Grown ups

My husband, Jonathan, and I both had the kind of childhoods where we were left to look out for ourselves a lot. Not because we weren’t loved. We were, very much, and also well provided for. But in the houses where we were raised, there were larger issues that needed attention, and those concerns took priority.

When I was a little girl, my mother was consumed with keeping us safe from my father’s selfish cruelty and the repercussions of his philandering. And then later, after she kicked him out, she devoted herself to repairing the damage he’d left behind. She built a career, patched herself back together, paid off the debt he’d accumulated, met my stepfather, fell in love, bought a house, became a success. She was busy, yo. She had business to take care of.

In Jonathan’s house, his sister was fighting a battle with her own personal demons, which I won’t detail here because they are her business and she has been well for a long time. I bring it up only because her difficulties were paramount for many years, the most important thing in his family.

As a result, Jonathan and I both have a sort of patchwork understanding of what it means to be taken care of, to rely on another person to help solve problems. Neither one of us is very good at asking for help, preferring to gut things out on our own. And we share a specific kind of panic when things go awry, a knee-jerk, wide-eyed, deer in the headlights reaction that’s best summed up as, “Oh shit. Now what?” We’ll joke that we need an adult to come help us figure out what to make for dinner, deal with paperwork, make plans. We’re only sort of kidding.

On Christmas morning our heat broke. I’m not  good with mechanical technology, so I’m not sure how best to explain what happened except to tell you it was extremely cold and when I moved the thingy on the thermostat there was no heat. Jonathan and I had one of those conversations where you keep a crazy-eyed smile on your face and pretend everything is fine because your kid is there, opening presents while wearing a parka and a hat, but really you are freaking the hell out because the heat is broken and it’s Christmas day and you need a grown up and that’s supposed to be you but you don’t know what the hell to do because all of a sudden you are 16 again and home alone with a situation that is way out of your league and probably this is going to cost all the money and then you will have to sell your apartment and live in a box. (Living in a box is my worst-case scenario and I tend to go there immediately when the slightest thing goes wrong.)

Eventually we remembered we have a management company for just this sort of occasion, so we emailed them. And then we remembered we have a building supervisor, so we called him. They both got back to us quickly, the management company offering the names and numbers of emergency plumbers. (Oh dear God, I thought, do you know how much a plumber will charge on Christmas???? We’ll be living in a box by New Year’s. LIVING IN A BOX.) Meanwhile, the Super generously volunteered to come over and see if there was anything he could do to help. But we were due to leave for Jonathan’s parents’ house in Connecticut in a few hours, and so we told the Super we’d call him when we returned on Friday.

We had a lovely, if slightly fretful (NO HEAT LIVING IN A BOX OUR CHILD WILL HAVE BLUE LIPS WHILE SHE SIPS ICY SKIM MILK FROM A TIN CUP WEARING FINGERLESS GLOVES OH GOD MY LIFE IS A DICKENS’ NOVEL), visit with Jonathan’s family, and then we returned to our freezing cold apartment on Friday night. We called the Super, who told us he’d “bled the whole floor” in our absence (I assume this is a heating related thing and not a reference to The Shining) and we should try turning on the heat and see if something happened. Nothing happened. We could hear water gurgling in the pipes but the baseboards stayed cold. We called back the Super and told him what was going on, and he gave us the number for a heating repair company and told us to call them, because it sounded like it might be a pilot light problem.

And that’s when it happened. That’s when I realized there ARE grown ups in our house, and everything was going to be fine.

Because when we bought the apartment I signed up for a service plan with the heating repair company the Super had just told us to call, and I knew where I’d filed the paperwork, and I’d paid the renewal on time, and when I called them they told me that because I’d purchased the cadillac plan, they’d be here first thing in the morning, and the repairs would be covered (by which I mean free, by which I mean there’s no need to pay them any money for this emergency repair service, so no living in a box, for now at least, and, pardon my digression, but this is why you should get the good insurance, everyone who asked my advice about which health plan to choose when we were doing open enrollment at work).

We had a chilly night, but it hardly mattered. I gave Emerson a steamy hot bath, dressed her in two pairs of pajamas and wrapped her in a fleece blanket, slept with my icy feet pressed against Jon’s warm legs all night (he’s part potbellied stove, I swear). This morning the repairman came and it was the pilot light, easily fixed. We gave him an exorbitant tip, what Jonathan calls the “relief tax.” The heat is now blasting and we’re all watching Batman: The Brave and The Bold on Netflix.

I know it doesn’t sound like much, particularly if you grew up in the kind of house where, if the heat went out, someone lit a fire and gave you a mug of hot chocolate to wrap your cold hands around while they made things right again. Where your worries were appropriately sized. But for us, kids who had to figure out grown up things, who had to bandage our own wounds and soothe our own hurts, fix what was broken on our own as best we could and instinctively knew not to ask for much from the exhausted, preoccupied people around us, it is deeply comforting to know that there are finally grown ups at home. Two of them, even. And while we may be watching cartoons and eating cake for breakfast, all is well here. All is safe, and whole, and warm.

Why I Think Smash Is A Tragedy

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People want to talk to me about the TV show Smash all the time. Without preamble, they’ll excitedly tell me they saw one of the actors in the park, or confess they lurked while a scene was being shot on their street, or start singing one of the songs at me. It’s a fair assumption to make, that I know and love this show, given my obsessive love of all things musical theatre.

But I can’t watch it.

It’s not that I don’t want to, or that it’s not interesting. It’s a TV show about making a musical, for God’s sake. Throw in an iced coffee and a chocolate croissant and it’s the intersection of everything I love in this world.

But it also hacks me to shreds. It makes me sweaty and anxious and teary-eyed. It makes me crave slice after slice of thickly buttered toast, washed down with pudding.

