America: Another Documentary
I wanted to be the next documentary film maker to hit the road in search of America, but my shut-in neighbor suggested I stay home and just let America come to me. “It’d be a waste of time and gas money to go driving off looking for someone who can’t be found ‘till she’s good and ready,” she said. “Just wait. She’ll come around.” That sounded like good advice, so I postponed my trip and spent the travel budget on bills instead.
A few months later, America knocked at my door. “It’s you,” I said meekly, half unsure. My eyes were straining to comprehend the white afternoon light that poured in from behind her.
“I heard you were looking for me,” she said wryly. It was the same tone a television star uses on a surprise visit to a fan.
“Everybody’s looking for you! Everybody since Jack Kerouac.”
“Everybody since Walt Whitman. Should I come in?”
“Sure,” I said, flipping on the lamp and kicking a path through the dirty laundry on the floor. “Do you mind if I get my camera. It will only take me a few minutes to set it up.”
“Go ahead. That’s why I dressed up.”
America sat on the edge of the couch with her legs crossed and hands folded, while I scampered around setting up microphones, and running extension cords all around her. I still had a tooth brush in my mouth when we began filming. “Today is July 3rd, 2012. Uh… Please say your name and spell it.”
“Thanks… Uh… I don’t know where to begin.”
“Don’t you have some questions written down somewhere?”
“Yeh, I guess so.” I grabbed a notebook and flipped to the first page with writing on it. It was a scattered list of notes from a cinematography class, but I pretended they were notes for the interview. “You were born in ’76?”
“Well that’s when I changed my name to America.”
“Okay… uh… how would you describe yourself?”
She giggled. “I like what Stephen Fry said. That America is a land of contradictions. That anything you can say about it is true…”
“Isn’t he British?”
“Yes, but sometimes it takes an outsider to make a credible observation.”
“Well, what would be an example of this contradiction thing? Are you provincial and cosmopolitan? Organic and synthetic?”
“You got it… Rich and poor. Extraordinary and mundane.”
“Rural and urbane?”
“Religious and secular?”
“Yes, and all points in between. I’m very superstitious as well.”
“Are you cynical and gullible?”
“Why do you think those two things are opposite?” She unfolded her hands, and stretched one thin arm across the back of the couch, appearing suddenly nonchalant, as if to remind me that she could take control of this interview whenever she wanted. “Sometimes cynical and gullible are the same thing.”
“I see… Are you emaciated and obese?”
“No. I’ve never really been either of those things.” Her dark eyes intensified. “Now come on. I’m sure you have some tougher questions for me.”
“Okay,” I said, taking the cue. “Contradictions… Are you a welcoming isolationist? What about that Statue of Liberty stuff? Do you still welcome the tired, the poor, the huddled masses?”
“Well, anyone who has ever come to me has had to struggle for it. I mean everyone. But some have struggled much more than others. I’m not fair in that way. Consider how I came to you of my own volition, but I’ve been subtly rejecting you the whole time.”
“Yeh, I’ve noticed that,” I mumbled.
“I knew you’d be unprepared, sitting here in your boxers, watching television after a morning of sleeping in… on a Tuesday. Look at how put together I look right now, compared to you.” She looked extremely well put together, like a woman out for an evening in the artsy part of a city. Her short bronze skirt, bare legs, and high heels would seem out of place in this suburb at any time, but especially on a midweek afternoon. Her slender figure seemed as if it couldn’t exist here in my dingy room, perched on my second-hand sofa. She was a firework at a funeral.
“Yeh, you look great,” I said, quickly gaining my composure. “So you did that to keep me on the defensive? To keep me hiding the fact that I might be a phony?”
“I came to you precisely because you’re a phony. You’ve got something to hide, something you want to change before you feel like it’s safe to just BE.” She smiled warmly. “That’s the only way I accept people. Do you think I’m really going to make a personal visit to any of those cocky film school guys who think they know everything about me already?”
“I get it.” The crawling sunshine finally made its way to her, and when it hit her sequined blouse, an array of lights appeared on the smooth brown skin of her neck and jaw line. America the beautiful, I thought. “Do you want some coffee?”
“No. I’m running short on time. I think we have just enough for another question or two.”
“Okay, what about slavery?” I blurted.
“What about it?”
“Well it seems like one of the worst things about our history. What can you say about it?”
“Your question presupposes that slavery is something I did to other people, but you should remember first that I am the slave and the slave owner.”
“Are you a racist, still?”
“Yes, but I’m trying to quit.” She glanced solemnly toward the brightening window. “I know I was wrong before but old habits die hard.”
I quickly relented, and my frustration faded back to admiration. “That’s all I’ve got I guess.”
She stood. With her heels she was about six feet tall, and I had to adjust my camera to an awkward angle to catch her. “Okay, I’ve got a question for you. If you love America so much, why won’t don’t you ever go anywhere?”
“What do you, mean? What’s wrong with this place?”
“Nothing, but it’s only one perspective. You’ll never see it for what it is until you see something else.”
“Well what else is there to see?” I said rising from my seat. I tried to meet her eyes, but she was at least three inches taller than me. Her face seemed infinitely out of reach.
“That’s just it. You don’t even know! Look, you dropped out of film school so what’s keeping you here?”
“I have a job.”
“A part time job at Starbucks. Don’t they have Starbucks in other towns? In every town? You could work at one of those instead. And there will be plenty to see en route.”
“But I thought the traveling around thing has been overdone. You know there was Kerouac, and Kesey, and William Least Heat Moon…”
“…And Louis and Clark,” she said. “Look, they did it for themselves, for their time. You have to do it for you in your time. I will change my name a hundred times before I am dead, but for you this is the only incarnation. If you don’t document it now, it will be lost… and then people will have to rely on those other guys who didn’t live in your century.”
Her tone was harsh, but I remembered the words of my shut-in neighbor, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend.”
Gracefully, America stepped toward the door, and I moved my camera again to catch her final words. “I will see you again, sometime,” she said. She extended a long arm as if to offer the feminine good-bye hug, and I stepped into the shot.
“Yeh, soon I hope.” She had to stoop to embrace me, and as she slowly broke away I planted a swift impulsive kiss onto her lips. I still don’t know why I did it, exactly, because up to the second it happened I had tried desperately to conceal all evidence of my boyish attraction.
She grinned. Apparently the sudden boldness was welcome. “When most people want to do that, they leave the house.”
“I’ve heard Utah is nice.”
The next morning, my shut-in neighbor watched quietly through her window as I loaded the camera and all of my equipment into the car. When I turned to wave good-bye she signaled for me to meet her at the door. “Take this for gas money,” she said, handing me a huge plastic crayon full of quarters.
“I can’t take your money,” I said politely.
“I got plenty. Now take this and put me in the credits as a producer. I’ll be dead before your film comes out.”
“Don’t just come back when you miss it,” she said. “Come back when you appreciate it.”
I threw the crayon in the passenger seat, and headed for the interstate.
-Jared St. Martin Brown 2012
Land of Contradictions