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June 24, 2019 | Rome, Italy

The National International

By | 2018-03-21T18:18:26+02:00 January 1st, 2005|"Short Fiction"|

Every tongue wags thick here. And the tents are all catered. But the beach is deserted now, and a half dozen folding chairs stand empty and scattered. I lie on combed sand and look out from this ancient shore, but I see no one bringing refills, no shrimps on large platters.

I have lingered too long. The season is over. I fear I will never know another hallucinogenic empanada.

I am one of the honored guests of the Basque National International, a modest little festival now celebrating eleven years. Resiliently marginal, on the outer banks of the circuit, to ensure their own standing, organizers dole out accolades with mints on your pillow. It’s no secret. There’s no scandal. Everyone knows that’s the deal here. Everyone goes home with a very nice fruit basket and a Palme d’Or special honor.

Which is all very nice, and we all show our gratitude, but it’s in spite of those statuettes that we indulge and show up here. An elite little congress, with our own private traditions, we criss-cross the globe just to spend these nights together. Last year we reached new heights with a gymnastic all-nighter, an achievement my wife wasn’t so keen to discover. Some would say otherwise, but I know where the blame lies: with a filthy French team of Canal One producers.

This year, my wife isn’t taking any chances. She has consented to my return with just one concession: sending our youngest, our darling, as my chaperone and her envoy. My four-foot crutch, her pig-tailed ambassador. My always. My everything. I am only too happy; the hotel provides sitters. But since the moment of our arrival, she has not been received well. She’s been vomiting non-stop since our train reached the village. A sudden retching illness. A loud one, too. And with her head out the window all the way from the station, she has marked this precious seaside with her little bird innards.

We rushed to our room, but on the esplanade, by the ballroom, such abandon, such vigor. We hurried through the lobby, but the judges and impresarios had gathered together. Small groups, eclectic huddles, they all blurred a little, as my little one kept heaving and I pushed us through. A few hugs and quick apologies, a select handshake and sly squeezes. A few waved in our direction, not sure what we were up to. We survived that sketchy gauntlet without too much damage. But there they all were. Here we all are. Greed and beauty. Talent and illusion. All here together. We expect nothing less from this place and each other.

And then my little girl, my sweet principessa, she pulled on my hand, and we stopped short in the hallway. She pointed out the bellhop and his old-fashioned key ring, an enormous silver hoop hanging from his uniform. The man smiled and came closer. He indulged her curiosity, and he took note of her fever, but then he turned to me—with a different smile altogether. His hairline, his fingers, this young man’s particular swagger — I found my thoughts racing, searching for something familiar. I have to be careful here. The past — the illicit past — is always one room over.

But then it was my little one who saved me from embarrassment, starting up again, like a sprinkler, puking candy-coated chunks on two slender ankles I had promised myself I would always remember.

But right now is something else. Right now, on this empty beach, this moment is quite remarkable. Right now, I am tingly, like a pin cushion dummy either just coming to life or fading off to eternal sleep. I’m not sure if I’m dying or waking up to something big here.

It was only last night when I watched the crowds rushing. They were all running out of my own film’s screening. I watched them stampede through the narrow stone streets—headed straight for the jam-packed Looney Tunes retrospective. Projected en plein mer, on the prefect’s outer walls, with the ocean’s tide echoing not far away. I watched how they watched — they went mad for Yosemite Sam. They hooted over Sylvester and that endless cat-and-bird play. That ignoble lust, that animalistic betrayal — they gathered in that village square, they sat on their folding chairs, and they seemed, quite genuinely, delighted to be there.

And I must say, I was surprised. That’s all. Surprised. By the Basques and what they choose to amuse themselves with. Such a handsome people. So resourceful and passionate, as every year has proven. But at my own screening, just before, with the same crowd in attendance, audience polling went even higher than I expected.

It wasn’t a fair showing, and now I’m not sure what to think. I’d arrived late, so I couldn’t know how everything exactly unfolded. Back at the room, there’d been some trouble, with my youngest and the hotel’s sitter, an attractive young man, who, over the phone, miscommunicated to my wife on the matter of sleeping assignments. But I arrived just in time for one of my most favorite scenes: a digital representation of a beautiful woman dancing alone in a ball gown as she drowns in a carefully choreographed ocean — and then the credits started scrolling. I was in the theater for all of two minutes, about halfway through the movie, when I realized the reels had been switched and reversed. Crazy. Unbelievable. I stormed the projection booth, I looked around, I lunged, I locked my hands round the neck of that horrible incompetent. A local gendarme bullied in, then a swarm of festival organizers. Begging me, pleading me — a line, a hit, whatever I needed — to back off, to calm down, to pretend, presumably, like this whole thing never happened. But they were too late. The lights came up, the crowd started filing out, and it was then when a woman, a particularly shapely woman, about the same middle age as my own dear wife — attractive, sophisticated — quite striking, actually — approached an open microphone and hailed me as “the new Emerson.” “The Emerson of our times.” “A musing soul ennobled by contemporary causes.” She stood there at the mike and in her Basque-broken English pronounced me “a true champion of individuality and transcendence, making my mark in the wilderness of shifting events.”

