The Whole Damn World was Upside Down
Bad day was mild. Shit on by everything but seagulls was much closer to the truth. I woke up with a sore throat. Actually “woke up” would imply I slept. I tossed and turned and got up every hour to get water from the bathroom. Bram finally asked me to “go torture the fucking sofa, I need to work tomorrow.” But even he can’t be charming at three in the morning.
Going through the mail at the dining room table to kill time I found a letter from my former insurance company. Said letter informed me that they had been contacted by the lawyer of the other party (also known as “the woman who made a third lane to go around stopped traffic and plow dead into me”) and the damages she is asking for is more than my policy covered. If this goes to court and we lose, I am liable for the difference. Which of course is more than I made last year. I can’t even afford to get a new car since the old one was wrecked. She is able to extort money because she claims my left turn was illegal and that’s why she hit me. And All State apparently rolled over as soon as she said the magic word “lawyer.”
Shit. I was convinced I wasn’t going to sleep after that. I sat down to watch National Geographic channel. And the next thing I knew it was three hours later and I had forty five minutes to eat, shower, and walk to the train station. And now I had to do it all with a hot knife between shoulder blades from sleeping slumped upright in a wing back chair.
Knowing Bram, he probably thought he was doing me a favor letting me sleep. This was confirmed by the text waiting for me saying that he was glad I got some sleep and asked if he needed to stop and get orange juice.
And rehearsals, when I finally got there twenty minutes late, killed what was left of my vocal cords. Mostly yelling at the fucking actors. Only the lead is off book, so rehearsal took twice as long as it should have and I had to keep prompting lines instead of doing other things I needed to do. But it might not be a bad thing we’re not off book since the writer decided to rewrite some of the lines anyway. Which adds script updates to my book and script updates to be sent out to the cast and designers and management to my to-do list.
And it was at the theatre that I ripped my pants. I felt it happen. It was silent, no ripping, no tearing, just fabric giving way against the screw sticking out of the side of the seat.
Is this one paying you at least? Dad keeps asking me and I don't know.
They're paying five hundred for rehearsals and twenty five dollars a performance during the run.
And Dad knows how to work a phone.
Well, it’s better than nothing.
Did you need something?
I just wanted to say hi and see how things are going with you.
And questioning my life choices is just a bonus?
You don't have to get a crappy attitude just because people care about you.
Charlie, my sister, doesn't understand the life of a roving stage technician and manager. She has a job that looks like a job, working full time in an office and going to meetings and being paid a set amount once a month. I have an hourly part time job answering patrons' questions and demands at the theatre complex in Downtown LA. And I run light boards and stage manage in small and community theaters here in LA or home in Long Beach, mostly to keep from going too crazy and to justify the thirty grand in student loans I used to get through MFA.
What about there at the Music Center? Have you tried applying for jobs there?
Three so far, I think.
Have you heard anything from them?
No. I haven't.
Are they hiring right now?
It's just that you're so talented, you deserve more than a few hundred dollars and credit.
Have you thought about looking for work at bigger theatre in LA? Like the one we went to when we saw your friend?
He's my boyfriend and his name is Bram.
What kind of name is Bram? It sounds like a breakfast cereal.
It's short for Abraham. And you know all this and the theatre was the Pasadena Playhouse.
Have you thought about working there?
Deep breaths. Just remember she is just trying to help.
Yes. I have. Unfortunately they are not hiring.
Have you emailed them to see when they will be hiring again?
The deep breaths were taking more effort now.
Don't you have work you are supposed to be doing?
I’m at lunch.
Of course you are.
I’m just trying to help you. You can't be some rich guy's bitch forever.
For the last time he is a receptionist at the VA hospital. And I am not his bitch.
You're living with him.
Because I love him, the same reason you live with your boyfriend.
My boyfriend's not ninety.
Neither is mine. I have things to do. Enjoy your lunch.
Charlie, I have to go-
You don't want to talk to me.
Not right now, no.
I’m just looking out for you.
By insulting my career and my boyfriend?
He's going to leave you sooner or later. I just want you to have a steady job in place when he does.
I just hung up. She called back but I didn't answer. She left a profane voicemail about how I was being so immature and ungrateful and how no one appreciates her. I never told Bram she called that day, there seemed no point.
