Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Torch Song Soliloquy

Anne Lamott
I let my father’s call go straight to voicemail. This was our pattern: my phone would ring and the same fear I’d always felt for him would emanate from deep within my bowels. I refused to answer. I let my stomach settle while I found the courage to listen to his latest defamation. And he supplied ample reason for fear—he was so clever at inventing new ways to remind me of my shortcomings. I never seemed good enough, or smart enough, or talented enough to be worthy of his praise. No matter what I did (or how well I did it), I always proved to be his greatest disappointment. Lather, rinse, repeat. Needless to say, I did not call him back very often. Honestly, the opportunity to choose the circumstances under which we spoke was far and above the most rewarding benchmark of my adulthood. I was no longer living under his roof; therefore, I was no longer to be subjected to his foamy-mouthed rants. At least that’s what I thought. Maintaining that fantasy, however, required more imagination than did the creation of the worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin combined.   

It was two days after Thanksgiving. I had just returned to NYC from Baltimore where I’d made the obligatory my-mom’s-green-bean-casserole-is-better-than-your-mom’s- green-bean-casserole (even-though-they-both-got-it-off-the-back-of-the-French’s-Onion-Straw-canister) visit. Only this year, I had brought a guest. His name was Robert. He was 22 and he was super-cute. He had wavy blond hair, cherubic cheeks, and he liked me almost as much as he liked his collection of original Broadway cast recordings. As it so happens, the sweet boy was from California and he couldn’t afford a plane ticket home. Well, I wasn’t about to let him spend the quintessential family holiday without a family! And, frankly, we’d been dating for 4 months, so it was pretty sure he was “the one.”

When I called ahead to tell my mother to set an extra place at the table, I could sense her reluctance from several states away. Still, being a Jewish woman, she suffered in relative silence (which is how they retain the right to complain very loudly about the other side of the coin at a later date). While she may have had to bite her cheek until she tasted blood, she told me Robert was welcome. Honestly, she wasn’t the one who cared; in fact, she was so happy that she barely even mentioned that he wasn’t good enough for me. We both knew that it was my father who would be the hurdle. But I was tired of walking on eggshells. I was an adult now and I had made my decision: if my father was going to love me in spite of what he feared in me the most, this would be his chance. I hung up the phone with a certain unease. I knew full well that I had likely caused an earthquake in the ocean and left my dear mother to brace herself for when the waves hit the shore.

But all that plywood we’d used to board the proverbial windows went to waste. Thanksgiving dinner passed without incident. The dining room table remained upright. No food was thrown (with the exception of some scraps that were willingly tossed to the dogs). We ate, we drank, we were merry. Give or take. My father played his usual role of “Morose Onlooker” with great panache. But, to be fair, even if you were building a fence in the rain you wouldn’t have to deal with such a stick in the mud. At these family events, he often looks on us as if we were the commercials that interrupting whatever he’d rather be watching; in mid-conversation, you can see his mind get up and walk to the fridge to fix itself a sandwich. But, despite dad’s typically bad attitude, Robert seemed as welcome as anybody else.

But the dining room was never the true affront to the old man’s senses. That was upstairs, tucked in between the sheets of the bed that Robert and I would share. While my father never opened his mouth to say as much, he made it clear in passing glances that the notion of us together made his skin crawl. I put my acting degree to good use pretending not to care. Besides, in this particular case, he had nothing to fear but fear itself; the situation in general was a major turn-off. Also, it didn’t help that the bed we were sleeping in creaked like a shack in a windstorm.

The remainder of the weekend went peacefully. We did a little sight-seeing in DC, ate some leftovers, did some Black Friday shopping at the mall—you know, enjoyed the things you miss about suburbia when you’ve been gone for more than a year. Before we knew it, our time was up. My mother drove us to catch our bus to NYC. All in all, the trip was a success. We had a good time and my father hadn’t said any noticeably untoward remarks in the three sentences I heard mutter during our stay. Perhaps he was finally willing to admit that I was capable of living my adult life without bringing our ancestors any explicit shame.

It wasn’t until I hit Fifth Avenue that I realized what I’d mistaken for clear weather was merely the eye of the storm. My cell phone buzzed in my pocket. It was a call from home. I figured it must be my mother telling me I’d left a pair of socks behind. Boy, was I mistaken.

It was my dad. I let him get out two sentences before my instinct for self-preservation hung up the phone. “If you think I don’t know what you are, then you’re sick in the head. And what you are is disgusting.” Usually, when my father was angry, he was unbearably loud. But this time he sounded so delicate, so composed, so calculated—like when I was three years old and he helped me to memorize our address and phone number in case I was ever lost. All the while he whispered his affront, I could hear my mother crying in the background.

At first, I was confused. I twisted my face after I hung up the phone like it was a wrong number. Robert asked what happened and I laughed. I mean, I kind of had to. My father had known I was gay for years. I came out to my mother when I was 16. For an acting showcase at my high school, I performed a monologue from Harvey Fierstein’s groundbreaking (and overtly homosexual) play “Torch Song Trilogy”. We discussed that I wasn’t just acting. She relayed the news to my father. Or at least I thought she had. But my father spoke to me was as if he’d been insulted by the news for the very first time. Robert and I kept on with our shopping; I wouldn’t let this ruin my day. That night, I washed my anguish down with a Unisom and some Diet Coke. I lulled myself to sleep by envisioning myself floating on a raft. The farther I went downstream, the farther my sadness was left behind.

