Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Night A Girl Almost Died in My Arms

The year was 2002. I was 24 years old and living with my parents after an aborted move to Europe (didn't quite make it to the first trimester).

During this brief spell back in Chicago, before I moved out to Boston, I got sucked back into the local film industry I left not so ceremoniously a few months before. Because I am a whore.

Chief among the jobs I got during this period was a two-week stint as a production assistant on the elevated-train fight sequence in Spiderman 2.

The script wasn’t even finished yet; Tobey Maguire was rumored to be recovering from a grievous back injury on Seabiscuit, but director Sam Raimi knew he wanted this scene for his movie--knew exactly how he wanted it--and, like a child on Christmas Eve, just couldn’t wait.

My first few days of work consisted of hanging out in a CTA train shed and supplying a crew of rigging grips with suitcases full of White Castle sliders. Forever indebted to me, the rigging grips tried to add me to their crew as some sort of manservant, but the production manager nixed the idea.

Instead, I was put in charge of one of the nine elevated train platforms that make up the Loop in downtown Chicago. An older CTA train, which coincidentally looked like old New York subway cars, would do laps around the Loop while shooting from something like 14 cameras the rigging grips had mounted in every direction.

Each platform was run by two Production Assistants, who controlled about 10-15 extras. We were in contact with the Assistant Director via walkie talkie and one of us (me) had a megaphone. I would say things like this:
“Okay--jackets off! Come on everybody, we're all cold out here, but this will only take a minute. Now step forward along the track. The train will be here in 30 seconds. Remember--Spiderman is fighting Dr. Octopus on top of the second car. They’re shooting at a high frame rate this time, so please react at half-speed.”
Among my extras, who did little but sit around under the heat lamps bitching about the bitter November cold, were two girls that stood out from the pack. I spent most of my down time talking to them.

I call them girls because, as I later found out, they were seventeen. They drove in from Michigan every day--every day!--just to be low-paid extras out in the freezing Chicago cold for ten to twelve hours at a stretch.

Donna, the large, unattractive one, was naturally the most talkative and forward. Marie, her sexy, petite friend, was more the smile-and-stare type--a fox of few words.

After many days of standing out on the frigid El platform, chatting with them about god-knows-what, killing time, telling all the extras to stop complaining, and explaining to every single curious CTA passenger what was happening...I needed a night of drinking more than ever before.

Luckily, not long before the shooting finished up, the entire crew was invited to the private opening of a new dance club on Lake Street in Chicago. All we had to do to get in was say “Columbia Pictures” at the door. The production had used the as-yet-unopened space all week as a wardrobe/make-up/staging area for our extras (there were no principal actors in this scene--they would all be green-screened into the shots during post-production).

As usual, work would begin super early the next morning, but a sizable number of alcoholics turned out anyway; by the time I showed up with my friend Kevin, the party was in full swing.

The Spiderman crew was hanging out upstairs--up a metal spiral staircase--in a large booth behind a velvet curtain. They were all pretty drunk--especially Donna. She immediately began hitting on me in the sloppiest, least-strategically-intelligent manner.

I stared across the table at Marie, who was getting it both barrels from the 2nd Assistant Director, who had been loading her up with booze all night.

I didn't have much to say to the others there, so Kevin and I headed over to the upstairs bar, which was a zoological free-for-all. It probably took us twenty minutes to get a drink. We chatted a bit, probably talked about how sexy Marie was, and then mingled a bit more.

As soon as I finished that drink, I went downstairs to get another one at the calmer bar. When I turned around and took a sip, I saw Marie sauntering over, a smile on her face. She got right into it:
“My friend really likes you, you know.”
“I don’t care--I want you.”
“Well then we better get out of here or she’s not gonna like what she sees.”
At that, she grabbed my hand and dragged me away. I was barely even able to set my fresh drink down before we were out the door. It's amazing how strong a 90-pound girl can be sometimes--especially when you have absolutely no desire to resist.

Since I was living with my parents at the time, I had nowhere I could take this girl. I figured we could go to her place; then I remembered she lived in Michigan. Then I remembered I was too broke for a hotel. Then I remembered my car was illegally parked outside, in a red zone, with its flashers on this whole time.

