Thanks Eugenio & artist Tom Deininger for this Performance Piece Post based on a real-life Tom Cruise fan run amok.
Eugenio Volpe has published work with Post Road, Exquisite Corpse, and Italian Americana. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and won the PEN Discovery Award for his novel in progress. He teaches creative writing at Roger Williams University where he is fiction editor of their literary journal roger.
CMS 352: Modern Art and Mass Culture, 1988-92 Instructor: Eugenio Volpe This subject is a case study on the intersections between the figurative sensibilities of modern painting and the hyperreal iconography of early Tom Cruise films. Particular attention will be paid to ways in which the Tom Cruise iconography stimulated Reagan-era consumerism and enrollment in the U. S. Navy, bartending schools, and NASCAR Institute. The specific desires, thoughts, and wills of this subject’s subjects will be examined through the mirrored aviator lenses of Marx and Freud. Among the artists and characters analyzed are Sargent, Modigliani, Picasso, Lt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, Brian Flanagan, and Cole Trickle. Mercy Hall Tues, Thurs 2:00-3:30
Freshman Orientation: How did John Singer Sargent paint an eye in four strokes? How did Manet simplify a face? These were the problems occupying Thomas Kunst as a freshman; those, and how to manipulate the sexual morality of young Catholic women.
His roommate, Robbie Rankin, had different pre-occupations. Robbie was a rat-faced twerp with a perennial blackhead inside his left ear. He was existentially bankrupt therefore he borrowed from Tom Cruise. He borrowed Tom’s Napoleonic confidence. He borrowed Tom’s spunk and billion-dollar grin. When worn on Robbie however, the Tom Cruise persona came off as jittery and obnoxious. It was twenty years before anyone would watch Tom jump up and down on Oprah’s couch or listen to him chastise Brooke Shields for taking antidepressants. In 1988, that side of Tom Cruise was incognizable. Only those who knew Robbie Rankin knew that the real Tom Cruise was a fiend in the making.
Fall, Freshman Year: Robbie and Thomas met in their dorm room the first day of school. It was an unseasonably cool morning in early September. Most freshmen were wearing shorts and freshly bought Salve U. sweatshirts. Thomas took his sweatshirt off after carrying a box of art books up the two wide flights of mahogany stairway. He made a good point of judging his new cohabiters by the things they carried. Robbie had more shit than anybody—TV, VCR, 5-disc CD player, Nintendo, and a brand new Mac II. He humped it all up the stairs, keeping his bomber jacket on the entire time. After a few trips, his sweaty forehead was shinier than his polarized aviator glasses. He kept them on while giving Thomas’ hand a moist and frantic shake.
“So you’re my new wingman,” he said cockily. “Salve Regina is what I call a target-rich environment when it comes to the ladies. I am going to need a good wingman.”
It was clear that Robbie had been waiting all summer to say this to his college roommate. Top Gun had been out two years, but Robbie hadn’t ejected himself from the cockpit of Lt. Pete Mitchell’s rebellious persona. Thomas had known a few Maverick wannabes back home, but something about Robbie’s version was particularly desperate. As he saw it, Robbie wouldn’t be needing a wingman. He’d be flying solo.
“So I guess you’re a big Tom Cruise fan?” Thomas asked.
Robbie snapped his slimy hand away. “What do you mean?” he replied.
Thomas was stunned. Was Robbie an unwitting copycat or lying thief? He’d wanted a roommate who could play Braque to his Picasso, someone who would argue aesthetics with him into the wee hours. Instead, he was rooming with a creepy Philistine. Robbie reeked of mediocrity and tetracycline. He should have felt physically and socio-economically deficient in Thomas’ presence, but he didn’t. He marched around Carey Mansion like he belonged there. It was a bygone Gatsby of a place. Formerly owned by a whiskey tycoon, it now housed the alcoholic recreations of Salve Regina freshman. As a result, the parquet floors and tile bathrooms were worn. There were cracks in the plaster. Robbie was impressed nonetheless. He was mostly impressed with himself. A Rankin man would be residing in a Newport Mansion. The Gilded Age indeed.
