I am not myself these da.., p.17

I Am Not Myself These Days, page 17

 

I Am Not Myself These Days
 


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  “We’re having Thanksgiving at our place,” he said. “An old-fashioned Thanksgiving.”

  “With drag queens and hookers and cranberry sauce?” I asked breathlessly.

  “Just like at Grandma’s,” he replied.

  The Thanksgiving Day Parade on NBC is still playing on the TV set in the living room as I’m trying to find something large enough to cook the turkey in. We have a stack of old round foil deli trays in one cupboard and I’m trying to work out the logistics of somehow molding them into a makeshift roasting pan.

  I haven’t been to bed yet. I couldn’t get any other queen to cover for me last night. The night before any major holiday is always a blockbuster night at gay clubs. Thousands of fags across the city fortifying themselves for long trips home, where they’ll be met with awkward silences, stilted conversations, and cousins with whom they’d experimented decades ago.

  I got home this morning at eight a.m., just in time to catch Katie and Al mispronounce the name of the first high school marching band in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. As I got out of my outfit, I watched the televised procession, taking place just a few blocks west of our penthouse. Growing up, I’d always dreamed that one day Larry Hagman and I would be perched high in the announcer booth overlooking the parade. Aqua wasn’t born yet, but somehow I had an innate idea of who she’d become.

  I envisioned Larry and I wearing our high-collared thick fur coats—his brown and mine white—as we read scripted jokes off the moniter and plugged our respective shows in between floats. He would reference my guest-starring role as Sue Ellen’s best friend on Dallas, and I would teasingly rib him about why he hadn’t yet appeared on my new hit sitcom Extra! Extra!—a workplace comedy with me as a wisecracking gossip columnist at a fast-paced New York newspaper. We would take turns “throwing it” to McClean Stevenson and Morgan Fairchild, who were covering the Hawaiian Thanksgiving Day Parade.

  At the end of our coverage it would begin to snow softly behind us as I turned and announced:

  “Larry, do you hear that? It sounds like sleigh bells!”

  And he’d glance down at the teleprompter and say, “I hear it too, Josh…let’s go in for a closer look, everybody…I think it may be…”

  And then both of us together:

  “Santa Claus has come to town!…From all of us here at our CBS family, to all of you out there, Merry Christmas!”

  And we would laugh with condescending glee right through to the end of the scrolling credits.

  I’ve finally successfully fashioned a sort of roasting pan out of tinfoil and a cookie sheet, and I am shoveling cornbread stuffing up the bird’s ass.

  “You need to curl your hand up tighter when you’re fisting,” Jack says, coming into the kitchen after his shower.

  “This bird’s plenty loose. One of your clients?” I reply.

  “You do know that’s going to take seven hours to cook?” Jack says.

  “It’s going in the cooker-thing in two seconds.”

  “It’s called an oven,” Jack says.

  “It’ll be fine,” I say. “Open one of the champagne bottles; I want a little sip.”

  “Too early, Grandma,” he says.

  “I didn’t ask for a martini, just champagne. It’s like juice.”

  He ignores me.

  “Don’t use this,” he says, picking up the turkey baster I’d taken out of the drawer and put on the counter.

  “Why?” I ask.

  “It’s for clients. You don’t wanna know,” he says, smiling, putting it back down on the counter.

  In our newfound resolve to be a normal couple, Jack and I had invited twenty-nine assorted hookers, drag queens, club promoters, drug dealers, and Mr. Beefeater to our Old Fashioned Thanksgiving Family Dinner. Jack told them to show up anytime they wanted to, knowing that everyone’s hours couldn’t ever possibly synch up. At least I could safely assume none of them were morning people, so I still had a little time to prepare.

  I don’t really have that much to do. Jack went shopping yesterday and bought far more than we’d ever need. Huge plastic containers of green bean casserole, baked yams, Waldorf salad and cranberry sauce filled our refrigerator. Boxes of pies and cases of liquor were stacked outside on the balcony. I just need to peel about thirty pounds of potatoes and find enough pots to boil them in.

