We were having one of those serious conversations that married-with-kids people have about romance — the loss of it and how to get it back — and we were discussing our ideal romantic partner, a conversation, thank God, moderated by our therapist, because when my husband said his ideal romantic partner would be Charlize Theron, I went into a defensive crouch. The words “blond,” “smoldering,” and “regal” . . . well, they don’t apply to me.
“And what about you?” the therapist asked. I felt like a rabbit; it’s the kind of paralysis that hits me when what I’m about to say comes from a deep place of weirdness. “Umm. Hmm. John Malkovich?”
“I know it’s superweird,” I said. “I’ve had this, this thing for him for years. It’s his mouth — maybe also his voice. And even now that he’s bald and has his clothing line with the absurd name Technobohemian, I imagine him raunchy and intellectual. And I like men wearing aristocratic 18th-century French dress as he did in Dangerous Liaisonsand wish my husband would wear tights, but he doesn’t, which is frankly everyone’s loss, because my husband has adorable, strong, soccer-player calves.”
I spent my formative years watching ’80s costume dramas with their lessons in a certain male-female dynamic. That it should be carried out on a hillside poppy field overlooking Florence, soundtracked by “O mio babbino caro” or, conversely, in a French country house, with intrigue and cheek rouge. A key secreted in one’s creamy bosom. That kind of thing.
There’s none of that with two kids, jobs, laundry, and homework. These are problems the Vicomte de Valmont did not have. His life was given wholly to frivolity, to trysts, to menages. All he did was romance.
When we lived in Cambridge, Malkovich frequented the copy shop in Harvard Square where my husband’s brother worked. My brother-in-law would tell me casually: “Hey, I saw John today. Is he, like, your boooyfriend?’’ And I would do that rabbit thing and just stand there.
And my brother-in-law would say: “You know, he’s just a guy. Making copies. Drinking cappuccinos.” Before I could clap my hand over my mouth, I asked Steve to get Malkovich’s autograph. My brother-in-law, a man’s man, is not a dude who regularly gets other dudes to write things like “To Elizabeth, a great fan, John.’’ But he did.
“You spoke to him? He spoke to you?”
“Yeah, pretty much. Then he got some stuff collated.”
I’d told him: “It’s not Malkovich. It’s the idea of him.”
“Go on,” the therapist said. “Yeah,” my husband said. “What does Malkovich represent?” “Umm,” I said. “Intentionally seeing beauty everywhere, maybe? Like George Emerson in A Room With a View. Like elevating the mundane? A glance across the kitchen table means you’re ravishingly beautiful, not, did you pick up the dry cleaning?”
“I get it,” my husband said.
“Here’s your homework,” the therapist said. “You are going to get a sitter and have a romantic dinner and fill your phone with opera, and I want you to act as if you are your romantic ideal. Not expect it from the other, but be it yourself. That means, Elizabeth, you’re going to be John Malkovich.”
Never have I been so prepared for a part! Turns out I’ve been his understudy for years. The freedom of being someone else, someone not shy, someone bold, a shade of nasty, as comfortable in his own skin as in silk pajamas, John Malkovich, suave and urbane, wowing my husband, the queenly and cold Charlize Theron. It was quite a dinner. I was fabulous.
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