December 05, 2008

In the Eighties (Appeared in Whiskey Island Magazine Summer 2005)




for Leornard Michaels

In the Eighties, I married my landscaper husband Bert and moved from urban Dayton, Ohio, to grassier Connecticut. We purchased a small Cape Cod home in the not so grassy Naugatuck. I began to long for familiar friends and family.

I auditioned for a production of Orwell’s 1984 at a local college. I felt surrounded by thought-police. Television became increasingly disturbing. Ron Reagan was President. I developed a fear of nuclear war. This began a protracted bout with insomnia and inebriation.

Within six months I knew my marriage was a mistake. I thought a child would change things; fortunately efforts to this end failed.

I enrolled in classes to finish the degree in Journalism I’d started eight years before. There, I made friends in the theater club and the school paper. We rehearsed nights and laid out the paper weekends. I wrote dozens of two-column inch random news bits and one scathing article that ruined the career of a drunken professor.

My friends were colorful: sexually, racially, and morally diverse. They were bored. They were people whose marriages were failing. People who planned to make it big someday, smarter than those “dumb-asses” who got degrees in things like business management and jobs after graduating.

We’d go to the pub after rehearsals or when an issue went to print, drink steins of beer and artfully sniff cocaine from restroom toilet tanks. Empty conversations filled empty corners. We made Mecca of Greenwich Village. We were very cool.

I met a sculptor who carried a weapon. He feared a conspiracy, believing the government planned to eliminate the proletariat. I knew the proletariat didn’t matter to the government.

Locally renowned people attended my parties. A woman named Olivia stripped in my living room and later gave blowjobs in the basement. I wanted to be tolerant and open. I needed the excitement of an edgy lifestyle to balance the blandness I felt deep in my gut.

My Journalism professor was a smart, good-looking lesbian who had a lover and the acceptance of her family and friends. She blew a vein in her neck with a needle full of heroin. I changed my major to theatre.

I worked for an insurance firm that underwrote drunk drivers at deadly rates. I typed carbon forms and collected checks. My coworkers were an earnest single-mother and a drying out widow with big hair. Our gender and need for cash united us. Each day we watched anxious people wander into the backroom with wads of green.

I directed a play for the drama club. Dozens of people auditioned. They traipsed across the stage and read snippets of text. One cried real tears. Another fled behind the curtains and vomited. At first, I took a lot of notes to help me remember people. Hours later, I made little up or down arrows next to names.

A local paper canned the production. The nineteen year old “star” of my play told Alan, the stage manager, that I was narrow-minded and artistically challenged. She said I couldn’t direct my way out of a paper bag with scissors. The reviews in the school paper were favorable. Half of the people on the masthead were also in the cast. In the Eighties, I made the best friends and worst enemies I’ve ever had. Some are some still partying; others have gone on to more ordinary life.

I told Bert I wanted a divorce while sitting at our kitchen table. He cried and explained that divorce was a sin. He was worried about his salvation, not mine. I was over the “God’s watching” motivation for life choices.

In the eighties I used illicit drugs in public places. Drugs and alcohol made things messy. People overdosed. They accidentally had children. I believed naively that drugs helped conversations, conducting hubris chats with anyone about the existence of God, new music; or whether there was a gene for homosexuality. When the “gay” cancer appeared, my friends were straight, gay, and curious. La Cage Aux Folles was on Broadway. There was a fire storm of homophobia from the religious-right.

I broke my nose in an automobile accident. It has a little crook in it since. I developed bleeding ulcers. I was a nervous wreck.

My husband moved out.

I came to believe that God was a woman. I shunned tradition and made sketchy plans to join a commune one day. I slept with people who were somewhere on the gray scale of addiction. I should have been raped, murdered, overdosed and found wrapped in the sheets of my perpetually unmade bed.

One afternoon I lazed around my newly listed house with my friend Alan. We talked about Warhol and Sexton. We gossiped and got drunk waiting for our dates. And when they arrived we all climbed into bed, three men, and me. All we could do was giggle. After taking off all of his clothes Alan vomited and then went into the living room and passed out on the couch. I hid in the bathroom and phoned my mother in Ohio. We talked about her garden. It was comforting to hear about aphids and evening primrose. I crept out of the bathroom to find all three men gone.

The drama of theatre arts continued. I was accepted to a campus theatrical troupe called The Central Players. Victor Dini, the faculty advisor, said I showed promise. He was semi-famous once, off-off-Broadway. The entire arts department admired him. He taught me to work with an intention. I chewed the scenery as Mona in a production of Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.

