John McCaffrey, 6/27/2016
Current Occupation: Development Director, Writer and Teacher
Former Occupation: Landscaper
Contact Information: Originally from Rochester, New York, John McCaffrey attended Villanova University and received his MA in Creative Writing from the City College of New York. He is the author of 'The Book of Ash' (2013) and 'Two Syllable Men' (2016).
“It’s ‘Sex and the City.’ I play a guy who falls in love with Sarah Jessica Parker’s character, Carrie. We meet a party. I make her laugh. I’m smart. Everything good personality wise, but she’s not attracted to me. Physically, that is. She ends up going home instead with a real handsome dude, but in the end he turns out to be a jerk. That’s what the episode is about: style over substance.”
Charles’s girlfriend, Henna, looked up from the saltine cracker she was nibbling.
“So you’re playing the ugly guy.”
“Not ugly…more like average.”
“What’s the difference if you don’t get the girl?”
Henna finished the cracker and lifted up from the oversized chair she was sitting. She shook her sandy blonde hair, letting it settle just above her ample breasts. She was wearing a thin white blouse over tight bell-bottom jeans.
“I just hate the thought of telling people that my boyfriend is playing the loser,” she said, wrinkling her nose as if standing over a rotten fish.
Charles’s face reddened.
“He’s not a loser. I told you he’s got a great personality.”
“But he doesn’t get the girl?”
“Yeah, I heard you the first time.”
“So…” she let the word drift as she passed and went into the lone bathroom of the one-bedroom apartment. It was near the Boat Basin on the Upper West Side and rent controlled. Charles got it a few years back from a friend who moved to Hollywood and was now hosting a reality show that placed divorcing couples in a locked room with a marital therapist for 48 hours.
“So, what?” he shouted to be heard over the sound of running water.
Henna came back into the room, toothbrush in hand.
“So, what does that tell you, about not getting the girl?”
“That she made a bad choice?”
“Worse,” she said, pointing the brush at him. “It means you’re not coming back for another episode.”
They didn’t have sex that night…or the next morning. Charles had tried both times. After a late dinner and a half-bottle of Merlot, he had snuggled up to Henna in bed and nibbled at her ear until she whisked him away with a jab in the ribs. He didn’t sleep well and woke with a raging hard-on, which, against his better judgment, he poked into Henna’s pelvis several times, but gave up after she didn’t rouse. He showered, shaved, dressed and left her still sleeping as he made his way into workday Manhattan.
It was sunny and crisp outside, perfect fall weather. He walked four blocks to the train, trailing a few steps behind the swiveling hips of a Latina woman with bottle blonde hair and a red rose tattoo set in an exposed section of her lower back. At the subway entrance, a dread-locked messenger lounging against a bike whistled at the woman:
“Where you going so fast?” the messenger said to her, “Please, stay. Look at me. Just look at me.”
The woman didn’t look, descending the cement stairs in quick bursts. Charles lowered his head and followed. The incident reminded him of a role he once had in a made-for-TV-movie on the Lifetime Channel. He played a salty construction worker who makes lewd comments to women when they pass on the street. At the end of the film, one woman, the movie’s star, refuses to accept the harassment any more and corrals a group of her friends to heckle him at the work site. The scene shook him. A lot of it was improvisation, the actresses given creative license to say what they wanted, and he could feel a true rage emanating from them. One actress had shouted several times: “Shake your big ass.” It stayed with him. Weeks later, he was still checking out his behind in mirrors, and for months wore nothing but baggy chinos and sweat pants.
“I need you to move closer to Sarah,” the Director barked at Charles. He was rail-thin with Buddy Holly glasses and a shaved head. A Rolex hung loose on his left wrist and surfer beads dangled from his neck. He was either 45 or 25, it was hard to tell.
“I want her to feel crowded by you,” the Director continued. “You’re trying to get her attention, remember. Put on the full court press.”
They were rehearsing in a small studio – just he and Sarah Jessica Parker; the actual filming, with the entire cast in the scene, would be the next day, on location at a private Upper East Side apartment. Charles closed his eyes and tried to envision the scene: a festive party, a trendy crowd, a hot woman in front of him, he, a misfit, coming on to her. This was usually his strength. He could become someone different, invading their minds, stealing their essence. It was physical as much as mental. One led to the other. He would understand the character, then a transformation would happen, molecule by molecule, feel his skin changing, his hair shaping, his eyes focusing, his body emulating his mind’s acceptance of another being. But now he was stuck. He couldn’t find this person. Sweat dotted his forehead and he bounced his fingers nervously on his legs. When he opened his eyes Sarah was staring at him. She had it nailed, he knew. She was in her other being, ‘Carrie’. But Charles was still Charles, and they ended rehearsal with the Director angry and shaking his head.
