The Great Gatsby – Part One, A Rose in Winter

It’s February 2017, and I feel raw, like a picked scab – shiny, wet, dotted with blood. I keep picturing this image. Hoping I can stop picking scabs mentally, I want to forgive myself, forgive others, forgive wasted youth. I want a drink. I want eleven drinks.

I can’t think about that right now, though. I have a job to do.

I pull up to the house, check my phone. Finally, the right spot. Patricia Rose.

I found you, I think, but this thought is laced with irony. I suck air through my teeth. Foster kids want help, but their bodies are exhausted from processing years of abuse and neglect. They need attention, but they rarely accept it. Accepting help is terrifying, so they chicken out, cancel, get sick at the last minute. They get the address wrong. It’s all subconscious trauma manifesting.

They’re petrified by the idea of trust. The people who are supposed to teach them to trust, instead teach them to expect abandonment on good days, violence on bad.

Nevertheless, I need to be able to connect with them, immediately. I need this job. For my self-esteem, I need to know I’m good at this. I practice my actor smile. It seems smarmy today. I’m not an actor anymore. I’m out of practice.

Take a deep breath. Hold. Let it out. You’re okay. You got this. You own it.

I need this job for so many reasons – they’ve already threatened to fire me. I don’t get my paperwork done on time. I’m losing company money. It’s a “non-profit,” but this is America. Someone at the top is making a shit ton of money. I can’t keep getting by on charm.

I have a patient boss, but I didn’t make my quota in November – third month in a row. My rock bottom? In a quick, private conversation – he told me he liked me, told me everyone sees I am great at the job – but if I can’t get billable hours I’ll be fired.

He didn’t even mention “alcohol,” but the look he gave me said everything.

“Sober up or get out. Stop drinking or die.”

The months leading up were grisly. Green bowl movements because my pancreas secreted way too much bile. Went haywire after years of overloading it. Hidden bottles under the bed, for when I woke up in the middle of the night, terrified I’d get the shakes. Trying to do the math on how I could plan withdrawal for my lunch hour.

I guess I chickened out on my slow suicide, and I have to live? I have joy every damn day. Why am I being a baby? First world problems, I tell myself. Make it about the kids for five fucking minutes, how about that? How about, focus on an act of service, and let the rest be up to the universe?

I ring the doorbell, jolt myself out of this open wound, this rock bottom moment. I can mentor foster youth, I tell myself. You have no evidence of that, I tell myself right afterward.

(I didn’t lie on my resume, but I certainly implied there was a BA degree, when there wasn’t. I ran an improv program in New York city. I was a teacher, but I also wrote the curriculum – handed it off to a boss that never even liked me. I feel more and more like Henry Miller these days, except the reverse of him. He found in debauchery a form of freedom. I found myself prisoner to it.)

The Community College foundation claims my transcripts were lost. I suspect everyone in the interview said to one another, who knows, this guys a great salesman, let’s roll the dice? Let’s ignore the fact that he doesn’t have the required degree?

(I nailed the interview, despite showing up hungover, sweaty, fragile. Thanks acting training!)

Thank you, I tell my inner child - letting me have a moment of clarity!

I listen for my inner child to answer. Not available. He hides from me sometimes. He hides from the people I let in the house, who eventually abused, abandoned, neglected him. I’m slowly becoming friendly with him again.

Ding Dong! Social Services!

Sometimes I think I’m funny, but I haven’t been a paid comic for years.

I hear chaos inside. Teenage girls. Raucous fun. I miss that part of life.

My job is – show up when they’re 17, take them through transition, help make sure they don’t become homeless. It’s a two year program with hundreds of things to get done – you have to cram in 20 years of parenting. Help them negotiate a car loan. Help them get a bank account. ID. Apply for housing grants that will float them until they’re 22. Get them free community college courses.

But, there’s never enough time, and they spelled it out, as long as I don’t get phone calls about my work, I can either be good or bad at the job. They want me to make them money. I’m making two dollars and change per-hour over minimum wage.

Chaos, giggles – shrieking inside. I sort of wish I had earplugs. Am I ready for this?

It’s amazing to me, this job, I think, in a flash of optimism – Foster kids cover the trauma by having fun. Living in a fantasy world. Making the best of situations. We all do, really, but because their situation is so incredibly dire, they live in an opaque bubble of their own illusion. It’s hard to break through. I’m ready for a bored, listless client that maybe acts like she hates me. Most of my clients are like that. Hell, all of them to some degree.

