Stalking Josefina Lopez
Photo by Mark SavageFor weeks, I'd glimpsed the title Real Women Have Curves on bus benches and billboards around LA, and every time I did, I felt an inexplicable but undeniable apprehension. The title called up some distant memory I somehow knew I was better off not exploring too deeply.
And then one day in mid-October, I was flipping through LA Weekly when I saw an ad for a new film. Real Women Have Curves. As I stared at it, I was seized with a deep and squirming horror, like I'd kicked over a rock and found something that would disturb other things that live under rocks. What was going on? What was it about this film that made me want to fling that copy of the Weekly away as if it had just burst into flame?
I forced myself to scan the ad, and there, at the bottom, were the words that tore the top right off my head: based on a play by Josefina Lopez.
Josefina Lopez. Slowly I turned, step by step, inch by inch. Josefina Lopez has been my arch-nemesis for much of my adult life, although she probably never had a clue she was.
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Josefina is my ex-girlfriend. Our relationship was brief by adult standards, maybe a couple of months; but at the age of 16, every day lasts a week. I walked away with wounds that never quite healed. Between my relationship with Josefina and the present, there were a full 15 years of noisy, restless living; adventures across continents; and loves far more lasting and profound than our high-school-fling thing. By all rights, Josefina should have been a mere footnote in my life's history, as I surely now was in hers. And yet, a hate for her burned bright and hot in my black little soul.
Over the past few years, I've come across various newspaper articles about Josefina and her career as a playwright of some acclaim. Seeing these articles invariably messed me up for days afterward, sending me into a spiral of envy and depression; it wasn't that I'd ever had any serious aspirations to be a playwright, but I felt that I had fair reason to begrudge this woman for any good thing that happened to her ever.
* * *
Spin my current life one way, the way I spin it when I run into old friends or talk to relatives, and I sound like I'm doing pretty darn okay: I am a film critic for a major alternative newsweekly; I live in a cool apartment in a cool town with a great girl whom I love like crazy and who loves me right back. But spin my life another way, and suddenly I'm doing a lot less okay. Last year, I earned just about enough to buy a 1985 Toyota Corolla—without air-conditioning. For years, my health has been so lousy I rarely get through a week without an exotic new disease or two. After nearly a decade together, me and the great girl have been having some problems, largely due to the fact that last year I earned just about enough to afford a 1985 Toyota Corolla—without air-conditioning. I'm in therapy and on the happy pills. In short, I don't consider my life an abject failure, but you can sure see abject failure from where I'm standing.
I didn't grow up dreaming about being a film critic, but who does? Even at this ripening age, I still have aspirations to do other things eventually, but in the meantime, film criticism works fine for me. Of course, writing articles about people is definitely less fun than having people write articles about you, something I usually don't think about much until I come across one of those articles about Josefina.
Josefina as a successful playwright was one thing; it got on my nerves, but I could cope. Then the fates hit me right between the eyes with Josefina's major motion picture, presented by HBO and Newmarket Films, arriving from a smash run at Sundance amid a deafening buzz of rave reviews from Roger Ebert and other critics who could afford air-conditioned cars. Oh, my sweet lord in heaven, I so did not need this.
* * *
The high school where Josefina and I met was not a school like yours, unless your school was filled with sissy artist types who were forever crying, giggling, hugging and breaking into production numbers in the cafeteria. The students at what was, in the late '80s, the brand-new LA County High School for the Arts (LACHSA) hated it when reporters compared us to the kids from Fame, but now I'm a grown-up reporter, and I'm stuck making that same comparison. Like the Fame kids, we were moody, gifted, burning with ambition and fey as a big pink box full of bunnies. Many of us commuted for hours to endure a school day consisting of a full academic schedule, followed by hours of harshly graded arts training in the afternoon; then we straggled home as the sun was setting, schlepping backpacks crammed with enough homework to choke a hippo. I probably slept a combined total of 40 hours my entire first semester, and it is my ambition to never have to work that hard again. The LACHSA experience was a mix of punishing discipline and unbearably precious art-faggotry—kind of like Marine boot camp crossed with Cirque du Soleil.
