His retort: "Where do you get callous? From my reserved personality in front of the camera? Or am I just being considered the progeny of a depraved couple? The apple doesn't fall far from the tree, does it?"
It was as if William Jennings Bryan stood on an edifice and addressed an unruly group of union laborers. Just for a moment, the hysteria quells. And so it was when Ethan Harris forgot his strategy of reticence and addressed Michael Murray from Channel 6 News--"Bringing Seattle the news you need to know." The question that moved Ethan to retort: "How can a man as guilty as you be so callous? Don't you have any remorse?"
The startled investigative reporter had cowered a few steps backwards as Ethan glared into his eyes. But reporters today are tenacious; Murray swallowed his shock and reproached his prey. "For two weeks, reporters have gathered at your house. You've ignored us. You show absolutely no consideration for the community."
So much for reticence. Ethan responded with a commanding voice. "Which community, Murray? Those who have actually been affected by this tragedy--the people who drowned on my parent's yacht, the soldiers my father voted to send to war? Or is it the community you belong to, Murray--the reporters who have gathered on this sidewalk for two weeks, kept off my property by the gating and snubbed daily by my BMW racing away?"
"Mr. Harris, the media is trying to open a dialogue to rectify some wrongdoings. By ignoring us, you ignore the community." The crowd voiced approval. There were around twenty-five reporters and cameramen in all, a crowd about half of its original size two weeks ago when the story broke, but all the more vociferous now. The crowd huddled around Ethan's idling BMW just outside the gated entrance to the house. Beyond the gating and through a thicket of northwestern Evergreens stood a house designed by a friend of the Harris's, post-modern architect Abel Michaux. A reporter from CNN described the house's design, replete with "frivolities" like plane-glass windows resting just feet beneath mighty Evergreen trees and a winding-steel staircase extrinsic to the house itself, as "characteristic of the decadent lifestyle of Michaux, the Harris's, and the nine other socialites now deceased."
"That's a lot of power you have invested in yourself, Murray. But I don't think you believe yourself to be a representative of the public. No. I think you are personally offended when I get in my car, turn my music up and cruise off. I think you see that and imagine your buddy blowing you off, disrespecting the intimate relationship you and your friend share." Murray's face squinted and his glasses dropped to the ground. But instead of picking them up, Murray stared aghast at the subject of tonight's story, a story whose clarity was no longer clear. "Because you know me, don't you, buddy? Your job is to know me, to reveal my most intimate secrets. Yet I still ignore you. Our relationship is one-sided. Your life revolves around me, but until today I didn't even acknowledge your existence. That's got to be pretty humiliating." Ethan paused, and the pretentious smirk became more pronounced. "Murray, buddy, how's your sex life? You don't imagine yourself to be me when you're fucking your wife, do you? Don't you fantasize about being me?"
Again Murray stepped back. Wild hand gestures and a scream compensated. "You little prick. What do you know? Your parents are murderers and you profit from it. This is why America hates you." Even after his voice stopped, his arms continued in a windmill-like motion.
A female voice intervened, feint but ear-catching: "Stop. Let's keep this interview cordial." And then she emerged through the crowd, the girl whose celebrity gossip show has featured a "close acquaintance" of Ethan's each day for the past two weeks--seven girls who allegedly had affairs with Ethan and three guys who have witnessed these affairs. This is the girl responsible for promoting an image of Ethan as the pariah of the MTV generation--a pretentious brat who loves to drink and fuck and fight.
Addressed to Mr. Murray of Channel 6: "Step back. Your interview is complete." Then she turned to Ethan. "My name is Jessica Olsen."
Whatever reproaches Ethan had intended for Miss Olsen were stifled by her unexpected appearance. On television, she looked like an aged and animated Barbie Doll, thirty-plus years old and wholly artificial. Think Cindy McCain thirty cosmetic years younger (or fifty actual years). In reality, Miss Olsen looked only one or two years Ethan's senior, probably just out of college. If her cool and collected composure weren't enough to surprise Ethan amid a crowd of hyenas, her defense of him was enough to suspend any bitter feelings.
