Joyland

a hub for short fiction

An Old Songwriter's Trick

The week Owen left New York was one of sweltering humidity reaching down to enrapture us, swaddle us, leave us all reaching for insufficient comfort. We assumed Owen was alone in the task of loading a truck, of carting boxes and disassembled furniture down flights of stairs and into a double-parked van. It was a week of sweat-stained shirts, of dodging brownouts, of foregone conclusions about the city and about what constituted comfort demolished. Owen was leaving us, and few among us were sad to see him go.

            I heard about his solo conveyance after the fact and I had found myself imagining Owen hit by heatstroke, felled by dehydration. I remember changing shirts twice daily, remember pulling an inflatable mattress into my living room in order to sleep closer to the air conditioner. I would have liked to have shown concern for Owen; would have liked to have offered something akin to forgiveness. But the significant strand of forgiveness wasn’t mine to offer, and so Owen evaporated onto the open road, bound for the west.

            Even now, it wouldn’t be fair to Owen to say that his talk of grants was a cure for insomnia in our social circle. In lost row houses, if a host had thought of an early night, one might pose the question to him: what was your budget for the last one? Did one film really pay for the next? Was it the same patrons and state agencies gracing you from work to work? Owen was always talkative, and had never, in conversation, learned how to summarize. His films? Entirely different, and wonderfully dense: ninety, even eighty minutes, revealing condensed stories rich in detail. One particularly florid critic adjusted an analogy to deem him a cinematic molecular gastronomist: a full meal thickened with Ultratex and swallowed from a shot glass. A trilogy with end credits rolling before the hundred-minute mark.

            Late one night, Ken and Eva’s window open, their wedding rings still unexpected. Owen pulling vodka and teasing us with hints of his next film. Already written, he said, and shooting in forty days. Cast? we asked. Of course. Ken’s hand on Eva’s shoulder, idly kneading skin. Owen’s eyes adrift as an old jazz record played, floating from the couple shy of necking to isolated cars passing on the boulevard outside. Two trucks, a van, a dozen taxicabs. I was happy to be wallpaper for this one: telephoning in to their interactions, watching body language and private languages and old references overturned like wild cards.

            Owen, Eva, me: all of an age. Adjoining collegiate meetings, with myself as fulcrum, and myself as observer as Owen stood bewitched. And me as Owen’s confessor over the years that followed: six hours of bourbon and him telling me about how he still thought of her, about how he wanted to say something, that he believed in a kind of destiny, that he had spent too long with expectations of a union with Eva and too little actually accomplishing how he might speak certain words unto her. And me as skeptic, and me as the sometimes brutal realist, the one to look Owen in the eyes and say, it’s not as though you’ve been a monk since the two of you met.

            And it was true: even if Owen and Eva were properly star-crossed, each of them had found their own successes in dating. Owen’s longest stretch out of college had been with Alyce, who had broken things off to move north in search of composition and chords and a proper tonal space. Eva dated scientists and rock drummers in equal measure. I watched and considered charting the patterns of their paramours, idly wondering what these shapes might become, what that dance might resemble.

            Owen’s first film had seen release around the time of Ken and Eva’s first meeting. We took the train out from Brooklyn to a ninety-seat theater, now shuttered, on East Second Street. Neither Eva’s first time seeing it nor mine, but the first outside Owen’s own confines. For subsequent films, he withdrew. He would say: I’d rather you waited. It’s like a gift on Christmas morning. And we nodded, and we waited, feeling somehow less unique, more shuttered.

            Owen’s pace amazed, and another dance developed: as his films progressed, so too did the bond between Eva and Ken. Cohabitation to engagement to matrimony. Owen joked one night—whiskey-fueled, of course—that his latest film would coincide with the happy couple’s first child. (By my own observation, it was not—at least, slender Eva showed no signs of showing, and there had been no announcement from either partner of coming children.)

            But what of Ken? I never heard just how he and Eva had met. He had come later, come unexpected one night, shown up at a bar where the rest of us had gathered and had shaken our hands in turn. Ken struck us—this consensus emerging over after-hours beers several nights later—as fundamentally decent, as interesting, someone we would be happy to share drinks with, someone who might bypass the usual awkwardness associated with the newfound significant others of old friends.

