Do you remember the movie Bedazzled, the 1967 satire with Dudley Moore and Peter Cook, or the more recent remake with Brendon Fraser and Elizabeth Hurley?
The movies are retellings of the Faust story, with a little bit of “The Monkey’s Paw” thrown in. A depressed loser (Stanley, played by Moore in original, then Elliot, played Fraser in the remake) sells his soul to the Devil (Cook/Hurley) in return for seven wishes. The Damned, as he is known in the agreement, intends to use the wishes to attract the woman he is in love with. The Devil deliberately misinterprets each wish, granting it literally but frustrating its intent.
So, Elliot wishes to be wealthy and important; the Devil transforms him into a Colombian drug lord. Stanley wishes to live a quiet life out in the country with his beloved; the Devil makes them both nuns in a remote convent.
With each wish, Stanley/Elliot becomes progressively more frustrated and unhappy.
For some reason, the incident that made the most impression on me, watching the original on late-night TV as a boy, was when Stanley wishes that he and the woman were deeply in love with each other, married, with kids. The Devil snaps his fingers, and the two are deeply in love with each other and married – but not to each other. Stanley is devastated.
The summer after I turned 17, long after I watched the original Bedazzled and long before the remake was released, my mother took a teaching job at a large state college in the Midwest, and I happened to meet, and develop an abiding fixation on, a colleague of hers. Let me use the name Jana for her, as I would like to maintain a soupçon of discretion; plus, although I remember her real name, I have long since forgotten how to spell it correctly.
Jana was a refugee from Yugoslavia, which had already begun disintegrating. She taught poetry, despite her shaky grasp of English, and she was engaged to another expatriate, a bulky, sullenly romantic Serb named Duško. My mother, perhaps egging me on, confided that Duško was diddling some red-headed teaching assistant from the English Department behind Jana’s back.
Jana was younger than my mother of course, but older than I, perhaps 30. Her age, her status as an older woman, made her unattainable; her exotic origin, her Balkan moodiness, and her indecipherable accent all made her glamorous. How could anyone not be smitten, let alone the lonely, maladjusted boy I was at 17?
Did she know? Did he? Surely, most couples in their 30s don’t have a teen-aged boy hanging around their house on any excuse; they must have suspected. I ask myself the question now and I asked myself then, and at the time I developed a theory. Duško didn’t know, because he was distracted by his own infidelity with the English Department tootsie, or for some other reason. Jana suspected my feelings and even returned them, but out of loyalty to Duško, gave no sign.
I should emphasize that I had no support for this theory other than the fact that it fed my fantasy. I would eat spaghetti at their table or lie on their couch and read aloud the poems that Jana recommended, and imagine I was participating in a love triangle out of Tolstoy or Victor Hugo.
I was totally secure in my fantasy, at one level, but at another I knew the truth. Happy as the romantic intrigue made me, I knew even then that it was all in my head.
One morning, I went over to her house, the cottage she shared with Duško. I don’t remember if I had an excuse or if I had decided I was a fixture of the household. When I got there, the front door was ajar, something new. I was about to knock anyway when the obvious struck me: she left it open for me.
Decades later, I cannot justify this insanity. Let me claim it was an extension of my conscientiously maintained delusion that she reciprocated my feelings. Yes, I was manufacturing the delusion from whole cloth and I knew it, but I am the easiest person in the world to deceive, especially when I’m the one doing the deceiving.
I staggered into the little living room, almost catatonic with desire and anxiety. She might not even be home. If she wasn’t, this was breaking and entering. If she was, she would probably respond to my intrusion with fear and righteous anger. She would never understand.
I could still leave, take the counsel of my fears, just go back to the front door, ring the bell. I went down the hallway to her bedroom.
She might not be there, of course, It was 10 in the morning, she was probably at work. Please let her not be there. No, please, be home, be in bed. Be waiting for me.
I felt dizzy and realized I hadn’t drawn a breath the whole time I had been in the house. My vision was getting blurry from the lack of oxygen. I tried to gulp some air, got a little.
Keep moving, the bedroom is there. It’s right there. The woman, the only woman in the world, is right though that door. Go on.
Quaking with fear, lust, and hope, I took the final steps towards the bedroom. The door was half open. Go ahead.
And she was there. Asleep apparently, sprawled artistically across her bed, naked except for a thin sheet twisted decorously around her middle section. Waiting for me.
What was this? I knew, I knew all along I was fooling myself, that she never had feelings for me, but this? This is beyond wishful thinking, this true insanity. Am I even here, in this house, her naked in front of me – or am I already strapped to a chair, mad and vacant-eyed, drooling from the Thorazine?
If this is the last flicker of a disordered mind then… what? Kiss her? Why not? It’s all imaginary. There she is, her glowing body, her angelic face. Kiss her. Still I couldn’t move and my thoughts were suddenly clouded by a brief high ringing whistle, the hallucination fragmenting.
She stirred. The sound stopped abruptly, waited, and began again. Again she stirred.
My foggy intellect cleared a bit: hallucinations do not wake up other hallucinations. That noise? That harsh ringing whistle? Yeah, that’s her phone. You’ve broken into the house of a family friend, and now the ringer on the phone is waking her up. She is going to catch you, call the police. Your life is ruined.
I stepped back into hallway before she could see me. I could hear her sit up, answer the phone, speak into it. It was all in the river-song babble of her native language; the only word I recognized was “Duško”, and she said with an affection that went through my chest like a spear.
10 years later, I had moved out to California and my mother lived only a few miles away. She called me: Duško and Jana were in town and they were coming over for dinner – Duško and Jana and their two small children. I recalled that my mom had told me the couple had gotten married a few years back, and that had been a twinge. I was married now myself, and we had a daughter of our own, and I felt that I was finally no longer a boy, no longer in love with her, mature enough to meet her as an equal.
So we went, me, my wife, and our daughter. I have almost no memory of that evening, although we must talked for several hours. The only thing I remember, and I remember it vividly, is standing out on the porch with Jana as the three children frolicked in the yard, playing tag among my mother’s tomato plants. I recalled then that scene from Bedazzled, where Stanley and the woman he loves are married, but not to each other; how miserable he was.
How would I have reacted if 10 years before, on the doorstep of that cottage in Iowa, the Devil had appeared and made me a promise, that a decade in the future Jana and I would be married and standing on a porch, watching our children play? Certainly, if given such promise, I would have been overtaken by happiness and hope, incandescent, consumed by joy.
And in the event, 10 years later, the unmade promise was fulfilled, literally but not in spirit, married, but not to each other. We stood there chatting. Duško trotted out to play with the kids, letting them climb his legs, dangling them upside down. Jana and I watched them. My wife joined us, carrying a glass of red wine for herself and another for Jana. She slipped her arm around my waist and the three of us stood comfortable and wordless in glow of the setting sun, the glow of friends and family.
And I was, I was consumed by joy.