The next morning offered the promise of a brand new day. The alarm went off and my feet started their routine shuffle. It wasn’t until I was stood too long in the shower that I realized Lever 2000 can’t wash away regret. I couldn’t stop hearing the tone in my father’s voice. It kept repeating like declensions. “What you are is disgusting.” “You are disgusting.” “Disgusting.” His gentle sound was louder than anything on my commute. I could hear it over the show tunes blaring on my iPod. I heard it was clearer than the screech of the subway train. It was even louder than the morning din of deliveries in Times Square.

At the time, I was working as the receptionist for a Broadway theater owner and operator. The office was on 44th Street right above the St. James Theater. It was magical; the entrance to our building was also the theatre’s stage right crossover. During the last few months of “The Producers”, I would have to pass through a parade of showgirls with sausages on their heads just to get to the elevator. And nothing was more exciting than when “Gypsy” was playing on the stage below. I had a security monitor on my desk that showed me the comings and goings in that vestibule. Between scenes, Patti LuPone herself used to come offstage and plop down in a folding chair. It became an office-wide event to watch her on Wednesday matinees. I even made a border for the monitor made out of construction paper and flyers for the show. We called it “Patti Cam”. It was magnificent. One out of every ten calls I fielded was from someone I’d only read about in books. And, while picking up phones wasn’t ultimately the job I wanted to have, I knew that this company was where I needed to be. Occupying that desk would eventually lead me somewhere bigger and better.  Yet, while I was there, my father referred to me as, “The Professional Bagel Fetcher,” which felt really awesome…

That Monday after Thanksgiving, the office was in full swing. Christmas is a very busy (and profitable) season for Broadway, and with everyone having just returned from a four-day weekend, my phone was ringing off the hook. Despite the repetition of my new mantra, “What you are is disgusting,” I pressed through. And then, in the thick of it, my cell phone rang. It was my father. No, thank you. I let him ring to voicemail; whatever the hell it was he had to say, I didn’t need to hear. The phone chirped again after he’d left a message. My heart fluttered and I felt flush. Of course my curiosity got the best of me. I put the reception system on “break” which deferred all incoming calls to other secretaries on the floor. With an eager reluctance, I reached for my phone. My father delivered this news:

“I wanted you to know that you are no longer a member of this family. I will personally see to it that any inheritance you were ever to receive does not come to you. You know, they say a faggot lives a lonely life. Well, start living it.” CLICK.

The smile I had plastered on my face that morning withered and collapsed. All my senses surrendered to my immediate sorrow. The blood rushed from my brain to my toes. I went numb. Still, for some mysterious reason, I saved that voicemail. It was as if I would need to hear it again for it to be true—that should I ever dare to be happy again I would just need to listen to that to remember from whence I came. I got up from my desk and the tears started to fall. I rushed to the bathroom. I needed to disappear, to hide, to no longer exist; I had never felt so ashamed. And there I stood, glaring at my ugliness in the mirror, splashing water in on my face so I couldn’t tell where my tears ended or began. As a son, as a man, and as a human being, I had failed.

It took a few minutes, but I pulled myself together. I didn’t have a choice. I got my breathing under control and painstakingly reapplied my fail-proof smile. What can I say? I was still in my early 20’s and fake-it-till-you-make-it was all I knew. I sincerely believed then that, in such a moment of severe sadness, all you had to do was smile and eventually you’d deceive your emotions into thinking that happiness was true. For weeks afterward, my face was a paradox. I perpetually wore this big, dopey, put-upon smile while tears were still marred the corners of my eyes. But, for the time being, I needed to get back to work. I took the phone off “break” and, within seconds, my switchboard was aglow.

The very first call I answered was what revived my soul. The voice on the other end was unmistakable. I would have recognized that gravelly bellow had I just awoken from a coma. I couldn’t believe it; it was Harvey Fierstein. This was around the time that “A Catered Affair” was coming to Broadway and he needed to speak with my boss. I transferred the call. And then I started laughing. What are the odds? I came out to my mother at 16-years old with the help of that same man. This volcano explodes nearly a decade later, I’m completely head to toe in lava, and the first person I speak with after is Harvey Fierstein. I knew in that instant I was going to be fine. So what if I was a faggot? I was going to live my life like Harvey; I was never going to apologize for that again.

Honestly, this new dictum from my father changed nothing in our relationship. As far back as I could remember I didn’t need him. At seven years old, I was the one who scraped up my knuckles removing the training wheels from my bike. The other kids kept making fun of me because I was too old to still need them. But more than I cared what they thought, I craved freedom. I cannot begin to tell you how many times I busted my ass; it’s a lot harder to find your balance when your dad isn’t there to hold you steady by the seat before letting you go. It was me out there alone, with no helmet, eating a shit ton of dirt.

A few weeks after that voicemail, I received a letter in the mail. It was from my father. I still have it somewhere because I never throw anything away (and I might need to read it again someday to prove that this actually happened). In a roundabout way, he apologized for what he said. He told me that bringing Robert home with me for Thanksgiving had confronted him with my “lifestyle.” He panicked and lashed out inappropriately. I wrote him the letter following in return:

“I like to think that I will never have to directly address the horrible things you said to me in that phone call. Rather, I like to think that, if there is any justice to be granted in the great beyond, your actions will be dealt with in consequences far beyond my means. There’s a special place in hell for people that make their children feel unloved. And for as disappointed as you always seem to be in me, I return that sentiment to you ten-fold.”