"Of course, Miss Olsen. I upgraded my cable package just to get the channel that airs your show. I'm a huge fan." She frowned, he smirked. "I especially like the alias you've given me--the prodigal son."
That forceful girl that subdued the irate Murray and coaxed Ethan out of a tirade now blushed. "Not so original, but right on the nose, isn't it?"
A quick retort. "Am I doomed, Miss Olsen? Doesn't the prodigal son ruin himself?"
Jessica began to tilt her head, but shame is an emotion foreign to the reporter. Her gesture stopped at the mere tilt of the head and a sideways gaze into Ethan's eyes--shame turned condescension. "You tell me..."
Jessica broke the silence with a nervous and broken voice. She cleared her throat and continued. "Perhaps you'd like to appear on my show? You know, to clear up any misconceptions about you and your family."
Ethan hesitated. He had supposed that if he laid low for a few weeks the media's campaign against him and his family would die out. Ethan thought he could only be the pariah of the "populist media" as long as he remained a public figure. Eventually media hostilities would re-direct themselves towards a governor's sex scandal or an actor's religious conversion or the Superbaby of two "stars."
Then again, Jessica evoked a sense of solidarity between the two. "Quiet, Mr. Harris," her eyes soothed. "We both know how to manipulate the public. Let's play the game." Ethan was then intoxicated by several liquors--the opportunity to recreate his public image, the thrill of conspiring with the enemy, and the prodigal son's fatalism (the last two are intimately related).
The introduction to "Jessica's Celebrity News, tonight with Ethan Harris": Jessica walked onto an empty stage. The only noise came from her heels as she walked to center stage; the only light was the stage light that followed her. At center stage, Jessica bowed her head as if to quell a torrent of emotions within her. Once focused, she raised her head and began her monologue.
"How did a tragedy become an occasion for a media firestorm? Ethan Harris's friend told my audience last week that Ethan felt the media were vicious, exploiting a private tragedy for commercial gain. I say Mr. Harris just doesn't get it. Comforted by his wealth and privilege, Ethan wouldn't understand that the irresponsible behavior of his parents and himself are symptoms of a decadent lifestyle. We all know the story of his parents--his father, Senator Harris, was too drunk to operate a yacht off the Washington State coast and crashed, killing twelve people in all. Even worse, the Harris family purchased the yacht with profits from Sudanese mutual funds. The Sudanese government probably used the Harris' money to sponsor genocide in Darfur. And Ethan's behavior is just as irresponsible. If he hasn't directly killed any of his friends, he's done so more insidiously by feigning affection to poor, innocent girls and then betraying them after he's gained their trust."
Jessica walked off the stage, again the only noise coming from her shoes and the only light from the solitary stage light that followed her. As soon as she exited the stage, another camera picked her up, this time on the set of her interview. Two bright red chairs surrounded a table. Jessica sat in one chair; he in the other. His khaki pants, flip flops, and polo fit the décor but contrasted with Jessica's pant suit.
"Let's get right down to business, Mr. Harris. I'm giving you the opportunity to publicly absolve your crimes. If you do so, you will be on the right path towards a healthier, more democratic lifestyle. What do you say?"
Ethan's response-bewilderment. "I'm sorry? Can you explain--"
"An apology, now?! Mr. Harris, you can't get off that easily."
He sighed. "Let me try answering again...As for the ship wreck, I can't dispute that twelve people died on my parent's yacht because of my father. He was obviously too drunk to operate the boat, especially in the storm. The deaths of those twelve people were preventable, if only my parents had the oversight to hire a crew."
Ethan paused for a few seconds with his head staring into his lap. Slowly he lifted his head and returned Jessica's fierce gaze. His voice was slow and prudent as he elegized: "It isn't so much my parents' death I mourn. It's their loss of dignity, their shame. And my shame. If there were anything I could do..."
Jessica tosses her head back in disgust. She scoffs: "If there were anything you could do!? You could stop sacrificing innocent girls to your decadent appetite." Ethan offered another blank response. "You just don't get it! But you wouldn't, comforted with your money and your privilege." Jessica retaliated against his blank expression with a sardonic stare..."Someday, Mr. Harris, a girl will slap that smug look off your face. And what will you be without that phony appearance? A coward!" Ethan let her tirade continue. "I'm talking about all the girls you've victimized. All the girls you've persuaded to engage in sexual relations and then never call again, the girls you take pictures of in their confidence and then send to all your friends, the vicious rumors you spread about the girls. How do you respond, Mr. Harris?"
