January 18, 2013

"The Most Important Thing about Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion and Poetry" by Joy Katz

Romy and Michele
is more sparkly than Thelma and Louise. Romy and Michele is glittery nail polish, or a sequin-emblazoned-peacock t-shirt. Thelma and Louise is a plain t-shirt that’s a little rusty and smells like a saw but you don’t care. Thelma and Louise is reckless and confident. Romy and Michele are not confident, exactly; they live in a state of grace. I’ll get to that.  

There is something sexless, almost virginal, about Romy and Michele. This despite we learn Michele lost her virginity to her cousin Barry. What could be more forgivably tender and odd (my own older cousin having gone to prom with our boy-cousin)?

Romy says, “I swear to God, sometimes I wish I were a lesbian” when no one asks them to dance at the club. Michele responds: “Do you want to try to have sex sometime just to see if we are?” As spoken by Lisa Kudrow, that is the most open-ended, lovely question, just then. Notice how when she says it, there is no comma before “just.” It makes the offer more generous, larger, than if it had been scientifically curious or timed for a laugh.

In Romy and Michele, all things are possible. It is, say, entirely possible to have sex with your best pal sometime “just to see” and to have that then change your life in a hugely defining and yet somehow also beautifully unremarkable way.

If you came out to Romy and Michele — if it were a friend of yours, and not a movie — you would be enfolded in love, as you always had been; you would be fundamentally what you always were. If you came out to Thelma and Louise, you would get a shot fired excitingly into the air! — a response that might burden your soul for ushering it, however zestily, however right-heartedly, into a politics. 

Romy and Michele is not about politics. Romy and Michele is to your granny who is always there for you as Thelma and Louise is to your globe-trotting aunt who is bold and fascinating but tends to forget your birthday.

 Speaking of sweaty t-shirts: Thelma and Louise is no-deodorant. Romy and Michele is Lady Speed Stick. 

Looking up brands so I could write that sentence, I learned Summer’s Eve makes a body powder. My friends in high school were more Romy and Michele than Thelma and Louise, but no one — not a Thelma or Louise nor a Romy or Michele — used feminine hygiene products, because even then, we were not stupid. Nevertheless a Summer’s Eve powder seems right for Romy and Michele because “summer’s eve” is age 13 and there is a party in the backyard next door and the neighbors have put up pink Chinese lanterns and people laugh and clink glasses till after midnight, when you fall asleep listening to them from your bedroom, through the screen. Powder on bare shoulders makes me think of Romy and Michele folding scarves in their boutique as the movie ends. You know how clothes from a nice shop smell nice for a while, the scent lingering like the possibility that pair of jeans will change your life?

Romy and Michele are protected by their universe, but they also don’t do foolish things. They order diet Cokes when they are out dancing (unless “Diet Coke with extra cherries” is, secretly, a drink with X, — is that some kind of code the director or a writer snuck in? Doesn’t matter: Romy and Michele defy code. Romy and Michele order soft drinks with extra cherries, straight up. Romy and Michele use seat belts. They do not use drugs. Romy and Michele is protected even from the worst impulses of its screenwriters). 

Romy and Michele will let you get old. It waits for your old, it is fond of your old, as it lets us glimpse Romy’s and Michele’s old. Obviously, Thelma and Louise won’t let you get old, because Thelma and Louise won’t be around to see you. 

Romy and Michele is a song of innocence, Thelma and Louise a song of experience.

Thelma and Louise understands your suffering because it suffers too; it has suffered for a long, long time. Thelma and Louise are bound to die. Thelma and Louise doesn’t want you to die, but mainly because it doesn’t think about you. 

Romy and Michele doesn’t want you to suffer. It wants you to live. This is the most important thing about Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion and poetry. I, a poetry teacher, want my students to live. I want you to live. You could stop reading now if you are out of time. 

Romy and Michele doesn’t care if you shop discount. Michele won’t shop at the outlet store, but she doesn’t mind if you do, so long as you look cute. Even if she feels a little sad that you must shop there. Note: She doesn’t feel sorry for you; she just wishes you could come with her to Barneys.

The scene with Michele in the discount store, especially the screaming, crying infant in the background, so exactly captures the hours I spent in TJMaxx looking for school clothes with my mother — who could find the one well-made thing in the dusty bin — and the lunch hours in Century 21 in New York, trying to distract myself from a bad morning at my bad job or a bad date or a bad relationship — that it makes me laugh and cry at the same time.

There aren’t any TJMaxxes on road trips to cliffs over which you will drive. There are only gas stations and illegal fireworks and dive bars. If this looks like your route, pull over.

Romy and Michele are sexless, but they are not Barbies. They have real bodies, not crotch-bulbs. Romy and Michele are sexless because they are child-adults. Even Romy, the more earthy, the slightly crude, only pretends to have sex with Ramon, the mechanic at the Jaguar dealership, so that she can borrow his car. A tragic instant — an instant the universe of Thelma and Louise leaks into the universe of Romy and Michele — is when Romy jokes with Michele that she gave all the guys in Service hand jobs so she could get the swanky convertible, and Michele, putting her bags into the car, just says “Well, while you were doing that, I made us a mix tape.

