PART TWO, TALLAHASSEE, 1996, 1997
It’s almost just a memory.
We’re a family again.
The man who interferes with us is finally gone.
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.