Pop Tarts with Kim NovakBy Cynthia Hawkins
April 07, 2011
Hospital hallways are a special kind of convoluted, methodical in their turns meant to deposit visitors with mysterious efficiency at a set of double doors affixed with red “no” signs.It seems like a mistake when I finally arrive at these doors, squinting at the walls in hopes of spotting a magic button, but it’s exactly the right place.Someone swipes a card in a slot near the knob.The doors open with a hesitant jerk.“Go to the very end.Last room to your left,” a nurse says, the soft splat splat of her shoes receding amidst whirs and beeps and white light.The white of seventies sci-fi shows.The coldness of unclasped hands.This is exactly the right place.
I find Joe on the gurney they’d lowered from the ambulance and left in the trauma room, as I’d guessed from the room’s proximity to the paramedics’ entrance, its lack of doors, its crash carts.I’ve watched a few episodes of E.R.I know what’s what. I sit on a cracked plastic chair and ask, “So, are you bored yet?”
“Yeah,” Joe says, wires connecting him to the EKG machine winding underneath a slouched hospital gown.He’s wearing jeans.It’s casual Friday.
Sometime shortly before five, he was managing a hostile client on the phone when he’d stood up in exasperation and the office slid away from him and kept going around and around.He phoned me to say he couldn’t walk, he was going to throw up, he felt weird.And that’s when it happened.That’s when my crisis switch flipped.
It’s less of a switch, actually, and more of a lever that flushes out every last bit of emotion.When it happens, I temporarily sprout robot insides like cold, white labyrinthine hospital hallways. I clip-clop in, sit, and ask things like, “Are you bored yet?” Then I remember I should be asking something else.“Has the doctor seen you?”
“Briefly,” he says.“They think maybe it’s vertigo.”
I imagine his disembodied head like this:
Just like this, spinning amidst psychedelic rays to the furious rhythms of castanets and Bernard Herrmann.
I’d once taught Hitchcock’s Vertigo in a university course titled “Theatricality in British Literature and Film,” even though Vertigo isn’t technically a British film.Hitchcock was British, though, and that was enough for me, considering that Vertigo was, and is, one of my favorite movies. When it was over, I switched the lights on and said, “So let’s think about the ways theatrics are used here to manipulate Scottie.”
One hand went up.“I think Kim Novak shows what a big difference eyebrow plucking can make,” one young woman offered.
“Exactly.I mean, it takes her from blah to gorgeous,” another said.“Eyebrow grooming is everything.”
“That’s all you got out of this film?” I asked, as wide-eyed as a slapped child.
Yes, that’s all they got out of this film.
I remember I should be asking about the doctor, and then I remember I should have hugged Joe maybe, asked how he was feeling maybe.I rise from the seat a little, but then his eyes roll up as he clutches the blue plastic puke bag he holds on his lap.I settle back on the cracked seat.“It hasn’t gotten better?”
“It’s a little better,” he says.
“Did you throw up in that?”
“No,” he says with a slow blink.“It’s just in case.”
My robot self can take a lot, but not vomiting. In many ways, the crisis switch makes me great to have around.I’ll never dissolve in sobs or be paralyzed by anxieties or get overwhelmed.I’ll listen patiently.I’ll remember to pack magazines and a fold of dollars for the vending machines. But if you vomit, man, you are on your own.
Joe doesn’t vomit.He just thumbs the rim of the blue bag now and then.
I hear a nurse in the hallway say something about vertigo.
“Are they talking about you?” I ask him.
“No,” he says.“It’s some elderly woman they brought in.She has vertigo.”
From where we sit in the open room we can hear everything about everyone who is wheeled into the E.R.Like the old woman with vertigo.And the man next door with vertigo.And the child crying up and down the hallway in his mother’s arms because he has vertigo.And everyone, everyone here has vertigo.Maybe “vertigo” is the new “consumption.”Maybe vertigo is the “I don’t know what the hell you have, good luck with that” diagnosis.
But I’ve seen Vertigo, so I know what’s what.
“Did you nearly slide off a roof and plummet several stories today?” I ask Joe.
