During those bookish Midwestern college years of buzz-cut, leather jacket, and youthful butch bravado she enthusiastically relents to the errant interpretation of her gender — as classmates and professors alike assume her masculine appearance is evidence of actual manliness. This decision to so frequently pass as male feels inadvertent and primarily thrust upon her by others. Experiencing a previously unknown sense of contentment and accord with her admittedly complicated butch lesbian identity, she gratefully embraces this gender non-conforming liminal space — in contemporary parlance, their preferred pronouns are She/Him/TBD. Knowing an interesting journey lies ahead, she is determined to undertake it experiencing himself not as an outcast, but as a hero. He arrives after graduation in San Francisco, full of hope and longing for connection.
Through the window of the café — where he sits half-heartedly typing at his laptop, he scans the windows of the buildings across the street. He anticipates her, the sexy therapist, pacing between appointments or answering a phone call or simply gazing out at the street after a challenging session with a client. But, no. Again and again she is not there. And of course, the thing is, he doesn’t even know where her office actually is— only that it is in some building in the general vicinity.
This uncertainty about her exact whereabouts is part of the formula that has created his irresistible obsession. Her presence in this neighborhood makes every walk to the corner store exciting.
Every hour, on the hour, he becomes more alert and scans the streets based on the likelihood that if a session ends at ten minutes to the hour then she might venture out just on the hour with the client having surely departed. And yet it could be that she is, in fact, just beginning a session on that particular hour and therefore there really is no hope. There’s just no knowing. Does she have clients back to back and spend that ten-minute window going to the bathroom or having a quick moment alone before the next gush of personal drama?
When does a therapist come and go?
One day he will look up and she will be standing there. His smile will convey the joy of seeing her, and she will have no idea of the vast amount of time and space she has occupied in his waking life. In his Walter Mitty/Travis Bickle alternate reality. In his Starbucks daydreams.
He has never read James Thurber’s 1939 New Yorker short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” but identifies with Danny Kaye’s incarnation of the ineffectual, hen-pecked daydreamer in the 1947 film version.
What does it mean to claim Walter Mitty as a role model, he wonders. To embrace one’s inherently masochistic nature? To admit a deep fearfulness of life which prevents you from acting on your desires? Or is it simply the pleasure of seeing himself so accurately reflected in a fictional character?
Wal·ter Mit·ty (wôl’tər mĭt’ē)
- An ordinary, often ineffectual person who indulges in fantastic daydreams of personal triumphs. [After the main character in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” by James Thurber.]
—American Heritage® Dictionary
In the movie, Danny Kaye is smitten with Virginia Mayo. She is stunningly beautiful and, at first, seemingly unattainable. But Walter comes to her aid and his crush on her becomes the film’s emotional center — propelling the narrative forward.
“The day before yesterday I met a girl,” Walter confesses toward the end of the film while lying on Boris Karloff’s faux psychiatric couch in the film’s zany, not-worth-explaining, espionage plot.
“She looked like all the girls I’ve ever dreamed about.”
Karloff’s reply confirms what we already know is the main premise of the entire story: “My boy, you’re suffering from a romantic delusion. You’ve been frustrated all your life and so you live in your daydreams.”
But from this point forward, Walter’s genuine love for Virginia Mayo’s character (whom he always addresses formally, by her last name: “Miss Van Horn”) will ultimately be the thing that drives him to re-enter the real world. They do fall in love — for real; and she is literally his dream come true.
Of course, this whole romantic happy ending is a complete divergence from the original short story, which ends with Walter still firmly planted in his fantasy life. The true Walter Mitty is a shining example of a protagonist whom we love for his determined refusal to display any personal growth as a character.
Yes, it would be true to say that I am like Walter Mitty, he decides. More Walter Mitty than Travis Bickle, he is certain. Harmless. Well-intentioned. Sweet. Aspiring to the coolness of Robert DeNiro and with the heroic gentlemanly impulse underlying Travis Bickle — but without the psychosis.
He navigates the early morning hills en route to Pacific Heights. Why does this particular view affect him so intensely? The sadness of the telephone poles as they all lean in together at the foot of Webster Street. A somewhat unusual sight, but what is the source of the pathos? Gazing longingly down that road he feels a chord of nostalgia, an inner sense that this vista resembles itself of many years ago. The tall poles, the relative quiet of the thoroughfare evoking a time of fewer people, less traffic.
It is his own childhood he seeks, or more accurately the calm of his earlier life.
