I can still barely walk today – back issues – and am busy writing new things, so here is a piece of Chapter 2 of the old thing.
is this what u wanted?
I did. Sleep. Finally. Six cups of coffee, eleven journal pages and four hours later I returned to Healing Embrace so as to be there for Vincent’s massage. He will only see me for his massages, thus our meeting this morning despite my trying to beg off with a call explaining the overwhelming onus of Libertytown and again proclaiming the absolute competence of my partner, Therie.
“Well, Therie is a very nice woman … for a woman. But you know Oscar, I don’t like women.”
Life hadn’t been difficult enough, so my mother saddled me with the name Oscar, after her father, a compromise for allowing my father to make my middle name Francis, after Sissie. Oscar wasn’t, I can assure you, a popular name for a child in school in the nineteen-sixties and never a name by which I was called by anyone other than the nuns who‘d apparently considered nicknames another sin. “Don’t get all high dudgeon and call me Oscar.”
“All right then, Parker, dear, you know how I feel about women.”
“I’m not asking you to sleep with her Vincent, just let her do your massage.”
“You know I’m having hernia surgery tomorrow. This is my last hurrah for weeks and I want the best. I’ve been loyal to you for years and we’ve been friends since, well, longer than we should say out loud. I thought we had something.”
“I’m your massage therapist, Vincent, not your lover.”
“Because we both have terrible taste in men. And it‘s never too late. I mean, after all we‘ve survived together. We‘re practically the only two left.”
Vincent and I have known each other since I was fourteen and he sixteen and we appeared together in a god-awful community theatre production, back in the days when I still had pretentious ambitions toward Broadway stardom. We have seen each other through every phase, hated and loved one another like good friends do, and tsk-tsk-ed our disapproval of each others’ choices in career, behavior, and men, or, more often in my case, lack there-of, and more than any of that, we have watched many of the men with whom we did and did not dance along the way succumb to a plague too horrible to speak about, the calamity of which we’d somehow, against gargantuan odds, been spared. It is stronger than love, it’s the bond of survivors.
Vincent has always been a serial waver and propositioner. As we traveled from one dark, mirror-balled locale to the next, he’d see something pretty across the room and “Yoo-hoo!“ while giving what he thought a jaunty little head toss and parade wave not unlike the Queen of England, though he was a small “q“ queen of a rather less heralded monarchy, that one in his head. His pudgy, teddy bear shape and receding hairline had never stopped him from approaching and pursuing one after another beautiful, impossibly vapid and unattainable man, the benefit of his methods having been that every so often, for an evening, weekend, or even, on rare occasions, a month or two, the unattainable became desperate enough or amused enough or would pity him enough to take him up on his lewd offers and ready cash.
I have never been willing to sleep with people who felt like they were doing me a favor, and I’ve never had Vincent’s seemingly endless supply of sanguine optimism that sooner or later one would happen upon true love in this manner. I have always been waiting for “the one” and I excuse my failure to find him by pretending moral superiority with the specious fiction that I would rather spend the night in bed with a good book than with someone who mistakes Balzac for a dirty word.
I arrived at Healing Embrace fifteen minutes early and already, Vincent was there, which was the first indication that something was awry as he is never on time for anything except a trip to a bar. Vincent, my dearest, longest friend, did what all too often dearest, longest friends must do; he brought me bad news.
“Oscar, I have something completely terrible to tell you.”
I laughed.Vincent makes his living frittering away his parents’ savings operating a dinner theatre. He produces (and frequently appears in) musicals during which under-flavored food items and over-priced, watered down drinks, coyly named for the show being presented, are foisted upon patrons by waiters who are also actors, that not uncommon combination. His theatricality is not confined to the theatre. He is better without a script than he has ever been in any part, including his signature role of Emile DeBeque in SOUTH PACIFIC which he trods upon the boards with a regularity approaching that of presidential elections. I have wept through his THIS NEARLY WAS MINE while sipping a Bali-Hai-ball more times than I can count, but, as riveting as his on-stage characterizations are, his off-stage shenanigans are even more affecting, and, often, over the top.
Everything is an extreme in his world, each new chorus boy fling is the “one”, each backstage gossip the most scandalous ever, each affront surpassingly unforgivable, and so, when he told me he had something completely terrible to tell me, I imagined he meant that he had broken it off with his latest insignificant other.
