Thursday, March 01, 2007
Monday, February 19, 2007
I Am Sally Picow
I pretend to be my mother on the phone with AT&T Universal Visa. "This is Sally Picow," I say, rattling off her social security number and date of birth as my own, and acknowledging that Samuel Bernstein is the additional cardholder on the account.
The fact that I am not her, that she is in fact dead, and that I am not a woman in her early-50s does not stop me from making these phone calls. "This is Sally Picow." My voice, naturally a bit high, goes a little higher, and for some reason I usually speak with a southern accent, though my mother never did.
I make these calls in the several years after my mother dies. At forty-nine. Now she is fifty-three and I continue pretending to be her. As I am her.
Sometimes I get confused about what maiden name I have given her on her own accounts, on my accounts, on everything. The problem is I don't know my mother's real maiden name because she is never sure of it herself. Mom was on her own in South Texas from something like the age of eight, living as a sort of servant girl with a family who had a decidedly Anglo name that she took as her own. When I first became an adult that was the name I gave as her maiden name to financial institutions because it is the name I am given.
But when she is sick we talk a lot about her life. It is never a proper narrative, just bits and pieces. I learn that she had a Mexican mother and she believed her father was of Indian descent, maybe French-Indian, maybe Mexican-Indian. The fact that she isn't Anglo, and by association, that I am not either, only then fully dawns on me. Family photos make our mixed ethnic background perfectly clear but you don't know you’re in denial about something until you stop denying it. Her Latino heritage is never mentioned by the Bernsteins. Photos of me with my brothers from my dad's first wife also make clear the distinction, or at least make it clear that we can't possibly have the same two parents.
My father threatens me once, saying there were things I don't know about my mother, that she has a past. What could he reveal? Did she kill someone? Is she a whore at some point in her youth? I don't think so. But who cares? There is nothing he can say that could make me love her differently or think any less of her. I have no shame. Maybe a week or so before she dies I am helping her spruce up in bed. She takes a warm washcloth and wipes between her legs, then carefully wraps another cloth around it before handing it to me, saying I shouldn't touch it; it's dirty. I don't care. I'd bury my face in it just to save more of her except for the fear doing that might embarrass her.
Knowing Mom is a Latina would not have bothered me as a child. It just never occurred to me. The ethnicity of your saint and savior isn't something you really think about. The dopiest part of it is that the name given as her maiden name on my birth certificate, which may or may not be her true maiden name, is decidedly Latino, not the Anglo one at all. I just never notice.
Out of pride after finding out I then start giving out the Latino one as her maiden name to financial institutions. The problem now is that I don't know which name I've given to which company. It's fairly embarrassing when they ask and I give them the wrong name. It takes a while after that to convince them that I am who I say I am. I don't take it personally though. Their suspicion is understandable, and with my history of pretending on the phone, I'm in no position to make a fuss.
The story is that my father had fake documents created for my mother when they married – a driver's license, birth certificate, social security card; the works. Mom thought she remembered having a sister. Her father died young. Her mother was abusive. That was the extent of what I will ever learn about that side of my family. There was a marriage before my father, to a man even more violent and abusive. My dad Adam was apparently a breath of fresh air
I kill off my mother with the credit card companies in the mid-'90s but it is years after her actual demise. Let me be clear: I pay every cent of the money I borrow in her name, even though some of the banks say, as her supposedly newly bereaved next of kin I don't have to, and I close all the accounts.
The banks who say I don't have to pay them back would require a current death certificate, which I probably could manage, changing the dates in Photoshop, but protecting her good name posthumously matters a lot to me. I pay the money back, on time, with interest, and I never cheat anyone out of anything.
The whole thing happens by accident really. While she is dying Mom gets a pre-approved application for a gold Amex card, and she signs up with me as the additional card holder. My credit is shot from my years playing ATM Lotto, never knowing whether I will be able to get cash since I never know if I actually have any, and since I have no idea how to manage money. After she dies and I move to Los Angeles with Stephen, I change the address on the credit card to mine and that's that -- except that pre-approved applications for other cards start rolling in, especially as I am continuing such a solid repayment record in my mother's name.
At my peak I have probably eight or nine cards, but it all drags on much longer than I ever think it will, mainly because my work life is erratic and having large lines of credit gets me through the dry patches. It starts making me really nervous after a while, and I feel ashamed. I think if people find out they might take it in the wrong way. Actually I have the same approach to credit my mother had, not the part about pretending to be someone else, I mean that I pay every bill the day it comes in faithfully, never mind the actual due date, so I never owe late charges, and though I have sometimes been as overextended as everyone else in Los Angeles, I have a perfect repayment record.
Her name is unsullied.
When she died I focused on the memorial service and having people at the house afterwards. I make enchiladas. Like she would have. I feed everyone. I keep busy. I lose my mind at the funeral. It is Greek. I am told I sound like an animal, wounded, in agony. I scream and wail for what seems like hours. The entire universe collapses inside me and even thinking of it now my knees go wobbly. I am barely able to stand long enough to take my turn at throwing dirt on her coffin. On one side I am held up by my cousin Edy, with my grandmother on the other side of me, and Stephen holding me up from behind.
After that I stop wondering whether or not my capacity to love and feel is deep enough. This is Sally Picow. I am Sally Picow.
Comments? Questions? Email me.
Monday, January 08, 2007
The $10,000 Chicken
I'm taking breaks in between posts as I write about my mother dying, since I know it's hard for people to read about. Meanwhile, shooting starts soon on "Kill Your Inner Child" the digi-series. I'll keep you posted.
After the Santeria ritual in Chicago, Mom and I eat a subdued dinner in our room at the hotel. We avoid the chicken, having experienced one being ritualistically sacrificed just hours earlier. The chicken's blood is supposed to give my mother new life and cancer-free breasts.
"This is the only thing that makes sense," she says.
We both act like we believe what the babalao has said, that the cancer is gone, that anything left will dissipate as she drinks a specially prepared tea during the next ten days. She is also nervous because she has written a post-dated check for $10,000 to pay for the ritual. The babalao was none too pleased about that. But to get that kind of money Mom has to raid a stock account my grandfather has set aside for her. (My grandparents are not her parents of course, but Mom and Dad's divorce did nothing to alter their relationship with their former daughter-in-law, who is kinder to them than either of their sons will ever be.)
I am glad we do the Santeria blood ritual even though I know in my heart that she isn't cured. I am glad because I know I'll never have to wonder if it might have been the one thing to keep her alive. My brother Aaron and step-father David know what we have done but no one else does, ever. Until now. I can't have a conversation about it but I can write it down for strangers to read.
When Mom and I arrive back in Texas from the Chicago Santeria pilgrimage, the matter of the postdated $10,000 check looms large. Mom calls up my grandfather and tells him she needs the $10,000 from her stock account immediately to cover a check she has written for an experimental treatment. She is shocked by the fact that he cops out and asks her to call my uncle, who raises what I have to now acknowledge are perfectly rational red flags – particularly in light of what we really have spent that money on. What is this treatment and why does it cost so much? Is a charlatan taking advantage of a sick woman? Mom and I don't see this foot dragging in a reasonable way at all, and she is terrified that some black magic from the babalao will take her cure away if the check bounces.
"Don’t they understand," she says to me crying, "I'm fighting for my life." You hear people say that in the movies and on television all the time and it's meaningless, but when someone you love is dying and says it to you, it cuts you in half. I want to die instead of her. With her. I want to kill my grandfather and my uncle. I hate them. My uncle gives her the money. The check to the babalao clears. We settle in for the rest of the ride, never mentioning to one another how quickly things turn bad, how little the Santeria accomplished. David is exhausted from being the main caretaker for the year before things turn bad and he is too terrified she will die to object to black magic, whatever his private misgivings. Aaron probably doesn't dare cross me on the issue. At the same time I am opening up, finding bottomless sources of emotion to share with Mom, I am becoming a tyrant with everyone else, particularly Aaron, because I have no feeling for him at the time, for anyone else, just for her. Instead of spending time with her on the rare occasions when I leave for the supermarket Aaron rigs up a bell system so he can sit out in the garage and smoke. Mom just has to ring the bell if she needs anything. He should stay with her every minute. She is the only thing that matters. I even threaten Beelzebubbe after a visit where I think she has said one too many upsetting things. I tell her if she doesn't stop talking like that I will forbid her from seeing Mom at all. It's one of the few times she backs off. Even she can tell I mean business.
Aaron may not cross me on the Santeria but he does about one other thing. When the doctor says Mom has about two weeks left David and I don't want to tell her that specifically, we don't want to give her the time limit. She doesn't talk about dying and never reaches the stage of acceptance, and as far as I am concerned, it isn't our right to force it on her. Aaron disagrees, but I don't know how much so until he tells me someone is on the phone for me, and I am ambushed into talking to our father.