Last week, I got married. After quite a lot of sturm and drang, my father decided to attend. It was all very stressful for me, this will-he-won’t-he bullshit he put me through. He just can’t help himself: even when he tries to do the right thing, he has to do it all wrong. Ultimately, it was one of his golf buddies that got him there. He told my father that if he ever wanted to be a part of my life, he needed to go. His golf buddy was right—if my father didn’t attend my wedding, I was fully prepared to return the favor when it came time for my father’s funeral. But, perhaps you’ll be glad to know that, in the past decade, my relationship with my father has recovered enough for us to co-exist in the same space. Mostly that’s for the sake of my mother. Still, we only talk maybe twice a year—and, frankly, that’s plenty.

Yet as often as I pretend this doesn’t hurt me, the world at large can see quite clearly that’s a lie. There are times when it is just as painful at 33 as it was at 22 or even 7. We live perpendicular lives, yet every time our paths cross, I am resigned to feeling like little more than a stranger. That lends itself to a particular sadness that I assume I will always feel. But if you ever dare to ask me about it, you’ll be met with a treacly fake smile.

Last week someone dear to my heart was introduced to my father. Throughout their brief interaction, my father refused to smile. My friend said to me afterward, “How can someone so sour have raised someone as charming as you?” I laughed. “That man didn’t raise me.” As far as I’m concerned, my grandfather raised me. Danny Tanner raised me. JD Salinger, and Atticus Finch, and Stephen Sondheim, and Andy Warhol raised me. Harvey Fierstein raised me. And, despite whatever the hell my father has to say, I think they did a damn good job.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Je Suis un Candélabre

As many of you likely know from my effusive self-congratulations on social media, I’m currently playing Lumiere in a production of “Beauty and the Beast”. It really has been one of those, dare I say, “enchanted” experiences (shut up; you love it).  Now, in case your parents forgot to supply you with a childhood, Lumiere is the candlestick. He harbors a contentious relationship with his best friend, the constipated clock, and is constantly trying to feel up the feather duster. The only problem? He doesn’t have hands because… well, because he’s a candle. 

In order to transform me from your run-of-the-mill two-armed schlemiel into a debonair candelabrum, I have to carry “candles”. These candles, like my performance, are far from subtle. They’re these big honking things. Each houses two buttons: one for lights (red and yellow LEDs) and one for a fan that blows a piece of flame-shaped fabric. From a gander, you’d guess they weigh at least 10 pounds. Mercifully, they only weigh 3.25 pounds (trust me, I’ve put them on a scale). And while they may not be as heavy as they look, three hours of swinging them over my head and smiling like my left shoulder isn’t trying to kill me from the inside out does eventually take its toll. Thankfully, the audience often acknowledges my herculean efforts.  

People ask me constantly, “Do your arms hurt from holding those things?”  Without any exaggeration, I hear this question at minimum three times a night. I’m not joking. Every other table in the restaurant asks me this—and those who don’t are eavesdropping when I respond to those who just did. 

My response is entirely reflexive—at this point it’s almost like saying “God bless you” after I hear a sneeze. “In a word: yes,” I’ll chuckle. Or, “At least I don’t have to do push-ups anymore!” and we all have a laugh. Or “If you have stock in Aleve, I’m going to make you a millionaire!” This perpetual loop has become so much a part of my existence over these past few months that I've begun to worry; if no one asked about my arms, would I just cease to be?

But this isn’t the only thing that inquiring minds want to know. As you may recall from the original animated film, Lumiere is the only character (except Babette) who speaks with a French accent (even though the movie is set in France). The reason behind this is pretty cut and dry: he has a French accent because Jerry Orbach felt like doing one (and who could say “no” to Jerry Orbach?). So, it’s his fault that every Lumiere since has had to spackle it on thicker than bouillabaisse. Either that, or he’s a complete and utter letdown.

This is all your fault.

It’s mostly kids who ask me, “How did you learn that French accent?” My response to this is programmed, too. Only, with this question, I offer no variety. Everyone gets the same answer: “My grandfather was French.” This usually satiates their curiosity. They nod and smile and get back to whatever world they were living in before they met me. And I walk smiling because I know that my grandfather would be over the moon. The only thing is… it’s a lie.

Much to his (and Adolf Hitler’s) disappointment, my grandfather was actually born in Berlin. As a young tot, he learned to walk on soil he was told did not belong to him. After all, he was a Jew. And when the pogroms on Kristallnacht destroyed what property his family did own—a clothing store—his father, mother, and brother fled for safety in Paris.

It wasn’t long after their migration that France (all too easily) fell to the Nazi regime. As the Nazis took power, they requested that the local government supply a list of all Jewish men. They were to be deported—sent to work in the camps. But in their eagerness to show compliance to their new overlords—and, I’d wager a guess, due to anti-Semitism of their own—the French went a step beyond. Instead of supplying a list of the men as requested, they included women and children as well. Every Jew was marked. 

Well, that wasn’t what the Nazis had asked for because that wasn’t what the Nazis could handle. The overwhelming numbers put a kink in their killing machine. While the men would have been sent to work, this overwhelming number of people was just a nuisance. They needed to be dealt with. And swiftly. That meant certain death for almost all. (The Nazi’s left the Jews of Paris to swelter without food or toilets for days in a bicycle arena until they knew what to do. You can read all about it in the novel “Sarah’s Key”.)  

