By Michael Oren
“Simon!” the stunning redhead exclaimed as she threw honeyed arms around him and pressed his head to a bust that was far more than ample. He might have remained there, cradled, if not for a similar cry from an equally ravishing towhead who violently ripped him from the first woman and yanked him to her throat. There, too, he might have languished but for a group of schoolboys who just happened past. Like crows to carrion, they clung to him, tore at his denim jacket and tried to cut a piece off his pants. “Simon! Simon! Simon!” they chanted, so loudly they could barely hear another voice whimpering—pleading almost—“Not Simon, Brad.”
It often happened like this, so frequently in fact that he could barely walk down the street. Being assaulted wasn’t the worst of it, though, whether by breathtaking vixens or kids in the fifth grade. Rather, it was that name, Simon, and all the misery it bore. The notoriety and the flattery, too. For the name was not his but of a character devised for him by some backroom screenwriter out to create the ultimate, irresistible, loser.
He wasn’t, not in real life. Academically, professionally, Brad had done pretty well. A master bridge player, competent at chess, and a skillful actor, capable of playing roles from Beckett to Brecht, was light on his toes and able to carry tunes through several registers. And though not yet a star, people considered him successful. “We wish we had your confidence, Brad,” they used to tell him. “Brad,” they’d say, “you’re going places.”
He was, but to where, exactly, he couldn’t have foreseen. It began at the audition for a part in a new network sitcom. He’d read the pilot and concluded he was right for the romantic lead. Imagine his disappointment, then, when the director cut him off at the first line.
“Enough!” he shouted.
Brad squinted into the lights. “But I only started...”I’ve heard enough,” the director declared to his assistants, and Brad felt his heart go slack. He hated getting rejected, especially this late in his career. The director again exclaimed, “Enough!” only this time added, “This man is perfect.”
Perfection, Brad learned, had nothing to do with his talent or stage presence but solely with his looks. Short, prone to stumpy, with thinning hair and shoulders that seemed weighed down by shirts. True, Brad had never been a heartthrob, but that hadn’t kept him from getting ahead in life, from having reasonably steady incomes and a commendable social life. But then he became Simon.
He would be the fourth of four friends who shared an apartment in a slimly-veiled Manhattan and slalomed through misadventures and loves. A comedy thick with canned laughter and characters more adorable than chihuahuas. All except for Simon. He got the laughs alright, most of them piteous, and his look was invariably hound dog. He never got the girl, never kept a job, but excelled at entertaining his roommates. He was their straight man, their foil. The anti-heroes’ hero.
Which was why—irrationally—he became the most popular figure on the show. Beloved. For no matter how famed or glamorous, irrespective of how experienced in the world, all people are at some level Simons. All see their photograph entered in the dictionary under “loser.” Hugging Simon to a breast or a neck or vying for snippets of his clothes was a form of self-worship, really, or at least that part of it that can never win or deserve to. Inside everyone hides a Simon, sniveling.
Over eight incredible seasons the series spread, always with sky-high ratings. There was merchandizing and ribbon cuttings and appearances on late-night TV. But the mugs and T-shirts all bore Simon’s grimace and the cuttings were mostly for clinics. Talk show hosts urged their live audiences to cheer, “Let’s all have one big sigh for Simon!”
Which was fine, he told himself, just as long as the series ran. Just as long as he could dream of someday going on to other roles, virtuoso and heroic. But no sooner had the program ended when the problems began, unfortunately not for Simon.
For Simon remained revered. His reputation, perpetuated by reruns, soared. For Brad, though, this was disaster. He never again received callbacks or was even urged to try out. His only hope was to find another Simon, but Simon was deified. Simon was one. At parties and receptions, Brad would introduce himself by his original name, only to be dismissed with a snort. Even the pope, when presented with him, shot up from his throne and proclaimed, “Simon!”.
He considered getting a hairpiece, affecting spectacles, possibly plastic surgery. He considered committing some flagrant crime—a stickup or bank robbery—or an act of political incorrectness and blaming it all on Simon. Sure, he’d do some jail time and perhaps be publicly shamed, but at least he’d be permanently free. Desperate, he even attended a therapy group for type-casts. There, together with the vampire who longed to play Shakespeare and the moll who saw herself as Saint Joan, Brad shared the trauma of being known for someone he wasn’t, of having his identity stolen by viewers. But he quit after only two sessions, after the bad guy who wanted to be Batman, and even the therapist herself, referred to him repeatedly as Simon.
There remained only one option, he concluded, though the thought of jumping off a bridge or merely taking pills unnerved him—that and the fear of some star-struck undertaker inscribing “Simon” on the tomb. Brad was lost, atomized, vanished. Gazing into mirrors, he was astonished to find himself, whoever that was.