Because of an interest in cell mitosis, I took a botany class. When I answered a difficult question in her lecture, Dr. Green, my professor, bent toward me and asked, “What is your major?”

“Theatre,” I said.

She never called on me again. She thought I was only acting like I knew something about science.

I was given the lead in a one act play. A cast member gave me a gram of coke on opening night. I delivered my monologue in record time with edgy emotion. A playgoer later told me that my twitchy ways gave the character authenticity.

My classmates were younger than me. They lived with their parents. None were especially talented but they believed they had a chance. They forgot they were in a play at a state university. Their parents paid for expensive voice lessons, wardrobes, nose jobs, and unwittingly most of the drugs we used. I became jaded. Our lines kept us up all night. My friends thought I was cool for an older person. I was in my late twenties.

A lot of gifted and not so gifted people I knew in the Eighties are dead or worse. Four were killed in a drunken car accident the year I graduated. One is a homeless meth addict in Portland. Two died from complications related to AIDS. The guy who had the part of Jimmy Dean pumps gas and rebuilds engines at a local service station.

In the Eighties I wrote dark poetry reminiscent of Sylvia Plath, I thought. I used to believe I’d write a hit screen play about my reckless years in the Eighties.

I hadn’t divorced. We couldn’t afford an attorney.

I took a job on the graveyard shift as a waitress at the Simsbury Diner. I poured coffee and served eggs to drunks and truckers until dawn. Benny, the Syrian owner said that if I wanted tips, I had to be nice. He suggested I unbutton my top a little. He’d scream, “Pick up! Pick up!” or “Monkey Dish! Monkey Dish!” in his thick accent while standing over the grill, his glasses and hair coated with grease, sweat, and flour.

I saw Les Misrables on Broadway, an elaborate production which evoked tears from the audience nightly. I saw Jefferson Airplane on the midway. Grace squawked White Rabbit to an audience of aging teenagers. I met Peter, Paul, and Mary backstage at the Melody Tent on Cape Cod. I visited the Hillstead House, a restored turn of the century home in Farmington, Connecticut. Mary Cassatt paintings hung in a white bedroom with ivory linens and gauzy curtains. And in the darkened parlor—Monet’s Haystacks hung in gilded frames around a sitting area.

After this visit I went to a matinee showing of She’s Gotta Have It. It was a day of astounding dichotomy: Mary Cassatt, Claude Monet, and Spike Lee.

My friends lived in New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and on the West Coast. They also lived in the psych wards and half-way houses.

I did the electric slide in high heels at a dance party in Hartford to raise money for the Arts Council. A new poet signed her book for me. She was dating a locally elected official. The three of us sniffed coke from the glass table top on the torch lit patio. Violin music wafted through the air. He’s now serving a ten year term on corruption charges. I don’t know if she still writes. I met other writers and political mucky mucks who’ve since disappeared. Today, other than voting, I avoid politics and poetry.

One night, Alan drank so much Vodka it caused him to seize on my living room floor. He was making the cross over from happy drunk to mean drunk. In the middle of a dramatic argument about his car keys, he fell to the floor. I watched him writhe around and drool. When he came to, the paramedics were working on him. At first, he refused treatment. He didn’t believe he’d had a seizure. “It was just a little black out,” he said. When blood trickled down the side of his face from a gash on his forehead, he was convinced. He swilled his last Vodka sans tonic before being carted away in the ambulance. He’d been drinking for thirty years. He had the weathered look of a writer who lived near the ocean. He signed into the drunk-tank. While visiting him in the hospital, I described every terrible detail of the event. The part about drooling and his eyes rolling into white appalled him. He never drank again. He wasn’t as messed up as other people I knew in the Eighties.

In December of 1989 a friend from work’s son was expelled from the middle school. He was HIV positive. Before that, I didn’t know Ronnie was sick. A few days later, I joined a vigil in protest of his banishment. Folks gathered on the New Haven green. There were people in wheel chairs, bikers, families, clergy. Fat flakes of snow sailed among us. We batted them with mitten-ed hands and caught them on our tongues. Some of the sick were bald, thin as rails. Some seemed healthy as oxen. There were beautiful little children with sarcoma on their faces. People waved flags silk screened with the faces of loved ones who could not be with us. A woman hurried by pulling her children closer. Dissenters kept an anxious distance. We lit our white utility candles, hundreds of flames glowing in the thin, wintry light.

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