Fievel Mousekewitz is the lesser known of Orlando’s theme park mice. If you happened to visit Universal Studios in 1990 or 1991 and seen either the American Tail or Fievel Goes West shows, chances are the little face behind those large rodent eyes was mine. I was their first-string Fievel. I was nineteen. I’d been offered the more main stream role of Mickey at Epcot Center for a comparable wage but I found Disney’s grooming policies offensive and their nationalism creepy.
My dad had begun manifesting bi-polar disorder when I was in high school. I didn’t know it. When my parents proposed selling our house in Bucks County, Pennsylvania and moving south to Florida, I thought we were living the adventure. My brother and I thought we might finally get a pool.
My father had been raised in an orphanage. Before he was born, his mother had run away from home. Three years later she returned to her parents’ doorstep with two babies, white hair, no teeth, and no explanation. Her parents turned her away. She put her children, my father and my aunt, into a Catholic orphanage in Philadelphia run by Polish nuns and priests, to be taken care of while my grandmother became a nurse at Roosevelt Hospital in New York City. She was able to retrieve them ten years later when my father was thirteen, though in the interim they were able to spend some Christmases with her.
My father confided to me once, on a Christmas Day commute to a performance of Annie in New York City, how the orphanage in the musical was not unlike the one in which he’d grown up: the iron beds, the scrubbing of the floors (he particularly remembered cleaning the stairs with a toothbrush), the longing. It wasn’t until years after he died that it occurred to me that there might have been other abuses.
When he began struggling with his brain chemistry and with his past, my parents decided to uproot us, to make a new beginning, to take us to sunshine, where my father could heal. He had always been active, a determined tennis player and long-distance runner. He’d always been creative and musical, a thoughtful writer and a musician with perfect pitch. But he’d ended up with a career as a municipal bond trader and it never suited him. He was often taken advantage of, often lost an account or a promotion to someone who had often been over to watch the basketball game, to someone who had joined him for a time in the vanpool. They’d visit regularly but then there would be a rupture, a confusion, a disappointment, and then they’d stop stopping by.
My dad loved community and camaraderie. He thought everyone was great upon first meeting. He seemed to want little more out of life than a large group around the dining room table and a sing-along after dessert. So it seemed to make sense to my parents that my mother, who had been a contented homemaker for 18 years and enjoyed accomplishments in the theater, would be itching to have a go at winning the bread in the entertainment industry while my dad would take over the full-time parts of raising my brother and perhaps eventually settle down in a job as a groundskeeper or tennis instructor when my brother went away to college.
We sold our house and our furniture was packed into a moving truck and taken to temporary storage. We were all four loaded into our Ford Tempo dreaming of orange groves, even though my mother did not have a job and my parents had not bought or rented us a new home.
When we arrived we looked at beautiful Winter Park houses where the trees were heavy with Spanish moss, the houses were cool with Northeastern thinking: heavy brick and hardwood, and the green yards were shaded with screened-in pools. Instead we ended up renting a thinly dry-walled, vaguely Spanish ranch house, in a neighborhood called Dr. Phillips, on a gated golf course called Orange Tree. There was no pool and there were no trees, just a dusty lot of prickly grass and a home for fire ants.
After graduating high school and a summer spent working as a chambermaid on an island off the coast of New Hampshire, I’d attended Bennington College, my only choice after Yale, North Western, and Vassar had rejected my applications. A tactless meeting with my high school guidance counselor had led me there. After she’d predicted my unsuitability to the schools of which I dreamed, I vowed to send in an application for the next less-competitive college that dropped their catalog through the mail slot and Bennington was the first to hit the carpet. As far as I know, in those days Bennington accepted anyone who applied. They gave me a full scholarship.
My first weekend there I found students burning the common room furniture in the common room fireplace. The centerpiece of the first party I attended was a dead raccoon nailed to a cross with a burning cigarette in its mouth. The student population seemed to me at the time to be made up of lost children who were acting out and calling it artsy. I was unhappy there.
I stayed at Bennington for one trimester, in order that I might succeed and use that success to transfer to one of my pipe-dream schools. I left with glowing “narrative evaluations,” which, after a brief petition, were turned into bona fide grades in Modern Dance, Mandarin Chinese, Colonialism in Fiction, and Dance Composition.
I got out just in time to accompany my family on their quixotic adventure south of South of the Border. Chili Today and Hot Tamale.
The week we drove into town, my brother and I having listened to, rewound, and listened to again, the B52s’ Roam, I won the role of Puck in an abbreviated and monochromatically purple production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Civic Theater of Central Florida. After that sweet gig was over I landed the mouse show at the newly opened Universal Studios.
