Him – Here, I got us some drinks. You sure you don’t want anything stronger?
Me – Yeah, I don’t drink much.
Him – Why’s that?
Me – I just don’t.
Him – But you said when we were chatting that you tended bar for a long time when you lived in NYC.
Me – No, and I still am never far from being behind the stick. That’s a Brooklyn term. “Behind the stick,” refers to standing behind the beer taps.
Him – I love that. I loved Brooklyn, when I was an East Coaster. So you don’t drink?
Me – Haven’t had anything to drink in almost six years.
Him – So as far as addicts go, you’re one of the saner ones?
Me – Sure. Even if the data doesn’t bear that out, I’ll cop to it. I’m one of the sane ones.
Him – Oh no, what does sanity even mean, though?
Me – I have a theory.
Him – A homo with a theory, do explain?
Me – It’s predicated on a few natural, logical-yet-fully-emotional assumptions.
Him – So, it’s total bullshit.
Me – Correct. So, the idea is, nobody is fully sane in the world, so much more truthful of big cities, and so much more truthful of people who flock to coastal cities like LA or NYC. You follow so far?
Him – Crazy people move to the coasts, I got it.
Me – Crazy people move to coastal cities. NYC, Baltimore, Miami, The Bay Area, Trampa, St. Pete, they all have one thing in common – lunatics.
Him – Okay, but don’t all cities, and towns for that matter, have kooks and ne’er-do-well types?
Me – Sure, but there was a longitudinal study done by Harvard School of Psychology that showed a correlation between coastal cities and incidences of being interred for observation in psych wards.
Him – What did they find?
Me – Living less than one mile from the ocean makes people less crazy, but more likely to seek treatment for mental health issues. Living in urban settings in general, however, has a negative impact on mental health until the median income hits 75 grand.
Him – It sounds like you’re saying people who live on the beach are sane, while people who live in cities near the beach are insane.
Me – Per-capita, that’s how the info bears out. But maybe I’m saying, beachfront rent or mortgage is too expensive if you make less than 75 thousand.
Him – Where do you live?
Me – Far, far from the beach.
Him – Oh, no, are you insane?
Me – Certifiably.
Him – Stop it! Don’t joke like that. Mental health jokes are awkward.
Me – Why’s that, you think?
Him – It’s ableist, for one.
Me – Oh dear, not the A word!
Him – Stop, my cousin is retarded.
Me – Retarded! He’s using retarded and ableist in the same breath!
Him – No, stop, that’s just how we describe it. Louis said he prefers that label, and he’s pretty stubborn.
Me – Anyway, I’m not being ableist. I’m actually certified as a crazy person.
Him – Typical. You’re a caricature of a stereotype.
Me – That I am. I’m a chronic-but-not-acute-hypo-maniac. Just under mania, most of the time. Served up hot, fresh, and now with a side of medicated self-awareness.
Him – What medicine do you take.
Me- Medicines, plural. And, that’s not a first-date disclosure. My drag name is HIPAA Violation.
Him- Ha! Really?
Me – No if I did drag my name would be Grace Period, and I’d always be trying to get a stain out of my dress.
Him – Even funnier. Hey, I think I see a guy I did summer theater with, like, a million years ago.
Me – Oh! Did you…
Him – I should go over there and say, hey.
Me – You totally should.
(a long pause, then…)
Me – Uh, anyway, you’re cute, so if you wanted to keep chatting after-
Him – It’s been a long time, Michael, since I’ve seen him.
Me – Sure, so… I’ll finish my drink.
Him – And head out?
Me – I have a few people to say hi/bye to, but yeah… Did you…
Him – What?
Me – Did you want to meet up again? I feel like we didn’t get to-
Him – Honestly I don’t know.
Me – Oh.
Him – You’re good looking enough. It’s not anything about you, except, just you as a person.
Me – What?
Him – When you said what you said about being medicated. It was kind of a turn off. Not that you’re medicated, that’s responsible, that’s a turn on, actually, but…
Me – Was I manic? It’s like a mutant power – I take medicine to suppress it, but it pops out around the edges, sometimes.
Him – No, you’re not terribly manic, but I’m just getting red flags right and left from you. Why would you challenge my use of “retarded? It’s still in the DSM, you know?
Me – Actually, yeah, I do know that. I guess I was just trying to be extra sensitive?
Him – Okay, well, stop doing things like that, and while you’re at it?
Me – Oh dear…
Him – Stop telling people you’re mentally ill on the first date. How about that? How’s that for a first-date disclosure?
Me – Wow. Okay first of all, it’s not an illness it’s a condition. Society is the illness, and this is my body’s reaction. And secondly, me saying I have a mental condition does not predicate me having to tell you every single medicine I am on. And third of all – if you find it awkward, imagine what it’s like inside my brain, 24/7.
Him – Wow. Sorry. That was too frank? I’m mortified, suddenly.
Me – No. Don’t be. You have every right to your feelings. Indulge them as you see fit.
Him – See, it’s that sort of thing. “Indulge your feelings if you must…” You sound superior, but I know you’re not. I researched you. You’re a struggling artist, like everyone else in this town.
Me – I’m struggling less than I ever did in NYC.
Him – And resting on your laurels, it would appear. Do you remember when you used to blog about awkward dates? You always ended on calling the other person a jerk. Well, what if it’s you? What if you’re the jerk?
Me – Hundo percento, guapo! The monster under the bed is always us. Always.
Of course I’m the jerk. And I get it. You don’t scream into the void, pointlessly, for ten years – without some self-aware moments of realizing – hey, this has more to do with me, than the endless stream of faces on Scruff, or Grindr. Of course I’m the jerk, kiddo.
Him – And don’t call me kiddo.
Me – Done.
Him – I went on this date on purpose, to teach you a lesson.
Me – Do you think I learned anything?
Him – I don’t think you’re listening. I think you’re just here to gather material. More jerks to shout about into the void.
Me – Sounds like you’re describing a victimless crime.
Him – Maybe, but it’s not something I need to participate in.
Me – And yet, you scheduled this meeting.
Him – And now I’m scheduling my departure. Goodbye Mr. Jerk!
(a long pause as he walks away, then…)
Me – Maybe I’m not the only chronic-but-not-acute-hypo-maniac at Akbar tonight?
Dear Mr. PIEFOLK,
We don't know one another but I'm also a baker. Bisexual. Cis-Male. Living in the mid-western state of Oklahoma. That's as much as I'm willing to narrow it down. But, I've been a long time reader and my friend mentioned you used to write advice letters. She's an improv teacher who used to know, and respect you in NYC.
I know you're in LA now, but what about some advice?
See, my problem is, I think my straight, white, cis-het boss is hitting on me? He's so homophobic and will make comments like, be a little less gay, or turn down that Gaga and turn up the baseball game, or sometimes he just tells me the customers like me but please be less gay.
He says it to my face. Customers like me a little gay, not a lot.
On top of that he's constantly putting his hands on my waist or grabbing my thighs with both hands when he stoops down below the baking table to get a pan, or a mixer, or a spatula.
Help me out? I like this guy, and he's fair, but I don't like being told "how gay" to be at work, or being touched like that, especially when such touching is followed up with weird jokes like "haha you're lucky it's not after five - I don't know what I'd do if I had a drink or two in me!"
How can I be the right amount of gay, and how do I keep this job, with a handsy-yet-nice boss?
If you can't answer, I understand. You're busy. But may I say? The writing has always been good, but lately, you're exceptional Mr. PIEFOLK. I only hope you're being nice to Mr. Michael.
Love for you, Brother - you can edit this if you need to!
I’m simultaneously bored and mortified for you. How boring your boss can’t keep his hands to himself. How boring he’s using his “straight privilege” against you in such an unacceptable way.
I almost didn’t use this letter, or answer it at all. I get so much email like this. But something struck me, here. Are you an out bisexual? And, are you out to your boss? If yes, you have lots of options. You can tell him to stop. You can quit. You can hire a lawyer to ask him for a settlement, if you feel he’s violating labor laws (he is).
But, what do you want from this? What’s the easiest, least stressful thing to do? I think the answer lies somewhere in-between quitting and just letting him do whatever he wants. I think you should confront him, and be firm. Talk to him face to face and tell him, no, I don’t like how you treat me and no, I don’t think it’s professional. Be sure to bring up the touching and how awkward it is to have anyone of any sexuality or gender or race – exploit the employer/employee labor contract. Say what’s not acceptable, and tell him you’ll give him a few weeks to think about it and adjust.
After a few weeks, if you think you can tolerate the new version of him, then mention how much better he’s behaving. If you think he needs improvement, you can point that out too – just always frame it as “us working together better” rather than “here’s a list of my unreasonable demands.” You get the nuance? It’s the same list, is what I’m saying.
If, however, after the period of adjustment is up, and you still feel unacceptable behavior is happening, explain you need a leave of absence to contemplate other options. If he fires you, you have a strong lawsuit claim, in most states.
Last pieces of advice? Grow a thick skin. Don’t take any shit. Keep your side of the street clean.
I hope this helps you, and that you stay happy in your situation. Believe me, it’s easier than running after a settlement that may never materialize. Don’t forget, he can liquidate his LLC and sell the equipment/lease at any moment, and not ask you permission or even tell you, until you show up to work in an empty building. What I’m saying is, ask for a reasonable settlement/renegotiation, and you might get it.
Love you, and next time send photos of pie, or noods (photos of noodles, that is).
I stare out the window and take a long drag. The cherry lights up and I flick it out the crack in the window. Matty is nervous about smoking weed in the car, but I’m Tallahassee trash from way back when, and getting stoned in a moving vehicle is somewhat of a rite of passage for us swamp folk.
I’m older than Matty, and white, so there are myriad chasms for us to navigate, to say the least. Also doesn’t help that I’m Gen X. The silent, sarcastic, nihilist generation. He’s a millennial. They’re not so silent, and much more passive aggressive. If you piss off a millennial you won’t know it right away. They’ll let you know, subtly, over the course of weeks, by the memes they post on social media. Then, they’ll ask why you were yelling and you’ll have to explain that what qualifies as yelling nowadays used to be called punctuation, and was actually a better mode of communicating. Then, they’ll text back – why
Adorable. Infuriating. Truly, I ask you – is there a difference?