The guest's chair was lowered beneath the host chair by almost a foot. Ethan eliminated this power differential by straightening his back and raising his chin to become eyelevel with Jessica. He stared at Jessica as if she were one of the girls sacrificed to his decadent appetite. "Listen, I've behaved very immaturely in my lifetime. I apologize to all the girls I've mistreated."
Jessica's immediate retort: "You took a different posture last weekend on your driveway."
"How so, Ms. Olsen?"
Jessica responded with a fierce stare at Ethan, then a smile towards the camera. "We're going to commercial. We'll be back with more interview from Ethan Harris himself."
The camera zoomed out and the host's fierce stare zoned in. "What the fuck was that?" Ethan offered his trademark smile--an image usually underscored with the caption "He has no remorse!" And Jessica pounced on that smile. She leaned over the table and pointed at his face, her finger inches away from Ethan's lips. "That fucking smile. That's the attitude your hiding from camera. That smug look that says, 'Ya, I'm an asshole. What of it?' What the fuck are you doing, trying to win over my crowd?"
That was his intention when he agreed to appear on Jessica talk. But his response was contrary, as usual. "Please. I couldn't care less what your viewers think. What do I care about Billy-Bob from Mobile, sitting on his couch eating potato chips and devouring celebrity news, screaming to his TV about the decadence of American celebrities, or Veronica, the fourteen-year-old girl who has her friends over to watch your show every night, loving to hate me but secretly dreaming of me at night. You're viewers are pathetic."
Jessica, still bent over the table, smiled and brushed her finger over Ethan's lips. "That's the attitude I want. Don't give me these bullshit conciliatory gestures...We're on in ten seconds."
"Welcome back. We were talking of my first encounter with Ethan Harris last weekend. On the driveway of Ethan's house, just outside the gated fence, Ethan asked Mr. Murray from local Seattle News if, I quote, 'You don't imagine yourself to be me when you're [beep] your wife, do you?' Do you see why the media perceives you as pretentious?"
"Jessica, the media stalks me; they literally are my shadows. They live their lives in imitation of mine, going from the coffee shop to the University to my house to the club. But they can't interact with me--they only capture a picture of me. The failures of imitation must aggravate the hell out of these stalkerazzi." Jessica smiles at the epithet. "It must confuse their own identities, making their lives dependent on copying mine. I have a lot of power, then, being the sole focus of Murray's life. When he accused me and my family of murder, I retaliated. I negated Murray's entire life by calling him out. He imagines himself so intimately connected with myself, I wouldn't doubt if he fantasized about being me...You know how it is, Jess."
"Oh, do I?" Her smile rebuffed her sardonic tone.
Ethan stretched across the table, his arms parallel to Jessica's shoulders. In a soft but clear voice, "Do you know I have a mole on my left butt cheek?"
Jessica offered a peculiar smile to Ethan, lips parted and eyes wide. She quickly recovered and played off the intensity by leaning back in her chair and folding her arms. "Excuse me, Mr. Harris. This conversation is totally inappropriate. Please comment on allegations that your family's investment in Sudanese mutual funds." But she leaned forward again, her arms parallel to his.
"You know my most intimate details, don't you, Jess?" Ethan recognized her feigned diffidence. Jessica's tilted head and lowered eyebrows couldn't conceal her enthusiasm. Her bright eyes and flushed face revealed the truth. "Did these girls tell you my sexual style, off camera? Do you know how I go about the chase? Do you know how I go about the lay?"
"Oh! You are disgusting, Ethan. Just what I thought you'd be." Smile.
From somewhere behind the cameras: "Twenty seconds left."
Image: A voyeur looks through a large plane-glass window. Inside the house, where Jessica stands, it is dark. Outside, a full moon appears in the center of a long pool, only disrupted by occasional bodies and splashes. Two columns of Tiki-lights surround the pool, casting a flickering light over the many faces that stand alongside.