            A memory of us at nineteen: Eva with fake ID and Owen at a close distance; that smitten quality clear to me even then. Or is it all in retrospect? Eighteen months later: getting cheap dinner before seeing a Versus show in the East Village when Owen decided to spill. The end of our matriculation was drawing close. Soon after I’d split with Marie (Queens-born, devoted to architecture) without much closure. I found myself leaning in to Owen, trying to get Owen to prompt me towards action. I wanted that closure, wanted it badly, and I wanted to be moved to attempt something foolhardy, something that might prompt a slap, a full definition of why things had gone wrong, why things had ceased.

            We sat across from one another, our barrier a row of cheap Mexican food that we’d come to abandon as we grew older, after Owen went out west for a year and returned bearing knowledge, bearing a sort of authority that allowed for him to lead us—me and Eva and assorted significant others, sometimes three of us and sometimes six, but never less than the one or more than the other—on outings on which Owen pledged to educate us. It was a thrill, that expansion.

            Back to college, though—back to the contracted days of erratic GPAs and dry panic. Me and Owen; the restaurant, the anticipation of bitter chiming pop songs. “Well, fuck it—at least you dated someone for a while,” he said. And thus, he spilled. Near-misses and one long road trip they’d gone on a year before. “Entirely secular,” he said, and continued on. I let it go. And yet: a long drive from Cleveland to Toronto, overlong, a subdued moment when they decided to find a cheap motel for the night. Owen told me he chose the floor and a blanket, citing chivalry; Eva looking at him for a while and then saying Okay.

            “Well, you couldn’t have said anything then,” I told him.

            “I know,” he said, “but still.”

            This wasn’t the only night of awkward pauses the two had shared. Their own particular dance was an elongated number of false starts, misdirected odes, unread signals that had lost their charge. Owen seeing Eva out one night on a date gone horrible awry. Owen himself on a date gone awkward, glimpsing Eva sitting at the bar alone, telling me he suddenly wanted to either draw her in or go to her himself. “This charge,” he said. “This charge I feel whenever she’s in a room.” We talked about it for a while, missed most of the show, closed out the night drunk in a friend’s apartment, all of us unconscious by dawn.

            The dance went longform in the years after college, Owen’s pining interrupted by his own relationships or out of deference to Eva’s. But still, his inquiries persisted, even when he was living elsewhere. “How’s Eva doing?” easily translatable as “Is Eva single?” or “Has she mentioned me at all? In passing? In certain coded references?” It grew shameless. For someone who could wrangle film crews and funding sources to make his own unexpected cinematic statements, it struck me as bizarre that he’d never been able to speak evenly with her about his own feelings. Then again, perhaps that was a groove worn too deeply, a routine too comfortable for him to extricate himself from. And then came Ken, and smiles and handshakes and hugs at the wedding.

            For us, the first film was novelty. Scratch that—Owen’s student films had been novelty. The last of them, a horror pastiche in which an undead Karl Marx chased a shrieking Joseph Stalin through the halls of the Kremlin, had put some eyes on Owen, but he had veered unexpectedly from that film’s satire and pastiche towards the contemplative, the philosophical, the untethered from tradition. Owen lived in Los Angeles for a little while and then returned back to familiar streets and sidewalks, plans rattling and theories poised to leap from pockets. His script was assembled in short order; a producer found, Rhoda, who would occasionally accompany us on our nights of singles’ lamentation.

            And then he was gone, away for three weeks deep in New Jersey, shooting his first feature on the sidewalks and in the storefronts of a sparse Shore town in the off-season. Owen always moved quickly. Maybe it was Rhoda who prompted the speed; maybe it was something else.  He came back stringy, tapped out: a marathon runner strung out on bad drugs, irritable and tenacious, fond of neverending laps around a circuit of bars, sometimes extending until six or seven in the morning. I was single then; I was his accompanist on long tears and exultant denunciations of popular trends. He would edit at his computer until near collapse, would call; we would restore Owen with whiskey and go forth into the night. And after weeks of this, feature one was done.

            Allied was the original title, and Allied was how I still thought of it. A surreal revenge film, half dreamt, set on the back roads of a seasonal town. The characters took long walks through shuttered shopping centers, gathered gangs to purposes amoral, built themselves new drugs. Images still call out to me: Owen’s lead rising from a mud-filled footpath, eyes bloodshot, looking like something elemental, like something long divorced from humanity. A murder implied simply through a shift in color. One moment of tenderness extended, dissected and rendered transparent.

