The Many Faces of Montgomery Clift

Summer, 2011 / No. 26
Art by Matthew Daley
Matthew Daley

Lewin was named after his drunken grandfather and Micah was named for the Old Testament prophet who said, “Do not trust a neighbor; put no confidence in a friend,” because Micah’s mother had been both converting and going through a bad time while pregnant. Her mother thought it was a girl’s name when she saw it in the table of contents; she was new to the whole Bible thing, and it was an innocent mistake. But most people at John Huss Christian High School were named Joy or Stacey or Matthew, and being a Micah meant there was a slight blurring around her, the smallest mark of strangeness that was sometimes enough to leave Micah feeling like there was a tiny satellite delay between herself and everyone around her, that she was isolated one half-second ahead in time.

So she was intrigued to hear that a Lewin was transferring in. She had never heard the name before, and she pictured someone tall and thin, with a mean-looking mouth and tired eyes. When she saw Lewin for the first time, at his father’s funeral, he looked just like the picture in her head, so much so Micah thought she had, to a certain extent, invented him.

At the funeral, her mother told her to go and speak to him, to say she was sorry for his loss and that she looked forward to having him in her class. She did this, and told Lewin about Bible Challenge, the Bible trivia competition that John Huss participated in along with the other Independent Christian schools in the region.

“It’s really fun,” she said. “We get to go away for tournaments. One of my teammates graduated, so maybe you can be on my team.”

If this was an inappropriate conversation for a funeral, Micah didn’t know, having never been to one. She hadn’t known Lewin’s father, but because Lewin was soon to be a student at John Huss, Principal Garmash had activated the telephone prayer chain, and everyone had been told to go.

Lewin was examining a crustless cucumber-and-cream-cheese sandwich while Micah talked.

“I’ve already started studying,” she said. “We’re doing James first. It’s short. But there’s this one verse about the double-minded man that I know they’ll have a ton of questions on.”

Lewin didn’t respond, but he moved his gaze from the sandwich to Micah, so she went on.

“He looks in the mirror and forgets his own face. That’s the verse.”

Lewin said, “He has two faces? ”

“No, he’s double-minded, not double-faced.”

But even as she said this, Micah was thinking she had gotten the same wrong impression while reading—that she had pictured the double-minded man as having one face on the front, the regular one that he looked at in the mirror, and another, forgotten one on the back of his head. And the one on the back wasn’t a face at all, just blankness.

“Could you come with me for a minute? ” Lewin said.

The sentence hung together all wrong, it sounded corporate and suspicious and formal all at once. Micah went with him and they entered a broom closet near the washrooms, Micah going in first while Lewin held the door. There was a bottle of white wine on the shelf. Lewin unscrewed it and offered Micah the first sip. It was warm and slightly oily, almost carbonated in its sweetness. Micah could feel her tongue all the way around her mouth, more than usual.

Usually it just sat there. She had never had a drink before.

Lewin said, “I really didn’t want to leave my old school,” and Micah said, “I’m so sorry for your loss.”

Because she was trying to be polite, Micah hadn’t told Lewin she was the top-ranked player in Bible Challenge, certainly at John Huss and sometimes in the whole region. When he was assigned to her team, she was conciliatory and patient. She explained that instead of hand-held buzzers, the teams sat on chairs that had sensors on them, and to attempt an answer, they had to spring to their feet to release the sensor. They spent some hours practising this, leaping forward and giving answers, over and over.

“So basically, we have to move our asses? ” said Lewin.

All the Joys and Staceys and Matthews in the room stared at him.

“Basically,” said Micah.

By the time the winter tournament arrived, Lewin and Micah were neck and neck in the region. They both had excellent short-term memories and they would sit together in the drama room before practice, cramming. They leaned up against one another, back to back, and Micah could feel the knobs of Lewin’s spine pressing against her.

