“Some people can’t be ’appy. They just want to piss on everything.”
Friday evening, 7 September 2007, PM
GM: The Walter Grinnan Robinson House is one of the most beautiful homes in New Orleans. Located at 1415 Third Street in the exclusive Garden District, the palatial Antebellum mansion incorporates a sophisticated blend of Greek Revival and Italianate styles with a Neoclassical cast iron fence adorned in delicate shell motifs. It feels like a throwback to an earlier age of opulence. It’s far from the only multimillion house in the historic neighborhood to feel that way.
Viewed from the street, the house presents an impressive sight. It’s far back on the lot, sideways to the street, with a Palladian carriage house and iron gates. The impressive scale of the house results from its two nearly 16-foot stories of equal height. Double galleries with curved ends, an essential feature of Garden District homes, adorn the façade. These feature Doric columns on the first floor and Corinthian on the second. Cast iron panels in a somewhat heavier than normal pattern link the columns and blend well with the feeling of solidity which the building gives. The southern exposure has double galleries framed in ironwork of a lacy design, which effectively lightens and gives delicacy to the whole of the building.
The snow-white mansion is also one of the largest properties in the city, covering close to 14,000 square feet if one also includes the 1,500 square foot carriage house that likely served as servant quarters when the house was first built.
The exterior grounds have a beautiful pool. Outdoor features include multiple balconies/porches, a Neoclassical fountain, and formal gardens with weeping willows, palm trees, and vibrant flowerbeds of roses, violets, magnolias, and other sweet-smelling blossoms. Neatly-trimmed green hedges and a wrought-iron fence make the home’s privacy tastefully but abundantly clear. Access in is controlled through an intercom by the gate.
It smells like old money.
It smells like a lot of money.
Emmett: Money that might otherwise prove incredibly distracting to El, if only the adolescent trickster wasn’t far more invested in another kind of prize entirely. He’s set for money right now anyway —the way he sees it, any expenses beyond snacks, gas, and weed are basically unheard of.
GM: The house’s entry hall is equally stately affair. A sweeping staircase underneath a crystal chandelier leads up to the second floor. Cécilia presses an intercom and says something in French that Emmett doesn’t understand. Excited-sounding replies in young girls’ voices sound back in the same language.
“Letting my sisters know we’re home,” Cécilia explains as Adeline heads upstairs, with the declared intent to change.
“How’s your eye doing?” she asks as she slips off her shoes and starts down one of the hallways, motioning for Em to follow. “Can I get you some ibuprofen?”
Emmett: “It’s fine, seriously. You don’t need to get me anything. Except for whatever you’re having.” He follows after her, hands in his pockets, content to let her take the lead for the time being.
GM: Cécilia stops. “You’re sure? Not even an ice pack?”
Emmett: He pokes it. “Looks worse than it is, really. I don’t think it’s bad to let it air. Not that I’m basing that on my extensive medical knowledge.”
GM: “If you’re sure, El,” Cécilia says, eying the bruise before smiling again. “But since we’re already headed to the kitchen, I hope you’ll at least let me get you something to eat or drink.”
Emmett: “Like I said—whatever you’re having.”
GM: Cécilia nods and starts off down the hallway again. “I’ll pour us some Côte Rôtie. It should help Adeline and the others sleep, too.”
Emmett: That’s a good sign.
That’s a very good sign.
He doesn’t have to fake any of the slightly shakey good humor he’s radiating now. He might be mature in some ways and extremely undeveloped in others, but the part of him that’s a seventeen-year-old boy is right on the money.
GM: It’s as he’s giddying over the prospect of wine to loosen Cécilia’s ambitions that Emmett passes a portrait of what looks like his intended conquest and her younger sister, give or take a few years younger. Two small girls around grade school age stand in front of them, along with a younger toddler. All five children share the same slender builds, pale blonde hair, milky complexions, and pale blue eyes. The already striking resemblance is made all the more pronounced by their identical attire—sleeveless white dresses of a silky material.
It’s the final figure, however, who most dominates the family portrait.
She resembles the five girls as though viewed through a glass darkly. She’s somewhere around middle age, with raven hair and a deep black dress that strikingly contrast the young girls’ lighter hair and garb—an effect that is all the more pronounced by how her facial features are otherwise the spitting image of theirs (give or take enough decades). She holds a sleeping infant in her left hand and rests her right upon Cécilia’s shoulder. The three’s positions recall a grand and unifying circle of life: infant to youth, youth to mother. Although the woman remains in the foreground, her taller height and black gown’s wide hem give her an almost looming presence that seems to all but swallow up the five children into her dark folds.
The still woman’s smile rests upon Emmett knowingly.
Emmett: Not something you see everyday, He finds himself admitting. He doesn’t like art, really—though he feels pretty sure he can talk a good game as Elliott— but he finds himself staring regardless.
“Beautiful portrait,” he hears himself muse, almost unconsciously.
GM: Perhaps it’s as a result of that distractedly fixated mental state while his teenage libido also wants sex. Maybe it’s the prospect of more wine after he’s already had more than a few splashes of Artie’s booze. Maybe it’s the eye Westley punched.
But Em could swear he saw the woman in the portrait wink.
