I had never seen them in any movies when they first became a couple, which was the point of it, really; it was almost a shock to see Brad Pitt’s face in Fight Club, in Ocean’s Eleven, years later when my world had opened up to the age-inappropriate. It was almost a shock to find out he was an actor – that she was an actress – that these words, movie star, were not markers of caste or superiority but descriptions for a job that people did. That they were paid to perform labor I could touch, see, consume.
It is a fact of childhood that the world is populated by two sorts of people. The first sort is the real: your parents, your siblings, your neighbors, your babysitter, your teachers, the dogs you see on the street. The second sort is the unreal: the monsters under the bed, your Barbie dolls, the cowboys and pirates you’ll be when you grow up, Harry Potter, Robin Hood, historical figures like George Washington or Abraham Lincoln who you can play-pretend as. The celebrities in the magazines you see at the supermarket.
This second sort are not false, not even quite imaginary. You can see them, speak to them, go on adventures with them. But you also know, instinctively and deeply, that you do not need to treat them like they are real. They are gone once you stop looking at them. There’s a flatness to them, an animation, a brightness that the real ones can’t summon. They are not there for their own sake; their stories are for you. You can put them back in the box when you’re done.
One tries to avoid the realization, for example, that one’s parents are people. It’s unavoidably unpleasant. No matter how wonderful the two people that raised you are – and many of them are very wonderful – it is awful to suddenly know that they too were born, grew up, thought and felt and think and feel.
It is often simultaneous with the realization that one’s parents are not perfect. But it is not synonymous, and this distinction is important: knowing that one’s parents have made mistakes is not the same as knowing that one’s parents are humans, that even their good qualities are human qualities, that they see each other as people and not as natural phenomena.
It is an unspeakably rich realization – all the more so for the fact that it comes shortly before one realizes that everyone is a person, that everyone has the same depth of feeling as oneself, that everyone has a distinct voice and a unique personality and a compelling story and a set of habits and quirks reflected in no other person. There is a more-ness to the world, afterwards.
But there is a less-ness, as well; and it is a lessening of that brightness, of that flatness, of that glamor and gleam and coloring and background soundtrack. It is a realization that all of one’s stories about other people are, in the end, imaginary. That eventually all of the painted sets in the Hollywood of the mind will be taken down, and the credits will roll, and the actors will be sitting in front of you, a little smaller than you imagined they would be.
I had never seen either of them in any movies, and that is the point of it, in the end. They had no jobs; they had no lives. They existed in magazine spreads for me, static, like a mosquito frozen in amber.
They were very beautiful there.