I'm may (or may not) be related to people in this photograph.

On that fateful day when the Jews were told to report, my 13-year old grandfather—named Fritz—trundled what little he could carry. Not too far ahead, the cattle cars were waiting. My great-grandparents approached the man with the clipboard. They proudly spoke their names. After all, what else did they have? 

After each name, the man with the clipboard placed a check. “Kurt,” (father), check. “Else,” (mother), check. “Hans,” (brother), check. “Fritz…” The man with the clipboard turned the page. He looked confused. And then he turned the page back. He traced his finger along the list. “Fritz?” they repeated. But it wasn’t there. His name had been left off the list. A clerical error had been made. Because of this, his was the only life in his family to be spared. This happens to be the only reason that I exist. As he watched his family carted off to what would be their eventual murder, my grandfather looked at that Nazi with the clipboard. He asked him one simple question. “What do you suggest I do?” to which the Nazi calmly replied, “I suggest you run.”

So he did. Pushing his was back through the crowds he began racing through the streets of Paris. In a short while, he found himself at the hotel where his family had been living. He stepped into the lobby and encountered a familiar face. It was the hotel’s concierge, a woman called Madame Bertand. She was holding an orange. When she saw him, she immediately began to cry. “I never thought I’d see you again. Here,” she gestured, “have an orange.” She hid him in an attic until the war was won.

From then on, he never wanted to be called “Fritz”. The sound of it was rough and far too German. So, he changed his name to “Andre”. That matched his new identity; like him, it was infinitely more French.

After the war, he moved out of the attic and into a bed at an orphanage. But due to the great influx of war orphans, they gave him the boot on the day he turned 18. He had nowhere to go. So, naturally, he became a stowaway on a potato boat heading toward America.  And, for the rest of his life, whenever someone questioned his (thick) accent, he’d wipe his palms on his trousers and make a long story short. He simply told them he was from France. After all, it was the country that made him man. That lie, and a good cognac, brought him such joy. So, on his behalf, every time someone asks me about my French accent, I’m going to say it was his. That’s the type of lie that deserves to survive another generation.

The other night, a woman in the lobby made my heart smile. We were chatting after the show and she enthusiastically exclaimed, “It’s like this is the part you were born to play!” Oh, if she only knew.

Monday, November 17, 2014


 I got to the airport with too much time to spare, none of which I’d relegated to saying a fond farewell to Baltimore because, frankly, if you have nothing fond to say... As my mother pulls to the side of curb, I get out of the car with a shrug. I happen to be slightly too young and unworldly to remember the romantic bygone days when your loved ones could still walk you to your gate. It’s only in movies that you still see someone at departures with their handkerchief drawn, hooving on a Benson and Hedges while tearfully kissing their so-and-so goodbye. Farewells—bittersweet or otherwise—are now to be delivered in the driveway loop outside of check-in while taxicabs speed by. Romance at the airport dead. It’s cold, and not just for November.

My mother’s car idles while I hug her out of love and obligation. As I do, I shudder at the thought that we may never see each other again; after all, I could be found floating face first among the wreckage in the Thames. But the thought of a last goodbye makes me feel alive. It’s frivolous and natural—a romantic notion born of neuroses, but romantic nonetheless.

A kind lady in a vest standing behind a counter whisks my luggage away. Her round face and rosy cheeks give the impression that her kitchen is covered wall-to-wall in calico and whicker, geese frolicking through a meadow on every paper towel. She refuses to turn over her shoulder as my bag disappears down the belt. Meanwhile, I want to wave. Like my mother, I have no choice but to assume that I will may see it again. The vested cherub offers me some consolation. “It will be waiting for you in London,” she smiles, my cue to step aside.

So I do. Breezing through security, I follow the signs to a stool at the nearest bar. The guy slinging drinks bears a striking resemblance to the Native American dude who throws a drinking fountain through the window at the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The glass looks small in his hand as he pours me a Bloody Mary that contains more horseradish than it does alcohol. I chew the first sip. With nothing else to occupy me, I take out my phone so I can snap a picture of my cocktail. It doesn’t matter that I’m lonely and overwrought, Facebook has earned the right to know precisely how happy I’m pretending to be. Nine people “like” my post in the first five minutes. That’s validation enough. For now.

My phone in hand, a notification pops up from Scruff-- a dirty gay app where dirty gay people meet each other to do dirty gay things. A handsome, bearded gentleman who is less than 250 feet away wants to say hello. He’s cute—stocky, masculine, broad—all the attributes that would drive me wild if I wasn’t drinking alone in the airport at one in the afternoon. I have no real intention of meeting him, so when I see him walk by, I hide my face against a wall. He sends a disappointed message that his plane is boarding at gate D14. I get up from my stool to watch his disappearing act. He sees me standing there. He waves. When he smiles his sad smile, my ribcage puffs up before collapsing altogether. Like my mother and my luggage, I am sure that I will never see him again. It's a lovely feeling: perhaps romance at the airport isn’t dead-- it just flies standby

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Toward the Light


When my teacher put her open palm on my shoulder, I spooked.  It was during quiet reading in the years before teachers put tennis balls on the bottom of their classroom’s chairs, so my reaction caused quite a stir.  My classmates put down their open books and stared at me with a collective yawn, not interested enough to care, but undeniably more interesting than EB White.