Robbie’s big plan was to join the navy after graduation. He wanted to fly an F-14 like Tom Cruise, or Lt. Pete Mitchell, or Maverick, or whoever the hell it was singing “You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling” to Kelly McGillis. Robbie wasn’t singing to any woman, real or Kodachromed. By Columbus Day, Thomas had boned three different women. Robbie was insanely jealous of his fortune. He was getting nothing and couldn’t figure out why. Thomas tried breaking the news lightly. He told Robbie that he was aiming too high. Regardless of what the Salve brochures had promised, he wasn’t going to land some blonde, nouveau riche, Catholic bombshell from Connecticut. They weren’t interested in meeting middle class, U.K. mutt Presbyterians from New Hampshire. Robbie looked at Thomas like he was not only stupid, but ugly like him.
“They have sex with you,” Robbie rebutted. “Why won’t they have sex with me?”
Thomas bit his tongue. Why make Robbie self-conscious? Why upset him? His Cruise performance was entertaining. Better yet, he kissed Thomas’ ass. He bought him coffees and beers. He drove him to parties. So what if he fancied himself Thomas’ equal? Imitation is the highest form of flattery, and Thomas had been doing some stealing of his own, the techniques of John Singer Sargent in particular. By Thanksgiving break, he’d won numerous painting competitions, beating out students from RISD and Yale. Bad artists copy. Great artists steal. Thomas was on the verge of becoming a great artist. Robbie was a bad copy of a copy. He was on the verge of an irrecoverable psychosis.
In the meantime, Robbie did anything to be liked. He sprung for pizza. He sprung for booze. He charged friendships on his father’s Discover Card. Kerry Anderson promised Robbie a private strip show if he bought her a pair of leather cowgirl boots. Thomas advised Robbie not to fall for it. He saw Kerry for what she was: a knockout blonde with a freckled cleavage and innate talent for getting what she wanted out of men. She thanked Robbie for the boots with nothing more than a sympathetic hug. He crawled into bed for two days and consequently scored a zero on his Accounting exam.
That Friday night, Thomas asked Kerry if she’d like to sit in their room for a portrait. She said that she didn’t like art but liked the idea of seeing herself rendered artistically. While posing on the edge of Robbie’s bed, she asked him to go buy a six-pack of wine coolers. Robbie was glad to do it. By the time he got back, Thomas had already done her Botticelli style. Robbie held up the drawing and scoffed.
“Doesn’t look a thing like her,” he said.
Kerry saw it otherwise. She was beside herself. Within the hour, the lights went off and she and Thomas were having sex in his bed, her on top, like Rebecca De Mornay grinding Tom Cruise on the Chicago ‘L’ in Risky Business. From across the room, Robbie watched the silhouetted version of his second favorite Tom Cruise sex scene. He spared them the decency of leaving. He lay there angrily humming “Danger Zone.”
Spring, Freshman Year: The first day back from Christmas break, Robbie arrived at Carey Mansion wearing a blue Aloha shirt and no bomber jacket. It was eighteen degrees outside. With the Aloha shirt and matching blue lips, came news that he’d be attending On the Rocks Bartending School in Providence. Dreams of flying an F-14 were out the window. Robbie had seen Cocktail over Christmas break. His new post-graduation plan was to open a bar. He was going to call it Rankin’s Cocktails and Dreams.
Every Friday night, he opened a mock version of Rankin’s Cocktails and Dreams in their dorm room. He’d convert his bureau into a bar. He bought vodka and gin, mixers and shakers. The night always began with “Old Time Rock and Roll” and ended with “Kokomo.” People showed up for the free liquor and to watch Robbie toss bottles into the air, over his shoulder and behind his back. He was actually good at it, maybe even better than Tom Cruise. He never dropped a bottle. His drinks tasted great. Robbie was so good at bartending that it caused Thomas to wonder how good he might have been flying an F-14. Thomas knew better though. He could paint Robbie in one broad stroke: Robbie tried too hard and thus lacked grace. He could have blown Saddam Hussein all the way to Kingdom Come, but nobody would have hailed him. Robbie Rankin just wasn’t likable.
