I Am Not Myself These Days, page 9
3. Nightclub Owner. Easy. It would explain the hours, and the casual dress. After further consideration, though, we realized it would also require us to concoct a name and location. And might even possibly mean fending off a request to physically go and visit our imaginary nightspot. Being hungover when we came up with this idea, it was ruled out on the basis of its simply entailing too much actual effort.
4. Travel Agent to the Super Important. Jack came up with this one at the last minute. Living in the midst of one of the wealthiest zipcodes in the world gave him the idea. The CEOs and Old Rich who populated our neighborhood would need to jetset all over the world, sometimes at a moment’s notice. Imagine a Park Avenue matron’s frustration when she felt like an impromtu spa vaca in the Maldives with her friends and found she didn’t have the right visas, or her passport had expired, or she needed to book suitable connecting flights. What would she do? Page Jack. Jack would then run all over town to different consulates, hotels, and airlines to make all the appropriate arrangements. Only a highly paid expert would be able to handle the responsibility. One rewarded amply enough to afford a penthouse apartment in the neighborhood. Naturally, many of Jack’s missions would involve socialites and celebrities who would not want their comings and goings publicized, so he wouldn’t be able to share too many details if my mother began asking suspicious questions. By the time Jack finished explaining his new imaginary career, my attraction to him as an escort was completely superseded by my new crush on him as an International Man of Mystery. Best of all, when I tried to explain it to my mother the night before her trip, she seemed disinterested enough not to probe.
My mother is arriving around eleven. Rather than panicking around the apartment all morning, I decide to head to work and hope for some sort of distracting ad emergency. Jack was going to meet some friend from Columbia for lunch. I left instructions with the doorman to let her in the apartment to drop off her bags, and then to put her in a taxi to the agency. Jack thought it was rude not to greet my mother immediately upon her arrival, but I explained that it was like a little welcoming present to her—I was giving her the gift of time alone in the apartment to snoop around a little. Of course we’d packed up Jack’s business toys and my Aqua-phernalia and hid them safely in storage in the basement.
I spend most of the morning staring at my phone waiting for the little screen to light up with the word “receptionist.”
“What’s your mom’s name?” Laura asks, coming in and sitting down next to my desk.
“Hmmm. Jackie. Jack. How perversely oedipal.”
“Yes,” I reply sarcastically, “I’m dating an S&M male escort because he reminds me of my mother. They have an eerily similar spanking technique…. Hey, let’s go to the Ear for a quick one before she gets here.”
“It’s eleven-fucking-thirty,” Laura says.
“It’s purely medicinal. Borderline emergency.”
“Okay. I could raise a glass or two to your imminent misery.”
The Ear is the local bar down the block from the agency. It’s one of the oldest drinking establishments in New York, and it got its current name because the neon curves on the letter “B” in “Bar” burned out years ago, leaving only “Ear” glowing. At any time of the day odds are that someone from the agency is going to be in there. There’s an unspoken rule that if you spot a colleague there, neither the spotted nor the spottee can discuss or even acknowledge it later at work. It’s a more literal—and more satisfying—version of Alcoholics Anonymous.
I order a beer (because it’s still morning), and Laura gets a red wine (because it’s nearly lunch).
“Please, please, please come to lunch with me and my mother,” I plead.
“You’re so much more pathetic when you’re needy,” she replies.
“I’ll cover for you next Friday. I’ll say you’re at an edit.”
“Last time you covered for me you gave out three different stories,” Laura says.
“The first two didn’t seem convincing enough.”
“If you make up a story, you have to stick with it or people realize it was all a lie.”
“Maybe in Honest Land,” I say. “In my world every truth is judged solely on its entertainment value.”
“In your world there is no truth.”
“So true. So true. Just beauty.”
We spend the next two hours alternating between making fun of people at work and making bets on who’s gay. By the time I realize what time it is I’ve had three beers on an empty stomach. Things aren’t looking so dire. Except that my mother was due to arrive at the office about forty-five minutes ago. Shit.
Laura and I traipse off the elevator into our office lobby. My mother is on one of the purple sofas pretending to be interested in an old copy of Ad Age.
“Hi! Where’ve you been? The receptionist didn’t know where you were.”
“So sorry. So, so sorry,” I say, instantly regretting the number of esses I was trying to get out with my slightly drunken gay tongue. “Laura and I had a last-minute meeting uptown…couldn’t get out of it.”
“Is this Laura?” my mother asks excitedly. “I’ve heard so much about you.”
“Hi, Jackie! Josh has been talking about you all morning!”
Laura easily pulls out a cheery midwestern persona. She was raised in Ohio.
The dread I had about Mom’s visit is instantly erased the moment she hugs me a second time. She’s a woman who lives pretty much only for her two sons’ happiness, and it’s readily apparent in her eyes every time she sees us after a long absence. It’s a purity of purpose most people would be envious of. Instead of dread, I now feel guilt. Pulling one over on your mom loses its thrill sometime soon after high school. Luckily, I’m just drunk enough to get over it.
“Laura’s going to have lunch with us!” I say spontaneously.