There was a minister’s son from Wiarton who had a photographic memory. His finger would trace along in the air while he read words only he could see. They were determined one of them would beat him at the spring competition. All of the tournaments were held in small towns or sad suburbs, places like Mississauga or Stoney Creek or North Bay, with cinder-block basements where the paint was an inch thick on the walls. There were dusty tins of Orange Crush and Dodge minivans. For the weekends away, Lewin would dress up in a green mechanic’s jumpsuit or plaid pants and tuxedo shirts. He bleached his black hair and Micah helped him spray it so it stuck straight up from his head.

Back at home on Sunday nights, they loafed together in his room, and Lewin would carefully make his face up with cosmetics from the drugstore, his hands steady and light. His skin was bad then, and the medication he was on made it flake off, even from his lips. He looked raw all the time. With the makeup it was both less and more noticeable. Lining his lips in warm sienna, he told her, “It’s important to line the mouth you have, not the mouth you want. Everyone can tell the difference.” Then he went into the bathroom alone to wash up, and Micah waited, the house quiet, and she thought about what might happen if someone broke in with an axe, with long whispery coils of white rope. With a gun. When Lewin came back, the skin on his face was damp and angry-looking, but his expression was serene.

Micah’s ex-boyfriend had been on the Bible Challenge team before he graduated. He had a guitar and cracked his knuckles and his handwriting was scattered with pinpricks because he pushed too hard with the pen. He wrote in capitals. Lewin said only serial killers wrote in capitals. After Micah took top honours at the Alliston tournament, in April, Lewin convinced her to burn all the love letters her ex-boyfriend had written her.

They went to the park near Lewin’s house and burned the letters at dusk near home plate. Micah pushed the ashes into the gravel with the toe of her sneaker and hated Lewin for making her do it. But they walked home hand-in-hand to his empty house. His mother had been gone for some weeks, with a widower from the church who had introduced himself to Lewin as “Uncle Don.” He said Lewin was the man of the house now and he could probably have all sorts of fun on his own for a little while. He said Lewin’s mother needed cheering up. The house was big and new and the walk home from the park was pleasant.

While they walked, they pointed out the cars they would buy when they were older and married. Sometimes Lewin would put his hands over Micah’s eyes and quiz her on the models of the cars. They memorized the makes and years the way they memorized verses and chapters. There never seemed to be anyone else walking around in Lewin’s neighbourhood, just the polished cars sliding silently in and out, like sharks in the cool glow of the street lamps.

At the house, Lewin and Micah went out back to the trampoline, the way they always did whenever it was warm enough. There was a hot tub too, under a fleshy leather cover.

When they were tired of bouncing, they lay down and Lewin realigned Micah’s spine by grabbing onto her head and pulling it until something in her neck popped.

“I learned that from a real chiropractor,” he said. “But they’re not doctors, technically. Neither are therapists. Psychiatrists are. They can prescribe drugs.”

“Why would anyone be a therapist then? ” said Micah, lacing her fingers together behind her neck, which now felt loose and boneless.

Lewin went to see a psychiatrist two days a week. They had both decided they would be psychiatrists in the future. Lewin’s psychiatrist drove a Mercedes S500.

They lay there sipping diluted whisky from an unbreakable Nalgene bottle, feeling warm. The bottle was scuffed and scraped from their repeated attempts to break it.

Another day after school, while the sun was still up, Lewin’s mother and Uncle Don came through the sliding door into the backyard.

Uncle Don said, “Hello, Micah,” because he recognized her from church and because someone needed to say something.

Micah and Lewin were sitting in the hot tub, and her legs were wavy shapes stretched over his lap. Their skin was slippery under the water and rubbery above. Micah had her hand on Lewin’s arm, which was ringed with dried blood and scars. The fresh ones felt like tree bark. Lewin said, “So you’re back,” and his mother said, very quiet, “Sorry I was gone so long.”