Emmett: Em’s all kinds of squeamish. He doesn’t like people hugging him suddenly, cleans his hands whenever he gets the chance—and there are feelings he hates, too. Feelings that bother him like nails ripping into a chalkboard.
The feeing of a secret he knows he doesn’t know. The feeling of being watched when he’s alone.
The feeing if being tricked.
It shouldn’t, he hates that it is, but it’s happening; getting to him. Something wrong, something dark—
“—who made it?” he stammers, his somewhat dark face paling. “Who painted this thing?”
GM: Cécilia looks back at El. Perhaps she’s about to ask whether he likes the portrait, or make some other appropriate small talk. But she doesn’t.
“It was by a family friend,” she answers, as if to reassure him. “Well, more like friend of a family friend. I think it actually took a lot out of her, in some ways; her normal style is…”
Cécilia looks at her houseguest for a moment longer.
“Are you sure you couldn’t use some ice or ibuprofen, El?”
Emmett: “I said I’m fine,” he almost snaps, before stammering, “I’m sorry, it just—where’s the bathroom?”
He can hear the deafening silence of the moment, but he can’t even let himself feel embarrassed. Has to wash his face. Has to think.
GM: Cécilia looks a bit concerned, but gives Em directions while she goes to pour the wine. He doesn’t hear much else of what she says. He can’t get to that door fast enough. The bathroom is clean, white, and has more floor space than Em’s room back home. There’s room for a rug, small potted tree, and two vases of fresh-smelling flowers by the basin-like sink.
Emmett: He barely notices it. The room feels dreamlike. No, nightmarish.
“Calm down, calm down..”
But he can’t. What the fuck is he doing? This isn’t selling oregano to freshmen or faking letters from his teachers. This is fucking with lives, rich, smart lives. And okay, sure, he doesn’t really care about bratty Addie—but he didn’t mean for Lee to make her a casualty of 80’s slapstick. What if he fucks up? What if he’s already fucked up? All he needs is for the wrong person to take Lee seriously, or for Cici to start wondering about some of the stories he told her.
His cheeks are burning for some reason. Holy shit, is he crying? He is. He can see himself in the mirror, tears washing his cheeks of sweat.
He has a sudden, inexplicable urge to call his mom. She’s crankier towards him, these days, but maybe she can calm him down. She always could. ADD, the white-coats and quacks said, and they hadn’t been wrong, but she was the one who understood. She understands him, how he can get.
He hates that. He hates that she knows him so well.
Pull yourself together.
But she winked at him. Hadn’t she winked at him?
He watches himself in the mirror, for one minute, than another.
GM: His reflection watches him back. ‘Elliot’ looks like the stress is getting to him. Confidence is the first thing a conman needs. It’s in the name. Conman. Con games. Confidence games.
Pull yourself together.
She couldn’t have winked at him.
Emmett: He isn’t sure how many minutes pass before he steps from the bathroom, breath rattling. Control. He needs control of the situation. He needs to find Cécilia.
GM: He runs into a grade school-age girl who looks like a miniature version of Cécilia. She’s standing just outside the door. Like she’s been waiting.
“Cécilia said you’d be in the bathroom,” the child says.
Emmett: “Oh,” he says. “I was.” He summons Elliott’s ghost and says, “Nice to meet you. You’ll be Yvette or Yvonne, right?”
GM: “Your jacket’s funny,” the child states without answering his question.
Emmett: Funnier than the Adams Family routine.
“Funny how?” Em—El—asks, hiding his annoyance behind his puzzlement.
GM: “It’s got a label,” says the girl. “For ’ow big it is.”
She looks at him like the conclusion is the most obvious thing in the world.
Emmett: He actually chuckles, his contempt for the brat bringing back his mojo. Lucky he knew what he was getting into tonight.
“Yeah, I hear off-the-rack stuff is tacky. Mom gives me a lot of guff about it, but my father always says that the idea that clothes make a man is bull—ah, sorry. Forgot who I was talking to.”
He smiles at the little shithead. “The truth is, if you carry yourself like the person you know you are, people treat you properly. Doesn’t matter if you’re wearing rags or or thrifting.”
He drops slightly, making eye contact with the shrimp. As he does, he subtly draws her eyes to the glittering watch he borrowed from Barty Stines Friday. It isn’t like Em didn’t pay for it. Helping that dude make friends was like getting pandas to fuck. He also adjusts the silk tie around his neck, also borrowed.
“Hope I didn’t weird you out. I bet your mom does all your shopping for you. I’m Elliott, by the way.”
And I’m going to fuck your sister.
GM: The little girl’s eyes pass over El’s tie and not-quite Rolex. They don’t look impressed so much as less hostile. She gives a rather flat look at his last statement. “Maman ’as people do that for ’er. She ’as way more important stuff to do.”
She then adds, “Ah’m Yvette.”
Emmett: “Nice to meet you, Yvette. And that makes sense.”
If I were your mother, I’d want to avoid taking my failed abortion shopping too.
“You know, Cécilia didn’t mention you were so observant. You’re nine, right? You seem much older. Dignified.”
He knows her type. He almost is her type, not that he’d admit it. Spoiled rotten and self-important shitheel. But the thing about spoiled people is they like their lives to be easy. And what’s easier than believing people like you?
“I’m definitely wasn’t very clever at your age,” he goes on. “Lived all day in my own head, couldn’t stop daydreaming. Cécilia says you’re a wonderful sister, though.”