            Owen finished his work and Rhoda began her work again, summoning craftsmen for a new project of Owen’s; one that had been nascent during the making of Allied but now seemed eager to hasten its birth. It was a delayed spring, a fermata season, and I savored the walkable city. Owen showed me his screenplay one night: a haunted film about the search for a lost jazz musician, titled Queensbridge. I told him I’d read it and let it sit. Somewhere during the audition process, Owen met Cooper, and not long after that I met her as well.

            The first time I saw Cooper Staros was at the end of a rehearsal day. Owen had called me in the afternoon, suggested that I meet him with some of his cast for drinks afterwards. It was a suggestion to which I was amenable. I waited outside the building in with Owen had rented space: a converted industrial building, gone over to artists’ lofts and small offices. Owen emerged ragged; Rhoda, not far behind, looked on the verge of hallucination. The cast looked similarly haggard, shirts askew and hair untethered, as though Owen had been presiding over orgy or ritual rather than recitation from printed scripts. Cooper was one of the last to emerge, and she looked simply austere: hair pulled back neatly, a simple black shirt, a long skirt below. She looked ready for a formal evening, either as participant or observer: the elegance for one and the perception for the other. Her eyes glanced around, taking in everything around her, a dozen snapshots in an instant. She broke from the group, approached me, extended her hand. “You must be Aaron,” she said. “I’ve heard about you.” I was, in less than a moment, taken. And I hoped that the tapering spring might never end.

 Late nights at bars. Sometimes with Cooper, sometimes with Owen; never with both, Owen citing a reluctance to become the third wheel and us acquiescing. I’d later find that he spent those nights at a wine bar sitting opposite Eva, strictly platonic, in those months before Ken. He told me about it: he would sit there looking at her, Eva’s attire casual and Owen aiming for an unlikely restoration, sometimes wearing a shirt bought at a hip vintage shop two doors down. Owen wanting to look fresh, wanting to seem alert, he later said. He told me that it felt like the outline of a date: each of them single, each of them wondering what the other might do.

            I told him he was seeing things that didn’t exist.

            He told me that he wanted to say something to her some night. When the time’s right, he said. I’ll know it then, he said. He wanted to do this before the film started shooting, before he headed into that cloud of longer nights, that dreamstate he alluded to, those weeks when every perception would be devoted to inquiries of his own work.

            So say something, I told him. When it feels right, he told me. Fucking tell her then, I said.

            It’s like we’re already in the rhythms of the date, he said. Like I just need to say the right thing to make it real.

            Somewhere in there, eventually, Eva met Ken. The new guy she’d begun dating, related across the wine-bar table to Owen. Pale seeping into Owen’s face; Owen telling me that he felt the urge to shout, to say something, to make an impractical declaration.

            Then why didn’t you? I asked him.

            The way her face looked, he said. She’s happy; I can’t argue with that. I shook my head; said that if he was going to do it, he should do it.

            She’s happy, he said. Shit, he said, and got a particular sort of smile on his face, the kind of look I imagine prison athletes get on ersatz ballfields after hitting a double. This is probably the guy she’ll marry.

            Two days later, Owen was off shooting Queensbridge.

            If Cooper wasn’t the lead in this film, she was close to it. On the set daily, her work long and exhausting. Some nights I’d try to meet her near set or soundstage. We’d  go looking for a bar nearby—a place that approximated a dive without actually being one. Sometimes we lucked out; other nights we’d call a car or hail a cab and end up at her apartment.

            Nights gone narcotic, drum-roll talks on the couch. I’d generally be wired, deli coffee in hand as I boarded the subway to meet her. My daytime anxieties clustered: in the long view, that I struck her as somehow unexciting. In the short view, I shuddered that I might yawn in her presence on one of those nights, that my own exhaustion might offend.

            On those mornings after, I’d generally wake to Cooper’s apartment empty, her call time an hour or so before I was required at work. She never commented on this; only asked me one night, before we slept, to close the windows after waking.

            The walls abounded with neatly-framed screenprints; the curtains that hung in the windows were an aquatic blue. The wind that drifted in that autumn allowed them some quiet motion, and on a handful of mornings I took my coffee and allowed myself to be fascinated by them.