At this point Adam and I haven't spoken for about five years. He is a smoothie on the call, at his oiliest and most condescending, his dulcet tones trying to lull me into agreement by telling me how I am doing everything right, how I am caring for her with such love and courage, but that I am horribly wrong to keep the news from her about how long she has to live. He then blows whatever tidbit of goodwill he might squeeze out of me by saying how he knows she is dying, that if he thought there was any chance for a recovery he would be there himself, not leaving it in my inexperienced hands. He says that through nutrition and herbs he would cure her if there were still any hope. At that moment I want him to get cancer. I want it to travel up his spine, reach into his skull, envelope his brain and stop him from talking.
That is what I want to say.
Instead I calmly, rationally explain how and why David and I believe not giving her the time limit is proper, that she knows how serious things are anyway. With every word, every syllable I resent having to talk to him about my mother. The woman he abused. The woman he kept me from. But then the wind goes out of my sails and I just finish the call without complaint. There is so much else to deal with, and who cares about my father anyway, who cares about Aaron. Who cares.
Aaron and I are estranged for a number of years after Mom's death, for complicated reasons, some financial, some having to do with a bitter falling out between Aaron and our uncle. The fact that I can't forgive him for making me take that call from Adam doesn't help matters. I treat Aaron badly during her death but I have no way of quantifying any of it. When you're in the trenches, there every day with creeping death, there's nothing anyone can contribute that you really care to hear. They're just tourists. You live there.
But Aaron does finally dive into the trenches when Mom is in the hospital, during her last days. She is barely conscious most of the time. David and I are fried, overwrought, unable to function. Aaron stays awake the whole time, Led Zeppelin in his Walkman keeping him alert, so he can make sure the morphine drip is working, that the nurses are doing their jobs. He is determined that Mom have whatever comfort is possible while she is dying in front of our eyes.
The day before Mom dies her chest is a mess. The cancer has broken to the surface everywhere and she is a sea of ruptured flesh.
When my uncle comes for what will be his last visit, he can't hide how repulsed he is. He tries to pull the sheet over her chest, but I don't let him, saying she is too hot and shouldn't be covered. I don't remember now if she really was hot, but I do remember that I don't want him to cover her because I want him to have to see what her death is like. Making my uncle look at her bloodied chest is my way of punishing him. I have to punish someone.
Comments? Questions? Email me.
Saturday, December 09, 2006
Cat Scratch Fever
The confusion over my mother's true identity during the Santeria ceremony finally flips a switch in my head. Baby pink light bulb please. I now understand that she is Latina. Mexican. Not white. Not Jewish. And more than most likely an illegal alien. I would enjoy this more if she weren't dying.
Knowing Mom is a Latina would not have bothered me as a child. It just never occurred to me. The ethnicity of your saint and savior isn't something you really think about. The dopiest part of it is that the name given as her maiden name on my birth certificate, which may or may not be her true maiden name, is decidedly Latino, not the Anglo one at all. I just never noticed.
Out of pride I then start giving out the Latino one as her maiden name to financial institutions. The problem now is that I don't know which name I've given to which company. It's fairly embarrassing when they ask and I give them the wrong name. It takes a while after that to convince them that I am who I say I am. I don't take it personally though. Their suspicion is understandable, and with my history of pretending on the phone to be my mother, I'm in no position to make a fuss.
The story is that my father had fake documents created for my mother when they married - a driver’s license, birth certificate, social security card - the works. Mom thinks she remembers having a sister. Her father dies young. Her mother is abusive. That is the extent of what I learn about that side of my family.
There has been a marriage before my father, to a man even more violent and abusive. My dad Adam is apparently a breath of fresh air, at least for a while. I think they end up divorcing because Mom always fights back. She tells me about gaining the upper hand with him occasionally, how during one particularly violent fight, for instance, he isn't wearing a shirt, and her Siamese cat freaks out and flies across the room, sinking its claws deep into Adam's back, and hanging on. My father can't get the snarling, spitting cat off until he starts beating his back against the wall. The cat finally falls off and hides under the bed. Adam is bleeding all over the shag carpet and they have to go to the emergency room. Mom is laughing. She says even Adam can't keep from laughing.
Until I am in my 20s I tell people that as a very young child I see him strangle her, that she collapses to the floor unconscious, and I go into asthmatic hysterics, thinking she is dead.
This is a lie.
I never see anything like that happen. I am just an inveterate drama queen, and I put myself into my mother's narrative. She is the one who tells me the story about the cat and Adam's bleeding back. She is the one who tells me he strangled her to the point of passing out. Mom says my father comes one step away from killing her. But that she isn't afraid. She says she never gives him the satisfaction of making her afraid.
She lies about being afraid. I lie about seeing her almost die. Maybe that makes us even.
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Tuesday, November 14, 2006
Sacrificing the Chicken
I try not to think about the fact that my mother is dying; except sometimes at night, with Stephen's steady breathing in the background, and me sitting up, paralyzed.
About eight months into it there is a recurrence of my mother's breast cancer. Mom and her husband David still keep the reports from Austin upbeat. Then my uncle calls my in New York and says don't I understand? She is dying. I need to get back to Texas. I'm still grateful to him for that. I might not have had the sense to do it on my own.
Stephen and I are contemplating changes then anyway. He hates his job and wants to become a teacher. Meeting him and getting my play optioned has satisfied the aims of my return to New York. We have increasingly begun talking about relocating to Los Angeles, a place he has always dreamed of one day living. A place where I don't mind being.
So we move to Texas. Underneath is the understanding that when my mother dies we will move to Los Angeles, but we don't talk about that. Once in Austin the structure of the days with my mother present themselves fully formed. David is exhausted from being the main caretaker for eight months prior while holding down his job so I take over the lead role. I cook for her. We have long talks. She is all I think about, the sole focus of my life.
People who lived in London during World War II sometimes say how wonderful the experience was, scary, but transformational. Everything else fell to the wayside while the importance of living, of feeling took precedence.
It is like that for me with my mother. I'm not even scared. I'm just with her and that's enough. More than enough. It's everything. At some point in the chemotherapy, radiation, macrobiotics, faith healing, meditation, self-help world we live in during her illness, I learn about a Caribbean religious practice called Santeria from my friend Tanya who believes in it wholeheartedly. Her father, a rich stockbroker, also believes. They say their babalao (a kind of witch doctor is the best way I can describe him) can help, but it will cost a lot. When Tanya mentions it to me I have a choice to make about whether I will bring it up with Mom. I am hyper-aware of wanting to make sure every important decision is made by her, not because I don't want the responsibility, but because I believe passionately that I have no special knowledge of what will make her well, that none of us, not even the doctors do, and I'm not going to position myself as some self-proclaimed expert. I don't want to put that on her and I don't want to put it on myself. I knew if she dies I'll have to live with every single choice I have made; every single word I have said. I believe they aren't my choices. They are hers.
We fly to Chicago where the babalao lives. Mom is weakening but you wouldn't necessarily know that to look at her. In fact, she looks better than she has in years, since the macrobiotics and chemo have contributed to a stunning weight loss. She started getting a little heavy once she hit her 40s and now she looks years younger. While in Chicago we are trying to cross a windy street and I shudder to remember that I grow impatient with how slow she is walking. For that moment I forget how sick she is. Why we are here. She becomes a little reproachful, saying it's hard for her to get around, and I am mortified. How could I have let myself for even an instant be so insensitive? There are two isolated moments like that during her illness that haunt me to this day. The other is during a day when a friend of hers is visiting and I feel like Mom is treating me a bit like a flunky. After all, I am there for her, not to provide bedside table service for her friend. I make the horrible mistake of telling her I feel a bit underappreciated. She bursts into tears. "How could you think that? How could you believe I don't appreciate you?" My stomach drops to my knees. How could I make her cry. Why did I say anything.
I block out a lot of the Santeria ceremony itself, even while it is happening. There is a fair amount of blood. A chicken is killed. Maybe a goat. But the clearest image that comes back to me is seeing that the babalao has the same linoleum in his kitchen as my mother, a fact she doesn't much like, whispering to me, "I know, I know," and waving me away when I point it out.
There is confusion about her correct name during the ceremony. Tanya blames the ultimate failure of it to cure my mother on this name confusion. The problem is we don't know my mother's real maiden name, because she isn't sure of it herself. Mom was on her own in South Texas from something like the age of eight, living as a sort of servant girl with a family who had a decidedly Anglo name that she took as her own. When I first became an adult that was the name I gave as her maiden name to financial institutions. But when she is sick we talk a lot about her life. It is never a proper narrative, just bits and pieces.
