HOW JAMES FRANCO BECAME MY BOYFRIEND
Six months ago, I spent my Friday night like this: I made some gooey macaroni and cheese, drank whiskey out of a little juice glass, and then experimented with drinking whiskey stirred into a mug of hot peach tea. I scrolled through my phone and left messages for friends I thought might be going out to bars. I watched the documentary Helvetica—about the typeface, Helvetica. I smiled at the attractive Swedish men arguing over the politics signified by a particular typeface, but I was discomfited by the slippery Ouroboros arguments around Modernism. I took my trusty vibrator for a ride. Then it dawned on me that I needed to finally decorate my apartment.
So I got out the hammer and I hung up a small mirror with a border of blue tiles. I hung it straight. I got out a box full of photographs and spread them every which way across the kitchen table. I started hanging them everywhere. I used paperclips, I used string, I used nails, I used putty, I used magnets. I shuffled them around and created little visual narratives—three vertical shots of men in middle-distance, or a triptych of ocean, forest, and desert landscapes—and strung those up together. I put a picture of a produce market on the refrigerator door. Long past midnight, I realized I should stop hammering. I ate some cheddar cheese, gulped a glass of water, and then retreated back to my bedroom. I lit candles, put on my silk robe, and used a new face-mask I’d bought. Then I got in bed and read my book about the history and global landscape of AIDS. Though it had seemed a lovely evening, I felt flat, depressed. Nobody had called, nor returned my messages, and nobody was ever going to love me.
It’s exactly then, when you feel least optimistic about life, that something great like falling in love is on the verge of happening. You may know James Franco as the handsome, James-Dean-ish actor who played an aloof high school misfit in the series Freaks & Geeks, or as the unstable father-avenging best friend to Tobey Maguire’s Spiderman, or as the stoner hero of Pineapple Express. (I didn’t see Pineapple Express myself—still haven’t.) What you may not know is that James Franco is a California son, born to parents of both Portuguese and Jewish stock. And so am I.
I don’t think there are very many of us out there, even in California, which has heavy concentrations of both Jews—Hello, Hollywood!—and the Portuguese (who did you think transformed the whole wild state into a fertile vegetable garden?). It’s a strange point of pride for me. I am blond and blue-eyed, and so most people ask right away about my Spanish-sounding last name, inviting me to causally drop my first surprise. Oh really? Wow. Do you speak it? Such a beautiful language. It usually takes a major Jewish holiday on the calendar to bring out the other ace up my sleeve. (A sleeve, which, people’s reactions seem to imply, could have had a yellow star on it, for convenience’s sake.) This is more fun, because everyone says something like Oh I didn’t know you were Jewish! Which is an innocent euphemism for But you don’t look Jewish! And sometimes they actually say that, and then I say either I know, right? or Neither do you.
James, of course, understood this. He’d been there, too, though his dark looks do not set him up for as many awkward conversations. I want to be clear that I’ve never been the type to fixate on an actor. Not that I even paid attention to actors back when I was very young and very serious, but even imagining having Boyz II Men posters or magazine centerfolds of Jonathan Taylor Thomas taped to my walls embarrassed me then. When my own little sister hit middle school and started doing just that, I was mortified. I had no idea how she turned into a teengirl zombie, and I couldn’t understand how she could let our parents see this ridiculous, mewling behavior. As a teenager I felt that all my crushes were based on knowing a person, in person, never mind if that person barely spoke to me in homeroom. I wasn’t so delusional (believe me, some of my peers were) as to believe that I actually knew any actors.
However, the various young men whom I did know and did love, between seventh grade and graduation, unfortunately never decided to know me back. Thanks to them I developed an incredibly robust fantasy life and future, in which I was all things sexy and impossible to refuse. It thus sparked my interest in joining the CIA. Abetting my own torture, I also learned all the words to Les Miserables. In college, my roommate and I traced the source of all our romantic woes to this tragic musical: she and I were Eponines, fated to unrequited love. We lurked in the shadows of sunny, cute, happy, feminine Cosettes. We’d loved Eponine and her hyper-romantic solos best, not realizing we were dooming ourselves.
