Wife when it premiered in 2000, running off-Broadway, Broadway, and a national tour. One of the breakout stars was then 80-year-old Shirl Bernheim.
When the play was casting, Bernheim through her hat in the ring and became a fantastic anecdote in the process. As relayed by Seth Rudetsky of Playbill.com, it was quite a fortuitous moment:
“She didn’t have any Broadway credits, but she was fantastic and had her own walker. She got the gig and did the show on Broadway and on national tour.
Charles said she was “quite a character”! As a matter, after she passed away, there was a memorial for her, and her understudy told everyone that before each performance, she would check in on Shirl. The conversation would be this:
Understudy: How are you tonight, Shirl?
Shirl (whirling around): What? Are you hoping I’ll break my hip?
“I believe that telling our stories, first to ourselves and then to one another and the world, is a revolutionary act.”
It is an act that can be met with hostility, exclusion, and violence. It can also lead to love, understanding, transcendence, and community. I hope that my being real with you will help empower you to step into who you are and encourage you to share yourself with those around you.”
The Gay Single Man of Substance or GSMS sat in the Honda Customer Service lounge staring at the crush of humanity packed into a small space. It was another toasty Saturday in the San Gabriel Valley. It took visits to three different Honda dealerships before he found the one that could handle an oil change.
“I think everyone got the message to get lubed today,” he said to himself with a smirk. “At least their music is amazing!”
It was a classic 80’s Top 40 pop playlist. Madonna. Billy Ocean. Bangles. Phil Collins. Belinda Carlisle. Deep Laura Branigan and Carly Simon cuts. Forgotten Mr. Mister and Billy Vera & the Beaters tracks. Steve Winwood!
“Hello, Yacht Rock,” he laughed.
For the duration of his estancia at the Honda of El Monte, he was a bit loathe to admit that most of these hits were lifted straight from the soundtrack of a youngish life oh-so-long ago. It was Winwood’s “Higher Love” that made him take pause.
GSMS didn’t date much as a teen. If anything, he was already the “gay best friend” before he even knew he was a beacon to fag hags the world over, a term that was still a few years away from his vernacular. (Side note, he always felt Rupert Everett eventually fucked it up for all gay men who never seemed to escape from the dreaded “Friend Zone.”)
The Friend Zone. That’s where GSMS set up residence at a very long age. Save for a few detours with the Crazy Comanche and the Ex; he always found his way “home.” Hell, he was entrenched, way beyond settled.
“What the hell do you tell guys on your dates,” asked a Co-Worker.
“I never mention the past,” GSMS answered. “I never tell them my brother lives with me, either. I don’t want to scare them off.”
GSMS used to bemoan it was his wearing the Mask of Desperation on his face that would send suitors running for the hills. It was evident that he wanted to be in a couple too much. Before he could get too caught up in that downward spiral, the Expose dance classic “Point of No Return” began to spin over the Honda PA.
“Oh, to dance at a house party like that again!” he thought. As he rubbed his peach fuzzed scalp, reminding him of years of mousse abuse, Sebastian Shpritz Forte (never AquaNet), and relaxers robbed him of his “Welcome Back, Kotter” coiffure.
The only dancing he’d engaged in of late was sidestepping reality. It was easier to say he was being cock-blocked by his brother. Worse, he became accustomed to using his late father being afflicted by Alzheimer’s as a reason to quit working on his self-esteem and focus. Truth? He’d crafted a litany of excuses as to why a relationship, much less a better sense of self, was out of his reach.
It was a small collective of medications. No, it was a lack of personal time away from a demanding job. The GSMS was adept at adding to the list, after all, he’d been writing it since he was 15. The painful reality stemmed from his origin story, a trifecta of “overs,” eating, spending, stimulation by superficial distractions. They all laid the foundation to a fortress designed to protect himself from the outside world. The GSMS was a master of self-sabotage now.
“Aw shit,” he grimaced. “I’m in that downward spiral mode. No one gives a shit about this self-pitying blah blah.”