I don't know if I can really convey how strange it was to turn on the TV at night and see your classmates guest-starring on Who's the Boss? and Moonlighting, to catch the guy from History in a Burger King commercial or the girl from Physics shaking her flawless booty in a Whitesnake video. A sweet girl I knew in my sophomore year was in Night of the Comet; two kids from my Spanish class starred in Baghdad Caf. The halls of LACHSA were full of extroverted and sometimes blindingly gorgeous young people, and jeez, if I hadn't had an inferiority complex before . . .
As I entered the school, I was going through a bad patch even by the usual standards of teenage heavy-metal goonboys. I was seethingly miserable and alienated, and in a normal school, I suspect, I would have gone all Columbine by November. Thank god LACHSA was not a normal school, but even so, my early days there were a dark time: I shambled through the happy halls, an incongruous creature in my clunky Frankenstein boots and Iron Maiden T-shirt. I didn't speak for days at a time.
And then Josefina came along.
I don't recall how we met, or how she became my girlfriend. Somehow we hooked up, despite obviously having little in common besides feeling ill-at-ease in our own skins. Josefina was chunky, which she pointed out often, apparently figuring she'd get the topic out of the way before anybody else could bring it up. I liked her a lot. She had some major smarts, and she was funny. And I saw her zaftig physique very differently than she did; Twinkies had been good to this girl.
Unfortunately, being with her meant pretending to enjoy her plays, which I thought were the worst things I'd ever read. Ever. Very anti-male and just achingly performance arty with lots of non sequitor declamations about women's autonomy and the oppression of her people and all that. Her characters spoke English and Spanish at random, with no provisions for translation provided, so if you weren't fluent in both languages, you were in for a memorably tedious evening at the theater. While I agreed with many of her essential points, to my eyes, her writing was all one endless screed titled My Angry Latin Vagina: One Girl's Lonely Struggle Against the Honkie Patriarchy.
I attempted to politely voice some of my criticisms, but really, it was impossible to discuss Josefina's work in any detail without betraying my abject distaste. So I tried to regard her plays as an unfortunate phase she would hopefully grow out of, perhaps not unlike how she regarded my mullet and burgeoning collection of Iron Maiden bootlegs.
I never imagined Josefina and I would get married and have a house full of little neurotics, but I thought things were okay between us until the wintry day when Josefina dumped my ass. The dumping itself was no fun, but worse than that was one of Josefina's stated reasons for splitting up, which repeated over and over again in my head for much of the '90s like a terrible mantra: she said I wasn't attractive enough for her.
Now, when you've got a face like mine, right on the border between exotically lovely and monstrous, you're never really certain what people think of your looks, and it can make you insanely insecure. Well, that's how it works for me, anyhow. And so when Josefina said I wasn't attractive enough for her, it stung like a motherfucker. The fact that she wasn't comfortable with her own looks and yet still felt she could do better than me, well, that stung like a grandmafucker. And then, after we broke up, when she hooked up with a guy who looked like a crossbreed between Stephen Hawking and Ric Ocasek? Well, the idea that I hadn't lived up to such lofty standards stung like a nephewfucker.
But for me the worst and weirdest aspect of the whole dumping was something that happened weeks later, just before the start of Christmas break. I came to think of it as the Confetti Story.
One morning, I was sitting at my desk, blearily oblivious from hours on the bus, waiting for first period English to begin. Josefina burst into the room, laughing giddily, and hit me square in the face with a big fistful of confetti. I sat there blinking shredded paper out of my eyes, not quite believing what had just happened. Then she skipped out of class, and I trudged off to the restroom; I tried to scrub as much confetti off as I could, but it had worked its way down the neck of my shirt, and by day's end, I was still finding little flecks of pink paper stuck in unwholesome places.
Years later, a mutual friend told me that Josefina had told her the reason she dumped me was actually because I took too much time away from her art; apparently, saying I was unattractive was "simpler" than the truth.
Hate? You have no freaking idea.
* * *
Nearly all of the kids I mentioned who were TV and movie stars while they attended LACHSA dropped out of the entertainment industry following graduation, taking up careers in real estate, marketing and septic-tank repair. Some promising talents ended up homeless, became strippers or vanished into an obscurity so total it was as if they'd been spirited away by goblins. Out of hundreds of kids who trained for years to become artists, kids who could sing like opera divas, dance like angels on the head of a pin, or play a guitar like they was ringing a bell, only a precious handful went on to have anything to do with the arts. And one of the few was Josefina, easily my least favorite person in the entire school. It seemed cosmically unfair.
