A Memory Dream Becomes Something Much More Frightening
For me, it’s always been one of the most unsettling scenes ever set to film: the one in Goodfellas where, after Henry has become something of a liability, his wife Karen goes to see his mobster friend Jimmy for help, amidst a jungle of ramshackle old warehouses near the docks. At first, he commiserates with her, asks how Henry’s holding up, and presses a few thousand dollars into her hand. Then he gives her a hug and a kiss and says “Listen, I got some beautiful Dior dresses, you wanna have ‘em?” Still flush with gratitude, she smiles and says, “Yeah, maybe for my Mom.” But as he tries to steer her, a bit too insistently, into the dark, deserted space where he wants her to go, you can almost see the hairs on the back of her neck stand up.
Being somewhat movie-mad, and trying to put something that just happened to me into some kind of context, that was the scene that ran through my mind yesterday.
I had headed to Sunset Park, Brooklyn, to pick up my husband Tim after arthroscopic surgery. The nurse said she’d call when I could come by, and in the meantime, I walked around the neighborhood, my face tucked into my coat collar against the bitter cold, as the wind barreled down the bits of barren street where it met no resistance. I suddenly realized I was just a few blocks from the house where my Dad grew up, and where we lived, upstairs from my Gramma, for the first few years of my life.
The front door was now made of steel, almost prison-like, which really threw me. But the bricks on the front, mottled dark and red, still looked the same, as did the swirling black ironwork on the windows. I remembered the willow tree that once stood across the street, whose shadows hovered protectively on my bedroom wall in the glow of the street lamp as I drifted off to sleep. And I remembered Billy down the block, who had a lot of trouble with his words. I can still hear his voice—he couldn’t quite clamp down on the hard letters and everything sounded a bit like one long vowel sound. But somehow I could understand him, and his Mom, who topped out a bit above my 6-foot Dad, would sometimes bend close to me and ask me what he’d said. Maybe because I had a stumbling block of my own—Rs eluded me completely (and sometimes still do)—I could make my way through his jumble of sounds.
The little courtyard behind the front gate reminded me of when Billy and I made several hundred round trips up and down the street with his wagon to collect the phone books thrown away when the new ones arrived, and built a fort there. Which was heaven until it rained. But before it collapsed into roughly a thousand pounds of soggy pulp, Billy and I got married in front of it—Billy in his spiffiest teeshirt, me in my best shorts set and my sister’s Communion veil, and my best friend Monica sporting a lovely kitchen towel on her head as my maid of honor.
And I remembered going back to visit my Gramma with my Dad on Saturdays after we moved away, and the leaving broke my heart. If I peered hard enough I could still see her waiting there at the window for us.
But suddenly I was startled out of my memory dream when a man stepped out of the house and approached me. I apologized for lingering and told him it was once my family’s home. “Why don’t you come in?” he smiled, and I said no, that’s okay. He asked again, “Come in, it’ll be fine!” And again I nodded no, really, it’s alright. Then he got a little more insistent—”No, come on, come in!” And I suddenly realized, as the day began to darken, that he’d left the steel front door open and there was no one else around, anywhere.
I started to walk away slowly, not wanting to be rude, and thanked him again. And he grabbed my arm hard and dragged me toward him. I somehow got away and said “I have to pick up my husband from surgery!” and he said something like, “Yeah sure.” As I hurried away he swiped at my arm again, grabbing hold of my coat and sort of growling something at me. I broke away and ran, and when I turned the corner onto a street with at least a few people on it, he gave up chasing me.
I ducked into a store, shaking, and started crying. A little while and a lot of deep breaths later, without waiting to hear from the nurse, I headed for the hospital, where Tim was doing fine and almost ready to go home. And I was more than ready.
Aside from thinking about that scene from Goodfellas, a few other things struck me. Like even after I’d felt fear rising up through my throat, I thought I had to just sort of saunter away from him to avoid hurting his feelings. And then, even after he’d grabbed me, I had to explain to him why today would not be a good day for me to be abducted off the street.
Most unsettling was that if I hadn’t needed to be somewhere—if I’d just been out for a walk and passed the house—I might have accepted his invitation to go inside, because at first he seemed normal, and I was swept up in my memories, and also I’m kind of an over-truster. (A friend of mine teases me all the time, like when my wallet’s hanging halfway out of my bag, “I can’t believe you’re from Brooklyn.”) That part really gives me shivers, the way something that didn’t happen and now never will happen but could have happened can still frighten you.
I realize very little of this is actually movie-related, but I just had to write it down. Thank you for listening.