He demurs, at first, when I offer him the joint. What am I gonna do, I think to myself, smoke this whole thing? I’m working, I remind him. He’s also a social services worker, but it’s his day off, and he’s riding along to see Patricia. It’s been more than a year since she left Penny Lane to move back in with her “father,” who, as it turns out, is a cousin or an uncle of some sort.
Earl Rose, who signs his text messages ‘Ace of Spades,’ is generally very vague about details. He’s also a piece of filth. Crack cocaine dealer, known womanizer, and don’t forget (drum-roll please) serial child abuser. The guy’s a piece of shit.
Abuse signs abound in Earl’s world… Locks on the fridge, padlocked bedroom doors, on the pantry cabinets. Roaches everywhere. A sick, slick oil coats the ancient shag carpet’s traffic patterns. Fecund, vile smells abound. They say a man’s home is his castle. If that’s the case, then the “Ace of Spades” is actually the Earl of Squalor. But, this is the sad truth – in this domain he reigns supreme. This makes me hate him. Part of me is seething every single time he’s anywhere near me or Rose.
His tenement has a fend-for-yourself mentality, even for kids younger than Patricia. She has at least 5 siblings some as young as six, living with them in a three bedroom house. She says they’re not even allowed to use the stove, because he monitors the gas meter so obsessively. The young kids wear long sleeves, even in the dog days of summer. I hate to think what bruises, scabs, scars await the eyes that peel back those shirts. Thank goodness I don’t work with younger kids, I think to myself.
Earl is an abuser, and she’s been given back to him. I argued against this, and even called for an independent investigation, but Earl is slicker than I thought, and found a way to pass whatever checklist DCFS has for the lowest threshold required in order for custody to stay intact. Did I mention he’s a piece of shit? He absolutely is, and doesn’t even try to hide it. If contempt were embodied in a man’s form, it would take the shape and attitudes of Earl Rose, the Ace of Spades. The small time drug crook. The man who lives off the government checks meant for his kids. The abuser. Patricia’s dear old dad.
Now that she’s back with him, she can barely focus well enough to graduate high school. This is not good enough for my Rose in Winter, I’d muttered to her last time we got together. No shit, she replied immediately – but you get what you get in life. Yeah, that’s true, I agreed in the moment, but internally – I vowed to make sure she got out of the shit-hole she was raised in. Just like I crawled myself out of the swamp, dusted off my shoes, and headed for the big city, I am now dead set on providing legions of opportunities for my fond Rose.
That’s life for you. One hand down and one hand up. People helped me, I think to myself, and now it’s my turn.
(Oh life. You and your brittle little games. You and your pleasantries and gentility. And you think you’re better than Earl Rose? This man, clearly an alcoholic drug addict, can raise kids. Can you? Or are you just on the sidelines, playing your little social games? Aphorism, platitude, anecdotal blanket truism, nervous laughter, sigh, long pause. This is the business of being alive. We all play games, all day long, 365 days a year, and we pretend we don’t owe a debt of gratitude to the homeless wretches we must step over, daily, just to punch a time-clock we can barely stand, ourselves.)
Wow, I think, I’m really being a dick to myself today. Even if every thought in my head is justifiable, it’s not every workday I get a ride-along from Matty boy, and this is how I squander it? By hating the entire world?
I take another long drag. I don’t usually show up stoned to work, but Matty took a personal day, and we have an easy excursion planned with Patricia. It’s my job, after all, to make sure she stays solvent enough to avoid homelessness. No pressure. But, today, it’s just food pantries and a free thrift store shopping spree that I’ve somehow convinced the owner will be a tax write off.
In actuality, I’m unsure if there’s a tax write-off for him, but I’m willing to write a receipt with our Foundation letterhead, so maybe the guy will get a break? Who knows what his accountant will say, I think, then remind myself that he’s not my priority, my clients are. Social services is just like the rest of life. Beg, borrow, or steal – but cover your ass. Always do that.
Matty declines the joint, pointing out that he wants to be sober for Patricia. She will absolutely not be sober, I counter, and this gets him to relax the sour mouth and grin for a moment. I remind him he’s a stoner, and that he loves weed, and that I almost never let people smoke in my car, including me, so he should live a little. He cracks the veneer for a brief moment to grin, and nod, and take the joint from me.
This is who we are. This is how we behave. And we both love it to pieces. This is our life together. Population, us.
It’s more than a year since I met Matty at Penny Lane, and to me, he’s the best guy California has available. Suddenly, I’m in love, and I never thought I’d allow myself that again. I look at my guy, gorgeous, smoking a joint I (poorly, too tightly) rolled myself, and I’m suddenly bowled over with humility. The very idea life would hand a sarcastic misanthrope like me such a loyal, sturdy, kind man? Inconceivable. And yet… here we are.
The miracle of quitting drinking, I think to myself, and I know – maybe that’s not entirely the case, but it’s true enough to be significant in my life.
Another miracle? The two of us, a 44 year old and a 30 year old, flying down the highway, off to spoil a princess society has somehow cast off. How romantic! What did we do to earn this? Even a regular boyfriend would have been enough to ask for, but this? Huge emotions? Philip Glass playing in the background? A handsome man who was born the year I lost my virginity?
And, how. Jesus, I can’t believe I even get to be part of this. Thank you, I mouth to the scenery flying by. We have to take the 710 down to Long Beach, and we have a whole hour to sober up. Still, i stub out the joint before its even halfway out. We don’t have to be wasted when we arrive, just in a lighthearted mood. It’s important we make this seem fun. The kids can smell a backhanded handout, and they’ll react accordingly if you don’t make it seem fun and cool. Matty and I discuss Patricia, and her situation. I tell him to brace himself, and he looks at me like, hey, I know.
But he doesn’t.
Nobody knows how bad things are in that house. Not even me.
Patricia is the only keeper of that secret, and even after a year of bonding with her, she’s not willing to show me herself at her most vulnerable. Smart girl. Nobody should ever see that, I think. If she never shows it, other people can never take advantage of the information. Makes sense to me.
I’m a bit of a lone wolf myself, as much as I’m an extrovert who constantly needs validation, I find ways to self-sabotage, which, if we are being logical, can only mean I want to be alone. I’m a walking catastrophic web of contradictions, and I routinely foist my unprocessed trauma upon the public.
I mean, sure, I have a shrink, but I’m not medicated. That seems far off, drastic, a last-resort even, but the net sum of that reality is, I’m making other people pay for my mental damage. That ain’t fair, according to me and my shrink.
So who cares? So what do we do about it? So who fucking knows?
We do. Me and my therapist, and sometimes my wife, and frequently my Matty boy. Oh! Don’t forget – once a month for six hours, my Rose in Summer, Patricia. My desert rose.
Matty and I rally, and put together a unified front. Fun and responsible, we agree on. He forgets, for a brief while, to sour-mouth every single idea I present. For a while, we are a team, and we truly do show up for Rose. She lights up when she sees us, especially Matty, because she hasn’t seen him in quite some time. Matty does his best to hide his disappointment when he sees the abject poverty she lives in. I look at him, concerned, apologetic. Today is his day off, and suddenly I feel as if I’ve ambushed him with a heavy sadness nobody should have to bear, but that – at least – I get a lower middle-class income out of it. What’s he doing here, I ask the mailbox? What does he get out of it?
Thank you, I mouth silently to a piebald stretch of dirt in Earl Rose’s yard. Somehow, even in this patch of disgusting abuse, I can find something to be grateful for, if nothing else than just the fact the three of us are witnessing one another today.
This moment, is, of course, cut short by the king of the castle. Earl Rose, himself, is out in the yard negotiating with the heroin addict’s wife, who pays him a pittance to rent the backyard for their mobile home. The whole place is a shanty. Rusted tricycles abound. It looks like Fred Sanford lives here, I think, suddenly thinking of my grandpa, and how he loved Redd Foxx. That’s a nice memory.
As quickly as possible, we whisk Patricia away. Not that Earl pays us any mind. I think he knows I was the one that reported him, again, to DCFS, and he’s decided to stay out of my way. If that’s the case, the feeling is entirely mutual. I only need him for ten seconds a month, to sign one piece of paper saying I was here. That I showed up. That someone, for once, showed up for Patricia.
I seethe as he signs the paperwork, and then we are off to the food pantry, where people line up with bags and bags of food. Patricia’s eyes widen and I notice how skinny she’s gotten since the state gave custody back to Earl.
Later, after getting her a stunning prom dress and an entire fall wardrobe, we take Patricia for an ice cream outside the college library. I’m trying to get her to consider trade school instead of community college. Rose is one of the sharpest people I know, but an academic she is not. She’s dead set on community college, though, and that’s why we’re here. Matty, on the other hand, takes the low road.
“Patricia,” he says, coyly narrowing his eyes at her.
“Uh, yes Mathew??” She’s all dolled up in some other thrift finery, and we’re being very precious with our afternoon.
“Would you say you’ve been making good choices?”
“Why of course I have! That’s why I have mister PIEFOLK! He’s my very own Gatsby!”
I interject here, something about how I’m not a millionaire, and, in fact, I’m likely to make less money over the course of my life than anyone else at the table. They look at me like I’m insane. Decent looking forty-something honky cracker, crying poor? Likely story. But, it’s actually true. I’m an artist by vocation and I almost never have more income to show than my friends. Artists are, by virtue of art, broke bitches. I shrug off this self-criticism.
If it was good enough for that freeloader Michaelangelo – it’s good enough for me, I used to tell my improv and musical theater students.
Meanwhile Matty continues to press Rose. He knows I’m worried about her chances, after she emancipates from Earl at 18. He knows that, statistically, if she chooses community college she will stop going before earning a degree. He knows that her reading and writing skills are behind and that she’d be a fine hairdresser. He presses.
“Are you going to graduate high school?”
“Yes! But, I hate this principal! She’s got it in for me, and she won’t even let me graduate on time.”
At this point I run interference for Rose, and downplay how much of an absolute menace she is to her high school community. It’s not Rose’s fault. She’s as wild as an Irish briar patch, and I suspect her disposition isn’t the only rosy crucifixion she’s accustomed to observing. They both look at me quizzically when I say this, and I remind myself, yes, I am stoned at work today.
“I think we should talk about trade school again,” I interject, “Cosmetology, or what about real estate?”
