Last month, I started posting my novel, Rom-Com Rehab, a chapter at a time on Patreon (hello and thank you to my patrons!) April is my birthday month, so I’ve decided to post chapter 1 here as a present for you. If you enjoy it, head over to Patreon to read chapter 2!
Before we head off to a terrible rainy night in Brooklyn, a disclaimer: While based on some things that happened to me in real life, this is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Everybody’s a dreamer
Everybody’s a star
Everybody’s in show biz
It doesn’t matter who you are.
~Celluloid Heroes, The Kinks
We were young together.
~As If We Never Said Goodbye, Andrew Lloyd Webber
Rom-Com Rehab, Chapter 1
Nate’s favorite things were Neil Simon plays, Richard Dreyfuss movies, musical theatre, and The Beatles. His passions were writ large, and for a long time, my favorite thing about him was his sense of theatre, the way he carried himself though the world as if a production number might break out at any moment. I reveled in the Technicolor of all his feelings. He lived his whole life like he was emoting to the cheap seats.
In other words, he could be a real goddamned drama queen.
So I wasn’t immediately alarmed, that November night just before Thanksgiving in 1998, when I found him sitting on our uncovered patio in a driving thunderstorm, crying. No umbrella, no raincoat, just sitting in a white plastic chair, his jeans and sweatshirt drenched, his nose running and his dark curly hair a matted mess, lightening flashing in the distance.
He’d just come back from three months on the road. He was working as a tour manager for traveling theatre companies then, a job that kept him away most of the time. He’d return to our floor-through in Brooklyn for a few weeks between gigs, to sleep and do laundry and decompress, and then he’d be back out there, shepherding African dancers or Jellicle cats from theatre to theatre across America.
We told ourselves and each other he was doing it for the money, that if any couple could easily sail through so much time apart, it was the two of us. I was a night owl and a loner, never happier then when I could stay up until the small hours of the morning, reading in bed. He was a happy-go-lucky wanderer, content to live out of suitcases, collecting friends and refrigerator magnets from all the cities he visited. And it was just for a few years, long enough to pay off our credit card debt and put some money in the bank. That’s what we told ourselves and each other. What we said when he left on his first tour, almost two years before. What we said when days would pass between phone calls or emails, and it hardly seemed to matter. What we said when the time apart started to feel more comfortable, easier, than the time together.
The apartment was dark when I got home that night, the porch door slamming open and shut in the wind. “Nate?” I called, standing in the entryway, clutching my inside-out umbrella in one hand and my leather backpack in the other, rain dripping a puddle onto the old wood floor. “Nate are you here?” I hesitated. Had we been robbed? Was he home? Was there someone waiting in the apartment to attack me? I had this thing about checking the shower and the closets when I got home, that went all the way back to elementary school — walk in the house, keep on my coat and shoes, check the shower, check the closets, make sure no one was there, and then, milk and cookies.
“I’m home!” I yelled, dropping my things to the floor and lacing my keys into my fist, like metal claws. “I am walking to the porch door now! I am holding my keys like a weapon and I am not afraid to gouge you in the face with them!”
I’d learned that particular piece of badassery from a self-defense course I’d taken in college. I’d directed William Mastrosimone’s Extremities my sophomore year, a play in which a woman named Marjorie fights off and then imprisons and tortures a would-be rapist who walks into her house one day. For months I completely immersed myself in personal narratives of rape, rape culture, the psychology of fear, the physical experience of rape, and the way rape victims are processed through and treated by the legal system. I also got a black eye and a cracked rib teaching my actors their fight choreography. I spent a lot of time crying in my advisor’s office that semester. The world felt so unsafe, and I felt so small in it. So after the show closed, I sought out a place where I could safely beat the hell out of a well-padded make-believe attacker.
I clenched my fingers around my keys, took a deep breath, and propelled myself across the kitchen to the porch door. But there was no intruder. Just Nate, head in his hands, looking utterly defeated.
It’s not kind, and I’m not terribly proud of this, but I was extremely annoyed.
“Nate? Nate, what is it?” I went to him and knelt down, the wind blowing my hair into my face and the rain pelting us. I tried to pull his hands from his face, but he jerked away from me and kept crying.