I sat on the bus trying desperately not to be lulled asleep by the rocking motion. The last thing I needed was missing my stop while I was unconscious. I tried to eavesdrop, sometimes people say the most interesting things on the bus. Unfortunately, no one was needlessly sharing their life story to the bus driver today so I had to fight to keep myself awake.
I was also equally desperately hoping that not too many people could see my underwear through the growing tear in the thigh of my pants. Mother fucking son of a bitch. I didn’t particularly care about the pants. They were boring khaki cargo pants. But they were fifty dollars at the Destination XL and I had exactly sixteen dollars and sixty two cents in my checking account.
On the bus it was the usual Downtown LA afternoon mix of kids in school uniforms, the homeless, and the working poor in uniform shirts or Wal-Mart business casual. Like me, most are on long bus and train rides daily. Because like me, they can’t afford to live anywhere near where they work.
The random matrix of filming and road construction in the narrow downtown streets made traffic lurch along. My hands were falling asleep clutching my cloth briefcase to my chest and belly so it didn’t hit my fellow passengers. Because September in Downtown LA is a hot, sweaty mess the air was thick with the chemical smell of air conditioning, the competing floral scents of perfumes and colognes and the sour milk smell of unwashed skin and clothes. The silence, apart from the squeak and squeal of the breaks and the occasional ringtone of a phone was eerie. And just made everything more tense.
Christ Jesus I missed having a car. Bram has offered a couple of times to just give me the money for a decent used car but I always refused to take it.
Don’t think of it as a gift. Think of it as a loan. Pay me back when you can.
I don’t know how many ways to tell you I don’t want your money.
You haven’t tried that many.
Sarcasm is my line.
I was sarcastic before you were born.
That’s the heart of it, isn’t it?
You’re not unintelligent. Don’t act like it.
I am confused.
You have money because you’re older.
I can’t help that.
Neither can I.
That makes no sense.
I don’t want your money. I want my own money.
You don’t have your own money. Right now at least. That’s why I want to help.
I don’t want to be taken care of. That’s not why I’m here.
I know that, but you need a car.
I’ll earn this one like I earned the last one.
That’s the thing, you don’t have to anymore.
We finally make it to Seventh Street metro station for the blue line. Buffeted on all sides by rush hour commuters heading up and down the stairs to their respective escape routes, I finally made it to platform two. Where there was a sign that due to scheduled maintenance the trains to Long Beach were only coming every twenty four minutes. And the next one was twenty three minutes away. Twenty three minutes on the narrow platform with more people by the minute and no benches. Jehovah Witnesses in shiny business suits prowled up and down the platform, stalking purposefully toward anyone not looking at a book or a phone, Watchtower extended and ready to engage.
The train, when it got there, ended up so crowded I had to stand for the eight stations between Seventh Street and Willowbrook. Eight stations with my briefcase pulling against my shoulder, a toddler’s hands suddenly exploring my cargo pants pockets from his stroller, and listening to someone yelling at the devil about how she didn’t “need no homosexting in her life.” The train car was freezing cold even for me. All other smells were overwhelmed by the marijuana smoke from the vape the guy with the cane was smoking at the front of the car as soon as we started moving.
As soon as we got out of the tunnel at the Pico/Chick Hearn station my phone buzzed three times and popped. I couldn’t answer it, not with one hand on my briefcase to stop it from clocking other people as they got on and off the train and the other clutching the cold steel pole for dear life. Besides I knew what they were anyway. Texts from my sister about my mother and missed calls from my mother about my sister. The pop was Facebook. Probably someone needing to get replaced from work.
I am the “strong one” in the family. The physically strong one who goes over to my parents’ house to assemble and repair furniture and help dad move his barbeques when he uses them for parties. And the emotionally strong one who listens to mom cry when Dad was a particular asshat after his fourth martini or to my sister’s various plans to help our parents’ marriage.
I’ll work on Dad and I need you to work on Mom.
Is that your sister again?
I’m not working on anyone. And yes.
Bram asked if it was you on the phone.
Am I on speaker phone?
Well, tell him hi anyway.
Charlie says hi.
Bram says leave your brother alone.
Bram says hi too.
No, I didn’t.
No, he didn’t.
I’m not getting into this. With any of it.