I tried to place her face but just couldn’t do it. Seville. Barcelona. All cities have one name but dozens of faces.

It was high praise, regardless. I must admit that. Especially for my action-thriller, which I also must admit was maybe better in reverse.

People forget it is the eye which makes the horizon. Emerson said that. And he’s right—people do forget. Where once there was nothing, where once there was just TV, film gives us vision, creating the very limits of what we see and think.

I am reminded of this here, and admittedly, I am on foreign ground. This is a land that belongs to the Basques, and after millions of marketing dollars and huge architectural risks, these are a people who have staked a great deal on the notion of independence. Granted, they have also bombed and maimed and killed repeatedly trying to attain a subtle degree of autonomy. And while I cannot pretend to know the full depths of this, I do know they are an unusually proud and ambitious and welcoming bunch. Year after year, they offer up their National International and its amiable audiences. As a testing ground for various promotional strategies, as a launching pad for local press junkets, a handy way to estimate your overseas receipts.

All of which you can claim the first time you come here. But the second time, there’s different reasons. And after that, there’s no telling. Until you find yourself feverish, strangling a projectionist, looking down at a beautiful woman who proclaims your worst nightmare an unmitigated success.

Now, I will admit I’m a sucker for seductions. And there is nothing more lovely than this beach and this horizon. But in that auditorium, something smelled foul there. And I cannot really say it was just French producers.

It is early October, and the festival is designed to lure tourists an extra week — which makes these festivities a big flu-season event. From all around the countryside, the stricken come to sweat their fevers. Ill and wheezing Basques fill every dusky seat. It was the same on the way here; our train felt a lot like a sanitarium express. I instructed my youngest to avoid the facilities and to refrain from the snack bar regardless the temptation. So we sat, the two of us, staking claim to opposite seats, a full booth where we could ride sitting face to face. While we waited to start our journey, she made grotesque faces and asked nearly everyone what their last project grossed. She is my little girl, my worry and inspiration. But once we got started, she was an ordinary seven, gripped by a childish fear of traveling backwards in her place. So we switched seats, and she fell asleep curled up, just like a kitten. And for a while, I felt confident. A rare feeling, I tell you. I’d done the right thing — such a simple, little thing — sitting there that way, watching her as she rested.

Within a few hours, they’d screw up my film’s order. The second reel first, then the third, then the first. The projectionist felt feverish under my mad, reckless rage. Even so, in that auditorium, amid the coughing and sniffling, the response was unparalleled. I was hailed as an oracle of transcendence. I evoked an evanescence and lubricity in both my characters and my storylines. That fit, shapely woman pointed directly at me — the man most comfortable living in the world today, understanding the world as I do, as my films apparently did. The true romance which the world exists to realize will be the transformation of genius into practical power. Yes, Emerson again. Nothing illicit about that.

For I have told stories of sacrifice and redemption. I have, for six- and eight-week runs, commanded a large chunk of the popular imagination. I have compelled the world to laugh purposefully about our relationship with old people, and I have given the culture action figures, sold in affordable gift packs. I have digitally reproduced a dozen giant babies, hugging our great nation’s skylines, doing battle with cadres of exotic foreign terrorists. I have also dug deep and found the humanity within stay-at-home moms who just happen to be drug-addled. I have gotten this far with many middle-market successes, and in my heart of hearts, I know why I’ve never done better. I have never hit the big time, the over-the-top jackpot, because I’ve never given over to the indecency that’s demanded. That’s the public’s expectation — what the world certainly demands. Not so much to be shocked, or even to be entertained. Today, if we’re talking numbers, what the world really begs for is a good man to fall hard and betray himself.

Which is part of my appeal here. That’s how the public knows me. A sweet shared nostalgia for the boy now grown up. As a child, I was raised as the very emblem of innocence. I starred in or played recurring roles on a series of family dramas. Each week, simple stories made a point of my struggle, each devised to preserve specifically my own beloved innocence.

I was a real boy, after all, only surrounded by adults. The same producers who rocketed me into the public eye, behind the scenes went to great extremes to emulate safety and warmth. I grew up carefully. Handled. Protected at all costs. I was intimate with my tutors and reverent of my father figures. In my earliest days, we spoke of dreams and the power of imagination. In my adolescence, of artistry and the heights of responsibility. I was taught to use a mise-en-scene in the service of realism. In the parts I played and in the families I was raised in, I was told to trust myself and to use my best behavior as a model for my work. Over the years, I have told stories in several different guises, but always with the same lesson: how our innocence can be restored, how it must be won back.