My teacher smiled down at me like Mrs. Butterworth. “Jeremy, dear- you’re wanted in the guidance counselor’s office.” I blinked back at her from beneath my bangs. “Do you know where that is?”

“Yes,” I mumbled, somewhat seriously. I could never forget where the guidance counselor's office was.  She was right next to the nurse’s office where I sat only a few months prior as the unwilling star of CSI: Sawdust Edition after vomiting all over the art room floor (which, to this day, I still blame on the rancid smell of tempera paint).   

“Good.  You can leave your things.”

When I stood, the chair jerked again and I shamefully tiptoed out of the room, longing for a ball of fire and a trap door. My first steps forward into the empty hallway were deliberate, just like Dorothy when she starts her journey on the Yellow Brick Road back where it’s still swirled with Red Brick. 

When I reached her door, I was too scared to knock so I pushed it open instead.  Sitting across from Mrs. Schwartz, to my surprise, was my mother.  At first I felt somewhat betrayed.  To my recollection, it was the first time I had ever seen my mother in the building and now she'd decided to call on Mrs. Schwartz without even a passing mention to me.  Did they even know each other?  When I had to be walked home after throwing up in art, my mother was at work and had to send the elderly neighbor man to come and get me who, despite my intestinal turmoil, offered me a hard candy that he had pilfered from the bank. 

I could hear blood rush to my ears as my mother patted an empty chair next to her without looking me in the eye.  There was a crumbled tissue in her hand.  She had been crying.  I knew that it was my fault. 
“First, I want you to know that you’re not in any trouble,” Mrs. Schwartz began. 

I looked at my mother for assurance but she didn’t say a word.  Her gaze was fixed across the room on a display of colorful pamphlets with cartoon covers. 

“Your mother came to me today to ask if you and I could talk.  You’re not in any trouble; I just want to have a conversation. How does that sound to you?”  I could tell from the look on my mother’s face that I didn’t have the authority to say no.  Then again, at seven years old, you’ve just recently retained the authority to wipe your own ass, so your opinion is not often the first considered. 

With a nod, my mother excused herself into the hall, looking at the bottom corner of the door as it creaked shut behind her. 

Unfortunately, I knew exactly why I was there.  Don’t get me wrong, I was still tempted to play dumb but the lump in my throat that arose whenever an adult questioned me was kryptonite.  After several minutes of invasive questioning, Mrs. Schwartz determined that I was, indeed, a remarkably sad young boy. Not your average run-of-the-mill sadness, but something more impenetrable. 

She eagerly tried to determine a way to urge me to be a happier child and to put an end to my destructive sad tantrums which had brought my mother to her today.  When my mother re-emerged, we mutually settled on allowing me retrieve the mail from the mailbox that afternoon so I would have something to look forward to. If you would ask me to this day I would still tell you that my unhappiness had little to do with postal service.  It was something inherent, something that plagued my genetic code that would leave me gazing up at my stucco ceiling every night and rolling from side to side while I alternated between “why?” and “why me?” 

It was a difficult bargain but I gave in to his terms; one more bite of peas and I could be excused from the table.  I didn’t know if my mother had spoken with him about what had happened at school that day.  If she did, my father didn’t bring it up, which seems par for the course when you consider his parenting.

I was still gagging on a mouthful of green mush as I pushed my plate an arm’s length away.  

This time I was careful to not let my chair scrape the floor, but I still felt his eyes on the back of my head as I approached the screen door. I slid my fingers down the smooth part of the rusted iron rail as I climbed the steps to the backyard. 

When I reached the bottom, I began to run in breathless circles with wild abandon, aiming to disorient the generations of problems that trailed me from beyond my years.  It was the most alive I had felt all day and a smile crept into the corners of my mouth as I danced haphazardly among the fireflies.  They were so alluring, twinkling their Morse code mystery light for me to envy and never understand.   They were designed by God to be able to ward away the dark.  We had nothing in common. 

The smile on my face turned to a look of sour determination as I studied their firefly ways.  I dreamed the grass to be ten feet high.  In that moment, I was welcome to fly among them.  The led me over bounding over the chain link fence, carried on their wings to go visit Mrs. Schwartz in her garden to show her that I wasn’t destined to be some reprehensible lost cause because now, at this very moment, I was learning how to glow.  

It was then that my feet fell out from under me and I hit the patio with a skid.  My knee had caught the gravel and my pants were torn, which was more upsetting to me than the blood that was beginning to congeal.  I most feared having to tell my parents about the pants. 

I ran back into the house and galloped up the stairs avoiding all contact with my family.  Closing the door behind me, I carefully slid the pants down over the wound and found a sock to tie around my knee.  I hid the pants, the evidence, below my bed, which was destined to serve as my very own telltale heart. 

When I tugged the mini-blinds to spy the backyard, all the glowing had stopped.  My invitation from the fireflies seemed to have been rescinded and the stinging in my knee left me temporarily earthbound.  Slipping into the hallway I sat on the top of the stairs and began to cry politely to myself.  My sleeves soaked through as my sadness took on perpetual motion.

This was still during the bygone era of “I’ll give you something to cry about,” so I was startled when I heard my father’s voice take on a gentle tone.  He’d been standing at the bottom of the stairs watching me for some time, unsure of what to say. 

