Karen Alkalay-Gut

first appeared in Confrontation Magazine, 1992

"I'm sorry," I tell my agent before hanging up, "I just can't do another script like that." I've run out of ex-husbands, my kids still don't know how to explain this expose to their friends, and anyway I just don't have the motivation.

What my motivation really came from struck me only when I saw the whole program for the first time in the screening room. On paper, I was sure I had moved as far away from my own biography as a writer could. I'd made my husband into a judge (a lovely symbolic touch, I thought) moved my cousin out of our apartment building and into a flat across the street (I gave us a big cheery house) lowered our ages almost ten years, and accentuated his inexperience with women so that his leaving would be more understandable. Most important, I made her the aggressor in the relationship - the villainous plotter who wanted more than anything else to move up the social ladder, to escape her mechanic husband and the banalities of the blue collar existence, and take over the "successful" relative's life.

But the plot outline was still the same, and I was sure as I watched the screen that everyone who knew us would believe that I had been compelled to tell this warped little tale out of the enormous pain of this double desertion. Sour grapes. I told my agent then that I wanted to cancel the whole thing, but he went through the time honored spiel about contracts, investments and legal obligations, and reminded me that I could feel embarrassed all the way to the bank. That was when I realized: My real revenge would be to make a fortune on what they did to me. The story had been changed sufficiently so that no libel charges could stick, but it was just similar enough that he would look ridiculous to his whole clinic, and, most important, the kids and I would be out of the poverty his expensive lawyer managed to get me into. But I had no idea how popular the show would be. It was the first television work I'd ever done. Before that I'd had some freelance editing for a few documentaries...manufactured fairy tales to the kids to keep their mouths open during mealtimes...that's about it. I wasn't at all surprised when I got it back from the agent, but when I realized that he just wanted me to correct spelling errors and neaten it up, I was shocked. Who would have believed a pro like that would take me on when all I was doing was telling my pain?

It was just a short television play at first, but when the mail began pouring in, they decided to upgrade the cast and make it into a movie. I got to do the work on expanding the script, and when I added that peppering of intimate conversations between her and me, alternating between scenes of him and me, and her and him, I began to enjoy making bank on the tragedy they'd made of my life.

Most of it was true. I did go to her one day and confess that I was terrified my husband was having an affair. I actually asked her to watch for me, to see who the woman was. And she was wonderful, comforted me with the greatest pep talk - I'm paranoid, I'm scared to be left alone because I'm terrified of discovering myself, afraid I wouldn't amount to anything without a successful husband. "You're strong", she said, "You need something that would give you a feeling of independence, a career of your own. Then you'd forget these crazy ideas about your husband playing around." Ella, I'm a housewife, I remember answering her. I've had no training or experience in anything else. I've been taking care of him ever since I was eighteen. How could I possibly start thinking, at the age of thirty nine, of any other way of life? Besides, I added, after hearing so much about the dog eat dog world Roy was always complaining of, who wants it? And by this time in the script - when I'm crying to her about what a good friend she is - the audience knows that she's not only the one having the affair with him, but she's also been actively planning ways to detach him from me permanently. Jeannette O'Farrell plays that part really well - very straight, very sincere - no simpering looks over my shoulder to the audience. Like she really is my best advisor, my closest friend. That was the right effect - of situational sincerity instead of hypocrisy. It was really important to the film that she wasn't consciously deceiving her husband or me, the neighbors or the kids. She just had future plans that she couldn't talk about. That was one of the things in the movie that made it work. There were all these levels. Some of the marginal characters knew about certain aspects of her past and of his, but not other parts - and others knew about other aspects. So every one evaluated them differently - until the end. My mother, for example, knew all kinds of secrets about my cousin she never told me (in the play) for the sake of the family name. In real life she didn't know herself about the baby Ella had when she was sixteen until she sat at her sister's death bed. Then she raced to the nearest phone to call me. And now that Mother's dead, I'm not sure anymore if I didn't make up that story when I was writing the script - sounds too dramatic to be real.

The other thing that made the script work was the real-life documentation of our sex life. I wanted to show how a good relationship in bed degenerates to a point where one can't bear to be touched by the other, and to the other that touch is so important that rejection leads to hatred. That was why we interposed all those short bedroom scenes with the business of careers, friendship, household duties.

Though I guess you can't call them bedroom scenes. You see a hand caressing responsive skin. You know how skin gets softer, warmer, when it welcomes the touch, how the whole body strains toward that hand. That was all I wanted to show of our love making. And then his back. My hand on his back. The stiffening. I didn't show them making love at all. There are one or two kisses, but most of the scenes between Jeannette O'Farrell and Paul Greystone (who played Roy in the film version) are very verbal - vows of undying love, analyses of the situation, practical plans for the future. If you ask me that was what really clinched the film version. You never see the loving couple at love, only the one that is about to split. My favorite is that scene when Paul Greystone is on the bench, and he's got a case where a kleptomaniac is testifying in her defence, and the camera focuses on her boyfriend's face as he gradually understands that she's not only guilty, but she's a compulsive liar in everything. It's the day Greystone has told his wife that he's leaving him, and as he watches this woman on the stand, and her friend in the audience, he realizes he's been conned by O'Farrell, and you get these flashes on the screen of him in bed with his wife, but he knows he's gone too far and its too late.

My ex hadn't seen the television version, and no one really paid much attention to the credits, so when the program was aired, there wasn't any response from people we knew. When the film started getting reviewed in the Times, that's when the sparks flew. First, I got a call from his lawyer - the hot shot who got Roy off alimony. But I knew he couldn't do anything: he found that out after he made all those threats I so carefully recorded for possible future use. Then Roy's new wife called - to have a little talk with me about this nasty form of revenge I've taken. She confessed that they've had a hard time in the past year even without my creative endeavors. I've got that one down on tape too. It's a great moment, you can imagine. That sudden realization that I am past being moved by those who had almost destroyed me.

I call my agent back and invite him to lunch. My new place has this great sun drenched terrace I haven't had a chance to enjoy, and a celebration is long overdue. "Just because you're feeling better is no reason to stop writing." He says as the maid serves steaming apple pie, "Why not try a more reflective media?" He cuts me a slice and then one for himself. "How about a short story?"