But that was before, before this year’s International. Before the concierge whistled and tried to wave us over, before our bellman turned and looked at me like a bite-sized hors d’oeuvre. They all expect the same thing and will settle for nothing less now.

I can’t say why I’m singled out. Why me and not those Frenchmen. But that woman was out to get me, playing me, citing Emerson. So in the morning, after a long night, after who knows how many chokings, they can all point to me and say, I knew it. Look at him. He’s really no better.

It’s the burden of my history, to insist on discretion, and for ten years now, this little festival has been my great exception. Before last night, I had thought it was a value this group shared, that we were exceptional together. But this year, there’s Emerson. There’s pointing and whistling. There’s the true romance of the world. And I ask you, How is anybody supposed to measure up to that?

Just one night. That’s all. I just had to get through it. The sly winks, the private tents, the extraordinary seductions. I just had to lock my door and forget a decade’s decadence. One year, it was empanadas. Just a Frenchman and his tapas. They were stuffed with something special. Belgian amphetamines? I’m sure he must have told me, but the hell if I’d believe him.

But is it ever just one night? And must every door be locked? Just who was I kidding here? It’s the National International. The whole town was lit up.

I still had my little chaperone, who needed special care now. I sat with her in the bathroom, on the floor, holding her head. I tried to stay focused, so I could guide her sudden vomit. Light as a robin, she radiated tremendous heat. Between bouts, she was tender, quiet and weepy, but she roared when she vomited, and I fully expected complaints from next door. But she was no competition. Not for this place, this crowd. Through the walls, I heard laughter and rather distinct accents. Our congress was in session. It went on till daybreak.

Then a knock at my door, and I was careful about answering. I peered through the peephole and saw my bellman grinning. I yelled through the keyhole, pleading with him to go away, to have pity on my daughter, to just leave me be. This went on for a while, but all he had was a message. From the Basques one suite over. They’d agreed to a meeting, today, over lunch.

I’d spent most the night under my own feverish spell. With my littlest nodding in and out on the bath mat beside me, I’d tapped out my salvation, the story to set me right. I’d emailed it straight away, only a preliminary teaser-treatment — just a top-line sketch of a roughed-out concept, really — and this morning, they’d sent word. It’s a terrific idea. They’d liked what they’d read. They wanted to hear “more.” It’s “relevant,” they said.

As the sunrise finally reached us, I turned to share the news, but my sweet was curled up, with her eyelids aflutter. Dreams of kittens, dreams of squirrels. She slept that way, fitfully. I would save myself this morning, but I’d lose everything first.

I am numb now on this beach, looking back at my time here. I’ve lost feeling in my extremities, in every toe and finger. The sun has gone low, and the sand cools beneath me. There are boats on the water. Yachts to Morocco. And now, down my pants, a bug has just crept.

Juan was the bellman’s name. With his firm, gymnastic way.

And oregano, they’d tried to tell me, stuffed in those empanadas.

My wife has a theory, about what always happens here.

But is there anything we shouldn’t learn, if someone’s willing to teach?

“The Deluge,” my treatment’s called, only a working title, of course. And on the surface, it’s very simple, a straight-forward story about a straight-forward man who grows up and makes his life on an ancient sea’s edge. He makes do as a fisherman, makes love like a lighthouse, and makes peace with the world as all simple men do — without expectations, without special needs. Pure is what he is. Pure is what I’m after here, what this broader-stroke concept fundamentally is about.

Obviously, it’s not a studio project. Back home, this would never fly. A project like this requires a distinct sensibility, with involvement and backing from exclusive, state-funded concerns.

Nothing has changed, of course, and this will not be an easy ticket. When the lights go down, the world will still be a fool for hairy legs in a frilly dress. Still begging for betrayal. Begging from every seat. But I will not oblige them. I will not be that man. My fate is in the hands of this not quite autonomous state.

*

“Are you with me here? Are you?” I whispered to my youngest as I carried her in my arms. ”I need you to work with me here. C’mon, girl, c’mon…”

The Basques had probably had meetings since early this morning, congregating around card tables set up on the beach. Sometimes they’d meet in the temporary structures, the ones showing the old Resnais and Guignol titles. Despite a prominent place on the festival’s program, these screenings only rarely filled more than a few seats. I have heard stories, though. It’s part of the local legend. Major deals have been struck in the back rows of The Bicycle Thief.