“Are you finished?”

While blinking tears, I gritted, “For now.”

What I’m glad I didn’t know then was that even if I’d been been accepted amongst the fireflies, it wouldn’t be until adulthood that I would have been granted the power of bioluminescence.  And, even then, I’d be dead in two weeks despite having achieved phosphorescent glory.  Scientists commend the firefly for being the most efficient lights in the world with 100% of their energy emitted in their glow.  And, unlike light bulbs, the light of a firefly produces no heat. 

I went back into my room and stared up at the stucco ceiling.  The bald light bulb in a fixture above my bed caused my vision to blur until I saw nothing.  When my father came in to make sure I was sleeping, I heard him turn off the light with a snap and go to close the door. 

“Leave it open a crack,” I said.  “And keep the hall light on.” 

Without saying a word, he agreed.  We both knew in an instant that it would be years before I could stop being afraid of the dark. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

People: Let Me Tell You 'Bout My Best Friend.

The moment I first met you, you looked me square in the eye and promptly shat on the floor.  It would have been rude of me to not notice that your efforts looked precisely like The Blob.  Honestly, Steve McQueen would have led dozens of teenagers shrieking in the opposite direction if they'd watched it spread and creep towards the wall as I did.  While the overwhelming stench of your accomplishment brought tears to my eyes, no one else in the room even seemed to notice.  Everyone’s tails just kept wagging, including mine I suppose.

Your fetid fecal triumph didn’t even register a look of relief across your adorable puppy face.  Your four tiny paws tracked through your own butt sick in a scramble to vault over the half door to greet me on the other side.  The other dogs in your litter were awarded shimmering brown clumps in their fur as you utilized them as a step stool, trying to reach far enough to kiss me on the lips.  That was when I knew you were mine: any dog that was willing to slap his sister across the face with his own shit was the kind of dog for me.

As soon as I could find a shelter volunteer in the maze of barking also-rans, I called her over to introduce me to you, my intended.  Leaning her mop against an indentation in the cinderblock wall, she wiped at her face with the back of her hand, which implied contamination.  After Jan Brady-ing her way to you holding pen, her ponytail a-sway, she asked which dog I was looking at.  “Crème Brulee,” I muttered.  Even she looked embarrassed that they’d named you that.  Obviously that would have to change immediately; I couldn’t have a dog that was named after dessert on a cruise ship.

She picked you up by your armpits to lift you over the gate; you looked like Aladdin on his magic carpet until your paws met the floor and a leash was looped around your neck.  We were dragged in tandem to an approved mulch pit surrounded by a high fence wall.   The volunteer palmed me a few puppy treats that smelled like the flame-broiled leftovers in a hotdog factory to assure that you would maintain some shred of interest in me before she quietly took her leave to allow us to get better acquainted.

Not knowing exactly what to say, I reached out a hand for you to sniff and took a seat on the overly warm cement stairs.  I could tell you were scared, your ears were pulled back to your skull and your little beagle tail was tucked between your little white sock feet.  You took two steps away as I tried to contort my frame to make myself appear smaller.

I offered you a treat to bribe you closer, which, tentatively, you came, leading with your cold nose snorting against my knuckles and your tongue probing at my clenched fist.

 “Sit,” I commanded.

You titled your head to the side before moving in still closer, your nose brushing against my cheek.

“Sit,” I laughed emphatically.

I don’t know if you remember this, but that’s when you pushed your way under my knee.  You used your head as a battering ram and pressed between my legs before planting your furry ass down on my foot. That’s the first time you ever let me pet you.  I gave you the treat and you swallowed it without chewing. 

In stillness, I inquired, “How do you like the name Zeke.” In fairness, I’d had that name picked out several months before you were even born.  By now, it had basically replaced the world “dog” in my vocabulary.  I, instead, was trying to find a pet “Zeke”.

I could tell that we might be moving a little too fast when the sound of my voice caused you to tilt your head all the way back until our eyes met. You looked at me as though you didn’t know this was an audition; your agent never sent you the sides and you maintained a proud air about you that read very “offer only”.

“Look, puppy- I have a big bed that has plenty of room for you and my neighborhood has a lot of acorn trees which means that there are a lot of squirrels.”  I quickly remembered that you were a baby and probably had no idea what a squirrel was having never seen one before. “I’m in tight with that community.  I can’t wait to introduce you.”

He sniffed at the air as the wind changed course and we sat together in silence for what felt like a season.

Eventually, the door opened a crack and the resident Jan Brady of the volunteer brigade stood, chompers gleaming.  “So?  How did you two get along?”

“Well, he’s a man of few words, but I think he’s going to be my best friend.”

She smiled so hard her eyes looked like she had spent her time away from us staring directly into the sun.  I wanted to walk out the door with you like a new pair of shoes, but I knew that I would need a day to get ready.  They were having an adoption the next day, which is why they had to separate you from all your brothers and sisters (I’m really super sorry about that, by the way) so no one else would try to stake claim.  When she took you from my arms, I could tell that we had both aimed to evoke Sophie’s Choice until your paw got caught in the crook of my elbow, which left us looking more like a parapalegic juggling a marinated turkey.

She carried you out of site and I went immediately to Target to buy you the finest of beddings, toys and shampoos.  I couldn’t sleep that night and stayed up reading the entirety of the canine equivalent of “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.”  I buried the wires around the apartment and set up your new crate.  I was ready for you, as I hoped you’d be ready for me.

