“Where’s a worse location for a problem than one’s own head?”
One Saturday morning I woke up as Brad Pitt.
“This is just like you,” my wife said.
She meant it was just like me to throw a wrench into our bi-monthly errand day. It was not like me to have poreless skin the color of the Sahara at twilight, or biceps so melonesque plump that I had a hard time not nibbling on them, or eyes so bright I could feel them sparkling through closed lids. Not to mention the washboard abs. I had been strumming those in disbelief for thirty minutes, moving my hand softly so as not to wake Jill behind her black eye mask and wax earplugs. Since my own abs were more washing machine than washboard, Brad’s abs were the most impossible part of the impossible transition to accept. A flex at the wrong moment could cost me a pinkie.
My wife was out of bed. The foggy San Francisco morning offered a weak outline of her figure. She pressed her fists into her small hips and spread her slippered feet to plant herself. Her green eyes glowed like a set of false “go” lights.
“Now what?” she asked.
It was the same question, in the same tone, she asked when Zillow.com reported our recently purchased home was officially underwater. She was furious with the absurd state of things, yet maintained confidence I could do something about it. Fourteen years of marriage had brought me to love my wife’s belief that I could fix any problem, regardless of how many times I had botched the simplest of challenges. It was her brand of faith, I suppose. It moved me.
I shifted up onto my elbows. They felt as solid as marble bookends. My wife crossed her arms. We’d continue this stand-off until I said something.
I wondered if I had Brad’s voice.
“I don’t know.”
My old reliable reply, not really worth the wait, but infinitely accurate. The voice was all Brad, though, just below a baritone. Slow, but not in a stupid way. It filled my mouth, ears and throat like warm honey.
“We need to return that runner to Bed, Bath and Beyond,” my wife said. “And you need your glasses adjusted at Serramonte. And then dinner at my folks’.”
She left to start coffee. I spent two minutes repeating what Brad lines I could remember, including the goodbye he laid on Gina Davis and Susan Sarandon in Thelma and Louise as they watched him walk away. I flexed and admired muscles I didn’t know existed, tried to register a buttocks that was the definition of sublime, and admired a big toe peaking out of the bed sheets that looked like a miniature golden calf.
“You better get in that shower and clean yourself up!” my wife yelled from the kitchen, ending the self-inspection.
A simple visit to Bed, Bath and Beyond proved beyond reach. Getting there was smooth enough, only a tug and slide of our Prius passenger seat to make room for Brad’s lithe but powerful legs. Once there, my wife waited in the return line, throwing me a look every few seconds to see what I might pull next. I wore my black hoodie and her oversized shades and kept my head down in the shower ring section. I closed my eyes and dove inward, an easy trick for a natural introvert. I wanted to find where I ended and Brad started. But it was all me inside.
The tone change was harder to register than the title change. Only my ESL writing students called me mister. Their tone was always irritated, like they had overpaid for a service I couldn’t deliver. It was one of the few things they understood in my classroom.
“Mr. Brad Pitt?”
The tone mesmerized me. It was disbelief and wonder and awe and something else I couldn’t get enough of, like a savory taste you needed more and more bites to identify. Only my formidable Pitt neck muscle kept my head down. I turned over two sets of shower rings, one pink and one blue, both priced at $2.99. The dexterity of my fingers was tremendous; I could flick through the rings like a Vegas blackjack dealer counting chips.
Someone poked me. I looked up expecting to see one person but found six, including an employee with a price gun. The shower rings were about to go half-off.
I wish I could describe how that gang of six looked, a gang which instantly doubled to a dozen. I stood and watched them grow in size and awe. I did nothing, and it was more than enough for them. We could have stared at each other forever.
Is there any distraction better than fame?
I pulled my hoodie and sunglasses off, just for show. The camera phones were out before my hoodie was down, and the crowd squealed and crushed me. I couldn’t breathe. Then my 5’2” wife barreled through the throng and grabbed my hand.
“All right. Show’s over. Brad’s got to go.”
She paused mid-rescue.
“Are these shower rings really half-off?”
Serramonte was just down Highway 280, but we nearly didn’t make it. The fans followed us to our car, texting and snapping the whole way. Video was quickly uploaded to the web and, by the time we reached The Glasses Hut, TMZ was reporting marital trouble with Brangelina. According to sources, Brad was hiding out in a mall instead of on-location in Myanmar for Mr. and Mrs. Smith 2. What made the story go viral was that neither Mr. nor Mrs. Smith could be immediately reached at the set’s secret location.
Fans streamed out of Serramonte the moment we pulled up. My wife could hardly look at me.
“We’ll deal with your glasses another time,” she said. “I have to pick up a salad spinner for tonight. Stay here.”
She opened the door, slammed it, and pushed through the crowd. Faces pressed in, and I hid behind my shades and hoodie.