GM: Yvette bobs her head at El’s question about her age. “Nine and one-sixth.”
She smiles a bit at her older sister’s mention. “So’s Cécilia. She’s the best sister ever.”
Emmett: “Even better than you are to her?” he asks, smiling.
GM: The child laughs. “D’accord. Maybe not that much better. But reeeeeeaally close.”
Emmett: “If you wanna even the scores a bit, you might wanna see if you can keep Adeline company. She had a bit of a tough night, and I think Cécilia’s still worried about her.” He pauses. “Can I trust you to keep a secret for me? You seem pretty cool.”
She definitely can’t, but he bets she’ll say she will anyway.
GM: “Ah keep tons of secrets!” Yvette nods eagerly, leaning in.
Emmett: Jesus, it’s actually like taking candy from a baby. A French baby that hates candy. They’re more about pastries, anyway.
“I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody as good as her,” he says quietly. That’s right, she’s mother Teresa with a better figure.
“I really want to make her as happy as she makes everybody else, as cheesy as that might sound.” He looks around conspiratorially. “I could really use the help of people who love her.”
GM: “Welllll,” Yvette says thoughtfully, then frowns a bit, “you should ’ave more money. And wear a better jacket.”
Emmett: He laughs. “Working on it.”
GM: Yvette nods several times as if to say she expects that El is, then asks, “Do you know French? French makes ‘er ’appy. We only talk in English when there’s people over.”
Emmett: “Enough to learn more,” he replies happily. “Well, it’s been very nice talking to you.”
You might literally be the worst human being I know.
“I’ll remember this—oh, and Yvette?”
GM: “Uh-huh?” Yvette asks.
Emmett: “She’s lucky to have sister like you,” he says warmly.
GM: The girl smiles. “Maman says there’s nothing in the world better than sisters. The ’ole world.”
Emmett: Except that blond guy’s dick she keeps hopping on. Like a fucking pogo.
Emmett: Emmett’s grin widens at Emmett. He may be sitting in a wheelchair, missing his legs, missing a life, and slated for execution. But…
“You were so proud to be nine and what was it, one sixth? Maybe you’d remember me if I told you…” he composes his face, warms his voice like butter on toast.
“She’s lucky to have a sister like you.”
Friday evening, 7 September 2007, PM
GM: Perhaps to his chagrin, the 17-year-old El finds that he isn’t rid of Yvette so easily. She follows him back to the kitchen with her sister, whose arms she jumps into with an exclaimed, “Cécilia!” The older Devillers laughs and spins her around before setting her down with a, “Vous devenez un peu gros…” that Em doesn’t understand.
Adeline is also there, changed into a fluffy sweater and pajama bottoms that don’t look likely to fall down as easily. She thanks him for his jacket as she hands it back. There’s also another little girl in a nightgown with nigh-identical features to Yvette who the sisters introduce as Yvonne.
Emmett: He’s not a bad sport about the sisters speaking amongst themselves in French, though he doesn’t presume to act like he belongs, either. Just smiles at the happy family like something in him isn’t screaming. He’s always wanted a twin.
He assures Adeline it was really no problem.
He’s more subdued than earlier. He can make nice with the brats, but he has plans for Cécilia.
GM: Cécilia gently chides her sisters not to speak too much French since they “have company over”. She pours wine for all of them, too, the nine-year-olds included. If El remarks on that fact, the siblings just laugh lightly that it’s “really not a big deal in France”. They’re used to explaining this to their American friends.
Everyone drinks a little wine “back home”. Kids don’t get in nearly so much trouble for drinking. It just isn’t as big a deal to anyone.
“Americans get mad about the dumbest stuff,” Yvette opines.
Emmett: “Tough to argue,” he agrees, sipping his own glass. “But we also break our own rules more often than not. Makes life interesting.”
GM: “Ah thinks it’s better to just set rules people won’t break as much, no?” Adeline asks over a sip of her own. “Everyone gets along better that way.”
Emmett: “You’re probably right,” he concedes. “It simply makes sense to me as a native. Things in this country, laws and companies and even the different kinds of people aren’t meant to work together well. Bit like NOLA, really. A city like this doesn’t exist without somebody breaking a few rules. They might not be made to be broken, but some lines have to be crossed before they can be drawn.” He shrugs. “But I wouldn’t take the word of an American.”
That was clever. Maybe she’s rubbing off on me.
GM: “That’s true,” Cécilia nods, thoughtfully swishing her glass. “There’s an inherent appeal to people in transgression. Even back home—the historical stereotype is we’re always having revolutions, aren’t we? People will always want rules to break, to assert themselves and show they have agency.”
“Ah think that’s because they’re un’appy,” Adeline poses. “Every revolution back ’ome ’ad major causes. People will always want to make things better for themselves bah breaking the rules.”
“What if we could get everyone to a point they were happy?” Cécilia poses thoughtfully.
“You can’t do that,” Yvette laughs.
Yvonne nods with her sister, if more sadly. “People are always going to be un’appy.”
“You’re right,” Cécilia smiles at them, “I should have been more specific. Think about the question on a smaller scale. Have you ever been tempted to break any of Maman’s rules?” She winks conspiratorially, “It’s all right to say so, she isn’t home.”
