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Jewish Journal

Fighting words

by Rachel Heller

March 7, 2008 | 5:00 pm

"OK, OK, what do you think of this?"

It's the fourth time he's burst into my office in the last hour. He's working on his latest short film script; I'm trying to finish a story on deadline. This is a recurring scene in our saga. Delicately, I trot out the familiar pact that has steadied our balancing act time and again.

"I'll tell you -- if you look at this when I'm done."

As a reporter, the five-year relationship I shared with a screenwriter was challenging, to put it politely.

Both only children and used to basking in unshared maternal nachas, we came to live by a code of competition probably akin to sibling rivalry.

Take his encouraging first words about my career, as a new couple: "It's great that you're a writer and you know I'll support anything you do. But if you start writing screenplays, we'll have to stop dating."

We met in college at Boston University, between midnight coffee runs and Sunday night scrambles to churn out term papers and scripts. We bonded over favorite movies, musicians and books. One year, I got him to attend Yom Kippur services with me at the Hillel. My parents were pleased my seeming soul mate turned out to be Jewish -- by birth, if not in practice.

After graduation, he and I moved to Los Angeles. Pets and bills became subplots in our narrative. Taking our first tentative steps into opposing writers' job markets -- both of them unstable and oversaturated -- we tried to complement each other as much as conflict.

Critiquing each other's work was both rewarding and maddening. We each knew we could trust the other to be brutally honest when needed, but there were a whole slew of external factors (who forgot to take the laundry out, how many dirty bowls were stacked in the office, when the last time we had sex was) that could wield unpredictable influence over how harsh that brutality got.

Between his late nights and my early mornings, jealousy over each other's schedules also played a part in our receptiveness to each other's work. I'd be in bed by 11 p.m. to catch some Zs before my 7 a.m. alarm; he'd pace heavily in his office until 4 a.m. and then noisily collapse into bed, sighing because I'd once again rise well rested while he sacrificed more beauty sleep for his career. Then I'd yank myself out of bed at dawn for the morning office rush, scrubbing my teeth in envy of the gurgling snores that I knew would dampen his pillow until noon.

"Lucky," we each grumbled.

For, there being 24 hours in a day, there was really only a short window in which it was safe for one to approach the other and ask, "Can you read this?"

He asks two hours into an article-writing session, and I'll point out every missing apostrophe and incorrect spelling of "than" in his pages with palpable glee. I ask during a particularly intense round in "Super Mario Galaxy," and he'll give that tight, impatient smile and a barely inflected, "Yeah, that was great."

"You only spent four minutes reading it."

"It was that good."

"It was a 3,000-word piece."

"I read down the middle of the page. Remember, most of your target audience probably does too. You'll really have to start catering to the decreased attention spans of the multitasking, modern media consumer."

He, on a less perceptive day, would sometimes coerce me into reading one of his scripts after a fight (I hold grudges; he does not). I'd rip his plot to shreds, call his characters two-dimensional and stagy. I'd tell him that clever bit of dialogue he was so proud of reminded me of "Punch Drunk Love." That would be enough -- he'd slink back to his computer and skulk around the apartment like a wounded deer the rest of the night. Then I'd feel guilty and offer a balm like, "I really got a sense of what X's home life must have been like before he found that beached seal."

Even after five years of this, our egos remained surprisingly sensitive to each other's input.

Maybe that's because the bliss was so sweet when he'd finish one of my stories, turn to me, and say, "You're incredible. Publishers should be fighting for this." Or when I'd parse his latest draft and remember why I'd always believed in him: His ambitious spirit and ability to sift the quirky beauty from the demented collection of scenes we called "us" always pierced a tender chamber of this critic's core.

It's been three months since we called it a wrap. We'd become different people than we were and outgrew the priorities we used to share.

To say I'll miss his sarcastic jabs, one-ups or whoops of victory when he opens a single paycheck worth half my yearly salary -- that would be a stretch. But the competition did push us to improve our craft, to excel, to outdo ourselves, along with each other.

If only cleaning up after Shabbat dinner had inspired such zeal.

Rachel Heller is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and can be reached at rsheller@gmail.com.

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