With the exception of our hotel lobby, the Flying Saucer Draught Emporium (over 200 beers on tap!) seemed to be the only bar in Little Rock, Arkansas. So it was pretty fucking cute when the entire cast of Cathy Rigby is Peter Pan went straight home to our hotel after the show so that Michael and I could have our first date alone. We rolled deep on that show, taking over the country’s karaoke and sports bars. We shared rooms, flights, buses, beds, and often a table for more than twenty. Camaraderie was plentiful; privacy was novel.
The gay boys knew other spots. They seemed to know secrets of the cities as if they were given a different flyer than the ones we received from our company manager, listing restaurants and doctors at our disposal for the week. The boys knew where they had a gym membership before we landed in any city and they were out the stage door after the show to mysterious locations that seemed to fill at least one of them with Southern Comfort. It came out of his pores so profusely during the following day’s performances, sometimes I thought the smell would get me drunk from a particularly long and sweaty ovation. I loved those boys. One day I had an irritated sphincter and I went to their dressing room for an irritated sphincter remedy. Carmex they told me.
Both the Boys and Girls dressing rooms had been witness to my coming undone both on stage and all over the sidewalks of New York City over a Pirate/Indian who gave me his love but took it away before I could privately organize my feelings and keep them to myself like I knew a mature human would. So they generously got behind my crush on Michael as it was fueled by his silent tap dancing in work boots in the wings of the theaters of Rochester, Boston, Hershey, and St. Louis.
Michael was a former dancer who joined our cast as a stage manager when we reconvened in Rochester in the fall of 1999 after our Broadway run. I was playing an 8-year-old Lost Boy in our show. It is very difficult to flirt when your breasts are bound and you’re wearing fake bear fur, a bowl-cut wig, and a straw tri-corner hat. But I was determined. I’d parade back and forth in front of the Stage Managers office when I arrived at the theater in a sundress or my new gray denim corset. I’d come up with elaborate errands backstage to justify my pre-show sashay and I’d turn up at flight rehearsal in tall wedges, sacrificing any lingering reputation for professionalism in order to get this man to pull down my panties.
The show traveled with a journal that was open to private jokes and verbal souvenirs. Many nights the journal prompted the cast with a game that was often related to our current city. In Hershey we were to come up with candy bar names for the cast and crew. I was quickly penned “Searching for Mr. Goodbar.”
Despite my transparency, despite my unprofessionalism, despite the tri-corner hat, when we got to Arkansas, Michael asked me out on a date.
I wore braids. We drank beer. We walked home in the rain and he leant me his baseball cap. He turned and kissed me in the rain. His hat fell off my head, his bag fell off his shoulders, and I enjoyed a little respectable romance with an older and well-liked man.
Our traveling family pretended not to see our reverse walk-of-shame through the lobby where they sat sipping their vodka sodas and entertaining the hotel bartender with trivia.
In Michael’s room I continued to try and suffer as quietly as possible through the bronchitis I’d contracted the day before but we had to stop in the middle of several heated moments so that I could hack up a lung while naked on all fours. He stroked my back while I did. At one point we realized that the condom had gone missing. The condom we were already using. Michael lifted up the bed pillows and searched under the mattress for it to alleviate my embarrassment at knowing where it really had gone. We went forward with a new one. The inaugural condom stayed where it landed until the following evening when it worked its way out during our 8-minute dance and drum number Ugg-A-Wugg. Boundaries long gone I proclaimed to the cast that what had been lost was found and we were applauded.
We shared a millennial New Year’s kiss in Cincinnati. He bought me a music box for Christmas in New York City and I gave him an Atlas. We went to the rodeo in Denver. He bought me a dozen yellow roses for Valentine’s Day in San Francisco and I made him a card with a lock of my hair. He sang “Scotch and Soda” to me at the Owl Tree and we rented a Harley to drive up the coast through Marin County. He refused to be reckless with me on the curves.
Though there was romance, Michael was fiercely autonomous and independent. Even after our intimacy he treated me coldly if I waited for him at the theater so that we could walk home together. He reminded me sometimes that it would be wrong to assume that what we had today implied that we would have it tomorrow. I was preceded in Michael’s life by another redheaded showgirl and when we met he didn’t seem to be over watching her walk away. I assumed she was the length of our distance but I never knew for sure. One evening when I became petulant about his obdurateness he asked me what I wanted from him. I answered that I wanted to feel irresistible. “Well you’re not,” he said, easily.
Later, when we’d become best friends and former lovers, when I’d gotten to know him over countless more beers consumed at the Bull Moose and McHales and the All State and in between cheers from the cheap seats at Yankee games, I saw that what seemed so small an amount of attention was actually the rubber band of his comfort zone pulled almost to snapping. Later, as friends, the distance was less.
Michael always took me as his date to the Easter Bonnet Competition and Broadway Bares. When I drove an old Honda Civic back and forth across the country solo with exactly enough money to eat McDonalds and gas-up the car, my muffler fell out in the darkest Oklahoma at 1 in the morning. Michael transferred enough money into my bank account in the middle of the night to pay for a hotel room and to fix my car. Michael was the first person I called to check on on September 11th, 2001. Soon after he answered he was already walking downtown to donate blood. He walked through a blizzard once to be my only visitor after I was admitted to an Upper East Side hospital for five days with a bad case of pyelonephritis.
In December of 2004 doctors found an inoperable tumor in Michael’s pancreas. He was 48 years old. After a surgery to drain the bile that had turned him yellow, the doctor told me that Michael had 2 to 6 months to live but suggested I not share his prognosis with his patient.
Michael knew. He knew that I left his bedside cheerful for a quick chat with his doctor and returned hours later with puffy bloodshot eyes and no more mascara. His reaction to my transparency was to affirm that he would return to work on Tuesday.
For the next two and a half years he worked an 8-show week. He would take off a night here and there while recovering from an allergic reaction to his chemotherapy. He never once complained about not drinking another beer. In April of 2006 he finished the Boston Marathon in just over 4 hours, in his off week of chemo. In January of 2007 we celebrated his 50th birthday. After I thought he’d die, I thought he’d live forever.
But then, after almost three years of declining mortality’s calls, Michael accepted his fate with the same will and independence he’d employed to protect himself as long as I knew him. When a scheduled stent replacement turned up other immediate and incurable failings he signed a DNR and asked for a priest to read him his last rights. He waited for his family to arrive from other states. At around midnight he began to sigh, taking deep breaths as if summoning courage and he said “Okay. Okay. I’m ready to go to sleep now.” About an hour later his eyes popped open, he looked at us incredulously, holding his hands and stroking his head, and said, “Are you waiting for me? Let’s go! Come on, let’s go!”
He died the next day. It took longer than expected because even with other organs failing his heart remained too strong to stop. I don’t know if it was strong because he had protected it so vehemently or if it was just always stronger than he knew. But it was the strongest and the last to concede.