Out of ideas and hoping she'd be game, I led her into the back of my car and we started making out. I remember her saying a few things along the lines of “Can’t we just go to your apartment?” but not really caring too much when I answered with a kiss and went from there.

The whole time we were out in my car, I was paranoid about three things:

1. A cop would come by to give me a ticket, see the steamy windows, ask us what we were doing, and find out Marie was only 17.

2. A tow truck would come by and tow us away while we were inside (a tow truck once tried to do this to me in college, while I was giving a girl a goodnight make-out in a street-sweeping zone--with the engine running!).

3. That a different girl I was extremely interested in (but not interested enough, I suppose) would come by after the concert she was at, as planned, notice my car parked right outside the door, with the flashers on, all steamed up and rocking, and start knocking on the window and shouting my name.

These distractions made it very difficult to focus on the task at hand, but I did my best.

What it turned out I SHOULD have been worried about, however, was something completely different. And way worse.

Not long after she got on top of me--firmly in the middle of things--she suddenly vomited over my shoulder and passed out.

Fortunately for me, I emerged fairly unscathed and discovered she had mostly vomited on the seat and a pile of her own clothes. Unable to wake her up, I cleaned Marie off as best I could with some paper towels I had in the back and set about trying to dress her lifeless body.

The sexy little top she had been wearing looked like a pile of knotted shoelaces covered in vomit, so I found a spare t-shirt in the back and put it on her with great difficulty. The skirt was a bit easier, but hardly a walk in the park. I can’t imagine how hard it is for morticians to put a goddamn SUIT on a corpse--they must have some really helpful tricks.

How now, brown cow? It's not like I could take her to my parents house...

I remembered hearing my friend Kevin leave the club earlier, talking to some random dudes as he walked past my car, and hoped he was still awake. I headed straight for his apartment in Wicker Park and called him up as I drove, feeling more like John Travolta in Pulp Fiction than I ever care to again.
“Kevin! Thank god you’re up. I need to talk to you about something. I'm coming over right now.”
I parked across the street from his place, buzzed in, and went upstairs. I sat on the couch, folded my hands, took a deep breath, and looked at him gravely. Who knows what the hell he expected me to say, but here’s roughly what he got:
“So...Marie and I were having sex in the back of my car and then she threw up on me and passed out. She won’t wake up and I don’t know what to do. I can’t take her to my parents’ house and she lives in Michigan. Can I bring her up here?”
“Where is she right now?”
“She’s in the back of my car. Outside.”
“Jesus. Yeah, I guess...”
“I think I’ll need your help to get her in...”
Kevin and I went out to my car and, not sure of any other way to do it, I told him to get her legs and I took her arms. As we carried her across the street, I made moves for the back door to the building, but Kevin nixed that immediately.
“There’s a party on the first floor, where we played flip-cup that one night. They’re all out on the porch. They’d see us--we'll have to go in the front.”
And so it was that two nondescript white males in their twenties carried the lifeless body of a young woman down Damen Avenue at 2 o’clock in the morning on a Friday night.

We approached the front door to his building just as it opened.

A few guests were saying goodnight to the hosts of the party. One of them held the door open and they all stared at Marie with googly-eyes. I said the only thing you can say in that situation:
“She’s really drunk...”
We started up the stairs and Kevin dropped her. Then he dropped her again; I was glad he didn’t have the arms. I threw her over my shoulder and carried her up the three flights of stairs myself, probably relying on some sort of ‘lift-the-car-off-your-baby’ adrenaline boost, although the fact that she probably only weighed 90 pounds helped, too.

I didn’t want her to vomit all over one of Kevin’s couches, so I set Marie on the wooden floor between the dining room and the living room and we both stared at her, unsure of our next move. I realized there was vomit on the t-shirt she was wearing, so I took it off and gave her my clean sweater instead.

As I struggled to clothe her lifeless body once more, Kevin stared appreciatively at her fantastic breasts--a perverse reward for his efforts and discretion, I suppose.

Then he scared the shit out of me.
“Are you sure she’s alive?”
My heart stopped. I hadn’t even thought of that! Holy shit!

As selfish as it is, my immediate fear was prison. I hadn’t bought her a drink all night and she was the one who propositioned me, but try proving that in court.

