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.
The song posted at the bottom of this entry was born in 2008, in Brooklyn, just before I met my brother for a long work/vacation. Hamburg, Germany! He was on an Academic conference for Computational Linguistics, and I brought my baritone ukulele so I could write a bit. He was out of the apartment most days, so I had time. I was still drinking then, and we went out and caroused the nights away at bars in the vicinity. Mostly gay bars, but some stuff all over the city, depending on which direction the evening took us.
We saw the Rothko exhibit touring Hamburg at the time on that trip. Scotty isn’t much for modern art, but I remembered – Vonnegut was extremely close with quite a few of the guys from the abstract expressionist movement, and Bluebeard is one of the few books I’ve ever managed to get through four or five times. It’s about art, and love, and the forms it can take – romantic or otherwise. Family and chosen family.
About how life expands and contracts – about the trauma of living through WWII – about the bombing of Dresden. Ideas, big and small. Synchronicity. People finding one another, finding joy – even through the process of sifting through body parts in the smoking char of a razed battlefield. Even over years, over decades.
It’s a story of self-actualization.
And so on…
Vonnegut’s Bluebeard references an old legend. A rich man is rumored to be a pirate. He’s upper-strata wealthy. One percent, one might say these days… The type of guy who could live in a castle, but also perhaps might need to go out to sea for long stretches.
Bluebeard falls in love, and a young woman is swept off her feet, dazzled by the legend of the rumored pirate king. Very quickly the two wed, and she moves into his cliffside fortress.
“You may have access to any room in the castle,” her husband tells her on their wedding night, “but you may never enter the chamber attached to the far end of the cellar.”
The woman doesn’t think much about swearing such an oath. What could be so alluring about the cellar, anyway,? She shrugs – men must have their secrets, she reasons, and starts to unpack silks, linens, lace from the oaken dowry her merchant father managed to scrape together.
The story is told in pieces, in circles, like all good epic tales.
Eventually, the wife realizes she doesn’t care where the money comes from. It’s okay if he has foreign business in far off lands, or is a cutthroat pirate, marauder of the high seas. We all have blood on our hands, she thinks to herself one day, when she watches her red-faced maid kill a chicken for dinner.
Still, sometimes she makes the trip to town for fabrics or sewing notions. Invariably, she hears whispers… other rumors muttered under the breath of the townsfolk.
Bluebeard’s first five wives had all died mysteriously, and hushed tales of her husband’s brutality toward his business rivals seeped into her carefree days in town, at the tailor, waiting for the cobbler, enjoying a lunch of kidney pie at the clapboard inn and tavern.
I have to know, she says to herself.
She watches, waits, observes. Finally figures out which key on the big jangling ring opens the antechamber. This happens over years and years. Her husband goes away. Soon after, she insists she needs the butler’s master key ring, then disappears.
Starting in the attic, she moves down toward the basement, mentally memorizing each key, scratching it off the list in her mind. Intermittently, her husband comes back from conquests, mergers. His wealth is growing still more vast, and the jewels, the satins, ivory combs he bestows upon her make her flush with vanity.
Soon enough, though, he”s off on another adventure. She’s left alone with a growing trove of treasures, and a burning need to find out the looming secret tucked away in the cellar, far beneath her quarters. She feels conflicted, sitting inside her warm chamber, fondling the iron circle, counting keys, checking them off one by one in her memory.
She knows her husband’s wrath can be severe, and is terrified he might get angry, divorce her, cast her out. Still, she’s driven by the rumors, the curiosity… Why won’t he talk about his first four wives?
Seasons pass. They grow closer. She can’t bear children but it doesn’t seem to bother him. They laugh by fires, playing chess, sipping port long into the night. But, he’s gone for long stretches at a time, and the isolation of the castle overwhelms her thoughts. The staff is strident and formal, and while they can be friendly at times, she’s painfully lonely.
And yes, she’s curious. That’s not a crime. People always want to think it a fatal sin, a woman’s curiosity – she thinks to herself. She smiles when she whispers, hell, even Eve was cast out of the Garden for wanting to make applesauce. People have vicious double standards. Even good, kind people.
Anyway. Finally, she makes it down to the cellar. Her husband arrives home from a trip, showers her with kisses and jewels, gets his key ring back from the stone-faced butler, and they have wine- well into the evening, chatting, playing chess, making love. She falls asleep in his arms, and he starts to snore, which wakes her up, and she realizes his key-ring is on the nightstand.
Finally! She creeps out of bed, grabs the key ring ever so slowly. Silently, like she’s practiced.
She creeps down, alone to the cellar, groping around silent, still. She’s terrified, but she’s making no sounds. She’s memorized the shape and sizes of the keys over the years. Moving with stealth and slow determination, she approaches the door – the one area of the house forbidden to her. Even as she finally finds the right fit, and it slides slowly into the lock, she’s sighs relief. Finally. She’s going to solve this mystery and climb back in bed with her loving husband.
Maybe I don’t even need to know the answer to this question, she says to herself. Maybe there’s no why? Maybe why is a useful question, but there’s never really a concrete answer? Maybe, she thinks, I can love him through anything? Even as she enters the dark chamber, as she smells an old rot.
She lights a torch, skirts the edge of the room, counterclockwise. She sees enough to know. The bodies. The bones. The jewels, dresses, letters – some ripped up, strewn, confetti-style on top of headless torsos.
I can love him through this, she says to herself. I know now – he truly loves me. He truly loved them all. The last thing she sees is a shadow in the door, before she drops the torch and the flame dies forever.
She can barely breathe. Her heart throbs in her throat, choking her thoughts. Her ears pound with thrum.
And so on…
Which is all to say, my brother and I wandered around the Rothko exhibit, because he was very nice about not making the entire ten days about his academic schedule, about going to straight bars, about anything more than a chance to reconnect with one another, far from the small St. Louis suburb where we were both born.
I sang the germ, the genesis, the egg of this song to him, loudly, late at night, after we went out drinking and celebrating his latest academic triumph. I don’t know what it had to do with. He’s a computational linguist, and he didn’t seem to need me to hear him present at the actual conference. He said I would be bored and wouldn’t understand all the acronyms and lingo. I was curious, but I didn’t need all the answers. Brothers don’t need to explain things to each other immediately.