Mom’s health is getting worse and we’re the ones that are going to have to take care of her. Actually, it will be you since you have the sugar daddy.
He’s a receptionist at the VA hospital. That does not count as a sugar daddy.
He makes more than you, doesn’t he?
What does she want you to do this time?
I’ll tell you later.
Tell me what?
Not you, Abraham.
I hate that name.
I hate being interrupted on the phone.
What are we going to do about Mom and Dad?
We are not going to do anything. They are grown ass people who can make their own decisions.
But they are making the wrong decisions.
That’s not our problem.
But it will become our problem.
Maybe I’ll get lucky and get hit by a bus before that happens.
I’m not kidding.
Who said I was?
Why won’t you take this seriously?
Because I am a grown man who has finally moved on with my life and I don’t appreciate you dragging me back into my parents’ dysfunctional marriage.
Do you think I enjoy this?
Yes. I honestly think you get a charge out of being the one that knows what’s best for everybody.
I know you and mom think I’m a bitch…
I am not playing this game anymore, Charlotte Elizabeth.
The full name, she must have pissed you off finally.
Don’t call me by my full name.
I know you and mom think I’m a bitch and I don’t know what you’ve been telling your old boyfriend about me-
He’s not that old.
Why am I even in the conversation?
I asked myself that all morning.
I’m still talking.
You’re reciting a speech I’ve heard a thousand times. About how even though we think horrible things about you, you are the glue holding us all together and you are the only one who cares enough to verbally abuse the people you love.
Just because I care-
You told her she was a bad mother.
She really said that?
He had whispered that. I just nodded my head. Not a memory I wanted to relive.
I am doing what is best for her.
No, you’re not. And I am tired of arguing about this. We’re not going to change each other’s mind.
Don’t you dare hang up on me.
Good for you.
I don’t know when Charlie decided we weren’t capable adults.
I would much rather know when you chose to believe her.
Too soon, Bramble. Too soon.
You have no reason to be. You’re not the one ruining my day.
You don’t have to talk to her.
When I say “I know” I mean that I empirically know it. It is knowledge I possess. Where the connection is failing is in the belief portion of the thought process. I don’t quite believe it yet.
And that is one of things I love about you.
The fact I’m a doormat?
Your empathy. Just be a little more empathetic with yourself.
And today, with my voice gone, I had the perfect excuse not to answer. I hope I had sense enough to take it.
At Grand Street/LATTC station a tall, sinewy black man of undeterminable age with headphones draped over his shoulders got on our car carrying a flat cardboard box and pulling an ice chest. He walked slowly down the aisle offering lighters, candy, soda, water, headphones and portable chargers. A couple people bought sodas and water, despite the recorded voice telling us expressly not to.
He was the only vendor who came into my car but I could see the others on platforms we passed, black and Latino men, most of them not young, earning money seventy five cents and a dollar at a time.
When we let off nearly half our passengers at Willowbrook/Rosa Parks station, I was able to get a seat and take out my phone. And I was right. Except the Facebook. That was just a notification that some friend updated their status.
I often fantasize about being irresponsible. About using the balance on my TAP card to take the train the wrong direction or to take a different bus. To just ride somewhere, until my balance or the public transportation system runs out. To not call in to work, either of them. To not answer my phone, not to my parents or my sister or actors from the show or the receptionist from the office or even Bram some days. To let someone else do all of it for once. If Charlie is so desperate to save all of us from ourselves by constantly trying to control us and remake us in the image in her mind, let her. If mom can't tell her to stop or if Charlie doesn't listen, both likely scenarios, it's not my problem because my phone will be a pile of electronic parts and glass in the plastic trashcan of some bus stop, in LA or Long Beach or anywhere in between. I feel that pull to the wrong bus and the wrong direction every time I get on the right one to the office or to a show or home. The dream of irresponsibility helps to deaden the pain of being the responsible one.
Reaching for the button or the yellow cord to signal stop, a thought forms. Just don't take this stop. Just let it go by. To be free can be as simple as not pressing the signal button at the right moment. To be free seems so easy and so impossible at the same time.
On the platform at Willowbrook, patrons streamed around the three sheriffs, bristling with guns and pepper spray and wearing bullet proof vests, arresting a Latino teenager who looked fifteen and a hundred and twenty pounds. Watching from my new seat, everyone seemed more annoyed that the worst moment of this kid's life might delay them by the barest second for their connection to the green line. But then again, what could I, or anyone, do but watch? And the guilt and pity just made me feel even sicker than I had already.
