Cliff and Susan

Between productions at a theatre company, it can be slow. Paused Ingmar Bergman movie slow. During these periods, Cliff, the Office Manager, spent most of his time trying to do tasks that couldn’t be done yet, trying to create tasks, or trying to do other people’s tasks without offending them. He was a taskhole. If it was a how-slow-can-you-go day, he would read plays that the Artistic Director was considering for the upcoming season. Sometimes he would just read random plays from the theatre’s library. That’s how he found Quality Street by J.M. Barrie, also known as the boy who wouldn’t grow up.

Quality Street is kind of Napoleonic-era hybrid of Taming of The Shrew and Cinderella, only it doesn’t feature a shrew, or a fairy godmother, just a Phoebe, who feels her potential has expired, her looks have faded and life is a memory. Cliff liked her immediately. Plot had never been a priority to him, but for the reader, we will chart some of Phoebe’s course. As a young woman, she loved a certain Valentine Brown, a man who, typical of men, didn’t realize his love until enlisted in the army and serving in another country. Increasing the tally of cruel incompetence, Valentine had recommended an investment, to which Phoebe and her sister, Susan, devoted all their savings, only to see them evaporate.

Upon Valentine’s return, years later, they are operating a school “for genteel children,” though such a phrase flatters itself more than its subject. Valentine is shocked at the sight of the once sprightly “Phoebe of the ringlets” – older, tired and overworked – which she interprets as rejection. Through a comical series of misunderstandings and opportunities, she finds herself impersonating a younger and invented relative, Livvy, with the intent of reviving Valentine’s interest, or perhaps, having her revenge.

Cliff simply static clinged to this play. Was it his desire to be desired? His terror of being discovered? His fascination with the stage directions, which felt like a novel and read like a diary? Whatever the reason(s), Cliff wanted the company to produce Quality Street. He wanted a Barrie fan to direct it. He even wanted to play a character. Not Valentine – not any of the men, actually. He wanted to play Susan, the sister of Phoebe. He wanted to play Susan as a brother.

Here, perhaps, it is important to note that Quality Street is in the public domain. It was now in Cliff’s domain. He was going to remodel. No, not remodel, just redecorate. The Artistic Director believed the script was overrun with characters, needing some reigning, some discipline, some editing. Cliff agreed, although he would clarify it was simply the long distance relationship between one era and another; in person, in performance, it would be perfectly relatable, as is.

But he agreed; he didn’t want to jeopardize the Artistic Director’s approval or anyone else futzing up the script, although he was going to futz it up. While that was a crime, it was still legal, so there wouldn’t be consequences. Admittedly, Cliff wondered if, as a writer, he was violating some literary equivalent of a Hippocratic Oath? Maybe, and to justify it, he repeated to himself that the editing would be a minimally invasive procedure. Not long after beginning, however, he found some tumors:

MISS SUSAN. Phoebe, I have a wedding gift for you.

PHOEBE. Not yet?

MISS SUSAN. It has been ready for a long time. I began it when you were not ten years old and I was a young woman. I meant it for myself, Phoebe. I had hoped that he – his name was William – but I think I must have been too unattractive, my love.

PHOEBE. Sweetest – dearest –

MISS SUSAN. I always associate it with a sprigged poplin I was wearing that summer, with a breadth of coloured silk in it, being a naval officer; but something happened, a Miss Cicely Emberton, and they are quite big boys now. So long ago, Phoebe – he was very tall, with brown hair – it was foolish of me, but I was always so fond of sewing – with long straight legs and such a pleasant expression.

PHOEBE. Susan, what was it?

MISS SUSAN. It was a wedding-gown, my dear. Even plain women, Phoebe, we can’t help it; when we are young we have romantic ideas just as if we were pretty. And so the wedding-gown was never used. Long before it was finished I knew he would not offer, but I finished it, and then I put it away. I have always hidden it from you, Phoebe, but of late I have brought it out again, and altered it.

PHOEBE. Susan, I could not wear it. (MISS SUSAN brings the wedding-gown.) Oh! How sweet, how beautiful!