It goes in circles, over years. The conversation stays open.
But in Bluebeard, Vonnegut mentions Rothko, or a character very similar to him. Scotty wasn’t too keen on the exhibit but he wandered around, patient with his little brother. I was insanely curious, and made sure to notice the dates.
Its all just rectangles and squares, Scotty said.
Yeah, but there’s an evolution, I countered back.
Yeah, but isn’t it… the same?
Well, notice how the shapes get cleaner? Notice how the process, the brush strokes, the scope, size, rich luxury – all of it grows and grows over the years?
Sort of… say more?
It gets richer over the years.
Oh, so you mean he can afford more paint?
Sure, but the art gets richer. Bigger canvasses.
And a bigger studio!
And has richer clients?
Exactly! And then…
And then, what?
By this time Scotty and I were at the end of the visit. He reads the last plaque on the last painting. About Rothko’s suicide.
“Rothko’s depression and seclusion were exacerbated by his drinking. In 1970, Rothko committed suicide by a combination of overdose on barbiturates and a major cut to an artery in his right arm with a razor blade. He left no suicide note.”
In final fit of irony, Rothko died just before the final completion of a massive collection of work he called “the chapel.” He had turned his massive studio into a cathedral to color, texture, light. Inspiration.
And so on…
I kept thinking about Vonnegut and Rothko for years after that. I still think about the two men, sometimes. Drawing parallels late at night, when I’m trying to put my mind to bed.
He was best friends with Vonnegut.
They were in the bombing of Dresden together.
They helped each other get rich and famous, and stayed close, even as their family structures got complicated, even as they both abused alcohol, capitulated to despair, became lapdogs to the terror lurking forever, behind their eyes, when they came home from the war. The helpless disgust they both felt, picking through body parts in the quiet aftermath of the bombing of Dresden.
They did everything they could for one another, but they couldn’t process each other’s trauma. Nobody can do that but you.
They were like brothers to one another. They made it through the challenges, helped one another on the journey of life. Through joy, fear, overwhelming suffering. Births and deaths, cycles and circles, and I’m sure they both drank way too much. It’s well documented by the two men themselves and those who could bear to be around them.
I met Vonnegut once when I was in college. He was touring with William Styron and Joseph Heller. Scotty wasn’t with me when I got to meet him. I shook his hand, and tried not to gush like the 20 year old child/fan boy I absolutely was at the time.
And so on…
This song used to be called Wait. It was about being ready for a big career break and still having to wait your turn.
Eventually, it evolved into a musical theater song I was writing for Thin Skin Jonny. I wanted to make the boys who started my band with me famous. I was writing a musical for all the people who treated me like a brother over the years.
The end of act one was “Wake Up, Thomas.”
This is the circumstance – Micky sings to his lover who is dying of AIDS. He sings about a lost generation, about assisted suicide, about a quiet pain the Boomers and Gen X homosexuals endured as our chosen brothers died all around us.
The song may evolve yet again. I haven’t decided yet.
And so on…
“The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point.” – Mark Rothko
Breaking the Silence Awards recognizes corporations and leaders who use their platform of influence to advocate for Sexual & Domestic Abuse awareness. Since the inception, the I Love Me Foundation has provided supportive services through legal referral assistance, advocate support, financial aid, employment referral and housing assistance to over 1,500 youth, young adults, sex workers, and those in the under-served communities.
Yes, that’s Kelly Osbourne and Robert Harrell – get excited! But also, please keep your cool. It’s Los Angeles and chill is what we do best, even in the heat of the day. Make no mistake…
The day wasn’t without its lively moments. Yes, we talked about abuse, survival, disenfranchised communities – all things liberals love to talk about! We also had a blast. It was a celebration of #MeToo, #TimesUp, and the transgender communities and communities of color that support their struggle.
It was about female empowerment, humanity, and rejoicing in our ability to tell the truth, so that when the artifice falls away, and we take the narrative back from our abusers, we reveal a truer version of ourselves, which is a boon to our loved ones, to the communities that support us. It was a celebration.
Robert spoke with a tremble in his voice, but a power in his spirit – about how inspired he is with his mother. About how 90% of rapes aren’t reported the first time. How, when he came to her as a boy with his story of abuse, she believed him the first time. He honored her with the Purple Heart Award, and she beamed! She was so proud of her son! He was so proud of her! It was quite amazing to watch.
I teared up, myself, during this part. Something about him emphasizing the first time struck me as incredibly powerful. I certainly wish, when I came forward with my own abuse story, people would have believed me the first time. He made an important point – we have got to retrain ourselves as a society, to stop doing the abuser’s work for them. To stop minimizing, to stop shoving people into “victim” boxes, when what they are doing is actually heroic.
I was impressed with the desserts. The food was all fantastic, and Chaz Dean was the main sponsor. He looked sleek and stylish and his table was extremely well groomed – don’t worry.
Alexander from West Hollywood Gateway, with Desireé, and my date, Steven Reigns.
Steven was named Poet Laureate of West Hollywood. It’s true! Okay, I’ll stop bragging about Steven. I was flattered he asked me. It felt like getting asked to prom. I spent last week walking on a cloud!
I was grateful, but my absolute favorite part of the day was watching 80 year old California Representative, Congresswoman Maxine Waters speak with the exuberance and stamina of a much younger person. She speaks with the clear, strong voice of someone who knows she is exactly where the universe wants her to be, because, in part, she bent the universe to her will, by climbing over, tunneling under, or going around any walls her opponents put in her path.
We were lucky enough to walk the five flights of stairs right behind Maxine. We weren’t too thrilled with the no-elevator-situation, but Maxine didn’t care. She may have mentioned getting some exercise in, but she was unflappable and determined, and by the time we reached the top floor we were all joking about what an incredible photo-op it would be, if next time the Congresswoman jet-packed in with Elon Musk. She has a sense of humor, but by the end of her speech, she made a metaphor about how, if she could take the stairs in life, the rest of us could, too. It’s fifteen minutes long, but she doesn’t stop to rest, and she doesn’t let up on the abusers. She is determined to see abusers like Brett Kavanaugh prosecuted for their crimes, and she is still determined to see the impeachment of this illegitimate, corrupt, racist dog-whistle blowing Presidential administration. She, among all politicians, is the only one who makes me want to stay and fight, and not emigrate to Europe. I can’t help it, there’s a 14 year old gay boy inside me that just loves her. She can do no wrong, in my eyes.
