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I am a restless writer of fiction, film, and music. I scripted such films as 9 and ½ Weeks, Sommersby, Impromptu (personal favorite), What Lies Beneath, and All I Wanna Do which I also directed. Both my documentaries, Marjoe and Thoth, won Academy Awards. Formerly a recording artist, I continue to write music, posting songs on my website. I live in New York with my husband James Lapine. My second novel, the paranormal thriller Jane Was Here, was published in 2011. My latest film, Learning to Drive, starring Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley, came out in August 2015, now available on VOD, DVD, and streaming media. This blog is a paranormal memoir-in-progress, whenever I have spare time. It's a chronicle of my encounters with ghosts, family phantoms, and other forms of spirit.

Monday, September 4, 2017

At Home With a Ghost - 64

5 out of 10 psychics can't be wrong

(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)

I suffer from ESP envy. It’s said that everyone is born with this intuitive ability, but most don’t know how to access it. I’ve never had much confidence in my own intuition, since my predictions were often wrong, which can be really embarrassing. Consequently I have sought and paid for the advice of professional clairvoyants whose powers of foresight made me jealous.

Over the years I must have seen a hundred psychics. I used to belly up to the smorgasboard and heap my plate. Whenever someone raved about a new one, I shot to the phone and made an appointment. My curiosity about my future was actually less than my curiosity about their techniques, which varied widely. I’ve already written about the Marrakesh shuwafa whose divinations were based on the shapes that hot lead made when poured into cold water. Another medium relied on the pronouncements of her spirit guide, an ancient Chinese princess who was obnoxious beyond belief. Another psychic simply stared at me for an hour before speaking. I kept notes on every session and, in the years that followed, I would re-read them now and then, to see which prophecies had come true. Did I indeed have an affair with a European man, possibly from Spain, with a drug problem? Not even. Did I get chronic ear infections when Mars in Virgo transited my second house in Taurus? Wow, yes. Bang on.

According to my records, not one of these soothsayers had a higher percentage of correct predictions than about 50%. When told they were wrong half the time, they shrugged. “It’s an imperfect science,” they said defensively, “but look at the half I got right!”

My obsession with fortunetellers came to a head when I was chasing a most elusive man. I was dead certain he was tagged for me forevermore, and with my whole heart wagging I dogged his footsteps all over town. During a two-year pursuit, I polled psychic after psychic: Would he be mine? Or was it in vain?

It wasn’t helpful that half said yes and half said, just as emphatically, forget it. I decided this was a great way to rate them. Eventually my question would get answered: either this guy would spurn or return my love. Then I could stop seeing the psychics who were wrong, and only subsidize those who were right. It would thin out my Rolodex.

After I married the elusive man, I became so content with my lot that I felt no need to spy on the future as I used to. I still saw, once a year, a few psychics whom I thought stupendous, like Maria the Russian painter whose day job was reading coffee grounds for eighty bucks an hour. She would brew a very strong, topsoil-thick expresso, serving it with a cloth napkin folded between saucer and cup. After the client drank the coffee, Maria upended the cup onto the napkin, draining any remaining liquid. She would then examine the dregs left in the cup. In their configurations she picked out images that could be translated into the language of destiny.

“I see a big ‘C’,” she told me once, inspecting my dregs. “You’ll be writing about a classical composer. I hope you do. I want to see this film.” This took me by surprise. For some time I had been tempted to write a spec script on Frederic Chopin’s affair with George Sand, but decided it would be a lot of work to no avail. Though the story gave me writer’s drool, producers were not beating the bushes for a movie about the 19th century French Romantics. And I was too busy with paid assignments anyway. Nevertheless, when Maria told me I was going to write that script, I took courage and wrote the thing – because it was my fate, right? Two years later, I invited Maria to the premiere of Impromptu, with young Hugh Grant in the role of ‘C’-for-Chopin.

I don’t think it’s amazing that Maria saw a ‘C’ in the coffee grounds, which could have left any random shape in her cup. The genius was in her interpretation. Where did she get “classical composer”? The ‘C’ could have stood for colorectal cancer, or Cleveland, or coffee cup. How did she know? Once again I lusted for ESP. If only I could do that, be able to pull names and specifics out of thin air, to tell someone, “I see you’re going to fall in love with a woman who wears a sapphire ring. I get the name Marianne – or Miriam? Maybe Marilyn. My ancient Babylonian guide isn’t clear. It’s an imperfect science.”