MISS SUSAN. You will wear it, my love, won’t you? And the tears it was sewn with long ago will all turn into smiles on my Phoebe’s wedding-day.

It was a scene Cliff couldn’t play, not at this company. But he could play it so well. Like Susan, he had been to many weddings, had given away the same gown, again and again, fully involved in someone else’s courtship and marriage, but feeling everything from the periphery, always out of sight, and yet, never overlooked by the author, right up until the end.

Surely by now the reader is a little disoriented, however Cliff has sworn me to secrecy about the ending of Quality Street, but might I remind everyone that the script is available online, to which, alright, I will not link here, but it’s easily found and Cliff is furious with me now. I would only exacerbate his fury with some theories on how dominant culture had not done any favors for him, just the refusal to truly represent people, instead pressuring them to plead guilty of their most unusual trait. Yet, in Quality Street, here Cliff was, represented and accounted for.

How could he cut the scene? How could he rewrite it? He didn’t need to make Susan in his image, she was already in it, she was a reflection, and you can’t change a reflection without changing the reflected. Naturally, he would still edit the play, he would still lobby for its selection and delight in its production, if that were to be. But he would not be written in to the story. He would have to write another.

Just Like Me

Your-own-private-Bose-Idaho headphones are on, canceling the noise you don’t choose for the noise you do; they are connected to your iPhone, which is connected to your hips, which are connecting the bops of Betty Who:

I heard she’s beautiful
A 20 out of 10
That doesn’t keep me from
Wondering how you’ve been

She is in St. Cloud. It sounds like the safest place. It sounds like the name of a TV drama. There was one called that, wasn’t there? In a hospital? No, that was St. Elsewhere. Perhaps that is more accurate. The cop who pulled her over said she did not know who she was. Now she cannot call you. She cannot text you. Her husband calls you. Her husband texts you. You both talk about her like a place card at a table setting; you wonder when the real person will be there.

So if you think you’re falling apart
And I’m the only one you’ll call
If you keep reaching for me in the dark
And can’t stand it anymore

You are doing the dishes, spinning the scrub brush around the outline of the plate, like a tone arm and turntable reversed. At the moment you are happy, because for momentary happiness, Betty Who is your Captain Picard: she makes it so. Especially when you first heard “Somebody Loves You” as the soundtrack of a flash mob marriage proposal between Spencer and Dustin Stout-Reese. It simultaneously went viral on the internet and in you, infecting with false hope. Someday, you think, they will release a study that concludes gay marriages are unnatural and unhealthy. What a terrible thought, you think, and you tell the thought so. It was not you thinking it, you decide, setting a Tupperware container aside to soak. It was a character – a character without an arc, drowning in a flood, because all the other animals have their partner. “At least she is married now,” you told the pastor earlier. “She cannot be alone. I’ve known her for years and I’ve always known that.” “I met her at a performance of your play,” the pastor replied. “she said, ‘it’s so funny that we’re meeting here, because this play is about me.'” In the bead counter of your mind, you try to calculate what is more narcissistic: her imagining your play is about her, or you insisting it is about you.

Then you just call my name
I will do the same
You can look into my eyes and see
If you’ve got a broken heart
Then you’re just like me

At the beginning of the breakdown, she wrote to you in an e-mail, “GOD can play with pretty, fragile, tragic, desecrated, dishonored, shamed and histrionic messes like ‘us’ – and you and I know our heaven was granted because it would not be again the night I feel in love with the band that captured all the songs I shared with you waiting for him…and the songs would have been forgotten if I didn’t know in my heart that you secretly loved me more than you thought I loved you – and I let you in whatever way you wanted because I was always water and I could transcend whenever the world was too much for me to share…This is not good-bye, this is I will find you again when God wants to remind us of his story as he would tell it – but we have to establish what we think our narrative is – so we predict what we don’t want – in the deepest hope that we get everything we need before what we want, because I can only hold the things that are truly cherished in my heart – as you are my darling Ben.”