I’m incredibly grateful for the day, and for the reminder that yes, I love me.
Gregory is perplexed, and sort of chasing me up the hill. I’m not running, but it’s a steep climb and I’m race-walking. I don’t understand my powers yet -I can’t control them. In the years to come, I will learn that if emotionally triggered, or feeling slightly manic, raising my heart rate isn’t a good idea. Bad things happen when I do that.
Sweet Gregory is trailing behind me on the 59th Street Bridge. I am race-walking us to Queens. A mean plan has sprung up in my young mind. I’m going to make him walk me all the way home, then tell him to get back on the subway. I’m not going to sleep with him tonight, or any other night. He’s changing, and I don’t recognize him at all any more.
Which is fine. I don’t recognize myself, either.
A racing heart sits inside an awful, jealous, mean, petty version of myself. The quickening pulse thrums out my eardrums. Mania starts to rise; I’m too young to realize its power. Too young to know that if I let the mania swell too fully inside me, I can unleash a terrible force, Like Father, when he built Asteroid M. But, my powers are yet undefined. It’s 2001, and I don’t even know much about myself. All I know is that I’m different than other folks, and that I have to hide it.
An arctic, icy blast lights up behind my eyes. I pick up the pace. Gregory complains.
Hey! Why are you walking so fast? It’s the middle of the night! What’s the rush?
I’m so busy these days Sweet Gregory! I have a rehearsal tomorrow and an audition!
You said you weren’t rehearsing until Friday?
It’s another project, duh! I said I was busy! Keep up!
I don’t want Sweet Gregory to keep up. I want him to lag behind me forever, but his voice has developed two decades in the last nine months. He’s coming into his full power, and I don’t even know what my power is yet! It isn’t fair. He’s a spoiled brat from a wealthy family. That’s not who the arts should be for! The arts are for real artists who had to struggle to get where they are, not for pampered babies whose families paid for their every whim.
(No, that’s not true, another voice in my head suggests. The arts are also a place the rich place their black sheep family members. Their broken. The sociopaths that don’t have a flair for business.)
I think of the improv classes I’m taking. How I had to scrape money together at the end of the month for rent, how I kept taking classes. I think of the regional and Off-Off-Broadway musicals, sometimes for little or no money at all, just to get a chance to get some free voice practice in. Ice crystals form behind my eyes. A bluish-white whisper floats from my mouth. Sweet Gregory is confused. He notices a change in me, but he can’t place it. He’s out of breath. We keep rushing. He stumbles, but I don’t pause to help him, I race out front.
Come on! I have to get up early tomorrow, I say.
Gregory puffs and huffs behind me. Good luck with that golden voice, I think to myself. Maybe I’ll stick around and wear you out, Sweet, Sweet Gregory? Maybe, I’ll just keep you tired your whole life, so you can’t sing…
I sense something preternatural near me. A flash in my mind – two unctuous, undulating eels, twisting in East River silt, rutting up tree roots, sliding past rusting cans.
My third eye pops open. I’m linked now, with the two gargantuan eels. This happens sometimes when my powers take over. They link to whatever animals nearby that can use their base instincts to fuel my agenda. Most of the time it’s just birds, but sometimes it’s uglier animals, depending on now insipid I feel inside when the mania triggers. The third eye swells. My skin is gooseflesh. I pause. Blue white light.
Lead him to the top of the bridge, the eels whisper, I am two places at once. I am standing on the Queensborough Bridge with Sweet Gregory, and I’m cold, submerged in the inky water of the East River, amongst flotsam and jetsam, amongst moss and fishes, and discarded needles, river rocks, and sharper stones. Algae, particulate, brown earthy life, and two self-satisfied, overgrown, fear-driven eels.
Gregory catches up. Thank God you came to your senses!
I didn’t. And you thank God, Gregory! I don’t believe in your Catholic God who speaks an infallible voice through a man called the Pope. I don’t believe any of it!
It’s okay! It’s just religion! We don’t have to agree! Michael, what’s the matter with you tonight? You sang really well, back there! You’re funny! You know that funny people don’t have to learn to sing all that well? Think about all the character actors who make it on Broadway, just croaking out one song a night! It’s the dream job! Full salary for one fun song, and a few lines in the second act! Are you jealous?
Am I what???
Are you jealous of me?
Poison flows through my veins. Hatred pumped so quickly by my heart, fluttering and pounding away – endless pounding in my very soul – pounding deep into my core. Fuck you, Gregory – I’m not jealous. I feel sorry for you!
I didn’t stop so you could catch up, Gregory. I stopped so you could have a fair start. We’re racing to the top of the bridge. I feel my tongue splitting in twain as I say this. My tongue silver, my words, quick. I shift eye contact – right, left, right, left, right, left. Like a swinging pendulum on a grandfather clock. Eye to eye, I press into his mind, a bit, gently, I enter him. It’s easy. He doesn’t even know he has a third eye.
Race me up to the top!
Gregory looks uneasy, stunned, then his eyes glaze over, fuzzy, and he smirks.
Okay, he says, all Fairfield County, all bright and cheerful, but neutral underneath. It’s the tone of voice you might hear from someone who wants to talk about your problems endlessly, but offer no real solutions – it’s a classic politician’s voice – cheerful, smarmy. I’ve used my power to briefly create this moment, in order to make him chase me. It’s working. I feel in control again.
Okay? Ready, set, go!
He’s playing along now, and so am I. For a while I let us run neck and neck, but I’m a competitive swimmer, and I have been for more than a decade. Moreover, my mania will provide an adrenaline dump that usually lets me win a sprint. I’m fast. Gregory is taller than me but I pull away toward the top of the bridge. By the time I see his silhouette approaching, I’ve already climbed over the safety barrier. I’m perched at the apex of the bridge, with a slimy smile on my face. Two eels twisting inside my third eye. Two eels whisper to one another in the riverbed murk and muck, hundreds of feet below us.
Take it. Take him. We want a sacrifice. We need blood.