With springtime in bloom, it has been several months now since he landed on what now seems such a silly and embarrassing idea — to obliquely pursue his inappropriate desire for her in this way.
After gathering crumbs of information about her at the annual office New Year’s Eve party — an enormous event packed with hundreds of people (including her husband, his co-worker) — his obsession had crystallized.
Feigning casual small-talk interest in her coffee politics, and aware of the general location of her Fillmore Street therapy office, he asks as they stand there in front of the punch bowl whether she goes to Starbucks or Peet’s, since they are on the same block. As she walks away, having named Peet’s her café, he immediately resolves to pursue more details of her schedule. After several months of slowly simmering desire he now feels suddenly compelled to pursue her, in his uniquely roundabout way — he will find a way to accidentally run into her.
Fully aware of the folly of his fantasy he acknowledges to himself the absurdity, the craziness of his irrational obsession. But then rationalizes it, deeming it reasonable that he must do his email and his work somewhere. It may as well be at a café where he can fully indulge in the pleasure of thinking about her, and perhaps crossing her path. In possessing self-knowledge about the unhealthiness of his wild crush he somehow believes this awareness gives him permission to continue.
Later in the evening as the crowd disperses he has another moment with her.
“So what days do you work,” he too boldly inquires. Her pause before answering makes him fear he has crossed a line. Does she now feel stalked and forced to answer? Surely she does not want him to pursue her so obviously. It was clumsy of him, too direct. She does answer (hesitantly, he senses) and then walks away again, leaving him filled with doubt and recrimination.
He savors the pleasure too, of this particular experience. Perched on the threshold of joy or of rejection, he is filled at once with both hope and despair.
And then, unexpectedly, enthusiastically, she says goodbye to him in front of the conference room with the not so subtle (joyous!) words, “I hope to see you soon.” Adding, clumsily too, “Maybe some Tuesday.”
And immediately it is crystal clear that his stealthy fragmented intelligence gathering has been fully transparent to her all along. Even as she, too, has been pretending to accidentally run into him at the snack table for their stolen moments that feel so inexplicably surreptitious.
They are not doing anything, have never done anything. But from the very start he was so instantly infatuated and unable to conceal it. Yammering on and on to her in front of her husband (who stands, silently appalled at how his wife is engaged in such animated conversation with the butchest dyke he’s ever seen).
Just being in the same room with her generates intense feelings of guilt. Like an over-eager puppy-dog, his attempts at normal conversation with her, especially in the presence of others, find him unable to disguise his feelings. Or rather, he fears his efforts at pretending to not be infatuated are unsuccessful. His very glance at her a dead giveaway to anyone the least bit attentive.
It must be so patently obvious, he thinks — such a scarlet letter proclaiming the truth. And yet, there has been no comment. No issue. It is just the intensity of his desire casting shadows of anticipatory guilt.
And now here they are, or rather here he is, with his heart always tallying the days until Tuesday. Each week emotionally organized around that day as a day when he might either see her or actively make the effort to resist obsessing about the possibility of seeing her.
He scans the pedestrians and the drivers. One of them will be her — eventually. He does not know what kind of car she drives. A practical Subaru? An upscale Audi? Or perhaps a Saab? He is actually working on his laptop most of the time. It’s just sometimes that he looks up and wonders. Which bank does she use? Will she go to the Wells Fargo ATM or the Bank of America? A Prius! She probably drives a Prius.
And now, he thinks. She could walk in the door at any moment. Or, she could just as easily not.
“My unattainable muse,” he types, immersed in his yearning. “I want to write a story for you. Unable to give you anything else, I will give you this.”
The time spent writing about her, describing his feelings about her, is almost like talking to her.
This time spent passively waiting in strategic locations where there is some chance of crossing paths with her, is almost as good as seeing her he decides. It is like being near her in a way. Just so close, so almost. He is now so at ease in his state of perennial anticipation, he comes to believe it is in fact sufficient. Perhaps even preferable, he sadly comprehends — a wave of despair overtaking him as he recognizes the complete pathos of his situation and vows to find a more appropriate love object.
It finally happens. On a bright, warm Tuesday afternoon as he is standing in front of the bookstore.
Oh, keep him from falling over right there on the sidewalk — she is so sexy in her dark blue 32” and cinched at the waist with thick black leather belt Levi’s 501s. This is his fetish, his weakness, his irresistible thing that he could gaze upon for hours. Her long legs and narrow hips and the button fly of her crotch accentuated by the tiny old-school flip phone so boldly nestled in that little fifth front pocket that’s always too small to make use of.
