28 April 2009
How It All Turned Out
I stared at the nude photograph on the wall, remembering that two nights before I had stood nude in a window frame inside a college dorm and wondered, “Is that all there is?” In the span of a week, I had slept with my teacher, my best friend, and my boyfriend.
All three titles belonging to different people. All three interactions accompanied by alcohol. All three experiences beautiful and bumpy – but I was wrapped in the arms of D.H Lawrence and Anais Nin and I yearned for more.
I was a theatre major. We’re dramatic. We try anything. Even if in the next morning, we’re scratching our heads in wonder, we’re also stashing the memory in our grab bag of “moments to draw upon” for the next acting or writing piece. In drama, there is no waste.
Then, in a gallery in New Orleans a week later, I was faced with an image reminding me of my restlessness, my longing for more. I introduced myself to the photographer, Johnny Donnels. I was 21 years old. He was older. He was sitting in a lawn chair, surrounded by his photographs – mainly studies of New Orleans life.
I said, “I want to buy that photograph.” He said, “80 dollars.”
I was maxed out on student loans, working nights at Bob’s Big Boy, and renting out my couch to a med student. He might as well have said 8 thousand dollars. “Okay.” I searched my wallet. No eighty dollars. He didn’t take credit cards. Not that I had one, but it was a logical question to ask.
Where’s an ATM? He gave me directions. I said okay. Two steps out the door, he stopped me with, “Are you coming back?” I turned, looked at him.
I hesitated. I wasn’t in New Orleans to buy artwork, I was researching William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams. Johnny listened to the empty air of no response. I remembered my grandmother’s words, “When there’s that much quiet, I know you’re thinking up a lie.” So I chose to be polite. “Sure, I am.” Don’t we all say that? I’ll call you, knowing we won’t. I’m fine, knowing we’re not.
He walked up to me. He was tall. Clear blue eyes. Fists full of white hair.
“Because if you’re not coming back, I’ll close up shop and go home to my wife. But if you are coming back, I’ll stay and wait for you.” It was a challenge.
The ATM screen kept blinking insistently, as if to ask, “Do you really want that photograph more than dinner?” If I took out that $80 dollars, I’d have $6.32 left.
Back at his gallery, Johnny said, “I didn’t think you were coming back.” I said, “But you waited,” and I handed him the money.
He gave me a tour of his studio above the gallery. He showed me the window where the woman in the photograph stood. After that photo came out, he took many more shots of other women who wanted to duplicate the exact same pose. There were photographs he’d taken during the war, when he was a soldier, images of civil unrest, of famous faces. He even sketched for the FBI and police department, his portraits nabbing criminals. It was a layered life up those stairs, far more varied than the New Orleans street scenes he had below.
Then I remembered it was past closing time.
“There’s no closing time in New Orleans. That’s why we say ‘til’. We’re open until…” We’re done. Are we done? I carried the photograph on my lap on the plane home and back to college. It would be another 5 years until I could afford to get it framed.
It was almost ten years before I returned to New Orleans. I stepped into Johnny’s gallery and said hello. He didn’t remember the college girl who wanted to taste the world, but soon he knew me as the writer from Hollywood. I gave him the DVD of Carolina, the story of my Southern grandmother. I didn’t tell him that his photograph of a woman who dreamt of something more was part of what inspired me to suck up my guts and get the film made.
When I saw him again, he said, “Life is serious business,” quoting the movie. Then he added, “But only if you make it fun.”
When I told him I was writing a script about the New Orleans Saints, flying on the NFL team’s private jet, Johnny just said, “Great. How’s your heart these days?” caring more about me than a career. When The Prince & Me was in theaters in New Orleans, Johnny and his wife sat in the audience with me, alongside Saints owners Tom Benson and Rita Benson LeBlanc. When the film was over, he said, “That was so much fun. How’s your heart these days?”
When Army Wives premiered, he said, “Great. Just get it right.” I assured him we were doing our best, hiring military consultants to get the salutes right, all those things. But he said, “I mean, get the hearts of the women right. They are so brave.”
When I bought my condo in the French Quarter, Johnny gave me a house warming present. A nude photograph of the same woman in the photograph I bought, only now she was sitting on a couch.
I said, “I have the other one, where she faces out the window.” He said, “I know. And you came back with the money.” I was shocked. He smiled. “I never forget a face.” I asked, “Why didn’t you tell me all these years?” He said, “It’s been fun seeing how it all turned out.”
He then went on to explain that, back then, he had a brief spell of losing faith in the young. They say they’ll come back, but they never do. But I did. I restored his faith. I said, you gave me mine.