Matty gives me a withering sour mouth, as if to say, Mr. PIEFOLK, who’s buying a house from an 18 year old, much less this particular 18 year old? I glare back at him. We’ve had this conversation. Plenty of real estate offices need an underpaid entry level administrative assistant. She could learn the business from the inside out, and develop her client roster while she learned how to be a broker. He disagrees, and doubts her ability to do things like show up on time, be persistent. He’s much more of a realist than I am, but I know Patricia better. I know she’s got it in her to succeed, and that, when that opportunity comes knocking, whether she creates the doorway herself, or not, she will answer that door, and never look back.
This I know. This I know of my Rose in Summer.
“Gatsby,” she murmurs to me. She has this translucent way of reading my mind, sometimes. We are both water signs, she says that’s why she can pick out my thoughts, but it’s more than that. I’m about as subtle with my emotions as a sledge hammer, is a good chunk of it, but pretending she’s psychic is a fun way to pass the time. Whatever the rationale, we’ve become conspiratorial, thick as thieves, so to speak. She twists me around her fingers as easily as I can twist mine. For lack of a better word, yes. I’m Gatsby. Low rent, budget Gatsby. Maybe not the guy everyone dreamed of, but definitely the guy who showed up.
“Let’s get real,” she says, seizing the moment in her very special, very Patricia way. Matty and I stop our silent argument and circle up. She’s totally stoned, herself – she was finishing a blunt when we arrived, but when she decides to command a room, there’s no choice but to yield the floor. Matty and I wait, rapt and hushed.
“I’m not the college type. I’m not the real estate type. I’m not going to have a roster of clients that want hair extensions and weaves, nor am I going to wear a construction mask and file rich lady’s nails all day long. None of that shit is me. I’m going to apply for a job at Taco Bell, graduate – late – and that’s that.”
Matty wakes from his reverie before I do. He narrows in on her. “What do you plan on doing? Working at Taco Bell forever??”
“Um, actually Matt, maybe I will. I might work for Taco Bell and become the regional manager, did you ever think of that?” With this, she shoots me a smirk, and my ears prick up a bit. I’m back in the fight.
“Yeah, Matty boy – don’t you think your gal Patricia has it in her to manage an entire region of fast food restaurants?”
This has tickled Rose’s fancy, and she’s cackling along with me now, she gives me a knowing glance. “That’s right, Matthew, don’t you believe in me like Mr. Gatsby, I mean, Mr. PIEFOLK?”
“Yeah, Matty,” I say, temporarily checkmating him. “Don’t you believe in our sweet Patricia Rose?”
He purses his lips, as if he’s just tasted something pithy, and finally compromises. “No, no, of course I believe in you Rose, I just want to make sure you’re making good decisions.
“Well, we all want that,” I concede, happy there wasn’t some sort of power struggle on my fantasy ride-along day.
Soon enough, it’s time for us to leave. I hate this part. It’s almost always nightfall when I drop Patricia off at Earl Rose’s pitiful excuse for a homestead. I almost always curse under my breath as I’m leaving. I make vows to Patricia I can’t even repeat to myself, later, much less iterate to her. In my own small way, I sometimes whisper to myself, I could be her Gatsby, if I got rich, if I was better known as a writer, if I could win the lottery, if, if if….
She deserves more than ifs. But that’s not what life has for her.
Still, we are jovial and kind when we drop her off. She’s beaming. If she can’t graduate on time, at least she can, and will – look stunning at prom. Moreover, she has clothing for another season, and food for another (what?) week… few days at least? I stifle the side of me that feels responsible for this, and activate the cover-your-ass mode that all social service workers have. I get my signature, I log my hours. Later I will make notes that make the afternoon seem less triumphant, and more troublesome. It will make my boss happy. I check the right boxes. We say goodbye. We are only a block away when Matty and I start decompressing.
“What town is this?”
“It’s industrial as fuck.”
“Yeah, Rose has it pretty bleak.”
“Hey, come on, don’t do that. We brightened up her day and gave her good tools/advice. Don’t make it about her bleak life, when she’s having a pretty bright day.”
“That’s really good advice, Matty. See, I knew you were the right person to bring for the ride-along.”
“Well, we owe Rose a great debt, do we not?”
“It’s true. If she wasn’t so charming the night I met her, we might not have struck up a friendship, then a subsequent relationship. In a way, she’s to credit for us, entirely.”
“So, it was a good day.”
“So it was a good day.”
“I love you, Matty boy.”
“I love you too, Mikey boy.”
“Knock that off right now. It’s Michael, or sir.”
Suddenly we are on the freeway. America. The open road. The sunset is resplendent, all Halloween orange, crimson brick hues, dramatic flashes of marigold as we race north, desperate to preserve these moments, desperate to preserve the life we have, the safety we have built in a sea of uncaring human suffering. It really does feel like gratitude, here, in this moment.
Low rent Gatsby or not, I think to myself, we are the fucking lucky ones. Matty grabs my hand, and I turn up Knee 5 by Philip Glass. I shut off the air conditioning and crack the window as Long Beach fades away in the rear view mirror. I can still see Patricia, padlocked in her room, clutching her prom dress close to her body. I can still smell her perfume. The wind comes in, thin, the last of Long Beach kissing my hair.
Lord knows, over the years I’ve had ambivalence toward the New York Times.
Did they consistently employ fantastic writers who dug deep into impactful, meaningful journalism? Sure.
Was it more reliable than most media outlets in the world? Absolutely.
Did they offer me little tidbits of cellophane coated entertainment bites? Yes. Take me on lavish vacations of the imagination? You bet. Inspire me to such great heights of imagination by breaking new ground, or adjusting the scaffolding of the journalistic landscape? Nearly daily.
But, after I left New York itself – it started to seem to me the New York Times, like any gray-haired relative, started sliding out of view. I would check in with it, from time to time, especially for hard news and The Arts Section, and the gleaming jewel in the center of the Gray Lady’s artful princess tiara… The New York Times Daily Crossword Puzzle.
(Will Shortz, I wish I could quit you.)
Soon, I stopped trying to keep up with any of the news in the Times. I became an Angelino from the West Coast, who, like Joan Didion so aptly put it – slouched, steeped in my own privilege, toward Bethlehem, on a high-quality-yet-smelly communal yoga mat.
I sat, on my phone, in West Hollywood, at the Crunch, as the Crossword became usurped by the younger upstart stroke of genius we call Wordle.
Even as my spine, strong in younger days, slightly slouched toward the ground. An exclamation mark, who, thanks to the magic of time-lapse photography, slowly began it’s irrevocable bend toward a more osteoporosis-influenced silhouette. A punctuated question marked my mousy-brown-framed brow.
Why did they leave me hanging?
Why did they leave me in their news room for six hours, then decide whomever was qualified to take my statement had an unexpected meeting? Why didn’t they go ahead with the huge expose everyone in the theater community was buzzing about in 2018? The one that implicated so many theater giants? What was the missing link that kept them from printing this particular story?
As it turns out, it didn’t matter, or it doesn’t. And as it turns out, the Gray Lady yet again has earned the moniker I so treasure. All the News That’s Fit to Print, is I believe – the trademarked phrase…
They printed it.
Thanks, New York Times. It’s been a long road, and, like a grey-haired, distant European relative – sometimes I’ve lost sight of you. I’m sorry for losing faith. I’m younger than you. Please, forgive me?
And please forgive this, too?
I’m scooping you.
This is today’s scoop! A PIEFOLK original. I’m scooping the Times, Daily News, Post – All the ivory tower outlets are going to scream about it, but you heard it here first.
Here’s leaked footage of notoriously ruthless Broadway legend William Ivey Long, pandering for another Tony Award later this year. He wants to be nominated again. He wants to win again. This is Diana, he says in this pathetic piece of propaganda. This is worthy of a Tony, he seems to plead. This is forty years of Tony Awards, he begs. This is 76 Broadway shows.
Disgusting. 75 too many.
The Gray Lady is finally queen again, has finally sloughed off her dusty, wine colored, ermine lined cloak. Her skin, scalded and young again, sloughed off like the fuzzy hides of boiled Georgia peaches. A dramatic shift in lighting, a sting from a far-off orchestra pit.
Her costume reveals her true form, just in time for a hot-gurl summer. Royal blue. Just under medium shade. Cornflower, I’d say, but I’m a writer not a visual artist.
She, star spangled… she is read. Black and blue, she sometimes comments on our pain. Red, she watches overseas as war musters, alliances form, two dictators try to mock democratic mandates.
White as fresh dentures, she pops in her props and costumes for a new dawn. Firing up her make-up lamp, she sharpens her nails, then files them down.
She’s shining like a new dime you found on the subway tracks.
She is warming up her voice, like Bob Dylan after a long weekend. Flexing her metaphors, like Tom Waits, like Alan Ginsburg, like me – just a Brooklyn boy from India street in Greenpoint.
Just like old Henry Miller.
Thank you, New York Times. Thank you Jesse Green. Thank you Nicole Herrington. Thank you Barbara Graustark. Thank you, Dean Baquet. Thanks to everyone up and down the line. We Americans thank you. We New Yorkers thank you. Even us spoiled West Coasters thank you, New York Times.
NYC – Manhattan – Circa 2010 – Winter into spring. A book store. Early Evening.
Him – Look who it is…
Me – No! Stop it! No way! Hi! Hi. Hey. I’m okay.
Him – Well I have to say… you’ve changed a great deal.
(A pause. I shrug. He shrugs. He skulks away behind the stacks, like some grey literary panther of the 23rd St. Barnes and Noble. He, sinister, creepy - always a grimace draped across his face. Always a smirk when he flirts. Always, always winning. Bored, of winning, I mutter to myself, but it's probably better than the other...
He, a sad, beautiful, aging husk of a creature - still fat on whatever blood he can still draw from the artists surrounding him. Raising a single shoulder at me, he bats his lashes. Revolting.
Still, his pain inside, from where he tried to infect me. From where, maybe, he partially succeeded. Yes, I must admit, he did succeed. He caused a lingering pain, suffering, trauma, PTSD, you name it. Yes, I’ve already been in therapy about this, and will continue to be in therapy for this. Yes, this was a costly lesson I’ve been taught, and yet…
Empathy, or the shock of recognition, simultaneous.
My own pain, parallel to all this - inflicted by him, but also perpendicular to that - a simpler, inter-sectional truth - this is a queer human being. A person is, by definition, not a monster. So, he’s just William. Just a man, who, yearning for a more beautiful existence, dared to say “I am William, I Belong.”
