Table of Contents here.
June 16, 2022 – Charlize Theron arrived 10 minutes after Hopper. Evening had slid into night. She sauntered into the restaurant wearing Warby Parker sunglasses, ripped jeans, a Los Angeles Dodgers baseball cap, a plain black face mask, and a white, fraying t-shirt featuring an image of Nelson Mandela. She was carrying a tote bag from Farmer’s Market, which proclaimed “Meet Me at Third & Fairfax.” It contained clean underwear, pajamas, and a toiletries case.
She looked around, noting three middle-aged white men at a table across the room. They were engaged in a heated discussion about rugby. She walked to the table where Hopper sat and took off her sunglasses, the mask, and the cap.
“Thank you for meeting me,” she said, holding out her hand.
“Are you actually offering me a fucking handshake?” Hopper asked.
She laughed. “Do you actually want me to stick my tongue down your fucking throat?” she responded, using his same tone.
“No, Hopper. Just no,” she said. “That was then. This is now. Move on.”
“Yes. It’s what people do.”
Switching from English to Afrikaans, Charlize ordered a bottle of Stellenbosch Pinotage.
She turned back to Hopper and asked, “How’s your mother? I look forward to me and her getting to know each other.”
It rankled Hopper when he heard people say, “me and her.” He was prickly with grammar. Hopper believed that Charlize was just choosing to push one of his buttons. She knew that he was not above correcting people by reminding them that the Queen’s English – hammered into him by Mr. Sullivan as a high school sophomore — demanded use of “she and I.”
Hopper smiled at her remark, refusing to rise to the ostensible bait dangling in front of him and choosing instead to focus on the subject matter, namely, his mother.
“As long as you make it self-evident that she stands to profit as least as much as you from your character,” he answered, “my mother will be an excellent tutor.”
Hopper and Charlize were dining in a nearly deserted restaurant called the Kaia Wine Bar on Third Avenue in the low 90’s. “Kaia is South African, and I want something from home,” she had told him on the phone. “Wildevark, Dukka Hoender, Viskoekie, Beduiwelde Eiers, Gebakte Suurlemoene, Eend Vlerkies. Do you like oysters?”
“I was raised in New York,” he responded.
“Then you’ll love the oysters,” she said.
A few minutes after serving the Pinotage, their waiter returned and took their order in Afrikaans. Hopper was pretty sure Charlize did not order the oysters for him.
“Who are these people who just move on?” he asked after the waiter returned to the kitchen. He checked on the other diners. They were still arguing about rugby, ignoring the movie star and the author in the room. Hopper could tell that it was going to be one of those dinners filled with long periods of ruminative silence punctuated by intense exchanges.
“In this case, those people are going to be us,” she answered him. “As in, there is no us.”
Hopper shook his head. “Is it something I said or did?” he asked plaintively.
“If I told you, Hopper,” she said, pausing for just a moment to make sure she could make eye contact with him, “you would just try to fix it. Like a lot of men, you view interactions with women as if we posed an engineering challenge. Whatever you would try to do to bring us back together would only make things worse.”
Hopper hung his head, then looked up and asked, “So why were you so insistent on seeing me?”
“I guess,” Charlize began, “that you didn’t listen to me when I said that I wanted to discuss your mother for my portrayal of her in the movie.”
“Oh, I heard those words come out of your mouth,” he said. “I just didn’t believe you.”
Charlize sighed and swallowed half the wine in her glass. She looked up at the ceiling and then asked, without making eye contact, “So, how’s Ingrid?”
“That’s cheap,” he said.
At first, Charlize said nothing. She tilted her head and just looked at him like a police interrogator. Then, in a measured tone, she finally responded, “Ingrid is your favorite topic of discussion. Admit it, I was just a distraction. There, I said it. Don’t make me sorry that I said it.”
Hoper winced and sat back in his chair. He felt like she had just looked inside him and found all his secrets. About five minutes passed in silence.
Hopper broke the silence. “Fine,” he said. “My editor wants my next book to examine my relationship with Ingrid under the rubric of what I call the ‘non-marriage marriage.’”
Their waiter began to bring out dishes filled with food unfamiliar to Hopper. Charlize nearly squealed with delight and said, “You are not leaving this restaurant alive unless you try everything. Also, please explain to me this non-marriage marriage thing.”
Charlize began to dole out portions of a half dozen dishes. She looked like a child at her own birthday party. Hopper was amazed at how well she was able to compartmentalize her emotions, moving so quickly from vulnerable to relentlessly cheerful and inquisitive.
“The non-marriage marriage,” Hopper began, “is the kind of relationship you have with the woman who divorced you and then talks you into impregnating her again so that she can have a daughter.”