I learn that she had a Mexican mother and she believed her father was of Indian descent, maybe French-Indian, maybe Mexican-Indian. The fact that she isn't Anglo, and by association, that I am not either, only then fully dawns on me. Family photos make our mixed ethnic background perfectly clear but you don't know you're in denial about something until you stop denying it. Her Latino heritage is never mentioned by the Bernsteins. Photos of me with my brothers from my dad's first wife also make clear the distinction, or at least make it clear that we couldn't possibly have had the same two parents.
My father threatens me once, saying there are things I don't know about my mother, that she had a past. What could he reveal? Did she kill someone? Was she a whore at some point? I don't think so. But who cares? There is nothing he could say that would make me love her differently or think any less of her. I have no shame or embarrassment.
Maybe a week or so before she dies, I am helping her spruce up in bed. She takes a warm washcloth and wipes between her legs, then carefully wraps another cloth around it before handing it to me, saying I shouldn't touch it, that it's dirty. I don't care. I would bury my face in it weeping, except for fear that it might upset her.
Comments? Questions? Email me.
Monday, October 30, 2006
Waiting To Exhale
Mom gets breast cancer while I am in New York with Stephen. She calls me, her voice breaking just a little, saying she has bad news, but that it is all going to be all right. Her reports are upbeat. I fly to Texas when she has her surgery. They say they got it all and we are relieved, pretending to be completely reassured of her good health. I can't contemplate her death for any length of time without going to pieces, particularly since as a child I endlessly obsessed about the possibility that she would die so often and so intensely that I sometimes made myself sick with asthma attacks and stomach pain. Year later I tell that to the psychic who now stays with our miniature dachshunds when we're out of town, and she says that from an early age I was psychically aware I would lose my mother too soon, and that this psychic knowledge was part of my possessive attachment to her. Now I live in California. I have taken our oldest dog for shiatsu where the practitioner smudged her to rid her of negative chi. It's easy for me to accept the word of our psychic pet sitter, if for no other reason than my mother's death was the thing I feared most in the world and it happened. Adam took her away from me. Then death did too.
In New York as it is happening I try not to think about it except sometimes at night, with Stephen's steady breathing in the background, and me sitting up, paralyzed. About eight months into it there is a recurrence. Mom and David still keep the reports upbeat. Then my uncle calls and says I don't understand: She is dying, I need to get back to Texas. I'm still grateful to him for that. I might not have had the sense to do it on my own.
This is not supposed to be happening now. I am in love with Stephen, in love for the first time, and I don't have A.I.D.S. And I am writing seriously. My nonexistent acting career (I'll write about that some other time) has finally morphed into what I should be doing.
I started writing a play about a dead mother and the ones she leaves behind.
But I began the script a year before my return to Texas; four months before my 48 year-old mother is diagnosed with anything. As far as I know she is perfectly healthy when I begin the dead mother play. Almost as soon as I finish the script a friend of an acquaintance reads it and options it. She was Delta Burke's manager though she is now suing over the "Designing Women" money. This was the big time. This rush of bliss crashes for no apparent reason before Mom has cancer. Everything is ostensibly coming up roses. But old feelings of failure press into me during my days alone when I am supposed to be writing, I think a lot about illness. And depression. And death.
I'm told that someone asked me when I was three or four if I knew what death was. I don't know the context. Maybe a dog died. Maybe I shot my father in his sleep. Apparently I answered the person that yes, I did know what death was, that it was knowing all the answers to all the questions you have without even asking. Spooky for a kid with no religious background.
Maybe writing the play is what gets me thinking about death so much around then. All the characters are dealing with it, with their guilt, their sorrow. Death starts to seem kind of nice to me, and comfortable, not in a suicidal sense. I just like contemplating the gorgeous quiet, the peace, and the release of it, the relief.
I have this tic that started when I was really young: Wherever I am, whoever I'm with, when they leave the room, the building, the house, or whatever, I listen for the door to close behind them. When I hear that click and know they're gone I can breathe easy. I'm no misanthrope. I might even go so far as to call myself one of the people who need people, though I would stop short of considering myself among the luckiest people in the world. Not surprising that the habit of waiting for doors to close started when I would wait to hear my dad leave the house, knowing it was safe to come out when he was gone. The habit continued though, through the years with my mom and step-dad, through my years in New York, with Stephen, and I still feel it now. I've come to believe it is a sigh of relief, the "Waiting to Exhale" moment of knowing the audience is gone. I can revert to being myself, whomever or whatever that is. I can be like a big blob with no one there to watch, no one there wondering why I'm not better than I actually am.
Comments? Questions? Email me.
Sunday, October 01, 2006
With my mother's bessing and the acknowledgement of our shared belief in unseen powers, I move back to New York, register with a service called Brunch Buddies and find the first love of my life in three days. Magic.
Stephen is tall, handsome, has a real job, and drives a motorcycle. He thinks I am lively. After years of not knowing how to do it, I fall into our relationship with an absolute lack of muss and fuss, not much questioning the massive change in my life, the impossible suddenly emerging as not just possible but easy. The universe loves me. I start to believe that again. Maybe I'm regaining my powers.
My first date with Stephen lasts eighty hours. We are tender and careful with one another. I love that he is larger, taller, that he can envelope me in his arms and hold me warm against his chest. He doesn't talk as much as I do. That makes him seem strong to me, invulnerable, protective. I throw myself headlong into becoming what I consider to be a loving partner. By and large it works. I commit myself again to transformation and by choosing to become something I admire, something new, I make it real. I decide to love him and I do.
The fucking astrologer, who so long ago told me love had to be at the center of my life, has turned out to be so accurate that it is embarrassing. Loving and being loved sets off an explosive chain reaction in me, almost instantaneously demolishing huge chunks of the emotional walls that once seemed so impregnable. Mom and I start talking constantly on the phone. We talk about our sex lives, about what it feels like to be in love, about the past. I begin to let her know about the way I fetishized her as a child, about how desperate I was all the time. We both cry when she tells me she never knew. She feels guilty that I was in such pain and she couldn't tell. I cry some more. There is almost always an edge of tears to our calls. Mostly happy ones, but still… I love her so much. Finally. Not the idea of her. Her.
I am working at home, doing freelance work for the promotions company in Los Angeles, trying to drum up business for them in New York. Mom has been right about how much they value me. They keep paying me for over six months, even as their own fortunes head south, leading to bankruptcy a year later. I use my free time to write and to become a housewife, getting dinner on the table every night when Stephen comes home, and throwing myself into becoming the ideal in-law with his brother and sister in-law who live across the park and are about to have a baby.
There is one horrible fear nagging in the back of my mind though. I have never had an H.I.V. test. I am too scared. The sheer volume of encounters I've had, most of them completely unprotected, a majority involving practices that put me at greater risk that the other guy, make the outcome too certain. Stephen is negative. We are reckless with one another. Testing positive could not only mean losing my life, it could destroy my newfound happiness in finding out how successful I am at loving and being loved. Then one day I notice red welts on my stomach, low, going down to my crotch. I don't know if they are new, or if they are birth marks, or just something I've never noticed before. I don't tell Stephen about the welts because I am absolutely positive (positive, get it?) that I have Kaposi's Sarcoma. The year before my gums were bleeding and I thought I had A.I.D.S. then too. It turned out that not having my teeth cleaned for seven years was the problem. The hygienist, while communicating her amazement that my teeth and gums were still healthy under all that plaque, asked why I hadn't been to the dentist for so long. I said no one told me I was supposed to get them cleaned at all, let alone every year. That was true, but what I didn't tell her was how the bleeding had been scaring me for a few years already, but that I was too terrified to go to the dentist and ask about it since I believed I must be positive and the bleeding was symptomatic of my first opportunistic infection.
I hold out about the welts for a few weeks before breaking down in our bedroom, sinking from the bed to the floor as I show Stephen my lower abdomen and start sobbing. He hasn't noticed them before either since they are covered with the trail of body hair leading down to my pubic area, and he doesn't know if they are old or new. As I sit on the bedroom floor, pointing to my welts, trying to stop crying, Stephen is very gentle with me, understanding my terror, but reassuring me that he believes it is nothing, that it can't be A.I.D.S., and that he believes I am negative anyway. Wouldn't I like to finally get tested and not have to be afraid of anything?
