Once and Again...Once Again
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Summary of The Past Is Prologue
by Angela Stockton
edited by Elizabeth Eccher
Eli's English class is studying The Great Gatsby, and high stakes are riding on his upcoming exam: if he does not pass with at least a B, he will lose his sports eligibility. On the eve of this exam, Rick paces his kitchen, book in hand, and tries to tutor Eli. "Tell me about the green light," he orders. "What does the green light represent?"
"That he had an intersection next to his house?" Eli answers flippantly. Perched on a stool, he plays with fruit while he tries to care about Gatsby; but he complains that a novel set in 1924, with a rich lonely man as its protagonist, seems irrelevant to his own life.
Rick is unsympathetic even after Eli, turning serious, insists that he has no life other than coming straight home after school and doing his homework. The kitchen is like a locker room at halftime of The Big Game: "You have to commit to doing well if you're going to get through this. You can't just do the minimum amount," Rick exhorts Eli. "Ask yourself...what's gonna get me the grade?"
"Besides prayer?" Eli jokes again, drawing another rebuke from Rick.
Eli complains that Rick is pushing him rather than helping him. Intense and unrelenting, Rick presents himself as a model for Eli. He informs his son that he's bidding on a commission to design a large commercial facility, and he's not praying for it: he's going all-out to win it, even if it means working his whole staff through the night. Shamed into silence, Eli takes his book and slinks out of the kitchen.
Having made a lunch date with Rick, Lily drops in at Sammler & Cassili the next day. Although Rick is holding a staff meeting, he takes a break to greet Lily. David notices the attractive visitor and saunters over to meet her, announcing, "Rick has no manners, so I'll introduce myself."
"You must be David," she guesses; "I have that misfortune," he replies, eyeing her with frank admiration. To Rick, he stage-whispers, "God, you said she's only okay-looking."
Unfazed, Lily retorts facetiously, "That's okay, he told me you have no talent and he's completely carried you all these years."
"At least he's honest about one of us," David agrees wryly.
Rick explains that his staff is preparing their design for the new Briggs & Mason corporate headquarters, and confidently predicts that they'll get the commission. "Or die trying, or die doing, or die if we don't get it," less-confident David adds.
Lily wonders if Rick can spare the time for lunch, but even as he insists that of course he can get away, his employees are deluging him with questions. "Chicken? Turkey? Ham?" Lily suggests, offering to bring back sandwiches. Overwhelmed, Rick smiles apologetically.
[In an interview, Lily describes the fun and exhilarating busyness of her father's restaurant when she was a child.]
As Lily returns with the sandwiches, Rick informs her that they can't eat together after all, because he has to meet with the project engineer at that very moment. In spite of the brave face she presents to Rick, once everyone has taken her sandwiches and run, Lily feels deserted and slightly hurt.
[Continuing her interview, she recalls that as she grew older, she found it embarrassing to be fussed over by the restaurant staff because whatever her true age, her image as the boss's cute six-year-old daughter seemed frozen in time. In a flashback, a younger Lily sees herself in the restaurant at the moment goateed, scruffy Jake tells her that her father wants him to come work there. Zoe is then an infant whom proud grandpa Phil can't resist showing off to the staff and patrons. While Jake regards working for his father-in-law as a step up from selling stereos, Lily is apprehensive.]
Returning to the bookstore, Lily tells Judy that lunch was canceled, and why. Lily's gushing praise for workaholic Rick worries Judy. He reminds her of Billy Finkelstein, an old boyfriend to whom Lily devoted herself, and who repaid her by never being there when she needed him.
Meanwhile, the bell rings in Eli's classroom and though he's still scribbling, he has to turn in his Gatsby test paper. His inflexible teacher grants him no extra time, saying he can't make special allowances for Eli over the other students.
That evening, while Lily and Rick are cooking dinner at his apartment and trading stories about their children, the telephone rings. [In his interview, he explains that, with no planning and no discussion, Karen simply moved in with him after they slept together. Since the divorce, he sometimes feels "invaded" when a woman sleeps over, "until now. She never stays long enough." As if afraid he's said too much, he adds, "Uh-oh," but with a smile.]
The call is from Rick's office, and to Lily's dismay, the conversation goes on and on. [In her interview, she recalls that she was always waiting for her father. Through a flashback, she remembers a night at the restaurant when Phil pressed menus into her hand and demanded that she seat two of his regular customers, even though Grace and Zoe, aged about six and one, were with her and she had long since quit working for her father. Resuming her interview, she recalls that once Jake started working at the restaurant, she again found herself always waiting, this time for her husband.]
Having finally eaten their dinner and made love, Rick and Lily are in his bed, winding down. Lily assures him that yes, it was good for her too, but Rick is afraid that she's faking: "Then how come it didn't...whatever?" In turn, she wonders if she's being graded. "Men!" she exclaims. "Why is performance so important to you?"
