Previous Entry: The Abyss
Connection: composer (Alan Silvestri)
Forrest Gump (1994)
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Written by Eric Roth
Starring Tom Hanks, Sally Field, Robin Wright, Gary Sinise, and Mykelti Williamson
142 minutes, rated PG-13
Her name was Leah.
She never told me her last name.
But I didn’t ask for it either.
Getting her full name didn’t seem important at the time because I was fairly certain that I was never going to see her again. And I was right. I haven’t. But I have thought about her many times. Things she said have popped up in dialogue I have crafted for scripts. More than one female character in various writings over the years has been intentionally described to look as she did. And there’s the obvious: I think of her whenever young Jenny says a certain line. A line I have heard often because I have watched Forrest Gump many, many times.
Leah was pretty. That was my rather obvious first impression of her before we ever spoke. Unconventionally pretty. Not turns-the-head-of every-guy-in-the-room pretty, but pretty just the same. This was not a girl who considered herself to be very pretty either, which really only made her prettier. She had a dimple on the right side of her mouth that beckoned whenever she smiled. But she didn’t smile very often. I might have been chatting with her for a half hour before I ever actually saw her smile a genuine smile. That smile in question– the genuine one– took a weight off your shoulders. It let you breath again. I imagine now that many a man became very smitten because of that smile.
Leah was the front desk staff at the Comfort Inn where I stopped in Missouri and it has occurred to me numerous times over the years how truly random our encounter was. If I had arrived two hours earlier, or at some point the next morning, then I would have never met her at all. There would have been someone completely different at the front desk. If I had gotten more sleep over the previous few days, then I would have never stopped in Missouri at all; I would have driven straight through for home. I might have, at the very least, made it into Illinois and found a room near Cairo. Or closer to Carbondale. But I was tired, and I had left Hot Springs later than anticipated, and I didn’t think I was going to make it home without crashing my piece-of-shit truck into a guardrail. So there I was, at approximately 12:30 am, heartsick and broken, with this pretty girl in front of me, with no idea the impact the next few hours would have on me for the rest of my life.
“I have plenty of rooms,” she said to me. “But I don’t know what’s open because the audit is running.” I knew what she meant. I had worked in hotels before. On the overnight shift, in fact. I understood that she had pretty much no access to the computer until the audit finished crunching its numbers. “There are rooms, though. Shouldn’t be very long.”
I told her that I was tired and that I was willing to wait. It would be safer to wait than it would be to drive any further.
“You can nap in the lobby,” she said. “If you want.” And then I saw that dimpled smile for the first time. “I won’t judge you.” I’ll take that back. This was more of a smirk. A mischievous grin. I was a good ways away from seeing her smile.
She apologized for inconveniencing me at least twice while I filled out the room registration card. I told her not to worry about it, that I understood. I mentioned that I used to work night audit at Comfort Inn myself. I knew what had to be done. I apologized because I knew that I was actually inconveniencing her. So much still to do, and none of it possible with me haranguing her for assistance. She gave me 10% off the rate of my room because I was “one of the club” and I thanked her for that. I noticed two things at this point: that her eyes were very, very green and that she had a flock of birds tattooed on her left wrist. Maybe ten or so birds in flight, peeking out from underneath her rolled-up shirt sleeve. They looked like elementary-school-student pencil sketches of birds, little more than a series of “v”s. But they were clearly birds and legible as being birds in flight. I commented on neither one– the eyes or the birds– and went to my truck to make sure that it was locked.
I didn’t have much with me as far as possessions. My suitcase and backpack were full of dirty clothes that I had worn over the last few days. But I grabbed a toiletry bag. A novel. My notebook. I locked my truck secure.
The lobby of this Comfort Inn was nicer than the one I had worked in. There was a fireplace, inoperable right now during the heat of the summer, and a large leather couch that faced a television mounted on the wall. The television was showing music videos. VH-1, as I recall. They were all older videos, short films for songs I knew from the late 80s and early 90s. I settled into the couch, patiently waiting for the key to my room. I thought about writing for a bit, but the words wouldn’t come. I abandoned my notebook for the novel I had brought. I had read it before. It was Geek Love by Katherine Dunn.
Have you read Geek Love? That book is all kinds of fucked-up. It tells the story of the Binewskis, a family of sideshow freaks whose mater- and paterfamilias set out to intentionally breed their own exhibit of human oddities. I had been told that this novel was a must-read, but I struggled to get through it. It was disturbing and not nearly as interesting as I had been led to believe. I was only reading it now because it was the only book I had with me– Sara had borrowed it and returned it to me yesterday. I didn’t mind the interruption when Leah asked me where I was traveling from.