“Vincent, I’ve slept almost not at all, and have seven more clients today, after which I am returning to a disintegrating pile of rock and plaster with two hundred year old bowed and cracking windows, and sixteen – well, fifteen rooms filled with two-hundred and ninety-seven packed boxes of my life that somehow have to be put in order enough that I can find my clothes.”
It was here he should have said, “I was wondering why you had on that horrid outfit.” He should have said that. Instead, he said, “Tom is dead.”
Every time I hear his name, still, it hurts. I am tired. Tired and defeated. All over again. Still. All this empty space later, I rest only on one side of my mattress. Still saving his place. He was the last empty shell on which I’d pinned my hopes; the novel I was to have written, my eleven o’clock Broadway show-stopping ballad. He rode a white horse. I thought he might save me. I should have saved myself for someone worthy of the weeping. Tom walked away pretending we had never happened. He put on a hero’s costume and swore an oath, but not to me. History. His story. Then. Now.
“Tom is dead.”
Tom carried a coffin the first time I met him. In rehearsal for Vincent‘s production of EVITA. It – the coffin – was meant to contain the body of Eva Peron, and he and the other chorus boys Vincent had assembled less for talent than for the possibility that one might be “the one”, shuffled in faux solemnity as I lurked, hidden behind them, skulking toward center stage, where they would place the coffin on a bier and I’d leap out and slam down it‘s lid. I sneered, a study in miscasting, as Che. Too tall. Too white. Too not macho. My burlesque of a Latin revolutionary was another in the long line of roles into which I’d fallen for which I‘d purchased biographies, histories, and any other bound, written records of lives and historical eras, claiming it part of my method acting research process. In fact, this Thespis-bibliomania was not technique but symptom of my disassociation from myself; all the roles I agreed to play and the books I read part of my effort to answer the nagging question “Who am I?” Said question when asked through acting, then able to be avoided in life. Anything so that I did not have to be me.
Tom stalked me from that first rehearsal, the small town version of star-fucking, which is to hang out with the semi-talented big fish in the small pond who is hanging around enjoying being the largest of the koi in the limited artificial environment.
“Come on Oz, we’re going to Denny’s.”
“Don’t call me Oz. And I don’t do Denny’s.” Denny’s was crowded with people who did not understand that I was a big fish, people who drove pick-up trucks sporting Confederate flag decals and screamed out, “FAGGOT!” as they drove by.
And then at the next rehearsal.
“Come with me to the movies.”
“I don’t do movies.” I couldn’t listen to other peoples’ stories just then. I couldn’t stand being in the dark with so many people who knew so little of what I knew. I could not pretend, at the movies, that I was not where I was.
And then at the next rehearsal.
“Come watch me work on my car.”
That I could do. There is something about someone who knows something about engines and mechanicals and how to change oil and tires and spark plugs and such that made me feel inferior. Inferior is how I liked to feel. That there was something about which I would not be asked, “What should I do?” was a comfort to me. Tom knowing the answers about something, it was a comfort to me. I was twenty-five. He was eighteen. It was a comfort to me.
“I don’t do cars. Sorry.”
“What do you do?”
“Right.” And he walked away, smiling the smile that meant he hadn’t yet given up.
And so, at the next rehearsal as I hit all the notes of the songs and faked my way through the dancing but continued to fall alarmingly short of being Latin, dangerous, macho, cigar smoking, or revolutionary, Vincent blocked a scene in which Tom played one of the secret service guards who muscled Che off the stage. Tom, in his eagerness to “play real” nearly dislocated my arm and punched me in the mouth. Vincent, who believed his Italian heritage required of him a red-faced tantrum at least once each rehearsal, furiously charged Tom with attending to my injuries. Tom peeled off his high school football team t-shirt and ran around the rehearsal hall, collecting into it the ice from actors’ drinks. Bare chested, he held to my swollen lip his impromptu ice pack, which smelled of him and his last three hours of Eva-coffin carrying and chorus-boy dancing, or, perhaps, it wasn’t the shirt, but him, as we sat connected, his free arm wrapped around me, his hand holding my head, as if I needed supporting. A need I was neither confirming nor denying as I was, not without some shame, enjoying being this close to someone so perfectly formed and unspoiled and – bonus – half nude. I could not help but notice that the dripping wet, cut off sweatpants he wore revealed no evidence of underwear lines, and wondered if he was wearing his football jock. Perhaps I had been rendered delirious by the blow to the head. What was I thinking? Looking at him that way?