(They don’t really hate me. They hate their circumstance, and when someone shows up with empathy, it makes them feel ashamed, somehow.)

I ring the doorbell. I’m almost terrified. I have five more months of work probation before I get in good standing again. I’m afraid I won’t be able to hold this job down, even with more than 60 clear-headed days.

This could be easier, I hear my friends in my head. You could easily just go to a meeting. But my Dad didn’t have to, and maybe I don’t either? Lately I’ve doubted that a little bit. My dad is pretty neutral about giving advice. He only says what worked for him, and lets me make my decisions. My mom doesn’t think I need AA. She’s practical.

Just stop, she says.

She’s right, I say to myself. They both are. Just stop and see what’s up tomorrow.

Okay, I think to myself. Just do that. Just do the simple thing. Maybe it’s easy, maybe it’s hard. Just do the simple thing.

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There was an awful election cycle last season – all the women in my family seem a little crushed. I’m crushed for them. They may not live to see a woman President. My extended family – the conservative side – seem self satisfied after a season of exposing thinly veiled misogyny. Even though my immediate family are “Union Strong” Democrats, the red state uncles, and cousins have almost been gleeful in their recent “victory.” Gross. The idea that in one breath a person could minimize such a qualified candidate, while making excuses for someone who grabs women’s genitals without asking and brags about it. Nauseating.

Only Americans would see a choice between a fart and a turd as a victory.

We’re obsessed with winning. It’s disgusting, actually. We rah rah rah the same faces each cycle. The two corporate sponsored Oligarchical greed-fest revelers may wear opposite, twisted nightmare visages, but they’re just fun house mirror reflections of one another. Cheap distraction.Their job is to scapegoat the other side while their bosses rob us blind on both sides of the aisle.

We’re all cagey, addled. All of us know the anger is misdirected, but we dare not admit it, culturally. To do so would be to collectively admit – it’s time to light the torches. Sharpen up the machetes. We are kept exhausted by fearmongering media cycles. We are so inundated with vanity and consumerist idolatry, we’re too tired to consider refusing to play a cruel, rigged game. Most of us can’t even fathom asking ourselves how? How do I get off this pointless treadmill of greed?

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Usually I try to take a helpful, smart angle. Invoke a little fear. “Independence is scary at first – overwhelming… but it’s like a puzzle,” I’ll say, off the cuff. “First we’ll work on ID, then a bank account. A job. An apartment. Some grants for community college.” I try to make it sound fun, try to distract them from the horrible truth that they’re entering a situation where the people they’ll compete against have unfathomable advantage. I try to pretend I don’t know that a sizable amount of my clients will statistically become drug addicted, homeless, without access to healthcare. I explain that in lieu of a parental figure, I’ll be the one teaching them how to interview for jobs, how to negotiate a car loan, how to patiently make a return against store policy. This won’t even begin to emotionally equip them for the uphill climb ahead, and we haven’t even talked about their financial disadvantages.

That’s one thing I like about Hilary. She has bloody hands, and never met an overpaid Wall Street speaking gig she didn’t like, but she does give a little lip service to the social safety net. It’s just that America can’t handle an overqualified woman.

I think about our new President, the horny toddler. He throws fits on twitter and won’t disclose financials. There’s no way he can last even half a term, I assure myself. I peek through the semi-translucence, through the tiny window. Girls laughing, playing, running around.

I’m here, at Penny Lane Balboa. I’m sober. I’m going to mentor a new client, do my paperwork, try to write a song, and tend bar later tonight. I’m sure I can get through the day without drinking. Let’s see if one day at a time really works? Sober is a state of mind. Blah blah blah.

I’m fed up. I beat on the door. I’m getting these billable hours, and I’m going home and I’m doing my paperwork. Then…

Say it, an ugly voice inside my head, coaxes me. All you have to do is say it once, says the snake in my mind. Saying something makes it so. Just get a bottle on the way home. Or a pint! Be a moderate drinker! An airport bottle or two. It’s nobody’s business…

No, I think to myself. No. I’m not even going to say it silently.

“I GOT IT!!!”

The door is flung far open. A sudden face off! The two of us. It’s not my inner child, but legally, it is a minor. A wizened, perhaps, but a teenager. She’s laughing, happy! She’s playing some sort of game with the other girls inside the house.