This takeover is unprecedented. I’ve approached animals before with my eye open, but I’ve never been hijacked like this. It terrifies me when my third eye opens on its own. I have to learn to control this. Go away! I’m shouting at the eels. Get out!
You asked us in! You can’t banish us until you grant a request. We require a sacrifice.
I don’t believe them. I think they’re lying. I clench my teeth; try to force my third eye closed. It moves a bit, then snaps back open. The eels giggle and hiss. Reflexively, I tighten my jaw again, and tear of a good sized chunk of my inner cheek.
We want blood… We need blood. We can’t get back on land unless you feed us. We’re trapped down here in the river.
Who are you?
We’re a little bit like you.
You are not like me.
No, not exactly. But we have powers like you. We could share.
I want you out.
We need blood, and we ain’t leaving.
Sweet Gregory approaches. He is red-faced and out of breath. Sweating through his Oxfords. He’s grinning.
Okay, okay, you win! Come down off there…
I’m not coming down, Sweet Gregory.
What? You’re nuts, come off it.
Come up here with me, Gregory.
Michael, I’m not coming up there. You could fall. If you fall you’ll die.
Gregory, life is about taking risks. That’s what I didn’t like about your song tonight. You sang it perfectly, but there wasn’t any risk in your voice. It sounded like you were doing something for the purpose of not being criticized, but it didn’t sound like you were pulling your own heart out. That song happens right before a character in the show leaves his home country to be with a foreign woman. You sang all the notes perfectly, but you didn’t tell the story.
Michael, I’m 22 years old. That role is written for a 40 year old man.
I want you to take a risk with me. Let’s jump into the river.
What?!?! No. Get down from there right now. This bridge is 350 feet tall, Michael. You’ll die if you jump.
I just read how someone jumped off last month and swam ashore.
Michael, did you also read that 70% of people who jump from this height, even into water, will die on impact? Because that’s an important part of the story, and I read the whole thing.
Make him join you, and push him in, the eels whisper to me, or, join him! We need blood to grow stronger – the more, the better. Both of you, strong bloods. Smells so good. Smells so powerful, crossing our river…
Help us. We won’t let you die, if you deliver us Sweet Gregory’s head, like the head of John the Baptist. We can reward you! We can show you how to control your powers!
You’re just like us, kiddo. Don’t you think we started off as people? Let us show you how to shape your own destiny. Let us unlock your power, and sip some for ourselves, to boot!
Brúttó. Þið tveir eruð ógeðslegir. Farðu úr huganum! Get out!
You’re the one who let us in. We require a blood sacrifice to leave. It’s simple. You can’t force us out until we get blood.
Gregory is nervous. He can tell I’m considering jumping, now, in a real way. He can tell he has caught me on an evening where I’m so full of self-loathing, I feel like I have nothing left to lose. He can tell I’m dangerous, but he still loves me, a little, and he wants me to stop threatening to jump off the 59th Street Bridge.
Michael, please come down.
Gregory, why are you going into journalism?
Michael, I have to tell you – I’m up for a job as an editor.
They really liked the articles I wrote for Show Music, and so it’s looking like I could be the editor of Next Magazine soon.
You’re an actor! You’re a great musical theater actor! That’s a local gay magazine that runs interviews with drag queens and has-been Broadway folks looking to rekindle something. Why would you leave the arts? Look – you can learn how to act better, but not everyone gets a voice like that, Gregory. Don’t waste it.
My father respects me now, Michael. It’s important to me. He doesn’t respect acting, as a career choice, but journalism! His son the editor? He respects it. What’s more, I can pay my rent doing it! I’m taking the job.
Bring him to us!
Gregory, come up here.
No. I don’t want either of us to jump off a bridge tonight.
Just come up. I promise not to jump, or try to talk you into it. Just take the risk with me. Just hang off the side of the bridge! It’s fun.
Gregory comes up past the safety rail to sit with me on an iron girder.
Push him. Push him over, and we’ll show you how to REALLY use that third eye.
I push my tongue into the gash I bit into my cheek – a thick viscous iron taste. Blood. My third eye swells. Sing for me, I say. Sing another song for me, Sweet, Sweet Gregory. From Chess? The show you sang from at the cabaret bar?
Gregory clears his throat.
Now, sing, I say.
“What’s going on around me
Is barely making sense
I need some explanations fast
I see my present partner
In the imperfect tense”
Keep him singing!
“And I don’t see how we can last
I feel I need a change of cast
Maybe I’m on nobody’s side
And when he gives me reasons
To justify each move
They’re getting harder to believe
I know this can’t continue
I’ve still a lot to prove
There must be more I could achive
But I don’t have the nerve to leave
Everybody’s playing the game
But nobody’s rules are the same”
Push him over to us! You’ll be so powerful!
“Nobody’s on nobody’s side
Better learn to go it alone
Recognize you’re out on your own
Nobody’s on nobody’s side
The one I should not think of
Keeps rolling through my mind
And I don’t want to let that go
No lover’s ever faithful
No contract truly signed
There’s nothing certain left to know
And how the cracks begin to show”
Join us. We work for powerful gods. They will reward you for unlocking us from this watery prison.
“Never make a promise or plan
Take a little love when you can
Nobody’s on nobody’s side
Never stay too long in your bed
Never lose your heart, use your head
Nobody’s on nobody’s side
Never take a stranger’s advice
Never let a friend fool you twice
Nobody’s on nobody’s side”
I place my hand on Gregory’s back. I slide it down to the small of him.
I could push him. I could end both of us.
“Everybody’s playing the game
But nobody’s rules are the same
Nobody’s on nobody’s side
Never leave a moment too soon
Never waste a hot afternoon
Nobody’s on nobody’s side
Never stay a minute too long
Don’t forget the best will go wrong
Nobody’s on nobody’s side”
I bite open my cheek. The blood runs into my mouth. I grab Gregory’s thigh. I could easily throw us both into the river. It would be so simple.
“Never be the first to believe
Never be the last to deceive
Nobody’s on nobody’s side
Never make a promise or plan
Take a little love when you can
Nobody’s on nobody’s side”
I widen my third eye. I spit the blood down into the abyss. It falls 350 feet to the surface of the river.
NO! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?? YOU FOOL!