Now that the crowd had thinned out and the old lady in the back won her argument with the devil and thankfully gloated in silence, the whole car could hear the man with the cane telling the woman next to him that pot is the only thing that helped his knees after he got out of the service.
You’re gay right?
I’ve been flirting with you for three weeks –
You were flirting with me?
Not very well, apparently.
It’s hard to tell with actors sometimes.
I need to get in costume.
I just thought-I thought you might be but I wasn’t sure.
It was cold, as cold as it got in Long Beach, made colder since the driveway made a wind funnel for the wind coming off Recreation Park golf course. It was only about six thirty, but already dark. We were alone for now, but it was almost time for the stage manager to come out for his pre-show smoke.
God damn it, I’ve had a thing for you since Equus.
That shut him the fuck up.
That was almost three years ago.
I can count.
Three years. Why didn’t you say anything?
Why would I?
The air was filled with the smell of wisteria vines and pot and bursts of salt air from the ocean. Volunteers bundled in puffy jackets and scarves against the fifty degree temperatures walked past us from the parking lot. The click of their heels on the asphalt of the driveway, the hum of cars on Anaheim and PCH, the rattling of gates and doors as the house manager was opening up for the show. All the people and all the noise and the silence as he stared at me roared the loudest.
Were you ever going to say anything?
You’re so far out of my league, you might as well be on the goddamn moon. That’s why I didn’t respond. I thought I might be seeing something that wasn’t there because I’m so desperate. It’s not your fault, I don’t think I’ve ever been flirted with before. I don’t know what to do-.
He finally stopped my babbling by taking my hand. His fingers slipped between mine, weaving together easily. I had never held hands with someone, but I had always dreamed about it. When he took my hand my stomach dropped in a way that was completely new and completely terrifying and completely wonderful all at once.
Nearly an hour after leaving Seventh Street Metro we arrived in Long Beach and I got off the train at First and Ocean, just before the end of the line. At least later in the afternoon and closer to the water it was much cooler. And the smell of the ocean relaxed me a little. Not as much as normal, but some as I slowly, somewhat painfully, walked the three quarters of a mile home.
I walked home from the train station even though I was sick because I needed to keep the money on my TAP card. Going from metro bus to metro train was a transfer, free with the card. But Long Beach Transit bus would deduct from my stored value. And I couldn’t refill it before payday. Or even after payday now that I had to buy fucking pants.
All I could see as I turned the corner onto our quiet little street was everything that was wrong. The cracked sidewalks pushed up by mature trees and the peeling paint on a couple of the houses and the thick black scars where the street had been patched with tar instead of being repaved.
Standing in front of our small cream colored house all I could see was work that had to be done that I didn’t have the energy to do. Lawn that needed to edged, trash barrels that needed to come up, mail that had to be brought in. And I felt like just the weight of my briefcase, and all the leftover paperwork still in it, was going to pull me to the ground.
Up the faded concrete steps that needed paint and through the front door. I was a little surprised it was unlocked and then I remembered I was late getting home. I didn’t even have the door closed before I dropped my briefcase on the floor by the coffee table. Sliding out my shoes felt so good. The feeling of carpet beneath my socks was so soothing after a day of concrete and steel.
Even though it was after six thirty by this point, I couldn’t smell anything that resembled dinner. Fuck, I’d probably have to do that too.
Nicky, is that you?
No. It’s a sex criminal.
How many times do I have to tell you that’s not funny?
I don’t have enough voice to argue. Actually I didn’t have enough voice to finish that sentence. Everything after eno- was just patterns of squeaking.
Bram came out of the back of the house, where the bedroom and the office and the bedroom I had turned into a library was. That was one of the advantages of a much older boyfriend, he came with his own place.
I have a second bedroom.
I know. It’s where you keep your baby dragon.
It’s an iguana.
If you say so.
Animals besides dogs can be pets.
Not good ones.
I have a second bedroom-
I thought we established this.
-that can be turned into a library.
You always said you couldn’t move until you found a place that had room for you and your books.
I love that you asking me to move in with you opened with you asking my books to move in with you.