Few jilted boyfriends get the opportunity to confront their ex-loves in print, and as a working film critic, I could. When I pitched it as a story to OC Weekly, it all sounded so strange I think my editors wondered if I had gone kind of nuts; so did I.
I contacted Real Women's press people and set up the interview, neglecting to mention my previous history with Josefina and hoping that once she heard my name, she wouldn't recognize it (fat chance); if she did, I had no idea if she'd cancel or go ahead and talk with me. The next order of business was to see the film and to try and view it with some semblance of critical objectivity. No small feat there, given the givens.
The film was getting rave reviews, but honestly, I'd figured it would whether it was any good or not. It's the kind of picture that usually gets a free pass from guilty, liberal critics. I went in knowing the film probably wouldn't be to my taste even if I'd never known Josefina, but I ended up actually kind of liking it. To be sure, it is a sometimes thumpingly preachy film, but mixed in with the sermonizing is a fairly lively tale featuring some engaging characters and terrific performances. Real Womenhas some serious flaws, but, much as I would have wished for the film to suck outright, it did not. I found myself liking Ana, the chubby, scrappy Josefina surrogate, the same way I'd liked the real Josefina so many years ago. And if I could find things to admire about the film, well, I guess it really must have something going for it.
As if the fact that the film existed at all wasn't surreal enough, there was also a romantic subplot that bore some suspicious similarities to our relationship. Jimmy, Ana's boyfriend, is a tall, gawky, sensitive-type white boy; he and Ana keep their relationship a secret from Ana's parents, knowing they would disapprove of their daughter dating a honkie. Jimmy attempts to amuse Ana with Spanish curse words he has looked up, something I know I did either with Josefina or another Latina I dated around the same period. There's a scene where Ana tells Jimmy she has made a list of things to talk about on their first date, something I've always done and probably told Josefina about. (That one's a stretch, but it is a strange coincidence.) Their entire first date actually gave me uncanny dj vu: Ana sneaks past her folks and meets Jimmy at a kooky Mexican restaurant, where Jimmy tells Ana she's beautiful and she boggles at the notion. If Josefina had another date that played so exactly like our first, I'd be stunned. On the other hand, there are aspects of Jimmy that are definitely not me: he's studying to be a teacher, he's more movie-star pretty than I shall ever be, and he relieves Ana of her virginity. (Is it improper to say in print that you didn't sleep with an ex-girlfriend?) I knew it was possibly just my ego talking, but frankly, I did see more than a little of myself in Jimmy, and it creeped me the hell out.
The day after I'd seen the film, as the appointed hour of my phone interview with Josefina drew near, I could hear my heartbeat pounding; it was like Keith Moon was living in my head. I set up the taping equipment, and then I picked up the phone and sat staring at it for a long time until finally my fingers leapt to life, seemingly of their own volition, and punched in Josefina's number. The line rang and rang and rang some more. I tried again to make sure I hadn't misdialed, but I got the same result. I tried again five minutes later—and then a few minutes after that.
I imagined Josefina hearing my name from her HBO publicist a few moments before our scheduled interview, assuming I was a stalker, and her sitting there now beside the ringing phone, her eyes wide with terror. Maybe she'd call the cops on me or something. I tried once more and this time got a cheery-sounding answering machine. I started to leave a message and got cut off (which seemed a tad suspicious to my already paranoia-wracked brain). I tried yet again, and this time the line was picked up, and I heard a voice I hadn't heard in 14 years.
"Hi," says Josefina's voice. "It's 3 o'clock already?"
It is about 3:20 p.m. Josefina sounds ill-at-ease, although it's hard to tell if it's just the standard weirdness at the beginning of any interview or something more. I ask if I'm catching her at a bad time, and she says no, but she just had a baby, and it's hard for her to keep track of time. Through the rest of our call, I can hear the sounds of her infant son in the background.
I ask her if my name sounds familiar, and indeed it does. I take the defensive step of assuring her upfront that this is a legit interview, that I'm not a stalker.
