The continuing story of the author’s love for his wife, Karen. It began when Robert was 9-years old, in the fourth grade in Yeshiva Flatbush. It’s a long story and this series will continue for—well, actually, I have no idea how long it will go on. I guess until I finish telling the tale.
I’m looking into the eyes of a perfectly decent man, and I’m thinking of challenging him to a duel. A duel to the death.
A half-hour earlier.
Karen and I have just seen a wonderful film, one of my favorites, Akira Kurosawa’s modern classic Rashomon, a tale that unfolds in multiple visual and moral dimensions. This masterpiece takes one violent episode, isolates it, and then tells the story from several points of view — in the process, exposing the vanity and lies that motivate the principal characters.
Never before in the history of film have flashbacks been used to such provocative effect. Ultimately, the 8th century Japanese landscape mutates into a complex moral fable in which the following questions are posed:
Who is telling the truth?
What is the truth?
What is a woman’s honor worth?
And in this landscape, a moral allegory unfolds where:
A husband’s love for his wife is tested, and a wife’s love for her husband.
Karen adores this film. Unlike The Seven Samurai, my very favorite film of all time, which bored her to tears, Karen is riveted by Rashomon’s relentless narrative drive. Its moral and psychological complexity suit her perfectly.
We have been going out for several months now. So close have we grown that I can actually read Karen’s body language even in the velvety dark of a movie theater. By her very breath I can tell if Karen likes a movie or wants to flee.
EXT. MANHATTAN, PIZZA SHOP – NIGHT
Karen and Robert have exited the movie theater. They WALK and TALK along Broadway, but we cannot hear their conversation.
An old fashioned musical interlude, perhaps Cole Porter’s Night and Day, indicates that this romance is blossoming. The lights of the city sparkle and glow like a modern fairy tale.
The happy couple halt at a kosher pizza shop.
INT. PIZZA SHOP – NIGHT
The usual suspects for a kosher pizza joint: A booth full of yeshiva high school BOYS grossly devouring pizza, pita, fries, and eyeing –
YESHIVA GIRLS –
Adorable in their identical long jeans skirts, lady-like nibbling at the edges of their slices and making a big deal out of not looking at the boys.
A YOUNG COUPLE –
with screaming babies in tow. He’s got his head buried in a Mishnah, and wifey is just barely coping.
KAREN & ROBERT –
are alone in a booth. Robert eats, while Karen sips tea. They smile at each other.
Robert: Boy, am I relieved.
Karen: And if I didn’t like Rashomon?
Robert: No biggie.
Abruptly, Karen’s attention wanders. She sees something off-screen, more precisely, someone, entering the pizza shop. Her expression changes. It’s hard to tell what she’s feeling.
Robert: You okay?
Karen: Someone just came in.
Robert turns, sees MAX, young modern Orthodox, brimming with self-confidence, Burberry raincoat jauntily slung over his arm.
Robert: Who’s that?
Karen takes a shallow breath, then:
Karen: We used to go out.
CAMERA MOVES IN ON ROBERT’s expression — as he desperately attempts to cover his shock and dismay.
Time seems to stop.
Robert puts down his slice. He stares at the oily film dripping from the pizza onto his finger. Suddenly, he’s no longer hungry. In fact, he’ slightly nauseous. Robert looks up again —
SLOW MOTION as Max makes his way to the front counter.
The Yeshiva Girls take notice. They whisper to each other and giggle. He is good looking. Tall, dressed in an expensive suit, Max cuts an impressive figure.
Robert: How long did you, you know, go out with him?
Karen: About six months. No, more like eight months.
Robert: Oh boy.
Robert: (brightening) We leaving?
Karen: I want you two to meet.
CLOSE-UP: ROBERT -
The last thing he wants is to meet Max. And so he takes a stab at Lame Tactic #1.
Robert: Actually, I’m getting a migraine, we should —
There is a brief duel of eyes.
No contest. Robert retreats faster than the French army.
Now, Robert watches helplessly as Karen steps over to the counter. Sensing Karen’s presence, Max turns. His expression immediately brightens as he finds himself face-to face with his old and very beautiful girlfriend.
Robert’s VOICE-OVER: He’s still in love with Karen. It’s soooo obvious.
Karen and Max chat, but Robert cannot hear what they are saying.
Max turns, looks directly at Robert.
ALL SOUNDS in the pizza shop abruptly FADE as the two men stare at each other. There is perfect silence as their eyes bore into each other like drills.
Gradually, we HEAR a rising THUMP, THUMP, THUMP.
This is Robert’s heart beating in his chest like a trapped animal. The dull thumping grows louder and louder as their eyes DUEL back and forth.
KAREN and MAX -
are standing over Robert who’s still in the booth, looking in Max’s direction. But obviously, a few moments have passed. Robert, ambushed in his emotional turmoil, has lost track of both time and space.
Karen: Robert, Max.
Max: Nice to meet you, Robert.