“Then you don’t have vertigo.”I cross my arms.This hospital’s pissing me off.Vertigo!
Vertigo, the film Vertigo, is notable in my family.My dad apparently had a teenage crush on Kim Novak.I say “apparently” because the only proof of this is mom telling us dad had a teenage crush on Kim Novak with a vast rolling of her eyes while he smiles as if for a mug shot, a kind of tentative “make this quick” nervous grin.And, let me tell you, Kim Novak strikes at the strangest times.
Recently, I took my parents to see Rango.When the titular character rides out to the Eastwood-like Spirit of the West and asks if they’re all dead, the Spirit of the West replies, “If this were heaven we’d all be eating Pop Tarts with Kim Novak.”No one laughed louder than mom with her elbow in dad’s ribs.
“Wasn’t that a weird thing to say?” dad said later.“You’d think they would have said ‘Marilyn Monroe’ or someone like that.No one really thinks of Kim Novak.That’s really strange.”
“Maybe everyone hears the name they want to hear, so you heard Kim Novak,” mom said.
I thought my parents’ marriage was the only one Kim Novak haunted until I met a couple running a used bookstore in upstate New York.When I asked for a copy of Moll Flanders, the husband said, “I have just the one for you.”This is what he slid over the counter to me:
His wife, preparing to ring it up on the register between them, glowered.“Oh, sexy Kim!I’m surprised you’ll part with that one.”
“Oh no, no,” he said.“This young lady can have it.”
“I can’t wait to show this to my mom!” I said.
The doctor lowers the gurney so Joe is perfectly flat and looking up at her as her waist-length hair grazes the mattress edge and she turns his head left, then right, watching his eyes.
“It’s worse on the right?” she asks.
“Yeah,” he groans.
“I’m going to try that one more time.”
Left, then right.She looks at his eyes, and his eyes shift.
After clicking a pen against a clipboard she diagnoses him with Benign Positional Vertigo, and by midnight we’re free to leave.
He pulls the tape with the EKG sensors off the shaved areas of his chest, lets the tapes accumulate on the bedside tray, slips his knit shirt back on.
“Do you need help walking?” I ask.
“No,” Joe says, surprised to find equilibrium on his feet again.“I’m good.”
The hospital hallways seem to have rearranged themselves for our exit.Three right turns and we’re standing in the parking lot, clouds of moths in the street lamp lights, the black asphalt still holding the day’s heat.I look up at a white globe I think is the moon, but it’s a dull, switched off bulb of a moon, hanging lifeless like it might drop.And the world slides away somewhere under my ribs and keeps going around and around.Then I see what it is.A round white something-or-other on the power lines.
I weave my fingers between Joe’s, his hand feeling light and dry in mine, and lean in for a kiss.“You must be tired,” I say against his neck.
It’s not the moon at all.And Joe, Joe is fine, gingerly sliding into the passenger seat of my car with the blue puke bag I made him bring.Just in case.
I steer the car up one lane and down another, coming to a dead end.I back up, turn around, try the other direction.The headlights slide around to illuminate an “ambulance only” sign.It’s midnight, and we are lurching in endless zigzags in the Northeast Methodist Hospital parking lot.Joe’s thumb flicks at the rim of the scrunched blue bag on his lap.A Bernard Herrmann track crescendos in the back of my mind.
Vertigo is one of my favorite movies also, and the Hermann score may be my very favorite movie soundtrack. I used to write with it playing in the background.
I’m sadly unsurprised that a contemporary viewing of Vertigo would result only in a few comments about eyebrow grooming. I used to think that Hitchcock alone would survive among the old-time masters. Alas, even his work is now found to be “slow,” “boring,” “too talky,” “too tame,” etc. There’s little or no ability to understand things in a historical context, but then, there’s little or no interest in history.
