When I met Frank Capra, Jr., it was at a cocktail party in Wilmington and he was dying and I was 72 hours sober, so we looked about the same.
My date was Duke Fire, a giant redhead, like a Viking, who taught the film program at our community college. I don’t remember what we said to Frank Capra Jr., but there was a lot of booze there. I shook his hand, and it was cold. I was relieved to be alive, but I was outside a lot smoking for something to do and to help me not think about things, which is impossible when you have quit drinking, and for a long time after.
“Look at this dirty Italian,” Frank said to a short, stocky man in his 50s who walked up to our table and set down his glass of red wine. He man had the saddest, kindest eyes I’d ever seen, dark and green like the sea before a hard rain.
“Oh, Frankie,” the man said, with tears in his eyes, and they hugged for a long time. After the embrace, Frank Capra, Jr. walked away from us, but the man stayed, wiping his eyes with his cocktail napkin. He looked at Duke and shook his head. “He looks terrible.”
We were in the bar of the Wilmington City Club, an exclusive members-only former socialite mansion only a few blocks from my downtown apartment. Somewhere on the streets my boyfriend drove his car. He was a recovered junkie actor in an alcoholic relapse in the process of harmlessly stalking me for the upcoming year. I introduced myself to the man at our table.
“This is Milt Angelo,” Duke said. “Teaches film at the university.”
And that’s all I remember. Then I’m waiting for Milt weeks later at a swanky tapas bar in downtown Wilmington. I’m still sober, and I think I’m going to make it. I wait for one hour. Milt is in Atlanta. “We’re meeting next Wednesday!” he says to me over the cell phone. We aren’t. He is mortified. “I will make it up to you forever,” he says. The next week when I show up he is already there, and he pulls my chair out for me. He tells me to order anything, and then he tells me that Frank is dead.
“We’re losing all the good ones,” he says. “All the real men.”
He tells me about Frank, about his father, about being Italian. I explain to him about being a Southern girl, that I am directing my upcoming play called Three Men, that I am going through some things, omitting sobriety, including divorce. “You are amazing,” he says. “There is something special about you.” I want to believe him, but I am scared of myself because that’s how it was then.
I tell him I have to meet some friends at 8, so we leave, and on the walk home he asks me if I’m in Al-Anon. “No one else meets friends at 8 on a Wednesday,” he says, winking at me.
“I’m on the other side,” I say. I can’t look in his eyes for very long. Being with him makes me feel like I owe it to myself to be what he sees in me. I am more than what I’ve become. I don’t know what I am, but I know it’s better, it’s greater. It’s different from this. “You’re pretty cool,” I tell him.
“Why did we meet tonight?” he asks.
“I don’t know,” I say. “I have no idea.”
Over the summer, we have tea and strawberry-rhubarb pie in his kitchen. He makes me say “pie” over and over and then mocks my accent saying “pah. pah. pah. I’m not making fun of you, it’s cute!” We tell each other things we’ve hardly ever shared, and we don’t know why we do. I am becoming someone different, and he is letting me. With some people it is just like that. With some people you’re in love before you meet, so when you finally do see each other’s eyes, you recognize yourself even if you don’t understand what’s happening.
The next spring I bought a house and came home one night to find a box by the front door. My heart froze, certain as I was there would be an ear inside. My mind was still in the worst part of messed up then even though I had cut off all contact with men to learn how to be alone, and I’d been one whole year without a drink. But the ex-boyfriend was having a hard time accepting the silence. It was very quiet then, and whoever had left the box had filled it full of icepacks and dishtowels. The night was hot and humid so water leaked from the melted ice and bled into the porch boards. On the top of the dishtowel there was a note. I was shaking when I opened it.
“Sparrow,” it read, “I hope you enjoy this pah.”
He laughed when I told him what I’d thought, but Milton left me soon after, too, as he does, and I did not hear from him for a year, when an email arrived sometime in the winter. He was in a Trappist monastery, somewhere in the Georgia hills. Heart attack. He had flatlined. Quadruple bypass and he was in the dark at the monastery recovering, and it was beautiful, very close to the stars. He wasn’t talking to anyone but wanted me to know he was okay but felt like something had left him.
“Perhaps,” I wrote back, “when they opened your chest the sorrow blew from your heart like autumn leaves, and you miss it.”
When he returned to Wilmington, we met for tea and he gave me a white box, just like the one he had left at my front door. I had already decided to marry Michael from the internet then, but did not yet know I would be leaving my home for good. Inside the box was a rubber severed foot attached to a length of black fabric, like a pants leg. I closed it in my car door and we laughed. Later, after the wreck that would catapult me to Florida, it would be this gag that would have the hairdresser who witnessed the accident just about faint on the sidewalk.
Two nights before I left Wilmington and that life behind me, when I was only a few more mistakes away from becoming the woman he saw in my eyes the night we knew Frank Capra was never going to make it, he took me to dinner. It was winter, December, and bitterly cold. He arrived at my door in warlock mask and sometime during our candlelit Italian dinner he slipped an enormous rubber spider inside the basket of garlic bread. “Sparrow,” he said, when he dropped me off at my house, but I wouldn’t let him say goodbye at the door, “if anything bad happens to you, you let me come get you.” In that moment, I knew something bad was going to happen to me, and I knew if it was bad enough, then I would call Milton Angelo to get me, and he would, and everything would be fine and we would eat strawberry-rhubarb pie and laugh about it.
I promised. I wrote to him, but we did not speak again until Valentine’s Day, when he included me on an email list, letting us all know he loved us.
“How can you be someone’s Valentine when your heart is broken?” I wrote him. I was angry. “Send me some news.”
“I didn’t know you thought that much of me,” he wrote back, and I was astounded. How could he not? All of our minds are messed up, I think, when it comes to how we see ourselves, and we get certain people to show us who we really are because they love us.
Later on, we come to know we’ve loved these people through the ether, through the ages, and part of the purpose of our lives was finding them here, in some strange circumstance, when we thought we weren’t going to make it, and we meet Frank Capra, Jr., who, like all the real men, is extinguishing. It is an old love, like an ancient ship, and it carries us through the night.
night, night beloveds.