I could hear the skepticism growing outside. Isn’t Brad taller? Isn’t his jaw more chiseled? Isn’t his hair blonder?
I wondered how often Brad Pitt heard he wasn’t Brad Pitt. How annoying for him! I couldn’t help but take their doubt personally.
“Savannah” Kim, one of my former ESL students, was peering into my car. I pulled my hoodie tighter and grabbed the steering wheel for support. Savannah responded by tapping her wide, lime-green fingernails on the glass and scrunching her heavy eyebrows behind her darker and heavier glass frames. Her short, black bob quaked with anger, just as it did every time I returned one of her Elements of Style quizzes.
“Mr. Jones! Why you give me the B-?!”
I had taught her composition last spring. She had contested the grade, and I never got back to her. I had hoped she would forget the whole thing.
“Mr. Jones! Why you give me the B-?!”
I didn’t want to have his conversation, but I wanted to know how she recognized me.
I unlocked the door. When the door opened, a young girl squealed at Savannah.
“How do you know Brad?”
Savannah paused. She pushed her glasses up on her nose and considered the crowd.
“Brad Pitt? You people dummies.”
She wore a lot of green, from her fingernails to her tracksuit to her Hello Kitty backpack. She smelled like oranges.
“Don’t I look like Brad Pitt to you?”
She was rifling through her backpack, but she stopped to send me a scowl.
“You don’t fool me, Mr. Jones. You might fool those other people. But not me. I see a little Brad Pitt, here there, but you can’t hide from me.”
She pulled out a stack of papers from her backpack, all of her assignments from Comp I, neatly clipped with green paperclips.
“You carry that around with you everywhere?”
“You never know, you know?”
At the top of the stack was an official grade change form. She wanted an A- instead of a B-. She had even written A- in the space that I was supposed to write in the A-. I was starting to remember how much I disliked her.
My wife returned with our new salad spinner. Savannah nodded and squirmed into the backseat, slamming me with her ample thighs and revealing green panties. My wife entered with her best “What the hell?” look: one-third glare, one-third sneer, one-third general enmity. But once she and Savannah realized they both saw me instead of Brad Pitt, they became quite chummy.
“At certain angles, yes,” my wife conceded, handing Savannah the salad spinner. “But, really, it only takes half-a-brain to see Joey.”
Savannah covered her giggle, the classic move of all my ESL students at some point in the semester. My wife and Savannah deduced that anyone who knew me before the transformation wouldn’t be fooled.
“What are those forms?” my wife asked.
“Your husband give me the B- even though I deserve the A-.”
“Is this true, Joey?”
I wondered if Angelina and her galpals ever ganged up on Brad like this. I had been ready and willing to sign any form to get rid of Savannah, even add a horizontal line for an A+ for passive aggression’s sake. But it got my dander up how quickly my wife took Savannah’s side.
“What ‘dander up?’”
“Ignore him. He’s just trying to justify his B-.”
I was never so happy to reach my in-laws. My wife and Savannah had become as tight as camp bunkmates. She even invited Savannah in for dinner. I wondered aloud if that would be OK with her folks.
“I know what you’re thinking, Joey. Shame on you.”
Savannah, who had no idea what I was thinking, added, “Shame on you, Joey.”
What I was thinking was her father was a Korean War vet. I was also thinking that if he greeted us with two thumbfulls of whiskey in his favorite highball glass—which he did—then it would not just be shame on me. It would be shame on all humanity.
But he didn’t even give Savannah a second look before, unbelievably, hugging me.
“I knew you had it in you, my boy,” he crowed, his construction worker forearms pulling me into his fabulous beer belly. “Betty, turn that volume up.”
Things got even weirder. Not only did Rory O’Loughlin pass up a chance to tear into a real, live Asian (“Hello, Kitty. Fix yourself a drink” was all he managed), he didn’t even embrace his only daughter. Instead, he settled his son-in-law into his lounger, the same son-in-law he had labeled inept the week before for not knowing the difference between a hex bolt and a lag bolt.
Betty, my mother-in-law, could hardly contain her own excitement, offering me a solo standing ovation, for what I did not know. Roy swung the lounger to face the TV and barked again at Betty to turn the volume up.
And there was Angelina Jolie. White letters spelled out Myanmar at the bottom of the screen. Angie wore black and looked upset. She had her arm around, of all people, me. I tried to lock eyes with myself, but the TV was between me and me. It was confusing.
“We need Brad back immediately,” she said. I stood next to Angie and nodded.
My father-in-law slapped me on the back.
“I don’t know how you pulled it off, but you got that tattooed freak in a real tizzy. We’ve been following the whole thing, you and the shower rings and the mob at Serramonte. We could see it was you the whole time. I don’t know how you fooled people with this switcheroo, but you did it, son!”