"No," she says, her breeziness sounding a little strained. "This is so great. It's so great that the movie's out there, and a lot of people from my past know what I'm doing. I've reconnected with a lot of people, so this is such a . . . treat."
A treat? That's hardly what I was expecting. At least she's not calling the cops.
I begin the interview with questions any journalist would ask. What was the process involved in the play becoming a film, etc. And for a time, it does sound like a conventional interview. I can hear Josefina's relief at this as she discusses bringing Real Women from the stage to the screen and the changes the project went through along the way.
But then I ask her a question about the vast difference in tone between one of her surrealist plays I read in the olden days and the realistic comedy-drama of Real Women, and somehow that faint invocation of our time together begins to crack the thin veneer of professionalism between us. Josefina tells me she's interested in doing more experimental work in the future, that next June, she's hoping to direct Add Me to the Party, a film that will have magical-realist elements. Of course, I'm barely listening as I wait to get to the stuff we both know is coming. Finally, I do.
"This could be entirely ego talking, but I did wonder: Is there any element of the Jimmy character that's based on, uh . . . our experience?" I can't quite make myself say me.
"No," she says with an inscrutable little chuckle. "It was another guy. It was a boyfriend after you."
My feelings a little hurt, I then tell her not to worry about sparing my feelings.
"No," she tells me. "You sound very mature. You sound like a very stable man."
She puts me on hold to tend to her baby, and there is a long stretch of tape that's nothing but background hum. Finally, I'm heard heaving a heavy sigh.
"Very stable," my voice says in the darkness. "That's me."
When Josefina returns, I begin to plead my case that Jimmy is indeed me. "There were definitely elements, when I was watching the film, when I said, 'Well, that's not me.' But there were other things where I thought, 'Well, that's sort of familiar.'"
"That's true," Josefina says. "You used to compliment me. You complimented me a lot, which at that time, I think, was kind of hard to take."
The conversation wanders into talk of mutual friends, including the friend who told me Josefina actually dumped me because I took time away from her art. I ask Josefina if that was true, and as I do, I don't quite manage to keep 14 years' worth of bitterness out of my voice. At first, Josefina's response is calm, but as she continues, it's clear the sheer weirdness of the call is starting to get to her.
"I actually wrote about this in an essay, about when I was trying to break up with you and you just wouldn't give up. I remember I was trying to get to class, and then you pulled at my hand, and I slipped and ended up skinning my knee."
"My god," my voice says on the tape. "I don't remember any of this."
Now a bitter edge begins to creep into her voice. "I started crying. You pulled me, and I remember you were very adamant, like, 'No! You're dumping me? No, you're not dumping me!' I was like, 'Gosh, I'm sorry.' I felt really bad. And then I fell, and all these people were watching us, everybody saw that you did that. You were very public."
As she speaks, the memory comes back to me. I remember the morning we'd been standing on the school steps between classes; I'd asked Josefina about getting together at lunch, and she was evasive and clearly uncomfortable. Then she announced she wanted to break up. While I was still reeling, she said she was late for class and started to leave. I remember the panic I felt as I realized the only person I knew in the entire school—almost in the entire world—was about to walk away for good and the anger I felt at how she could do this and then march off to algebra class 10 seconds later. I did grab her arm as she turned to go, not intending to hurt her, but she took a header off the steps and landed with a thump on the asphalt below. I remember the blood on her knee. I remember the way my stomach imploded as I realized a horrible situation had just gotten so much worse.
Now, so many years on, we're talking on the tape, and I can hear an ancient hurt rising in Josefina's voice. "I just said, 'You know, that's it.' I ran off to the women's bathroom, and you chased after me, saying, 'Oh, my God, I'm so sorry; I'm so sorry!' I went inside to a toilet stall because I knew you wouldn't leave me alone. The bell rang, class started, and you kept sending women in to come get me, to say please come out and you were very sorry. So, I waited, like, 15 minutes, and then you came in to the women's restroom. Do you remember that?"
I do—now. I remember approaching strange women and pleading with them to go in and talk to Josefina and my astonishment when a couple of them did it. I remember at a certain point beginning to somehow enjoy the absurdity and drama of the situation, the sheer awfulness of it (did I mention I was 16?). I remember deciding to go in after her because I couldn't see what I had to lose anymore.