El could swear there’s an invisible cord connecting the three sisters’ heads as they simultaneously shake them.
Cécilia looks unsurprised by that response as she continues, “There are plenty of historic and recent thinkers and politicians who consider the family the nucleus of society. If we’ve achieved happiness here,” she gestures across the kitchen, “how can we replicate that on a larger scale?”
“That’s what you and Maman do,” Yvonne speaks up. “Make things better for people, so they can be as ’appy as us.”
“And ‘appy people don’t want to break so many rules,” Adeline nods. “Bread and circuses, if we’re being cynical. But Ah don’t think it’s a coincidence, either, what El says. This city’s ‘ole mystique is ’ow people ’ere can break so many rules. But it’s also one of the un’appiest in the country. Astronomique rates of poverty, illiteracy, incarceration, and so many other ills. People ’ave a lot of reasons to want to break the rules ’ere.”
Emmett: Jesus, listen to them.
He affects a thoughtful and interested expression, though.
“Is it always so bad, the breaking of a rule in the first place? I mean, whether or not you actually sympathize with them. I’m not even talking about obvious examples, intermarriage and freedom fighters or whatever. I mean rulebreakers, one and all. When you remove the cautionary tales and sob stories, what’s left?”
GM: “Ah’d say that still really comes down to what the rule is and why they’re breaking it,” Adeline considers.
Cécilia nods. “I think the question is whether they want to break the rules because they’re trying to bring about real and substantive change, or just for its own sake.”
“MLK vs. the rebel without a cause,” Adeline raises.
Cécilia sips from her glass. “Exactly. Now, sometimes a rebel wants to feel independent and is maybe frustrated they can’t find any other outlet to express that through. At best, someone can help them find one. At worst, they’re being childish and lashing out for the sake of lashing out.”
“It’s easy for the rebels without a cause to pretend to be MLKs, too,” Adeline adds.
“They should just be happy,” Yvonne speaks up. “If they were, they wouldn’t be rebels.”
Cécilia smiles and strokes her sister’s hair. “Making things better for people does seem to be the answer to both types.”
Emmett: “Interesting word to use,” he says to Cécilia, smiling indulgently but ignoring the slightly racist implication and Yvonne’s gabbing, “Childish. People like describing rebels that way.”
GM: “They do,” Adeline agrees. “Partly because it ’as real basis for the ones without a cause, and also to put down the ones ’oo do. Police called MLK an agitator, a troublemaker. They trahed to make it seem like ’e was just stirring trouble instead of trahing to make things better.”
Emmett: Em sips his wine slowly. “So what separates the good children from the bad? Actually, does it even matter? They’re still children. Still just trying to understand things the best they can, and do everything they can to make their dreams come to life. All anybody’s trying to do, really. They might be doing it wrong, might be hurting more than they help—but they’re children. Hard to hold it against them.”
He isn’t drunk, but he feels strange. Invested, even though he could have sworn a few minutes ago he doesn’t actually care.
“Children are children. You can punish them, or reward them, or ask them nicely not to do it again. But ultimately the only one who decides how they act is them. And people are just children with more details.”
He tilts his head, then chuckles. “Unless I’m just being childish, of course.”
GM: Cécilia smiles at that. “I don’t think you are, El. I think you also raise another point that’s worth considering—the rebels’, and childrens’, perspectives. It’s true we’ve been talking a lot about them and presuming to make decisions for them. But what do the children here think?”
She looks back over her youngest sisters.
“Maman’s rules are all good,” says Yvonne. “Ah think everyone should just try to be ‘appy. That’s what everyone wants, to be ’appy.”
“Some people can’t be ’appy,” says Yvette. “They just want to piss on everything.”
“What do you think we should do about those people?” Cécilia asks.
“Get rid of them,” Yvette answers.
“We ’ave a Robespierre in the making,” Adeline laughs.
Emmett: Genocidal undertones from the brat. That’ll age well.
God, this is good wine.
GM: Yvette smiles and sips hers.
Emmett: He continues making conversation and making a good impression—joking, contemplating, and keeping the good humor—but he’s not trying to drag out he conversation.
He’s not here for them.
GM: The sisters stay up for some time longer drinking wine and talking about rebels. The general consensus seems to be that whether they are genuine activists or rebels without causes, the solution is to make people happier and remove the cause for their discontent.
Yvette believes the ones who still can’t be happy should go to jail. Cécilia and Adeline bring up the subjects of mass incarceration and prison reform in America, but don’t dwell on them overlong. Yvonne gets some dairy-free macarons that everyone shares and washes down with their wine. Yvette spreads some homemade nutella that comes in a glass jar over hers.
Emmett: Well, even the Hitler Youth could nail a good hairstyle once in a while. It does taste good, though. He tries some.
GM: Cécilia assents to the “midnight snack” but gets out a small spread of dairy-free cheeses, grapes, and crackers she asks her youngest sisters to have before the macarons.
Em finds the homemade nutella to be thicker and slightly sweeter than the store-bought variety. It’s different.
Cécilia eventually ushers her sisters upstairs to brush their teeth and tuck them in. Adeline declares she’s turning in for the night too. When Cécilia comes back downstairs, she says she can call a taxi for El or have the family chauffeur drop him off at his house, unless there’s anyone else he wants to call for a ride.