He was hitting the Delete key when his attention turned to a young Asian boy dancing to Fine Young Cannibals’ “Good Thing.” It was a sight to behold, his cherubic face glowing and smiling as he moved to the retro beat. He had no idea anyone was looking at him, nor did it matter. Even Mom was oblivious to the maximum joy expressed at that moment.
“Look at him go,” The GSMS marveled. “Go on with yourself! Dance it out, baby!”
Maybe the GSMS needed this reminder. It was time to move, and just because his car was ready. As he gathered his things to retrieve his now-lubed vehicle, he reminded himself of the day’s mission statement. What he needed was what Mr. Winwood was crooning about, a little higher love.
It was time to bestow his own slivered heart a little care, too.
The start of a new week was designed for mixed emotions, at least for the GSMS. Sure, the cycle of routine had been restarted, but it was also a chance to be better, to do better at everything.
“Work, love, life,” he’d recanted to so many dates at this juncture. “It is all routine when you get the hallowed ground of 52.”
Most of his dates would merely smile as if they agreed, but most likely they didn’t. If they were keeping a checklist for red flags, such grandiose ruminations would be near the top of their cards. Well, if they even knew what “grandiose” or “ruminations” meant. The GSMS did possess strange tastes when it came to men. He had a physical type, sort of. He was drawn by a non-linear list of attributes. Kind eyes. A nice smile. Thick thighs.
“Man thighs,” he’d say to no one in particular. That was a desire saved for his endless inner monologues on the commute to work.
This particular Monday, however, was different. He’d been re-charged of late, feeling the need to tell stories to his laptop. As drove into work this morning, an old Paula Cole track caught him by surprise. While he’d been inclined these last few days to continue his series on the Gay Single Man of Substance, the changing landscape he was witnessing, street corner to street corner, on the way to his office made him broaden the scope of today’s tale. Perhaps it was residue leftover from being stood up last Friday night by the Hairy Beast. The musky promise of a sweaty, libidinous night had already dissipated into the ether now that the weekend was another memory.
The GSMS had already admonished himself as he arrived at his office to avoid writing another personal tale of being ghosted. No, as he took his place behind his pockmarked desk, he let his mind wander in search of inspiration and a bigger story to tell. He closed his eyes, turning into the sounds outside of his office window, of life in flux. Maybe if he paid close enough attention, he could pick through the noise and hear the other tales of the city. The GSMS took a deep breath and listened…
“He didn’t call.”
“I am going to give her one more day.”
“I thought we had a connection.”
“Did I leave the oven on?”
“Fuck it. I’m out.”
“She’s such a dick!”
“He’s an asshole.”
“Tails Nashville, Heads Seattle”
“I’m so ordinary.”
The sounds from his newly minted playlist had broken through his reverie.
For a split second, his brain short-circuited and a cold dread invaded his mental space for a moment. He had to pivot, but man. That word was his biggest fear, being ordinary. The SGMS worked overtime to craft a public image of sophistication, color, and wit. It was a shaky façade at best. His emotional would runneth over to the point to rival the liquid death and destruction of the Johnstown Flood of 1889.
He stood up for a moment and kept his gaze on the sun heating up the day. As the song continued to play itself out, the GSMS took in the lyrics as the track reached its final verses. He agreed with Paula Cole at this moment. Some people are like “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Towering and majestic, the definition of desirable. They are that high note we all strive to hit but always miss. The rest of have to make do with being like “Frère Jacques,” the song everybody can sing because it is easy AF and requires little effort at all.
Later that night, he relayed the day’s events to SkB over a long, overdue dinner reunion.
“That might be the case,” the SkB countered at the GSMS’ thoughts on being ordinary. “I think what you’re really afraid of is having people see the real you.”
Somewhere in the distance, the GSMS thought he distinctly heard someone hit a high note.
Maybe it was those pink suede skater shoes that pulled him in. Or perhaps it was the horn-rimmed glasses? The combination of scruffy beard and the thick chestnut color hair that reminded him of James MacArthur on the original “Hawaii 5-0” series? Hell yes! And, that burly chest was absolutely a significant draw. But in the end, it really was the pink suede Vans that sealed the deal.
The Gay Man of Substance (GSMS?) was feeling desire again.