He really thinks I'll test negative. I know he is wrong. We go to an alternative testing center at the women's health clinic, because they get the results back sooner than the gay community center. They give me this incredibly long speech about T-Cells, AZT, and DDI, what infection means, what it doesn't mean, while I'm screaming inside, "Take the goddamned blood!" I am scared of the needle but more scared of what it will show. My arms are rigid, my fists clenched, and Stephen puts his arm around me. Finally they take the blood samples and tell me to come back on Monday. It is Friday. I sit there thinking, it's now seventy-two hours before the rest of my life is gone (this is before cocktails and new inhalers) and then it washes over me, the strangeness of it. I am either positive or I am not, and my not knowing had nothing to do with what the results would be. It is a viral reality that exists independently of my fears or any new bargain I can offer God - though I do make the offer of giving up ice cream for the rest of my life for a negative result. I would not possibly be able to abstain from eating ice cream for a lifetime but I swear anyway.
Stephen just tries to keep me laughing, drunk, trying not to think all weekend. We have sex lovingly, carefully. He is prepared to take off work on Monday but I say no. I don't want to make any more of a fuss than I already have. I promise to call from the center if the news is bad so he can come get me. I walk into the lady's office and am again overwhelmed by the idea that a piece of paper has a result on it already, that I can't alter that in any way. She rummages through a file and doesn't even look at me. "Okay, that one is negative."
As shocked and overjoyed as I am, I think about her, about how hard it must be for her when the news is the opposite, and wondering why she doesn't take more pleasure in being able to tell someone good news. I expect a parade. Then I think, what if it's a false negative. I've heard of that happening. The next week I get another test just to be sure. Negative. I go to a dermatologist to find out what the welts on my stomach are.
They're stretch marks, like women get after giving birth. He says sometimes they can be caused by stress. Have I been under any particular stress? "Yes!" I say, "The stress of worrying that I might have A.I.D.S.!"
I don't have A.I.D.S. -- I am a housewife with stretch marks.
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Thursday, August 31, 2006
The Easter Bunny Gets Real
Who knew? My mother is as addicted to Magical Thinking as I am. She reassures me that I will find love. That I will find myself. Even if I have to retrace my steps 3,000 miles to do it. Enough is enough. I have to settle down with someone. Three years in Los Angeles go by quickly. My acting career is non-existent, though I do have a fabulous run as the Easter Bunny in a kiddie show. I don't take chances on anything that matters to me. But I'm still in show business since my day-job at a television and film promotional fulfillment company has turned into something resembling a grown-up career. I become a twenty-two year-old account executive, overseeing the distribution of press kits, posters, t-shirts, and various other ad specialty paraphernalia to television stations and video stores. It is better than shoveling elephant shit. If you don't get the reference, go ask someone else in The Showbiz to explain it to you.
I work myself into the ground at my new company, loving the feeling of totally losing myself, of reaching utter exhaustion, of living a kind of martyrdom. When you put in sixty, seventy hours a week, working harder than everyone else, no one can question you about anything you do. I don't want to be questioned. I just want to be right. In control. I am very bossy and some of the people I work with hate me. Maybe "hate" is too strong. They just can't fathom why it all matters so damned much to me, why it is life or death if a press kit goes out on time.
I sleep with my boss a few times, which appeals to my sense of drama since he is in a long-term relationship. I develop deep, if evanescent, crushes; on a slightly dimwitted blonde who works there (who poses nude for an art book and shows me the pictures), on a client at Paramount to whom I send flowers at the company's expense, on a gorgeous television production designer. Nothing comes of any of it.
I work all the time. When I have a free weekend I sit at the beach all day reading and eating hamburgers. A job offer in press and promotion from one of our clients shakes me up. Is this supposed to be my future? Have I spent my whole life dreaming I will live the Jacqueline Susann ideal only to end up writing promotional copy for syndicated television? Okay, so maybe I have needed some stability after my friend Pam's suicide. Maybe the job thing is a good choice. Temporarily. My mother almost kills me when I quit. She has been out to stay for a couple of and has met everyone at work. She sees how much they value me and knows how much I need that. The way she connects those dots touches me. She is a practical lady who cares about things like job security, but when she talks about my job as mattering to me emotionally, as being something important that fulfills a deep need, it dawns on me that she actually understands me better than I imagine. I take a step forward with her and let my hair down and tell her how she is right, but that I have dreams I am afraid of losing, that without those dreams I'm not sure if I actually exist. How I feel like a failure.
She gives me her blessing even though I get the sense that she thinks I am doing the wrong thing. We cry a lot together. Not over the job thing, not really, though that is the pretext. I think we both know that we have broken through to real connection at last. All it took was me admitting how scared I am. Practically all the time. I tell her another truth. Part of why I have quit my job is that I have come to have an overpowering belief that I will find love, not in Los Angeles, but back in New York.
My pragmatic mother grows even more supportive. I learn that she believes in psychic impressions too. She believes in magic. Like me.
Thursday, August 17, 2006
The Extra "E"
The New Age dawns for me in California. I embrace it for all it's worth and celebrate by killing my inner child. Really.
My grandmother, Beelzebubbe, used to clean out the refrigerator of any house she entered. Family, friends; even if she was just a dinner guest you could often find her in the kitchen emptying out the fridge, sometimes before anyone was in there doing the dishes. She would be there everything that that wasn’t unopened and vacuum-sealed from the store. Sometimes she’d throw that stuff away too, talking to no one in particular while she went along, grunting, rasping, saying "Good! Get rid of it! Good!"
She was always proud of leaving her hosts with almost no food, her work there done. That is probably how I am most like her. I have an impatience with any kind of mess and want things to be clean and orderly, gotten rid of at all costs. If a scab needs to be pulled do it now. Whatever the cost.
There is a curious, unintended upside. As controlling my physical environment grows more and more vital to my sense of well-being, imposing absolute order on my physical surroundings gives my mind the freedom to wander about recklessly. As the early '90s dawn, I come to neither expect nor want explanations for the mysteries of creativity, of the metaphysical world, or the human spirit. Who knew? I begin to explore lots of weird, supernatural, New Age, pop-psychology ideas, reveling in their messiness. Maybe I just like being contrary. People who know me expect rigidity. Perversely, I like surprising them with my California-appropriate spiritual openness. I even go to an energy movement specialist who hypnotizes me, drains the darkness from my chest, and helps me kill my inner child.
That death gives birth to the title of this opus.
It is a mercy killing. The psycho/meta energy movement man regresses me down to seeing this pathetic little boy (ostensibly me) and asks me what the boy wants. I say, "To die." I don't know where it comes from, but I know in an instant that it is quite true. His lonely suffering has been so acute, so damaging, that the only real answer is euthanasia. He dies happily.
I then can't resist running around and telling everyone I know, and many people I have only just met, that I have, indeed, just killed my inner child.
As I do with most things, I make light of it, enjoying the strange, counterintuitive triumph of doing something that feels revolutionary. And surprisingly, it does feel rather light and buoyant. Perhaps letting my inner child die is giving me an honest to God breakthrough. Or maybe it's the Herbal Life I'm taking. Or the wheatgrass juice. Or my new friend, the psychic dog sitter.
I don't know if it has anything to do with the killing of my inner self, but gradually I stop paying people for massages with happy endings. I'm not ready for real love, but I want to be. I vow to at least try to meet someone, and drop the pleasure for-hire since I intuit that I am unlikely to acquire a real boyfriend by buying one.
My skills at courtship are still rudimentary though. All I know how to do is pick up people in bars and clubs. The last time I did that, back in New York, it was a hunky bartender who rather inadvertently (I think) peed in my bed. We were both very drunk and he fell asleep as soon as he climbed into my bed, leaving me horny and pissed off. When I awoke his mouth was below my waist and he was holding me rigidly in place on my side of the bed, not letting me spread out over to the side where he had slept. When he was gone I figured out why. There was a huge puddle of pee on his side. Massage therapists and hookers don't wet the bed. Not unless you pay them to.
There was this sex channel for a long time in New York on free cable, where Robin Byrd had a talk show that opened with the song, "Baby Bang My Box," and where Al Goldstein of Screw Magazine would interview guests as he sat naked, his flaccid penis hidden by bulges of fat (a life changing, Medusa-like sight, that could replace capital punishment if it weren't so cruel and unusual). This station also offered commercials for prostitutes and phone sex. "We have warm, Oriental girls waiting to serve you." Like that. One particular phone sex commercial has stayed with me all these years. It was for 976-PEEE. A woman peed on a cop while saying, "The extra 'E' is for extra pee." Comments? Questions? Email me.
Monday, July 31, 2006
I tell no one about the relationship substitutes I am hiring. My mother calls asking if I'm seeing anyone special. Mom, they're all special.
Being truly intimate on a longterm basis, getting romantically close to people, seems unattainable. It isn't that I don't want to take someone home, have them go back to Texas with me and meet Mom and my stepfather, David. I crave the normalcy. I'm just not getting any better at figuring out how.