Trance-like and slack bodied, I open a portal to Ragisland. I suck up the last notes of Gregory’s song into my Eye, immediately placing his voice inside a small, impish cherub statue a few miles south of my memory castle. I shoved the golden voice into the cracks in the little angel’s marble. The statue rests behind a waterfall, it makes a steady, constant sound vibration.
I’ve locked Gregory’s voice here, at the same moment as my blood sacrifice to those eels. Its mine now. I can always visit his voice. He won’t need it anymore, anyway.
I leave the waterfall, the statue, behind. In the cold spring, now, I thrust my fists into the water. I clench myself. My eyes turn opaque, translucent white icy blue. My jaw, slack, bluish white light from my mouth. The eels in my hands, squirming. I seize them. I’m ousting them from my memory castle. I take them to the portal, and fling them out of my mind, back into the East river to meet their oily bodies, rutting and churning up scrum.
The astral plane is closed, this portal sealed. The eels hiss and scream, and fight one another for the meager blood sacrifice I’ve offered. They wanted a five course meal, and I barely gave them a bite – but they got their blood.
This isn’t over, Michael Martin. We’re not going anywhere. We know who and what you are now. We have tasted you. We’ll never let this go.
Shut up, I hear myself say. You guys are real dicks. They slink off down the coast a bit
We climb down off the pylons. We’re back on the bridge. I tell Gregory to head back to Manhattan, but he insists on walking me to Queensborough Plaza to catch the 7 back to Manhattan. I feel affectionate toward Sweet Gregory again. I want to hold him and be naked with him again, but I can’t. Part of me doesn’t want to ruin the relationship I have right now (though it seems to be ruining itself). Part of me doesn’t want to corrupt him with my frantic, crazy, manic whatever-the-fuck is going on with me. My inner cheek is bleeding. I can’t control my third eye. I’m toxic right now.
Gregory hugs me at the station before heading up the stairs.
I’m proud of you, I say, and I’m surprised that I mean it.
I’m more proud of you, Michael. I know you’ll eventually make a living doing theater, or at least being funny! You’re perfect for that. I just need to do this. I like the idea of making a living now, and having my Dad’s approval.
You’re a better person than I am, Sweet Gregory.
No, I’m not! I have flaws! You’re a great person!
No, I’m not, I say, and I kiss him on the cheek.
He hurries up the stairs, but then over his shoulder – Yes, Michael. You are a great person! You’re exceptional!
You are, I say! I’m not a great person! I’m barely even decent!
Gregory doesn’t hear me. He disappears into turnstiles, fluorescent lights, ancient carved up wooden benches. His silhouette is distinguishable, for a brief moment, behind the opaque, tagged-up, art-deco glass panel that NYC’s yesteryear forgot to update. Behind the glass, his shadow merges with a sea of others. I can no longer sense his strong blood.
I walk the short distance back to my place in Long Island City. I stop worrying about the eels. I grind my tongue into my cheek and taste the blood already coagulating, already knitting itself together, patching my wound. The mania subsides.
I spend the wee hours of the morning in Ragisland, admiring a statue behind a waterfall. I’m listening to the vibratory hum of Tiny Gregory the Cherub mix with the sound of water showering down all around me, creating a shimmering barrier to hide us.
I was spending time with one of my Wizard friends, and now I’m teasing her about it. She’s fascinated with my friend Wendell, and has been ribbing me about how I’m hoarding access to him. Somehow, without being told, she can sense Wendell is training me in sorcery, and she’s envious. She wants in. But Wendell is here at Akbar with other pals – theater writers, performance artists, radical faeries et al – and I’m not about to bother him to teach us incantations, hand witchery, or request the tricky instructional task of opening dimensional portals.
It’s too much to ask at 11pm on a Monday.
The after-show is winding down; people are starting to remember to get tired. My band played a couple of songs, (at Ian MacKinnon and Travis Wood’s Planet Queer), and we’re all basking in the after-gloaming. The boys and I did well, and now’s the time we collect our accolades out front on Sunset with the smokers, travelers, fortune tellers, and ghosts. I’m pretty confident after tonight that our show on Sunday, July 29th (at 7pm! 10 bucks!) at the Satellite will be pretty tight. Everyone seems to be feeling pretty okay.
Then, for the second time in less than five days, there he is. Andy Goddamn Dick.
(She’s there too. The lovely blackberry-lipped pixie-faced girlfriend. The woman in the sundress from the first night. The one who kept storming in and out. She’s not angry tonight. She looks different, though, almost goth. She’s put together a simple outfit. Black shorts, tight, a matching halter top. Maybe that’s what it is. But she seems calmer tonight. More fluid. Andy is feeling gregarious. He’s shaking hands and saying hello to folks. I’m glad he’s feeling better – his cataclysmic #metoo resurfaced recently, but he seems less cagey than last time. I realize, he’s dressed just like her – that’s cute!)
Hey, I say to my wife, that’s the guy I was telling you about yesterday – Andy Dick from News Radio. Wanna meet him?
So, I call out to Andy. I wave. I don’t think he recognizes me, then, suddenly, he does.
Andy has always been such a bright light to me. Like me, it’s clear he has issues with his energy level, and maybe his is even worse than mine, now that I’ve encountered him a couple times? Sure, I have my hypomania flare ups, but he seems to be running pretty hot, pretty consistently. Then again, what the hell do I know? I never open the newspaper anymore. I can’t even do NPR in the car. It’s just silence and daydreams, and rattling around the old memory castle any time I have a long drive ahead of me. I just added a small, secret courtyard somewhere on the grounds. Not sure exactly what I’m going to put there. Possibly, a very fey Minotaur? A two-spirit Wendigo? The Thin Woman?
There’s still time to mull it over, I think, smirking. We only have the entire rest of our lives…
Andy comes over. I beam at him. Look who it is! Andy! Hey – I wanted you to meet my wife, Ann. Andy smiles. It’s genuine, but then his eyes narrow as he starts to shake her hand. I turn to try to introduce Lammy, but Lammy is just staring at Ann and Andy, his mouth agape. Lammy takes a while to process things, sometimes.
I think to myself, oh, maybe he’s still thinking about the show. You do that sometimes. If a show is particularly good, it can feel a bit like waking up from a dream, after, if there’s flow.
