Even projected onto the side of a weary white elephant outside the Watson Hotel Esplanade in Bombay, the longest kiss in movie history moved roving flautists to dervish, fakirs to fold their bodies into perfect balls like a garden of nocturnal flowers at dawn, and a hundred broadminded Englishmen to stand and applaud as if Victoria's grandson himself had appeared on one of the great terraces that surrounded each floor of the floodlit resort. Hoolock gibbons somersaulted on the film-silvered lawn as Himanshu Rai and Devika Rani surrendered their lips to history for four ecstatic minutes. Of course, thought Bayles, as he pried opened the canister of Jean Painleve's L'Hippocampe in the projection room, all of these old Indian films were destroyed in lean times, the silver extracted to make necklaces and flapper handbags. So all of it was now legend -- the kiss, the acrobat gibbons, the drowsing white elephant. You just had to take history's word on it.
Bayles cursed the projector several times, as he always did, while attaching the reel to its less than accommodating spindle. Danny came in with a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red, sat the goods on the flatbed moviola, poured them each a full plastic cup, and relieved Bayles before the high-strung owner began tearing the film out of the few sprockets he'd managed to guide it through, unspooling acres of film in an -- not atypical -- outrage. Bayles made his "brain surgeon who'd lost one" face, flapped his hands up and down against his filthy dress shirt like a dolphin who'd got its fins caught in honey, raised his eyebrows to Danny in a grateful "cheers!" and loped down the wide winding staircase into the theater proper. "Fucking fucking machine," He sang, a falsetto mock-aria that echoed like the belly of a whale in the old Piastra Theatre -- Bayles' hobgoblin, his mercy.
The place to sit is four rows back, dead center. Bayles stood in the aisle, sipping the scotch, waiting for the deep blue and pink apron luminaires to dim. This ancient, parasitical palace was his great infidelity to life, for it had forced him to actually lead very little of it. At gatherings it was always assumed the Piatra was a labor of love. He'd tell everyone how he was going belly up, how the toilets were taking on malignant lives of their own, how the wraiths in the heat ducts made it impossible to hear the mumbled, poorly recorded dialogue of Masculin-Feminin, and without fail some kitten poster of a human being would lead with, "But it's a labor of love, isn't it?" It's not, thought Bayles, that I haven't learned to enjoy some of it. Right now, for instance -- drinking decent scotch with Danny at midnight, screening something rare and puzzling, but it was the joy of a schoolboy, not a man. As if he'd broken into the place to perform some sacrilege. That's what it felt like. It felt like the place wasn't his, like it would never be his. He'd owned the damn gilded juggernaut for seventeen years, and it still refused to give itself over to him. It fought him day and night. Nights like these he felt like a vandal, and by fuck, the cunt deserved what she got. A labor of love. The repeating archway motif that lay in shadow behind the upper balustrade, lidded by gilt and drapery, looked down at him like the judgmental eyes of jack'o'lanterns, and he transmitted into the nests of glamor ghosts, this: "Yes, I'm going to get drunk and watch whatever I please all night if I want, and you'll have to save all your hauntings and wee hour drama for some other day." One such a night, he'd even taken a piss on a corner of the screen while they perused a particularly dull pornographic Japanese cartoon.
"Danny!" He yelled up to the projection booth. "Get the damn thing started and hurry down here with that goddamn bottle!"
Bayles took the perfect seat in the Piastra Theatre and kicked his feet up and over the back of the seat in front of him. "C'mon!" He yelled.
Numbered leader, intercut with nearly subliminal oddities, counted down onscreen and then the whole palace was underwater, and the piscine pageant began. The seahorses nodded their way through intricate vivariums and terarria. Though this was truly nature, truly under the sea, the forms could not have looked more artificial, each anemone and reef ledge limned in the spectral light of early cinema. The seahorses swayed to some elliptical jazz. Danny plopped into the chair beside him and immediately assumed the same bohemian slump as his employer. They passed the bottle back and forth urgently a few times & then let the huge screen swallow them whole. Bayles laughed or casually lectured at intervals, reinforcing the idea that the theater was his domain, especially while the male seahorses gave birth. But for the most part they fell into a hypnagogic trance, in which one's own dreams flow seamlessly into the projected images. It's something only a practiced movie-goer can manage, inserting the spookshow of the subconscious into the montage. Neophytes will always screw it up. You have to wait for the proper cut, for the proper rhythm of edits, for the proper composition of shape and texture, and then insert the silver foil Christmas tree in your father's hotel room, or your mother praying at the kitchen table. You don't want to be jarred out of this precarious transport by suddenly transposing your drunken stepfather over a bed of vulvic sea clams, or letting an octopus pushing off a coral precipice dissolve into a cancer ward. It takes so much practice to let oneself go to the movies.