I breathe.

Suddenly, she freezes. She looks drunk, or high – wasted on something. Her face goes slack.

Another abrupt change, and she looks like a 40 year old woman.

“Well, hello sir…”

I’m disarmed, but I have actor training. I cover.

“Hi. I’m looking for someone.”

“Why, whatever do you mean?”

“I’m looking for a client of mine.”

Suddenly, she’s totally sober. Suddenly I’m the one who feels dizzy, giddy, even in my sobriety.

“OH MY GOD! YOU’RE MY ITSP WORKER!!!!!” She’s prancing around the group home, giddy. Showing me off to her friends.

I stammer. I don’t know the acronyms the kids know so well, so I’m always asking them to explain. They trained me only to do paperwork. It’s all about money. I’m an Individual Transitional Service Provider, technically. That’s what DCFS calls me. My company calls me a TDS worker. Transitional Development Specialist, I remember.

“JESUS GOD!” She shifts shape – 17 again. Relatively innocent.

“Please tell me you’re my ITSP worker?”

Suddenly I’m a befuddled, humble old man.

“It’s my allergies. I was distracted. A fly… well.. you see!”

“Dude. Who the hell are you?”

“I’m looking for Patricia.”

“ROSE! You can call me Rose!”

“Okay Patricia.”

“It’s Rose! GET IT RIGHT. I’m not Patricia anymore.”

“Okay, well, I’m Michael. You’re Rose.”

“NO!”

She’s hosting. Practically waltzing me through the chaos of the paltry living room.

“I’m Rose. I’m never going to be Patricia again.” Her eyes glitter with a vampire’s charisma.

“Okay. I stammer….” Then, I quickly recover. I need money. I need to make a sale. I need her to enroll in my voluntary program.

“Well, I’m here to explain the ITSP program to you and see if you’d like to join.”

“You can stop that right now.”

“Wait! I’m a TDS worker! I’m just here to help you transition.”

“She taps her foot, waiting for my foolishness to end.”

“Are you done?”

“I… Do you have any questions?”

“No, my fine young gentleman from across the lake.”

“Lake Balboa?”

“NO YOU”RE NOT LISTENING.”

“Okay. Tell me?”

“I’m ROSE.”

“OKAY.”

“YOU’RE GATSBY!!!!”

She throws her head back and cackles, like the queen bee of this particular hive!

“I always wanted a rich, white…. a rich man your age to visit me. I’ve been waiting my whole life, GATSBY.”

“Hey!” I say, taking stock of squallor. The low ceilings. The insides ruined by kids, by traffic, by indifference.

Let’s improvise.

“I’ve been waiting my whole life for you too, Rose.” I say. Grinning, and suddenly she’s right.

Suddenly I’m an American classic. Suddenly I’m a debonair man of society. I am Gatsby, and I’m in love.

Rose has me under her spell, and she’s never letting go. I don’t mind a bit. This is better than any drug, any alcohol. We’re giddy on each other’s energy, each other’s fun generosity.

Suddenly I find my inner child. I’ve been searching for him. What are we going to do, he asks? I hold little Michael’s hand, while I laugh with Patricia. She can’t see him. But, I whisper things to him when she’s cavorting around, whipping the group home into a frenzy.

Do you love her, I ask my inner child? Oh, yes, father, he says. Let’s keep her.

Okay then, Michael. We have to be Gatsby now.

What’s that mean?

We have to build a fortune. We have to stay close. We have to always be just out of sight of our Rose in Winter.

Why?

Because she’ll lose sight of us over the years, but we can see her, just across Lake Balboa.

That sounds like a spy novel, or a mystery.

It’s just a plan.

What’s the plan?

Let’s get rich, and take her away from this place.

I tickle the little boy I used to be, before the world got its claws into me. He laughs. I toss him into the air. I can tell he’s very enamored of Patricia.

Okay! My inner child is thrilled at this prospect. Let’s do it. Let’s get rich.

Ok.

And when we’re rich, we can take her away from this place, maybe?

Yes. I say, giving him a piece of cheese in my pocket. I keep cheese around to reward him when he says the right things. We can take her away from this place.

Promise?

No.

Why?

We can only try.

Why?

Shhh. Go to sleep, there’s no why.

Why?

Exactly. That’s always the question.

Why?

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