Letter 14: “Little Expressionless Animals”

Dear Mr. Wallace,

Over the years, I’ve accumulated a variety of lesson plans that are perfect for “those” days.[1]  Most of these lessons involve a creative writing assignment that takes up the whole class period, keeps the students engaged and entertained, but requires little or no effort on my part as the teacher.  One such lesson has a handout for students that contains four boxes, each of which contains a list of essential ingredients for a short story.  One box has a list of character types, another has different settings, and so on.  The students pick a number between one and ten, then find that numbered item in each box, and then write a story containing those four items.  The students always seem to enjoy it, and it gives me a break from the dog-and-pony show.[2]

Reading “Little Expressionless Animals” reminded me of this assignment.  It had to be either random chance or pure creative genius that came up with such an eclectic menagerie of characters and situations.[3]  How else do you explain two children abandoned along the side of a country road, a lesbian couple trying to find their true feelings and intentions toward each other, Alex Trebek free associating on his therapist’s couch, a spiteful woman taunting her husband’s ex-wife, and a reigning “Jeopardy!” champion being ousted by her autistic brother… all in the same thirty-page story?

And yet it all worked flawlessly.

What really drew me into the story, though, was Julie and Faye’s (the lesbians) relationship.  Throughout the story they seemed to be living in this strangely ironic illusion of intimacy.  The first time they are introduced as a couple,[4] they are making love in Faye’s window-walled penthouse apartment.  They are physically exposed to each other and to the world that is outside those glass walls.  Yet in the midst of this physical intimacy, they share very little of themselves.  Their conversation is limited to small talk about vague abstractions and generalities.

The next scene of them together finds them sitting on a nude beach in Los Angeles.  As they watch the surf, Julie explains the three phases of relationships: a transition from exchanging anecdotes to an expression of personal beliefs to a marriage of beliefs and actions.  Apparently, Julie and Faye are still in the “exchanging of anecdotes” phase after twenty months of being together.  Again, physically exposed to each other and to the world, they talk mostly in abstractions.  But Julie does share about her autistic brother and her dedication to taking care of him as they grew up.  Toward the end of the scene, they tell the other that they love each other for seemingly the first time. 

This scene, too, is riddled with irony.  Once again they are physically exposed, but neither is exposing much beyond her body.  Julie shares stories from her past, but they are just that – stories.  They say they love each other, but are still – according to Julie’s own standards – in the beginning phase of their relationship.  There seems to be no real intimacy beyond the physical.

As Julie’s fame begins to grow,[5] she can only venture out in public in disguise.  Her hair is already short, so men’s clothes and a fake mustache seem to be enough to hide her from fans.  In one particular scene, she and Faye go for a walk and have perhaps the most personal and intimate conversation of their relationship to that point.  Faye seems to be struggling with whether she is truly a lesbian or just strangely attracted to Julie. Grappling with her sexuality comes out in her asking Julie how to respond to questions of why she is attracted to women.  Faye is showing genuine fear and concern as she wrestles with this part of her life, seeming to be entering the second phase of a relationship.  Julie, instead of engaging in this soul-searching with her partner of many months, gives her some easy answers: ones that require little honesty and invite few questions.

Once again, the irony of the moment strikes me.  The couple is fully clothed – Julie is in disguise – and they are now finally having a truly personal conversation of real substance.[6]  But it seems to be only Faye who is actually revealing anything of herself in the conversation.  She is verbalizing her internal struggles and the external consequences of those struggles.  But Julie is deflecting her questions, and advising Faye to do the same when asked the questions she fears will come her way.  Perhaps this points to Julie’s own insecurities; Faye is attempting to take the relationship to a deeper, more intimate level, but Julie seems to be resisting at this point.

It is not until near the end that Julie catches up to Faye and is willing to reciprocate the vulnerability that Faye shows earlier in the story.  Right before Julie is to make her final appearance on “Jeopardy!” she tells Faye she has another story to tell people if they ask her why she is attracted to women.  Julie then tells the story of being abandoned as a child on a deserted country road by her mother and mother’s boyfriend.  Through this conversation, they venture together into that third phase of the relationship in which beliefs and actions are one.  They see each other for who they truly are.  Both are willing to be real, to be intimate.

As before, what takes place between these characters is ironically juxtaposed with their surroundings.  Julie is in the make-up room about to go onto the “Jeopardy!” set.  It is while fully clothed and made-up and in a very public setting that this couple shares their most intimate moment.

Julie and Faye’s story got me thinking about the ideas on intimacy and relationships.  The story begins by showing them being physically intimate with each other, yet very distant and impersonal.  As their relationship becomes intimate on deeper, more personal levels, they become physically separated by clothes and make-up and even disguises. 

This seems very backward to me.[7]  But it seems to be the status quo.  We seem very willing to be physically intimate with someone we hardly know,[8] yet we keep secrets from those who are closest to us.  Why is that?  Why do we willingly accept this illusion of intimacy, and yet keep those who want to know us on a truly personal level at arm’s length?

[1] “Those” days being the Friday before Christmas or Easter Vacation; or a day after the end of the unit, but there is only a day or two before the end of the quarter so there isn’t time to begin a whole new unit; or a day that I just don’t feel like teaching.

[2] And a chance to update my Facebook status.

[3] My money is on the pure creative genius.

[4] Julie – although unnamed at the time – is introduced in the opening paragraphs as one of the children who is abandoned with her brother by their mother and her boyfriend.

[5] She is the aforementioned reigning “Jeopardy!” champion who is eventually ousted by her autistic brother.  The ousting turns out to merely be an exploitative publicity stunt on the part of the producers.

[6] Why do they have to be clothed to have a real conversation?  Why do their physical intimacy and depth of conversations share an inverse relationship?

[7] But that could just be my conservative, traditional, Judeo-Christian upbringing.

[8] All it takes sometimes is some alcohol, a hot tub, and a reality show cameraman to get two people in the mood.


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