Derek played Tiger, the lovable Dom DeLuise-voiced role, the cat loved by mice, in the An American Tail show. Derek was almost a foot and a half taller than I was. He was the son of Christian missionaries who were living in Papua New Guinea. He was handsome and funny and had a restraining order against him from a married woman with whom he’d had an affair when they were both working at MGM Studios, where he had played Tigger and she was pretty enough not to wear an animal head for her job. He’d recently keyed her Isuzu Impulse.
Derek was the jealous type.
I am not a bedtime cuddler. A post-coital cling is lovely but when it is time to go to sleep I want my own dance space. I face the outside of the bed. I can’t fall asleep while snuggling because I’m too busy suffocating. Derek took this personally. I’d tuck in there for as long as I could, hoping he’d fall asleep first. If I turned my back to him while he was still awake he’d start yelling, “Bitch!” at me and after my snub had roused his demons he’d slam lots of doors and leave for the night.
I was nineteen. I clung to things that didn’t support my weight. Obviously, the reasonable response to the memory of this is to ask why I put up with it. Why didn’t I lock the door behind him and go to sleep with an unobstructed view in whichever direction it pleased me to face? I don’t know why I sobbed instead.
I suspect that some of my patience was superficial self-consciousness. He was almost a foot and a half taller than I was. He was cat to my mouse. We were adorable together. Everyone remarked on his good looks and I took pride in that kind of ownership. I was jealous too, jealous of the possibility of someone else claiming his jawline, someone else boasting my reputation as part of a charmingly mismatched couple. Most of my life took place within the confines of a theme park. Maybe if I’d worked at Epcot after all there would have been other countries for escape. If you don’t need to watch your ex move on it’s so much easier to make them your ex.
I have never been physically abused by a boyfriend or anyone else, though both my parents smacked me across the face, my mom twice and my dad once, by the time I was 14. All three times I would call the smacks interventions. All three times I was hysterical, possessed by unacceptable teenage mania. One of my mom’s slaps was in the parking lot of a church right after I’d yelled a string of expletives in the sanctuary. I was trying to entertain my peers and it was not until I was hit that I — with genuine shame — realized how gross my behavior was.
I suspect that I was also caught up in some vortex of otherness. When I lived in Los Angeles I knew that my brief time had become too protracted when I decided to lose twenty pounds. Twenty pounds is twenty percent of my body weight. Orlando was similarly completely different from whence I came. But I was thirty-one when I left LA. As a teenager I couldn’t self-edit. I didn’t realize until later what a waste of time it was for me to have a crush on a Ghost Buster who drove a yellow Toyota Supra and was obsessed with Michael Jackson. I can’t help but tell you that Wayne Brady, made famous by improv and made palatable by Chappelle Show, was also a Ghost Buster when I was a mouse and asked me out for karaoke, which I thought was Japanese food and I thought was a group excursion (I was hoping the MJ fan would be there!) but it was actually singing and actually a date and Wayne performed “Endless Love” to me seemingly without irony. Given my previous judgements mentioned here, we might question this veracity.
Derek would have loved to sing to me like Wayne Brady. He wanted to be a singer but he was tone deaf. Many a night our pillow talk consisted of him trying to match my pitch so that he could belt out More Than Words with the same soulfulness as Extreme.
My mother’s attempts to find a job in television mostly failed. My father began to come to the dinner table in headphones and to leave the oven on and the windows closed when he was home alone. When my brother stole a new Apple computer from his high school we used it. When my dancing mouse salary was helping to keep us from being evicted from an apartment we’d leased when we ceased to be able to afford rent on the single-family ranch house, my mom filled out college applications for me to Sarah Lawrence, Earlham College, and Bryn Mawr and got me accepted to the first two.
I did not want to leave my boyfriend. I did not want to leave my family to drown in a man-made Orlando lake. My mom accepted my offer to Earhlam and drove me to Orlando International Airport and put me on a plane to Richmond, Indiana. She drove the family car, now a Volkswagen Dasher, to Richmond where she retrieved me from the airport in it, moved me into a dorm room and flew back to Florida. She was trying to save us, my family, one at a time. She was saving me first, her Sophie’s Choice that has estranged my brother to this day.
I talked to my parents every day on the phone for the first months. I cried through a lot of those calls about my homesickness. My mom had learned what motivated me and she held out for it without doubts. We were drowning in that landlocked Florida city but her sending me away brought back some of my mother’s strength and she treaded fucking water. Each time I called crying she met my tears with the mantra, “Soon you will meet a handsome boy and you will be happy to stay.”
I did. I was.
After I broke up with Derek he stalked my dorm room on the telephone and harassed my roommates for a few weeks. Then he stopped. I’ve never heard from or about him again.