The specter of the Ex, who was 15 years his junior, did give him pause. After all, Skater Boy (or SkB?) was about 22 years younger. The divide would be enough to trigger a lot of responses from GMS’ friends, single or otherwise. It surprised him to know that even those who would proudly crow “Love is Love” could have surprisingly myopic opinions, which is why he kept them to himself this time. No reason to hit them with, “He’s not like the other men he’s met over the last year.” Truth be told, the situation was just real enough for him to whisper this tale of longing into the ear of his most trusted confidante, his laptop. He was inspired to write about him, a bad sign indeed.
The arrival of Skater Boy was prescient, though. Their night out of museum roaming and coffee was not just the usual job interview exchange reserved for first meet-and-greet situations. No, they covered topics from the personal, which were honest and unrestrained, to how they viewed being gay today. This era of Basic Masculinity had worn them both down. The uniform of sporting a beard, super-luxe trainers, tattoo sleeves, and distressed Japanese denim may define 2019, but it was still a uniform. That proved more distressing than the artfully placed rips on those snug ball holders posing as trousers. Imagine having this era give off a sense of wistfulness to the days of when sentiments like “Masc for Masc; No Fats or Fems” were the standard. Of course, GSMS had to mention how his brand of “gay” was not in favor anymore. Sweater Queens were a thing of an Armistead Maupin or Paul Rudnick-documented past. That’s how GSM saw himself. For him, the dividing line was once so clear as to what was desirable amongst los gays. He knew where he stood, but surprising how the community has not lost in penchant in making you feel like shit for not fitting in with the right group!
GSMS was off and running now.
“Such mindfuckery preys on so many, even today,” he said to SkB, who nodded.
“Toxic masculinity remains supremely poisonous,” GSMS continued. “Not so long ago, you weren’t visible without a tan line, a gun show, or a rack of abs to mirror the cover of Honcho or Blueboy Magazine.
Maybe SkB understood the references, but he knew GSMS had not reached his peak yet.
“The bear community was once so much more accepting way back when. Beefy and hairy isn’t much of a subset anymore, but it, too, as evolved into a more airbrushed version these days! And what the hell is this gainer trend? Bigger is not better, especially if you have to inject yourself with tire sealant and cement to satisfy your body dysmorphia! What the hell are we doing to ourselves?”
SkB just took it all in. He knew the narrative was going to hit the current alphabet soup of gender nonconformity next.
“With the flood gates of gender fluidity now open wide,” GSM continued, “the deluge has muddied the criteria further. While the homosex community can wield its growing list of labels with fervor, it all feels so superficial and false when projected in the world of social media. It’s even worse on the dating and hookup apps. We may be able to let all of our unique brands of sexuality run free, but it has only exacerbated what we don’t want to court or seduce either. If we don’t look like the men we want to fuck, what’s the everloving point?”
SkB was transfixed by this aria of middle age uncertainty and bias. Yet, he couldn’t leave. Something kept him seated on that metal chair. As the couple’s coffee cooled, the conversation only heated up further. SkB found himself determined to give as good as he was getting. It was beautiful, this connection between people who listened and had no fear to answer back with equal aplomb and truth. It took so little effort for them to exist in this state of “Try.”
Had it been so long since GSM felt the need to make an effort to understand another man? Even more, that it was in a context that wasn’t part of his job description? He made his living asking questions, of getting people to reveal themselves just enough to exhibit a sense of humanity that could be shared with others.
GSMS was terrible at removing that interviewer’s voice in a dating situation. No one ever likes an interrogation in any form. Skater Boy didn’t even flinch. He was curious, too.
“The truth is I made a point to leave a specific life and self in the Midwest behind,” SkB confessed. “I knew what I had to do to become the creature I always meant to be, and it brought me here to Los Angeles.”
GSMS understood and applauded how SkB saw a dark fate and turned on a dime to walk into the light of maturity and self-accountability that is the cornerstone of sobriety.
“I have no intention of turning back,” SkB added. “That’s what fuels my art. I have to keep on creating, to not stand still.”