“What’s happened? What is it?” I untangled my keys and wrapped my hands around his wrists. He shook his head from side to side and sobbed, until he raised his head from his hands and looked me in the face.
“Tabitha,” he croaked, and then leaned forward to grab at me. I let him hold me, wrapped my arms around him as best I could.
“What is it? Tell me. What’s happened? It’ll be okay,” I said. I was starting to feel prickles of genuine concern. I’d grown accustomed to Nate’s alternating performances of exuberance and wretchedness, but this felt different. This felt real.
He leaned back, and with a look of broken sadness on his face, told me he wanted a divorce.
The funny thing? I was relieved. I’d thought he was going to tell me one of our parents had died. A car crash. A heart attack. A fall on ice and a cracked head. But a divorce? A divorce I could work with. I’d been talking him down from ledges forever. During his senior year of high school, Nate’s girlfriend, Sharon, broke up with him, and he convinced his high school’s marching band to assemble on her lawn and play My Sharona over and over until her father called the police. In college, his junior year, he didn’t get cast as Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor and changed his major from theatre to business for a month.
“Nate, come on,” I said.
“I want a divorce.”
I leaned back on my heels. The rain was changing over to icy hail and it hurt.
“Come inside,” I said, pulling at him a little. “It’s terrible out here.” He shook his head vehemently.
“Oh crap, Nate. You want a divorce?” I was getting more aggravated by the minute. Cold, wet and aggravated.
“I want a divorce.”
“You want a divorce from me?”
“Yes. I want a divorce from you. From you.”
“I don’t understand.”
Nate took a deep breath, “A divorce. I don’t want to be married anymore.”
He looked at me with such befuddlement. I giggled.
“You think this is funny?” he asked.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s just, this sounds like ‘Who’s on first?’ I want a divorce. From me? Yes. You want a divorce? Yes. Third base.” I ran my hands up his thighs, leaned between his legs. “Nate, come on. Come inside and we’ll order a pizza and you can tell me about whatever it is that’s got you so angry at me this time.”
I’ve thought about this moment so often, in the years since. The two of us in the rain, about to free fall into an unknowable after, a bright line being drawn in the air. We were still on the before side of that line, the side where, if you’d asked about us, I’d have told you I’d loved him since I was 15. That we were the closest of friends, our lives utterly entwined. I’d have told you about the summer theatre we ran together as teenagers, when most kids have jobs at the mall. How we moved to New York City the spring I graduated from college. That he was going to be a producer and I was going to be a director, and we were going everywhere together — to Broadway, to Hollywood, to London. We were going to have an office overlooking Times Square, with a partner’s desk. Al Hirschfeld would make a sketch of us at that desk, and it would have 5 Ninas in it.
As furious as he made me, as broken as he left me, there’s no way to tell this, to talk about him, without describing what it felt like to stand next to him on an empty stage and envision what Godspell or Our Town or The Miracle Worker might look like there. To listen to him dream out loud. Nate always felt like magic hour to me, that time before dusk when the world is washed liquid honey gold. We made a mess of so much that was good between us, but before that, we made alchemy of imagination and dust, cool air and paper.
“Tabitha. I’m so sorry,” was what he said. Just that, but I’d been reading his mind for more than a decade. A shiver rippled through me and I had a sudden desire to run from him, to keep things as they were, for just a little while longer. I think I might have told him we could fix it, whatever it was. I may have begged him to stop talking. Because I knew, as if he’d handed me a script folded open to just this scene, my part highlighted in yellow and his in blue, he was gone already. He was already gone. “I’m in love,” he said. “I’ve met someone and I love her, and she loves me, and I can’t stay here anymore with you. I can’t do it.”
I stood up and backed away from him. Wrapped my arms around myself. At moments like this, really dreadful moments, I often thought about how Susan Sarandon might behave. Not herself, the actual woman, but if Susan Sarandon were playing this character, this person who came home expecting to order a pizza and drink red wine and go to sleep next to her husband, and instead discovered her life was a bomb with the fuse already lit, how would she play it? Quiet dignity? Righteous fury? Shoot him dead and then drive to Mexico with her best friend in a convertible?
That last one sounded like an idea.