I know your books, and a proper space for them, are important to you.
Are you really ready for me to move in? And a few hundred books?
I wouldn’t have offered otherwise. I love you, Nicky. Living together feels like the natural next step.
I’ll have to take your word for it.
You don’t have to say yes.
But that does feel like a relationship ending no, doesn’t it?
It doesn’t have to be. It could be you’re just not ready.
You’re giving me too many options.
It’s a big decision and I don’t want to pressure you.
Goddamn you’re too perfect. What about your books? The ones that are in the spare room now.
I thought we would share the bookshelves.
You thought we would mix our books together?
We wash each other’s underwear and you're worried about mixing books?
Books are different.
You have that panicked look you get when I say that I love you.
Mixing books is a serious commitment.
And you’re not sure you’re ready for it?
I know I will regret it forever if I don’t. No, I don’t think I am ready. But if I wait until I think I am ready it will never happen.
I don’t want you to be uncomfortable.
I want to take this step with you. But with you, not dragging you kicking and screaming behind me.
So this is romance.
The best thing about this time of year, late summer, is that the harsh light melts over the afternoon until it is dark gold. Standing in the entrance to the hall, with the lighting from the windows on the side of the house, he looked like the golden bust of a Roman ruler.
Bram is fifty one to my thirty one. And smaller too. He’s about five five and one sixty. I’m six feet and three fifty and built something like a fullback. When we first started dating, I was afraid I would break him if we hugged too hard. I’ve never been too good at estimating my own strength.
And I nod, physically unable to voice anything. And he did that thing where he reaches up and cupped my face with his left hand. I cover his hand with mine and close my eyes. When we first started dating I would instinctually flinch at a hand so close, but now, now it had the magic to erase the shitty day.
And then he pulled his hand away and walked toward that ridiculous iPod dock that he insisted on getting with the entertainment system.
What are you doing? I was happy I managed to croak that out.
Something nice for you. And shush.
Don’t shush me.
After a few heartbeats, there was the magical opening notes of my favorite Sinatra song, “Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.”
Dance with me.
I can’t dance.
You always say that. And with that dismissal his arms were around my waist and his head on my chest. I felt his lips press a kiss against my chest through the fabric of my shirt. Just move with the music. And you can relax. Dinner will be here in fifteen minutes.
You ordered out?
I just got home myself. There was a long beat of silence while he got up the strength to make the confession. I went to a meeting this afternoon.
Shit, I didn’t know-
Don’t talk, you’ll just hurt yourself. It’s just been a rough week at work … I just felt a little shaky, so I went to a meeting there at the hospital after work.
And everything just felt so much heavier. He’d been sober for over twenty years. Something more than work had to be going on. He hasn't needed meetings for over a year. Theatre and work have been enough. Judging from the new finger marks over the glass that kept his collages, I could make a guess at what it was.
The collage of old pictures is on the wall right beside the entrance to the hallway. The pictures were all that was left of friends who died delusional piles of bones, friends who choked to death on pneumonia, friends who died weeks after learning they had a cancer the doctor had never even heard of, friends who swallowed pills or shot themselves rather than waste away or choke.
Pictures of young men who never grew old and who Bram still can’t talk about thirty years later. When his bad days are really bad he touches the glass as if his touch could warm the cold gray and white photos and bring them in to the present with him. He can’t talk to them any more than he can talk about them but he can touch. He's always been good with touch. That is one of things that attracted me from the beginning, his ease with physical affection. An ease I always admired because I lacked it.
I’m so sorry.
I told you don’t talk. Here, dance with me. We’ll both feel better.
When I put my hands on his shoulders it was with hesitation, my hands are bigger than his shoulders are wide. Just another example of the jarring differences between us. I still haven’t gotten over how oversized and lumbering I feel next to Bram. He’s never made me feel that way, but adolescence makes insecure fools of us all.
He reached up for my face again. I want to dance with you before the song ends.We can replay it.
Just stop killing the mood.
And we did begin to sway on rhythm of the instrumental section.
You’re thinking too much was mumbled against my chest.
I laughed for the first time that day. It hurt my throat but it felt good everywhere else.
Just move with me.
Always. And I closed my eyes and did my best to move to the music of Frank finding love in London on a magic moonlit night.