Laura shoots me a glare, but quickly recovers her midwestern charm.
“Yes, of course!” Laura replies a bit too cheerily. “Josh said he was treating us both!”
By the time we get to the restaurant Mom and Laura have completely bonded. As someone who tries to flee from any vestiges of my midwestern upbringing, I find it fascinating that Laura can sincerely alternate between New York single cynical bitch and midwestern guilelessness. Unlike me, she doesn’t see it as an either/or proposition. As we take our seats at the table, she and Mom are chatting away about Laura’s idea of opening a restaurant in New York City that serves only casseroles.
“So, Laura,” Mom says, perusing the day’s specials, “you’ve met Jack.”
Laura does the closest thing to a spit-take that I’ve seen in real life.
“Sure.” Pause. “Sure I have.”
“I can’t wait to meet him. I find what he does simply fascinating,” Mom says, ruminating over the fish of the day.
This time Laura does choke on her wine. I suddenly realize I forgot to clue Laura in on the new travel agent profession we’d given Jack.
“Have you ever used his services?” Mom continues.
Laura stares at me bug-eyed. There’s absolutely no way for her to answer this question.
“Umm. No. His prices are a little too rich for my blood,” Laura finally replies, capping it off with a forced chuckle.
“Well, it is a beautiful apartment. He must be a busy, busy boy, running around town all day and night.”
I live for moments like this. It pains me to have to interrupt.
“He’ll be home this afternoon, Ma. He’s so excited to meet you.”
The rest of the lunch goes smoothly. My mother slowly relaxes into vacation mode. She begins chatting about the two years she lived in New York City back in the early sixties. Mom grew up in upstate New York in a small wealthy town with stuffy parents. Her father owned a cement company, which was the largest employer in town, and my father’s father was the mayor. Given their positions in the village, my parents had little choice but to b
After school was finished, my mother had an inkling that maybe my father wasn’t her perfect mate, but the smothering pressure to get married from both sets of my grandparents was overwhelming. In what was probably the bravest moment of my mother’s life, she picked up and moved one hundred and eighty miles away to a small apartment on the Upper East Side. In retaliation, her father cut off any financial help. For two years she roomed with a nurse and an alcoholic gay poet. She became a hostess at the GE pavilion at the World’s Fair.
She used to sit reading on a bench outside Beth Israel Hospital, hoping a doctor on his way home would notice her and ask her out for a drink. She wound up dating a French television producer who left her when she wouldn’t give up on her dream of having children. Eventually, though, like millions of single women who have passed through New York in the last two centuries, she was defeated by the city itself, knowing that it would never offer up the marriage and family she really wanted. My future father drove into the city, packed her things in his car, and drove her home to get married, without ever proposing.
Nine years later she was divorced with two children. And shortly after, she was remarried and crammed into a puce Ford Maverick moving her kids, her new husband, a Labrador, a cat, and a hatchback stuffed with pots and pans and snowsuits to the hinterlands of Wisconsin.
Whenever I can convince my mother to talk about her short years in New York City, it’s like looking through a microscope at our shared DNA. She had to get out and test her limits before returning home and building the life that she always knew she’d have.
We both were born looking for a way out of where we’d been stuck on this planet. Even if it was just a temporary reprieve. We were escape artists from day one.
And sometimes, down is the only way out.
“She’s cool. I like your mother,” Jack says to me in bed on the final night of Mom’s visit. “She reminds me of you.”
“Take that back,” I say.
“She does. She says exactly the same things you say.”
“She told you you have a beautiful cock?” I tease.
“Well, only once. You’re much more effusive.”
It had been a good weekend. A few years ago my mother and I instigated a three-day rule. We can’t spend any more time together than that at one time or we descend into the level of bickering that only those who have shared one body can achieve.
Jack and Mom seemed to click. He took the three of us out to dinner each night and gave us little New York historical trivia tours on the cab rides home. Mom’s a bit of a history nut, so this went over big. When I was a kid, she worked at Old World Wisconsin, one of those outdoor museums with working farms and blacksmith shops. She had to wear period costumes, and when my brother and I would spend the day with her in the summers, we would have to dress up as nineteenth-century prairie kids as well. I would work in the toolshed and lecture all the tourists on the proper method of hewing shingles on the Schnitzlebanch. In a way, it was my first taste of drag.
The only times during my mom’s visit that were awkward were when Jack got beeped. My mother would say something silly like “no rest for the weary,” or “all work, no play,” and I’d feel guilty for deceiving her. By the time Jack returned he’d have concocted a convincing story about a Saudi Arabian sheik or a prime minister’s son. Too convincing. It made me realize how good Jack actually was at role playing. Obviously, that’s why he makes such good money, but I’d never been on the receiving end of it, and it felt weird. I love my family, and I’ve never been unable to be completely honest with them before. I felt something slipping away the whole time she was here.
I’m not totally sure we’d actually duped her. She puts on the face of a simple midwestern housewife, but she can be bitingly accurate in her discernment of situations. She outed me as being gay years before I finally was ready to admit it to myself.