            The prints looked artisanal, looked handmade, looked just slightly askew that I found myself wondering who had made them; if I could become their advocate. There were two prevailing styles in the half-dozen that adorned Cooper’s apartment. I wondered where she had purchased them; if they had come from New York, if they had been purchased before her move here, conveyed here in moving van or station wagon. I’d always meant to ask Cooper about how she’d arrived here: whether she’d come to the city to act or been beckoned by some other calling.

            Not long after that, on one of her off-nights from Queensbridge, we went out for dinner with Eva and Ken, and Eva raised the question. An answer flowed; a whole history unknown to me, up until then. Cooper’s own narrative, slipstream to mine. Where we—this nucleus of Owen and Eva and me—had taken things for granted, she had not. Cooper had come of age in a seasonal town and in a seasonal economy, and she spoke of that in quiet tones. “I don’t think any of you grew up used to lean months,” she said in a quiet voice.

            The rest of us shook our heads.

            “Yeah,” she said. “It’s a rough sort of thing. But it also helps, learning to live on a little. Helps make the good times last that much longer.”

            Owen, drunk, leaned in and considered. “I was vegetarian for a while. And, you know, it helps.” He pointed at Eva and Ken and me. “These fuckers, they tell me I should eat burgers. And I eat burgers. But I can go without.” He looked at us; the sounds of the bar sliding slowly across each of our faces, and his own face suddenly showing regret. His own face resembling that of a child who’d just pissed himself. “I’m sorry,” said first to us all and then addressed directly to Cooper. A pause, and then: “I’m going to go.” And he stood then, leaving behind money to cover his part of the tab, and walked out of the bar still steady on his feet.

            I heard from Cooper that he was on set the following day with no evidence of hangover. “That was the day he looked at things,” she told me. “As though he was studying...everything. Faces and surfaces and textiles. Everything else was the same, but—there were pauses in there, like he’d been slowed down a bit.”

 That was the other thing about Owen’s films: after the first, we knew nothing about them until a cut was readied, and sometimes later. “I want you to see them fresh,” he told me once. “Not knowing about what I was attempting; not with an eye towards what the ideas were two months ago.” And, in conversation, Eva and me: the theory that Owen enjoyed some part of his life for which the bulk of his work wasn’t at the center.

            Somewhere in there, I’d felt more central. Owen at twenty and me at twenty; him handing me a stack of papers, the burnt-vegetable smell of computer-lab toner on them, later transferred to my thumb and palm. That flash of remembrance, of late nights of critique, typed in white text on a sparse black terminal. Drinking wine with Cooper and Ken and Eva, our conversation moving on to restaurants and transit slowdowns and underused city beaches. That flash, thinking of Owen, wondering what his process was now. Wondering whose opinions were now solicited as he wrote, as he considered projects; wondering how old or new these ideas were: concepts that had occupied space in his mind since college, since his time out west, since his return to this coast.

            Another memory—and here I was getting distracted from the conversation before me—of springtime New York, of Owen with a surplus Soviet camera—a Krasnogorsk, finding odd framings and making corners of the city his own. The front door of Under Acme not long after dawn and motorcycles lined up on East Third and a parking lot, half tumbleweeds, its same outline now rising twenty stories above the same sidewalk. Owen’s pockets of isolation, and me along for the conversation, coffee-fueled rapid associations, tales of chambered nights and unending parties.

            “So these are crime scene photos,” I said with a grin, and Owen laugh was two blocks long. At laugh’s end, a grin gone askew that seemed missing its wink. Owen told me once about his purchase of the wind-up sixteen-millimeter camera; of his plan to trickle in silent footage of cemeteries and shuttered doors, to assemble something of salable size in a way no-one had before. I nodded and offered to help where I could. Instead of a surreal contemplative picture, Owen would bring in his undead Soviet-era comedy nine months later. I wondered later if he’d gone for the uncomfortable laughs in order to reach for depth later. Either way, his rotted Marx and shrieking Stalin was the last screenplay of his I read prior to cameras rolling.    

Queensbridge made and submitted to festivals, Owen took about half its cast and a pair of up-and-coming bands and shot a short, a half hour in length. “You making a pilot?” I asked him, and he glimpsed at me, past me, over my shoulder.