At that moment, a reflection of the kinetic heart, his signature design, that SkB displayed without fear made itself known; separating him from the pack. To look at the surface, yes, SkB was of this modern generation. Ah, but underneath GSMS saw something magnificently different. He had a soul.
As this odd duo sat at a local cafe, sharing a pastry and coffee-fueled truths, the night continued to offer more revelations and confessions. It ultimately held the promise of a friendship, which sometimes is all that can manifest itself in such brief-ish encounters. The world was oblivious to their chatter, which was just as well. It made them both appreciate the random nature of such meet and greets, of real-life occurring just under someone’s nose. Most of the patrons at the cafe were stuck in polite silences or milling about on the sidewalk. It felt as if all of them were waiting for anything to happen.
In the weeks since that first encounter, GSMS made a point to maintain a constant dialogue with SkB. The polite soul that he is, the Gay Single Man of Substance was contented by the manner in which it was being reciprocated. GSMS was well aware of SkB being a visible man, balancing a life of art, travel, commissions, networking, and more creativity.
“The man has his fans, too,” he thought to himself “Boy, does he have fans; that’s okay.”
All artists need a muse, one that can drive you towards surrendering to inspiration. As the modernist Henri Matisse said, “Creativity takes courage.” True. Then again, it doesn’t hurt to include a pair of pink suede skater shoes, either.
As GSMS completed his latest draft of a story, he couldn’t help my smile. The process felt as natural as ever, writing his feelings down. Looking out the window towards a new weekend that approached, the obvious struck him. No matter the intent, whether crafting a new piece of art, making a new friend or just letting your heartbeat loud enough to be heard by someone you like, all you really have to do is to just try.
Sometimes he’d sit at his desk and listen to old Barbra Streisand songs. He’s not even a real fan. He’d play and replay tracks like “I Stayed Too Long at the Fair” or “When in Rome” or “Gotta Movie” because he’d feel transported. Inspired, really. Those early tracks, when La Streisand was only starting her journey to becoming the multi-hyphenate “Barbra,” underscored his own life as a single gay man of substance.
It sounds so grand, being dubbed a “Single Gay Man of Substance.” Somewhere Barbara Taylor Bradford is probably rolling her eyes with lady-like grace. Apologies to Ms. BTB., but “substance” does read better than “of a certain age.”
Music is supposed to be able to cure what ails you, or at least give you a respite from whatever malady you’re hosting on a given day. He believed in having a soundtrack for life, creating and endlessly revising playlists from his iTunes account. He couldn’t get down with Spotify or Pandora or Apple Music. He felt such sites were for the cheap and lazy to curate a library of dearth and nuance. No, he’d pour over his favorite tracks endlessly. Naming the playlist was the first step.
Camp, darlings, a second helping
I’m Driving Here!
Their names were variations of themes, tracks, and fragments of triggered memories. The songs always remembered when he couldn’t bear the weight of a certain romantic memory. Lately, the music was giving him reasons not to feel so scared to put himself out there again, of falling for someone else again. Still, every dating failure was like hitting a cue and he was back at square one.
Had it really been nine years since the break-up, of which two splits occurred, with the Nashville Boy, the dreaded Ex? The distance between went from goodbye to wide chasm in the end. They rarely spoke anymore. A void existed where love and affection were once traded without conditions or struggle. It all happened so fast. Were they ideally matched? Probably not? He couldn’t even answer that question with any certainty. If you want to continue the thread on distance, 15 years of life experience, or a lack thereof, separated them from the beginning. He’d spent a lot of the years since their break-up picking that song apart, a deep cut in more ways than one.
That life seemed like an eternity ago. A musician himself, the Ex hovered over him like a track you can never get out of your head after someone else hums it aloud. He’d even written lyrics about him, but like their relationship, the melody seemed discordant and unstable. He couldn’t find them now if he tried, but every so often he would make that effort. He’d scour email addresses, old and new, shuffling through email monikers and profiles that once fit so well so long ago, too, but were ultimately ghosted and discarded.