One day when I was in high school Mom and I were in the car driving home from the mall.
“If you were planning on living a life like your Uncle Arthur, you would feel free enough to tell me, right?” she’d asked me as we merged onto the freeway.
I wanted to ask her if she meant spending my summers in a chateau in Geneva and my winters in Provence with a fabulous circle of ex-pat artists, but instead I just said, “No, of course not, where’d you get that idea?” As if I was astounded that my being president of the Drama Club and compulsive proclivity to redecorate my room with every changing season could ever possibly lead her to the completely illogical conclusion that I was gay.
“Are you sure you’re not gay?” she asked me point-blank five years later when she visited me in Atlanta.
“Well,” I hedged, “I might be bi.”
Still, this was enough for the tears to start.
“I always knew. Always,” she said.
For several months I was angry with her, and the rest of my family. If they’d always known I was gay, then why didn’t anyone tell me? Take me to a few musicals or something. Send me to Uncle Arthur’s for the summer. Show me that I wasn’t the only freak like this in the world.
When I was ready to announce to my family that I was not bi, but a complete 100 percent Grade-A fag, I was completely underwhelmed by their response. I didn’t factor in that they’d been getting used to the idea ever since I’d used Mom’s Jolen Cream Bleach to highlight my hair in fifth grade.
“I’m actually going to miss her tomorrow,” Jack says, turning over onto his side.
“No more hobnobbing with princes and ambassadors for you.”
“Yep. Back to pig-bottoms and foot fetishes,” Jack sighs.
“I, for one, can’t wait to get out of flats,” I reply.
“No more Normal Normans.”
“It was hell while it lasted,” I whisper before dropping off to sleep.
I am not an alcoholic. I’m a social catalyst. People pay me to illustrate for other partygoers the chemical process involved in transforming from one persona into another drunker, more fun one. It’s a matter of going from dull point A to exciting point B. And I’m a raving success at it. So successful that sometimes I wind up at Mysterious Point C.
Like right now. Apparently it’s morning. I’ve just come to, and I’m lost.
Think. Think. Think.
First the obvious. I’m Aqua, and I’m lying flat on my back across the several seats of a subway car. A subway car that’s aboveground. Conclusion: I’m not in Manhattan.
Well, not good.
But a good first step.
Okay, the sign indicates it’s an F train. This means I’m either in Brooklyn or Queens. Like a jigsaw puzzle, I’m finding the edge pieces first.
It’s early in the morning. Probably Sunday. These facts are born out by the presence of a Hispanic family sitting way down at the opposite end of the car from me. They’re the only other people in the train car, and the little girls are dressed in frilly lace dresses and holding white books with big gold crosses on the front of them.
They’re staring at me. I suppose for good reason. When they were filing out the door this morning in their Sunday best, they probably had no idea that they would get into a subway car with a six-foot guy in a huge blond wig with fish in his breasts and stubble growing through his foundation. From my reclining position, I give them a slight finger wave with my silver elbow-length gloved hands. This ends their staring.
My head is throbbing and my stomach feels like it could rupture and send bile out of every orifice on my body—including my navel. This means I’ve probably been drinking heavily at some point in the not too distant past. Of course that could just as easily have been concluded from the “waking up lying down across subway seats” portion of the morning.
I give myself a once-over, a feat easily accomplished by raising my head slightly off the hard orange plastic seat. I’m wearing my Jane Jetson outfit—a silver stretch vinyl top, turquoise water for the fish, an
And one of my silver glitter seven-inch platform shoes is missing. Hmmm. I’m going to put that mystery aside for the moment. Perhaps after I’ve had some coffee.
Okay. No blood or bruising. Happy Happy Sunday. See, Hispanic Bible Kids, God loves drag queens too.
Now, I’m not going to panic because my bag with my money and ID is bound to be tucked away safely under the seat.
Only it’s not under the seat.
Thankfully I still have a little buzz going or this could really be disconcerting.
Silver lining: I’m already on the subway so I don’t really need any cash anyway. I’ll simply get off at the next stop and get on a train heading back into town.
Some people might get obsessed with figuring out how they wound up on the F train in drag, with no bag and only one shoe, but that’s simply not my style. What’s done is done. I’m sure I had my reasons.
I pull myself up with a little help from the pole and wait for the train to pull into the next stop. The Hispanic family is leering again. As the train pulls into the station I stand and hobble over to the door. Before I exit, I turn to the family and bestow a papal blessing on them with an outstretched gloved arm.
Dignity is in short supply as I board the Manhattan-bound train back. Thankfully there’s a bedraggled homeless person in the car. I sit as close to him as I can stand, given the smell, hoping that when people stare at me, they might at least think, “Well, at least she’s better off than the homeless guy next to her.”
Two hours, three transfers, and one pit stop to vomit into a trash can later, I’m hobbling down Second Avenue toward home. It’s actually a beautiful morning. When my mother left a week ago it was unseasonably cold and rainy, but this morning is bright and clear and warm. This is fortunate since I barely have any clothes on. Will my luck ever run out?