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January 25, 2007
RICHARD J. ROSENDALL
In spite of how little we know
“Maybe it happens this way, maybe we really belong together, but after all, how little we know.” In beguine tempo, with songwriter Hoagy Carmichael at the piano, Lauren Bacall sings the Johnny Mercer lyrics in her deep, sultry voice (and yes, it is her own voice, contrary to Pauline Kael). We are in Martinique during World War II under the Vichy French, and Bogey is helping the Resistance, claiming he’s only in it for the money. It’s the Howard Hawks classic, To Have and Have Not. Thanks to the online service Sheet Music Direct, I am studying the song so I can sing it to my boyfriend Patrick, an African refugee living in Brussels.
“Go ahead, slap me,” Humphrey Bogart challenges a Vichy cop who has just slapped Bacall’s character, Slim. Bogey is so effortlessly masculine, what guy wouldn’t want to be him? Well, maybe a guy who would rather be Bacall or Carmichael. I wouldn’t mind hanging out with these people, but I do not really want to be any of them. Patrick has never heard of them, though he knows all about James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, whose memorial service is going full tilt on another channel as I call Patrick, forgetting that he is spending the weekend in Oslo with friends.
He sees my call coming in, but cannot take it – the roaming charges would be murder – so he calls me back on his Norwegian friends’ phone. I tell him I’m learning a new song for him, and sing the first sixteen bars. He laughs and turns on the speaker so his friends can hear. And he tells me about the flight attendant from Texas who stops in Brussels a lot, and who hounds him with amorous proposals.
Patrick imitates the fellow’s voice telling him, “Baby, I love you, I want you to be my boyfriend,” the way he says all Americans talk. The happy and carefree tone in his voice belies the terrible struggles he has been through over the past five years, and makes it easy to understand why he attracts so many suitors. He reminds me of a tough character from a 40s movie, keeping cool despite the danger swirling around him.
He says he is watching more carefully what he eats, because he is getting a little fat. His friends laugh because he is not the least bit fat. I tell him I look forward to being able to say “I like you fat,” which he once said to me, and he laughs again. He asks when we will be together on New Year’s, and says maybe next year. Some people tell me he’s only in it for the money, but as with Bogart’s character, I know better. Besides, several of his admirers have had deeper pockets than I.
Years ago, Patrick was stuck in the Nairobi airport for several days as Kenyan and Dutch officials fought over who would take him, the Dutch having tried to deport him there with the claim that he must be Kenyan because he was fluent in Swahili. He is also fluent in French, but that doesn’t make him Parisian. His Swahili enabled him to call out to Kenyan police as the Dutch officers escorting him tried to sneak him past the security barrier, which set off a protracted standoff. While he waited, he borrowed someone’s cell phone to call me, and I called him back. Hearing the anxiety in his voice, I ran up exorbitant phone bills just to chat and sing him songs like “Unforgettable.” He said, “You Americans all sing beautifully,” so I asked him teasingly how many Americans had been serenading him.
Last August, while we were spending a week in Amsterdam, a stranger approached him on the tram. The fellow grabbed Patrick and said, “You are beautiful. I love you,” and started kissing him. I said, “Leave my friend alone. The railing is over there.” To which the man replied, “You are American. You bombed Lebanon. Fuck you!” I shot back, “If it weren’t for America, you’d be speaking German.” Me and my big mouth. Luckily for me, instead of becoming violent he abruptly apologized, and demanded to know if I accepted his apology. I said yes. As Patrick and I sat down, I asked him if he often had that effect on people. Judging by his stories, he does. Yet somehow, lucky bastard that I am, his heart belongs to me.
In this kind of crazy binational relationship, with marriage and immigration laws working against us (we could marry and live in Belgium if one of us were a Belgian national), I have learned to savor what we have, and not worry too much about the future.
“Maybe you’re meant to be mine, maybe I’m only supposed to stay in your arms awhile, as others have done.” Slim speaks rather than sings that last phrase. Screenwriter William Faulkner, adapting rival Ernest Hemingway’s novel, hung around the movie set hoping to pick up some of Hoagie Carmichael’s cool. Carmichael, playing a character named Cricket, holds a matchstick in his mouth. He is cool as can be.
Without a movie star’s voice, I tell Patrick I love him. He softly says he knows, offers his own words of love, then is off with his friends. And I’m sure in my heart that it’s so, in spite of how little we know.