Barbara Cook has always been part of the soundtrack of my life. Today, I cannot stop thinking about her because here, where I am going, I know someone who knows Miss Cook quite well. Here, where I am, I know that Miss Cook once read a blog entry of mine about a concert of hers. Here, where I am going, today, I have been feeling very blue about not being loved as I’d like, and loving others almost, but never quite, always nearly. And so, this:
Barbara Cook. Who my aunt Sissie loved, and so, I loved her too.
December 17. Thursday. Sissie’s birthday. She died eleven years ago. She gave me Broadway and the Algonquin Hotel and its legends and reading. Sissie made me Charlie. The reason I cook for my family, have been baking cookies non-stop, long ago learned to tough it out through back-pain and illnesses, think living a life without a mate is a fine path, insist on seeing Love and Light, make up lyrics, laugh instead of cry, all the reasons, all the Charlie; Sissie. And she died before I got to the Algonquin, before I knew someone who knows Barbara Cook, before I began to follow all of these Twitter-Literati, Twitterati folk who are in publishing; all things that would make Sissie ecstatic, that make me — most days — ecstatic.
Most days. But, those others, when it wasn’t easy being this Sissie-Charlie who was, early on, a sissy-Charlie. Still, I mean, being Sissie-Charlie gave me the songs I’ve sung and books I’ve read and shows I’ve seen and been in and the ways I’ve loved, some days, yes, I think it was all worth it. Other days, harder, and I wonder if maybe my choices were failures. And, too, worry how little I really belong, how far on the fringe I am, observer, always, never truly participant.
Today, see, things. First of all, my back, it really hurts. It hurts like it hasn’t hurt in ten years. It hurts like when I go to move my legs, my lower back spasms and I almost fall, I have to hold on to things to walk. And coincidentally (not even a little, actually – that mind/body thing) in the past few days, I’ve been avoided and rejected and ducked and lied to and, well, you see —
When I was in my teens, I was pariah in high school. There was a group of boys who ran the school who called themselves The Board of Directors. They marked me, listed me as someone who — if you talked to me — you could not be part of their crowd. Worse, one of them lived beside me and one lived directly in front of me, down the hill. Long-short, because I could supply drugs, I was briefly embraced by their circle. Because I had drugs, because we were teenaged boys, because even then I had no pride or self-esteem whatsoever, I had secret sex with one of the Board. I fancied myself in love with him.
Of course, that turned out badly.
I had tried to convince myself I could belong there, somewhere, somehow. But, I was chased out of high school, bullied and targeted by him, his crowd. I dropped out. I was kicked out of home. I moved around the country. I fell in love with one after another wrong, awful man who kept me a secret. I made feather hat bands. I worked in the corporate world. I worked in the arts. I spent twenty years building and saving and lost it all to save my life. And one awful eleven years ago, in a few short months, lost a dear friend, the only real in-love I’d ever had (who still kept me secret), and Sissie.
Through it all, I had Barbara Cook.
Barbara Cook. Who I almost know. But, don’t. You see, though, that’s it, right? Recently I’ve convinced myself I belong a few places, with a few people, but, really, I don’t, do I? No. And, just like I finally realized I would never be in love, would never be an actor or singer of note, would never really have any money or be what the world (or my family or friends) considered a success, I have now realized I am not a writer.
Which is a bit painful for me, you see, after the year of death eleven years ago, I spent a summer at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. It was heaven. I wrote a novel. Which will never be read. Oh dear. But, through it all, Barbara Cook. Here, the first mention of her on page 35 (of 341 — some have told me that is 100 too many and I agreed until I read City on Fire and the first 150 pages of A Little Life):
LIBERTYTOWN: from Chapter 1
1989. Tiananmen Square. Colin Powell appointed the first black chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff. Fourteen year old Drew Barrymore attempts suicide. Tom and I went to see Vampire’s Kiss which we hated, which he blamed on me and my vampire thing, and during the movie he moved my hand to his crotch in the nearly empty theatre and he came just about the time Nicolas Cage was eating a cockroach and something about that, Tom coming, cockroach – it was all surreal. And, Queen Elizabeth knighted Ronald Reagan who had waited four years and hundreds of thousands of infections before he mentioned AIDS out loud. AIDS. And the soundtrack of our life together was Tom’s obsessive playing of Paula Abdul songs while I, when alone, surreptitiously listened to Barbara Cook, Karen Akers, and all the Sondheim shows, and I remember those things from that summer with Tom, those things in the air there in the middle of some woods in some field where we never went again.
“Oz, you know I love you. But, people can’t know.”
It was 1989. He was 21. I was 28. I remember as clearly as anything in my life those words. I remember knowing that as we sat on that car, his car, the car I could never drive no matter how drunk he’d get, that night, that moment, that life we had together which I knew I could have only if I played by his rules, sitting there, thinking, it is still so clear to me, that Tom was gazing at the stars imagining making his way in the world that existed, a life in which he could be with Paula Abdul, a star, a world in which I would – at best – be a secret he kept, a place he visited, a supporting character, while I could only imagine making my way in a world entirely, magically, miraculously changed, just as I did as a child in the rooms of Libertytown when I would fantasize for hours, fantasies no less impossible than that different world in which the fact that Tom and I had fallen in love would be seen as something beautiful, a celebration, we would be together, a life together in which nothing was secret.
“Oz, you gotta promise me you won’t ever tell people. Or, we can’t do this.”
I put it away. The telling. In a box inside. Taped closed. I never told. Until now.
He pulled me closer.
“You know…you’re the only man I do for free.”
It was 1989. I knew better. Should have known better. But, when he touched me and we would do again what was no thing to him and what I had learned to call happy, after which it would be dawn and we went to my place and we slept. Together. Wrapped. Entwined. He felt to me like the place I belonged. He still does.
That was fifteen years ago. When he wrapped. Around me. Which was twenty-seven years after my father wrapped. Around the pole. Which is ten seconds away from me now. Which no longer has the pylon which pierced through the blue of his eye, finishing the job the tent stake had begun when he was seven.
All these dead men.
Daddy who’d drive infant, weeping, unable to sleep me around in his truck, Mahalia Jackson on the radio, Daddy, that Daddy we turned into a story we never really told the truth about, not unlike the story I was for Tom, he was for me, Tom who’d drive out of control, weeping, unable to sleep me around in his muscle-car, Tom, who never did sing with Paula Abdul, he who turned into a policeman demoted to escorting the sort of funeral parade in which his casket was just driven. He for whom I was “just no thing” and with whom I could never hold hands in public, who asked only one oath from me, that I never tell. He whose funeral parade I watched from across the street because I could not attend. No one knew who we had been. I watched the line of cars, the cavalcade of death the likes of which he’d spent months leading, lights flashing, and he wasn’t in that car. This time he lay in a coffin. I met him when he was carrying a coffin. On a stage. In a show. Playing roles. He hit me.
All these men who disappeared from me drunken and needy and pretending to be someone and something else, secrets. My family never spoke of my father’s drinking. We could not. I never spoke of Tom. I could not.
That pole is right there. Ten seconds away. Calling me. Me, the person who listened to Paula Abdul for the man with whom I never shared Barbara Cook.
So, maybe I was the one who didn’t know how to love?