“Of course,” Charlize said. “I fear you will never get out from underneath Ingrid’s thumb.”
Hopper sighed and finished his glass of wine. Their waiter poured more into both glasses. Charlize ordered another bottle.
“My editor promised me that this book would be a huge bestseller,” Hopper said. “All I have to do is convince Ingrid to go along with it.”
“That should be easy enough.”
“Why should it be easy?”
“Let me explain to you how these things work,” Charlize said. “Your ex-wife just opened a restaurant.”
“How do you know that?”
“I’m an investor, just like you,” she answered.
“Christ,” he sighed. He had not know that Charlize was an investor, too.
“Look, Ingrid’s restaurant needs all the publicity she can get. Even the rumor that she will be a major character in your next book will get people in Chicago talking and interested in dining at…I forget, what’s the name of her restaurant again?”
“Duck Duck Gray Duck.”
“What does that even mean?”
“It’s a Minnesota thing,” Hopper answered. “She’s from Minnesota and it’s a Minnesota-themed restaurant.”
“You Americans!” Charlize laughed. “With your themes and all.”
“How do you not know this, if you are an investor?”
“I invested in Ingrid,” she said. “The details are unimportant to me. Ingrid is indefatigable.”
“You women,” Hopper tried to whisper to himself.
“Ingrid will give her consent,” she said. “She might need this as much as you. All you have to do is ask her. Directly. No bobbing and weaving. Do not leave her wondering about your intent and meaning. You may be a jerk in her eyes, but she will trust you not to drag her through the mud.”
“OK,” he said. “We can talk about my mother now.”
The other three patrons got up to leave. Hopper noticed their waiter tapping his foot. He checked the time, motioned for the check, and said, “They’re closing.”
“We can have that conversation about your mother at Birgit’s apartment,” Charlize said.
“Silly man. Did Ingrid not tell you that I was also staying in Birgit’s apartment tonight?”
He signed the credit card receipt. Let’s see how this plays out, he told himself.
Charlize put her sunglasses and Dodgers cap back on, handed her Farmer’s Market tote bag to Hopper, and put her arm through his. “How are your children?” she asked.
They strolled leisurely to Birgit’s apartment and talked about their children. Perhaps for the first time today, Hopper relaxed. He admired the lengths to which Charlize went to protect her children from all the ways that parents encourage and feed their children’s paranoia and neuroses. He talked about how his kids formed a kind of shield for him against the world that always wanted something from him that he could not give. He talked about how much he admired Ingrid as a mother. He talked about wanting his children to have the opportunity to do what they wanted as self-sufficient adults.
“Let’s not kid ourselves, dad. All parents damage their kids,” she said. “I just want to keep that damage to a minimum.”
They settled onto the sofa in Birgit’s living room with the view over the East River. The one time he had visited this apartment, he had paused at that window for a minute and reflected on the advantages of wealth. Does all the money in the world just get you a better view? he had asked himself
“I’ve read your book three times,” Charlize said once they got settled. She rested her forearm on Hopper’s shoulder. “I just have one question for you about your mother.”
“Do you love your mother?”
Hopper paused to look out the window into the night.
“My feelings toward my mother are complicated,” he said.
Charlize smiled at him and said, “Towards.”
“Actually, both usages of the word are considered correct,” he said. “It’s just that we lean toward ‘toward’ in North America.”
“Well, as my mother says, ‘You learn something new every day.’”
“My mother says the same thing,” he laughed. “She is ambitious, and I do not hold ambition against anyone. I can respect it.”
“What else?” Charlize was now playing with his earlobe.
“She is a creative supernova,” Hopper said. “Her ideas are never stale. Her ideas are always worth discussion. As a content provider, she is neither lazy nor has she ever jumped the shark.”
“So far, you’re describing two-thirds of the women in my life,” she said. She started to flirt with his hair. Hopper did not react.
“Well, she’s a mother. You will learn this in time, but every son fears his mother,” he said. “A father might beat the shit out of his son, but his mother can inflict wounds that will never heal. As a rule, I do not cross my mother. She is not warm and cozy.”
“You have your own life and your own family, but you still allow your mother in.”
“I have always and will always gravitate towards my mother,” he said. “Maybe it’s because we share a lot in common. Maybe it’s her life force. It certainly is not because I yearn to celebrate holidays or sentimental life events with her. But I cannot get away from my mother. I guess that I still want her approval. I want to be part of her life. I want to be important to my mother.”
“That’s just what I needed to know, Hopper,” she said. “Thank you.”
Charlize leaned over towards Hopper, took his face into her hands, and gently kissed him.
Continue to Chapter 21 here.