As for Kim Novak, I had an aunt (by marriage) who, as a girl, was obsessed with Novak, and for the rest of her life she bleached her hair and dressed in lavender (Novak was apparently famous for having dressed in lavender) in homage. Novak was much bigger in the fifties than I think we know, but she’s largely unknown now, in part, I think, because she was so stiff onscreen. She seems to have been aware of her shortcomings as an actress, and, feeling embarrassed by them, was always something of a reluctant celebrity. But she did make Vertigo, one of the greatest movies of the fifties, though it was then underappreciated because of its well-known “spoiler” midway through. But the spoiler was an asset, I think, making for pure suspense (how long before Jimmy Stewart realizes he’s been set up by the very woman he thought he had inadvertently killed?) as opposed to a run-of-the-mill mystery.
I had wondered if something had happened to make you less of a presence at TNB of late. I hope and trust that Joe is now fine.
Thanks Duke! He is in fact doing better. We thought it was this really strange event, but we keep hearing from people who’ve had the same thing happen. Who knew! He thought he was having a stroke or something. Thus the ambulance.
When I was looking for a photograph of Novak as Judy (there are many, many more of her as Madeleine), I discovered she’d apparently caused quite a stir by going bra-less in her snug sweaters in Vertigo. Sexy Kim indeed.
I don’t know what it is about that lack of curiosity in the past, but I did notice it more and more in students. They were just completely disconnected from it for the most part. The films and artists and musicians they’d never even heard of just blew me away. And, man, did they hate Vertigo. Hannah, probably because she’s my daughter, isn’t that way so far. She gives me hope. And she’s seen Vertigo twice already. Upon request.
Yes, that is encouraging, about your daughter.
It’s natural to be more interested in current events than in the past. I’m sure it’s always been that way, but today’s apathy with regard to the past reflects a new kind of narcissism, I think, or at least an upsurge in the kind that’s been around forever. At bottom, it’s about mortality, about the fear of aging and dying, of becoming only a relic. But that’s the fate of us all, and ignoring what’s become before isn’t a preventative. On the contrary, I draw strength from the past, which fires my imagination and helps me to feel less lonely. Strangers have been where I’ve been; they’ve felt what I’ve felt and left accounts of it, and where those accounts are superlative, I’m inspired to try to match them. I understand, intellectually, that most people don’t share this attitude, but, emotionally, I’m nonetheless baffled by it.
“Strangers have been where I’ve been; they’ve felt what I’ve felt and left accounts of it, and where those accounts are superlative, I’m inspired to try to match them.” I could never have expressed that better. That’s exactly it!
I think Hitchcock is a an all-out genius. Yet, I’ve never seen Vertigo. No excuses except there’s just too damned movies to watch (and books to read, and music to hear…) in this lifetime.
I’m not sure why, Cynthia, but I’m listening to that Bernard Herrmann song at top-volume right now. I must admit, listening, I feel like I have vertigo.
You weave cinema so seamlessly into stories about your life. I enjoy that. I enjoy the tone here, too, the sense I have that you’re not exactly admitting how frightened you might be. I enjoy the pictures, too, the mini-introduction to Kim Novack and her wonderful brows.
I hope Joe feels better. I actually have suffered symptoms of vertigo before. It’s THE WORST. It’s contagious, too.
You can only listen to it at top volume. You are doing exactly, precisely the right thing. Herrmann had that way of reflecting the action in a film in his scores. I don’t know how he did it, but that track is indeed THE experience of vertigo just like that main theme from Psycho IS a series of knife strikes. Crazy good.
I’m so glad there’s much you enjoyed! I always wonder if there’s someone out there who’s incredibly annoyed by me and thinking, “good gawd, does everything remind her of a movie?!” Yes. Yes it does.
I have never seen Vertigo. There- I said it. But I’m a guy who likes solutions more than problems, so I just added it to my Netflix queue and moved it up to numero uno.
Your piece was like a white glove across my face which has always turned from movies not made in the past twenty years (which is a sliding scale as I get older). I don’t know why I shirk from “old” movies, but I always have. I allow this hopelessly uninformed prejudice to guide my choices, telling myself, “they didn’t know how to make movies back then- everything was cheesy.”
I know this is baloney because I’ve enjoyed so many old movies, but I keep forgetting that. So yeah, you got me- I’m going to watch it next week.
I hope Joe’s doing alright. What a scary and confounding thing to happen. Here’s wishing you both lots of enjoyable R&R and hopefully a few good DVDs to watch along the way.