Hugging her hello he is struck by the sensuality, the sheer addictive quality of her physicality. She exudes this combined sexual promise and languorous attentiveness. Her warm sun-browned skin, the smell of some tropical body lotion, the way she holds her entire body against him as they embrace — it’s like heroin.
And there he is in those first slightly in shock moments having that internal panicked feeling of not knowing what to say but not wanting to leave, praying in muted anxiety for a protracted exchange wherever it will go. And then coming back to this mundane, silly topic of the local cafes, out of sheer nervousness. And then crafting the way of saying he is not so particular about who has the best coffee but rather more interested in the wi-fi, the atmosphere, and the likelihood of — pause — running into you.
But then, although she does seem happy to see him, the way she points down the street to this third alternative café could be interpreted as discomfort with his directness. He gauges the situation and backs off a little as he is also having some kind of out of body experience — like meeting a celebrity — where he can’t believe he’s standing there talking to her.
They stand on the sidewalk. They talk. Time stops.
Maybe she doesn’t have a 2pm client on Tuesdays. Or else her 2 o’clock cancelled today. Because then, after awhile, she asks if he wants to see her office.
Oh dream come true, there he is sitting in her tastefully appointed little room.
On the couch together they talk excitedly. He could happily spend the rest of the afternoon there — taking turns trying to convey his personality to her as he talks, and then adoring her as he listens to everything she has to say. As he fends off that continual impulse to make a pass at her. Which he doesn’t really want to do anyway. He just wants to think about it. Enjoy the idea of it. Gaze at her and feel the waves of breathtaking desire and appreciation of the veins in her hands, the exact contours of her lips, the unique hue of her pale blue eyes and the way she pushes back that mop of curly dark brown hair from her forehead. And the fact that she wears shirts that reveal her oh-so-sexy belly and further convey the sense to him that she is such a perfect size and shape to just push her against the wall and satisfy his curiosity; except that there would be no satisfaction, only further inflamed desire.
He wants her to see his tender side. Unprotected, to let some kind of love in. She asks him about his life. He feels that she understands him. She sees who he is. She conveys such affection for him in her eyes.
The alchemical sensation that he experiences in this moment — of joy and some kind of beautiful pain — is almost too much to bear.
It’s not that he hasn’t experienced actual love before (though his current fixation has obscured his perception like the thickest fogbank ever to hit San Francisco).
Now would be the time for him to confess his infatuation.
The arrival of a colleague interrupts their impassioned chat. “To be continued,” he ventures.
He stumbles across Scorcese’s Taxi Driver on TV one night and is struck by his faulty memory of the plot. He had completely forgotten the ending and Travis Bickle’s weirdly cathartic concluding chapter — after the bloodbath sequence where DeNiro heroically/psychotically murders the pimp and the john and “rescues” Iris (Jodie Foster) from being the teenage hooker that she is.
This very last part of the film is like a dream-sequence epilogue really. We see these newspaper clippings on Travis Bickle’s apartment walls all about his vigilante savior routine (rather than being locked up as a psycho, he is lauded as a hero) and we hear a letter being read in voiceover from Iris’s Dad thanking him for saving their daughter. Then we cut to him standing on the sidewalk with his cabbie buddies and they say, “Hey Travis, you have a fare.” As he walks over to his cab — who gets in but the ultimate object of his unrequited desire, Cybil Shepherd?! And she’s all flirty with him, saying she read about him in the paper and it’s almost as though if he wanted to, he could have her in that moment. He drives and they chat and he drops her off and says goodbye like he doesn’t even care anymore. Like he’s rejecting her. Then he drives off all cool and suave and hero-like.
The ending doesn’t seem real. It’s more like Travis Bickle’s delusional fantasy of how he sees himself. It’s the ultimate conclusion to his daydream. Since he doesn’t get to have her, he gets to reject her.
It’s a brilliant scene that perfectly echoes the film’s moody, lonely, rain-soaked opening sequence. The credits roll.
Driving a cab suddenly strikes him as the ultimate awkward loner occupation. The opportunity to experience repeated limited forms of intimacy with people you’ll never see again.
Two weeks pass. He invites her to a Tuesday lunch and asks her to meet him in the poetry section at the bookstore.
