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.