“Michele,” says Romy. [Pause.] “Do you really think I would do that? For a car?”

Michele doesn’t say whether or not she believes it. I choose to think Michele does not believe it, because she does not hear the explanation any more than a child hears a parent’s narration of her workday.

Of course Michele does not believe Romy gave hand jobs to all the guys in the Service Department in return for a car. Even if she had, Michele would not judge her for it. She loves Romy.

In Romy and Michele there is a cloud of moral suspension — a zone wherein the only pure evil is the evil of the popular girls in high school who steal your lunch and make fun of your clothes, which you made in home ec, and stick magnets to your back brace.

Back brace: Michele had scoliosis in high school. When I was 14 my friend Teri’s little sister had scoliosis and Teri picked out special undershirts so her sister’s back would not chafe. I went to her house one day and there the undershirts were, pale pink and blue with small flowers on them, laid out heartbreakingly on the bed, next to the punishing brace.  

No one really understands Romy and Michele. It’s not a movie about a high school reunion, it’s a movie about unconditional love. It’s a movie about a state of grace.

Such states of grace do exist. For instance a certain stage of coming to write poetry. Certain of my students, writing out of pure interest and energy, who write because what other way to make meaning is so vital or supple as poetry, live in this state of grace. Sometimes they haven’t questioned poetry; sometimes they have questioned it and come back.

Some of them haven’t yet entered the stage where the world intrudes and there are hierarchies of journals to aspire to being published in. Some have not yet been rejected simply because they are not known; they haven’t experienced undergraduate and graduate screeners trained to pay more attention to their prior publications than to the lines of their poems.

These students haven’t yet quailed when they overhear someone say, of their teacher — a good teacher, a fine poet — “okay, he got a Lila Wallace, but he hasn’t gotten a MacArthur.” They haven’t encountered curators of readings who gripe, “Too many MFA students in the world.” They haven’t heard the famous story about “I hope you fuck better than you write” (addressed to a female student in workshop about to be married). If Romy and Michele were a poetry workshop, it might be a noncredit workshop in a midsize city where the students are brilliant and wise and serious but don’t spend too much of their suffering on professionalism. I wish this state of grace were available to more students.

If Romy and Michele were a poet, it might be Gustaf Sobin, living in France, hunting truffles, making his sparkly lines. If Romy and Michele were a kind of poetry writing, maybe it would be translation, which demands a modest ego and a nimble soul.

Not that Romy and Michele don’t have egos. “I can’t believe how cute I look,” Romy says, looking at herself in the mirror before they leave for the dance club where what is going to happen is that no one will dance with them. They do look cute. They do have never looked so cute. They are like spot-on, blue-feathered poems about to hit the slush pile. Then what happens is they don’t let rejection get to them. They may be alone, but they dance with themselves and do it in their own, not necessarily “current” style. They have invented themselves (even to the outfits they have sewn). It is good to be this kind of poet.

I haven’t gotten to Romy and Michele’s high school reunion. It is, for one thing, the least important part of the movie —predictable, if funny. But more so, it is painful for me to revisit the minute when Romy and Michele sit in the Laundromat filling out the “what have you been up to” questionnaires, and Michele reads “Job?”, hesitates for a half-second, then says “unemployed,” almost writes the word down, and their perfect state of being goes poof.

Suddenly, when Michele goes to write “unemployed,” she realizes — they realize together — that what’s the point if not to impress people. The pin of self-consciousness pierces the movie, and it wounds me, as it wounds me to imagine my students believing what is the point of their poems if not to impress. I hope my students will manage the necessary hardships of professionalism without becoming the poetry equivalent of the popular girls in high school. I have faith they can do this. And when they encounter contempt, which is inevitable, they might be able to say, as Romy says to the popular girl at the high school reunion, “You're a bad person with an ugly heart, and we don't give a flying fuck what you think.” 

In the movie, what happens at the reunion is Romy and Michele invent some more. They invent that they invented something they didn’t, and when this lie is exposed — not coincidentally by the Louise-ish Heather, the one who tells the outcast boy (now a grown man in a cowboy hat, another nod to Thelma and Louise) “If you fuck with me, in any way, I will rip each and every appendage from your body, starting with your dick” — Romy and Michele turn to their real, self-delighting, calmly unassailable souls to solve the problem. The true invention of themselves is far better than the made-up one: it has “nice lines, a fine, frisky use of color.” 

And everyone is impressed. And finally what happens is there is a sexy kiss.
Joy Katz is the author of All You Do is Perceive, a National Poetry Series finalist, due in 2013 from Four Way. Her other two poetry collections are The Garden Room and Fabulae. She has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and Stanford’s Stegner program, as well as Jentel’s Pushcart residency. She is currently working on a book of essays, Frayed, about race and voice. She teaches writing and literature at Chatham and Carlow universities in Pittsburgh, where she lives with her husband and young son.


caolan said...

Oh man I remembered Romy + Michele was good, but I forgot how good. This really gets to the heart of it--thanks so much! I'm watching this dance scene and nearly weeping.

Anonymous said...

I think Heather (Garofalo) was named Heather as an homage to "Heathers" because she's a naysayer who tries to drag them down.