And so it was—up until about six months ago. I was busy living out my lonely-poet’s destiny in New York, and I read that James Franco (his publicist announced) had moved to New York to pursue multiple graduate programs. Creative writing at Columbia, film-making at NYU, and drama at Julliard. I hardened with indignation. Being rich and handsome wasn’t good enough for him, so he had to horn in on one of the few sacred territories where the rest of us could feel safe: being brilliant. It reminded me of the time my older brother, a star quarterback, beat me in a school-wide trivia bowl. But I was jealous, really; here was a guy with the means to truly live the dream. Simultaneous graduate programs? Mon dieu! Even as my skin prickled with envy, a part of me lit up like a Victorian gas lamp, the way I always do when I catch sight of a guy with bulging brains.
So he moved to New York to be a writer. So I lived in New York and futzed around with the idea of being a writer. You know, typing arch emails to friends, carrying lots of pens and notebooks in my canvas totes. Going to readings. Drinking. I had no illusion that our paths would cross. A fantasy, perhaps. I imagined signing up for every creative writing class Columbia offered until I found one of his. I joked with my sister—a student uptown—that we would conduct stakeouts at the library. She could study economics and I would crouch behind the marble lions with my binoculars and a walkie-talkie.
I had somehow become my sister’s teenage self. I imagined going to elegant parties arm in arm with my handsome, intellectual man. I thought about calling him James. How novel the name sounded on its own! Not James Franco, actor. James, my James. We’d show each other drafts of our work, and he’d read me Wallace Stevens under a tree in Central Park. We’d fly to California for Chanukah together. He’d look at me with those beautiful eyes as we’d plan a trip to Portugal—small towns only, to avoid the paparazzi. When we finally did meet, in real life, it turned out not to be my sister who brought me closer to him. It was my roommate’s friend’s cousin. Oddly enough, another Jew from L.A.
When I think of Meredith, I think: snake. I wouldn’t trust her with a pet hamster and I wouldn’t set her loose in my apartment. I was sure that her party-rattle and narrowly-slit eyes meant she was going to strike out at you at any moment. She would eat people whole if it would help her slither farther up in the social jungle. Luckily, I don’t think she could unhinge her jaw. She was always hissing about other people’s lives in your ear. Meredith, a very officious assistant to a famous screenwriter, was invited to many events full of officious—and famous—people.
It was while she was bringing a flat of Starbucks orders to a script read-through when Meredith first saw him. She passed around lattes like the most discreet of waitresses, but there was no missing his presence. God, how she must have been salivating. To hear him tell it now, he hadn’t even noticed her until halfway through the afternoon, when, at the close of a particularly heavy scene, she looked up from her phone to make an offhand quip like, “Who wrote this, was his name like David Foster Plath?” He probably laughed that low, bumpy rumble of his. In her version of the story, which you can be sure quickly made its way around New York, she admits that the joke was her bait all along. She also tells that during a break she spied a fastidiously-dressed man pop in at the door who, refusing eye contact, handed off a leather satchel and a brown paper bag to James. Turns out it was his assistant bringing him his schoolbooks and a takeout dinner—he had an evening class uptown. He made a mess eating, she said—lettuce and mayo everywhere.
I wasn’t to meet Meredith myself for another couple weeks, when my roommate invited me to her friend’s roommate’s party. I’ve mentioned how depressing my life seemed back then? I’d hoped the party would bring some relief. My friend warned me about Meredith, and when I met her I felt immediately that the rumors were true, and I prayed that she couldn’t smell fear. Of course, my fear was tinged with envy. I listened to her story about James Franco and couldn’t understand why I never got lucky breaks like this. I put up with her bragging for a while, and when I couldn’t stand it anymore, I interrupted: “Oh, you know you should totally come—and definitely invite James Franco along—to my Passover seder next week.” I thought that’d shut her up about her new best friend.