The next of the bunch, Assassins d'eau douce, with its thuggish scorpion beetles way-laying any life borne along its path, startled them both with its blaring hothouse jazz, and Danny had to run up to the projection room to keep the echoes of the feral muted trumpet from shaking plaster off the walls. As Danny dealt with the acrimony, Bayles noticed a figure in the aisle, a vertical slash of glowing green trimmed and bisected with strands and diagonals of the most excruciating pale white skin. Her head dropped forward, as if the puppeteer had severed a line, and her wild red hair fell over her face and the decolletage of the most amazing emerald cocktail dress Bayles had ever seen. The twitchy rise and fall of her naked shoulders let him know she was laughing. She dropped her purse onto the Navajo/Turkish aisle carpet and supported herself on one of the seats. The laugh began as a ticking in her throat but ended with her flinging all the fiery red and freckled white backward, stretching the magnificent tendons and bone ridges of her sternum tight under that most generous dress. She barked to the vaulted ceiling and it shattered against the overlording architectural dark, split into piercing shards that eventually fell tinkling into the Piastra's long-suffering corners.
"Good lord, Rebecca," Bayles hrrumphed without conviction. "You'll bring the whole shittery to its knees."
Rebecca swayed down the row towards him, the tick-tock of her ass still the same rocksteady burlesque it had been two years ago.
"Your hair's a fraud," He said as she mock-collapsed into the seat next to him. She turned one side of her mouth up and batted her eyelashes.
"But yes, it, uh, suits the dress."
"I thought so."
Foolish dreams you never see to fruition, Bayles thought. He'd always wanted to see her in an emerald green cocktail dress, her hair up in a pony tail to accentuate the sculptor's joy that was her throat. When they began the affair, they talked about the green cocktail dress as if it were their grip on the future, as if the misbegotten parlor trick of a romance couldn't possibly end before the green cocktail dress was wished into being. But there it was, and damned if he'd be the one to guess at the significance of that.
"What are we watching?" She took a cigarette from her spangled purse. Exactly the sort of purse a hundred Indian films had perished to assemble, he thought.
"Painleve. He made surrealist underwater documentaries. The shrimp and the beetles are the Nazis; all the floating, naive life in the pond must submit to their genocidal progrom..."
"Nature as abattoir. I see," Bayles fumbled a lighter from his pocket and she leaned into the flame with such natural ease that he felt lightheaded. Seeing the chiffon, the toss of red hair, and -- the beginning of a trail of hopeless kisses -- the topmost knob of her spine, by a lighter's flicker was nearly more than he could bear. He pushed the lighter into his pocket as far as he could, and kept his fist clamped around it there. With the hand that wasn't shaking, he handed her the bottle of scotch.
"If he saw you, I imagine he's hiding."
Rebecca looked at him with such wit, with such vigorous wit and intelligence. She brought the bottle up to her lips, hesitated as if she'd forgotten to tell a joke, smiled at him, pulled her bottom lip into a pout with the mouth of the pint, grinned a little more, and finally lurched down a healthy swallow. Jesus, he thought. In this slump, with his head turned toward her this way, it would take barely a nod to kiss the Pleides of freckles on her bare shoulder. Just a single nod, like a seahorse, to run his lips across the constellation. But instead he wiped his mouth on the collar of his shirt, sighed, and drank. I'd kill for just one inch of her bed tonight, he thought.
"Do you think you can experience Stendhal's syndrome from a movie, Bales?"
"It's too modern, I think. Part of Stendhal's sydrome is experiencing antiquity and having no resistance to it, finding Roman ruins aren't a shopping mall and a fresco isn't a bank painting is really hard on some people."
"But there were people who used to run from movie theaters screaming, right kitten?"