My own entry this year was The President is Dead! It screened in the large auditorium in the center of the village. I remember last year’s breakfast in the hotel’s grand ballroom, a magnificent space. I sat alongside the rest, including the Canal One team, the French ones I’d just been stoned and naked with. Everyone was congenial, just so perfectly pleasant. Everyone was quite professional, not a smirk, barely a nudge. And that bellman, Juan, he’d left early, we all missed him, and then we spotted him at breakfast, from our seats on the dais. He was working the floor, he was part of the catering, and we all were a little shocked to watch him load up with dishes. But he went about his business and never even looked up. That very Basque sense of decency, that’s what I was banking on again today at lunch.

They’d chosen a restaurant a few paces down the beach, which I surveyed with my daughter, who needed to be carried just about the full distance. A few souls were venturing out, standing waist deep in calm water. They faced the autumn sun, with their backs to us both. But this was not what I had in mind, this setting, this locale. I’d need to explain that. For The Deluge, this new work, I wanted to be very clear now: mine would be a shore unlike any imagined. A totally new kind of beach and shore, a re-thinking of basic elements. It’s difficult to explain, we’d have to hammer that out later, so I was hoping to get a table inside, away from these surroundings. I didn’t want this particular tide to confuse or distract us.

Outside the restaurant, a man slipped his arm around the waist of a woman. A little brazen, I thought, especially at that hour, and another distraction from the tone I would set. My hope was to tell a story that had nothing to do with sex. Unlike the central premise of The President is Dead! Or Mrs. Jones Goes To War! Or Babies! Babies! Babies! This one, The Deluge, would be totally different. Obviously, I had a lot of explaining ahead.

The group was all smiles, and they were seven in all, five men, two women, assorted ages, and all Basque. All anxious to order drinks and get started with this. I guided us inside, to a table in the back. Some new faces, some familiar, but with enough concentration, I avoided digressions. I was all business now. I kept my eyes on my notes. I held my daughter alongside me, perched on my hip.

Before I could get started and voice my appreciation, two more were joining us, the lovers from out front. They were squinting now, disoriented, behind sleek sunglasses. As the table filled up, I was aware of the relative darkness and, without a breeze, the rising heat. It was both hot and dark in there, and I was already feeling warm from carrying my child across the beach.

Every one congratulated me on last night’s polling. No one mentioned the mixed up reels or the projectionist’s condition. There was a lull while chairs were shifted. I moved my youngest onto my lap, so at least one hand was free. Because I wanted to make a point about the Basque sense of community, a very broad-stroke point about the very Basque coupling of resistance and identity. I wanted to work that in there. It was just something I liked.

But all eyes were on my youngest. Who did not look at all well. In fact, she looked paler, hotter, even lighter than a robin then. With the heat rising in the room, her head lolled back. Her neck pooled with sweat, her mouth fell wide open. She went motionless. Unresponsive. Together, we all watched as my little one’s eyes rolled back in her head.

Someone, one of the Basques, took her away, to the medical tent. My own shirt was thick with sweat, and my trousers were too, and I felt a hand on my shoulder and another on my forehead before the whole room just went utterly blank.

I never got to make my pitch. Or even my explanations. I only asked to be judged here. I should have expected no less.

Ever since I arrived here, the average Basque has avoided me. Outside the hotel and our tight little enclave, no one has even bothered to nod their head. It’s as if I were shadowy, come to haunt and drain their coffers. Only now do they stop and make a big fuss. Up and down, I’ve heard them all calling: “The President is Dead!

Across the beaches and promenades, I stumbled as I ran. I had to get out of there and find some place safe. I didn’t know where I was, I was lost in my own fever, but I ran down those narrow streets trying to find my dear sweet. I ran into viewing rooms playing classic French cinema, waking up sick invalids just trying to get some rest. I vomited beside telescopes planted all along the promenade, where tourists drop a euro to see the water close up. When I finally collapsed, I found myself on this beach. I convulsed for a while. Then three or four waders turned round to look and wave. They just stood there and waved, waist-deep in the surf.

At first, a woman, then a man, and then a child stood above me, calling to others for aid and assistance. Loungers left their chaises, and diners left their umbrellas. A mass movement across the sand, and then a crowd formed around me. They poked, and they prodded, and one by one drifted off, once they figured out who I am. They left me alone here, with this numbness and this bug making its way down my pants.

Dreams deliver us to dream, and there is no end to illusion. That woman at my screening had said that clear enough. Or maybe it was Juan. I can’t say for sure now. Regardless, either way, there will be no deliverance if we never let ourselves get started.

Jon Roemer is a freelance writer living in San Francisco. He is currently finishing a novel exploring the world of West Coast protests.

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Jon Roemer is a freelance writer living in San Francisco. He is currently finishing a novel exploring the world of West Coast protests.

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