His fake bar had some real effects, the first being that their room actually smelled like one, which was a marked improvement from Robbie’s tetracycline cream. The second effect was that Robbie made a quasi friend, Troy Dobson. Like Robbie, Troy was an atypical Salve student. He was a buzz-blonde oaf who liked to fish and hunt. He drove a beat-up and jacked-up Land Cruiser. He was shy, socially awkward, but also employed odd formalities when talking. He used words like salutation and adieu. He enjoyed windsurfing, but not in a sporty or preppy way. He liked getting whipped across the bay during nor’easters. He liked the violence of it. Troy was a merchant of chaos and a bit of a bully. He’d light off firecrackers at an indoor party. He collected guns. Unfortunately, Tom Cruise would make an uncredited cameo that year in the neo-Western Young Guns.
Thomas and Troy got along by making fun of Robbie when he wasn’t in the room. When he was in the room, Thomas was happy to sit back and listen to them contend against each other’s material possessions. Robbie’s Nintendo versus Troy’s Sega. Robbie’s Members Only versus Troy’s Perry Ellis. Robbie’s Pathfinder versus Troy’s Land Cruiser. It was always a futile battle. They were both painfully middle class, but at least Robbie was now sharing that pain with someone else. This was the way Thomas saw it.
Fall, Sophomore Year: Thomas moved into a Victorian cottage with Troy and Robbie off-campus. It was near the beach. More importantly to Thomas, they lived next door to Gordon Smith, a reputable art dealer. He walked his two poodles past their house every morning and evening. Troy often joked about blowing the poodles up. Robbie often talked about getting the poodles high. He and Troy had begun smoking a shit ton of weed, thanks in part to the party atmosphere at Rankin’s Cocktails and Dreams, which had moved from Carey Mansion to its new and improved location on Rhode Island Ave. Robbie had his bartending degree but still wasn’t old enough to bartend. He worked as a barback at The Cheeky Monkey, a swank place with hot waitresses, none of whom Robbie came even close to fucking.
Thomas had been doing his fair share of fucking until he developed a thing for Italian women, or rather Italian-American women as he’d never actually seen a real Italian woman. Young upper-middle class Italian-American women weren’t as forthcoming with their bodies as other brands of nouveau riche Catholics. Thomas did them Botticelli. He did them Fra Angelico. They refused to put out. They’d offer oral recompense, but never more than that. They all wanted Thomas to make them look like the Madonna. He had more young Italian-American women coming in and out of his house than the chapel in Ochre Court on a Sunday morning.
It wasn’t until he adopted a kitten that Thomas scored his first Italian-American. It was worth the wait. It was everything that his best friend, Ned Foley had promised. Passion and intensity. Nurturing with a touch of dirty. Thomas had spent all of high school in Ned’s shadow. Ned would crack jokes at his expense in order to get girls laughing. Not that Ned needed to get them laughing. Ned was a blonde Adonis. He stole from Thomas, Veronica Ricci and Candy O’Toole in particular. He would flirt with Thomas’ mom. Sometimes she’d get redder than her XJ6. Thomas could only forgive his best friend. You can’t fault genius. Ned was in another state studying to become a gym teacher.
All the young Catholic women of Salve loved Thomas’ kitten. Being an unwitting copycat, Robbie tried one-upping him and bought a ferret. The young Catholic women of Salve Regina did not like Robbie Rankin’s ferret. In fact, it gave them the heebie-jeebies. Needless to say, Robbie didn’t get laid all semester. Neither did Troy. They spent their time getting baked while watching Thomas sketch women. They would argue over whose weed was better. Robbie’s Maui Wowie versus Troy’s Acapulco Gold.