They are both there - William Ivey Long the soon-to-be corroborated abuser, and William I Belong, the artist man-child. I almost love one of them, am completely disgusted by the other. Or, I don’t know, maybe I will learn to be disgusted by both? Maybe my therapist is right? Maybe this man is only pretending to be a designer, that his real job is actually corrupting artists? He likes to call us all “pimps and whores.”
I scoff a bit at his flirting. Wait for him to approach again. We both move closer to the books I know he wants to get his grubby hands on. He’s photographing photographs of dresses, pants, vests. I know his game. All that money and he won't even buy a coffee table book. Cheapskate.
His focus slips. His two separate forms snap back together into one, complete human creature. Things aren’t black and white, I remind myself, remind him. Life isn’t a metaphor.
Snap our of your reverie, Mr. PIEFOLK. This isn’t a fantasy.
It’s complicated, having a mentor abuse you, trust me on this.)
Me – Well, I have to say. It’s not simple, or easy, but it’s a life.
Him – What is?
Me – Theater. Story. Comedy. Music. Writing.
Him – Oh no, I meant to say you’ve changed.
Me – What do you mean?
Him – You were young and blond.
Me – Oh. We’re back in North Carolina? Yes. I was a high school swimmer. Yeah I was young and blond. Bleached from chlorine pools and sunshine, actually.
Him – Well I haven’t seen you much since then. You’ve changed.
Me – Have I?
Him – You know you have.
Me – Do I?
Him – It’s inevitable.
Me – Is it, though? Are things inevitable, or are most things… avoidable, depending on behavior patterns?
Him – I could do this all night!
Me – What are you doing here? Research?
Him – You’re always one step ahead.
Me – Sure that’s not a projection? You have a very sharp mind for business.
Him – I’ll take the compliment. I’m good at design, and design is not art. It’s art, as directed by an employer. When you add the money element, it becomes business. You have to stay ahead of the competition.
Me – Let me guess? You’re doing a period piece that needs specific costumes “only you can do?”
Him – I never should have let you see my modes-operandi. You’re too clever, by far.
Me – Or at least by half… It took me forever to figure out how you do it.
Him – Half of what? How I do what?
Me – Design.
(Pause. He is now intrigued on a new level. He realizes, perhaps I’m more formidable than he assumed at first.)
Him – And, how do I do design?
Me – Don’t you remember the Master Class you taught at The Colony?
Him – I remember your writing most…
Me – No, that’s a lie. You didn’t see the show I wrote in the Summer of 1996 at The Lost Colony in Manteo. You never see my shows.
Him – Okay, I heard it was very good and I was intrigued.
Me – It was okay!
Him. Okay?? You may be selling yourself short. You know I was very good friends with a writer for a while…
Me – Yes I know this one. It was… Paul Riser?
Him – No…. That’s a comedian. Mad About You.
Me – Oh right. Then it must be… Paul Rudnick.
Him – Uh… yes… Wow. You have quite a memory.
Me – I keep a journal.
Him – That’s important-
Me – And I always have. I have always kept a journal and I always will. Time, Date, Place. Important facts at least. I keep them in storage.
(Feebler, now, up close, but still a plump, cherubic-statured man. Middle aged, I think to myself - but, any plastic surgeon could have done that kind of subtraction. Actually old, I think, verifying the math in my mind. Retirement age already, or close to it. Pitiful but still full of spite and vinegar.)
Me – So, are you still doing the thing where you squint one eye to blur things out so you can imagine what they’ll look like at a distance?
Him – Why alter the formula?
Me – Yeah, you have a whole playbook don’t you?
Him – Protocols are good for business.
Me – Aren’t they though? I mean… you would know…
(We square off. It’s fully on and we both know it. We both have a moment. Mine is more about my heart pounding in my ears, my pulse racing, my fight-or-flight triggered, and me deciding to stay and fight it out. It feels important, somehow. I know the smart move is to leave now, but I’m so angry at him for all the lost work, lost resource, lost money. More than that – he wasted my time. Nothing in the universe is more immutable, more valuable – than time.)
Him – I meant that your body has changed.
(I pull out a business card. It says PIEFOLK.)
Him – YES! That’s what I meant! I’ve been keeping track of you! Your website! I need a designer for mine.
Me – I don’t know any designers, except you, sorry.
Him – Who did your site?
Me – I did. It’s called WordPress. Look into it.
Him – Oh, I will.
Me – Will you?
Him – I’ll have someone look into it.
Me – Brian Mear?
(He says nothing. His eyes flash green. Mine deepen to almost navy. What do I know about Brian? Have I been speaking with him? He puffs up, tries to stand taller. Still, I am taller than him. My shoulders back. My tone, calm. He can’t win this unless he provokes me, and right now I’m winning. He, I can tell, is aware of this, too. Interesting.)
Him – Yes. Likely Brian.
Me – But, you’re always hiring?
Him – Yes, I believe it’s important to pay people for their work.
Me – I don’t often get to be the one paying. I run my site on a shoestring, and I’m still never far away from tending bar, but I like paying artists when I can. It makes things more convenient for me.
Him – That it does. Artists… all kind of workers. It’s a convenience. I LOVE the design of your site.
Me – Do you?
Him – I think you know I do.
Me – Awwww you’re so flattering.
Him – It’s too bad you’re a writer…
Me – Oh, I had a whole design career.
Him – You do?
Me – I did. I don’t any longer, nor do I want that anymore. But yes. I designed quite a bit for a brilliant avant-guard theater director named Bob Fisher. I also designed at Chicago City Limits, for Victor Varnado, and Paul Zuckerman. OH! And I made some beautiful angel wings for an actor who played a statue in And What of the Night by Maria-Irene Fornez.
Him – Those little regional gigs and off-offs – they’re eventually going to be the good old days…
Me – Chicago City Limits is still the longest running Off-Broadway show in Manhattan, so it’s not an off-off, and you know it. Upright Citizens is more than 99 seats, which makes it an Off-Broadway designation, yet comedy is still not regulated by Equity or any other competent Union, so it’s a gray area the American Theater Wing is happy to ignore – and you already know all of these things. You’re tight with the ATW – I’ve checked.
Him – Well… thanks for the quick education. If I didn’t know, now I certainly do!
Me – Oh, beg pardon. I am a respected teacher now. I suppose I was using my teacher voice, on my teacher. On my mentor.
(We pause. Nothing has been said, yet, at all. We are still staring one another down. My breathing has returned to normal. I know I have to be calm, or risk losing this exchange. Neither of us are willing to risk losing. The stakes are way too high. William’s eyes flash at me. Grey, like mine. Green like his. Blue, but icy. Pale. Almost misty, in the vapor.)
Him – So have you done any porn?
Me – WHAT? No. Don’t be silly.
Him – You don’t think your site is silly?
Me – Julie Klausner says it’s “White Trash Martha Stewart, but gay, and cool in a Brooklyn way.”
Him – Who’s that?
Me – Julie? A writer you’re soon to be aware of.
Him – OH WILL I? We’ll see…
Me – We will.
(A pause, then…)
Him – I will.
Me – I bet you do.
Him – That’s a bet you can win.
Me – I can win any bet.
(A pause, then)
Him – Just make sure the odds are in your favor. I was going to say – everyone is doing it, these days. My favorite porn star right now is a concert pianist, as well, but his real money, people say, is what he’s selling after his concerts.
Me – Not interested.
Him – Everyone sells it.
Me – Not true. You don’t sell it.
Him – Of course I do! I just agreed with you. I think having employees is convenient. I’m in Theater. We’re all pimps and whores. Sex sells.
Me – I don’t agree with what you just said, however, about art, about sex, about design. I don’t sell sex. Nor do I buy it.
Him – Is that so?
Me – I guess it’s up to the world to prove otherwise? There’s a reason I never take the apron off.
Him – It’s a lot like a loincloth.
Me – Except for two differences.
Him – What are those?
Me – 1) It covers and exposes different areas, and 2) I decide who touches me, during my fittings, because designers are my employees, now. I’m the writer and the architect of my site, of my destiny.
Him – Sounds like you’ve got it all figured out.
Me – I know dog turds, when I smell them.
(We laugh. Me, from terror, from suppressing rage. Me, from years of swallowing my pride. I laugh because it’s the medicine I need in the moment. I laugh, with my abuser, about my abuse, about business in general, about the trauma of his sexual harassment, about the trauma of capitalism – how it ruins everything it touches, including the United States.
We laugh, my mentor, my abuser, and I – about how we all know what dog turds smell like. We all know what war is. We all know what genocide is. We met at The Lost Colony – a show that celebrates a race of people who miraculously survived a genocide, who didn’t even have the dignity of naming themselves Native American Indian. Before the White man came, there were just “people.”
They mostly shared, bartered. We taught them, but we taught them nothing useful. Only about money, and property, and law, and owning things, owning people. We taught them lessons nobody should ever have to learn, and then we called them drunk, stupid, lazy. Then we taught them our flimsy forms of “justice.”
William and I laugh. All of our pain, fear, frustration, finding whatever cathartic moment it can, in the moment of a laugh.
William finishes just before I do, smirking, churlish, catlike, suddenly.)
Him – Well I’m glad you’re not doing comedy anymore! That’s not the type of joke Mom and Dad want to hear on Network Television.
Me – I said I was a writer. I never said I wasn’t writing comedy, or performing. Or teaching. I’m doing all those things as well as launching musicals.
Him – Good for you!
Me – Like I said. Designers are my employees now. I earned that.
Him – How so?
Me – Let’s call it the school of hard knocks.
Him – Now it’s a Cinderella story, all the sudden??
Me – I believe she wore an apron.
Him – She also talked to birds.
Me – Not a crime!
(A pause, then…)
Me – But, you know what is a crime, don’t you?
Him – I have to run.
Me – One more thing…
Him – No I truly have to go.
Me – Paul Rudnik.
Him – What about him?
Me – Is he the one?
Him – The one what?
Me – The one who taught you to squint your eye, when you’re designing.
Him – Michael, I’m tired. What do you think I’m doing when I squint when I’m designing?
Me – I think you’re trying to remove depth from your vision. Just a bit. You’re trying to see what things look like from far away, like a theater designer. You’re trying to see if you can sell your sexy idea. Because you’re an important business man, and other people are immature artists. Also, like I said, I’m employing designers now, so get your resume together.
Him – Oh, you can’t afford…
Me – To miss this opportunity? I can’t. I want to know if Paul Rudnick is the one who taught you the phrase.