Jessica stares intently on one figure--formerly the object of her television show, now the object of her affection. He stands on the right side of the pool at the bar--a straw hut made to match tonight's Hawaiian theme. The crowd around him is boisterous--each person strains their voice to be heard and waves their hands to be noticed. Then the entire group erupts in laughter--the guys slap one another's backs and the girls touch playfully. Every five minutes or so shots magically appear. Despite the energy and the alcohol, Jessica recognizes this scene as harmless. A girl might take off her top anytime, a guy might throw her into the pool, but no real intimacy can develop in such a riot.
Jessica watches as a girl slowly approaches the crowd from the far end of the pool. Her coconut bra looks custom made, and Jessica can't see any color beneath her hula skirt--no bikini bottom, no thong, no lingerie. The girl edges her way between the crowd and taps Ethan on the shoulder. She pulls him out of the crowd and whispers something into his ear. Ethan takes the drink from her hand as she slips two leis around his neck.
Jessica glares at the girl wearing the coconut bra and hula skirt without any panties. The Tiki-lights irradiate an ominous glow--the tramp's eyebrows converge by shadow and her jaw pushes outward. Lost in this glare, Jessica doesn't see the girl's motion towards the plane-glass window that Jessica hides behind. It isn't until the two start walking towards the window that Jessica registers their approach directly towards her. Startled, Jessica covers her face with her hands, something like a child does with slightly parted fingers. She takes one step backwards for each of their steps forward, her hands partially covering her eyes until she trips and falls.
She looks around her--pitch black, nothing. She stands up and smirks at herself. No one is inside to see her fall and the couple leaning on the opposite side of the window can't see her staring through. Comforted by her anonymity, Jessica reassumes her glare at the tramp. But it isn't just the girl she loathes. It's the guy leaning casually against the plane-glass window that she really hates. This guy who bends his head forward to talk to the tramp, who stupidly follows her gaze downward at her breasts and back up at her eyes--he represents Jessica's betrayal, her vulnerability, her failure.
The seductress suddenly stops running her finger across her lips and stares into the glass. The tramp with no underwear is probably admiring herself in an image with Ethan--a man whom, to Jessica, was at first a sort of alluring scoundrel, then a charming beau, and now a regular slut. The tramp's lips move, then Ethan stares at the window. His eyes seem to look directly in Jessica's. His facial expression is gauged as if towards another person.
A stampede from behind. Jessica's eyes, accustomed to the dark, can't see the people emerging through the door behind her, but she can hear the footsteps and she can sense the light. She turns back towards the glass. Now three figures appear--the tramp with her condescending smile, Ethan with parted lips and arched eyebrows, and a new girl in the window, her body paralyzed but her face growing redder by the second. Then she runs--to escape the image in the window of the horrified girl, to hopefully recover the vantage point of a camera.
It was more because of pity than preference that Ethan followed Jessica and left Ash. The latter's sardonic attitude aroused his empathy. Ash's accusation--"Once a reporter, always a reporter"--seemed directed at himself. He, too, is trapped in an unforgiving situation--as he sleeps with the enemy, he becomes the enemy. As he indulges Jessica's conception of himself, he gives credence to the media fabrication that is Ethan Harris.
But there was another factor besides her own self-betrayal that motivated Jessica to stand on the opposite side of the window waiting for the courage to embrace Ethan. Two days before this party Jessica and Ethan celebrated their two-week anniversary--intense passion makes a two-week anniversary seem like six months. Ethan hired a private boat to take the couple on an afternoon tour around Elliot Bay and into the Puget Sound. The couple enjoyed a bottle of Cabernet on the deck and retired into the cabin to see the view from sea-level, as Ethan proposed. And the view was incredible--in a distance the skyscrapers, directly horizontal from their eyes, seemed to float on the water. Occasionally a fish would jump out and ruin the illusion of a floating city, but the wildlife seemed to reinforce their safety from the hazards of city-life. Together, away from vicious jobs and reputations...