Lammy is suddenly alarmed. He points. I glance over at Ann, who looks horrified for some reason. Andy is smirking, impish, a sudden ugly, triumph in his eye. I don’t like this, but now Ann is rushing off, possibly to the lady’s room? I missed something. Lammy looks shocked. His head turns toward Ann, who is disappearing inside. Should I go see what’s going on with Ann, I ask? Lammy says, yes. That would be a great idea.
I catch her in the ladies room, wiping her ear out with toilet paper. She looks annoyed. There’s a smudge on her face I noticed earlier. One of the performers kissed her on the cheek and left burnt umber on her cheek. It looked sweet out in the street lights – like a kiss – but here in the ladies’ room, she’s rubbing it and it starts to smear into a bruise. Then, it fades – gone, entirely. She throws the toilet paper into the toilet. (Women love toilet paper. Good luck, if you sire three daughters; you’ll bankrupt yourself on toilet paper.)
She takes more, and wipes out her ear again.
Moments like this, you shouldn’t envy. She looks at me, and I look at her in the ladies room.
Did Andy do something?
Ann sighs. It seems like she is considering whether to speak to this at all. One of the things I love and respect so much about her is her incredible self-control, her wisdom about situations like these. Ann never comments unless she feels like engaging, which means, sure, you can ask her a question, but she never owes you an answer. Finally, though, she speaks.
He stuck his tongue in my ear.
Yes. It’s gross and tiresome.
(This, to me, seems like an understatement. There’s something in her body language that looks exhausted, beyond annoyed. There’s an awfulness just beyond her blue, orange flecked eyes, and it’s speaking to me. It’s saying, Michael – this is one of 10,000 instances like this. It’s saying, this is just a small part of a lady’s daily hassle. Indeed, I think to myself, gays inflict this vulgar, pathetic type of behavior on one another all the time).
Ann, I’m so sorry! I didn’t see it. I was trying to see if Lammy wanted to meet Andy too.
She shrugs and sighs. It’s getting late, she says, and gives me a crooked smile. Andy has moved into the bar, to continue his daily binge. We sidle past him quickly, trying not to raise his attention.
We get out into the fresh air. Ann is parked across the street. I walk her over to her car. We came separately tonight. We talk about Andy a little, and how it sucks that, even supposed safe spaces are sometimes inundated with predators. But mostly, Ann wants to talk about what a lovely mini-show Evil Mutants had, and what a supportive, generous community Planet Queer cultivates.
She’s being generous. I know she’s grossed out and she’s trying to make sure my evening ends on a good note.
(In other words, she’s being a good person.)
We talk about upcoming events, meals we need to plan for the week, and I tell her I’ll see her at the compound, or back on campus. We have nicknames for the estate we’re haunting these days.
I kiss her cheek; we say our goodbyes.
I wait outside on a bench with Lammy and a boy named Robin who’s flirting with him. Ann drives by and I wave, but she’s got her mind on the road. It occurs to me – She’s no Orpheus. She’s my wife, not Lot’s – this creature does not look back.
A snippet of parchment flies out of a dusty cabinet in my castle’s study anti-chamber. It’s a private study I put retired ideas, just off the King’s quarters. He needs to be near his early writing, so he can remember what Prince-hood was like.
Just like Orpheus, you’re heading down the Harefield Road.
Clear out the underbrush, someday you might emerge.
But like Lot’s wife, you couldn’t help but watch it grow.
Just be careful you’re not petrified….. by the suuuuuuuurrrrrge.
(breakdown and final chorus)
You looked back!
You looked back!
Your eyes were begging, (please, oh please,)
just cut the kid some slack!
You looked back!
You looked back!
With a glance you missed your chance.
I’m never coming back.
You looked back.
On the concrete, something I haven’t seen yet in California. Something I only ever think about in Florida – a Palmetto bug. It’s long and sleek and shiny. About two inches of hairy legs and antennae. They’re glorified roaches, but, to add a horrifying, odious layer – they can fly.
But, this one is languishing on the sidewalk, twitching, half squished. It’s clearly in the throes of death. It occurs to me – the most humane thing might be to kill it now, but there is a Buddhist principle in some sects that forbids this sort of thing. I consider the dilemma, but, presently, I have bigger cats to skin. I turn to Lammy, who seems to read my mind. What are you going to do, he asks?
Head inside, I say.
I enter the cool blackness of Akbar. Behind me I hear Lammy mumbling something which sounds like, good idea.
I’m not sure. Maybe Lammy was talking to me. Maybe he was inviting cute Robin into his memory castle. In any case, Lammy’s opinion about this isn’t relevant to me any longer. I’ve pulled the trigger.
My purpose seems off. I’m incomplete. I don’t feel whole.
There’s no integrity to me, since integrity just means wholeness, completion, strength of structure. None of that exists inside me, in this moment. A jealous monster sits in a cabaret bar, listening to Sweet, Sweet Gregory sing about crossing borders. A jealous monster feels small, threatened, insignificant. Beware, the out of work actor. His spirit holds an ugly birthday candle so paltry, the very thought of casting a shadow is nearly out of the question.
And most days, it won’t even try. It will just whisper out to Trouble in the middle of the night.
Gregory’s voice sounds like that of a man, but if a man were a god. I’m flat-out livid with jealousy. My skin is gooseflesh. Envy’s green kudzu has over-run the wild, round, smoky mountains of my heart, and winnowed me down into bayou swamp land. Much more of this, and I’ll widen out into the delta, disappearing into the deepest waters. I will go live in the magma canyons at the bottom of the ocean, with the strangest, most improbable fishes.
Gregory is singing and it feels like a rock salt blast to my belly.
I feel betrayed.
Greg is brazen these days. Defiant. Years have passed, he has enjoyed every inch of his artistic growth. And now, has now looked me up to flex his muscles. To show me he has surpassed me. And indeed, he has.
If ever was heard a perfect, operatically trained baritone, if ever was heard perfect pitch, it exists in 21 year old Gregory. Our summer affair has inspired him, I had thought, when re-connecting. I was worried he would be angry with me. Over the course of our summer, he taught me Alfredo sauce, opined philosophy, sometimes he even paid the check! I took his blue-blooded rosebud and showed him what a garden truly is. And, honestly, on the phone, it sounded fun. It sounded innocuous.