Robert: Um, yeah, you too.
There is an uncomfortable silence.
Max and Karen sit. Max picks up the thread of his conversation with Karen from the counter — which does not sit well with Robert.
Max: So Karen, the topic for your dissertation, you were saying?
ROBERT’S VOICE-OVER: Max is talking about Karen’s choice of topic for her doctorate. I haven’t had that conversation with Karen yet, sheesh…
CLOSE-UP: KAREN –
Smiling, as she explains to Max what she’s been working on. Her VOICE is but a murky undertone reflecting Robert’s hapless POV.
Robert’s VO: (cont’d.) Oh my gosh, she’s smiling at him. I know what’s happening here. Karen realizes that Max is better looking than I am, better dressed, better educated, has much more m
oney, far better prospects, and —
CLOSE-UP: MAX -
Robert’s VO: (cont’d.) — and she’s going to dump me. Oh my gosh, what am I going to do?
EXTREME CLOSE-UP – KAREN
Her face is softly lit and her beauty is just breath taking. Karen’s gaze moves away from Max, and now her eyes pin Robert with the most penetrating gaze this man has ever experienced.
Robert’s VO: (cont’d.) I know what I have to do. I’ll kill Max. But nicely! I’ll challenge him to a duel.
EXT. FOG SHROUDED VALLEY – DAY
For a brief moment, WHITE SCREEN, and then the whiteness shifts, for it is fog.
The thick mist parts to reveal:
Robert, clad in classic 18th century European military attire, is about to meet Max on a field of honor.
KAREN, in a flowing silk and taffeta gown, stands at the edge of the field, dabbing at tears. Helplessly and hopelessly, she watches this tragic duel of honor unfold.
Max unsheaths a frighteningly sharp sword. He unfolds a snow-white linen handkerchief, flings it up in the air, and with lightning speed–SWISH–with one wickedly casual flick of the sword, slices the handkechief in half
Robert’s eyes widen in shock. Max twirls his mustache and smirks.
Max’s SECOND, a rigidly proper and dignified aristocrat, approaches Robert to agree on the terms of the duel.
The Second speaks in rapid-fire FRENCH.
Robert: Hold it, I don’t speak French!
Robert: Did you know that Marcel Proust, this sickly, little effeminate French novelist, fought a duel of honor?
Our VIEW WIDENS to REVEAL that we are back in the PIZZA SHOP. Karen and Max look at Robert, both a bit baffled by what he’s just said.
Max: That’s really, um, interesting. Is that something you’re working on?
Robert: What do you mean?
Max: Well, Karen tells me that you’re a screenwriter. Is this a story you’re working on?
Robert: (obviously hostile) No, it’s not.
Another horribly awkward pause.
Karen studies Robert for a long moment; trying to gauge the level of his mental health.
Robert: When did Karen tell you that I was a screenwriter?
Karen: Robert, weren’t you listening, we just said –
Max jumps in, trying to save the moment.
Max: Movies. That sounds so interesting. Not like my work.
Robert: What do you do, Max?
Max: I — I just told you.
Robert: Right. So you did. I guess I drifted.
Max: I suppose that’s what you creative types do; you get inspiration and just get lost in your thoughts.
Robert: Actually, I never get inspired. I think of myself like any working shlub. I get up, go to work, grind away, and some days are good, some days are bad. The whole notion of inspiration is just romantic nonsense.
Max: Wow, had me fooled. Learn something new every day.
Robert’s VO: As hard as I try, and golly, do I ever try, I just cannot hate Max. He’s good and decent and even though I’m completely obnoxious he does not allow himself to be provoked. He’s a mature gentleman. Which really, really baffles me for I have to ask myself: why would Karen choose me over Max?
FADE TO BLACK
INT. PRIVATE STUDY – NIGHT
Robert sits in an easy chair looking directly into the CAMERA and speaks.
Robert: So I’m looking into the eyes of a perfectly decent man, and I’m thinking of challenging him to a duel. I don’t know what came over me. I mean, I know that Karen went out with other men before she met me. That was obvious, but it’s not something we ever talked about. It’s not something I ever thought about. They were faceless men who meant less than nothing.
But suddenly I was confronted with a real live breathing human being. And how do I react? Like a homicidal maniac. I want to, ahem, murder the poor man.
How not normal is that?
You know what happened after we left the pizza shop? Big fight with Karen? Nope. Long talk? Nope. Big interrogation on the part of yours truly? Wrong again.
Here’s what happened: nothing.
Max exited the pizza shop. Max exited our life.
I said: “Nice guy.”
Karen said: “Uh-huh.”
And we never spoke of him again. Ever.
FADE to BLACK for this is
Karen adds: The irony of Robert’s scenario is that we have spun our own Rashomon. I read the story, and I was shocked. I had no memory of the incident. I only recalled running into Max by accident on the street while I was walking on the Upper West side with Robert. We exchanged a few words and that was it. The human mind is scary.