Thursday, March 6, 2014

Outro, the Karaoke Novel, Chapter Twenty-Four: Sweet Sugar Smoke

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Dearest kind gentlemen: Please lower the toilet seat in consideration of our lady patrons.

            Life is filled with seemingly arcane items that keep popping into your thoughts, and one of mine is the notice in the bathroom at the Java and Clay. In a world where so many are happy to hammer you over the head with rules and regulations, this little ceramic sign is an oasis of civility. It invites men to be courteous, and offers them the chance to feel like Arthurian knights for the simple act of lowering a ring of porcelain. And I would bet that it actually works. It’s a chilly Friday in late January, a week after our blessed ski trip, and I’m meeting Ruby for another session. The Java and Clay is a particular favorite. The back forty is a full-blown workshop where patrons glaze pre-made vases and platters and pick them up the next day, fully kilned. The front is more like someone’s living room, including a large gas fireplace with stone facing. When I come here solo, I end up on a stool before the front window, which affords a vista of Harborview Drive and the Jerisich Dock. The bonus is an occasional bald eagle sighting – once, a mere thirty feet above the sidewalk, as if he were headed to The Tides for a sandwich.
            My everything bagel goes off in the toaster just as Ruby pops through the door, looking all Debbie Reynolds in a white jacket and sienna scarf. She’s also had her hair bobbed, which multiplies her cuteness sevenfold.
            “Girlfriend!” she cries, and we go for a greeting with all the trimmings: wraparound hug, continental cheek-kissing, everything short of high-fives. She fetches a cappuccino, then joins me in matching armchairs before the fire.
            “God! I just want to live here. It’s so much nicer than my place.”
            “Tish-tosh!” I try to say with a straight face. “I’ve been to your place.”
            “Yes,” she rebuts. “But this place is in Gig Harbor.”
            “Point and… match! The hair is darling. I just want to adopt you.”
            “Thanks! I wanted it real short for my Mexican cruise.”
            “Excuse me? I mean, excuse me?”
            Ruby bats her lashes, all Betty Boop. “Yay-ess! Harry got a nice fat bonus, so next week our ports of call are Vallarta, Mazatlan and Cabo.”
            “San Lucas?”
            “Yes. We’re on a first-name basis.”
            “Extraordinary! I’m jealous already. Does the ship have karaoke?”
            “You have such a one-track mind. And yes, they do. It’s the first thing I checked.” She rubs her hands together, all Cruella DeVille. “A whole new crowd of victims for my siren call!”
            I laugh, in a perfectly normal manner, but then I’m drifting, my gaze fixed on the rust-colored hands of the mantelpiece clock. And then Ruby is saying something that fades in and out of my frequency.
            “Channy? Are you somewhere in the 253 area code?”
            I shake my head around, all Rin-Tin-Tin.
            “Um… um… sorry. I’m a little wary of these stories today. Well. Mine, mostly. This might sound silly, but, as we got further and further into our little meetings, I began to believe that, if I told the story exactly right, maybe this time it would turn out… differently.”
            Ruby takes in my anxiety, folding her hands over her knee. “Would it help if I went first?”
            “Would you? Oh! I forgot my bagel. Hold on.”
            Ruby laughs, all Fran Dreischer. “Jewish food for a Jewish tragedy. Oy gevalt! I’ll go visit the restroom.”
            “Be sure and put the seat down,” I say. Disappearing around the corner, Ruby flashes one half of a puzzled expression.