I forgive you, JD. I think old movies have their own rhythm you have to kind of get into. And sometimes the cheese can be charming. There’s very little cheese to Vertigo, though. I think it’s one of Hitchcock’s smartest screenplays. Okay, the psychedelic dream sequence is cheesy (my students died laughing at that part *sigh*), but it’s not half as bad as Willy Wonka’s boat ride.
Thanks for the well-wishes! Joe’s with you on the old movies, but I’m wearing him down I think. Little by little.
Cynthia, first I am happy that Joe is okay and that you were able to both walk out of the ER with a Hitchcock-like diagnosis that led you to write this post about Kim Novak and her undeniable allure to men of a certain generation. The way films wend their way through your life and into your TNB pieces create such wonderfully vivid reads.
I hope you both get to recuperate by watching a few old movies…. as long as you come back soon and write about it here.
Thanks so much Robin! I’m all for the old movie marathon (Joe, not so much — I had to explain to him that Vertigo and Rear Window were two completely different films), and I’m going to tell Joe that you’ve insisted upon it in the interest of his speedy recovery 😉
angina can manifest as nausea. Add low blood pressure and perhaps a nascent type II diabetes situation or simple low blood sugar can kick that off. System-wide inflammation due to a low level chronic infection can do it too.
Vertigo is a manifested symptom of something else, not a condition in it’s own right.
Stress is the number one cause of all of these, by a ridiculous margin. Get a followup. Emergency room staff aren’t there to cure you, they’re there to make sure you don’t croak during their shift.
In spite of what Jerry Bruckheimer wants you to think.
Yes, yes, yes, we’ve made follow-up appointments. I insisted. And just to make pinpointing a cause all the more difficult, Joe had gone on a run on his lunch hour on a particularly hot day during allergy season, had little to eat, had taken something for allergies, had consumed much caffeine AND drank some kind of energy gel thing runners take, and, as mentioned, had a very stressful afternoon. Sheesh. He told me when he’d explained all of this to the paramedics he got an earful. I wished I could have met them, actually, because they sound hilarious. They were the ones that did the chest shaving for the monitors, and they’d told him they’d shaved my brother-in-law’s name, heh heh. My brother-in-law was waiting there with him at the office. Anyways, thanks dwoz!
what would life be like without armchair internet physicians cluttering up comment threads, eh?
It would almost be worse than having no armchair internet law experts.
🙂 I really, really am grateful for armchair internet physicians. I hope it didn’t sound like I wasn’t. I was reminded of Lenore Zion’s piece not long ago about consulting the internet in general for medical info when I googled “vertigo” in the E.R. the second Joe mentioned it to me. It was then I learned that it is not, in fact, caused exclusively by a fear of falling :/
I appreciate how you weave these two ideas together Cynthia – the situation with Joe and the movie. I’ve never seen the movie, so I’m sure there’s subtleties to this analogy that I’m missing, which I think is a shame. The writing, though, is lilting and smooth and an absolute pleasure to read. As always.
I’m a bit like you – I go somewhere not emotional in emergencies, too. Well, emergencies where I have to be in charge.
I hope everyone is feeling better soon!
Oh how I’d like to say that there are all these smart, clever subtleties in the juxtaposition of these events, but actually it’s probably much more telling in how dissimilar they are — in a comic way, I hope. But that’s just, sadly, how my brain works. It’s all over the place 😉
My mom read this and told me she feels that I go all “calm and cool” in these situations because she’s the complete opposite and I’m rebellious. Ha. Probably.
I will read the other comments when I have the time, but I have to say that this was fun for me, although I know it was not fun for you.
I love how you mixed up the visit to the ER with the story of Vertigo which led you to the crush your dad has on Kim Novak. Really everyone my age thought she was really sexy and beautiful, you can’t blame your father for fantasizing.
I hope your friend is okay now, vertigo sucks.
I feel guilty about how much i enjoyed this at his expense.
Oh well, such is life.