“Hot Springs, Arkansas,” I said. Speaking of Sara . . .
Let’s back up a bit, shall we?
I’ve mentioned Sara in these pages before. At this point, we had been dating for not quite a year. But Sara’s parents had learned that their daughter’s new boyfriend had been married for a good chunk of the time they had been together and her parents hated me. Sara had gone home to West Virginia for the summer, and her parents had forbidden any visits. We talked on the phone quite a bit. We exchanged a few letters. But her parents were, at this point, discussing maybe not letting her come back to Champaign for her second year of college. A married boyfriend (even if he was in the process of getting a divorce) was not what they had in mind for their daughter’s halfway-across-the-country education.
Sara was an incredibly good viola player. Her deftness with this particular instrument was the reason that she was at the University of Illinois in the first place. Her parents could not, logically, keep us apart while she was at school, but while she was at home, in their house, they really tried their hardest. Sara had, however, agreed to play in an orchestra at an event that summer in Hot Springs, Arkansas. It paid her well and would look great on her resume, so her parents relented and sent her on her way, unaware that Sara and I had been making secret plans. At the time, I worked for Quality Inn (I have a lot of hotels on my resume) and could get an employee discount at the Quality Inn in Hot Springs. Our plan: I would drive to Hot Springs, and we could spend a few days together without her parents ever knowing the difference. Sara would have rehearsals and such throughout the week, but the time between her obligations and spending time with me seemed manageable.
At this particular point in time, I was destitute. I was living paycheck-to-paycheck and barely making ends meet. A large part of this was due to supporting the drug and alcohol habits that Sara and I were lugging around, but that didn’t really occur to us at the time. I know I had rent to pay, utilities, and a truck payment. As long as I was meeting those financial obligations– and I was– then there shouldn’t have been shit for anyone else to say about what Sara and I spent the leftover money on, right? Right. That’s how we lived our lives. All of that is a roundabout way of saying that I couldn’t really afford the trip to Arkansas, but was going to do it anyway so that I could see Sara.
Sara hit Hot Springs on Sunday. I was planning to drive in on Wednesday (I had a court date set for one phase of divorce proceedings on Tuesday) and spend the rest of the week with her in Hot Springs, coming home on Sunday afternoon. On Tuesday, I get a phone call from the Quality Inn in Hot Springs, alerting me to the fact that it’s the summer season and so they cannot honor my $25 a night room rate. I go into panic mode. I have money set aside for this trip– but it’s only enough for the cheaper room rate. I call Sara in Hot Springs and tell her that I’m gonna be short for the trip and don’t think that I should go. To my surprise, she is completely okay with this news. Her attitude about the whole situation was pretty much “Oh, well. I’ll see you in August.” And that, quite frankly, didn’t sit well with me. I was, needless to say, suspicious of how her tune had so quickly changed. We had gone from “I can’t wait to see you” to “not seeing you is no big deal” without any conversation about the matter.
My roommate at the time– a man who was probably just as much a drug and alcohol addict as Sara and I were– agreed that her behavior was suspicious, which only made me more bound and determined to be in Hot Springs. Except my reasons for going were now different. I wanted to see her, yes, but I also wanted to see what she was up to. I wanted to see why the idea of not seeing me was suddenly something she was okay with. I was going. Simple as that. More expensive hotel room be damned.
I financed my trip to Hot Springs, Arkansas by selling about half of my CD collection to Record Service for $120. This wasn’t enough to pay for my hotel room for the three nights I planned to stay, so I also managed to con a coworker into giving me his scratch-off $100-winning lottery ticket under the agreement that I would pay him back $125 when we got our next paycheck. I also that night “discovered that the cash drawer was short $50” when I did the end-of-shift audit. I played it off as “I don’t know what happened” as best I could, hoping against hope that my boss would consider me more a good employee that occasionally makes mistakes than a possible suspect for theft. This act of theft, dear reader, an act that I am certainly not now proud, was the beginning of my descent into what alcoholics refer to as “rock bottom”. I digress . . .
As soon as my shift ended at 11:00 pm, I cashed in that lottery ticket at a convenient store nearby and headed toward Hot Springs with the very little that was left in my bank account and $270 cash in my pocket. I drove all night. We’re talking, maybe, a 9-hour drive, with one stop near St. Louis for coffee and a tank of gas. I hit Hot Springs around 10:00 am. I was unable to check into my hotel room for a few hours, so I went to the grocery store and bought a loaf of bread, a package of bologna, and two bags of chips. Enough food to, essentially, get cheaply through a couple of days in a hotel. I bought two cases of beer. I walked around the local mall, ready to fall asleep should I stop moving, until I could get Sara to answer her phone.