Him – What phrase?
Me – “Writers are the true artists of the theater.”
Him – Where did you hear that?
Me – On the fireworks dock. Out in the Roanoke Sound. In Manteo.
Him – Stop this.
Me – No, I think I will continue to remind you.
(A pause. Nothing.)
Him – Go on?
Me – You were visiting for your Master Class. You said diminutive things about my designs. You doted on your pets. You tried to avoid me.
Him – You made some wild accusations…
Me – Agnes Chappell called me on the phone and talked me out of suing you for sexual harassment.
Him – I’m not feeling well. I have to go.
Me – Fred glad-handled me out the door of the theater department at Florida State.
Him – That’s not true. I don’t have anything to do with those things, anyhow.
Me – You don’t know what is true, then, if you don’t have anything to do with it?
Him – What’s your point?
Me – “Writer’s are the true artists of the theater.” You said that, after I finally cornered you. I wanted answers. I wanted you to promise me you would help me in my career.
(His eyes flash emerald, then fade to a grassy jade. Mine royal blue, green flecks, yellow. I’m winning this, I decide.)
Him – Why did you think I could help you? I’m not a writer, or a comic, or a musician…
Me – Your best friend is one of the most prominent gay writers of our time. Do you not hear yourself? Do you only talk? Do you never, ever listen? Even to yourself? That must, by far, be the easiest form of delusion – self delusion.
Him – It looks like you would know…
Me – I thought you liked the way I looked?
Him – I said you’ve changed. That’s all I said.
Me – Oh right. You prefer young ones. You told me you like to be “daddy on top.”
Him – I’m not sure I remember that, specifically, but you’re starting to open my eyes…
Me – Well, as you said, you’re sleepy and you don’t feel well, and I’m sorry to have to be so brutally candid, but you don’t look all that well. You look….
(A pause, then…)
Me – Maybe a bit tired.
Him – This certainly hasn’t made my day any less exhausting.
Me – It’s not the highlight of mine either. Enjoy your “design.”
Him- Yes. I’m an adult with real work to do.
Me – I know. You don’t remember? You told me your secret. You just copy the dresses from old art history, or just regular history books. You’re not an artist at all, you just trace other peoples dresses and copy them.
Him – I never said I was an artist.
Me – I know. You’re not. You’re a designer. I’m an artist.
Him – Oh, is that what you call it?
Me – That’s what Paper Magazine, VICE, IT Post, employees of the New York Times, Eli Wallach, Jerry Stiller, Anne Meara, Bradley D. Wong, Michael Stipe, and the editor of Salon.com have said. And those are just parts of the highlight reel. I’m not mentioning Time Out New York, or Jane Borden, or any of the network execs that have, do, and will continue to court my influence.
Him – Is that all reality is? Perception?
Me – The clothes make the man, they say.
Him – They do say that.
Me – Well, I must be off. I have a show.
Him – This late?? I hope it pays well!!
Me – I’m sure that’s not your concern, but yes, it does. It’s an industrial with The Upright Citizen’s Brigade National Touring Company.
Him – Well then… scurry off!
Me – Oh, sure – I simply must take my leave. But remember, I’m watching you.
Him – And I, you. You should consider doing porn.
Me – You should try and get a few more Tonys. I’ll never hire you, but I might give you a courtesy meeting, at some point.
(Finally his bloodshot eyes flash a sinister crimson. He's losing ground. He knows it. Now the grey panther is a mangy old tomcat, at best.)
Him – Everyone sells it!
Me – No. Just the ones who have to.
Him – Now THAT’S funny! You should right that down.
Me – Oh. One more thing?
Him – What’s that?
Me – William… I belong. Me. I belong too.
Him – Not sure I buy it.
Me – I’m never selling anything to you. It’s not for you to buy.
Him – Still….
Me – Goodbye! Oh and remember!!!!
(I’m leaving now, thorough a glorious pair of revolving doors. I mouth this next part through the window, at him.)
Your spirit is always close in the springtime, dear Brenda. What about all those Easter parties down on McGee? What about all the holidays we shared?
Trying to get the conversion van across that perpetual creek in your driveway?
The gravel. The splashing. The “Damnit-John-we-just-got-this-washed,” comments from the peanut gallery as we made our way up to your place for fellowship, food, bright hearts. Easter, renewal, resurrection. So much family. So much fun.
Handmade suits. Pastel mint and navy, special family recipes. Amma’s apple pie.
Your house, Brenda. It was yours. Dennis loved you so much he designed a sleek architectural marvel out in the woods. He may have drawn up the plans, but you’re the one who so brightly lit that home.
Remember the Easter you first let me and Scotty hide the eggs? We were so excited to be the boss of something and wanted to present a challenge to our cousins. We stashed the eggs thoroughly – tall grass, nooks in the rock, in the split neck of a spreading tree, cradled in the crick, stashed in thickest thickets. Nestling Paas stained eggs on ledges, in puddles, even under the hood of the barbecue grill.
("The BBQ is OFF LIMITS!" Norma following behind us, beseeching us, remember the smallest cousins! "Remember to include the smallest of us in the adventure! Guys? Guys! Hide some out in the open for the little ones!")
In a way, it was always Easter at your place, Brenda. You hired me to wash your walls once a year, and indeed I walked away from that exchange richer – full of confidence, new knowledge – a feeling that renewal always resides right around the corner from the house on McGee.
It was you who taught me to bake, dear Brenda. How to take butter out to soften it up, how to bring the eggs to temp. How the little things we do in life affect the consistency of what we’ll finally pull out of the oven. How the texture of things can be the differential that elevates something from a trifle to a work of art. How the proper balance of flavor, texture, consistency, and presentation can be the difference between carving out a life, or whittling your own self down. You taught me to stand up for who I am. You taught me Old Testament in Lutheran catechism. Esther and Ruth, and the meaning of my namesake.
“You’re Michael,” you said to me, when I was 12 years old. You taught us Old Testament in Lutheran catechism. “Guard the garden, pass over the Jews while taking the first-born of the rest of Egypt. Oh yeah – and you kill the devil at the end, with a flaming sword.”
I felt so mortified! Other folks in the class were named after tertiary characters in the narrative. Suddenly I was the Archangel, while someone else in the class might have been named after a cobbler. I blushed, felt flushed. I still had a very strong faith in the Lutheran God back then. Before I saw what the world is, and which people get to move freely through it.
At any rate – now I just have faith in us. I hope that’s good enough. I can certainly live with it. I have to anyway.
Brenda, I went through some tough times; you let me confide in you. You were always available for emotional council. You were ursine of spirit. You helped me process some of the more difficult things children shouldn’t have to process.
(I’m getting a little choked up writing this actually. I just realized I’ll never be able to ask you how to fight bullies ever again! Then again, “hit them back” works in so many situations - at least as a metaphor.)
Where did you go? Why can’t we have you somewhere, planning Easter? Even just once a year would be cool. Who could ever take your place? When will our spirits ever be reunited? Is that maybe too much to ask? What’s the buzz?
What a crushing loss for all of us Brenda. Which is not to be dramatic, but rather, just to say, we all miss you. We all think of you all the time. We speak well of you – always fond words in remembrance.
I speak your name, sometimes, to myself – late at night, treasuring small remnants like the wedding gifts you gave us. A vintage photo-study book on Love from Amma. The magic wand you picked up for us the day after. Right before we had to drive down from Big Sur to Pebble Beach, to say goodbye.
The last time I ever got to see you face to face – that fancy restaurant on the golf course, you, radiant, a flower in your hair. California coast behind you, placid, raw cliffs tucked behind close-pruned putting greens. You, smiling. Distant waves crashing. A sense of possibility wafting in on ocean winds.
Sea birds – held aloft on updraft, faraway – just above the horizon.
Finishing up, we moved back through the grandiose country club lobby. I tried to coax Scotty into playing the piano, but he demurred.
You caught me by the elbow, Brenda, and you told me that you loved me, that you loved who I was, who I am. That you don’t quite understand the mysterious magic I carry – but that you see it, you sanction it.
It clicked the moment you said magic – you’d given me a literal magic wand.
(It rings so clear when I tap it on my desk, but I promise, I’m not tapping it very often. I understand it’s to be used sparingly, and never with ill intent. I understand it’s primarily a way to communicate intent to the rest of the world. I’m being respectful with it, I promise.)
All the love you fostered there in the Easter house. All good advice given. Practical, tidy, rarely judgmental. Strong, charismatic, full of twinkling Martin charm.
I know you bore quite a bit of your mother’s ancestral sorrow when you were young, and I know life had other sorrows in store for you. We all have our share of sorrow to bear. It’s how we process and move forward that counts. How can we turn this painful mess of life into some ordered elegance. Even rustic! Still elegant. Like a true Dóttir of Iceland.
This is what you were good at Brenda, moving through things toward the next iteration. Evolving while staying grounded. A class act! Vibrant, kind, fair minded – even through your own perceptions, and strongly held beliefs.
Listen to this gushing! When you were with us, you never would have suffered such a long list of compliments. You would have laughed, told a joke, changed subject. Redirected.
Moved it along.
But now I get to come here once in a while and remind you what a superstar you were. How bright your light was. How cold it is sometimes with you far away. Being around you made me feel confident and proud of who I am. Thanks for those Easters. Religion might happen in a church but God happens around the barbecue pit, squirreling away eggs. God happens when you’re inside a warm home, when you seek the fellowship of family.
It was only three of us this year. I took some photos after church, when I got to thinking of you. Anyway, we got all dolled up, and had well-made, succulent food afterward.
But it was only the three of us, as I mentioned.
I do wish it had been four.
Sorry, I know that’s difficult of me. I’m a bit difficult sometimes. But because I know women like you, I know I’m worth any difficulty my family suffers for having me.
I guess that’s too much to ask of life, though. What a mystery, though. What a lucky mystery it is to be alive!
Drop by anytime Brenda. I know you’re still with us anyhow. But I can’t say too many times how missed you are.
All of us feel the loss. All of us bear the mark of your kindness. All of us have you in our full, bittersweet hearts.
Later that summer I write a Forbidden Broadway-style review. It’s a group effort but I write like 80% of it. The usual stuff – poking fun at Patti LuPone, or whatever current star all the Gays are obsessed with. We try to imagine her doing Sondheim, but we laugh at the thought. Yeah, maybe in concert. He likes trained actors with elocution. We love Patti because she fucking sells that shit, hard.