Spring, Sophomore Year: Spring Break. Robbie rented an apartment on the beach in Ft. Lauderdale. He was taking his Cocktail act on the road, closer to the origin’s origins. He came up with the ingenious tactic of inviting one gay guy and six women to join him. They all flew down together. Robbie bought the girls their drinks. He bought them their breakfasts and dinners. They ignored him just the same. On the last night of the trip, one of the girls ended up sleeping with their gay friend Stephen. Robbie was devastated. The next morning, they all found him sobbing in the shallow end of the pool. Nobody thought to comfort or console him. He returned to Salve with a dark and fathomless chasm inside the chip on his shoulder.
Troy bought a new 9 Mm. Robbie bought a longer 9 Mm. They bought shoulder holsters and carried their guns under their respective Members Only and Perry Ellis jackets. They carried their guns everywhere, to Rankin’s Cocktails and Dreams and Miley Hall.
Summer 1990: Robbie called Thomas and invited him to a Jethro Tull concert at Great Woods. He had two extra tickets. Thomas didn’t particularly like their music, but he thought it might be fun for Ned to meet the Tom Cruise kid. They met Robbie there. He was wearing a red Aloha shirt and Wayfarers. He brought a date. She wasn’t bad looking. Robbie bought everyone drinks. Jethro Tull opened with “Skating Away (On the Thin Ice of the New Day).” Robbie excused himself to the bathroom. Ned tried making small talk with his date by asking if she was having a good time.
“Yes,” she replied. “It’d be even better if Robbie wasn’t here.”
Ned asked if she wanted to take a walk. She happily agreed. When Robbie came back, Thomas told him that Ned and his date had gone to the bathroom. Robbie seemed to believe him.
Fall, Junior Year: First day back, Robbie screeched up to their house in a brand new Volkswagen Sirocco. Days of Thunder. Thomas did everything he could not to laugh when he exited the car through the driver-side window. Robbie had also removed the rearview mirror. Real racecar drivers didn’t use them. They only used their side mirrors.
By Columbus Day, Thomas had landed the extremely hot and holier than though Maria Mancini. She fancied herself the Virgin Mary, especially when Thomas did her Michelangelo. Thomas was beyond realism at this point. He asked if she could do her Modigliani. She asked why Modigliani painted prostitutes and not the Madonna. Thomas told her that he was Jewish. She couldn’t conceive of an Italian Jew. Thomas reminded her that Jesus was Jewish too. She refused to have sex, but within an hour, she was a Modigliani from the neck up.
Maria soon became Thomas’ girlfriend. Robbie tried one-upping him by getting a Hungarian girlfriend. When Thomas squinted at her, as if regarding a Chuck Close painting, she kind of looked Italian. Her name was Zizi. She was kind of pretty. She had one dead tooth, an incisor. She was the daughter of a Hungarian textile supplier whose favorite novel was The Great Gatsby.
Robbie showered Zizi with gifts and affection. When he and Troy weren’t on the deck launching water balloons at Gordon Smith and his poodles, he was taking Zizi out for dinner, or a movie, or driving her to New York City for a night of excitement, his 9 Mm on him at all times just in case.
Thomas painted, sketched, and sculpted Maria in every manner and style that had ever been presented to man. She still refused to sleep with him. She was saving herself. Meanwhile, Robbie was in the next room making the mattress squeak every night. Thomas wasn’t sure if Maria was worth it. Robbie’s confidence was through the moon. His pesky hyperactive personality was operating at warp speed. One night when Robbie was working at the Cheeky Monkey, Thomas asked Zizi if he could sketch her. She cracked a bashful grin, revealing her gray incisor.
Thomas sketched her in a style all his own. If such a thing were at all possible. Robbie came home and was enraged by what he saw.
“Looks like a bunch of scribbles to me. A five-year old could have done this. You make your girlfriend look like an angel, meanwhile mine looks like a kindergarten project.”