Sure, I broke his heart in an ugly way, when he went back to Boston College – but I thought that was forgiven? Obviously not.
Now, he has planned some just desserts for me. He’s showing me he’s better.
And he is.
He sings better than me. If a science existed to measure singing ability, it would be empirical fact – accepted law of nature – that Gregory is a much better singer than me. There isn’t any comparison. The gods don’t always have a fair hand when they give out gifts, a bitter nine year old inside me thinks to himself. A more forgiving twenty-something inside me thinks, who knows? Maybe I’ll even kiss him again?
Those kisses dry up and flake off my dashboard, though when he starts to sing. He creates that serendipity you need to really lull an audience. He really puts them in a trance. I’m simply jealous. I identify it immediately, and tuck it away in a quaint little shame pocket in my memory castle.
But, why should Gregory get all the singing talent? I know the words to write. I know how to tap into the Oracle of the Holy Spirit. Gregory learned a few tricks, sure, but so what? An ugly worm in my brain leaks out into a cobwebbed synapse.
The adrenal is thrumming. Lights flashing in my cortex. I see inky forest black -fragments.
SOS! May Day! Please send reinforcements!
(Aide-moi à avoir le petit mort, ma chère.)
A man, homeless, a shadowy figure, walks by spitting on the ground, pawing at mounds of carbuncle. He shrugs. I hate him, too. He doesn’t care. He gets to jump on the next freight train out of town – I have to deal with this garbage happening in my home base, my lair, my den. Fuck that guy. Picking at his face like a moron. No wonder he has nowhere to go.
We’re in a dive bar. It’s Rosie, Too on 10th ave. It’s the lowest-rent cabaret bar in NYC and it’s mine.
I’m the one who comes here and practices Sondheim songs, or improvises, or tries to sing REM. I’m the one who wants so badly to sing. I’m the one overcoming layers upon layers of self-hatred and shame, and trying – desperately always trying – to find my own voice. Even a rusty, hollowed out version would suffice. I chain smoke cigarettes because I want a voice like Billie Holiday. I soul search, and shoot dice in alley-ways to be like Tom Waits. I have sex in the Chelsea Hotel to be like Leonard. To be like Janice. Gregory did none of that.
A trusted friend of mine in college once leveled with me and told me I would never get paid to sing, that I’d be much better off just doing “straight theater.” I laughed and defined “oxymoron” for him. But, I internalized it. I tended to that piece of anger over the years, singing anyway, leaving college early. I go to New York first. I forgive the man who told me I would never get paid to sing, but I never, ever forget. I wrote it all down. I’m getting behind myself. Ahead. I’m manic, and I’m blurring borders. Everything mixes together, and I’m shadowed by The Man With the Lacerated Face on the N train. He’s in my traffic pattern, and always staring at me from a threadbare green hoody.
I walk Long Island City. I argue with my boyfriend. I can feel him slipping away, and I trigger arguments so I can go have seven gin and tonics at rowdy honky-tonks. Gregory isn’t coming at the most convenient time, but I’m glad to have the distraction.
Sweet Gregory takes me out to this cabaret bar, this offshoot of a much more centrally located bar called Rose’s Turn, on purpose, with a glimmer of mischief in his eye. He’s still beautiful. More so, now. Somehow, he has fast-tracked his artistic development. It must be the money, I think to myself. It must be his Rich Daddy paying for opera lessons. Gregory was bright and boyish, kind – when he showed up this afternoon, and I can tell he means me no actual harm, but I’m working against an ugly Minotaur and an impossible labyrinth of a heart.
I’m happy at home, with Lovely Jeffrey, but Lovely Jeffrey is graduating soon, and his heart isn’t really in theater. I’m going to be alone again. Forlorn. Abandoned. It’s fine, though. I’m good at being alone. I don’t get lonely. I practice.
Sweet Gregory is bringing the house down. He has the audience in his rapt spell: an upstart young mage has now become a full fledged sorcerer. And what am I? Wizened, bothering these nice folks once a week with my improvised songs? Trying to see if, magically, without any formal training, I can produce an evocative Bessie Smith cover? Trying to sing women’s songs from Mack and Mabel, and surprised I’m not getting the same effect an alto would? I’m a fraud and a liar and a poseur. Sweet Gregory is the real star. How did this happen in two years? Gin, I think to myself, but I know it’s deeper than that. I start to think of my energy level. How I always have to hide my special powers. Gregory interrupts.
He sings a song called Anthem, from a show called Chess:
[THE RUSSIAN] No man, no madness Though their sad power may prevail Can possess, conquer, my country’s heart They rise to fail She is eternal Long before nations’ lines were drawn When no flags flew, when no armies stood My land was born
And you ask me why I love her Through wars, death and despair She is the constant We who don’t care And you wonder will I leave her — but how? I cross over borders but I’m still there now
How can I leave her? Where would I start? Let man’s petty nations tear themselves apart My land’s only borders lie around my heart
Chess is my musical. I’m the one who wanted to play the Russian. This is completely unfair. The vile, vulgar fink. No, he’s just Sweet Gregory, I chide myself. Where is your Holy Spirit? Can’t you find some sort of generous part of yourself? That’s your friend. You were his first friend. Be kind.
The crowd roars with approval, and what’s worse, what hurts even worse – Sweet Gregory baited me into this situation. I had mentioned singing here over the phone, and one could almost hear the gingham in his voice when he said, “Oh, maybe we should go try it?” All crisp and nonchalant, with old Loki behind it, winding up to become his trickster self. Pretending he’s going to help his brother, but actually making things more complicated and treacherous – just for fun. For the sake of chaos. Sweet Gregory looks like Iago, or Rasputin, or Walter Raleigh. Some person who just wants to seize the world without even knowing what the borders are.
Tense. Staunch. Conservative. Uncompromising. Gregory. No more Greggie Sweet Sweet, I think to myself, and toss a few flowers over my shoulder that I picked. Tulips on Madison avenue, outside Chanel. Across from St. Laurent.
Whereas I am simply militant. I’m a dingy, militant queer.