In fact I am regressing. The astrologer's demand that I love and be loved seems ever more Sisyphean and unreal. The great thing about paying for love is always being in control, even while giving my body over to someone. It's a love life devoid of emotional risk. The fact that I even think of it as a love life is probably more telling than I might wish, and more pathetic.
I stop writing here, worrying that I'm making myself appear pathetic. Should I go back, erase all of this? Talk about something less personal, like the size of my penis?
The need for control grows stronger. Like a metastasized cancer it spreads into all the crevices of my life. The massage habit is only one symptom. I develop a fetish for spring-cleaning in every season. In truth I will always look at the idea of reorganizing a closet as a fun and satisfying way to spend the afternoon. But I start getting weird about stuff, like an old person, obsessive and set in my ways. Towels have to be folded a certain way. Dishes stacked just so. Physical and emotional encounters continue to have clear boundaries. I liked cutting things away, starting from scratch. There is a destructive element to it all. You might imagine being able to put stuff in perfect, Germanic order is less a destructive activity than one of building or creating, but I don't think it's that at all. What I like is the ruthless clearing away, the garbage bags crammed full of trash, the shredded financial records.
I also develop a thing for what it feels like after the exterminator comes. There is an eerie stillness, no sound, nothing stirring, like nuclear winter, which I think of as comforting. I can stay in bed in my bomb shelter forever. Comments? Questions? Email me.
Thursday, July 13, 2006
If you talk about Marianne Williamson and Eastern religious beliefs before and after, is it still prostitution?
After my friend Pam's suicide, and once I settle in Los Angeles, seeking a new life (again) amid all the raucous, Technicolor flora, I find spiritual connection with practitioners of sensual massage and erotic release.
That's how it's worded in their ads. Or they call it a Happy Ending, which I guess is less legally suspect. The masseurs embrace a retro '70s gay-lib attitude of all things having to do with sexuality being beautiful. Death and love feel close and connected to me. Pam stays around as ghostly subtext, not a haunting, more like having someone possess me. It is far easier to seek the touch of a stranger than a Jewish exorcist.
Paid-for sensualists bring moments of contained happiness, and a new, if temporary, friendship. It's uncomplicated, perfect; a little expensive maybe, but often more reasonable than you might expect. So reasonable I sometimes feel guilty. Sensualists have to eat too. There is this one really skinny guy who does an hour and a half for $25.00. That's less than a grocery checker makes. The skinny masseur's dog sniffs around you sometimes while you're on the table, occasionally licking something private, which is a little disconcerting, but the guy is very nice. He speaks his poetry aloud while he works on me, my moans drowning out the words. (Just for the record I'm talking about moans from the deep tissue work, not from the happy ending.) After he finishes he likes to talk about writing and his spiritual journey. He believes in divine purpose. In things happening for a reason. I say I believe that too, and sometimes I do. Whatever else it is, this is not prostitution. There's also a guy in the Valley who's truly gifted at both parts of the massage. The whole thing becomes a bi-weekly ritual; the shiatsu moves, the almost-but-not-quite painful upper back work, the moment when I hear his shorts drop to the floor, the precise time for him to climb on the table and lower himself on top of me. His smile is so genuine it never fails to move me, and his blonde, blue-eyed Waspness seems exotic. He is happy. He exudes it in a way I can never imagine myself doing. A part of me gets bored by the ritualized repetition of his healing touch, but I grow to like the routine, to feel safe in knowing what I can expect and getting it every time.
Sometimes when I go to someone new I'm not always sure whether it's okay for it to go farther than the massage itself, and I don't want to insult anyone or be inappropriate, so I can feel awkward, but not once do I find someone who isn't perfectly comfortable exploring further, releasing me, finding me. They may not bring joy exactly, but it is incredibly joyful.
I don't have health insurance at the time. Paying for sex is much cheaper than going to a shrink.
The massage is almost always great, no matter who the guy is. So is the release. Sometimes I am moved to reciprocate, wanting them to feel what I feel, wanting them to like me. More than a few times men ask me not to pay, which I guess is the highest compliment a hooker can give you. That's just for cheap effect. I've already established they aren't hookers. Either that or definitions of prostitution should be widened. Actually, now that I think of it, Mary Magdalene was supposed to be sort of like these guys, cooling and healing with her ointments, showing Jesus he was still made of flesh and engorged blood, even if he was destined to be non-corporeal.
Thursday, July 06, 2006
The Glamorous Life
This is my life in New York: The alarm goes off and I have a glass of water, an amphetamine pill, and a caffeine pill on my bedside table. I take both pills and stumble into the shower.
By the time I towel off I'm bouncing off the walls, ready to face a new day. When I want to go to sleep I take a sleeping pill. I love the idea of it, since it's all so very "Valley of the Dolls."
Maybe tonight I'll take two. After all, it's New Year's Eve.
It is never actually as dramatic, or as Mickey and Judy as I like to tell people. The couple of months after I stop taking the pep pills are a real drag, but I can't say for sure whether during that time I don't want to get out of bed because I'm in withdrawal, depressed, or just being lazy. Sometimes I get myself out of bed and spend the day lying in the bathtub with the shower running, eating boxes of donuts and smoking, destroying the bathroom walls from the constant moisture. I resent having to get out of the tub to order nachos from the Mexican food restaurant on the corner, but a cordless phone around all that water seems unwise.
Lethargy mixes with an almost subconscious fear, not of anyone who lives in New York, but of my father coming to attack me. I have security alarms on my windows, again, not because of robber or rapists or killers, but because I dream about my dad, Adam, shooting me dead. He probably thinks about me rather less often than I imagine. And murdering me isn't a likely part of his mindset.
No matter how glamorous I pretend my life is (since glamour is absolutely defined by eating donuts and smoking in the shower, waiting on tables between bouts of depression, and occasionally stumbling home with a stranger) I'm finding it hard to shake the past.
I look back now on the crazy restaurant where I vent my fury by hurling entire trays of water glasses at the wall, shattering them into a million little pieces for real, with a perverse kind of affection. I haven't had any job since where I can get away with chucking sour cream and destroying property with impunity.
At the time I don't connect my frequent bouts of rage with anything having to do with my family. I'm just blowing off steam. It's normal. Right? I remember people I wait tables with there, I can see their faces more clearly than some friends I've known for years. Restaurant staffs are good to one another, creating family, even if it lasts as little as a week or two.
I first learn about workplace family life from my mother. During the last ten years or so of her life she is the manager of a department store, first in Austin, then in Georgetown, Texas. She cooks for the women who work for her. She gets involved in their lives, warning this one that her boyfriend is treating her badly, helping that one with a sick child. I don't connect those dots at the time. I don't understand how much I absorb from my mother during the six years I live with her. It's all subtext waiting to be fully realized later.
The camaraderie of the wait staff is exactly the same though. And the lonely 4:30 A.M. shift notwithstanding, we usually travel in packs after work, getting hammered together, hanging out in all-night diners, having sex. A shift is like a performance of a show. Sometimes I even pretend to have a different name. I tell phony stories about my background, use accents, or I even sometimes fake a limp. After a shift there is this leftover energy to burn off. We aren't the lifers - the waiters and waitresses who make it a career - so we can party.
It's a wonder we don't all get mugged or killed once we split up to make our separate ways home, drunkenly wandering the streets of New York in our tell-tale uniforms of white shirts and black pants, our pockets full of cash.
The glamour of it all still astounds me.
Monday, June 26, 2006
We anticipated a few bits of gravel showing up in one, or maybe two customers' salads. But when we start finding bits of glass it probably should be a wake up call. It isn't.
Let's take a step backwards here, you and I, from the grim, hangman's tone of the last few posts. It's now before my dead friend Pam and I begin our dance in the dark, before I decide to leave New York, before I am told by the creepy astrologer that without love I am nothing.
I am nineteen, a year out of the American Academy of Dramatic Art, two years from moving to Los Angeles. Waiting tables is what I do while pretending to have a career as an actor. The thing is, I'm actually really good at it. I have the multitasking capabilities of a soccer mom, which is what a good waitron-unit must have if any level of competence is to be mastered. It's like throwing several small dinner parties at once, where everything has to come out at the right time if the courses are going to work out, and where every guest has an allergy he or she failed to phone you about beforehand.
While living in New York I work in a number of places, most of them fairly respectable, but all of them managed and/or owned by specimens from a vile, hostile, cruel-just-for-fun, mistrustful, abusive subspecies of the human race. By and large, restaurant owners and managers are just not nice. They fire waitresses for not giving them blowjobs. They think racial and sexual slurs are funny. They deal drugs on the premises and never share.