Oh, thank you Irene! I’m so happy it was a fun read for you. Joe won’t mind that a bit. The funny thing is my dad has never admitted to fantasizing about Kim Novak. It might not even be true. He might have a thing for Tippi Hedren for all I know! But I think Kim is completely crush-worthy. Even in dark hair and thick eyebrows.
I’m always reassured to read of others who can’t help weaving movies into the events of their lives.
This begs the question, did you check to make sure the room didn’t have any creepy museum portraits before entering? That could be the key to unlocking this entire thing.
Hope your guy is okay and that you turn obsessive zigzags just long enough for it to remain fun.
No! I can’t believe I didn’t check. But, you’ll be glad to know, I was wearing a bun and carrying a small bouquet of flowers. One of those things is true.
i have not seen Vertigo but i had vertigo last year, and probably BPPV. it sucked. i threw up.
you know, i don’t think i’ve seen any movies with Kim Novak. at first, i thought, oh yeah, The Birds, but that was Tippi Hedren, right? Hitchcock and his icy blondes.
anyway, glad your husband is okay!
Hitchcock did make his type rather clear, didn’t he. There’s something really sassy about Tippi in The Birds that I always liked. You know, when she’s getting blamed by little old ladies for the bird apocalypse and she’s all, “bitch, step off!” Or maybe it’s something else she says now that I think about it ….
Wow, it’s been ages since I’ve seen VERTIGO. Although strangely, Todd decided to grab a copy of HIGH ANXIETY during a recent trip to our public library. Maybe we should pair them.
Sorry about Joe. Stress, caffeine, and whatever is in those there energy thingies make for a scary afternoon.
I, too, am uber calm in crisis. Freaky calm. (We should ask a certain TNB pal if that’s because of something else we have in common!) I can take anything but the sight of my own blood. My powers wane in medical facilities, though. Too much pain in one building. Makes me anxious.
Oh High Anxiety! I haven’t seen that one in a very long time. Now I want to hunt it down for the weekend. That’s the sort of old movie Joe does like.
He’s made a lot of little changes since our visit about what he’ll eat and drink, and it has made a big difference. I think he just never thought much about it before. EVEN THOUGH I TOLD HIM SO. I just had to get that out.
We should ask that certain someone!
I LOVE how life, books and movies collide in your world.
This is great!
Why, thank you, Jessica!
Such a wonderful kaleidoscope of life, movies, books and all other fodder thrown together in that wonderful Cynthia mix-master formula. I enjoy your writing so much. Glad to hear Joe is okay! I am already a fairly big Hitchcock fan, but I enjoyed all those references I am less familiar with, like the Bernard Herrmann track you referenced at the end. Thanks for these and more.
Ah, thanks Robert. That makes my day! Please refer to me as Mix-Master Cynthia. Forever. I like listening to Bernard Herrmann scores when doing something in which time is of the essence because it makes you feel like if you don’t hurry someone will kill you.
First off, I really hope Joe is okay and whatever it was fled rapidly! Secondly, I had a bunch of food allergies as a kid and vomited all the time, so pity my mom and be glad I wasn’t yours.
Love how you wove the tales together, Cynthia! And I haven’t watched Vertigo in forever: must add it to the Netflix queue.
He is doing much better, thanks! Ah man. Whenever my little girls have been sick to their stomachs, Joe must step in. I can handle most anything else. Much grosser stuff, in fact. Just not that, bleck! But poor little kid you! That must have been awful.
Cynthia, “splat, splat” is the PERFECT descriptor for those hospital foot falls. I love this so much, and I’m so glad to know that Joe is doing better AND that there are some people who are equipped and calm in a crisis, because you probably don’t want to call me.
But of course I really love this because I’m a huge Hitchcock fan. Vertigo and Rear Window probably edging the others out a smidge. I guess I’d have to give the edge to Rear Window because Grace Kelly is just sublime. Plus! Perry Mason! 😉 I can’t believe the only thing your film class got from it Vertigo was Novak’s eyebrows. That picture of the eyebrows alone is very Mommy Dearest.
But even though we have copies of these (or we did… shoot, I wonder if we have them on dvd?) if I’m channel surfing and one of these classics is on, I’m a goner.