Jessica rejected the new glass of Cabernet Ethan had poured for her. She seized his waist and pressed it to her. She kissed him--slowly at first, harder later. She jumped onto a wide sofa and beckoned. "Make love to me." Ethan lifts up her dress and kisses her thighs.
Then Jessica pulls down her dress and stands up. "Wait, Ethan. Tell me..."
"Tell you what?"
"Tell me that you love me."
"You know, love. Admit your feelings. Tell me that you'll do anything to be with me. Tell me that you sacrifice your pride for our relationship."
His instinct was to yield to passion, to admit his love and to relinquish his security as an offering to Jessica. But the threat reiterated itself: "Someday, Mr. Harris, a girl will slap that smug look off your face. And what will you be without that phony appearance? A coward."
Ethan whispered in Jessica's ear: "You're incredible." His lips trace over Jessica's neck. She grabbed the back of his head and presses it harder to her--the sensation stalled any reservations Jessica had about his affection. His lips pressed harder still. Jessica moaned--two seconds, three, until she couldn't take anymore. She screamed, gripped his hair and pulled his head away from her neck. Then she slapped him. "Quit!"
Confused, Ethan placed his hands behind his back and stepped away from Jessica. The wrong gesture--she retaliated with a cry: "Why? What is your problem? Why do you do this to me?" She fell onto the sofa and buried her head in a pillow.
Three sobs later and Ethan was convinced of her sincerity. No actor can induce body spasms powerful enough to shake the couch. Ethan lay beside her on the sofa; he placed her tear-soaked face onto his chest. The courage came after a few minutes of resting beside his love. He stroked her head and said "Jessica, I have something to tell you."
Slowly her head rose until Ethan could see her bloodshot eyes. He wiped the tears from her cheeks. Her voice quivered as she asked, "What did you want to tell me?"
Still hesitant, Ethan gazed into her eyes for a few seconds. The deep-red veins now appeared as only a pinkish hue. The corners of her lips slowly turned upward and she stroked his back as if to reassure him of his safety.
But the words never came. Instead, the two spent the rest of the tour around Elliot Bay lying together, silent and still and with their eyes closed tightly. That was their last encounter before the looking glass. Jessica had arrived "fashionably late." She envisioned her arrival as something like a fairytale: she would look fresh and beautiful in an elegant dress while the other girls would walk around in daiquiri-stained clothes with droopy eyes and slurred voices. But the other girls at the party weren't wearing stained clothes--most weren't wearing anything that could get stained--and the pool seemed to rejuvenate even the drunkest of them. And so Jessica froze before the mirror, trying to muster the courage to embrace her love.
Ethan found her sitting on his bed with a pillow held tightly to her breasts. Placing his arms around her didn't soften her grip on the pillow. Her body was taut, paralyzed, but her breath was erratic. For twenty seconds she would sit motionless, her face growing redder until she finally released a fit of quick gasps. Tears would stream down her cheek and Ethan would kiss her forehead and allay her suffering until the next bout of gasps came.
This mechanical operation continued for thirty minutes--her sudden panic attacks and his efforts to relieve her pain. The reporter/girlfriend was afraid to repent for her voyeurism; the subject/boyfriend was afraid to abandon the safety of his player reputation. An apology would deny the legitimacy of their fears. But without an apology there can be no forgiveness.
Suddenly Jessica stood up. Ethan motioned to get up with her, but she pushed him down. Her hands shook violently as she held them across her chest and her breath was still erratic, but her voice was as confident as the girl's on Jessica's Nightly News. "You need to tell me."
Again Ethan motioned to stand up. When she stuck out her arm to block his movement Ethan tried to pull it around his back. Jessica retaliated: "No. Sit down." Ethan obeyed, but not without that arrogant smirk. "Tell me," she commanded.
Ethan paused as he tried to size up her attitude. Once he concluded that she was serious, there was only one response. "I won't lie. I won't tell Jessica Olsen that I love her. I know that this fling is all about a special report. You have a fucking camera on you right now, don't you? That's why you were spying on me outside. Bitch!"
Jessica imitates Ethan's arrogant smile. After a moment of exchanging condescending smiles, Jessica tossed her head back and laughed. "Ha ha ha. Finally, I have my story."