Sara was staying in a dormitory that had once been a hospital. Hot Springs, Arkansas is surrounded by . . . well, hot springs . . . so I recall everything in her room being very damp. A book left on a desk overnight would be moist by the morning if the room you left it in was not properly air-conditioned. When I arrived, she was not unhappy to see me, but neither was she excited by my presence. She had a lot to do before rehearsal that day, after all. She had to shower and practice her parts. I was sort of in her way. We laid in her bed for a half hour or so, cuddled romantically, but she was adamantly opposed to anything even more remotely physical than that. She said “I love you” many times, but I also vividly remember her once saying “I hope you realize that” after saying it, which struck me as odd. The sort of thing you say to a person when you love them but are hurting them intentionally. “I hope you realize that I love you” as they repeatedly punch you in the gut.
Over the next two days, I spent a lot of time by myself in my hotel room. I watched TV and wrote in my notebook. I read two novels, one that I liked and one that I did not. I saw Sara very little. For a couple of hours at lunchtime. She claimed to be busy with rehearsal and event-related business. She did come and spend one night with me in the hotel, but it was unexpected. She was just suddenly there very late at night (or, I suppose, early in the morning) and seemed confused that I was confused by her appearance. We drank some beers and played cards. She wanted to have sex, but I did not. I recall actually thinking at the moment– without ever saying it– that sex with her would “destroy me”. Those words exactly. It would “destroy me”, so I feigned being too tired and just fell asleep with her head on my chest as reruns of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” played on the television.
The next day she informed me around noon that, it turned out, she was unable to get comp tickets to the event she was performing in tomorrow. I was out of money and couldn’t afford the ticket, so I decided to head on home a night early. I checked out of my hotel and went to see her at her dormitory before I left town. She seemed legitimately sad that I was leaving early, hugging me in the parking lot long and hard, and eventually inviting me to the dress rehearsal that was taking place that afternoon. I went to the rehearsal, heard some beautiful music, and then tried to get she is destroying you out of my head as she kissed me goodbye. Seems there was a reception after the rehearsal, but I wasn’t invited to that. She was extra affectionate as I bid her adieu, and I noticed, as I drove out of the parking lot, that she had tears in her eyes. This confused me. Destroyed me, as it were.
I stopped once for gas. A couple of hours after that, I decided that coffee and blaring Def Leppard really loudly from my tape deck (making love to you might drive me crazy) was not going to keep me awake for the remaining three hours. Which brings me to where we left off . . .
. . . the lobby of a Comfort Inn in Kirkwood, Missouri, where a very pretty girl is asking me if I was in Hot Springs for vacation.
“Excuse me?” I said.
“Hot Springs. Were you there for vacation?”
I didn’t want to tell her the sordid story of why I had been in Hot Springs, but I didn’t have a better answer prepared, so I hesitated. Long enough to think of a response, which was long enough for Leah to think I was some sort of halfwit that didn’t understand the question she was asking. She asked again, carefully rewording her phrasing: “Do you live there? Were you coming or going?”
“Oh. Oh, no,” I replied. “I live in Illinois. I was visiting my girlfriend.”
She flashes that mischievous smirk again. “Did she dump you?”
It’s clear that she is kidding. She believes that she is making a clever joke at my expense. I don’t think for a second that she was actually trying to be rude or untoward. But the thought that Sara actually had dumped me had crossed my mind about seventy or eighty miles ago, so I don’t know how to respond to Leah’s prescience.
“‘Cause you seem kind of sad,” Leah says. She pauses, uncomfortable with what she’s said and what she has, perhaps, done, and says, “I’m sorry. You just seem kind of sad.”
“It’s okay,” I assure her. “I’m just tired.”
In screenwriting, a writer refers to a pause of about half a second as “a beat.” Anything longer than half a second, but shorter than, maybe, two seconds is considered “a pause.” With that said, I probably waited two pauses and a beat and a half before I said, “But I think she might have actually dumped me.”
Leah’s face sinks. She is completely mortified that she has said what she has said, embarrassed that she has embarrassed me, kicking herself for being so flip about something so serious when it turned out to be true. Abruptly, she apologizes. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
“It’s all right, ” I tell her. “You didn’t know.”