  “I don’t hear any champagne popping,” I yell to Jack in the living room.

  “What’s the magic word?” he yells back.

  “Cheers?” I offer. “DTs? Free blow job?”

  The second I hear the cork pop, Jack’s pager goes off.

  “Fuck,” I mutter under my breath.

  I hear Jack take the phone into the bedroom. He doesn’t like me to listen to him talk to clients on the phone. They expect him to talk rough, and he says I make him self-conscious. A minute later he walks into the kitchen and hands me the open champagne bottle.

  “Gotta go piss on someone,” he says.

  “Exactly like Grandma’s house,” I mock. “How long?”

  “Just a couple of hours.”

  “That’s a lotta pee,” I say.

  “I’ll be back before anyone gets here. Beep me if you want me to pick something up.”

  Fifteen people are here by the time he gets back. When he walks in the door, everyone lets out a cheer. I try to imagine how everyone envisions Jack and me as a couple. I like how we look. We’re the Kennedys of Kinkiness. The Rockefellers of Wrongness. Maybe not the American Dream, but certainly a few people’s American Fantasy.

  The pressure of doing everything myself has led me to have a little more champagne than I’d planned. I’m pleasantly buzzed. Laura was helping me in the kitchen, since by the time she arrived I was having complications operating the potato peeler.

  But everything is turning out close enough to perfect. One of the drag queens came as an Indian squaw and is carrying a load of airplane-sized little booze bottles in her papoose. She walks around asking the other guests if they “wantum sip firewater.” Old Mr. Beefeater comes in full palace guard regalia, and winds up being quite a help in the kitchen as well. The escorts come and go in a chorus of beeping. Thankfully the first thing they all do when they return from their calls is wash their hands.

  The champagne also helps me keep my sunny disposition when I answer the door and Trey is standing outside. He holds out a bottle of wine, and I take his jacket. I glance at the label.

  “Cheap,” I say cheerfully, “how fitting.”

  “I didn’t realize you were so picky about your binges,” he replies, smirking.

  I’m determined not to let him bug me. He hasn’t been over since my little blow-up in the kitchen, and I’m pretty sure Jack isn’t even going on non-“party” calls with him anymore. It’s hard to imagine how someone could be a bad influence on a sadomasochistic hooker, but I consider Trey just that.

  He heads into the living room and blends in with the rest of the guests.

  Jack comes up behind me and squeezes me in a bear hug.

  “Just like Grandma’s?” I ask.

  “Better,” he says.

  “The turkey should be done,” I say. “Come help me.”

  Most of my extended family lives near Albany, New York. With my parents’ divorce, my mother’s remarriage, and our move to Wisconsin, we were the black sheep. Our holidays were small and intimate. Just the four of us. Simple celebrations that were used as occasions to teach my brother and me proper table manners and gave us the chance to sip wine, a skill I’ve long since perfected.

  When I look around at the twenty-plus people filling every assorted table and chair in our apartment, I wonder if this large holiday gathering is something important I maybe missed out on. Every table has at least one person laughing, some person in the middle of a story, and someone else trying to interrupt with a joke. All of us are not at home, but couldn’t be more at home.

  I was fascinated by hidden picture books when I was little. The one that was my favorite had s
weet nursery rhyme–type drawings hiding ghoulish and scary objects. A gingerbread house would have bats, witches, and skeletons hidden in its outlines. A rocking horse would be made up of spiders and ghosts. I would race, clutching my crayon, to identify and circle all of the craftily hidden evils.

  Looking around our apartment, I see a hidden picture book drawing of a perfect Thanksgiving dinner tableau. A Norman Rockwell painting that, if you leaned in close, would discover is made up entirely of misfits.

  Being drunk on champagne is a lot better than being drunk on vodka, I’m finding. I’m surprised I didn’t learn about this sooner. Apparently you can teach an old drunk new tricks.

  Our apartment has been full for almost ten hours. Nobody wants to leave, unless they get a call, in which case they come back immediately after.