When I arrived the next day, your eyes were a bit red as if you hadn’t slept either.  I led you out to the car and grabbed you by the scruff and placed you on a blanket in the passenger seat as my co-pilot.  You seemed blissfully unaware that this would be your responsibility from now on.  We made it about 4 blocks before the undulation of the car caused a rhythmic sound to emanate from your intestines.  By block 5, the entire car interior was covered with your lunch and you had permanently developed a fear of all automobiles.

I carried your back to the apartment, your mouth dripping with vomit residue and my shirt soaked in bits of kibbles and kibbles of bits.  Your warm puppy fur pressed against me so tight that I didn’t notice the smell.  You were shaking.  From that moment on, you robbed me of my ability to ever be completely mad at you.  In your moment of digestional compromise, I accepted my responsibility to love you unconditionally.

In the months that have followed, we’ve both grown considerably. Your teeth fell out and I kept them in a small wooden box so I could remember what you’d used to destroy my area rug. You learned not to pee in the house (often) and I’ve learned not to take it personally when you do.  I have developed a complete inability to watch more than 30 seconds of Animal Cops and I can now see both sides to the arguments in any given episode of Animal Hoarders.  Every song I've ever known has been rewritten as an ode to you.  But, most importantly, we have nursed each other back to health with little more than affection and sincere consideration for the creatures that nature intends us each to be.

Last night when I went to bed, I thought it might not be such a tragedy to sleep through the next few decades.  But, this morning when I woke up, you were tucked under my arm like a pocketbook.  You kissed my face and yawned a cloud of puppy breath deep into my nostrils that made my eyes water.  It was time to rise; to walk forward together, and to explore.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Personal Error 404

I am to be remembered as nothing more than wallpaper on your desktop. 

Initially, you were quite pleased with your selection.  My aesthetic was complimentary, perhaps; I seemed bold and iconic.  Nevertheless, I was far more defined than the factory settings, which ultimately led to the marriage of copy and paste.  That cemented my achievement in your world as a proclamation of who you saw yourself to be. 

Several thousand glances later, and I remain.  The chaos of cluttered icons have begun to dot our landscape.   Our shared experience becomes routine; eventually, altogether ignored.   Instead of looking to me or at me, you’re merely looking through. 

Inevitably, you will look up from your keyboard and minimize the world of distractions that have long since covered my image.  You’re bound to discover that my pixilation has begun to show. While all the other pictures in your life have changed, I have been hidden, but remained the same.  When the question of my existence arises, you will be unsure of whether you have comfort or complacency to blame.

It is undeniable that you will forget what you ever saw in the first place.  I won’t blame you.  It is impossible for one to observe the same image for every day in their life with the same regard to its brilliance and sheen. 

When you get around to it, the image will change.  It is our destiny that I will be neither observed nor ignored.  I will simply cease to be.  Until then, I remain; only one click away from a blank screen. 

The first time I kissed you, I thought I’d never catch my breath.  I could taste the magic on your tongue and you graciously denied the taste of acid on mine. 

The last time I kissed you, you were already asleep.  I hoped that you might stir, but you let me walk out the room, gently mourning our collective loss.  

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Day The Laughter Divorced

March 2, 1960 marked the final day of filming for The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, an occasionally produced version of I Love Lucy.  It would also mark the last time that the beloved couple would appear onscreen together. 

If you recall, the Ricardos had since relocated to suburban Connecticut where they'd spent the past three and a half seasons tending to chickens, plowing down their neighbor’s garden with a lawnmower, and haphazardly building a backyard barbeque.  This move kept Lucy and Ricky as an everyman ideal as their move worked to emulate the suburban migration of the late 1950’s.  And since there would be no hijinks without the Mertzes, Fred tucked his nipples under his belt and grabbed Ethel by the short curlies to drag her out for a reunion.

"You would have hit her too, Ricky.  You would have hit her too..."
In this specific episode, their series finale, Ricky is depressed because he has not been getting any TV offers, so the gang, along with the help of Special Guest Star Ernie Kovacs and his wife, the (then) popular (and now completely forgotten- and dead) singer, Edie Adams, try to cheer him up.  Ethel takes to the piano (one of the greatest suspensions of disbelief I have ever encountered- apparently, she couldn’t make chocolates on an assembly line if she’d had a gun to her head, but sit her down at the piano and she can tickle ivories like Liberace).  Edie Adams clings gingerly to the balustrade and delivers a song that she selected with no emotional delicacy whatsoever- “That’s All”, a tune popularized by Frank Sinatra.  The lyrics are as follows:

I can only give you love that lasts forever
And a promise to be near each time you call
And the only heart I own
For you and you alone

That's all
That's all

During the serenade, Lucy was seated with her back to Ricky, which only made it easier for them to ignore each other’s tears. At that time, their marital discourse had led to so much bickering that even the critics began to take notice. On the set, they had stopped speaking altogether and had begun to communicate through an exhausting series of “Would you tell Ms. Ball…” and “Kindly let Mr. Arnaz know…” The live studio audience that once used to roar with delight when Lucy didn't freeze to death in a meat locker had to be replaced by a laugh track.  That decision was entirely appropriate; only a machine would find their disintegration amusing. 

The next day, divorce proceedings began.  It was truly the end of an era. 