The kitchen staffs are difficult in a different way, and unlike with the owners and managers, if you prove yourself to the cooks and prep guys (always guys) then an atmosphere of mutual if distant respect can prevail. Every kitchen staff is composed of the same ethnic group, be it Korean, Caribbean, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Chinese, or Indian, and they are all invariably hostile to waitpeople, at least initially, probably because in the places I wait tables most of the waitpeople were white and working with no expectation of making it a career. The kitchen staff think of us as dilettantes, guilty until proven innocent. It is physically very hard work, especially in New York, where storage basements are usually reached by going outside, wrestling open two huge metal doors in the sidewalk, and descending down perilous steps to dark, dank, moldy, rat-infested caverns. Eat and enjoy.
I never knowingly put gravel or glass in a customer's salad. It just happens THIS ONE TIME at a place owned by a notorious cokehead who constantly shows his penis to all of us, whether we want to see it or not. (It isn't even particularly large or interesting - not unless white pubic hair gives you a big thrill.) Anyway, there is an enormous refrigerated salad bin in the kitchen that has to be replenished by the waitpeople, who are required to haul gigantic trash cans full of pre-prepared, cancerous, phosphate-preserved salad up the basement steps, through the metal doors, across a long length of sidewalk, and into the kitchen.
Doing this in the snow is its own little holiday on ice. If we stuff enough salad in the trash cans however - smashing the greens down, packing them as tightly as possible, we can often manage to make only one trip in an evening's shift rather than having to do the whole thing twice.
So we load the salad bins and jump on top of them, mashing the salad down with our feet until the bin's capacity reaches its limit.
The gravel and glass must come from our shoes. I suppose we could put something between our shoes and the salad itself, some plastic wrap or whatever, but why would we?
At this particular restaurant they like to promote you to senior staff as soon as they can. I am senior staff at nineteen even though I'm not even technically allowed to sell alcohol yet. We serve the full menu until 4:30 in the morning, every night of the week. The senior staff member selected to work the late-late part of the night arrives two hours into the dinner shift at 6:30. By 9:30 or 10:00 some of the other waitpeople are allowed to leave, as the dinner crowd dwindles. More depart by 11:30 or midnight, then at 1:00 in the morning comes magic time:
One waitperson, one busboy, and one bartender. That's it. Not even a manager.
Sometimes the 1:00 to 4:30 hours are uneventful, but other times you find yourself with twenty tables. A triage situation. A strange mania I call Waiter Psychosis takes control as I juggle the food and drink orders. Any extraneous movement or conversation that interrupts my flow puts the entire mission in jeopardy.
One time I throw sour cream in a woman's face.
Here's how it is: I'm there, it's 2:00, and she is giving me such a hard time, sending things back over and over, three times, four times, and I have so many other customers. She tops off her obnoxiousness by telling me she thinks I 'm not very nice. Me? Not nice? I am niceness itself to my customers, genuinely warm, listening with unfeigned interest to their stories, even the boring ones, the very tedium of them fascinating me. If she wants to tell me I'm not nice, I tell her I'll just show her how not nice I can really be. At least the sour cream is in a paper container. It doesn't bruise her or anything as I fling it at her, its gluey whiteness splattering all over her face. I call her a Miserable Fucking Bitch and tell her to get out and not to come back. Or I'll kill her. (I'm really not kidding. I did this. Which is why I call the syndrome Waiter Psychosis. Not to be cute. But because it is insanity itself that takes over when nerves are stretched too far beyond the breaking point.)
After I chase out the woman who is now as sour on the outside as she is within, I leave a message for the next day's manager telling him of having to throw a drunken lady customer out because she was scaring the other customers by flinging sour cream around and screaming at me when I refused to give her more to drink.
This is in case the sour lady calls to complain. The manager won't think I'm the crazy one. He'll think she is.
Sometimes at the end of one of these really long shifts, after finishing my side work (which is refilling salt and pepper shakers, ketchup bottles, and the like) I blow off steam by hurling entire dishwasher racks full of glasses at the brick walls, leaving a spiky river of shards, taking an almost sexual pleasure from it. I know the Korean kitchen porters arrive in the morning before anyone else and their first task is to sweep the dining room, so not one of the managers or owners will find out.
Whether the sweepers regard all that glass as out of the ordinary never enters my mind. There's always broken glass everywhere at the restaurant anyway. Even in the salads.
Thursday, June 15, 2006
Breakfast with a Tiffany Lamp
Maybe it isn't stealing since the will leaves everything to me... Or is it?
In Philadelphia for Pam's funeral I wonder if people think it's my fault. I am nice to her father and her evil step-mother, betraying Pam by cozying up to the two people she hates, because I want them to reassure me that they don't blame me. I am somebody else with them. The urge to play and pretend makes a comeback. It is all acting, the flight, the funeral, all of it. My old heroin addict acting teacher from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts would be proud.
The whole performance is a break-through in emotional realism, even as I try to firmly distance myself from the reality of what I feel after her death. After she kills herself. After I find her.
Pam's father assures me he will honor Pam’s suicide note and will, though her is also quick to point out that it probably isn't legally enforceable. He wants me to have whatever is left after probate, but tells me not to expect too much. Flying her body out from Los Angeles has been very expensive, and it is only fair, in his words, to pay for it out of her own money. Then he starts asking me what I know about various pieces of furniture and art Pam got after her mother's death, if he might have them back, since they were stolen from him by his wife.
I say I think Pam has sold a lot of stuff, that I'm not sure. I am scheduled to leave on a flight the morning after the funeral. I stay only twenty minutes at the post-funeral buffet, pleading exhaustion. They tell me Pam was lucky to have a friend like me, and that they hope I will stay in touch. I am such a good person.
From their place I take a cab to the train station and immediately go to Pam's apartment in New York. I take everything; the art, the small pieces of furniture, the jewelry, all of it.
Her father calls me a week later to say he is surprised at how little is left in Pam's apartment of the stuff his wife took from him. Did Pam sell everything? I say I guess she must have. I cling to what I have taken. I want it all. Including an original Tiffany table lamp I will sell for a lot of money years later.
I am not honest. I don't tell her father that these things are mine by rights. That they were Pam's mother's, left to her, then left to me. For him to get any of it back is unthinkable; a betrayal of what killed Pam, even of what killed her mother.
When I get back to Los Angeles my mother calls from Texas and asks if I want her to come out and stay with me for a while. Stupidly I tell her no, rejecting the idea, not wanting to be weak or needy. No one can know how dark it is in my head, least of all my idealized mother, who can only stay idealized at a distance.
Pam and I come from the same place and have the same weaknesses, keeping everything good at arm's length while we luxuriate in pain. She is now in the past tense. I am overwhelmed by her death, by the absence of her, but one true thing emerges: The astrologer in New York, the one who says I must have love or die , is right about me. Accept it or die. Just like Pam, like Pam, Pam --
Six weeks later probate closes. Her father sends me a check for $2,000.
Comments? Questions? Email me.
Monday, June 12, 2006
Stealing From the Dead
It's the night my best friend hangs herself at the Howard Johnson's. I'm a shepherd boy singing a love song to Mary Magdalene. Really.
My friend Pam is in Los Angeles, still alive for only a few more hours, though I don't know this yet. I'm acting in a terrible musical in a small dumpy dinner theater, where I play a shepherd boy who falls in love with a non-reciprocating Mary Magdalene, performed by an actress whose main claim to fame is her decade-old Miss West Virginia title.
The wig the actor playing Jesus is forced to wear makes him look like Marlo Thomas in "That Girl." Often when he turns his head too quickly, the wig goes a bit askew. Keeping a straight face while he sings at me is hard work - the kind of thing they never prepare you to do when you're in acting school. It's my first job in La La Land. Hooray for Hollywood.
When I get back to Pam's hotel after the show there is no answer at the door. Pam is supposed to be having dinner with a mutual friend and I figure they are out at a bar or something, which pisses me off, since Pam knows I'm coming back to the hotel after my show.
The thing is, I'm stuck. A crazy older lady cousin of mine has rented a room to me near Toluca Lake. I've already told her I'll be staying with Pam tonight. The cousin is nutty and prone to fits of rage. If I go back there it means waking her up, since she will have put the chain on the door. Waking her up is a bad idea. Plus I'm embarrassed. I don't want to admit that Pam has forgotten me.
It's cold. I wait in the car. My shepherd boy costume has this cavernous cloak/cape thing, so I use it as a blanket, and I fall asleep, waiting in the parking lot. Even as I sleep I grow angrier with Pam. How could she do this to me? I'm ashamed; ashamed that I'm stupid, unloved, and disposable. After I've taken such care, shown such concern for Pam, how can she forget me like this? I grow furious.
After a fitful night I knock on her hotel room door again. Still no answer. I make the maid let me in the room. My anger with Pam evaporates as I'm filled with a surreal sense of absolute disconnectedness. Time stops. The bathroom door is ajar. I peek though and see Pam's fingers, ruddy and dirty looking at the fingertips, hanging over the side of the bathtub.