“How’d it go?”
Henna was on a bar stool, sipping a Pellegrino with lemon. Charles ordered a Budweiser from the bartender and pulled next to her.
Horrible. I couldn’t get into the character.”
“Good. See. You can’t do the ugly guy. It’s not you.”
The beer came and he took a long sip.
“I don’t know if that’s it. I just couldn’t get the right feeling.”
Henna sipped her drink and scanned the bar.
“So what was Sarah like?” she asked, a hint of bitterness in the voice.
“Nice, I guess. We didn’t really talk other than the scene. She keeps to herself…like most stars.”
“A real diva, huh. I knew it.”
Henna lowered her glass on the polished oak countertop and arranged her hair in the long mirror behind the bar. When she was done she smiled at Charles. As an actor, he had become expert at reading people’s faces. When someone was happy, truly smiling, it showed around their eyes, the corners wrinkled up, crow’s feet formed. The skin now orbiting Henna’s eyes was as taught and smooth as glass.
“So where are we going to eat?” she said, glancing again at the back mirror. This time Charles followed the look and saw she was staring at the reflection of a wide-shouldered man with a thin brown pony-tail that offset his tanned olive skin. He was sitting alone on a couch, in the back of the bar, wearing a black turtleneck that blended seamlessly into a beautiful pair of charcoal cotton pants. .
Charles swallowed the rest of the beer in a hard burst. He set the glass down with a thud. Henna turned her head from the mirror and shot him a look.
“What’s wrong with you?”
“I’m just hungry,” he said. “Let’s go to McDonald’s.”
“I hope you’re joking?”
A wave of fatigue swept over Charles. He had made the comment to annoy Henna, but now he realized he really did want to go to McDonald’s.”
“Maybe it will be fun,” he sighed. “At least it will be different.”
Henna raised her head, exposing her fragile neck. It was the part of her body he loved best, and he would spend contented hours tracing the soft skin between her shoulder and head.
“We’re not going to McDonald’s,” she snapped. “Look what I have on.”
She was wearing ‘Betsy Johnson,’ a red sweater with frilly white snowball things attached to a white leather mini with matching knee-length white boots.
“I want to eat somewhere nice and then catch some music in the East Village.” She glanced again into the mirror. “That’s what I want and what we’re going to do.”
Charles hesitated, feeling himself ready to concede to Henna’s desires, as he most always did. But when she glanced one more time into the back mirror, his anger resurfaced and so did his resolve.
“I don’t care,” he said. “With you or without you, I’m going to McDonald’s. I had a long day and have to shoot early tomorrow. I just want a Quarter Pounder. Some fries…maybe an apple pie.”
Henna snatched a compact from her coat pocket and dabbed rouge on her nose. “Eat like a pig. I see it doesn’t matter anymore.”
“What doesn’t matter?”
She snapped the compact shut and stared purposely at his stomach.
“You done?” he said.
“More like us.” Henna rose from her seat and grabbed her bag. “Go enjoy your disgusting meal…I’m sure it will help you get into character.”
Charles watched her walk away, saw her head turn at just the right moment toward the pony-tailed man on the couch. His timing was perfect and he lifted his hooded eyes to meet her look. Charles exhaled. His anger left him in an instant, replaced with a deadening depression. He threw money down on the beer and headed to the door.
Henna was up watching television when he came home. After his meal at McDonald’s, he walked the 45 blocks home, from midtown on the East Side, across Central Park, to the Upper West side. It took him nearly two hours. He had stopped several times, on benches to rest and watch people. There was a hint of breeze in the night air and it brought promise of a cold winter to come. He was chilled for the first time in months, and it made him feel clear and clean. In overhead trees, he heard the rustle of dying leaves in the wind, withering and drying into autumnal colors, making a steady and nearly silent tick as they bumped against branches and floated down to the pavement in sweeping arcs.
Henna didn’t look up and the sound of the set was barely audible. Charles set his keys down on an end table next to the couch and sat next to her. He was carrying a brown paper bag and held it in front of her. She didn’t move, so he opened it and pulled out the contents. It was a bamboo plant in a decorative blue vase the size of an apple. White jagged pebbles lay around the surface of the vase and the plant itself was one stalk about a foot high with four small green leaves sticking out at odd angle. They seemed to be on sale at every Korean deli in the city.
“Four dollars,” he said. “It’s supposed to bring good luck.”