Emmett: He tries to make himself helpful, at least by making the ushering and dismissal more fun.
“My mom’s actually at an out of town thing, so I can stay a bit longer,” he says to Cécilia. He smiles slightly as he taps the bottle of wine that’s still out. “Wanna be children?”
GM: “Oh?” Cécilia asks, curious.
Emmett: He nods. “It’s great hearing about your opinions on rebellion, don’t get me wrong. But sometimes you need to practice something to learn about it, and I’d much rather hear you talk about yourself. Maybe even play a game. Only if you want to, of course.” He’ll move to pour her a glass, if she seems interested.
GM: Cécilia offers a droll smile. “To be honest, El, there’s not much room in my life to be rebellious. All of my family counts on me.”
She sits down as if that settles the matter, then thoughtfully remarks, “But I would like to hear more about you. We’ve spent this whole evening talking about me, my family, and things that matter to us. What matters to you?”
Emmett: “There’s always room for rebellion. Even in the small things.” He pours a glass of wine, offers it to her along with the rest of him. “But what matters to me… honestly, I’m a big believer in games. Play, rather. I think people can learn a lot by having fun together. Ever played truth or drink?”
The guilty grin on his face lends a kind of maturity to the otherwise juvenile prompt.
GM: Cécilia grins back. “I don’t think you’re allowed to be a teenage girl if you haven’t.”
Emmett: “Yet another way you haven’t rebelled.”
GM: “Good point. I could do that here, and we could have only you play?”
Cécilia doesn’t stop him from pouring, but doesn’t move to drink yet.
Emmett: He actually laughs at that, surprised at the wittiness.
She’s got some fun in her, all right.
“We can start that way. I don’t mind. Maybe we’ll switch when you feel guilty for uncovering all my deepest secrets. Ask away. Don’t go too easy. It’s not fun if it’s all talk and no forfeit.”
GM: “Okay, we’ll have me rebel here then,” Cécilia smiles, tracing a hand along the wine bottle as if to say she soon expects to be pouring El a refill.
“Let’s start with one easy secret, though. What do you want to study in college?”
Emmett: He actually doesn’t have to lie here. “Honestly, I have no idea. I like the idea of film school, or something with the entertainment industry. Something that makes people happy. Or happier than they are. Parents wish I had more concrete goals, but what can I do? Pretend to want something I don’t?”
The irony of his last sentence is utterly lost on him. Luckily, on Cécilia as well.
Some part of him also knows dropping the film tidbit is dangerous, almost compromising. But the rest of him doesn’t care. What’s a game without a risk?
GM: “Going to film school still sounds like a pretty concrete goal,” Cécilia nods. “Are you just not sure if that’s what you really want?”
Emmett: “Basically,” he agrees. “I mean, it’s not even a goal. Just an idea. I have no idea what I want from myself.” The honesty surprises him into a small silence. “See, you’ve already gotten me thinking. This should be fun.”
GM: “Have you thought about going anyways, and seeing how things turn out?” Cécilia asks. “If it doesn’t feel right, you could always stop.”
Emmett: “Could I? The truth is once I decide I want to do something, really decide I want it, I’m not good at letting it go even if I can’t have it. I might fail, I might even give up, but I could never do something else instead, if that’s where I decided I needed to be.”
GM: “So you only want to start something once you’re completely sure it’s right for you, because you’d want to finish it,” Cécilia nods.
Emmett: “That’s the nice way of putting it. Maybe I’m just bad at letting go of things I don’t deserve.”
GM: “You don’t think you deserve to go to film school?”
Emmett: That’s not what I said. Is it?
There’s a thought he doesn’t need right now. He simply smiles at her, and drinks.
GM: Cécilia looks at him thoughtfully, then says, “Your turn, now. I’ve asked enough questions to get you drinking.”
Emmett: “Sure. I can start easy too.” He thinks for a moment before chuckling. “What was the embarrassing moment I didn’t get to hear in the car?”
GM: Cécilia only smiles at that and takes a drink from her glass.
“Was there a time when you thought you did deserve to go to film school?”
Emmett: Called it, masturbating in the shower.
“I don’t know,” he replies. “I hadn’t thought about it like that until you’d pointed it out. But I guess…” he pauses. “I’ve felt too lucky for a long time, now. Like I don’t belong in the life I’ve landed in, and everything I have is on borrowed time before people realize I shouldn’t have any of it.”
That’s good. People dig the tortured privileged kid. Especially when she’s probably the same, on same level.
He goes on the offensive. “I owe you a good question, if you won’t take that one. What would you change about your life, if you could?”
GM: Cécilia’s face retains that same thoughtful look at El’s answer, but there’s an almost sad cast to it now too. She doesn’t say anything to his question for a little while. Perhaps she’s thinking about it, or perhaps his answer.
Finally she says, “This may seem like a cop-out answer, and maybe even insensitive after yours, but I don’t think there’s anything I’d change about my life. It’s not perfect—Westley wouldn’t have ‘asked’ Adeline to dance if it was—but I really can’t think of anything else I’d want to change about it.”
Emmett: His first instinct says bullshit. Everybody’s unhappy. All people are missing something. That’s the only thing that makes sense.
But she’s not lying—at least, if she is, she’s way the hell beyond him. He’s good at reading people when he wants to be.