I would love to see breakdown of your favorite classic movies sometime.
Hoo boy, a breakdown of classic movies. That’d be fun. And, also, I wouldn’t know where to begin. I do love Rear Window. And the sublime Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief as well. I would just love to have Grace Kelly’s wardrobe from all of her films. I’m famously, in my family anyway, always wearing t-shirts and sneakers, but I’d wear dresses for sure if only they were like that little black and white number Kelly wears in Rear Window.
Also, forgot to say I really love the title of this piece… and I’ll be eating tacos with Rango.
You will like tacos with Rango!
I’ve read most of the comments and I gather from them that Joe is okay, that everything seems fine, so I’m glad to know that. This must have been a nerve-wracking experience. And you described vertigo-inspiring hospital design perfectly.
Aside from the real world implications, I have to say this piece is probably my favorite of yours. First the way you weave together the concerns of the health concerns with film concerns, but more just your delivery, which is at different times intimate and delicate and ironic. It really works for me.
Well done. And best wishes to Joe and your family. 🙂
Ah, thanks for the lovely feedback! I’m thrilled that it works for you and that it’s a favorite. I’m doing a little Snoopy dance right now in fact, and I might be at it all day. And thanks for the well wishes also.
I love how you weave the classics into this. Artfully done, Cynthia. Very nice. I also feel as if I should point out that I, too, would have gotten “eyebrows” from that film.
Thanks Erika Rae! My mom tells me that, at the time, she’d tried to pluck her eyebrows to look like Kim Novak’s and ruined them in the process. Forever. So Kim Novak ruined my mom’s eyebrows *and* haunts her marriage.
Wow. I’m so sorry to hear that Joe had a scary health situation, and impressed with your coolness under pressure (and great writing). And I understand how it is to have a bodily fluid widow-maker. I’ve actually caught my son’s vomit in my hands to prevent it from hitting the couch, but I can’t handle snot. At all. A good sneeze and I have to tap out so my husband can take over. Eeew.
I had no idea that vertigo was such a common ailment. I have enormous amounts of empathy for the nauseated. Nausea is the worst. I would rather just throw up and get it over with than toil endlessly in puke purgatory. Does vertigo feel like seasickness? My husband and I have sworn off cruise ships forever because of that miserable experience. And for the record: those stupid “pressure point” wrist bands don’t work.
I can’t believe that all your students got out of that film was “eyebrows.” In reference to your eyebrow comment above, my mom always warned me not to over-pluck my eyebrows because she’d over-plucked hers in the seventies and they never grew back in. Because of this fear, I have always had big eyebrows. I have over-plucking fear.
I hope Joe is completely back to normal, and the vertigo was just related to the allergy meds he took or something easily remedied like that. I’m really glad it all turned out okay.
Tawni! “I’ve actually caught my son’s vomit in my hands to prevent it from hitting the couch.” 1) Did that work?! 2) Eeoooh! 3) You are hands-down, officially, indisputably SUPERMOM forever and ever amen.
Those students. I can only hope they got more out of it once I was through with them. There were exams and so forth afterward, anyway. They had no choice but to dig a little deeper eventually!
Ooh, I won’t do cruise ships at all! Too many people. I don’t like … too many people. And now I can say, “It’s because Tawni says the seasickness is miserable. That’s why I won’t go.”
He is doing much, much better, thank you! And thanks for reading! xoxo.
First and foremost, I’m glad your husband is okay! And I’m amazed that you were able to take such a disturbing and disorienting experience and craft something so evocative from it. I really enjoyed your voice in this, how you toggle back and forth between the Vertigo world and the real world, movie memories and movies bleeding into your parents’ memories, etc, collapsing everything into one moment.
Oh, and “The coldness of unclasped hands” is the best hospital description ever.
Thanks so much Elizabeth! Of course it’s always much easier to write about scary situations when I know everything turned out okay — thank goodness.
yes yes yes
i spend a lot
of late nights
in the hallways
talking about the pain
i love the tone
Thank you J.M. One of these days I hope to muster a profound and poetic response just for you, but for now I think I’ll just have to savor yours. You are magic! Really.