            “No, I’m not. It’s a short film. A short film is all.”

            Something was different in this one. Oracles, Owen called it. The lead of Queensbridge reappeared in this as, essentially, a stand-in for Owen, a filmmaker awkwardly mingling with musicians in newly-hip neighborhoods. Owen had shot it covertly, largely with handheld cameras and a minimal crew, sometimes at shows that those bands had been playing. One of the groups had worked with his onetime paramour Alyce and, lo, there was one of the bands in Oracles confronting the lead about a shared acquaintance. And, seven minutes later, the same band turning on a dime and railing against him.

            I’d accompanied Owen to some of the locations where the film had been set; had seen some of these same shows, had been his confessor. “Those guys?” he’d said, gesturing at the band stopping mid-set to tune. “Made an EP with Alyce a couple of months ago. Weirds me out.”

            Cooper’s role in the film was confined to one scene—a lengthy one in which she chastised the protagonist for a long string of blackout-drunk nights. A shoestring crew shot the scene, Owen later told me, just after dawn in a small Brooklyn park, Cooper’s exhortation awakening dormant inebriates on nearby benches. Owen stifled the beginnings of a grin as the story was told.

            Once the night’s music had ended, Owen and I retired to a nondescript bar, ordered bottled beers, found a booth in which to convene. I looked across at him. He had his recovering face on, skin inching up from sallow and bags below eyes on a slow retreat. His fingers idly plucked at the bottle’s rim, and he had made little progress through it. I had just begun to pose a question, my hand taking an interrogative shape, when he excused himself. “Gotta go,” and he pointed towards the men’s room. I nodded and went back to work on my beer.

            He stepped back out a few minutes later and rejoined me.

            “What’s the next one about?” I asked.

 Owen looked at me, then clapped one hand on my shoulder. “It’s honest,” he said. “It’s the most no-bullshit thing I’ve done. I took a lot from...me with this one.” He pulled his hand back, shook his head. “I shouldn’t even be talking about it.”

            It was Cooper who told me the working title. Expressway, she said, and later confided that she believed, then hoped, that Owen might change it. “Like the song,” she said that night,” and when I told her I didn’t know what she meant, she sung it. “Expressway to Your Heart,” an obscure hit from an earlier generation, one that hadn’t been in the record collections of parents or predecessors.

            I remember Cooper looking especially austere during that shoot. Hair pulled back, impeccable. Fourteen-hour days, still alert at the end. Her seventh day, though: exhaustion. Late mornings in bed steady through to the afternoon. Those days, I hoped the smell of noontime coffee would suffice; I cooked eggs and let the scent coat the walls, let it make this unsteady drywall apartment feel like something secure, something stable. “The mountain retreat,” Cooper called it once, and I smiled.

            Six weeks of shooting, Sundays off. A quartet for most of those afternoons: me and Cooper and Eva and Ken. A quiet bar near their place, and the four of us in a booth near the front, the fading autumn light leaning through windows like an elegy for the year that had been.

            Cooper was at the bar and Ken was talking with friends at another booth when Eva leaning in towards me. “Owen was by the apartment a couple of months ago,” she said, her voice taut. I thought of implications and felt guts invert, face go pale and cold. I managed only to cough out the word “Like,” and Eva shook her head furiously. “No, not like that,” she said. “I still don’t know what to make of it.”

            “Was he sober?” was my first thought to make it to words. “Not to say that he’s problematic in that area,” and she quieted me.

            “I don’t know,” she said. “He was frenetic. He stopped by, said he wanted to talk. And, why not? Not like we haven’t talked before. Not like we can’t be civil. It was good to see him, honestly—nice to see him in person, outside the rhythms of a group.” She looked away for a second, and I knew she was gauging the arrival times of Ken and Cooper.

            “It was a mess, basically,” Eva said. “Owen walking around the apartment, just talking about memories, things we’d done. This weird rundown of our history. I wanted to tell him—asshole, I know all this! I was there!” What came next wasn’t a laugh as much as it was an impression of one, a placeholder invoking some dry-spell take on humor.

            “He was throwing out event after event, and just letting them hang there. As though he wanted me to make some conclusion. It felt like a final exam where passing meant you had to fuck your proctor.” Again, the half-laugh. I stayed flat, hoping my face looked as empathic as I wanted it to look; hoping against hope that nothing strayed, that a corner of my mouth might not slip into a smile, that I might not misread these gestures implying humor for actual humor, that I might not cast sympathy to the wrong place or ascribe motives or reception incorrectly.