When Josefina speaks again on the tape, she is stepping back from the memory, analyzing it clinically. "What it was, ultimately, was you were very co-dependent. You really wanted to be with me all the time, and I really, really enjoyed your company, and I thought you were so creative. But sometimes I felt intimidated by you because you were so tall. You were six-four with the boots on, and I think when you got angry with me . . ."
She doesn't complete the thought, but she doesn't have to.
"Yeah," I say, with a startlingly false laugh. "I was pretty psycho in those days."
"I just felt like you needed so much from me, and I couldn't give you all that. And I also felt like I didn't necessarily deserve all these compliments you were giving me; it's just that you desperately wanted love. And so I think the unattractive part was that you were very intimidating to me. I felt like if I didn't say the right words, if I wasn't so careful with your feelings, I'd see the wrath of you. That's what made you unattractive to me."
It's as if years of grime have grown over my memories, and now that it's all suddenly been wiped away, I am amazed and appalled by what is revealed beneath. I feel a ghastly pity for Josefina, for what she must have gone through that day, for all the resentment I've sent her way in the years since. I've always seen myself as the victim in our breakup, but while I still think she could have handled some things better (telling me I wasn't attractive to her did not get the job done any better than telling me she didn't love me would have), I see now that she was just a fucked-up kid herself, and if I backed her into the ladies room, demanding to know why she didn't love me, how can I really blame her for anything she said?
My long-cherished hatred for Josefina having dissipated in minutes, our conversation becomes actually casual instead of a pained attempt at casual, our laughs are genuine as we discuss her new baby, antidepressants (we end up agreeing that we were simply too psycho for each other) and the strange paths our lives have taken since last we saw each other. I ask her, not with envy but with genuine curiosity, why she thinks she's on the brink of such success when so many of her LACHSA brethren are now flipping burgers in downtown Palookaville. It's clear from her response she has given the issue some thought.
"I never felt entitled to anything," she says. "I came to this country as an undocumented person, and I never expected anything to be given to me. Nobody was writing roles for girls like me, and I said to myself, 'We can quit now or we can do something about it. If nobody's writing roles for large women, then you must write them.' Otherwise, go be a statistic because that's exactly where I'm gonna end up. People would expect me to get knocked up and on welfare. And so there was something inside me that said there's a need for more writers because it's not right that only pretty or skinny girls get to fall in love or have sex onscreen. There was this fury, and I think that's what has driven me. And I think a lot of artists go into the arts because they want love from an audience, and of course I wanted that, but I wanted something more. I wanted dignity and respect and to represent Latinos in a realistic way."
Shortly before we hang up, I make the mistake of delving back into the old murk one last time to ask about her side of the Confetti Story. For once, it's her memory that's failing, although she says it sounds like something she would do.
"I think it was because every time I saw you, you were so serious and intense. Comedy is about extremes. You were a tragic character, but there was something so comedic about how tragic a character you were. So when I saw you being so serious, it just made me laugh, and I wanted to say, 'Hey, smile—the world has not ended!' It was me trying to shower you with some magic."
Obviously her shower of magic didn't have the desired effect, but I can finally see that it was not the act of baffling cruelty I've always seen it as. At call's end, we wrap up some loose ends and part ways on good terms. I tell her I'm happy for her success, and I think I actually mean it. Will wonders never cease?
One of the valuable things about keeping a journal or having friends along with you on the journey of life, is that you can go back and get a different perspective on past events, perspectives that sometimes diverge astonishingly from how you remember things. So often you go back to find you were actually the hero in a story where you've always cast yourself as the villain, or you were a cad when you thought you were a saint, or you thought you were the star when you were just an extra, fit to swell the progress of a scene or two. Even the things you remember most vividly are nothing more than a few sparkles in a lump of meat inside your skull.
Josefina's version of our past isn't wholly true, and neither is mine, but between us, we seem to have pooled our sparkles of memory into a truth we can more or less agree on. I may actually go see Real Women Have Curves again, not just because my ex-girlfriend co-wrote it and because I'm maybe sorta kinda in it, but because Josefina seems to have blossomed into an actual writer, and I'm proud of her for how far she has come.
After all these years, I have put my arch-nemesis to rest by making her—in my mind, at least—into a friend. And in the end, isn't that the only way you can ever really do it?
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