In Los Angeles this year, I was on the treacherous path of enrolling my daughter into pre-school. I went to public school all my life. You didn’t enroll – you walked down the street to the school nearest you and sat down in a brown wooden chair. But in Los Angeles, it’s an audition. You dress, you meet, you recite what you hope are the right lines. Your child stays home. I walked up to a private school in Hollywood and saw what looked exactly like the teacher I had in college standing outside, directing toddler traffic into classrooms. The moment took me right back to Johnny.
Decades after buying his photograph, I’d learned to take familiarity and recognition as a sign. To follow my instincts. This was the school I wanted to get into. Months later, I did. Johnny left a sign on his gallery door. If the store was closed, call him on the cell. He’d come down and meet you. I’d kept that number. I called him to tell him my daughter was going to pre-school! He laughed. Of course she was. Why did you ever think she wasn’t?
In February of this year, my father and I went to New Orleans to work on my condo. A lot of little repairs, mostly damage from the “Storm,” as they call Hurricane Katrina, as if using her name somehow empowers her even more. It was also Mardi Gras week. But I was knee-deep in paint and dirt and air conditioning vents. I passed by Johnny’s gallery door several times on my way to the market or the hardware store. But I didn’t stop in. I knew if I did, I’d lose 3 hours of time over a glass of lemonade.
On the plane back to Los Angeles, I turned to my dad and said, “This was the first trip I didn’t see Johnny.” He smiled. Years ago, Johnny had given my father a tour of his studio, too. Both men had bragged about their grandchildren and we’d bought a book of his photographs that he signed for Rita.
By now, I had formed my tribe in New Orleans – Rita, Marda B, Johnny, David H, Jennifer C, Daniel, Freddy, Jonae, and Peter - folks I “had to see” on each visit. It was sure strange not to see him.
But I had to get back. My daughter was going to pre-school, my friend Elizabeth was suited up for a battle with breast cancer and I had a career. The next month, I sat in a chair getting my hair highlighted. I was going to visit my friend Elizabeth the next day. I opened my emails. Johnny had written. Almost monthly, he sent pictures of his new photographs, a joke and a smile.
I opened it. It wasn’t from Johnny. It was from someone who had accessed his list to send an email to his friends. Johnny had passed away. Paul came to pick me up in the hair salon and I was just sitting in the chair, sobbing. Not caring who in there saw me. Paul was going with me to New York, the bulk of that story you can read in the previous month’s blog.
“What’s the matter?” he asked. My friend died. He said, “Oh my god. Elizabeth?” I said, “No. No. Johnny. Johnny died.” When we landed in New York, I suddenly shut down. Walking on the street, Paul kept asking questions. I didn’t answer, going farther and farther away. Finally, I said, “I’ve been on pause for too many months now,” filing away this event or that event with the promise to get back to it later. But with Johnny’s death, the pause button wouldn’t hold the pressure anymore. I had to feel it now. Paul left me alone.
When he came back, hours later, I never loved him more. For in those two hours, I replayed all my visits with Johnny. All of our conversations. Thanking him for his part in leading me to the place where I am now.
I took my daughter to New Orleans a month after Johnny’s death. It was her first trip there. Johnny never met her. I pushed her in her stroller straight up to the door of his gallery. There were letters from those who loved him taped to the windows. There was also the letter we all received by email. In it were the final words belonging to Johnny, in the hospital. When he kissed Joan (his wife of 48 years) goodnight he said, “Haven’t we had a great day?”
Next to it was a new letter I hadn’t read. It was from Johnny himself. With my hand on my daughter’s head, my fingers laced through her curly blond hair, I read:
I turned and looked at the man and woman standing next to me. They owned the mask store next door. I said, “Don’t cry? That’s not fair. I just –---.” The man said, “I know. We miss him, too.”
A few days ago, I sat in the audience for the parents only orientation to my daughter’s pre-school. Our host said, “Remember Kimba the White Lion?” I almost raised my hand. I do! I do! But then our host smiled nervously, realizing many of the parents were too young to have watched Kimba growing up.
Then it hit me, my daughter is a toddler. I am an older mom. I am seeing the beginning of her life. She will see the end of mine. I saw the ending to Johnny’s life, but I missed the start.
In the middle of a pre-school orientation, I finally understood we can’t be there for it all. I sat on my hands, bit my lip. It took all I had not to cry in school as I realized the greatest sadness I will ever know is that with Madeleine I will miss How It All Turned Out.
But the greatest happiness I will ever know is that time spent with my daughter, with friends, with family, with life, will always be a great day.
Thank you, Johnny. You gave us all so many great days.
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