            “What happened?” I said. I was unsure of what to expect: I considered the timing and noted that Owen declaring his love was likely but that it was less likely to have been successful. I assumed that Eva was not here to tell me of a tryst, was not here to tell me of the dismantling of her marriage. But I had also seen Eva and Owen be civil, even friendly, in the months since the meeting that Eva now described. I assumed that nothing had been made irreparable; alternately, I considered that I knew less of my closest friends than I’d thought, and a quiet despair settled into my odd spaces.

            “He shook it off, I guess,” Eva said. “After he talked at me for a couple of hours, we settled into an old rapport and things felt normal again. We talked a little bit about his short film and about his ex out west.” Her face looked like mourning. “He said something like, when I’m dating someone, the four of us should find someplace to go for the weekend.” She shook her head. “Which I guess would be Ken and me and Owen and some theoretical girlfriend.” Her face brightened, and Cooper arrived with drinks in hand. “And that was it,” Eva said. Cooper sat beside me and the conversation turned calmer, turned quieter, Cooper’s presence stabilizing it and leading it to places with which neither Eva nor I was familiar. The panic flowed slowly from me, and by night’s end a sort of equilibrium had returned.          

I did see Owen sometimes, nights after the shoot had finished. At one point, Cooper had suggested I see him. “He looks shaky,” she told me. “I don’t know why. You should buy him a beer.” The city was ushering in winter: decorations in shop windows, Manhattan’s sidewalks suddenly deeper, harder to walk. Mulled wine listed on bar-wall menus.

            Owen on the phone, explaining a postponed night of drink: “We’re accelerating. Need to finish this before the cold sets in, before we lose the seasons.” Owen sounding frenetic—the voice of someone chased in a nightmare. Later came the context: a shoot arranged over time; scenes of ostensible springtime, and Owen’s fears that they might be marred by a stray December snowfall.

            “I’m burning the midnight oil, Aaron,” he told me, shoulders adrift with that selfsame snow, stepping into a bar in expressway’s shadows one night, the hour nearing one. Glances around the space. I stepped out of the booth to get the round; a woodwork canopy, high-backed benches and a table placed a little too low to allow the space to find familiarity. House pints, four dollars apiece, and back to the booth to find Owen gone. Few minutes later, Owen back from the bathroom, hands still wet, easing himself in. A long sigh, then the apology. “You didn’t think I’d gone running, did you?” Owen’s apologies were never apologies. Half the beer down in the first sip.

            “You all right?” I said.

            His laugh in response was confident, even stirring. “I’m good,” he said. “Seeing how this film is becoming—it’s helping me get some things figured out.”

            “That’s good.” No real idea what he meant. Owen was drinking faster now, and the pace of our rounds accelerated. Owen’s gestures blurred; I remember of what I said, save a few nods of the head and an occasional affirmation. Owen’s speech accelerated, certain phrases drifting off from it and lodging themselves in my mind. “Alchemical wedding” was one. “I’m seeing what I can overturn inside my head” was another.

            We closed the bar out on a Wednesday night. Parted ways below the BQE, Owen bounding into a car service sedan and me starting the slow walk home, the realization that a shortened night’s sleep and a hazy day of work awaited me. I thought about phoning Cooper the following night, to make sure that Owen had been bearable on-set, but decided against it. It seemed wiser to not leave Cooper with the impression that I was a bad influence on her director, and so I resolved to sleep early, to stay rested, to allow for better care of all those around me.

            Word came that Owen had finished shooting; word came that a rough cut had been readied. I asked him about the title. “I don’t have one yet,” he said. “Maybe Motorway—it’s the name of a bar in the film, where a lot of it’s set.”

            All right, I told him.

            “It’s a weird one, this project. More personal than anything else I’ve done.” Which intrigued me just enough to want to ask Cooper about it. Still I thought back to the agreement we’d made early on, that I not ask her about her work—especially not her work with Owen. Seemed like too much of an overlap—the establishment of one too many connections between worlds.