“You met someone?” I asked. I sounded nothing at all like Susan Sarandon. I sounded 6 years old.
“I met someone.”
I could feel my head nodding up and down. I wanted a cigarette. I’d had my last cigarette the night before Nate and I moved to Brooklyn. I smoked it the way I’d smoked all through high school — in my bathroom, leaning out the window, with the shower running. I was 22 at the time, but I was still scared my mother would find out I smoked.
“I don’t think that’s a very good idea at all,” I said.
We stared at each other.
“You don’t think what is a very good idea?”
“Getting a divorce.” I was vibrating, I was shaking so hard. Vibrating in waves.
He shook his head no, looked down at his black Converse sneakers. “I have been trying to make up my mind for the past three days. I kept telling myself that if I could just make a decision and stick to it for 24 hours, then that’s what I would do.”
I took a shuddery breath. “Nate, look. These things happen. You go on the road, and these things happen. But it doesn’t have to mean that we…. I can forgive you, of course I can. It was probably bound to happen at some point.”
“You don’t understand.”
I laughed, gagged sort of, but it sounded like a laugh. “I do. I really do. You’ve been away, and we’ve both been distant. Was it a one time thing, or…”
“Tabitha. No. It wasn’t a one-time thing. It’s been going on a long time now.”
“A while. She’s been traveling with the tour.”
“She was on the tour?”
“No, I met her before. She’s just been traveling with us.”
I had never gone traveling with the tour. With any of the tours. I had asked to come visit him on the road, but he’d told me it wasn’t allowed for insurance reasons. In all fairness, I’d just always wanted to go to San Francisco.
“Tabitha, I need to tell you…”
I shook my head, “No.” I took the few steps to the door, stopped. “I don’t want to talk about this.” I was dizzy, freezing cold. “I don’t want to talk about this. You don’t get to do this. You don’t. You don’t get to be the one who leaves.”
He stood up, took two steps towards me, grabbed my arm and pulled me towards him. Put his face close to mine. I thought he was going to kiss me, and I leaned into him. “Her name is Kimberley,” he said, so quietly. “She’s a costume mistress at Seattle Playshop. She’s 24. She’s beautiful, and kind, and the sweetest person I have ever met, and I’m going to marry her. I gave you everything. I gave you my heart and all my energy, all my attention. You need to hear me, Tabitha. I don’t love you anymore. I haven’t loved you for a long time. She’ll be here tomorrow. And I do get to be the one who leaves. Someone has to.”
He pushed me away and pounded into the apartment, and I stood shaking in the rain. Seattle Playshop. He’d been to Seattle Playshop only once, it was the first theatre on the first tour he took out. Monks, that tour. Chanting monks. I stood there, feeling my hands, feeling my feet, wanting to smoke. Lightening flashed and I counted to 8 before I heard the thunder. Why did this feel so familiar? All this drama in the rain? This raging in the swirl.
Then I got it.
I ran into the apartment, bright with rage now, found him in the bedroom, throwing clothes into a bag.
“You asshole,” I seethed. “You staged this. You’re playing Lear! You’re playing fucking King Lear while you tell me you’re leaving me. What the hell is the MATTER with you?”
“You’re crazy, Tabitha. I’m not the theatrical one here.”
“Oh, yes you are, Nate. You most certainly are the theatrical one here.” He slipped past me out of the bedroom, heading down the hall towards the bathroom. I followed him.
“And another thing. Seattle Playshop. You’ve been having an affair this whole time? The whole time you’ve been gone?”
He stopped. Turned towards me. Sighed. Theatrically. He sighed theatrically. Just saying.
“OK,” he said. “I will do this with you right now. I will answer anything you want to know, and then I never want to talk about her with you again. I don’t even want to hear you say her name.”
“You don’t want to hear ME say HER name?”
He lost his virginity to me, over Christmas break of my freshman year at college, his sophomore year. I had a boyfriend I loved, who adored me, and Nate was dating his way through the theatre department at his school, but never managing to seal the deal. We talked on the phone every day, usually at midnight, both of us smoking out our dorm windows. We’d rehearse monologues over the phone. Complain about how classes interfered with rehearsals. Bitch about the parts we didn’t get in scene study class. We had sex for the first time on the floor of my bedroom in a nest of blankets, because my parents were home and my bed squeaked. We laughed through nearly the whole thing. Joked about how we might as well get it out of our systems. I never told my boyfriend and I never felt guilty about it. I trusted Nate more than anyone I had ever known.