Two different styles. People are afraid of Stephen, but Patti is folksy.
LuPone in Sondheim? Probably never happen, I tell everyone. Webber is all about vowels; Sondheim loves consonants. People look at me and smirk. What the hell does that have to do with stardom? Patti can have whatever show she points at, one actor chimes in. I don’t think that’s how it works, I say to them. They look skeptical.
Later that night, I get drunk and scribble down “The Casting Couch” , a parody song of “The Rhythm of Life” from Sweet Charity. It’s about a guy who heads to NYC with a dream of starring in shows, and gets his way by sleeping with absolutely everyone.
“I’m dating everyone,” I start saying, later that summer – after one of the handsome dancers asks me to take a walk down the beach with him. Would my boyfriend at home mind?
“I’m sure he wouldn’t even really care,” I say, thinking about the mix tapes Matty Cohen sent me that summer. The summer before Cohen started calling me crazy, pushing me away. The summer before I changed forever.
William is working on Big, the Musical, we hear. That’s funny, I think to myself. He only mentioned needing to be out of town because he had to make new hats for the Crazy for You tour. He mentioned a new Broadway show, but Big opened before the colony. Why didn’t he talk about it? All us drama dorks wonder if Tom Hanks would ever consent to playing the role on Broadway. Can he even sing? Would Tom do it? Kind of a step down, for a movie star, but ballsy. Tom is the nicest guy in Hollywood. Still, has he ever done theater?
Theater has a different set of smaller stars, even though it’s actually the most enlightening of the entertainment art forms. We all agree, theater is the best way to tell stories. The way the cavemen did it. Storytelling in circles around fires. The way the Native Americans did, before we ruined it for them.
I start to hear rumors that Big is closing. Nobody wants to talk about the biggest flop of all time. I hear some murmurs, at Frothy Drink Night, a kiki thrown by the Three Elder Gays. Steve, Hank, and Mary Clay. I’m excited to chat with Mary Clay. He’s 40 something, gorgeous, and quiet as a mouse, most of the time. I like to get to know people, but Lost Colony has more than 75 people working on it, and I just want to get to know Clay that night, for some reason. My intuition is telling me to talk to Clay.
Sister Mary Clay – a Mixed-Race Homosexual who plays the principle dancer, and has for 15 years. Clay looks like he’s 22 in body paint, loincloth, wig. Everyone calls him Mary, even though she keeps her hair short in the summer times, and wears a wig that makes him look like a powerful warrior. I hear rumors he’s also a famous drag queen, and he just comes here in the summer when it’s hot in the south, and pageant drag is not possible.
“Drag queens can’t afford AC!” Mary hisses that night at the final Frothy Drink Night. She’s quiet, and maintains a mythology. It’s hard to place where she might have come from. She says Choctaw but then later changes it to Navajo, then Aztec. We laugh and call her a liar. “I never lie,” she says. “White people lie.”
“Everyone knows how to lie,” I counter. “A four year old knows how to lie.” But I kind of know what Sister Mary means. The Big Lie is always told by a white face.
There are rumors Mary Clay knows voodoo magic. That she lives in the woods sometimes, with no house.
That night other rumors swirl – Big the Musical is definitely closing for legal reasons. Something about the kids in the cast lodging a complaint that gets hushed up with NDAs. (The kids from Big got to go to very good colleges, I found out later.) It’s all true, a shit-house-wasted Hank Miller says, stumbling by. I wonder if he’s talking about NDAs or something else. Hank works closely with William, just like Brian Mear, who is William’s NYC assistant.
(Later I hear stories of how Brian Mear killed himself in one of William’s vacation houses. I hear stories of actors getting very sleepy, waking up, not remembering. I hear stories of people getting manilla envelopes full of sex photos and a note that says, William wants you to remember what a great time we all had.)
I drink with Gays in the cast that night. It’s one of the last parties. I’m getting terrified, somehow, of going back home. I want to run away and dye my hair, be someone else. A depression sets in, coupled with bouts of mania which show up later that year and into the spring semester in Tallahassee, when I’m limping through my final tenure as an FSU student.
Mary Clay, Steve Weinmiller, and a friendly, tall, Assistant Tech Director named Soloman and I all hang out at the party, we stick to the kitchen, where Hank makes the drinks in a whirring, growling, crunching blender. I ask about William, about Big, about whether or not they think Big is going to run for a while, or what. “I’m sick of university theater – I want New York NOW,” I say, all stoned and arrogant and young. I ask if they noticed William touching me. I ask if they think it’s a good idea to look him up when I move to New York.
“Are you crazy,” one of them asks?
“William will eat you alive. He fucks everyone.” David is wasted and barely making sense. “Doesn’t matter what size, shape, color, age, he fucks everyone.”
Steve Weinmiller tries to change the subject. They all do psychedelics. Mushrooms and acid, and whatever is grown nearby. Soloman presses on, in his stupor. He’s a friendly, gentle giant, during the day, but he’s a blithering wasted mess at night.
Just like plenty nice Southern folk do.
The party winds down. Steve leaves, high out of his mind on mushrooms. He claims psychedelics help process trauma. But then again, he makes paintings by rolling around in paint, then rolling on canvas, so you can see what a big penis he has. He’s a harmless hippy, though. He doesn’t try stuff when you’re drinking. Nobody does, actually. Just creepy William.
Finally, it’s just me, a passed out Hank, and Sister Mary Clay. She puts on some tea.
“Aren’t you going to bed?”
“No, and neither are you. You have to listen to me.”
“What? Why? We’re leaving in a few days. Show’s closing.”
“Which is why I wanted to talk to you, child.”
“You’re too kind,” I say, in a sort of rapture.
Clay is muttering over steeping tea, sprinkling powder. A match sparks, She lights a cigarette, pouring tea into my cup, purring like a cat.
I giggle, sniff at steaming liquid, stammer, try to make small talk, blow on my tea. Mary asks me if I had a good second summer. I say yes. I also say I’m not sure I’ll ever come back. Mary laughs, as if I said something completely obvious. As if I’d conspiratorially informed her – summer clouds are white, fluffy. As if I’d winked and told her cheese was made from milk! We laugh, but then I say it in a different tone of voice. “Should I come back, Mary?”
“No? YOU? Come back here? No, never. You must never return here. Go far away from here and don’t look back. If you come back here, you’ll wind up like Brian, or Soloman the Drunk here on this couch.”
“I had no idea he drank. He’s such a good tech director.”
“William is the only sorceress powerful enough to scare him sober, and then, only for rehearsals until the show opens. He drinks every night. Usually all alone.”
“Why is everyone afraid of William?”
“That family has been the devil incarnate in this area since my people first saw the big Galleons, since my people looked across the sound at Walter Raleigh’s first boat. Since we saw the white man, and realized he was evil to the core. We made him disappear.”
Clay is referring to the missing Lost Colony itself. Suddenly I realize something. I have gray eyes. So does Mary Clay in this moment. That can’t be right? His eyes are brown.
Clay holds me in a trance. Clay doesn’t drink much, but does other drugs. She’s truly a metamorph. She has a penis, we’ve all seen it at the clothing optional private beach the cast shares. I sip my tea and feel sleepy. My third eyes opens and I slide into a memory with Mary Clay
(The summer before, when I was acting – in the group showers. Mary would sometimes dance around to irritate Pete Peterson, who played Wanchese, one of the Indian Chiefs. We didn’t love him. Pete said things about the women in the shower we didn’t care for. Once, my first summer, I even got him reprimanded for saying disparaging things about Dawn Newsome. He called her Gruesome Newsome. A fifty year old man, thinking he could get away with that.
“Dawn taught me how to paint sets,” I had said to him. I had said to the whole shower, boisterous humans, lovely, naked, mostly white people, washing off the red paint trailing down the drain.
“Please don’t talk about her like that. Have some decency and respect for your art-form.”
I say it and the whole shower goes quiet. I’ve surprised myself, even. There’s a tone of authority when I say these words. It shuts up everyone who, moments earilier, were jeering and jibing at one another. I can feel them feeling ashamed. We finish washing up in silence – Mary once again the only person of color in the room, while we all have our whiteness restored. I dry off, and against the advice of my friends, slink off to report the disparaging comment to the stage manager. Pete is made to apologize to Dawn, and she thanks me privately, later, for standing up for her.)
Suddenly, I snap out of my reverie. Clay cleans up our tea. I must have lost a few minutes.
“So that settles it. You’re going back to school, and you’re never coming here again…”
I thank her and stumble back to my apartment in The Grove – an apartment complex owned by The Lost Colony. That day we have to clean our apartments and try to get our deposits back. Though we only make less than a hundred dollars, weekly, The Colony requires we live in the same apartment complex, pay rent back to RIHA, who produces the show. It’s something like 60 bucks a month, which sounds wonderful, but isn’t, considering we only gross 400 monthly, on average.
Fall semester comes and goes. I get piss poor grades in everything except my theater classes. I stick around for one more semester to take the late, brilliant, John Degan’s directing class, and George Judy’s half-baked farce elective. I don’t even bother to register. When the teachers tell me there’s an issue with the registrar, I answer, yeah I know, they said they’d fix it. I attend these two classes for free, and the professors have no idea I’m not actually in the classes.
George tells me I’m an intelligent actor, and I thank him.
He’s quick to tell me, a smart actor is not a good thing. I’ll bounce off some walls before I get there, but I’ll get there, he consents. I mutter under my breath that I want to get a little farther than Utah Shakespeare Festival. He hears me, but I say it right before I go onstage with him.
He tries to bully my character onstage. I resist him. I stonewall. Later he says he was surprised at how well everyone did, including me. Every compliment from him is like that. He might say, good job, but then he slides something in like “for a college level actor.”
Later I hear he has a reputation for gaslighting his female students and sleeping with them. That’s the shitty thing about theater – people can sort of get away with being creepy jerks. They call it “acting training” but you frequently hear stories, later, how the acting teacher was sleeping with quite a few of the women, men, whatever their flavor happens to be.
There are also fascinating, enlightening things about the community attached to theater. You get to fall in love with people over and over again, if you work with them quite a bit, and you do. You wind up finding the family you can tolerate, for a while, before moving on.
But, actors are creatures of convenience by necessity – they move on almost immediately. They might know how to be other people, but they seem never to truly know themselves. Not the good ones, anyway.