The look of doubt, then utter surprise as he realizes she’s telling the truth, all pass over his face quickly.
“It’s not insensitive,” he reassures her after a moment. “Just… surprising. I’m pretty lucky, and I know there are things I’d change about mine.”
He tilts his head. “I’ll ask you another, instead. What’s your relationship like with your mom?”
GM: “You already asked me one. No takebacks,” Cécilia answers teasingly. “But I’ll let you ask another for a drink.”
Emmett: He laughs and obliges.
GM: “As for Maman…” Cécilia says contemplatively. “She’s everything in the family. Just everything. I look up to her so much. She’s raised my sisters and I all by herself. We can go to her for anything.” There’s a humorous smile. “And she spoils us rotten.”
Emmett: He nods. “She sounds nice. Any question for me?”
GM: “When was the happiest you’ve ever been?”
Emmett: Summer. Sun and swampland. The disgusting air somehow feeling nice on his bare back.
“My dad has relatives in the bayou,” he says. No need to disguise that, and besides, his inhibitions are slightly dulled at this point. “We would sit by the water and just talk. Not about anything. Just stories, jokes. There would be a lot of silence, except you could hear the cicadas and the other bugs singing all the time, and we just…talked when we wanted to. My dad and uncles, and me. I don’t know. I don’t think I’d have fun there now. But it felt right, then.”
GM: “That does sound right,” Cécilia agrees thoughtfully. “When you know someone really well, you don’t always need to say something. Just being around them is enough.”
Emmett: “Sometimes,” El agrees. “Speaking of, what about your father? He isn’t in the family portrait. Do you ever see him?”
GM: “We don’t have a father in our lives,” Cécilia answers, shaking her head. “Maman manages all six of us by herself. I don’t know how she’s done it, sometimes.”
She considers her next question, then asks, “When is the happiest you’ve ever been for someone else?”
Emmett: For a terrifying moment, his mind goes utterly blank.
Why can’t he think of a time he was happy for somebody else? Lena’s working as a resident doctor, he must have congratulated her. He got her a gift and everything. But was he actually happy for her? He would have been no more upset had he been buying her a consolation gift.
But he has friends! Friends, who he’s kept in touch with all through school. Okay, he can’t remember ever actually being happy for one, but he must have…
Holy shit. Do I just not like people? What the fuck is wrong with me? It’s a basic question, I need to say something. God, I looked at her like she was the weird one. Fuck!
But then he remembers who he is.
A tear appears in El’s eye. It does not fall, and is blinked away quickly—but it is there. He lets her see it.
“My brother,” he says, “Devin, was a really awful student. It wasn’t his fault. ADD, some disorder that never got diagnosed—he’s just bad at sitting in a classroom. And I’ve always had trouble talking to him. He can be distant. Hard to talk to, also. It was like you’d expect at school. He didn’t go to Brother Martins, but you know, one of those places people call ‘special’ but mean something else, because they think it’s cute to patronize people who never asked to think differently. The day he got into Juilliard was the happiest I’ve ever seen him. He was crying.”
Elliott smiles faintly, bewitched by the better time. “I don’t always like him. I’m not always patient with him. Sometimes I don’t think I’m a very good brother. But seeing him like that, seeing my mom smiling while she read the letter—that was special. I wish I was strong enough to love him like that all the time.”
He has difficulty speaking towards the end. It might not be for the reason she thinks, but damn if it doesn’t sound good.
That’s right, you loveless little fuck. Spin it.
He really wants to take a sip of the wine. But he doesn’t.
GM: Em doesn’t remember the name of the win Cécilia has been serving. It has a sensuous, silky texture that caresses the palette with exotic sensations: cherry liqueur, tobacco, pepper, earth, spice and bacon fat.
It’d be a bit redundant to take another sip now, he supposes.
His own tongue has a sensuous and silken enough texture already.
Cécilia drinks up the truth-laced lie like it’s another glass of that same luxuriant wine. After a moment she smiles,
“I think you do deserve to go to film school, El.”
Emmett: Maybe not, but I definitely deserve a kiss for that little stunt. Prude.
He laughs a little. “I’ll cite you when I apply. It’s hard asking you questions. I normally try to get people to give up the secrets and shame—you know, the interesting stuff. I don’t know where to start with you, though.” After a moment, he smiles. “Any advice?”
GM: “I could ask my mom to write you a reference letter, actually,” Cécilia offers. “She has some pull in arts circles, and she’d only be too happy after she hears about Adeline.”
Emmett: “Maybe,” he says. It’s far from the main thing on his mind. “We should talk about it later.”
GM: “Your future is important, El. But all right. We’ll talk about on my next turn,” she smiles.
“As far as interesting stuff… hmm. You could try finding out other things about me? Maybe I’m a little boring and don’t have many secrets and shames.”
Emmett: “I suppose anything’s possible, even that,” he says. “Have you ever been in love?” He smiles apologetically. “Has to come up at some point, right? That’s how these games work.”
GM: Cécilia smirks faintly. “Youth is a time for lust and romance, not love. I’ve had boyfriends. But love can wait until I’m older.”
Emmett: “That sounds almost like a practiced line,” he observes. “Not sure I disagree, though. Lust and romance are good things too.” He swirls the remaining wine in his glass.“What do you think love means, then?”