I know, my theater major is showing, but here’s the thing. At the center of Smash, at least the episode I was able to sit through before I ran screaming from it, is the relationship between songwriter Julia and composer Tom, played by Debra Messing and Christian Borle. Julia and Tom are best friends who are also a creative team.

Julia and Tom are everything I had, once. Julia and Tom are everything I lost.

When I was a teenager, I had a friend. A best friend, who we’ll call ES. He was theatrical, smart and funny, with puppy dog eyes and a thick mop of shiny black curls. He was cherubic, mercurial, adorable. He was a straight guy who loved musical comedy as much as I did. It was pure pleasure, he felt like home from the start. We loved all the same things — Shakespeare, black Converse sneakers, Woody Allen’s movies, driving at night, pitching a fit over nothing. All those things that matter so much when you’re young. We spoke the same language. We sought the same talismans.

We grew up together. And in growing up, we first became creative partners, and then lovers, and then a married couple. We were a truly inspired creative team. We were an utter wreck at the rest of it.

Here is the kind of magic we did together: when we were still in high school, we convinced a local town in Westchester, NY to fund a summer theatre program and let us run it. I was the artistic director, he was the executive producer. Over the course of four years we successfully produced big musicals, straight plays in rep, and original children’s theatre — all by the seat of our pants, just making it up as we went along. When we moved to New York after college, we produced a series of shows and cabarets that were pretty good, even in retrospect. We were never happier than when we were working together. When we were working together, you could believe we were actually in love. We could even believe it. But really, what we had was what Julia and Tom have — the abiding affection and trust, the secret language and safety that grows around and between two people who are genuinely, platonically ideal for one another in the pursuit of a common passion.

And oh, how we screwed it up.

Looking back at it now, I think we just didn’t know how to separate the fire we felt when we were working together from the kind of sexual, romantic love we both craved so acutely. It would have been so much easier if one of us had been gay, but there we were, absolutely besotted, married really, through our work, and our dreams of the future. We were going to Broadway, to Hollywood. 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.

We were partners for 12 years. We were married for 5. I cheated on him first. He was the one who eventually left me. For another woman. With whom he’d been having a prolonged affair. Four days before Thanksgiving.

Like I said, theatrical.

And when he left, I wanted to die. I was so angry, so bereft, so utterly boiled and peeled, all I could do was howl like a wounded creature. Not for the loss of him as a husband, certainly, but for the loss of my friend, my partner, my creative other half. I couldn’t imagine how I’d work without him, even as he was blowing my life to pieces.

Remarkably, it passed.

The last time I saw him, he said to me, “You’ll see. We’ll be like a Woody Allen movie. Years from now, when all of this is in the past, we’ll be friends again. We’ll have lunch. We’ll laugh at each other’s jokes again. Maybe someday we’ll work together again.”

And I said, “You will never see me again. Ever. Say goodbye to me.”

I have been true to my word. He’s tried to friend me on Facebook, and I’ve blocked him and his entire family. He’s emailed, and I’ve deleted them unread. (That’s a lie. I read them. Then I deleted them.) I know it makes me look like a villain, a bitch. But it’s an act of self-protection, not agression. He was an elemental part of my life from the time I was 15, and when he left, I had to obliterate him to have any chance of surviving. He was so large, you see, so tremendous. He took up so much space in my head. For so much of my life, most of the things I believed about myself were the things he told me. I desperately needed space, even if it was my own little corner in hell, just to meet myself. To begin constructing a life that didn’t include him, his voice in my ear, his interests directing mine, his dreams weighing more. I couldn’t do that if we were meeting for lunch once a month.

It’s been a long time now, more than a decade, since that day he proclaimed we’d find our way back to each other and I called him a fool for it. I haven’t changed my mind; I don’t want him in my life. But I think I’ve finally gotten to a place where I can miss him.

Not too long ago, the Internet went crazy with a rumor that Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny were involved in real life. It made me nostalgic for the 90s, and while I walked to the subway, my thoughts were full of Hootie and The Blowfish, Pop Up Video, and The Real Live Brady Bunch, a stage show from the Clinton era that was exactly what it sounds like – comics acting out entire episodes of The Brady Bunch, saturated with sexual innuendo and Gen X irony. It suddenly seemed like the best idea ever — EVER! — to produce a Real Live X-Files, somewhere in the East Village or Brooklyn, with the audience waving around tiny flashlights and the actress who plays Scully singing that Bree Sharp song as a finale.

I stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, and reached for my cellphone to call ES.

It was pure instinct. Because there was a time when I could call him, and he’d pick up and say “What?” and I’d say “Real Live X-Files!” and he’d say “I love it! Flashlights! And the tickets look like FBI badges!” and I’d say “Bree Sharp song!” And he’d say “Scully sings it! At the end! And the guy who plays Mulder plays guitar! And Skinner and Krycek sing back up! And Flukeman!” And I’d say, “I want to play Scully.” And he’d say “No! You’re too tall! You direct it!” And I’d say “I am not! She’s 5’3″, I’m only 5’5″! I’ll wear flats!” And he’d say “You’ll be a nightmare if you don’t direct it, you’ll just end up complaining and giving whoever we get to direct it so many notes that they’ll quit.” And he’d be right.

There is no one I can talk to like this anymore. There never was, before him. There has never been, since he left.

I started crying, in the street. Because losing that kind of friend isn’t just sad, it isn’t just terrible. It’s fucking Greek tragedy. It’s the end of Hamlet.

I don’t ever want to see him again. But I think it’s a good thing, to be able to miss him. To allow myself to think of him without feeling like I’m about to spontaneously self-immolate, or turn to dust, or freeze and then shatter. To cry a few tears in the street and move on.

I can miss him now, without wanting to die. But I just can’t watch Smash.