning forward ; I think I remember Mathias leaning forward, although I would have only seen this out of the corner of my eye. I know that at some point he took my hand and placed it on his knee, and I traced the seam of his jeans with my thumbnail, and she hovered over us like a goddess.
But she wasn’t a goddess ; she was Isabella Rossellini playing a singer who’d fallen in with the wrong crowd (namely, her ether-addicted sadomasochist boyfriend who’d kidnapped her husband and child). Years later, I read in an interview that after the film’s release, a nun from Isabella’s old Catholic school–a nun she hadn’t heard from in twenty years-called her up and told her, on behalf of all the nuns, that they prayed daily for her soul. I doubt she was thinking about nuns in the scene where she wanders the street in a daze, naked, bruised and battered, her arms outstretched to no one. Actually, I know she wasn’t, because in the interview, she says she was thinking about a photograph of a Vietnamese girl who’d been a victim of a napalm attack. Every time a car’s headlight passed, she skittered back desperately like a frightened animal. I felt as though I was waiting for my cue to enter the scene, to climb up onto the screen and tell her not to be scared. Mathias moved my hand up between his legs, but I was up there with Isabella, I was following her as she wandered onto the lawn of the dopey-looking man’s house. Oh God, they hurt him. Jeffrey, Jeffrey, Jeffrey. Hold me. Hold me. Hold me. Oh God. My secret love.
Mathias told me once, after our statute of limitations on apologies had passed, that he’d always found broken women more beautiful. It must have been at this point in the film, then, that he unzipped his jeans, and I felt the rigid outline of his penis through his boxers. A bright red ambulance pulled up in front of the house; they strapped Isabella Rossellini on a stretcher and carried her away. I understood her better than the nuns, better than anyone would, ever. I felt him throttle in my palm and quickly lowered my head. I missed only a few seconds: the ambulance disappearing into a white blur halfway down the street, Isabella Rossellini screaming hold me, hold me, I’m falling.
Later that night, Mathias and I walked down Varick Street, and we stopped at a bar for a drink, a salt-rimmed glass. To avoid talking about the movie, I talked about the courses I would take at the Sorbonne, and the prerequisite reading I had two weeks left to finish; Barthes’ Camera Lucida, a thick packet of art history readings, an Andre Breton novel and the first volume of Proust. I talked about how, all that summer, I’d overheard French women chatting in coffeeshops, but it still sounded like one continuous, lilting phrase in a language I didn’t understand; how at odd moments, I would mishear something in English as a jumble of French–you get off at Gramercy, a bus driver had told me, and I heard Grand-mere-ci, and imagined a park where silver-haired, crocheting ladies occupied every bench.
I talked and talked and let Mathias buy me $10 gin-and-tonics, even though I still owed him the past month’s rent. I talked about the heat that summer, the broken air conditioner at the bakery, how we had to rotate the pastries in the display window because the frosting would melt right off the tops of cupcakes. I talked about how depressing it was that the United States had been in Iraq for almost as long as I had been in college. But neither Mathias nor I had read the newspaper that day, and unless I’d overheard it from someone, I would have had no way of knowing that on that morning, over a thousand people had died in a stampede near a shrine in Baghdad. A rumor had turned them running, retracing the steps of their pilgrimage; they’d crushed into one another on a bridge over the Tigris and the iron railings had given way. I wasn’t thinking about any of those people, though. I was thinking about getting on with the events of my life. When it was very late, and I was very drunk, we finally got around to talking about Blue Velvet ; Mathias held forth on post-modern aesthetics and I insisted that the entire film was about Isabella Rosselini’s eyes. I think you’re talking about the fetishisation of the image, he said, using that clipped enunciation that I’d learned to mean he was quoting a professor. It was perhaps my least favorite tone that he took; I hadn’t told him this yet, but I would. I had already begun to disassemble him into a collection of gestures.