After the maid screams in Spanish and her supervisor pronounces Pam dead, over and over, her southern accent searing itself in my brain, we find a hand-written will leaving most everything to me. The suicide note says nothing really; just that she's sorry; that everything hurts too much; that this is the only way.
Before the police arrive I grab Pam's purse and hide it in my backpack. The cops get there and tell me to go wait in the hotel restaurant. I call a friend who calls my cousins - the nice ones, not the crazy lady I live with, and they come and stay with me. I go into the men's room and look through Pam's purse. She has five hundred dollars in cash. I put it in my pocket.
The police seem to suspect me for a while. The handwritten will can be construed as suspicious. Maybe I'm her killer. I sit in the restaurant drinking scotch on the rocks, waiting to be questioned. I'm the star of this episode of "Law and Order." When they finally get to me, several hours later, I can see it in their eyes, that just a few questions is all it takes for whatever interest they have in me to disappear. I am skinny, effeminate, and bewildered. Not a killer's profile, I guess.
The cops are patient and nice. They tell me how she hangs herself on the shower rod, how the weight of her body pulls it down after a while, which is why I find her crumpled and broken looking in the tub. Her fingertips are discolored, they say, because that happens with dead bodies. I let them know I have her purse; that it isn't missing or anything. I explain that I was afraid someone might steal it, so I picked it up almost instinctively. They search it and find no money, but they don't accuse me of taking it.
I have five hundred dollars in my pocket, stolen from a dead woman, but I am innocent.
I insist on acting with Mary Magdalene that night, ridiculously proud of how I know the show must go on. I don't know what I feel yet, and the rest of the cast are very careful with me. I want to play to their sympathies. I want to try on the role of tragic widow. Very "Valley of the Dolls." But something brittle inside me snaps. Her death feels real, and I don't like it.
She had to know I would be the one to find her. That goes around my head. She had to know. I sing my shepherd boy song and go home.
Comments? Questions? Email me.
Monday, June 05, 2006
Hanging Around Howard Johnson's
You know the show you're in sucks when you have to be drunk to get through the performance. Running away to La La Land solves nothing. Not when the Reaper tags along.
After my six-hour session with the astrologer, I'm completely convinced I've got to change my whole life. I must find love or I will never be famous. My friend Pam wants to change her life too, so we set out trying to do it together. But before we can really implement our makeover, Pam's mom gets really sick with leukemia. This puts a crimp in our plans to love and be loved.
Everything happens to me.
While Pam goes to Philadelphia to be with her mother, I go on tour with the ghastliest musical revue in the history of musical revues. In a red velvet jacket, singing in Italian, Polish, Yiddish, and even ocassionally, English, in places like the Jerry Lewis Room at the Brown's Hotel. Our boss is a bombastically mean, fat, smelly man who has been staging the same show since 1950 or something. We are all ill-prepared, unrehearsed, and miserable about it. During the day the elderly Jewish clientele at the "resorts" where we play buy us endless drinks. We usually perform bombed out of our minds. It makes the time go by quicker.
I stage a labor walkout. Half of us quit the show over our treatment and unpaid wages, and we catch a bus in the early hours before anyone can stop us. Like we're escaping from prison, which we are.
Pam calls when I get back to New York. Things in Philadelphia are bad. Her mom is dying. My worst, most secret fear in my own life is that my mother will die, and I'm willingly drawn into Pam's drama, heart and soul. I go to Philly.
Her mom's apartment is like a warehouse. Through ugly divorce proceedings with Pam's father, still ongoing, the mother manages to filch as much art and furniture as she can get her hands on, all of it forming a maze in her apartment you have to stumble through to get anywhere. Pam and I sit down to eat. Over the dining room table is an enormous oil painting of a cemetery, with agonized wraiths rising from the graves, their mouths contorted by screaming. I make Pam cover it with a blanket.
Pam's mom dies a couple of weeks later and I am there for Pam as best as I can. There are endless issues to resolve with the estate and ongoing fights between Pam and her father. She is sometimes irrational; as if he is touching her again, like when she was a kid, loving her in all the wrong ways. Depression hits fast and hard. I glom on to her depression, letting it give substance and ballast to my own misery, fear, and lack of direction. I still don't know how to love or be loved and my career doesn't exist.
I decide to move to Los Angeles. I need a change. I need to be someone else. Pam doesn't want me to leave. I go anyway. I love L.A., spending the first month going to the beach every day and eating the same lunch at the same restaurant, charging it to my American Express card. I charge a month of car rental to it too. And new clothes. I have no job or income. Meanwhile, Pam's spirits are dropping. She decides to see a shrink who prescribes Nardil, the first time I learn the name of an actual antidepressant. I'll know all the names later.
Palm trees vs. the onset of winter in New York; I persuade Pam to come out to L.A., just to visit, maybe she will like it here, maybe she can move too, and she says yes. I am ashamed to admit that I make her suffer through a ridiculous charade when I introduce her to my cousins who live in the Valley. I say we are engaged. That Pam and I will soon be married. Though I am totally out to friends, acquaintances, and the people I have sex with, I still haven't gotten around to having that conversation yet with family. I don't know why not. But saying we're engaged embarrasses the hell out of Pam - not because she minds people thinking we love one another, since we do, but because I am twenty and she is thirty, and she has been married once briefly before. She thinks my cousins will think her a cradle robber. Probably they do not; too busy laughing at the idea that I will marry a woman to worry over the age difference.
Pam and I have no real plans and she keeps extending her visit, staying on at a hotel where I often spend the night with her. We still tell each other our worst childhood stories ever. We eat in coffee shops. We pretend one day we will have everything we want, everything we think we need. She is still depressed. So am I. She hangs herself at the Beverly Garland Howard Johnson's in Studio City, which is now a Holiday Inn. The shower rod is broken. Pam is crumpled in the bathtub. The maid screams in Spanish and her supervisor comes in. "That girl's dead," the supervisor says over and over. "She's just dead."
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Tuesday, May 30, 2006
Venus and the Grim Reaper
Astrology and Tarot change the course of my life; while Death is the understudy waiting to seize the lead role as soon as the star obligingly breaks her neck.
I am flailing. Sinking. It is astounding to me now that apart from my time at the American Academy and a semester at NYU, I will never go to college. That just doesn't happen to Jewish people of a certain class. It is an impenetrably idiotic decision, based in my sense that college is frivolous and fun, and so I should embrace the misery of my climb to success.
Or some shit like that.
I just stay in New York, waiting tables, falling into a fantasy life of how I will be Discovered, so I don't need to waste my time going to school. I've lost too much time already, the years being forced to live with my father, and I want to live my real life NOW. The fact that there is nothing at all real about my relationship to life doesn't occur to me. Yet I always seek solace and solutions, often in unorthodox places.
My friend Pam, my partner in the crime of fantasy, is the one who will pay the bill when it comes due. She hears about an astrologer and Tarot reader who's supposed to be fabulous. We both decide to go. I know he will tell me how rich and famous I am destined to become. We make our appointments separately. I go to see him first. He is on the Upper West Side, in a filthy, pack-ratty apartment covered with cat hair.
My reading lasts six hours.
This man knows every goddamned thing about my life and he scares the hell out of me. Abusive dad? Gotcha. World travel? Ditto. But it goes so much farther. I am convinced he can see into my soul. I also get the feeling he wants to date me, but that seems a little beside the point, even though it could be construed as undercutting his principal bombshell, which comes when he asks me what I think is the most important thing in my life, the one thing I can't live without.
I say success.
He shakes his head, getting very, very serious and telling me that it is imperative I understand this: loving and being loved is at the very center of my entire existence, and that without it my life will come to tragedy and early death.
Well. He goes on to say that I currently have a small window of vulnerability in the wall of emotional defenses I elaborately constructed as a young child - that if I don't break through these defenses, if I don't find a way to be closer to people; to my mother, to myself, to someone who will love me unreservedly - if I don't accept what he is saying fully, take it in, truly accept it - if I don't do this - I might never have another chance. Ever.
I am terrified. Particularly since if my life ends in tragedy and early death, that probably implies I won't become rich and famous.
But I know what he says is true. I know he is telling me who I really am. Not who I want to be. Who I pretend to be.
Our schedules keep Pam and me apart for a few days, during which time she has her reading. When we get together and I excitedly tell Pam all about me reading, she is terribly jealous. We both paid the same fee. I got six hours and a life changing experience. She got one hour with a lot of questions about depression.
She doesn't know that her understudy is getting impatient.
