March 27, 2010
What I Learned on the Red Carpet from Javier Bardem
I’d just passed a significant birthday when a 24-year-old colleague suggested the unthinkable: “What you need is a nice, 60-ish retired math professor,” she declared, sipping a latte. “You’re a tall blonde WASP. You should be dating Americans, not those Latin lovers you go for.”
My kittenish pride was wounded. Swarthy men were my specialty: How could I forget the dashing Chilean I’d lived with for six years after grad school; the Spanish producer with eyes the color of robin’s eggs; the Uruguayan guitarist I met backstage at Carnegie Hall; the bohemian Colombian designer at a recent writing job; and my greatest love of all, an Italian motorcyclist and photographer I’d tearfully given up after seven years, just two weeks shy of turning 40? He baked me cakes and wrote love poems. But I wanted marriage; he didn’t.
Getting him out of my system was difficult: two Milanese, a Roman and one Sicilian later, I still hadn’t found anyone as warm, adventurous or good in the kitchen, so I decided to give Italy a rest. Shortly thereafter, I met an Argentine videographer in Wholesale Liquidators who asked me, within months, to be his fourth wife. I declined.
Over the next five years, I made a conscious effort to expand my borders. There was a former Kurdish shepherd who owned a multi-million dollar townhouse off Washington Square; an Indian management consultant born in London; a blue-eyed Slovakian video editor; a Russian producer and mountain climber; and the biggest charmer of all: a Frenchman and former trapeze artist who worked for the circus.
Nearly all were younger than me — one by 17 years, but none were marriage material and I wouldn’t settle for less. This amused friends, family and strangers. Even one of my five-year old Sunday School students was incredulous. “Why aren’t you married!” she whispered one day during The Lord’s Prayer. “Don’t you know any guys?”
I patted her head and laughed; but I couldn’t do that with my 24-year-old colleague. What did someone just two years out of college know about love? Why she had practically accused me of being a cougar. I couldn’t take that lying down.
At home that evening, standing in front of my bathroom mirror, I asked myself what appealed to me in a man. Was a homegrown, graying math geek better for me than a man whose name ended in a vowel? Was it time to act my age? And what, exactly, would that mean?
My mirror yielded no alarming answers: no grey hairs, cellulite, sags or wrinkles to suggest that I was over the hill.
I turned off the light and moved to my dining table. Eyes shut, I reflected on what love meant and the men who’d shaped my outlook: the spoiled Ivy League frat boys I’d fended off in college; the hopeful foreign exchange students I’d met at NYU business school; the men whose accents and stories of birthplaces, families and memories left behind awakened something deep in my vagabond soul.
I asked for any thought that might limit my appreciation of love’s great diversity to be revealed and cast out. I listened for an answer. Before I’d even opened my eyes, one appeared, bright as a maple in full flame: My attraction to handsome foreigners — and vice versa — was nothing that called for atonement. They were no less worthy than retired school teachers simply for being beautiful.
I laughed out loud. It was so simple. Could it be true? I found out the next day, when an old friend called me with an invitation.
“We’re screening No Country for Old Men tonight at the Film Society,” she said excitedly. “And guess who’ll be there? Javier Bardem!”
Aye caramba! Javier Bardem! Had she been reading my thoughts? I tried telling her about the flaming maple tree but she cut me off.
“My dear!” she exclaimed. “You don’t need to justify yourself. Javier is so you! Quien es mas macho?”
Six hours later, I was standing alone beside a small stretch of red carpet outside the Walter Reade Theater. Except for a half-dozen photographers and Juilliard students getting out of class, there were few people idling about.
It was a warm evening for November, and I’d taken off my coat. After a few minutes, I moved away from the velvet rope to a less obtrusive spot against a wall. The giddiness I’d felt all afternoon had finally abated and I was relieved. I wasn’t a cougar; I wasn’t a teenager, either.
My friend arrived within minutes, frowning, from across the plaza. “What on earth are you doing over there?” she scolded. “You must stand here, where Javier can see you.”
She led me to a spot right at the end of the red carpet and gave me a once over. “He’s dating Penelope Cruz, you know. So take your hair out of the ponytail and stand up straight. As pretty as you look tonight, you’re never going to catch his eye like that.”
I let down my hair but standing so close made me uncomfortable.
We settled on a spot about ten feet away. “I’m not stalker,” I said defensively. “Besides, he’s a somebody and I’m a—”
“—somebody else,” she cut in.
Moments later, Javier arrived with the Coen brothers to a meteor shower of flash bulbs that seemed too bright for such a smoldering presence.