The most gifted and accurate clairvoyant medium I ever met was Colette Baron-Reid, a singer-songwriter from Toronto who supplemented her income by reading Tarot cards and relating whatever popped up on her mindscreen. A friend told me that Colette was extraordinary, so of course I made an appointment with her when she was visiting clients in New York, in January of 2002. On the day of our session I was in very high spirits, bursting with some terrific news I’d received earlier in the morning. I told none of this to Colette. Whenever I have a first encounter with a psychic I stay quiet, giving no information about myself other than my name. We were only a few minutes into the reading when she interrupted herself: “I’m seeing you in a dry place, a desert area, with palm trees…I’m going to say southern California. It’s a city with some mountains in the background. Looks like Los Angeles? Anyway, you’re there for some award. Wait – !” Her eyes grew wide. “Could this be an Oscar?”

The Academy Award nominations had just been announced that morning. My film Thoth was chosen for the Short Documentary category. “Yes,” I said, “but I’m not going to win.”

Anyone would have agreed. I was up against two other nominees. One rival film was about Eurasian orphans, a feel-sad weeper narrated by Rosie O’Donnell. Academy members couldn’t vote unless they’d attended an official screening of all the nominated shorts; I knew Rosie would pressure her many friends in the Academy to go see her film.The other short was about an adorable children’s chorus, a feel-good weeper. The directors were a mother/daughter team. The mother was head of the Academy’s documentary branch. She knew many, if not most, of the members and could likewise urge them to attend the screening. I had no inside connections to Academy voters, and my film was a non-weeper about a weirdo in a gold loin cloth.

“Well, you’re gonna win, girl,” Colette insisted. “You don’t believe me, but I’m seeing it.”

I thought, of course she has to say that. What psychic is going to hose your hopes by saying you’ll lose? I wrote the prediction in my notebook, as I had jotted so many others from so many fortunetellers. If Colette was right, cool. If she was wrong, then my Rolodex shed another card. I would know the answer very soon, since the awards ceremony was only two and a half weeks away. And, as there was no chance of my winning, my overwhelming anxiety became about the gown.

Thirty years before, I’d accepted an Oscar in a tuxedo. This was less a fashion statement than a practical solution. I couldn’t afford a nice dress. My partner and I had not been paid for producing and directing our nominated feature documentary Marjoe. I was living with my parents to save money. In my closet there were not many clothes not made of denim. I did own a nice black pant suit with satin piping, and black patent leather boots. I borrowed my father’s cummerbund, bow tie and cuff links, and bought a boys’ tuxedo shirt. Thirty dollars total did the trick. By wearing men’s clothes I also accomplished one of my main missions in life: to stick out.

This time I wanted a real gown in which to stick out. I couldn’t see the sense of paying thousands of dollars for a single occasion; the dress would have to be a loaner from some designer. There was no question of my wearing anything but a Romeo Gigli gown. I’d been collecting his unique creations for fifteen years; my closet barfed Romeo. He was my fashion soulmate. I would never cheat on him with another designer.

However, Romeo Gigli was having business problems. American boutiques no longer carried his collections; he was down to one eponymous store in Milan. I called the shop and spoke to the sales assistant, who happened to be American. He informed me the press office people were “idiots”; if I called out of the blue, they would very likely turn me down because they’d never heard of me. He advised me to come in person.

My husband gifted me a round-trip ticket to Milan, and off I flew. My new friend the sales assistant marched me into the publicity office, explaining in Italian what a golden opportunity it was to dress an Oscar nominee. He swore I was a celebrity. After all, I’d won the award previously.

Sure enough, the press folks were slow to comprehend. Sensing their reluctance, I entreated: “Please! If I win, I promise to thank him in my speech.” With that, they relented. Which dress did I want?

I had no idea, since Romeo’s fashions were not on view in the U.S. anymore. The publicists sent me to a workroom that held a few pieces from his spring collection. My spirits sank. There was only one gown on the rack. Entirely made of ribbons, it was voluminous; I would have needed two chairs to sit in it. The rest of the evening wear pieces were out to style editors all over Europe.

The press people decided it was time to be actually helpful. They handed me the “look book” from the runway show. If I would choose a dress from the photos, and if they could locate it in time, they would have it shipped to New York before I flew to L.A. for the ceremony.

I paged through Romeo’s typically brilliant collection. His inspiration for that season was the ocean: fish scale sequins and foamy bubble patterns and lacey sea fans. I spotted an exquisite black evening dress with tendrils of chiffon hand-snipped to look like seaweed floating about the shoulders and skirt.

The seaweed dress

I’d look pretty good in that. Marking the page, I continued flipping through the look book until I arrived at the final garment in the show.

Hanging by thin strings from the model’s shoulders, the dress consisted of a double layer of black tulle, with long tatters at the hem and gleaming crystal globules of all different sizes scattered over the airy fabric. It looked exactly as Romeo had intended: water drops on a fisherman’s net.