  “More champagne?” Mr. Beefeater asks me.

  “Jack’s not charging you for today, is he?” I ask him. There’s no point in using Jack’s work name, since everyone’s been calling him Jack all night.

  “No. Just here on my own.”

  “Well, Merry Christmas…Happy Thanksgiving…whatever the fuck,” I say. “Sure, I’ll take another one.”

  People have been going into my closet and bathroom and playing with my costumes and makeup. The result is that I’m surrounded by a dozen or so partial Aquas. I chastise them one by one for using the wrong lip liner with their lipstick, and holler out fat jokes when they can’t cinch my corset.

  I’ve found the perfect chair, which is an utmost consideration for the professional drunk. It’s situated so that I remain in the middle of the action, it’s comfortable enough so that slouching looks normal, and it’s smack in the eyeline of whoever is bartending.

  I’m happy. Jack has been catching my eye all night, and smiling that braggy smile that only couples hosting a successful party can smile. Everything’s exactly right. The guests, the music, my blood alcohol level.

  “Trey wants to party,” Jack whispers, kneeling next to my chair.

  “Surprise.”

  “I’ll have them do it in the kitchen,” he says.

  “Where else?” I ask, as if everybody’s kitchen doubles as a crack den.

  “I won’t even go in there.”

  “No worries. Do what you want to do,” I say, feeling overly generous in my stupor. Jack gets up to give them the okay. “Wait,” I say, flailing my drunken arm in his direction. He kneels back down.

  “No public fucking afterward,” I whisper. “There’s too much food around.”

  Shortly afterward, I pass out and Jack disappears for five days.

  22

  What do you mean he won’t talk to you?” Laura says, picking up a bad fifties oil painting and checking the price.

  We’re at the Chelsea Flea Market, and even though there are only two weeks till Christmas, the frigid weather has kept most people at home.

  “He won’t even look at me,” I say.

  “Do you talk to him?”

  “Yeah. Of course. He just goes on doing whatever he’s doing.”

  “Did he say where he was?” she asks.

  “Did I not just say he won’t talk to me?”

  Jack only comes home for a few hours at a time, to change clothes or make telephone calls behind the closed guest bedroom door.

  “Not one word.”

  “Nothing.”

  “You need to get the hell out of there.”

  “I think he needs real help.”

  “Really? Ya think?” she says. “Look, Tutti, Jo’s got in with the bad crowd and there’s nothing you, Natalie, Blair, or Mrs. Garret’s gonna be able to do to get her out of this jam. She’s gotta love herself first.”

  “Shut up, Cousin Gerri,” I say.

  “Oh,” she adds, picking up a vase, “and steal his cash on your way out. You owe me twenty.”

  For kicks, I’m lying on Jack’s side of the bed tonight. Maybe I’ll sleep better. It’s been two and a half weeks since Thanksgiving eve, the last time Jack had been in this bed.

  The master bedroom is farther away from the front door than the guest bedroom, so it’s harder for me to hear when Jack comes and goes. Some mornings I get up and find a pile of his old clothes in the front hallway. It’s the only way I know he’s been there.

  Even though it’s high club season, I don’t take any Aqua jobs. Three of the goldfish have died and I haven’t even bothered to replace them. It’s easier just to drink at home.

  I feel like I’m in a tacky Lifetime movie, lying in bed nights with an open bottle of Absolut in my hand. Sometimes I pretend I’m drunker than I am and stumble back and forth to the bathroom, theatrically delivering fictional monologues to nobody.

  “You’ll never get the kids,” I slur to my reflection in the window, “I’ll tell them about your secret gay lover!”

  Or,

  “I own fifty-one percent of this dump and I’ll take you all down with me!”

  It gives me something to do when I can’t sleep.

  The darkness of the bedroom brightens almost imperceptibly. There’s light coming in underneath the door.

  What’s the point of getting up? The half dozen times I’ve been around when Jack drops by leave me more frustrated than when I’m alone. If he’s high, he looks at me venomously. If he’s crashing, he doesn’t look at me at all. It’s obvious that for some reason he blames me for his addiction.