“Penelope is one lucky senorita,” I whispered, taking in his face, dark suit and easy smile as he made his way down a gantlet of paparazzi. Well, I didn’t just say the words “lucky seniorita.” I think I may have also called her a puta, but it was all in jest.
“He’s like her fourth boyfriend this year!” my friend added. “Now smile, Vick. He’s coming our way.”
Indeed he was. He’d just finished speaking to the last reporter when he turned unexpectedly and faced me. Our eyes fastened on one another. Neither of us moved. We both just stood there, staring for several seconds. Him, a 38-year-old A-list actor and somebody — and me, a 40-plus writer and somebody else! Neither of us blinked or even smiled. We just stood there transfixed, as my heart ripped loose from its moorings.
It wasn’t until a Coen brother took him by the arm that the spell was broken. His eyes softened, he turned and entered the theater.
My pal waited until the door shut before grabbing my arm. “Oh my God, Vick! What was that about?”
I didn’t know: It felt like a dream.
“He was totally checking you out, Vick. I told you he was your kind of guy.”
We entered the Walter Reade through a side entrance and found seats toward the front of the auditorium. The movie was great, but even during the final credits, what stuck in my mind wasn’t the violence, or Javier’s demonic performance or even his oddball Prince Valiant haircut. It was the way he’d looked at me outside the theater and the longing that welled up in my heart. Perhaps a rumpled academic wasn’t my destiny after all.
Out in the lobby, my friend said, “I’m not much into these after parties, but you should really stick around and talk to Javier.”
“Javier? Are you crazy? What do we have in common?”
I racked my memory. I’d had a Prince Valiant haircut when I was 13. I’d been to Madrid a decade ago with Mr. Italian motorcycle dude and eaten at a McDonald’s. And Javier and I were both heavy metal fans. But it didn’t seem like enough.
“How’th your Ethpagnol?” my friend lisped. We laughed at her attempt at a Spanish accent. “You mutht have learned thomething from all thothe Latin boyfriendth,” she added.
“No me quiero ir,” I said, in my sexiest, breathiest voice. “Dame un beso. Dame un besito. Dame un besote. Me gusta hacer l’amor con tigo.”
She looked at me blankly.
“I don’t want to leave here,” I whispered. “Give me a kiss. Give me a small kiss. Give me a big kiss. I like making love to you.”
“Great!” she said, taking me by the arm again. “Let’s find your hombre and have at him.”
Plotting our way across the packed room, we located Javier and Josh Brolin near the bar, circled for a half a minute, then retreated several steps away.
“I hope he didn’t see us,” I said nervously.
My friend kept watch over my shoulder. “Shhh,” she whispered. “He’s right behind you.”
I felt someone’s back brushing against mine. It was a substantial, back, I might add. “Javier?” I mouthed to her.
She nodded. Suddenly, her eyes widened. “OK,” she breathed. “Now!”
He was sipping a glass of wine as I turned around. I extended my hand and he graciously offered his. It was warm and strong. That’s what I remember.
“I loved you in Mar adentro,” I said, looking into his eyes, “but I’ve never heard you speak English in a movie until tonight.” He listened quietly.
“Your voice in the film was obviously tailored to your character,” I went on. “But it’s clearly not your regular voice. I’d love hearing your accent, if you don’t mind.”
His words spilled forth without hesitation, in deep and entrancing Spanish, an elixir for my longing heart. I tried to stay focused, but my attention wandered off almost immediately, from his lips to his hair and back to his eyes. I’d only just caught myself when he stopped speaking. “I’m sorry,” I said, feeling foolish, “but I don’t understand a word of Spanish.”
He switched to English and we chatted a bit more. He was amiable, and I suddenly snapped back to attention. I was a somebody speaking to a somebody else, but he was the star of the show and beyond seeing whether or not I could engage him in conversation, I didn’t have much else to say. I couldn’t tell him no me quiero ir. I looked behind him to see a line of women, waiting to shake his hand or look into his eyes as I did, thanked him and excused myself. My friend followed me as I walked away.
“He smiled when he saw it was you, Vick. What did he say?”
“I don’t know. Motht of it wath in Ethpagnol.”
“Ethpagnol! Maybe he wath athking for your phone number.”
I’ll never know. Nor will I know the meaning of that long look we shared across the velvet rope. But this much is clear: when something touches you in ways you can’t explain, there is a good chance you shouldn’t tamper with it. I’ll thank the heavens for that revelation — and Javier’s role in it, standing there quietly, with a gleam in his eye.