Tom was eighteen and beautiful in the way only boys of that age can be, those few blessed ones, so at ease in their unearned physical exquisiteness, the blemish-free complexion without complexity, the sinewy muscularity with its effortless dexterity, born as they were to catch the ball and score the winning touchdown, smile the perfect, white, straight-toothed smile of complete and entitled confidence as they ascended to the homecoming king throne, and continued their scoring streak later with the head cheerleader in the back seat of the blue Trans-Am their parents had bought them at sixteen. And like all great teen idols, Tom radiated an unearned depth of character. He had that wounded look in his eyes, that vulnerability born of the nagging inchoate question asked by every sensitive golden idol: “What have I done to deserve this?”
But, Plato’s warnings be damned, Tom would live the unexamined life, ignore the disconnect between the outer perfection and the inner confusion, a confusion I mistakenly attributed to his charmingly tortured sexual dis-orientation, which would, of course, be cured by loving me. But not that summer.
That summer we met, when he was eighteen and wore the thrashing mantle of superiority not yet chinked by the jousting of life experience; that summer we met, when he was eighteen, legally an adult and with an absolutely clear notion of who that shroud of armor entitled him to be, who he meant to be, while I, that summer we met, was twenty-five and feeling as if I were still twelve, that summer we met I was twenty-five and had no such vestment to protect me and no clear idea of where I was going, no, that summer we met, when he was eighteen and I was twenty-five, that summer when he who’d been raised to be so stubbornly, blindly, confident of the inevitability of his success, and I who’d been raised to be equally convinced of the immutability of my failure, that summer we met when neither of us recognized the way our flaws, like a photo and its negative, were opposites yet the same, that summer we met when his conflicted spirit called to mine like the Sirens, and, as in Homeric legend, I, became enchanted by his song, enraptured by its beauty, surrendered willingly to its corroding, consuming demands, until against my will – I escaped: the result? His destruction.
But not that summer. That summer we met.
“I’m gonna be a big star you know.”
“I’m not going to be a big star.” I replied, sort of, but with him pressing his t-shirt into my lip, speaking was not without effort, and pleasure, as it caused him to move as well, and I had to admit, I enjoyed the additional contact of his flesh against mine. The hair on his arms was bleached blonde by his, no doubt, shirtless afternoons in the sun doing God knows what with God knows whom, the who of which mattered to me only in that I was already wondering what degree of difficulty I would have usurping her place, all of which, in an effort to maintain cool decorum, I was trying not to picture.
“No?” He was clearly horrified to have come across someone who did not share his ambition and had somehow wangled a leading role. “But you’re the star.”
“In community theatre. That counts not even a little.” I laughed. “But, good for you. When you’re famous I can tell the tabloids all about how you beat the shit out of me when you were a punk. Tough high school quarterback pummels homo actor.”
“Well, then how did I get a swollen lip?“
“There are a lot of ways your lips can swell.“ He was looking at me with something between a smirk and a sneer. Or, could it have been a leer? Or was I delusional? Caught up in another of my “I want who I can’t have” fantasies in which this too beautiful eighteen year old was trying to reverse Mrs. Robinson me? I thought it best to glare in sort of a blank, accusatory, knowing, yet non-committal way, the achievement of which was far superior to anything I had yet done in rehearsal as Che. He folded.
“Sorry. Look, don’t do that.Tell the papers I mean. When I’m famous. Which I will be. They’ll take it the wrong way.”
“I was kidding.” I didn’t know whether to be touched by what seemed to be his genuine concern over the ridiculous possibility of me selling this story to a tabloid, or abashed that he thought I would, or, please Parker, get a grip and realize that a boy so certain of his future fame he would worry about something like this is someone bordering on delusional. None of it stopped me. I was already imagining a Susan Hayward in BACK STREET kind of love. With a jaunty toss of the head and my imitation of Barbara Stanwyck sophisticated tossing off of seductive phrase, I assured him, “It was sarcasm.”