Just like just like me
Just like just like me
Just like just like me
Just like just like me
Just like just like me
Just like just like me

Cardio Arrest

Let it be known that I am not a fat ass. I am on the treadmill for a half hour every night. I don’t mean just standing on it while I watch TV because the gym has cable. I mean walking on a moving treadmill while reading novels upward of 400 pages. I can feel my heart beating, not like a love song, like a psychological thriller, because if I don’t step lightly and balance the book, it will fall off the stand and I will trip over it, slamming my jaw on the hand bar, biting off my tongue and swallowing it as I gasp for breath, face planting on the treadmill and riding it like a backwards waterslide, until I splash into a pool of my own blood on the floor, surrounded by a gorgeous cloud of chiseled witnesses.

Disregarding my commitment to not dying prematurely – physically or socially – one of my friends, Beth, extended an invitation to a class at Diversity Fitness. I was afraid we would be the diversity. I was afraid that some black woman, like Isis in Bring it On, would say, “can’t even break a sweat without white people breakin’ it up.”

But upon entry, there were bodies of every shape and color – even shapeless and white. While I wasn’t inspired to give a scientific presentation defending white as a color, I wasn’t uncomfortable. Probably because we were joined by my subtly-but-definitely-Hispanic friend Brianna.

We found a spot near the back, by the vending machine stocked with vitamin water. I hadn’t brought any water with me. I wasn’t planning on sweating that much. The class was called Latin Cardio, and I thought it would be fun, exotic – not really exercise – exoticise. A little vacation from my normal workout.

Near the end of the first song, I began to understand there are benefits to a fat ass. When it’s kicked, it’s not as painful. And when it’s time to shake it, you got some salt in the shaker. And this was a class of Shakers – religiously bootylicious.

At one point we were ordered to engage in a dance-off, like West Side Story. That reference is perhaps not appropriate for Diversity Fitness. Or Latin Cardio. Nonetheless, we faced each other, Brianna and I, taking turns shaking our tukhuses. It was a bizarre sort of urban mating ritual, in which I was not the most flamboyant, and therefore not the man. This was a cause and effect to which I was totally unaccustomed.

The dictator – dominatrix – instructor – seemed to have no threshold. After a good threshing, I looked at the clock. “We’re not even halfway through,” I croaked. Seemingly in response to this, the instructor raised a finger to each cheek, coaching us to smile, like a stage mom. Scared, I smiled. Then there were more songs with a beat that my ass could not follow.

I’ve heard that many spouses share the bathroom during any of its myriad uses. A fitness class is a bit like that. You’re around these people during some rather compromising positions, and after awhile you really don’t care. Yeah, this is my ass. When’s the next movement?

Afterwards, as we all stood outside speculating whether we’d have to call in sick because our muscles would be hungover, the instructor walked by. “Thanks, guys,” she said. “Thank you,” I gushed, wondering if I was experiencing a kind of Stockholm syndrome. I had tried to move with her, tried to make myself work with her. She had almost killed me, but not quite, and – I remembered, as an October breeze cooled the sweat on my back – I was free.


“I think I have a talent for living. Perhaps I’m trying to make the most of something small for want of something better, but I think a true talent for living has the quality of creation, and if that’s the talent I was meant to have, I’m awfully glad I have it. I’d rather live a first-rate life than paint a second-rate picture.” -Samuel Taylor, Sabrina Fair

I read this line and the letters are clothes warm from the dryer, clinging and comforting: You can have a first-rate life. Then they are little jurors, pointing their serifs at me, with inquiry and suspicion: Why can’t you paint a second-rate picture? Then they are little forks in the road, poking and insisting, You can only do one.

If you have a career, a relationship, travel – there’s no time for anything else. If you write, perform, create – there’s no money for anything else. So I’m working part-time and writing part-time and the whole thing is a very tall and poorly constructed wedding cake with too many layers – leaning this way and that. How can I keep it together. Who’s going to eat it. I’m not even married.

Just last night, on a family video, I saw this fiendish red-faced red-headed boy, flailing a naked Barbie by the hair. He was intimate with his imagination. Barbie was an actress in his film, a backup singer in his concert, a character in his novel. He made it look so easy. I wanted to be him again.