GM: “I won’t charge you for that one,” Cécilia teases. “But I think love can mean a lot of things even between the same people. The Greeks believed in seven different types of love—nurturing love between parents and children, enduring love between married couples, playful love between younger people looking for fun… you want, need, different kinds of love at different points in your life.”
Emmett: He nods, smiling. “So many questions, but I wouldn’t want to cheat you of your turn again.”
GM: “You’ll get yours. As for mine… would you like my mom to write you that letter?”
Emmett: He shrugs. “I’m seventeen and a junior. I guess I should be thinking about it, and I know I should just say yes, but somehow it feels like I’d be cheating if I didn’t meet her and at least do something to really earn it. But I’ll probably come around. Most letters of recommendations are favors, anyway. I guess I just have a bit of a complex about earning my keep.”
As if. Anyway, it’s not like I’d be able to actually use the damn thing.
GM: Cécilia shakes her head midway through El’s words, but waits to say, “Oh, you’ve already earned it. You’re right, honestly, that references are usually favors and have strings attached… but you’ve earned your keep. Maman will be happy to do you a favor back once I tell her about what you did for Adeline.”
Emmett: Ah, yes. What I did for Adeline. Such a saintly shit I am.
That’s what’s making her hesitate, he can see. The one hole in his liar’s web, the bit of him she sees through and keeps buzzing through like a retarded fly.
“If I’m being honest,” he says slowly, “it’s not that I don’t want to say yes. The future’s important, and I want to succeed, even if I’ve been trying to seem relaxed about it tonight. It’s just…well.” The blush is easy to manufacture, he’s been drinking and he’s always got his nerves, sitting at the bottom of a jar he rarely opens in his head labeled “Feelings.” He also keeps a Cajun accent in there, picked up from those summers he told her about. Oh, it’s not a sexy accent. But a little bit every once in a while? It’s like viagra for your ears.
“Sometimes when people help you, you become a certain kind of person in their eyes. And even though I helped your family tonight, I kind of get the feeling that’s not a common position for y’all. Maybe it’s a Cajun thing, maybe it’s something my dad told me, but once somebody helps you, even if you don’t owe them—sometimes they don’t see you the same.” He coughs. “And I guess, if I’m really playing fair, I’d say I’m worried about you seeing me differently.”
I guess you could say I don’t want you looking down at me. Unless you like being on top, in which case we can talk about it.
But of a risk, going for a soft touch like that. But it almost always pays off.
GM: “How do you mean there, El?” Cécilia asks curiously. “You’ve already helped us, after all. It’d only be making things even.”
Emmett: “It doesn’t make sense from that perspective,” he agrees. “But if everything works perfectly and I get into a good school and I become a director and make it to the big leagues… I’ll always wonder if I could have got there without your mother’s help.” He smiles sadly at her. “And I couldn’t help but worry that on some level, you—and your mother, I suppose—would wonder that too.” He shrugs. “Pride might be a foolish thing to keep. But if you throw it out, what goes next?”
Yeah, I bet that sounds good to you. Mommy told you stories about knights with their honor and chivalry when you were too young to know better, didn’t she?
GM: “To be honest, El, that’s how those places, or at least the good ones, tend to work,” Cécilia says. “It’s all about who knows who, who vouches for who… or it’s a PR stunt so the school can say they let in disadvantaged kids who don’t have anyone to write letters for them.”
Cécilia pauses. “That isn’t meant to sound cynical. It’s just how things work. But it doesn’t make you any less to be playing the same game as everyone else.”
Emmett: “I know,” he says. “It’s silly. But it’s how I am. Tell you what, though—I wanna convince your mom I’m worth her recommendation.”
Hopefully not until after I disappear from your life forever.
GM: “On your artistic merits, not just doing one of my sisters a good turn?” Cécilia asks.
Emmett: He nods. “Yeah. That’s the way these things should work. Or at least, the way I want it to work for me.”
GM: “That sounds fair,” Cécilia nods. “You’d like to play the game the same way as everyone else, but you’d like to have earned the right to do that too. So it really does still come down to your art.”
Emmett: “That’s another way of putting it,” he smiles. “More articulate, probably. But then, you’ve been explaining things I wouldn’t know how to begin talking about all night.”
GM: “Maybe you could explain things I wouldn’t know how to begin talking about some other night. Like filmmaking.”
Emmett: He’s happy to oblige. He doesn’t want to drown her in technical stuff—besides, he has a lot to learn about the trade himself, or he wouldn’t be trying to go to school for it.
What he does have is passion, and passion pays all bills. Em doesn’t have to make El come off like an expert—he weaves this part of the character from himself, and as he talks the words come easily. The truth is, expertise never gets anybody laid. It’s love of the art that makes somebody seem to glow with genius.
So Em puts words in El’s mouth straight from his own. How nothing else can submerge him like a scene done well. How a good movie takes advantage of the things other mediums can’t, sound and timing and lighting, how the best movies do something more special than create a feeling; they teach viewers how to feel.
But more than that, he talks about moments. Scenes, lines, shots—the things that tie a movie together, like that rug in The Big Lebowski does that room. How when the credits roll and the show’s over, all people will really remember—the only thing that matters—will be how those moments made them feel.