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Wednesday, May 24, 2006
P.B.J. Needs Prozac
Two drama queens find best-friendship amid the dementia of the Pimp Acting Teacher's classes.
My new best friend Pam is under the same spell as I am. We think Carol, the Pimp Acting Teacher, is supernaturally gifted and will make us world famous. It seems a very reasonable expectation to us both; a comment on our mutual insanity.
Pam is an older woman. I am twenty and she is thirty. Pamela Brenda Jacobson (P.B.J.) which stands for her initials as well as her favorite sandwich. Pam and I actually served time at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts together without really knowing one another well. But we don't really become close until we are studying with our magic woman. We meet up after our restaurant shifts in separate restaurants most nights at a place on 88th Street and Second Avenue called Cronie's. At two o'clock in the morning we have buffalo wings. I drink scotch. She drinks vodka. During the day we hang out in Greek coffee shops dreaming about the future, reassuring one another how unfair and temporary it is that we aren't being recognized by the world for our essential fabulousness.
Somewhere along the way we start talking about real stuff. We take turns trying to top each other for which of us has the most abuse-filled childhood memory. It's pretty much a draw. Maybe that's the source of our mutual adoration. We're both freaks. Her parents have been in the process of divorcing for something like fifteen years, with her mother accusing the father of creating a secret cabal of judges to cheat her out of what should be rightfully hers.
Pam remembers her father touching her. She is very articulate about how confusing it is, since she remembers loving the attention, loving the physical sensations, loving feeling so special. Then feeling so ashamed.
People don't pop antidepressants yet, not like now, where you aren't eligible to join the Writers Guild without a note from your psycho-pharmacologist.
We don't know how depressed we are. A couple of deaths will change all that.
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Friday, May 19, 2006
An Excess of Enchantment
A female pimp becomes my spiritual and artistic guide. Oh, like that's never happened to you...
After the Academy breaks up with me, I start studying with another teacher, a woman who is introduced to me by an obese agent who declines to sign me, but who meets with me a number of times anyway. I am never able to impress her sufficiently to become a client, I think, because I'm unable to successfully hide my disgust at the agent's habit of eating constantly, spitting out tuna salad or whatever in great globs, while she lectures me about how and why I'll never work as an actor.
I will call the teacher Carol here. I fall deeply in thrall to her in a way I am never able to do with anyone else before or since. She is so much more subtle than the teachers at the Academy. Carol lures us in with her honeyed, enveloping warmth and positivism. I later find out she is sort of pimping the girls in class to wealthy older men. It isn't being a hooker and she doesn't get a cut of the profits or anything, but she knows a lot of men who like to date struggling actresses, older guys who are willing to help them out along the way. They have "scenes." A girl in class tells me about walking into a room at an Upper East Side townhouse dinner party one night and finding Carol on her knees giving some old coot a blow job, gesturing to her student to come on over and join in.
Before knowing all this, and safe anyway, being of another gender, I just think Carol has magic powers. She has a way of nodding and making pronouncements that cut to my heart, defining me with their psychic aptness. Unfortunately I don't now remember anything specific she offers in the way of spiritual-cum-theatrical knowledge, but believe me, at the time, she is the Wiccan of Wonder, who will make my dreams come true as long as I do exactly what she says.
I am deeply and desperately taken in by her wisdom and her continued application of the word "visceral" to describe my work, though I have no idea what she means. I don't ask. Nor do I look up "visceral" in the dictionary. Why take the chance of spoiling the dream?
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Wednesday, May 17, 2006
Never Surrender, Never Submit
My heroin-addict acting teacher resorts to psychological torture. Is she taking lessons from my father?
I am having a horrible time at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. I just can't give in enough, or freely hurl myself into the clutches of the lunatics who teach us. The ones who make me crazy have a creepy intensity, and make demands for submission that feel just like living with the Naked Dad.
So I am constitutionally incapable of surrender, no matter how much I want to succeed, or how hard I try. It just feels like they all hate me, though they are probably all very nice out-of-work actors just trying to get by. Except for the heroin addict. She's nuts. She wants to probe me, like a Vulcan. Her take on me is that I'm too obsessed with how I appear to others and need to free myself. (Well, just because she takes heroin doesn't mean she is without observational skills.)
She does this strange exercise while breathing deeply, turning slowly on one foot, the other held high in the air, her breasts thrown forward, her toes spread apart in a way that makes her feet look webbed - while she inexplicably chants speeches from "Hamlet." Everyone is enthralled. I try to pretend I am too, but I think she's crackers. And her zeal, how it borders on religiosity, is my father, Adam, to a tee.
(When the Jim Jones thing happens Adam turns to my brother Aaron with a smirk, saying he could do that too if he wants, make people drink Kool-Aid and die. Everyone has to have a hobby. I am visiting Aaron and his wife and kids once, and we bring them a packet of Kool-Aid. Oh, how we laugh.)
Another girl in my acting class, also seventeen like me, is having the same trouble as I; neither of us seem able or willing enough to submit. One harrowing day the heroin-driven teacher decides this girl isn't responding to her acting partner fully. She is right about that. But the teacher's solution is to begin following the girl closely from behind, yelling epithets at her, trying to get her to respond. No dice. Then the teacher calls up several guys from the class, including me - though I refuse - and tells them to chase the girl and try to forcibly hold her down against her will and take her clothes off.
"Do you like that?!" The teacher is screaming. "What are you going to do about it, huh?! Wimp! Crybaby!" The point of the whole thing is to get the girl to fight back organically, but to me it's like watching Life with Father, and not in a good way. I'm sitting there getting furious. How dare the heroin addict. How does she know whether the girl is a survivor of rape in childhood or something? How can she set off a bomb in someone's psyche like this? And why is this heroin addict turning into my dad when I am in New York to escape him?
When the dust settles - the girl never fights back but the teacher stops it before it becomes Academy-sanctioned gang rape - the teacher asks the girl why she won't fight back, and her garbled, emotional response boils down to something about not going against what a teacher tells you to do. In the spirit of "If I tell you to jump off a bridge," the teacher tells her to jump out the window. The girl crawls out toward the window ledge. A couple of us drag her back. And... Scene.
The teacher turns to us all and asks if any of us are upset with what has taken place. She singles me out immediately, belligerently saying she knows I will have something to say. Finally we have something to agree about. I tell her she is irresponsible and that what we have witnessed, what my classmate has been subjected to, is a psychological and sexual assault.
I am proud that I stand up to her, even as she sneers at me, daring anyone else in the class to agree with my narrow-minded, literal, anti-artistic position. No one does, though the girl later thanks me for being the only one to think about how she feels.
This is it, my big moment of courage during my first year in New York. I take the issue to the administration who steadfastly defends the teacher and says it is the way they do things at the Academy. That's the end of that romance for me. I can't tell anyone back in Texas. It is my first real failure. It never occurs to me to talk it out with someone, with my mother, to ask her advice. I don't have the vocabulary to admit I don't know something.
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Wednesday, May 10, 2006
In a New York Minute
My acting teacher is a heroin addict. During a class exercise she pushes her breasts into my back, reaches around to rub my thighs, and asks me what I feel in my groin. Nothing, bitch, nothing at all.
I start classes at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York when I am seventeen, with more enthusiasm, more energy, and more desperation to prove myself than I now imagine a single human head can contain. I am also a little smug at school since at seventeen I'm the youngest, and there are people I take class with who are already really, really old -- as old as thirty -- and yet I actually have more practical experience than some of them.
I'm very showbizzy already, taking all of a New York minute to embrace the tinsel and glitter of my new life. I yammer on all the time about what is professional, like I would know, and talking about how much I want to be on a soap opera, which isn't an ambition the Academy considers to be particularly worthy.
The move to New York is one of the happiest events in my life so far. I relish the time alone, knowing that each choice I make, every step I take will define the next period of my life. I see myself as a character in a novel. (Any guesses which one? You've got to climb to the top of Mount Everest to reach the Valley of the Dolls...) These are the early, struggling years. I am the only person in my acting class with my own apartment in a new building with a doorman and a terrace. Mysterious family money helps me along. I say mysterious because I never know how much there is, how the mechanics of it work, or when I will run out - an event that happens far sooner than I anticipate or than anyone in my family has the presence of mind to tell me. I am turning out like my father and uncle, a chemist, happily making shit out of money.
I don't worry. I am a fabulous waiter. Plus I think often of how fun it might be to become a prostitute.
Mostly, though, my struggles at the Academy consume me. The grim details are for the next blog, but as my horror at the whole Jim Jones-ness of the place grows, I begin to feel more and more strongly that all the teachers and students hate me. I know I hate them. All except my Theater History teacher. Him, I sleep with. And I do make friends with one other student. She kills herself a few years later. But I digress....
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