Thomas tried explaining to Robbie that the drawing of Zizi had been his best yet. This gave Robbie the idea that Thomas had either slept with Zizi or was intending to. Thomas hadn’t thought of it like that, but maybe that was his intention. Either way, he denied it. Robbie took Zizi by the hand and stormed out of the house. He did a five minute break-stand in the driveway before finally peeling way. The next morning there was a note on the door from Gordon Smith asking them to slow down.
Spring, Junior Year: Robbie became increasingly suspicious of Thomas, especially after he and Maria broke up. Thomas did not stop sketching and painting Zizi. With her as his subject, he had become a great painter, figurative leaning towards the abstract. Their relationship remained strictly artistic. They kept the drawings and paintings hidden from Robbie. There was no need to upset him, no need to make him self-conscious. With all the gun-toting and reckless driving, Robbie had become somewhat of a dangerous figure. The constant pot-smoking added a paranoid edge.
Thomas began noticing a change within Zizi. She was smiling more. She seemed more at ease with herself. Thomas took it personally. He figured he was responsible for bringing out this beauty. Robbie noticed it too. It made him nervous and increasingly hostile towards Thomas. Robbie smoked more pot and drove faster around the neighborhood. He started acting schizo in terms of his Tom Cruise personas. One day the bomber jacket. The next day, his Aloha shirt. He started reaching back even further. He came home one afternoon with the same colored football jersey as worn by Tom Cruise in All the Right Moves. It was a dangerous sign. Thomas thought it best to stop painting Zizi for a while. She agreed. She seemed fine with it, which depressed Thomas just a little.
A week later, Thomas came home to find Robbie in his bedroom trashing the drawings and paintings of Zizi. She had broken up with Robbie. She told him there was someone else. He assumed it was Thomas. Robbie didn’t believe Thomas when he told him otherwise. Robbie was getting in his face. Thomas thought about putting an end to the nonsense by punching the twerp out, but there was a knock at the door. It was Zizi. She had come to collect her things. Robbie went berserk. He kicked over his bar in the corner of the living room. Zizi told him that it wasn’t Thomas. He wouldn’t listen to reason. He reached into his bomber jacket and pulled out his 9 Mm. She screamed. Thomas’ heart sank all the way down to his bowels.
“Please, Robbie!” She screamed. “Don’t let it end like this! Don’t let it end badly!”
“Everything ends badly,” Robbie said. “Otherwise it wouldn’t end.”
The gun shook in his hand. Thomas really didn’t know what was going to happen next. He was pretty sure that Robbie was going to shoot them both. He became enraged and then he became sad because there was nothing he could do about it. He almost started crying when Troy came bursting out of his bedroom. He snatched the gun from Robbie and shouldered him to the ground. Robbie jumped back up and attacked, but Troy was much too strong for him. He put Robbie in a full nelson and swung him around the room. Thomas began laughing, partly out of relief, partly out of amusement. It ended with Troy throwing Robbie down the stairs and Robbie peeling out of the driveway in his red Sirocco.
Thomas didn’t understand the full extent of the event until Zizi went running over to Troy for a hug, followed by a long kiss. Troy was her someone else. He’d been the one to put the smile on Zizi’s imperfect face. The last Thomas heard, Troy and Zizi had gotten married and moved to Budapest.
As for Robbie, he dropped out of Salve and transferred to UNH. A Few Good Men came out the year of graduation and supposedly he was off to law school, but nobody knew for sure. It sounded too scripted, like the rest of his life would merely follow Tom Cruise’s filmography. If that was the case why not assume Robbie had become a sports agent or samurai? Perhaps he had traveled back in time to assassinate Hitler. He certainly would have made for a convincing Nazi. Perhaps Robbie had become L. Ron Hubbard’s right hand man. After all, Robbie had never seen a Tom Cruise film that he didn’t believe in, you know?
“Every time I paint a portrait, I lose a friend”
John Singer Sargent