They all had dinner at a restaurant that night, Lewin and Micah and Lewin’s mother and Uncle Don, and Uncle Don’s daughter, who slipped off her tennis shoe and slid her sock foot up Lewin’s pant leg during garlic bread. A week later, before the summer tournament, Lewin dropped out of Bible Challenge. Micah stayed on at first. She even had the brief sharp thought that it would be easier to win without him there, not just because he was competition, but because he distracted her, his bright outfits flashing at the edge of her line of vision, the dark roots of his hair clanging against the white tips. She lasted a week without him. After she dropped out, the minister’s son from Wiarton won the whole regional competition, and then the provincial one too.

Micah and Lewin went to football games, where the boy Micah had a crush on played corner. They brought the Nalgene bottle. Lewin told Micah that when they grew up and got married they would have a rose garden the size of a football field. They talked that way all the time, even though they both knew, in some unspoken animal way, that they would never be married to each other, for reasons no one at John Huss spoke about. Still, they sat together, watching the boys in their slithery polyester uniforms, Lewin leaning forward now and then as if in pain. He’d let his hair grow out after he quit Bible Challenge. The natural colour was too dark, and his raw skin seemed thinner than skin ought to be. When the game was over, Micah’s crush would sometimes come to the stands and say hello, looking back and forth between her and Lewin, who had his long, flaking face pressed against Micah’s shoulder. And on the trampoline in the evening, Lewin ran his fingers through her hair, messing it up, and she ran hers through his, making it neater. Sometimes he put his hands around her neck and squeezed.

“I could break your neck,” he said one night, and she nodded. Then he said, “Do you really pray? Like really really? ” and she nodded again. His hand was loose on her neck, as if he’d forgotten it was there.

The Grade 12 summer retreat was the last thing they ever did with the John Huss youth group. While the others canoed or water-skied, Lewin and Micah flopped luxuriously on worn armchairs, watching From Here to Eternity. They talked about Montgomery Clift and how no one had appreciated him and how he drank himself to death. They would have appreciated him. They couldn’t room together, but they met in the dining hall after everyone else was asleep. The first night, Micah had to wait in the dark, sitting on the stage with the huge antlers and dead fireplace behind her head like a dark sun. The next night, Lewin got there first and she saw him from the hallway, one eye painted over in the gloom and one shining wetly, waiting.

They sat beside each other, facing forward. His eyes were always watering, his eyelids inflamed from the pills, along with the rest of his face. If he had dark eyes it wouldn’t have looked as bad. He accused her of being late, of not wanting to come. Lewin smacked his palm against the pitted wood of the stage and the sound was like a gunshot. They both jumped. Lewin’s mother had moved Uncle Don and his daughter into the house. Lewin put his head down between his knees and Micah stroked the back of his head. The hair was soft, slightly fly-away, charged with static.

On the last day of the retreat the youth minister told them to pray with a friend, to join hands. Micah sat crossed-legged looking at her own hands, limp in her lap. Lewin came across the floor, which had an orange carpet with a red swirl so bright it felt like someone snapping their fingers in Micah’s face. Lewin took her hands out of her lap and sat in front of her, his face passive, dark spots on his lips where he’d bitten them.

They’d only been apart overnight, but she’d forgotten how tall he was. She closed her eyes. He breathed out and it was ragged, uneven. He said, “God, let us stay friends.” Micah opened her eyes and looked at him. She felt like her throat was made of wood and someone was knocking from the inside. After a minute or two, Lewin dropped her hands and stood up.

She found him later, standing in shallow water down near the dock. The neatly folded cuffs of his shorts were wet.

“What kind of car do you think we’ll get when we’re married? ” she asked. She stood back from him. “There are so many good ones.”

He said, “Remember that wine, at the funeral? ” In the sunlight, his skin didn’t look as bad. “I heard the caterer yelling at a girl about it. About the missing bottle. The one we took.”

Micah nodded. She didn’t say, “What do you mean ‘we’? ”

Lewin asked, “Do you think we would have won Bible Challenge if we hadn’t quit? ” And then, “When you pray, is it inside you or outside or both? ”

Lewin turned away again, looking out over the water. Micah slipped off her sandals and walked in beside him, studying the back of his head, the face that wasn’t there. She could feel her own head float upward, her neck popping, and she wanted to leap forward with an answer for him.