It is strange, searching for threads to hold your own narrative together. People have been force-fed this idea of keeping track of one’s life together in an authentic fashion. What do you do when you see your life as a constant re-write? What do you do when even you tire of your narrative and opt to settle into a period of writer’s block? That’s how he felt these days. Blocked. Or, finding the needle stuck in a particular groove, unable to even skip to the next track. Perhaps the song does remember when, but at what point do you allow yourself to forget it altogether. Maybe the narrative will shake loose with his next playlist. He had the perfect name already: Playlist de basura.
“Too many people in this room,” he thought. “Again.”
It was getting late. 6 pm to be exact, the hour where everything would shut down at the factory.
“Closing time,” he’d like to say.
The sun going down was the best alarm system ever devised for Dad. It meant quiet would be restored. It was the time when he felt most relaxed, when the world, his world, was in order. Dad sensed someone approaching. He prepared for impact.
“Hi, Uncle George!” the Person said excitedly.
Dad instinctually knew which of his smiles to engage.
He had quite the array of smiles in his arsenal; some were broad, others were veiled politeness. They were never fake or insincere. This one smile was one of his most appreciated because it had genuine warmth, even if he didn’t quite know the source of its heat.
Dad also learned a while ago that his speaking in Spanish was always the best way to keep contact with short.
“If you gave them too much,” he’d reasoned to himself, “they’ll stay too long.”
Communicating with people was never this hard, or maybe it was? How long had this been his “new normal?” Everything felt so hazy these days as if his mind was processing photocopies with very little ink.
Some times, the images before him (memories?) were shockingly bright, with each color pushing its vibrancy to the limit. It was then he couldn’t help but smile. He could see his world so clearly, shapes and figures that felt so familiar and real. Most of the time, he was a witness to an expanse of grey that threatened to dominate everything. Not today, though.
Dad used to miss the “beautiful noise,” as he’d called it before he got “sick.” It still happened from time to time, his recognizing it. That once beautiful din was often too loud now, and it scared him, something that never happened before. For Dad, this human tidal wave of sounds, letters, and languages pulled him under without a floatation device. He couldn’t begin to sort it all out, taking his breath away when a room full of people reached its audible peak.
Dad was well aware something was wrong with his brain. He’d known for some time that things were off. Mom was still a mental constant, as was Sis. They offered him two of the few respites from the long days waiting for “quitting time” to arrive.
“Oh my god! Uncle George looks so good!” said Another Figure.
“This one was more excitable than the other,” Dad thought to himself. Still, something in her face made him feel the need to offer more than one of his pre-fab smiles.
“Bien! Bien!” Dad offered as he excitedly patted this Person’s hand for extra measure.
Of all his Old World manners and gestures, the hand pat was his most friendly, the one he only used with people that meant a great deal to him. Perhaps the criteria had slipped a bit of late, but the importance of it hadn’t waned. Not yet, anyway.
More people arrived, breaking his repose. Suddenly, Dad’s leather lounge chair felt like a steel trap. He wanted to leave, but where?
“I know I’m still me,” he thought. A surge of emotion was making its way to his brain, a lava-like substance that took very little time to heat and explode forth.
“Dad’s eyes are looking tense,” Someone said.
“He’s going to start kicking people out!” Someone else added.
“I’m not angry!” Dad wanted to shout.
He didn’t feel sure about who everyone was in the room. His eyes darted furiously about the den, desperately trying to find the familiar faces of Mom and Sis, but they weren’t around. That made him panic ever so slightly, the color of his eyes shifting from their charming hazel shade to something foreboding and stormy.
“Hace mucho ruido! Tanto ruido. Chingados!” Dad said to no one in particular.
For the record, Dad NEVER swore. In any language. But a long-buried archive of Spanish language profanities had since been unearthed. All bets were off as to when Dad would decide to access it.
“It’s so much better when it’s quiet. Don’t these people know?” he heard from within his fussy and uncooperative mind.
It felt like these words were tumbling forth. Dad could feel his mouth moving, forming a declarative sentence that could restore order, but it was futile. Even if he did manage to say something, it would not have been discernable to anyone. All they would hear was a defeated sigh from the man they came to visit and love as he settled deeper into the isolating safety of his leather armchair.