            I marked my time with Scootie by that maple tree, the one I could see from his elevator. At this time, it was just beginning to bud, which probably meant early March. Which meant we’d been together a year and a half. Everything else was unchanged. We had fabulous, messy sex. We did artsy, creative things together. And I still had no clue as to the true nature of our relationship. We still saw each other only once or twice a week. But I had managed to grow comfortable with this. I began to think of it as the best kind of relationship; the infrequency made our time together that much more valuable. Say this for the female mind: it possesses a virtuosic ability to rationalize.
            I was also afraid to mess with the one thing that was going well for me. Same deadend receptionist job. Same invisible turndowns at the auditions. And deep at the core, the same dark dread: that I would pass from the Earth without leaving a single mark on the history of the American musical – that throwing away my roles at the Greenstreet Theater had been a reckless, childish act. And the worst thought of all, that I was just as talented as I thought myself to be – and that the only thing keeping me from success was the failure to find someone who had the eyes and ears to recognize this.
            That night, however, Scootie had lined up some excellent consolations. He had arranged for the Italian restaurant across the street to deliver an entire meal to his loft – place settings, silverware, butter dish and all. The fare was Caesar salad followed by seafood fettucine (mussels, clams, crabmeat) in a white cream sauce. Dessert was a canoli on a bed of whipped cream in the shape of a cross. We were sipping ten-year-old tawny port when Scootie’s expression took a sudden change.
            “I have to stop seeing you.”
            I laughed, and stopped, and laughed again, but Scootie’s expression stayed the same.
            “Scootie? Come on, finish the joke. You’re making me nervous. I didn’t know you could do such a vicious deadpan. You really ought to be a straight-man.”
            He got up and walked away, holding his port like a worry-stone.
            “No joke. No deadpan.”
            He turned back around, and looked at me intently.
            “Ten years ago, I was working at a theater center in California, and I fell in love with one of the trustees, a married woman. After a lot of backs and forths, she divorced, but she found that she didn’t want to get married again. She had things that she wanted to do with her life, and she wanted to pursue them freely. She eventually founded a non-profit network for international performing arts groups. I loved her, but I realized that I also had things to pursue, visions bouncing around in my head. I was able to establish my career in New York thanks largely to her generosity.
            “Despite our claims to freedom, we are inextricably linked. And when our paths cross, we are automatically a couple. Juliana just wrote to say that her network is transferring its headquarters to New York. So she and I will be back together, and I… will have to stop seeing you.”
            When I was a kid in Florida, I used to go boogie-boarding with my brother. I caught this one wave just as it was breaking, and it took hold of me, slamming me into the wash. There was no me left, just a bunch of limbs flailing one way and the next with no say-so from Central Command. This was how I felt, sitting before a whipped-cream cross at Scootie’s table. But it changed quickly. It became a fever, creeping over my body, hissing out in words that refused to become sentences.
            “How… You can… I… Don’t…”
            I stood from the table. The room shook at me.
            “You… mother… fucker!”
            I had to destroy something. It didn’t take long to find a target. Scootie had been working for a month on a mural with three figures: an evil robot clown in magenta, a shy junior executive in green, and an Easter Island god in gold. I located a dozen jars of paint on a nearby table, opened them up and hurled them at the mural, obliterating the figures in a storm of scarlet, ochre, mars black and cerulean blue. Then I turned to find Scootie calmly watching, arms folded, like a mother waiting out a toddler’s tantrum. This pissed me off even more, so I took a jar of lime green and poured it over his head. I’ll give him this much: he took it without flinching.
            I slapped the paint into his jacket and said, “Fuck you, you fucking pig.” Then I grabbed my purse and left. I marched eight blocks in a righteous fury, and didn’t start crying until I arrived at my apartment door.
            A year later, I received a check for $2,300. It was forty percent of two works: the canvas of our lovemaking, and the three slaughtered figures of our breakup. In the exhibit, the latter was accompanied by a coat rack holding the lime green jacket. If I had any pride, I would have torn that check into a thousand pieces. But I was a brutalized actor in a brutal city, and I was behind on my rent.

            “Ruby! That is so harsh.”
            “Hey! That’s my word.”
            “Pssh, yeah. And now I know why.”
            Ruby looks away nervously, then spoons the last dollop of foam from her cappuccino.
            “That’s pretty much the end of my story. Don’t know what we’ll talk about now – except perhaps my Mexican cruise.”
            She’s got me laughing again. “You are gonna milk that thing for all it’s worth.”
            “I’m gonna leche that thing,” she says, then performs an uncanny cow impression – less “moo,” more “mrrr.”
            “But I don’t get it,” I say. “Didn’t you spend about five more years in New York?”
            “Five times nothing equals nothing. I kept auditioning. I kept demonstrating my uncanny ability to not get parts. I kept doing the day job. I’m an actress, honey – give me credit for not wanting to beat a dead story. In a way, though, those nothing years were the saddest of all. Here I set out to have a scintillating life on Broadway, and I end up with a black hole five years long. It was good to tell you about the other stuff, Channy – and I thank you for listening – but fuck New York. I’m in Tacoma now. And I’m going to…”
            “Mexico, right. But… So you came out here to take care of your brother?”
            “Yes. And I’m oddly grateful about that. The noble mission of saving David – fully funded by my relatives, I might add – gave me a way out of town without having to admit to abject failure. And it’s such a relief! From now on, I do not chase the dreams that don’t chase me. Give me the real stuff.”
            I can’t help myself. I stand up and give Ruby a kiss on the cheek. “Congrats, sistah. You just graduated.”
            “No more school? Righteous!”
            “I’m gettin’ a cookie. You want one?”
            “Yeah,” she says. “One of those pink sugar cookies. I’m feeling juvenile.”
            We sit for a few minutes in silence, grinding our Valentine’s hearts into sweet sugar smoke. And I know that it’s time to get to the bad stuff.

Photo by MJV

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