It was also totally transparent. The model’s nipple dots and perky boobs showed clearly through the tulle. She wore black briefs to cover her pubes. I was fifty-four non-perky years old and I would definitely stick out – everywhere – if I wore this one.

The fisherman's net dress

Not feasible.

And then came the Flash. Suddenly I saw myself mounting the left side of the Kodak Theater stage to accept a gold statuette from the Academy, and I was wearing this gown. The image did not come from my always-febrile imagination. The scene seemed as fresh and detailed and factual as if it had happened mere seconds before, yet it was not a memory. Where did the image come from? Neither imagined nor remembered, it was an orphan, born in a brain place that was unmarked on my map. My flash presented itself, not as a known fact, but as a thing simply known.

Now I understood what the psychics experienced. After years of ESP-ness envy, I had my first moment of “extraordinary knowing.”

The peeps in the press office, who had been leery of me before, now thought I was mad. The dress I requested was an “editorial” piece, designed only for eye-popping runway effect and for press photos; the fishnet gown was never meant to be worn by anyone real. If I would choose a second gown, they would ship both, in case this one (insert raised eyebrow) didn’t work out (which heaven help us it wouldn’t). I chose the seaweed dress as backup.

Back in the U.S., I worried that the publicists would deliberately fail to locate the water-drop dress. As more days passed I worried that, worse, they wouldn’t send either dress in time. Then I’d have to do the black pant suit all over again.

Three days from our departure for Los Angeles, the seaweed dress arrived, a size 4. My husband thought it beautiful, though I would have to cease eating for a few days to get into it. A day later, just as the palace clock chimed midnight, a second box arrived, with the fishnet dress crumpled inside. There was no fit problem. It floated away from the body like a mist. The glass droplets gleamed on the black tulle. You could see my caesarian scar and count every mole on my torso. My husband made no comment because he knew I would come to my senses eventually.

I had 48 hours to solve the see-through problem. We commandeered a theater designer to run up a black body suit to hide my bits. The morning of our departure, the designer called from the lobby. He was dropping off the slip, but had discovered an unanticipated problem with the dress. And he had been unable to solve it.

Each of the hundred droplet crystals had a flat back, which had been glued on the tulle. The glue leached through the net, making the crystals tacky when touched. If I sat down in the dress – if, for example, I were to sit for hours through the interminable ceremony until my category came up – my body heat, pressed to the fabric, would warm the glue further. When I rose – as, for example, to collect my award – the dress would stick to my ass and the backs of my legs, producing a sort of wadded-up bustle effect. Possibly no one in the audience would think my outfit was any more bizarre than my seat companion Thoth wearing a gold loin cloth and chest chains. On the other hand, my husband and daughter would be mortified.

“You don’t understand,” I raged. “I saw myself in this dress! I won’t win if I’m not wearing it!”

“You’re being ridiculous,” my husband retorted. “The votes are already in. It makes no difference what you wear.”

Once again I faced the inevitable. The gown was not created for any event except a quick walk down the runway. Not to be sat in, nor slept in, nor wept in.

Still undeterred, on the plane to L.A. I racked my brain to find a way of fixing the problem. That evening I had to attend another ceremony for the International Documentary Association, where my film had already won an award. On the way back to the hotel I stopped off in a 24-hour Rite-Aid to buy a roll of Scotch Magic Tape and a pair of sewing scissors.

All night I stayed up meticulously cutting little rounds of tape in the shape of each individual crystal. I stuck the rounds to the underside of the tulle, covering the glue on the back of a hundred glass droplets. I then sat in the dress for thirty minutes, warming up the crystals, at the end of which I rose up. The dress swung free, swishing about my legs as I walked experimentally around the hotel room. At last I had a dress to match my fate.

Here is what happened the next night:

My husband had been right. Fishnet or seaweed, the outcome would have been the same. I couldn’t explain that, far more important to me than winning the award, I desperately wanted my psychic flash to prove true. At stake was my belief in the paranormal experience. I fought hard for that gown because I needed my instant of knowing to be accurate in every detail.

I still can’t figure out, though, why I saw myself so clearly mounting the stage from the left when, on the night of, I actually entered from the right. But it’s an imperfect science.

The next morning, as Romeo Gigli walked to his workroom through the streets of Milan, people kept coming up to him and exclaiming that someone had thanked him onstage at the Oscars. Puzzled, he asked his press staff if they knew anything about it. The fools hadn’t thought to mention my visit to him. They admitted they’d loaned me a gown from his new collection. Which one? he wondered. They answered, the last one in the show.

His mouth fell open. “She wore that?! But – it’s completely transparent!”

(To be continued.)