He had never called me son before.
“What are you talking about, Dad?” my wife asked.
She and Savannah stood in the kitchen with their hands on their hips. Savannah was Asian and twice the size of my wife; otherwise, they seemed identical.
“What am I talking about? I’ll tell you what I’m talking about. Joe-Joe here finally did something right!”
My father-in-law slapped me on the back again and winked. Those two gestures softened his “Joe-Joe,” the nickname that I had asked him many, many, many times to drop.
“What do you mean?” my wife asked.
“Yeah, what you mean?” said Savannah.
“What you mean what I mean? You heard those rich bastards—they need pretty boy Pitt back pronto. We’re in a reward situation here!”
“Honey,” my mother-in-law said, patting the couch for her daughter to join, which she did not. “What your father means is that he’s proud of Joey for taking the initiative. We know how bad your mortgage is, and it’s almost impossible to live on a teacher’s salary nowadays. He means–”
“Quiet, Betty!” My father-in-law sloshed his drink towards the TV screen. A man in a suit whispered in Angeline Jolie’s ear. She nodded in agreement.
“We are prepared to offer a sizeable reward for Brad’s safe return.”
Roy did a jig in the living room, even pulled his wife to her feet for a spin. My wife buried her face in her hands. Savannah asked about the exact size of sizeable.
“I don’t know how to change back,” I said.
Roy stopped so suddenly that his wife almost hit the floor.
“What do you mean ‘you don’t know how’?”
His tone was back to the difference between hex bolt and a lag bolt.
“I just woke up this way. I don’t know how to switch back.”
I wish the next twenty minutes didn’t happen. Roy interrogated me. His bald head got redder and redder by pressing for any and every detail over the past 24 hours. Did I brush my teeth more than usual? Was I watching a lot of Brad Pitt movies? Did I sleep in a different position? Our exchange ended as it usually did, him flustered with my incompetence, me wondering why he got so worked up, and his daughter, my wife, tired of us both. We hopped back in the Prius, no dinner served and no salad spun.
We drove to Savannah’s house, which turned out to be uncomfortably close to our neighborhood. Dead silence the whole trip; I felt dumber and stiffer than Brad in Meet Joe Black. Savannah, with a measure of grace I didn’t think she had in her, scratched out the A- on her grade request form and wrote B+. I signed it. Before she left, Savannah and my wife made plans for lunch.
“You be good to wife, Mr. Jones,” Savannah advised. “Be good to yourself, too. You better teacher than you think.”
This affected my wife, I could see.
“And this Brad Pitt thing is all in your head.”
That I knew. What I didn’t know is why that could ever be a comfort to anyone. Where’s a worse location for a problem than one’s own head?
We reached home. Neither of us put the lights on, just got ready for bed in the dark. We were not practitioners of the “don’t go to bed angry” rule. To make matters worse, my impulse to speak during tense moments didn’t fail me.
“I’ll figure this out. I bet I can stay like this a few more days, and then we can get that reward. Maybe I should just fly to Myanmar, see what happens–”
When my wife sniffled, I knew she had been crying since she got out of the car. I moved to her and she fell into my arms and sobbed in a way she hadn’t since I took that crazy bike ride in Glacier National Park, the summer of 2002.
We had reached the park later than planned, but I wanted to ride my bike up “Going To The Sun Road.” My wife didn’t want me to, but I was boyishly excited, maybe even charming in my boyishness, because I knew a late summer evening was a perfect time to ride, all cool and quiet. The ride up was spectacular. I was surrounded by mountains and creeks and the whole wide world spread out in a way that somehow made sense. But I got a flat on the way down, had to walk the bike for almost an hour. That put me back at camp very, very late.
I remember seeing my wife’s silhouette in the tent, sitting but bent over. I braced for her anger, her usual fury that I had made another mistake.
But she wasn’t mad. She threw her arms around me before I had even zippered up the tent’s fly. She tossed me on top of her sleeping bag. She covered me with salty-teared kisses and made me promise never, ever, ever to take a risk like that again because she didn’t know what she would do without me. And then we made wild love, fearless and fearful, in a way that convinced me she was a person I didn’t know and the exact person I had known all along.
She clutched and hugged me, desperate to find me. The more she kissed me, the more my washing machine abs blossomed between us.
I was back. Brad was gone. My wife made love to me anyway.
“Believe it or not, the best thing about you is you, Joey.”
I woke up early the next morning. My wife was sleeping in, a rarity to be savored.
I walked outside to get the paper and found the entire TMZ crew on the front lawn. They had tracked our car down and expected to find Brad Pitt.
They found me instead.
There was about a dozen of them, mostly middle-aged white guys.
Most of them looked exactly like me.
They took the pictures anyway.