A few minutes later, she informs me that my room is ready. She slides the keycard across the counter. I go to take it and she places her hand on mine. “I really am sorry,” she said. “It was a joke, and I shouldn’t have made it.”
“We’re all good,” I say. “I just need to go to bed.”
“I got dumped last week, too,” she says. “He wants children and I’m not ready for that.”
I don’t know what else to say other than “I’m sorry.”
She pats my hand and says, “But we’re both gonna be okay. Okay?” This might be the first time that I really see her genuinely smile. It’s the smile I mentioned earlier, the one that probably made more than one guy smitten. For a second, I’m smitten. But just for a second. For a beat.
“Okay,” I say, even if I don’t quite believe it.
Once in my room, I give Sara a call. I get the answering machine, but I leave her a message, telling her where I am and why I stopped. I should be home at some point tomorrow. You can reach me there if you need to. “I love you,” I say. And as an afterthought, I add “I hope you realize that.”
Naturally, I can’t sleep. So I try to let a novel I don’t like lure me into slumber, but I have too much on my mind to concentrate. I turn on the television. But there’s no good movies on, the news is depressing, and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” reruns are making me cry. Around 3:30, I give up and decide that I am going to take a shower, but there are no towels in the bathroom, so I am forced to go back downstairs.
Leah is not behind the desk. She is sitting in the lobby on that big, leather couch, watching the television. There’s a movie on. It’s Forrest Gump. I like that movie, and I’m sad for just a moment that I hadn’t found it on the television in my room.
She laughs when she sees me. “I thought you were going to sleep.”
“Too much on my mind,” I say.
“I get it,” she responds.
“I need some towels,” I tell her. “There aren’t any in my room.”
“No problem,” she says. She starts to move from the couch, to head behind the desk to the secret room where they keep the towels for safekeeping, but she catches the television screen out of the corner of her eye and stops. On the screen, little Jenny and little Forrest are kneeling in a cornfield. Jenny is asking Forrest to pray with her. Her prayer is short and succinct: “Dear God, make me a bird. So I can fly far. Far far away from here.” As Leah watches the movie, in a limbo state between getting up and staying seated, she mouths the words along with the film. The film moves on, and Leah snaps instantly out of her daze and rises from the couch to get my towels.
“Sorry. I like that part,” she says.
She disappears into a room behind the desk for a . . . well, for a beat . . . and then emerges with a stack of clean towels. She hands them to me. Our hands touch for the briefest of moments. I have the towels firmly in my grasp, but she isn’t letting go. It occurs to me that she is very pretty and I’m starting to feel awkward when she says, apropos of nothing, “He hit me once.”
I don’t know what to say.
“That’s why I don’t want his kids.”
I still don’t know what to say.
“I just feel bad,” she tells me. “I didn’t mean to make you sad.”
“I was already sad,” I say. “Nothing to do with you.”
Finally, she lets go of the towels.
She says “Have a good night” and I head back to my room.
I shower. I write a little. I sleep for about an hour. At 7:30 or so, I gather my things and proceed to the lobby so that I can check out and head for home. There’s a continental breakfast in the lobby. A different desk clerk, but Leah is still there. She is in the room designated for breakfast, eating a bowl of cereal and reading a copy of USA Today. She has removed the button-up shirt that she wears for work. Currently, she wears a powder blue tank-top, and I am only slightly embarrassed to say I did not notice the night before how well-endowed she is. I certainly noticed it now. But what really catches my attention is her tattoo. The night before, I only saw the flock of birds peeking out of her sleeve, but now, without her arms covered, I can see that the flock of birds fades into a string of cursive text that extends up her arm toward her shoulder. It says: DEAR GOD, MAKE ME A BIRD . . .
I get myself a cup of coffee and prepare myself a bowl of cereal. I notice when I have finished that she has noticed that I am there. She flashes that smile. It’s a great smile. Twenty years later, I remember her smile. Her green, green eyes and that smitten-worthy dimpled smile.
I sit down at a separate table and begin to eat my breakfast. There’s a copy of the newspaper at the table where I’m sitting, perhaps an amenity provided by the hotel. I read the paper as I nutrate my body. I’m actively trying not to look to see if Leah is watching me. I’m so lonely and heartsick and broken and sad that I know I’d probably, given the chance, invite her to come back with me to Champaign. She could be my girlfriend. I would never hit her. I would tell her every day how pretty she is, and I would never intentionally make her cry. And I know, even to myself, how pathetic I sound right now, but in the end, it doesn’t matter, because when I look up, she’s gone.