My friend Cindy and I are breaking up. It’s the end of school. Even though she struggles with depression, herself, she’s not too depressed to call me every night and tell me how she left her boyfriend to be my best friend. How she fell in love with me. I tell her that’s unfair. I’m not allowed to fall in love with my straight friends. I mention Sam Mossler and Bryan Brendle, two of our best friends. How I love them both a little, but won’t allow myself to love them a lot.
“That’s because you don’t have empathy,” she says between wine stained lips one night. “You have sympathy, but you can’t empathize. That’s why you can’t love a woman.”
I snap at her. I tell her that the reason she’s not a university level star is the same reason she won’t be a star on Broadway.
“Tell me,” she sneers, about to leave. We have little scenes like this all the time. We’re absolutely best friends, and can say the worst things to one another.
You’re too pretty to be the best friend.
Cindy’s eyes turn to coal. In a calm, understanding voice, she asks why she’s too pretty to be the best friend.
Because the best friend needs to be homely. The star is the lead, and the star must look the most attractive.
You don’t think I’m attractive?
You think I’m fat.
You think I’m fat.
Yes, you’re fat. You’re a fat, pretty girl. And you’re great at softball, which is badass, but, casting directors are going to tell you the same thing – either gain 30 pounds or lose it.
She storms out of my apartment, drives home. Later my phone rings, and for the first time, instead of answering Cindy’s late night call, I take the phone off the hook. The beeping noise sounds like an emergency, then the phone goes silent. I’m drifting off to sleep.
I hear her beating on the door. I’m not doing it this time. I’m not putting her first. I find out the next morning she keyed my door, the way some people use their own car keys to scratch someone else’s car. Except she did it to the front door of the condo Mom, Dad, Brother and I bought with family money. My brother and I shared it in Tallahassee, for college.
People get jealous, or mad, or angry. I’m not sure why she keyed my door. It made my mother very suspicious of her for a long time after that.
You can be honest with people, to a point. Then, they can’t hear it anymore.
The argument with Cindy effectively ends our friendship. She and I never recover, though we stay close. Later, in Brooklyn, she will turn her fiance Taylor into a human guard dog. I live down the block from her for ten years, and I see her on holidays.
It’s never the same after the night I call her fat. She starts writing for the Times, and helps a lot of her pals get writing jobs. She gets angry whenever I ask her for career advice. Go write a blog or something, she snarls one night, over a rare martini. You make pies. Call it Meat Pie Mondays with Michael.
(Just stop bothering me, is what I hear.)
I leave town for New York City shortly after that night. I want to be someone different. I want to be like Sister Mary Clay. I want to be able to disappear.
I give my royal blue Pontiac Grand Am to my friend Jen Mallis. She drives it for a while.
I get on an Amtrak train heading North. A cute punk kid with green hair and safety pins sits next to me for a while. He seems straight, but he also seems safe. I keep hoping he touches me while he’s sleeping, rolls over and puts his arm around me, maybe. I have six hundred dollars, and I go to the bar car. I win at poker, and buy everyone drinks. I win enough money that I have 800 when I arrive in Penn Station.
Someone asks me why I’m in such a good mood and where I’m going.
New York City, I smile at the drunk man who just gave me 40 dollars at the table.
New York City!!?? That place eats people alive.
Maybe, I say, and grin at him. But I have a score to settle.
William slides his hand down the back of my pants. I’ve stopped trying to stop him; I just let it happen.
He distracts everyone, pointing at a piece of theater set I painted, complimenting my technique. Indicating rough-hewn walls, new wood painted to look old, weathered. The patched wood, seamless, blends into the set. I’ve matched his technique, and covered a flaw. One good thing – he does sometimes point out a job well done, despite tantrums and sharp words, despite his wandering hands.
Sometimes he’ll expound upon design elements, textiles, perspective. “What looks luxurious from far away”, he explains, “might look a bit crude close up.” He’s talking about theater design, but he might as well be talking about himself.
Nobody sees him touching my ass. I make a mental note to wear a belt next time.
We work in the hot sun in the Outer Banks of North Carolina on a show called The Lost Colony, and William is our production designer. He is also a theater legend with three Tony awards at this point in his career; probably around fifty years old.
I feel lucky, intimidated. I don’t like his hand on my ass, but this summer has already worn me out, and we haven’t even opened the show yet. I’ve come to think of this unwanted touching as the price of admission, even though this is a job and not an amusement park. They’re paying me to take this shit. Oh, America.
He takes his hand away. I keep painting. Nobody saw. Nobody wants to see these kinds of things, and so nobody saw.
Luckily for me, the show will open in a few weeks, and William has to go check on his touring productions, has to start making drawings for a new Broadway show.
Us college theater folk are impressed by this: Broadway.
We make all sorts of excuses for him because he works on Broadway. To us, Broadway is more than a place, or a culture. It’s a fantasy remedy for our broken childhoods. It’s a totem, safe, and sparkling – brimming with raw potential. William is the gatekeeper to that world.
Even though his hand is gone, I’m still thinking about the groping. Minutes later, pulse racing, I feel ashamed, flushed, worried. I see the writing on the wall. He’s going to push this further than I’m comfortable with, soon.
(Hell, he’s pushed it further than I’m comfortable with now. How am I going to satisfy his ego without letting him have sex with me? I don’t see a way. Maybe I’ll avoid him? Not go to the party on opening night?)
I can take this until he leaves. I’m strong, I say to myself. This can’t break me. But I do feel ashamed for no reason, which leads to anger. Why should I feel ashamed for any reason? I didn’t touch anyone’s ass.
Should William even feel ashamed? I’m letting him. We are all letting him. Especially those of us who certainly didn’t see anything strange.
Later that night, I go to a party with the other college aged cast and crew members. I feel isolated – a little sad. I miss home and my friends from school, my family. What’s more, I’ve been promoted, and I’m part of the management team now. I’m not just a background actor anymore, because William “saw something special in me” and wanted me to props master the show. It was such a rush when they told me, and the reality of the situation didn’t sink in until much later. “I have to warn you,” the director of the show told me, “William isn’t easy to work with. He can be very difficult.”
It’s not a problem, I told the director, looking him in the eye – I’ll manage.
“Difficult” was an understatement, but I was right when I said I’ll manage. I do manage, and I pull off some pretty fantastic work that season. My team makes new props by hand. Wooden toy butterflies, stuffed Native American dolls, ribbons – odds and ends settlers might bring to a colony in the New World. At one point, William loses his cool over a basket of corn the natives bring as a gift to the settlers. It’s plastic corn we bought at a Joann’s Fabric. I wired it into the basket in neat, tidy stacks. This sets him off – the neat stacks of corn. He claims a squaw would just pick the corn and throw it in the basket. I argue with him. The indigenous people are meeting the settlers for the first time, I say. This is a special occasion. It’s logical someone might have taken the time to stack the corn nicely. If I’m OCD enough to wire it in bundles, it’s not an unreasonable thought that someone a few hundred years ago also had the same impulse.
William is enraged. He rips the corn out, throwing it at me. I duck. It hits another tech crew member in the face, who screams “I’m okay!” even before he registers the pain.
We’re trained to talk in very low tones about whatever insane behavior we tolerate on any given day, but we always follow up with, “I’m okay.” You never saw a more exhausted bunch of people running around telling one another how okay they are. I never did, anyway. But then again, at this point I’m only 21.
I try to salvage the pieces of plastic corn that aren’t torn up beyond recognition. Only part of it was damaged. Nobody will see. I use a hot glue gun, because wiring the corn is not an option anymore – it’s too damaged and there’s nothing to anchor it. I’m worried about the hot glue gun. It’s one of William’s pet peeves, and the senior costume folks warned me he would flip out if he saw that I even had one. I take my chances. They shake their heads and mutter to one another. William abuses the costume department the most. They’re overworked, overmanaged, constantly shell shocked. Still, later that night, after a few drinks, one of the costume designers implies that I’m shaking my ass at William in exchange for special privileges. He uses my secret hot glue gun as an example. That’s how crazy we’ve been made, in only a few weeks. I’m accused of prostituting myself for the sake of a hot glue gun. Welcome to showbiz.
The next day he slides his hand down my ass again in the costume shop. I wiggle free.
It keeps up like this. Nobody sees. A few people see, actually, but they minimize it by calling it things like ‘special attention.’ At some point in the rehearsal process I get frustrated. William is treating me like an idiot all day long in front of the entry level tech people. When he’s not doing that, he corners me in musty prop cabins, carpentry sheds, behind wood-paneled dressing rooms. I pull him aside and ask him to stop. I tell him it’s embarrassing to me when he yells at me in front of people I’ll have to manage for an entire summer. He asks me if I’ve ever had a job with a boss before. Yes, I say. He shrugs and tells me I’m on deadline, then he takes away the three helpers he has assigned me.
Later in the day, I ask for an extension. William denies it. I speak up, telling him it’s unfair to expect the same deadline after he’s wasted time yelling at me, taking away my technicians, making me feel small. William calls everyone into a group.
“Attention, everyone! Michael is having a hard time making his deadline, and so now, instead of a lunch break, EVERYONE on the crew will work an hour for Michael.” People are pissed. They want to eat, and maybe relax for an hour or so. The sun is beating down on us. I spring into action. Somehow, even with no plan for what I’d get accomplished with twenty extra pairs of hands, I find something for everyone to do. I separate people with artistic talent. I assign them mini projects. People are tearing rags, slathering paint, sewing things. It’s going so well that William forgets he’s angry and gives me the entire team for two and a half hours, instead of just one. We skip lunch.
People aren’t angry with me, somehow. They get it. We trade horror stories and then quickly mutter how okay we are.
William asks me to dinner at his hotel that night. We can have wine, and if I drink too much I can sleep over. I decline.
At the actors apartment complex the Lost Colony owns, someone is always throwing a party in one of the shared apartments. That, or we meet at a picnic table near a grove of trees and sip beer. They’re nice to me that night. Even if they don’t see what’s going on, they see what’s going on. It doesn’t stop him, but maybe it takes some of the sting away.
It’s okay. I’m okay.
It will be fine once we open.
It’s fine; be professional. Don’t wash out, okay?
You’ll be fine. Don’t worry.