"Trains bulleting toward your head and riots in the street. I think that just may be exaggerated. But there were the sausage factory movies. In one, a man in an apron loads three dogs into a big box with a clock on the side. Behind him," Bayles poured a shot of scotch onto his curled tongue and let it slowly dribble down his throat. "There were these link sausages labeled 'Plain Dog,' 'Trained Dog,' and 'Boston Bull'."
She laughed one of those throaty smoker's laughs, sexy before it turns to bronchitis, curled her pale pink reptile tongue and poured scotch into it. She let it drain down her throat slowly. "It's like peeling a grape and eating it," She giggled.
"One lady customer points at the wall of links and the guy in the apron puts the sausage into the machine and a dog comes out the other side. It's a fucking dachsund. It's running around everywhere, skittish as hell. The lady swats her hand through the air, 'NO!'" They're both taking shots from their curled tongues.
"We're genetic freaks!" She howled.
"So the conveyor belt into this machine is reversed and the dog comes out the other end as sausage again, and the butcher drapes the links over a nail. The lady decides she'll take a mastiff instead. I hear the audiences were mortified by the dog being changed back into sausage. I don't know if they ran screaming from the theater or not," Bayles imagined all of these Painleve films tinted the color of Rebecca's cocktail dress, like the cover of some old Blue Note jazz album. Seagreen starfish, the undulations of seagreen monsters.
"What are you working on these days?" He asked her, trying to bring some iota of reality to their underwaterness.
"We're publishing Roger Casement's Black Diaries finally," She pouted a bit that they were done furling their tongues and making dogs from sausages. "He was a gentleman explorer who was hanged in 1916 for being buggered by three-quarters of the young boys in the African Congo."
A Portuguese Man-of-War exploded on the screen and they both took time out from the conversation to admire the transluscent fireworks.
"Being...buggered?" He just caught it.
"Yes! Yes. That's it. Strangely he was the passive partner always."
"So they were fucking him?" She nodded ecstatically. He recalled they'd always talked like this and felt the loss of her like a blow.
"And he was hanged?"
"There was a little more to it, but yes."
"I'm sure they had to ruthlessly coerced into ass-fucking their colonialist oppressor."
They laughed like they always had and she laid her head against his shoulder, thick red fox tails of hair ran down his chest.
"And of course I'm trying to raise the girl..."
"She's a prodigy," He recalled the clippings, the reviews.
"She's a circus pony."
Bayles still wanted her as much as he ever had, but initiating it seemed tedious somehow. And though he knew by her body language that she wouldn't refuse him, pitifully awkward. He'd never know how she ever felt about any damn thing. When she surrendered, it was the same series of gestures and enigmatic looks, as when she denied him. The tedium resulted from the utter lack of contrast. If she'd just slap him soundly, at least he'd have the thrill of the chase. What does a cougar do with a lame horse that refused to budge from the door of its lair?
He sniffed out a laugh at the complete failure of that metaphor. The cougar devours the poor, sickly pony, of course. He devours it without any thought whatsoever.
Rebecca wasn't wearing a bra. Bayles remembered telling her that a flat-chested girl was sexier without one. He took a long shot of scotch without any playful antics and reached his hand under the plunging neckline of the emerald green cocktail dress. All of the ocean's ugly beauty swam in airless Busby Berkeley logic across the screen; in all manner of motion, all the entwined tongue shapes and organs incarnate folded themselves inside out and outside in, as if the whole world had been eviscerated and the life of the sea was the spill of its guts. Somewhere up above, on land, all had gone bloodless. No more light for skyscrapers, no more fuel for cars. The mountains had deflated and the floors of canyons opened like trap doors into liquid uncertainty. No more bottom, no more top. All the purple-pink insides of our landlubber lives unraveling into the emerald green sea.
Bayles cupped her tit as if checking an old reflex, and as always her nipple rose to attention between his fingers, practically forcing its way through. Her body turned into him and for a moment her breast filled his hand. He retracted, massaged his temples, whispered she was beautiful, and tucked her into his shoulder with a smooth motion he'd have prayed for back when it mattered. Their waking dreams slipped into the endless peristalsis of images, like polywogs through baby fingers.
- Charles Lieurance/Austin, Texas 2005