Rick is convinced that she's upset about the time he spent on the telephone. She explains that men absorbed with work are "a thing in my life," but acknowledges that she's not being fair to Rick by lumping him with them.
Rick tries to explain his commitment to his work, saying, "I started this firm. Everything I have is tied up in this firm." [He has his own flashback, to a night when he was still married to Karen. Arriving home, he throws down his briefcase and a rolled-up drawing. "You don't want me to work, you just want the money to materialize!" he shouts. "Nooo!" she wails like a wounded animal, "I just don't want you to be so strange, and so cold!" "And why do you think that is?" he snarls contemptuously. On the verge of tears, Karen leaves the room.] Before Lily leaves, Rick confirms that they're still on for dinner the next night.
Over breakfast the next morning, Rick asks Eli how he did on the Gatsby test. The more he pesters Eli for specifics, the more evasive Eli becomes, saying no more than "I did okay."
At the office, David tells Rick that Sherrie, one of their employees, has taken advantage of her date with a rival firm's employee to steal a copy of that firm's plans for the Briggs & Mason project. [Rick recalls that after architecture school, he began his career in a large firm where he felt lost and unappreciated as less-talented architects moved up faster than he did. He discovered that architecture is more than just designing buildings, implying that it's also marketing and politics.] In the pilfered drawings, Rick and David find a design for an entire complex. They themselves have designed only the main building and, fearing that this will look too modest, Rick announces to his staff that Sammler & Cassili must submit a design for an office complex -- and that they have 26 hours to complete it.
Having committed himself to this nearly impossible task, Rick gamely pounds his computer keyboard, so absorbed that he loses track of the time. When Sherrie suggests ordering dinner, he asks the time and is overcome with chagrin when he's told that it's 6:30 p. m. His employees guess that Rick has inadvertently stood up "the mom" and chant, "Rick's in trouble, Rick's in trouble..."
He calls Lily at home just as she's about to leave for his office. Stoically she accepts his explanation about having to work late, saying a tender, "Good-bye, Ricky" as she hangs up. [Nonetheless, in flashback, she relives a night when Jake has come home from the restaurant hours after closing. He's irritable and evasive when she asks where he's been and tearfully pleads for more of his time. "Our marriage is dying," she tells him. "I need you here, I need to be in your heart." With a look on his face that says he finds her tiresome and boring, he walks away without a word or a backward glance.]
Rick goes to Karen's to pick up Eli and Jessie. Karen is concerned about his obvious fatigue and points out that it makes no sense for him to take them, since he's working late. She has heard from Eli's teacher and wants to discuss the Gatsby test; Jessie snickers, "He really messed up."
The minute Eli walks in, Rick starts to berate him. Eli can't explain why he failed, and he's in no mood to listen to his father's criticism on top of his mother's. He tries to promise that it won't happen again, but he's so upset with himself and so hurt by his father's attitude that when Rick lashes out at him, he lashes back. As Karen tries unsuccessfully to intervene, Rick shouts at Eli, "You're grounded!" and grabs Eli's arm when he tries to walk away. Eli taunts him, "What are you gonna do, beat me up?" before stalking out of the kitchen.
The ugly scene frightens Jessie. Seeing her, Rick cools down and mumbles to Karen, "Things are really tense at the office." Now furious herself, she replies acidly, "These are your children. Would you please try to remember what's more important?"
Eli is in his room, crying, when Rick comes in to apologize. Curtly, Eli tells him he has homework and, taking his seat at the desk, turns his back on Rick. Karen's face is lined with worry as Rick tells her good-bye and leaves without the children.
[Rick recalls that after a year at his first, unfulfilling job, he realized that Karen didn't believe in him. He "wanted so much to be a man in her eyes" that he became what he thought she desired: a success. He started his own firm and in its first three years he routinely worked 12- to 14-hour days. Although he achieved professional recognition, "I missed Eli's first day of kindergarten, and I almost missed Jessie's birth. We stopped having sex. Something had hardened in me, and Karen never forgave me. All I wanted was her respect and I ended up losing her love." He corrects himself, saying, "She was the one who taught me how to be that way, by doubting me, by making me ashamed of myself, and I guess I needed to punish her for that. So I did."]
With Rick still working, Lily spends another night at home without him. Judy comes over, and listens silently as Lily talks nonstop: Rick works too hard, he's too easygoing and can't say no to anyone or even to his job; she doesn't know where she fits in his life, but he's not like Phil or Jake or Billy Finkelstein; she's learned from her mistakes and is taking their relationship slowly; and there's nothing wrong with her going over to his office and giving him some support. As Lily pulls on her coat, Judy remarks, "I'm glad we had this talk," with subtle sarcasm that goes completely over Lily's head.