You could almost think he set me up, letting me introduce him to the actors, vagabonds, liars, show-folk, who work here. A rogue’s gallery! Dark skinned sirens in a cowboy hats, drinking ‘adult tea’ out of ceramic coffee cups. A brunette, buxom Greek girl with pure platinum confidence and golden engraved pipes. A jittery piano player, over-caffeinated, flirting, drinks way too much, pees way too much in the ladies room, which has a lock on the door.
“It’s a single service ladies room, and it’s a girl’s only hope for a quiet, private moment to powder her nose.”
This place isn’t Carnegie Hall, sure, but it’s dusty and somehow safe, even in the Maelstrom of west Hell’s Kitchen. ‘Clinton Hills,’ a real estate agent tried to coin it, but it didn’t stick, mostly because Bill moved up to Harlem. No doubt Bill was chasing other hills than I was. Believe me. Believe me.
This melange of joggers, pimps, mailmen, addicts, tarot-readers, street performers, beggars, clerics, and whores. Right near the West Side highway, and it’s sweet, cool, rocky waters. It’s a small offering of light, in an otherwise ugly economy, but it’s mine, and these people like and respect me.
Gregory has ruined this.
He insists I go first.
I do something stupid. Comedy. My old bag of tricks. Something that gets some chuckles. Maybe I was a sea-witch singing about Unfortunate Souls, vamping and bragging about how much I like to help people, how every boon comes with a sacrifice. How, I can steal a voice and take that power and make it mine! The audience likes me. They love a Funny Girl like me. Odd, and cute, and flirty. A little weird. Maybe a pupa or a larvae. Maybe spinning a cocoon?
But, then, right after my turgid attempt at camp – an arch-angel. Connecticut’s own blessed Gregory, with the placid, kind eyes of a cow. Singing like a goddamn virtuosic savant. Fuck me.
I don’t deserve to even be here.
He’s had two Manhattans – “Never more than two drinks,” he says, all Cape Cod and Old Saybrook. “Yeah right, at least never in the same location, on the same night!” I chortle, Gregory laughs along. He’s confused. Why am I being sardonic? Aren’t I having fun?
I’ve had too much by now. I’m jealous, and everyone knows jealously is just a mixture of fear and anger, mostly fear. Add a healthy dose of regret, and a few carefully placed blames, and you’ve got a really poisonous concoction. A really deadly venom. I want away from the jealousy. I make an excuse, and pay the tab.
There is a secondary thought. There are two ways to get rid of jealousy. You either love it away, or you fight it away – that’s the paradigm. I grab my things.
Where are we going, Gregory wants to know?
Do you like dares?
I’ve played truth or dare once or twice.
I dare you to follow me on a walk.
Where are we going?
Anyplace I hang my hat.
Stop it, be serious, Barbra.
I’m not Barbra, or Liza, or Judy. I’m not any of those folks. I’m not Mike Nichols, or Sartre, or Plato. Okay?
Michael, slow down! I’m coming, but don’t walk so fast! Let me grab my cardigan.
I don’t slow down! Come on! Let’s go! Did Michelangelo slow down, or was he hyperactive? Did Michael Cunningham slow down or did he write The Hours with mild bi-polar? Did Michael Jackson slow down, or did he run around the world telling his story, and singing his songs? I don’t slow down, Sweet Gregory – you catch up! 8th avenue now, Broadway, Park, Madison, 3rd, 2nd, 1st, York.
What is the point of this, Michael? Did you like my song? I sang it for you. You said you liked it. It was a surprise.
It was perfect.
Haha, no. No, it’s not perfect but I worked on it with a coach.
No, it was perfect. The singing was perfect.
What does that mean?
I don’t want to tell you.
What does it mean?
What do you mean?
I mean – that was a fine vocal exercise, Sweet Gregory. But you didn’t act the song. You just sang it perfectly.
But, that’s what training is! I did a professional show. I did Pippin and I was one of the leads!
So what? You did one show? I’ve done fifty at least.
(I’m lying now. Maybe at this point I have done 30 shows. I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing! The ugly toad inside my gut is croaking like Louisiana voodoo.)
Sweet Gregory is patient. Sweet Gregory chases me through the streets and to a bridge. The Queensborough Bridge. We start the incline. I’m going to make him walk me home again. Farther this time. 7 miles at least. I can outpace him. His feelings are hurt from my insult, and his confidence lags. Now, I finally feel powerful. Now I’m closing in. Gregory is telling me about journalism now. How, making a difference in the world is much more manly than doing theater. How he feels empowered, and self-actualized in that sphere. I scoff. Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs? Uh, no thanks. I took Intro, I’m good.
Who filled your head with such nonsense?
(There is a pause.)
“Michael. You’ve heard me speak of my father.”
“Sometimes, when I can focus enough to listen. ”
“You know, then, that I’ve invited him to every show I’ve ever done – which, by the way, is many more than just the one professional musical I just finished.”
“Okay, so what? People don’t always go to shows. It’s not for them, anyway, it’s for you.”
Gregory stops and tries to reach me. He grabs my shoulders and stares at me. He goes pretty deep. It’s intense.
“Michael, this isn’t about you. This is about me and my father. He came to my musical and he wasn’t impressed. He wants me to do something. Useful.”
“Oh really?” I ask, cheerful and bright, but underneath that, a horrible Cain raises a scythe against a Sweet Brother, coveting God’s favor of his immense, glorious bounty.
“Tell me more about what your father wants” I say, and I bound up onto the bridge.
I’m baiting Sweet Gregory to follow me to Queens. He springs my trap. We are laughing, hysterical, raw, unfettered as we race each other up the bridge. Squall and squalor behind us. Water underneath. Concrete. The air all around. The heavens above.
“You tell me,” I say to Sweet Gregory.
“Tell you what?”
“You tell me about your father, and I will tell you about bridges.”
Flotsam and jetsam swirl in the garbage laden river underneath us. It won’t cost much, I think to Sweet, Sweet Gregory, as I lure him to the apex of the bridges curve.
Just your voice.
It’s the best voice. I know all the best voices. These voices, have you seen the voices we have around here? We’re going to have the best voices. Believe me. Believe me. There’s a few people, my NRA people, that might get a little cagey come November, but we have good voices.