  But any chance to see him is still somehow better than nothing. Maybe this time he’ll look up and I’ll recognize something of the old Jack.

  I get up quietly and peer out the door. The fluorescent overhead light in the kitchen is on. I can’t stand the feeling of sneaking up on him in our own house.

  “Hey, you,” I say, standing in the kitchen doorway in my underwear. I expect no answer and get none.

  Jack’s setting up his equipment. I’ve never seen him, or anyone for that matter, actually smoking crack. I’ve smelled it. I’ve heard it. I’ve seen people prepare it and clean up after it. But I’ve always stayed away from the kitchen when anyone was actually hitting it.

  It reminds me of watching my dad get his tobacco pipe ready. I would watch raptly. He would gather everything onto the table by his chair before he started. Pipe cleaner, tamper, tobacco pouch. The fermented apple smell and quietly intense look on his face were all part of the process. Process. I liked ritual. Tradition. Sinking into what you expect. Exactly what you already know is going to happen happens.

  Jack has the same intensity as he gathers everything he needs around him. The glass pipette, the grill lighter, the Brillo pad. The rock.

  He grips the Brillo pad by one corner and holds the lighter just underneath the opposite corner. It smokes as the invisible thin plastic coating burns away. I smell the beginning of a scent that’s become as familiar to me as walking into a kitchen and smelling coffee.

  He rips off a dime-sized piece of the stripped Brillo and carefully pushes it into the glass pipe. It’s an old pipe and is coated with streaks of amber residue, which he scrapes off and collects on the little chunk of Brillo that he pushes back and forth with a piece of coat hanger.

  He uses the coat hanger wire to position the Brillo chunk about a half inch away from the end of the pipe. It’s the filter.

  With the other end in his mouth, he picks up a tar-colored rock off a square of tinfoil on the counter, and puts it in the end with the Brillo.

  He picks up the lighter. Flicks it.

  He runs the flame up and down the length of the glass. A deep yellow smoke gathers and curls inside the pipe. He breathes in, still caressing the flame back and forth. The flame reaches his lips, then recedes back the length to his fingers. It’s seductive. Like when he used to run his finger lightly up and down my back.

  “Let me try,” I say.

  No response. The steady flame stays in constant motion.

  “I just want to see.”

  I take a step toward him. My arm reaches up. I don’t know if I’m reaching for the pipe
or for him. I want to touch his skin. I want to breathe in what he breathes. The yellow swirl. I want to be the yellow swirl. I want him to breathe me in, be sent riding on oxygen molecules deep into his lungs. I want to travel through his body, seeing what makes him happy. Attaching myself to whatever place in him sparks to life on my arrival. His blood, his tissues, his muscles, I want to burrow inside the folds like a windblown dusting of snow, so that each time I melt away he seeks me out again.

  There’s no delineation between the pipe and the smoke and his body. It’s all whole. I want in. I want him.

  “Please,” I say softly. “Let me try.”

  Without letting go of the pipe, he swings his hand holding the lighter with incredible force, backhanding my face. My jaw pops.

  The lighter swings back under the pipe. Undulating back and forth. Inhaling the curl as it rises from the tar. Exactly the same as before he hit me.

  Only now he’s staring at me. Hating me.

  23

  Look. It’s obvious I’m fucking things up,” Jack says, sitting on a dining room chair facing me when I enter the front door. I set my bag down.

  Yet another surprise turn of events. You never know what’ll greet you when you enter apartment 42E. There’s really no way to respond to what he just said. Um, gee, I guess maybe you’re right…I hadn’t thought that your crack habit could be the cause of this mess my friends now refer to as my “living situation.” His pronouncement is as illuminating as walking into a room and announcing “I just walked into a room.”

  But what could be really interesting to talk about is why there are two fully decorated Christmas trees at either end of our living room and strings of lights framing all the windows and the balcony.

  “Are you high?” I ask him.

  “Not right now,” he says.

 
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