Imagine my surprise when Meredith sent word that she and, yes, James, would be there! According to her, he’d said: Oh that’s so cute. Wow, man. That’s so real, really nice, you know? Sharon Stone is doing . . . but that’s gonna be so . . . yeah. I’d love to come. Do I bring something or what? Your friend—she’ll be, like, cool, right?
Would I ever be cool! I refused to change my usual plans for the Seder even an iota in anticipation of this celebrity guest appearance. I would do everything as I usually did—to one hundred percent, of course—but no getting carried away. Well, I did buy fifteen- instead of eleven-dollar wine, and organic vegetables. I screened my phone calls in case the tabloids had been leaked a lead, and kept careful watch out the living room window that day to make sure no paparazzi were staking out my dingy block of Brooklyn. Unless they were going undercover as teenage loiterers, our secret plans seemed safe. (And it was a bit like a secret. In every generation a Jew somewhere must celebrate his religion in hiding, doesn’t it seem?)
When my guests arrived, we all made charming red-carpet conversation. I was proud of the way my hipster friends managed to rein in their irony enough to pose nonchalant questions like, “So James, what are you up to these days?” And James showed a sincere interest in their various doings and interests—he talked to my friend the editorial assistant for quite a while about the publishing industry, and name-dropped for a while with my gallery-butterfly friend, too. I could feel myself warming to James. This is what I’d always sought in another person—having an interest in the people around them.
I knew he was taking a shine to me, too, when I brought out my killer kugel. It’s my grandmother’s recipe, and my favorite thing to do when I make it for someone new is to tell them what’s in it—sour cream, pineapple, cottage cheese, eggs, noodles—and then watch as they try their first, transcendent forkful.
Unfortunately, another tradition in the last few years has been that my shiksa friend Christina, who loves all things Jewish, likes to point out how in-the-know she is by condemning my kugel as un-kosher. This flabbergasts me. For one thing, it’s none of her business. For another, she knows perfectly well I don’t keep kosher. But what really gets my dander up is that in fact, this smear only proves what an outsider she remains, because I don’t know of a reform Jew in America who doesn’t eat kugel on this—and probably only this—particular holiday.
Just as she starts up this old dog-and-pony show again, and Meredith’s rattler starts to shake as she begins to take Christina’s side, James, maybe or maybe not seeing the bellicose flush blooming on my cheeks, interjects. “I don’t know, I thought it was Passover food, but y’know, I’ll eat kugel any time.” My hero. I flash him a look that says you know, and then I ask him to please lead us in reading the next passage in my social-justice haggadah. He reads to us about the fundamental right to freedom for all people, in a convincingly empathetic and passionate voice, and pours us a round of very nice wine he brought. “Couldn’t find any Manischevitz—sorry,” he joked. I burst out laughing. “In SoHo? I’m shocked.” He flashes me a look that says you know.
Then we reach a section in the Passover haggadah that recounts many instances throughout history when Jews were persecuted. After mention of the Spanish inquisition, James brings up that his ancestors were Spanish Jews who fled the Inquisition, hid out in Portugal for a few generations, and then made their way to America. Out of the corner of my eye I see a friend shooting me a look, but I am already saying, “Oh, no kidding! I’m Portuguese too!” James says, “Get out!” and grabs my arm—he grabs my arm. And I give him my snake-charmer eyes.
“We should go look for our names at Ellis Island,” I say, “and then eat Jewy foods on the Lower East Side.” From whence did this seductress come? I must have been drunk. I usually can’t even say hello to a man in front of other people, so fundamentally certain am I that he’ll roll his eyes and elbow his way out of the room. More amazing than my own behavior is James’s enthusiastic reply: “Oh, totally. I want a black and white cookie.”
After we have eaten, and Elijah is come and gone, and my friends are chaotically washing hundreds of dishes, James comes over and very earnestly thanks me for a lovely evening. “Oh, no sweat,” is my reply—so much for the elegant hostess. But still he says, “Hey, why don’t you give me your number and we can go do that Ellis Island cookie thing.” Of course James, of course.
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