“When did you meet her?”
“On my first tour.”
“The first theatre of your first tour?”
“So, let me get the sequence of events here, the plot, if you will. You left the house, saw a woman, and immediately began having an affair with her.”
He did that jaw clenching thing I hated so much. “If that’s what you need to tell yourself.”
“And she’s coming here?”
I swallowed. I didn’t want the answer to my next question, but I asked it anyway. In my experience, what you don’t know can hurt you; of course it can, sometimes far worse than everything you do know. “She’s going to your parents’ for Thanksgiving?” I whispered it.
He had the decency to look away from me. “Yes,” he said. “She’s coming for Thanksgiving.” He walked into the bathroom and started loading things into his dopp kit.
I looked around; at the mish mash of furniture we’d collected over the years, at the framed movie posters and Broadway show posters. The chairs and tables. The couch we’d bought new, the only thing we’d bought new. The basket of Playbills we’d collected. The pictures in frames, of us in high school, in college, all our cast photos. I imagined Kimberley sitting in my chair at the Alexander’s kitchen table, the one nearest the patio doors, which I had claimed the first time I drove over there on my own, the day I got my driver’s license.
The cat rubbed against my legs and I reached down and hefted his bulk against me, held him to my chest. We’d named him Harold, after Harold Hill, the lead character in The Music Man. Nate came out of the bathroom. “Once Kimberley and I get settled somewhere, I can take the cat,” he said.
“No. I’ll keep him,” I answered.
“You hate him.”
I rubbed my cheek against the top of the cat’s head. “I’ll keep him.”
“Tabitha, you didn’t even want him.”
He was right, I hadn’t. I’m not a cat person. I love dogs, in the ridiculous way that dog people love dogs, which is to say, wholeheartedly, and purely. I have lengthy conversations with dogs I meet in the street, using my dog voice. Nate wanted a cat, so we got a cat. Harold was 8 weeks old when we brought him home, our first Christmas living together, December of 1991. He wasn’t a puppy, but he was an adorable kitten, always jumping up on tall things and getting stuck there, meowing until one of us would rescue him.
“Listen to me, Nathan,” I said, in a calm voice that sounded just like Susan Sarandon in Lorenzo’s Oil, finally. “I’ll learn to love him. Or I’ll drown him. But you can’t have him.”
It’s possible I’m a tad theatrical myself.
“Fine. You keep him.” He disappeared back into the bedroom.
“I do kind of hate you,” I whispered to Harold. “But I wouldn’t kill you.”
Nate emerged, bag slung over his shoulder. He came close to me, reached out a hand and put it on my arm. “I’ll be with a friend tonight, and then Kimberley and I are going to stay at my parents’ through the weekend. You can reach me there. I’ll come back for the rest of my things after Thanksgiving, all right?”
“Are you all right? Is there anything I can do before I go?”
I nearly said, “Well, I certainly hope you’ll die soon,” which is a line from Broadcast News. He would have laughed at that, once. But I didn’t, because we were on the other side of the line now, in the free falling after, where our lexicon of private jokes was no longer spoken. I didn’t know what language we spoke now. Instead, I shrugged off his hand, and extended my own. “I’m going to need your American Express Card, your bank card, and your keys. You can meet me at the bank tomorrow and I’ll give you half of what’s in savings and checking.”
His eyes narrowed. “You’re serious?”
I didn’t move, just kept my hand in the air. He dropped his bag and opened his wallet, handed me the cards and his house keys. I’d expected a fight.
Then I was alone.
I’m not sure how long I stood there, holding the cat. I remember humming The Oldest Established from Guys and Dolls once or a thousand times. Good old reliable Nathan. The oldest established, permanent floating, crap game in New York.
Eventually I put down the cat and went outside, slipped and slid on the icy sidewalk to the corner store, where I bought three packs of Parliaments and a red lighter, then slipped and slid back home, where I lit my first cigarette in seven years and made two phone calls.
The first was to my best friend, Lily.
The second was to American Express.