Something tells me the headline would’ve run something like this:
“Local man gets 17 year-old Michigan girl drunk, then rapes and kills her, gets life.”
I leaned down and held her wrist, searching desperately for a pulse. Nothing.

I got even more scared.

I held a few fingers up against her throat. Nothing.

Now I started to really really freak out. I leaned down and placed my ear in front of her mouth, my hand on her chest, looking for any sign of breathing. Nothing.

And then, suddenly, she breathed--a small sort-of 'back-from-the-dead' gasp that made me unprecedentedly grateful. Simple pleasures, right?

I heaved a sigh of relief, threw a blanket over her, grabbed one for myself, tried to stop my body from shaking, and crashed on the couch.

A couple hours later, my alarm went off and I hit the shower. I threw my dirty clothes back on and roused Marie from her slumber.

She awoke with a beatific smile, rose to her feet, stretched out an adorably-huge yawn, and wrapped her arms around me lovingly. She exhibited absolutely no hangover symptoms, no ‘I saw death two hours ago and it wasn’t pretty so I decided to come back’ symptoms, nothing.

She sighed and held me tight, spoke softly in my ear:
“Thank you so much for not taking advantage of me last night.”
Once again, my heart stopped.
“You know we had sex, right?”
I tried to wrap my brain around what exactly she was thanking me for then--“Thank you for not calling up all your friends and letting them run the train on me last night. It was really sweet of you.” “Thank you ever so much for not sewing my vagina shut / harvesting my organs as I slept last night.” But all I said was:
“We gotta go. I can’t be late.”
It was probably 4:30am. We walked over to my car in the nearly-freezing rain and headed downtown. The vomit marinade had done wonders for the interior.

As I tried with difficulty to navigate the dark, wet, and empty streets of Chicago--our production had almost every street around where I needed to go completely blocked off, which always makes it hard for the crew to actually GET to work--Marie happily mused on our future.
“I’d love to read some of your writing sometime. You should come out to Michigan and we can hang out. Oh, that’d be so awesome...”
“Yeah, yeah, sure...”
One image immediately plastered itself squarely on my brain--her dad on his front porch with a shot gun. I would no be going to Michigan.

Marie was somewhat concerned about her friend, Donna. Donna had seemed much more drunk than she was, so I was a bit worried, as well, but cared more about getting to work on time and putting this night from hell behind me.

We saw Donna coming out of the Dunkin Donuts around the corner. She was alive!

Her story was pretty funny itself. She got way out of control not long after we left, kept dropping glasses and shouting and being generally obnoxious. The 2nd A.D. took charge and escorted her out. On the way down the spiral staircase, she vomited all over people on the dance floor below.

The manager of the club got super pissed-off, obviously, and decided that this moment would be a good time to ID her. He got even more furious when he realized she was only seventeen and blamed 'Columbia Pictures' for letting her into his club. Idiot.

The 2nd A.D. threw Donna in a cab, took her to his hotel room, dumped her on the spare twin bed, and headed back out to a 4am bar with some of the hard-drinking production assistants.

When he didn’t show up for work the next morning, his boss called his hotel room and Donna answered.
“Yeah, he’s here. He’s sleeping.”
Five minutes later, a whiskey-soaked, unwashed 2nd A.D. showed up on set, scattered and dangerous.

The other production assistants, who had been smiling at me ever since I walked into the office, said that he was out for blood, that I had ‘stolen his girl.’

This dude was like 38 years old, overweight, unattractive, and, clearly, sleazy--he was the one buying Marie all the drinks, increasing his odds, I suppose. Sleazy and smelly maybe, but also my boss; I avoided him like the plague and headed out to my platform early.

Marie and Donna didn’t show up with the rest of my usual extras. I wondered what was up. About an hour into shooting, they both appeared across the platform from me and waved goodbye. During a break between shots, the PA from the other side came over and said Marie had left me a message:
“If you ever want to see your sweater again, come to Michigan.”

I knew right then that I would never see her again, never see my sweater again, but also that it was probably for the best. I kept her number in my phone for years, occasionally debated giving her a call, but the image of that shotgun, and the memory of that narrow escape, prevented me from ever using it.


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