“Keep it,” she returned flatly. “Maybe you’ll get a role on the Sopranos.”
Charles reached over and rested the plant in front of the television.
“I’m not Mafia material. But I could see you on the show.”
“What, as a Bada Bing girl, a stripper?” she said bitterly. Charles shook his head.
“No, that’s not what I mean. You could like the psychiatrist, Lorraine Bracco, or something like that. You have a cool look. Smart and sharp.”
Henna’s eyes softened.
“Right,” she said. “Like I can act.”
Charles leaned over and put an arm around her shoulders.
“You can do anything you want. Anything you put your mind to.”
She let him hold her but stiffened.
“I’m still pissed at you,” she said. “I really wanted to go to dinner and go out. You know, there are plenty of men who would die to have a night like that with me.”
The 11 o’clock news flashed, the lead story a burning building in the Bronx. Black smoke billowed across the screen, flames leaping out of windows. Charles pointed to the Bamboo plant, oblivious to the carnage.
“Maybe you’ll get lucky next time,” he said. “You never know.”
Sarah Jessica Parker was late to the set and Charles and a burly cameraman drank black coffee in the kitchen with an enormous bay window that overlooked the East River.
The cameraman took a sip and licked his lips. He was wearing a green New York Jets jersey and a backwards Yankees cap.
“Can you imagine living in a place like this?” He took in some more coffee. “I can almost see all of Long Island Sound from here.”
“The apartment was in the East 80’s, on the 20th floor of a sprawling coop. It had panoramic views of New York City and beyond from nearly any angle.
“Must be nice,” Charles returned.
“Yeah, but can you imagine the taxes?”
Charles smiled. People always said that when the came face-to-face with a building, a house, an apartment that was beautiful but way out of their price range. A place they could never, ever afford. “Can you imagine the taxes” As if that would appease their envy and deter them from living there.
“And the maintenance fees,” the cameraman continued. “Forget it.”
There was a rustle of activity in the next room and laughter and greetings. Charles peered through the doorway and saw the Director kissing Sarah Jessica Parker on both cheeks.
“Time to get to work,” he said to the cameraman, draining his coffee.
“I guess so.”
The both took a last look at the view and then headed to join the others.
“Okay, people,” the Director barked. “We have twenty minutes to do this so let’s get moving.” He started to tick off commands and voices from around the room answered, like a roll call:
“Boom in back?”
Charles drifted with the cadence. He felt terribly insecure. Wardrobe had put him in a tight Izod shirt, collar up, Docker pants with a striped belt and topsider loafers. The rest of the party was dressed in Manhattan chic, and he stood out like an insurance salesman at a runway show. Makeup had also given him the comb over look and had smeared a bit of fake ketchup under his lip for comic effect. He positioned himself and glanced around the room. The scene was to begin with him and Carrie talking. Then the handsome dude would come through the door, lock eyes with Carrie, who, immediately smitten, would excuse herself and follow him into another room.
“Action,” the Director yelled.
Charles said his lines, leaning into Carrie, seeing that she saw his hideous clothes, his pathetic hair style, the offending condiment on his lip.
“Good,” the Director called out. “Now more energy.”
Charles moved closer. He could smell her now. It reminded him of Henna. Lilies. She smelled of Lilies. Or Lilacs. That was what Henna smelled like. What Sarah Jessica Parker smelled like. What Carrie smelled like. He looked into her eyes, and then the doorbell rang and they turned and Charles’s face blanched. Coming through the door was the man from the bar the night before, the brown ponytail, with wide shoulders, and tanned olive skin and black turtleneck tapering seamlessly into cotton charcoal pants. Charles swallowed and continued to talk. But his pace quickened. He inched even closer to Carrie, his words punctuated with newfound desperation. He could hear the Director yelling “yes, yes” in the background, but the words were growing faint. Sound was disappearing. He looked to his right and in his peripheral vision caught sight of the brown ponytail. He moved even closer as Carrie turned her head and gazed longingly at the new arrival.
“Fantastic,” the Director yelled.
Charles said his last line. Now it was up to Carrie to leave, to begin a new scene: flirting with the brown ponytail, the two of them sipping Cosmos near a window, taking in the breathtaking views.
But he couldn’t give up.
“Where you going so fast?” Charles said, reaching over and grabbing Carrie’s hand. “Please, stay,” he continued. “Look at me. Just look at me.”
As the Director yelled cut, and threw his script to the ground, Sarah Jessica Parker, or Carrie, did look at Charles, but he was long gone, and in his place was someone else, a new creation who was determined to get the girl.