He stands flipping through various beloved volumes — full of anticipatory emotion. Moments before she enters, he is enthralled and scribbling three lines of Frank O’Hara on a scrap of paper:
well but if you lust after someone
you must face it
your life, after all, must be real
He takes her to a cheap, not very good, Thai place because he knows it will be quiet there.
As they talk, there are moments of connection and yet he feels a frustrating awareness of his inability to be more genuine with her. He feels that he is trying too hard. He thinks he isn’t being completely honest somehow. And, of course, as Frank O’Hara points out — he’s not.
A week later, restless on a Monday night, he ponders those heartbreaking Frank O’Hara lines and feels that familiar ache as he pictures her happy face in his mind.
Crafting his next communication in his head. How casual can he pretend to be?
Having decided to wait patiently, it is a pleasant surprise to receive a text from her suggesting they have lunch the next day.
He’s pretty sure it would be a bad idea to say he has a crush on her. And yet, not acknowledging it is beginning to seem like an impediment. He craves the honesty of the revelation.
Each day of his life now is filled with several exchanges wherein his packet of vulnerability, hope and desire is conveyed (by email, voicemail, text message) and then the awaited reply keeps him checking his devices compulsively — as Jane Austen’s characters would wait for the afternoon post. Heart pounding, almost intolerable anxiety: did he say too much, go too far? Will his hopes be dashed? And then decoding each aspect of her replies: the salutations, the closings, the word choices — what is she saying between the lines? Does she like him, how much, in what way?
He knows in his heart it’s all only dreaming. He will grow up, he will stop this ridiculous wild goose chase. He will do what everyone else does and try some kind of app or online dating or hanging out at bars and clubs.
The girl is out there. Available and waiting for him — a real woman, in the real world. He is capable of meeting her, and capable of interacting with her as the mature adult that he truly is.
And she will be the girl of his dreams; the answer to his amorphous needs. She is the destination at which he might finally arrive. After this long journey.
The journey he hopes has carried him from false bravado to true courage.
They have coffee and talk. She’s beautiful. He’s distracted. Still utterly preoccupied with his desire for her. So much to say. So much not to say. Like: “I want to write a book about you. About all the things I want to do to you. But in the book, I get to do them.”
He decides he is now simultaneously infatuated and making an effort to get over her. He tells himself that by spending time with her his crush will subside. But really it’s just a rationalization, an excuse for spending more time with her.
Also, it’s not really working.
The sudden, revelatory splash of reality comes over him. This is his epiphany, his moment of awareness: She’s straight; she’s married. Even if she really is flirting back at him — nothing will ever happen.
He realizes he will indeed move on to the world of available women; and yet he also mournfully clings to his idealized desire: He would like to remain in this state of arrested fawning.
And console himself with the secret joy of imagining she will eventually read a narrative he has crafted out of nothing — out of daydreams, hot air and poetry.
A story that somehow makes them into an “us.” Conveys meaning upon a phantom fantasy. Gives posterity to things that never happened; and permanence to affections that will never end.
- “Walter Mitty” definition. Dictionary.com. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004.
- 2. Excerpt from “Lines During Certain Pieces of Music,” by Frank O’Hara. From The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara. Copyright © 1971 by Maureen Granville-Smith. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. All rights reserved.
A 2018 MacDowell Fellow, Jenni Olson is now in development on her third
feature-length essay film, The Quiet World and an essayistic memoir of the same name. Jenni is an independent writer and non-fiction filmmaker based in San Francisco. Her two feature-length essay films — The Joy of Life (2005) and The Royal Road (2015) — premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and have screened internationally to awards and acclaim. In 2020 the Criterion Channel launched a retrospective on Olson and her work. Also in 2020, the Harvard Film Archive established the Jenni Olson Queer Film Collection, a repository for Jenni’s work as a filmmaker and film historian/archivist. Her work as a film historian and critic includes the Lambda Award nominated The Queer Movie Poster Book (Chronicle Books, 2005) and decades of writing for such esteemed publications as Filmmaker Magazine and The Advocate. Her reflection on the last 30 years of LGBT film history, in The Oxford Handbook of Queer Cinema, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press in 2021. Jenni co-founded the pioneering LGBT online platform, PlanetOut.com, and is the proud proprietor of Butch.org. She has been widely recognized and honored for her creative writing and innovative non-fiction storytelling — she has essays forthcoming in 2021 in TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, and the New Orleans Review. She holds a BA in Film Studies from the University of Minnesota and is currently an independent consultant.