I go for an overnight trip with Karl, who is the costume shop manager. He’s William’s right hand man. He lives a couple hours away in Virginia Beach. He’s searching for fabric and buys a little, but isn’t overly impressed with the stock. I buy a few props for my department, but I’m afraid to make any bold moves. I don’t want William’s wrath raining down on me again, and I’d rather come back from the trip completely empty-handed than buy the wrong things. Buying the wrong things will set him into a humiliating rage.
I’m not sure why I was brought on this trip. All the things I need for my props can be purchased nearer to the theater, and I don’t have any must-have items list that have to be sourced elsewhere. Yet, Karl made a huge deal about how driving 2.5 hours to his place was absolutely crucial. We’re on a time crunch. The whole show goes up with only five weeks rehearsal time. We’re three weeks in, and we’re running out of time. I want so badly to prove I was the right choice for this job.
Later, at Karl’s house, we take a dip in the hot tub. This is framed innocently enough, after a vodka tonic or two. Karl makes fun of me for wearing my shorts in the hot tub. He says it’s fine if I just go naked, or in my underwear. I pour another drink – this time a stiff one. He says that his boyfriend is out of town, and that if I want to, we can stay in their room together and have some fun. He’s easily fifteen years older than me, and higher than me on the theater food chain. Or, at least it seems that way. When I point this out he explains to me that it’s fine – he’s the costume shop manager and I’m the props master, so we’re equal. But, he’s worked for William for many years, and I don’t feel equal. He puts his hand on my knee, underneath the water. He squeezes harder when I pull away. It hurts. I pretend to be drunker than I am and stumble to the guest room. I pass out. He doesn’t try anything creepy while I’m asleep, I’m pretty sure.
The car ride home is quiet the next day. William curls up a smile when he sees us walk in together backstage. “How was your trip?” he asks, all saccharine and syrup. I tell him I found a few things, but there wasn’t much selection. “Well I hope you two had fun,” he chortles, “But it sounds like you wasted everyone’s time.” Sure, I say, and hang my head. He wonders aloud how anyone on a props deadline could waste an entire day, and not find anything. As I’m leaving I actually say, “sorry,” and I’m immediately furious with myself. I shouldn’t have to apologize for doing my job. Besides, everyone on this tech crew is trying to stick their finger up my ass. I think all these things, but say nothing. I go back to work.
that day William asks again. Dinner at his hotel. We could have fun, he insists, if we get away from this environment. He wants to know if I like a certain actor. Do I think he’s cute? He’s been coming to dinner and hanging out, too. I point out that it’s irrelevant whether I think he’s cute or not, because he’s straight. William just laughs. “I know ways to get straight guys to relax and give you what you want,” he says.
“I don’t have three Tony awards, a trust fund, and a townhouse in Chelsea, I say.” I’m testing the waters. Being snide about his power, his station. William thinks this is very funny. There’s some sort of twinkle in his eye. He’s not used to someone challenging him. I see for a brief second that to some people, life is just a game. That William is almost bored of winning it.
“I don’t need money,” he says. “People get sleepy after a certain amount of wine. They forget things.” Toying with me, he sneers, and holds eye contact a little too long. “For that matter,” he says, “there are other things, besides wine – that make people forget…”
“I think I have plans tonight,” I say.
I start keeping a journal after that. Maybe other people are going to forget things, I think to myself – but not me. I’m going to remember. I can’t sleep at night, now, so I blow off steam by writing about what’s happening to me.
I reach a state of exhaustion. It’s an outdoor drama, so the work on the set – it’s all done in the sun. We don’t have sunscreen; we’re poor and can’t afford it. We look tanned and young and feisty, but we’re stretched pretty thin. And, I have a psychological exhaustion nagging at me from all the groping and innuendo nobody sees.
I start to hear absurd rumors that William and I are carrying on an affair. Sure, I say to a straight guy who asks me if I’m dating William. Can’t you see how warm and loving he is to me? Everyone laughs at this, but then they all fall silent. It’s a dark joke, and forces them to confront the reality of what’s happening. After some time, another gay crew member says something minimizing, like, well at least you’re getting attention from a theater legend, and grimaces.
“If you didn’t like it,” he says, pausing, challenging me, “You’d tell him to stop.”
“Thanks for the solidarity,” I say, annoyed at everything and everyone. I do tell him to stop, I think to myself. In hundreds of ways I have signaled my disinterest. And William knows I’m not interested. It has become a game between us.
Later, a dancer in the show pulls me aside to check on me. He rubs my shoulders and tells me it’s okay. In fact, it could be more than okay. I’m confused, and don’t quite get what he’s saying. William can make or break careers, he says. Not just designers, writers, actors. He has the connections they need to succeed. But he can also drive people away. Spread rumors about them. Make them feel insecure, crazy, alone. The dancer then tells me I should just do my best to stay off his radar, if I don’t plan on sleeping with him eventually.
“I mean, I can tell it bothers you,” he says. “It doesn’t bother me. William paid me and another actor once to have sex with each other in front of this strange dude, who later wound up investing a lot of money in the show. But, I mean, who cares,” he says with a shrug. “I would have fucked this guy anyway. I wanted to all summer and then I got paid to do it!”
Suddenly I feel less comforted. I start talking about sexual harassment. The dancer cuts me off. “Gay people don’t have that,” he says, matter of factly. “Also, who are they going to believe? A theater legend with three Tonys, and everything to lose? Or a blond college kid, with nothing to lose and everything to gain? They’ll make you look like a gold digger or a hustler.”
I walk home feeling bitter. It’s not like the dancer was trying to make me feel worse, but gay people have a way of shitting on one another’s mood sometimes, cloaking it in “honesty” or “concern.” I’ve seen women do it to one another, too. They’re afraid someone they like will get into hot water, and so they project their own fears on to the situation. It’s well intentioned, but it can feel pretty rotten.
Also, sometimes it isn’t so well intentioned.
Part of the problem with William is that he’s actually supportive. Part of the problem is that he knows he’s difficult to work with, and he knows that on some level, working with a brilliant man (he teaches at an Ivy League school when he isn’t too busy on Broadway) is reward enough. And he isn’t wrong. I learn things from him that summer. How to source things. What textures can be replicated with what paint techniques. Color theory. He takes an interest. The unwanted sexual attention is juxtaposed with rants, tirades about work quality. He considers it a privilege to work with him, and he isn’t wrong. His criticism is astute, and unassailable. It’s just that, this isn’t a union job, and most of us are clearing about $95 a week, with a free place to stay. After we buy food, there isn’t much left.
William has stopped trying to hide his advances toward me, and is now openly sexualizing me in front of other people. “I liked your work better yesterday,” he says one day, in front of my support staff, “But then again, yesterday you had your shirt off.” His tone is so belittling and snide, but I’m completely used up at this point. It’s exhausting, the nature of opening a huge show in a short time is enough stress without constant infantilizing, condescending, flirting and gross sexual innuendo. There’s no way around the groping, the little traps he sets with me and his higher ranking support staff – it all adds up to something disgusting, something more than unsettling. An unfair power dynamic, I mutter to myself, even as I know I’m searching for stronger words to describe what’s happening.
My eye starts to twitch, and for six days before we open, it spasms uncontrollably. The programs come out. I’m listed as “props assistant.” When I tell the office staff I was hired as props master, they inform me that William changed the job title, since I was coming in with no experience. I’m infuriated. All of this bullshit, all this sacrificing time I could have been on stage, and I don’t even get the credit on my resume.
I want to scream in his face. Push him off the dock behind the theater where we light the fireworks at the end of act one. I want to quit and sue The Lost Colony for sexual harassment. Still, I know I’m dealing with an industry giant, and I have no interest in being a giant-slayer. At this point, I’d settle for go-along-to-get-along. Even so, I’m compelled to confront him.
“William,” I say, in the costume shop, gathering up as much tact as I can muster, “I understand we have a mutual appreciation. You’re brilliant and I’m very flattered you picked me to nurture this summer.”
“I’m a very nurturing person,” he says, pulling some lace fabric taught, then letting it spring back.
I choose my words carefully. We are alone in the shop. I’m closer to the doorway than him. We are both stressed out. Dress rehearsal is hours away.
“I think there’s much to learn from you.”
“I think we’re just scratching the surface.”
He’s closing in on me. He steps between me and the open doorway.
“Be that as it may – I don’t really like what’s going on between us, as far as the touching is concerned. I’m a fun, funny guy sometimes, and I don’t mind some playful banter, but you fondling me in front of the actors and tech crew is so belittling and demeaning.” I pause, choosing my next words carefully. “So, you should know this – if you take it even a little bit further, I will own The Lost Colony. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
He says nothing.
“I’m willing to chalk this up to a misunderstanding. But, there’s a big difference between how people on a sports team slap each other on the ass, and sliding your hands down someone’s pants. And, I think we can both agree, the line has been crossed.”
He says nothing.
“What’s more, I’m sure a judge will see what I’m talking about, and will see that the difference is vast, and absolutely worth quibbling about.”
He says nothing.
“So, how about this? How about, we forget all about it? How about we just continue on with our relationship, and I don’t say anything, and you don’t say anything. How about, if you see something ‘special’ in me, you just foster that for its own sake, and not try to get special perks? How about we have mutual professional respect, and stop treating each other so transactionally?”
He says nothing.
“It’s not that I don’t like you. It’s not that I don’t want to learn from you. It’s that I’m under quite a bit of pressure, in a job I’ve never done before. There are more than 500 props in this show, and I’m responsible for keeping track of their movement every single night, and making sure they return home for the next performance. Plus, we’re overhauling the inventory, and that’s enough to focus on for a hundred bucks a week. If you really think I’m such a special mind worth developing, then that should be enough on its own. I don’t owe you more than that. Are we clear?”
He says nothing. One of his assistants walks into the room. William clears his throat.
“Are we done here? Did you say you were stressed out? Don’t you have props to attend to?”
I certainly do, I think to myself, and I leave. But, instead of going back to my props cabin, I head off to the stage manager. We have a chat about William and the conversation I’ve had with him. About how I think I can last the summer, since he’s leaving soon. About how she is willing to support me if I wind up pressing charges. About how I don’t think that will be necessary. About how I want to preserve my chances for a career in theater, but I can’t allow a man to keep doing these things to me. She is kind and understanding.
The show opens. There’s a party. William leaves for a while.
My eye stops twitching. Everything settles. I’m okay.
ll okay. Oh, it’s fine. We’re all okay.
We all relax into a simple routine. It’s almost just a memory.