Regretfully, Lucy didn’t let the dissolution of her 20-year marriage stand in the way of getting some severely sub-par entertainment on the air.  In 1962, Arnaz was unable to determine a way for Desilu Studios to regain the traction it once had, so he offered Lucy the opportunity to return to television. The Lucy Show was born, wherein she would be reunited with former co-star Vivian Vance who demanded more pay and equal billing.  (Vance also demanded a more flattering wardrobe and for her character’s name to be changed to “Vivian” so assholes would stop calling her “Ethel” on the street.) 

She didn't seem to mind that as much.
The premise of the show was simple; Ball and Vance were, in fact, not a lesbian couple living together in a bungalow.  Rather, they portrayed a widow and a divorcee respectively.  While The Lucy Show even secured the same time-slot as I Love Lucy's original run (Mondays at 8:30 on CBS), it was clear to viewers that something was amiss.  Quality of the scripts was in decline and, without Desi around, Lucy generally had a lot less ‘splainin to do.   

Several seasons later, she bought Desi out of his shares in the company and ultimately went on to lead the studio in the production of Mission Impossible and Star Trek.  Because of her newly acquired power, she began to constantly worry what potential harm that role might bring to her comedic image.  It is said that if she would grant an interview about her position as President of Desilu, she would spend her time with the reporter dusting the table between them to be sure her press would invoke her “just a regular gal that bakes 25 foot bread loaves” image.  The eventual sale of Desilu Studios to Gulf-Western put the merciful nail in the coffin for The Lucy Show, then in its sixth season (Vance had already walked several seasons prior). 

In 1968, Ball made yet another attempt at paying the bills with her beloved character in Here’s Lucy.  It’s opening credits featured a terrifying marionette that will likely haunt your dreams, as well as the names of her actual children who would now serve as her co-stars. 

See?  I wasn't kidding.  Seriously, would Raid kill that thing?
The scripts went from bad to worse and in its sixth (and final) season, the show ranked #29 in the ratings (and if everything old people tell me is true about TV in those days, that would be a 29 out of a possible 30). 

In 1986, the chain-smoking wax figure formerly known as Lucille Ball dusted off her pearls once again to shoot 13 episodes of Life With Lucy, of which only 8 episodes were aired.  

The redheaded ashtray standing in the back is what's left of Lucy.  Not pictured: the Grim Reaper.
This final attempt at reviving her beloved character was quite unsettling to audiences.  At this point, she was a not-so-spry 75 year-old, yet the audience’s expectations were that she would perform with the same gusto as she had when stomping grapes in I Love Lucy some 34 years prior.  This effort essentially proved that it’s much harder to take a pratfall when you have osteoporosis.  The year that marked the unceremonious death of her career was also the very same year that Desi was taken to play Babalu on the big bongo drums in the sky.  

The two, who had remained in-touch, spoke on what would have been their 46th wedding anniversary.  He was dead two days later.  

St. Peter Had Those Sleeves Waiting for Him. 
Edie Adams, the aforementioned songstress-with-seriously-bad-timing, recounted seeing Lucy appear a few years later at a charity event.  She stood at the podium and took her introduction. “My name is Lucille Ball,” she said, “and I used to be on television.”


The real reason that I’m writing this is that, for the past week, I’ve have had one or fifteen thousand reasons to cry but had to keep consistently smiling throughout.  That frustrating emotion (known as life) kept leading me back to a picture I saw as a kid of Lucille Ball.  She was all done up as a Geisha for the filming of the penultimate episode of The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour titled “The Ricardos Go To Japan”.  But, in this photo, it was clear that she had been crying, and not that fake squinched-face cry that made her famous.  No, these were real, honest-to-God tears that had cracked her foundation makeup and left rolling streaks drawn down her face that looked like fault lines.  Her bright blue eyes were puffed out and swollen and her mouth soured in a frown that would have made Canio proud.

Because You Didn't Understand That Reference
What struck me about this particular image of Lucy was what my recollection of that very episode had always been- nothing more than your average romp with Lucy and Desi, as blissfully in love as they had always been.  I remember her cutting through a shoji screen to spy on some movie star of yesteryear whose career went the way of the dodo. It was, as always, hilarious.  

But upon returning to that episode in a recent youtube binge, it’s quite clear what unhappy goings-on were truly afoot.  In the first scene, we see Ricky, Ethel and Fred walking with suitcases, as was typical in those later years where the couples spent all of their time traveling (presumably to other soundstages within the same lot).  But here, when Ricky asks, “Where is Lucy?” Ethel makes an excuse for her by saying that “She went with her mother to buy Little Ricky an ice cream bar.”  Lucy makes an entrance and sits in the airport until Ethel and Fred approach her; again, Ricky appears to be elsewhere.  When Ricky and Lucy finally do play a scene together, the warmest components onscreen seem to be their throats, which had been fried from emotionally chain-smoking countless cigarettes.  They seem to barely make eye contact and, when physical interaction is called for, they turn away from each other altogether. 

I mean, I guess the moral of all of this is that I’m not the first person who has ever had to suck it up and play make-believe with my emotions.  Everyone does it to some degree every day, some to monumental proportion as Lucy did here.  Sometimes the clown gets sad, and that’s okay, as long as the clown knows when it’s okay to laugh again.  And, thankfully, it appears that when I learn to laugh again, the network just might offer me a spin-off.