“I’m not sure,” he smiled his I‘m a high school quarterback, prom king smile and continued, “when you’re serious.”
“You’ve only known me three weeks. Give it a few months, you’ll be like everyone else and never know what the fuck I mean, by which point, you won’t give a shit anyway.”
“Everyone loves you Oz.”
“I told you, don’t call me Oz. Everybody calls me Parker.”
“I’m not everybody.” He took the ice away and moved his hand to my mouth, rubbing gently the swelling around my lips. “I think it’s getting bigger.”
Perhaps, and from the evidence of his sweat pants and the feeling in my crotch, it was not alone.
EVITA closed and what happened, happened. Tom ran away to college where he’d been given a football scholarship and meant to major in music. He didn’t come home for any of the breaks those first few years, which I’d eventually discovered had found him jetting here and there on others’ dimes, but that comes later.
I got his number from Vincent and left a message. He called back and made me promise never to leave messages on his answering machine again – this was prior to the advent of everyone having a cell phone – and though I didn’t, I would often call his room. He was programmed into my phone. Star one. It would ring. Four times. Click. Machine.
Tom never took my calls. I always took his. I waited for them. The waits grew longer. Days. Weeks. Never. He phoned exactly four times between September and May, two of those during his first week away before he became who and what he became there, and none of the conversations longer than five minutes and nowhere in those five minutes any mention of what had happened that last night we‘d seen each other, before he ran away. Each time my phone would ring I would jump on it, hoping.
I would sit by the phone, chanting, visualizing Tom dialing my number. Then, as hope transmuted into longing, and finally, despair, I had nearly stopped leaving my apartment, stopped bathing, stopped doing anything that might have caused me to miss Tom’s call, refusing to talk to any of my friends on the phone for more than thirty seconds. It was a rule I invented. In my configurations, thirty seconds was the absolute maximum time period in which Tom could call, get a busy signal, and in his impatience, operating exclusively from the id, immediately dial again. When finally I purchased call waiting, I found it merely reinforced Tom’s absence.
I’d surrender and dial him. “This is Tom. I wouldn’t understand anything you’d say to me right now. Leave a message and I’ll pick it up if I get sober.”
“Tom. Goddammit I miss you. I love you. I hate you. I hope you get arrested and I hope your cellmate’s name is Bubba and I hope he forcibly infects you with every sexually transmitted disease known to man and then, as you lay dying, I will selflessly care for you. Come home. Call me back.”
I did not leave this message. I didn’t want to hurt Tom or make him angry. I didn’t want to risk undoing what I was certain could be done between us, by us, if only he would, if only I could, if only … I didn’t leave messages. Taking umbrage was the play Tom called most often. During our brief first summer, that summer where we began as friends, that summer where he seemed to pursue me, where I pursued him by resisting until … that summer where we defined ourselves by our lack of definition, I lost count of the number of times Tom had gotten broodingly silent and withdrawn his affections. Eventually, when I’d done penance enough, the formula for which had been as mysterious as that of the affront, Tom would behave as if nothing had happened, and, if questioned, would deny having been angry. In retrospect, I would fondly remember his sullen silences, finding them preferable to his later responses; fury and abandonment.
Tom was, nonetheless, who I loved, even then, immediately, intractably, for he was beautiful, we went to movies and we talked endlessly and we ate together and we told stories and we danced around whatever it was we were feeling and we behaved like twelve year olds with crushes neither of us wanted to admit, and we were afraid to touch without making it a game, a dare, and we knew I think, both of us in different ways that we could not be together and could not be apart and his voice was beautiful, his smile was effortless, his ease in the world was all I longed to be, and when he spoke it was in complete sentences. This had qualified him as the smartest boyfriend I had ever had. If one could call him a boyfriend. Which one couldn’t. But, I did.
And three summers later, three summers after he had stopped calling, three summers after we had no name, when we finally became what we became because we had no other choice, when he said “everyone loves you” rather than “I love you” and when another story was born to be placed in another of these boxes by which I am haunted and …
“Parker, did you hear me?” Vincent had taken my hand. “Tom is dead. He shot himself. He‘s dead.”