The best movies are just stories so beautiful you forget they aren’t stories, he says, his eyes wide and reflecting her pretty, pale face. And the most beautiful stories always become their own truths.
He’s sure she knows how to begin talking about it. That’s the thing about a show. The only thing you need to understand it is to let yourself watch it.
Through it all, he performs for her. He can see the scene like it’s being shot over his shoulder. Her gaze on his, a close up of his eyes flickering with that mad enthusiasm as he talks only real love can kindle.
Em might not like people, really. He might be broken inside, deeply emotionally stunted, maybe even some flavor of psycho—he doesn’t know. He’d rather not think about it.
But he’s always been a sucker for the pictures. And if he was directing this scene, he’d make sure the shot captured her pale reflection in his dark, almost madly loving eyes.
He’s pretty damn sure that’s what she’ll remember when the credits roll, too.
GM: The credits aren’t the only point the audience applauds.
They don’t applaud for every movie. Or even most movies. No one claps when the credits roll for the Saturday afternoon matinée. But the audience still does that, sometimes, for the debut of a long-awaited film with beloved enough characters. Sometimes they even clap before the credits, if it’s particularly brilliantly directed.
The credits are a long way from rolling. But Em’s pretty sure his audience would be giving him a standing ovation right about now.
Em could say the words flowed from his tongue like honey, sweet and irresistible to the object of his attentions, but it’s more than that. So much more. That quote, ‘Once you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made’ got it all wrong. You can’t fake real sincerity. It comes from the heart. It’s real.
The words flow from Em’s tongue, not El’s, because this is real. He sees the whole scene play out in his mind’s eye like an acclaimed director seated from his felt-backed folding chair. He motions lazily to the film crew and barks out directions from the megaphone. Lights here. Sound there. Close-up here. You know the drill, people. Actors… here’s the part he puts down the megaphone, beckons his two young leads closer, and gives them the ‘these are your characters’ talk about their roles.
El, he says with that serious demeanor reserved for true artists, you’re the devilishly handsome and devilishly charming (how much is he really embellishing?) conman racing to fill the void in his heart (wow, that’s honest) by stealing the girl’s. Cici, he says, you’re the beautiful, rich, and cultured heiress who’s everything El wants out of life. He’s going to get you in the end, because that’s how these stories go. Boy meets girl. Boy gets girl. Tale as old as time.
You can’t ever go wrong with the classics. Audiences eat that shit right up. He’ll lead them along, all right… and write his own ending. In the meantime, the actors will play their parts.
And how they play them.
Cécilia is overcome as a palette of emotions play across her beautiful features. Enrapturement. Admiration. Excitement. Awe. It’s a long shot, and Em the director would linger on every single frame.
“El… we have to get you to film school,” she says almost breathlessly, reaching out to touch his arm. “Your passion, your energy, your love… it’s just contagious. I can’t even imagine what things you might put on a screen.”
“Have you had a chance to make any movies yourself? Amateur ones, of course?” she asks, but the question seems far from judging. She’s already been sold.
Emmett: “Besides silly things when I was younger I wouldn’t want to show anyone? Not really. I’d be a perfectionist and that would mean recruiting a lot of people for a project. I suppose if I want to play things fair, I’ll have to make one for her to see.”
He’s getting better at talking like Elliott—this guy isn’t smarter than him, but he talks like he is, picking the second-smartest thing to say he can think of every time he opens his mouth. Talking like you’re smart is half the battle, anyway. You may as well be.
GM: “And I suppose I’ll just have to ask her to help,” Cécilia replies brightly. “I know she’s going to be home at… how would Monday at 4 be, for you to come over and talk about things with her?”
Emmett: Shit, what? Can’t hesitate.
“That… sounds amazing, Cécilia.” He laughs. “This whole night’s been insane. I don’t know how to thank you.” His eyes glitter. “You don’t have to tell me, but you would have to drink.”
GM: “Well, start by repeating this,” Cécilia smiles. “‘Cela nous rend même.’”
Emmett: He repeats it, doing his best to mangle them only slightly. “Do I get to know what I just said?” he jokes.
GM: “Yes. You said, ‘That makes us even’,” Cécilia grins.
Emmett: “Ah, you tricked me.”
He scratches at the back of his neck, laughing. “I hope that doesn’t mean you’re done with me.”
It’s then that he notices something feels wrong. A wriggling in his stomach, like a snake sleeping under a rock he’s kicked over with his dancing. So much of his life is refusing the responsibility others insist on shoving at his feet, and yet she’s so damn earnest. She really wants to help the artsy, romantic fool succeed.
It’s almost childish. That’s what it is. He’s taking candy from a baby, and the only problem with that is that he’s stealing from a baby, and love is so much sweeter and more expensive than candy.
For a moment—a naked, mewling, moment—he wants to tell her the truth. But the truth is a movie nobody can turn off. There’s no applause or one-liners or winks at the camera. Just a long, unbroken shot of him being a garbage human being.
And he might not like her, not deeply, not like he’s pretending to—but he likes her too much to see her look at him like that.
The truth’s like a special ed class full of drooling invalids and chattering morons. It matters to somebody, somewhere. But not him. Not now. He prefers his Juilliard story.
So he sees a moment where he can do the right thing, and he steps on the brakes before he makes a stupid mistake.
But damn if that snake cares.