Yet all that changed the instant he met Camilla.
Seven Sisters and business school grad, double-breasted navy-blue suit, russet hair bunned and pinned—Camilla Ward, the non-Simon. The woman who Brad believed could restore his self to him, revive his sense of “me.”
And she did, level-headed Camilla, moments after meeting him at a nursing home opening, assuring him that everyone wears a mask.
“Every executive meeting I attend, even with a Fortune 500, ends the same way,” she explained. “With the company heads walking away and thinking to themselves, ‘Well, I certainly fooled them this time.’”
With a crease of chiseled eyebrows and glossy lips pursed to a nib, she urged him not to resist but to embrace his outer Simon. Live him, be him, and show some appreciation. After all, it was Simon who had made him rich and celebrated, practically an icon. “Only once you’ve made peace with Simon,” Camilla, gold-speckled pupils sparkling, informed him. “Only then can you finally feel oneness with Brad.”
He took her advice—more, he internalized it. Before long, he was signing Simon on his autographs and correcting anyone, even his mother, who mistakenly called him Brad. The name appeared on his license plate, on his calling cards and email. He considered changing it legally.
And his life commensurately improved. He no longer shooed away the ten-year-olds who tried to tear off his pockets, no longer squirmed when clutched by international stars. With Camilla, meanwhile, the intimacy only deepened. She dressed him as he looked on the show, in baggy pants and flaccid sweaters, and insisted he stoop, making her not a half but a full head taller. Still, he loved it. For the first time in memory, he felt like a whole person again. Even when she cried out “Simon!” at the height of ecstasy, his instinctive reply was “Yes!”
Soon they were talking about living together, about raising a family with kids who’d have her height and financial acumen along and their father’s aplomb. Eventually, he agreed, it was time to meet her parents.
The address was suitably upstate. He had a vision of a lion-topped gate poking out of the woods, the sweeping, gravel-laced drive culminating in a turreted manor. His fear was that they would see right through him. People of the world, of class and genetically-inherited refinement, they would know right away that he was not the genuine Simon but merely an actor who would never find employment again, a stubby, slouchy nobody named Brad. The Wards would surely make some small talk, perhaps invite him for a drink, but then make short work of him. They’d see him off—Camilla, too—their reflections in his rearview mirror palpably beaming relief.
There were woods, alright, but no gate and no lions. The drive was a depression in the dirt. It led not to turrets but to a rusted exhaust pipe puffing atop a beat-up house trailer. Flowers, butterflies, tapuats, and oms dizzily decorated its sides and music from some endangered culture seeped through its window.
Brad just stood there, staring at the Eye of Horus emblazoned on the door, that appeared to look right through him. He was about to turn and get back in his Ferrari when a rangy old man emerged. His dress was what it might have been decades ago—sandals and bellbottoms and a tie-dyed, puff-sleeved shirt. His hair looked like the insides of an exploded dynamo, his skin like sheathes of beef jerky.
“What’s happenin’, dude?” was his only greeting.
“I’m sorry,” Brad stammered. “I must have taken a wrong turn.”
“Don’t we all, baby, don’t we all.”
“I was looking for the Ward residence.”
Rheumy eyes peered over purple glasses. “Ward off evil, maybe. Got stuff for that.”
A shuffle of what sounded like empty tin cans and an arpeggio of windchimes preceded the exit of another person, this one in a green batik gypsy skirt, yak wool sweater, and a profusion of ear hoops: his wife. Or who Brad assumed was his wife or at least his woman, equally leathern and frazzle-haired.
“Dude here wants to know about some chick named Camilla,” the old man said to her, and the woman merely shrugged.
“No one around here by that name.” She glanced around the trees. “No one around here, period.”
Brad was getting frustrated, jittery, confused. “You know, Camilla…” Held above his head, his hands indicated her height, and spread at his waist, her width. A finger pushed up between his nostrils showed a beveled nose grooved at the tip.
“Ahh,” the woman sighed and, with a densely kohled eye, winked at him.
“Ahh,” repeated the man and triumphantly lit up a joint.
Together, they called out, “Tallulah!”
Brad gasped as she appeared from behind the trailer.
Barefoot with wildflowers in her basket and dangling from her hair that poured unchanneled over shoulders that were naked except for her sari’s sashes, she tiptoed toward him. Tossing her hair back, she proffered him a false pennyroyal.
He gasped, “Tallulah?” but received only a smile and a glint of gold-flecked pupils, followed by a question of her own.
“Simon?” she asked, and he could almost hear the canned laughter.
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