Rick is happy to see Lily, and touched that she brought him food, but the ten minutes he promises to spend with her shrink to two when his employees won't leave him alone. [Lily has a flashback to a moment when, again, she tearfully pleaded to be included in Jake's life. For once, he blamed himself for screwing up and promised that things would get better.] Shaken by her memories, Lily flees the office, where Rick is so busy that he doesn't notice she's left until she's reached her car. He follows her and, seeing her tears, he sighs, "Aw, Lil," and tries to coax her back inside. But he can't promise her what she craves -- his undivided attention -- and she refuses. Rick tiredly, resignedly watches her drive away.
All the firms competing for the Briggs & Mason contract are making their presentations on the same day. As Rick and David watch the other firms' presentations through the glass walls of the conference room, every handshake, smile and pat on the back for their rivals seems ominous to them. "We did all we could, that's all anybody can ask," Rick insists, bracing himself for possible rejection.
[In his interview, Rick recalls that his father worked 70-hour weeks as a city engineer. Although he clearly expected Rick to follow in his footsteps, he always looked at him with sadness, as if he expected Rick to not measure up.] Rick is so nervous that when it's finally Sammler & Cassili's turn, he must first run to the men's room to throw up. [Rick says his father came home exhausted every night and never wanted to talk about his work, never wanted sympathy from his family. All he wanted at the end of the day was peace and quiet, and his Scotch.]
At her home, Lily is waiting for Jake to pick up Grace and Zoe. "He's always late, you know that," Grace reminds her. [Grace's remark triggers a flashback to a night when Lily went to the restaurant looking for Jake. In a basement room, she found him in an intimate embrace with a half-naked woman.] Jake walks in while Lily is dialing a telephone number. "Who're you calling?" he asks genially. Lily gives him a smoldering stare, as if to ask who he is to be checking up on her.
That evening, Rick visits Karen's house. She tells him that Eli refused to go to school that day. Entering Eli's room, Rick finds him trying to read, but frustrated by his handicap and despondent that he can't measure up to Rick. He calls himself "stupid."
Rick tells Eli that he's given him the wrong message -- Rick has been so afraid he himself won't measure up that he's forgotten what's important. He and Eli are repeating the pattern of Rick's own youth, when he believed that he was disappointing his father and only later realized that his father was actually disappointed in himself.
He tells Eli to quit comparing himself to famous dyslexics like Einstein, or to his own father, because he has a lot going for him. Everyone has problems, Rick says: that doesn't mean Eli can't appreciate life as fully as anyone else. "I don't want to push you away, E. You're going to be gone far too soon as it is," he insists, moving Eli to tears.
Downstairs, Rick reports to Karen that Eli is rereading The Great Gatsby. Karen's proud of his perseverance, but she's at a loss for what to do next -- another school, another tutor? "He may not have the life we always thought he'd have," she laments. Rick replies that what they thought doesn't matter: it's Eli's life. [In his interview, Rick says that he's read enough to know that Eli was born with his disability and that it wasn't caused by growing up with an absentee father. But he still can't convince himself of that.]
Bone-weary Rick shuffles into the bookstore to bring Thai takeout food to Lily and ask her, "Remember me?" Judy decides she needs to catch up on her reading and leaves them alone.
Lily apologizes for their difficult week, saying he shouldn't have had to deal with her "meltdown."
"Was that a meltdown?" he asks. "A mini-melt," she concedes.
"Is that like a tuna melt?" he quips and, under Lily's laser stare, promptly apologizes for his awful pun.
She tells him, "I love your work, I love watching you work, I love the fact that you work." Since this is not the impression she's given him all week, Rick asks what her problem is with his work. The problem, she explains, is "a little-girl moment when you know he's not going to stop for me, no matter what I say."
He wonders why she loves watching him work. "You're sexy, you're so commanding, you're adorable!" she replies, bringing a shy smile and a blush to his face.
Having shared Lily's "little-girl moment" (and remembering Karen's), Rick explains what he doesn't understand: "Women want men to work, but then they're upset when the men are not available."
Lily is confused too: she needs to know if something else is going on that makes Rick pull away. In response, Rick describes the "safe place" he hopes to reach if he can only enlarge the firm, take on a new partner, acquire a few big clients -- all to drive away the ever-present specter of failure. Lily's protest that he's nowhere near failing is not comforting; failure is always a banana peel away, and he can't ever let up for fear of slipping.
Lily finally understands what Rick finds so hard to articulate: he's afraid she won't love him if he's a failure. Rick insists that he doesn't want to be a grind who dies young without ever having had a life outside his job, but admits that he might need some help becoming more well-rounded. Warmly, Lily assures him, "I can do that."
While they are kissing as if to make up for lost time, she suddenly remembers what's been keeping them apart and asks Rick if he got the Briggs & Mason job. No, he replies ruefully: they thought everyone did too much and want to see scaled-down models by tomorrow. He'll have to spend another all-nighter away from her, starting in fifteen minutes. "But I can pay attention to you until then," he says.
As they exchange sly smiles, Lily goes to the front door, turns the "Open" sign to "Closed," and lowers the blinds.
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