            We’d sat at a bar, getting an afternoon drink, on the day we discussed it. Cooper was flawless, hair neat, her odd precision always present. That might have been the time I’d said that she was cheating on me with acting, and she’d laughed and said, “Something like that,” and we’d laughed about it for a long time. “Look, you,” she’d said. “I like having this wall between work and not-work.” I’d said that I would respect that and I did.

            In the end, the title of Owen’s third feature was neither Expressway nor Motorway. He’d kept a similar theme, however—Transit was what appeared on the screen in front of us. I was attending something for the crew and cast—there, against Owen’s wishes, as Cooper’s date.

            “I can’t physically stop you from being there,” said Owen. “But I’d prefer it if you waited.” I told him I’d be there.

            From about six minutes in, I understood Owen’s reticence about my seeing the film. This time through, Cooper played his surrogate—the apartment, the mannerisms, the vocation were all drawn almost directly from Owen’s life. To call the effect of watching Cooper channel Owen disconcerting would be an understatement. The title becomes a motif, as Cooper’s character conducts most of her scenes in motion: cars and trains and even in the easy rhythms of walking down the sidewalk.

            The transpositions were direct. Cooper and Eva—here called Mina—in college, bonding early on. Walks in the park, Cooper introducing Mina to new places, to new geographies. That moment early in their history when it’s clear to the audience that Cooper seeks a reciprocity of desire that will never come.

            And the long years to come. The parallel romantic partners; Cooper’s work in film. A long flash back to their college-era road trip, a tension as they spoke, laying in separate beds, Cooper’s eyes open, staring at the city long after Mina’s had closed. And at the end, Cooper getting word of Mina’s marriage; the question of whether to confess or not hanging in mid-air and, finally, abandoned. Final image: Cooper, filmed with a handheld camera, walking alone, the look on her face ambiguous—possibly cathartic, possibly pained, possibly relived. The cut to a black screen; the display of credits. Afterwards, I found Owen. He looked at me blankly. I found an isolated spot. “Can I talk for a second?” I asked.

            “I think maybe you see why I didn’t want you to come,” he said.

            “Have you talked to Eva about this?”

            “No. Not yet.”

            “Jesus.” I wanted to flail, wanted to lash out, wanted to turn one hundred tortured minutes into a shout and fill the room with it. “Do you think she’s not going to know? That she won’t see it, or that someone else—someone else who knows her, who knows you—isn’t going to end up figuring it out?”

            He was silent. I’d like to think that he was thinking some of these issues over himself, but I really have no way of knowing that.

            “And...” I thought on it some more. Knew I was shouting. “There’s something else, too—was it.” I pivoted and started again. “Did you cast Cooper because you thought it wouldn’t be obvious? Or are you a hell of a lot shallower than I ever took you for?”

            Owen cleared his throat. “It’s an old songwriters’ trick,” he said. “Making the he a she, or...the other way.” I don’t know what he looked like, in that moment.

            You forget the bad parts of the movie. In time, what stays with you is what works—and so it was, two years later, eighteen months after Owen packed up and headed for parts west, that I found myself thinking back on moments of Transit and finding that it had found its way into parts of my mind, had, perhaps, worked better than I’d care to admit. Eighteen months later: Eva and Ken, going strong, talking about leaving the city, talking about buying a house, conversations with them now leading to talk of children with a “when” instead of an “if.” Eighteen months later: that us of Cooper-and-me having dissipated one day, that reciprocity having seized; all those comfortable places and resonances stricken from my inner maps.

            Transit ends unfinished—Cooper walking up to Mina’s apartment days before her wedding, wanting to say something, then turning away, that last walk towards a park somewhere in Brooklyn done alone. It seemed a better ending than the wrenching end to Owen and Eva’s friendship—with me warning Eva about it in vague terms, then her seeing it, then hearing from her, halfway enraged just in the telling, about her own confrontation with Owen. He left New York a few months after that. We correspond on occasion, but it’s social-network pleasantries, nothing deeper.

            That’s the funny thing that gets me back to watching Transit, the DVD in its case hidden in the bottom of a drawer, like pornography secreted away from the babysitter. You can see Owen in it, and Eva, and later Ken, and other passing acquaintances from college and later. But for all that it feels like memoir, with perfectly poised Cooper replacing wild-haired and wide-eyed Owen, it still leaves me wondering why Owen found no place in it for me.