The Drama Room

 

  1. Former Fantasticks

At silent 6AM, by the dawn’s early laptop light, I find them again: our stars. Onscreen, online– two fellow Thespians; two former Fantasticks. Blasts from my past. A boy and girl, then. And see, I’d loved, in my tortured teen way, both of them. I feel my fingers shake. Even now, in listless locked-down May of 2020, the morning air is suddenly charged with that old expectant backstage hush. As if flipping a switch for the first Light Cue in a show, I finger-tap the link that leads me back.

To the Corona High Drama Room. Hey, it was the ‘80s. Photos from PEOPLE plastered the Drama Room walls, overlapping: Meryl Streep and Molly Ringwald and Tom Cruise and Jodie Foster and Madonna. Plus a giant-sized Patrick Swayze (RIP) and Jennifer Grey; the Dirty Dancing stars that our own two stars pretended to be at our infamous Fantasticks cast party.

More on that later— the real-life drama. I usually wasn’t part of it, or not in any way that showed. Because I was backstage, wearing all black. My broad-for-a-girl shoulders carried the shows; my prematurely maternal boobs hid the youngest dumbest heart of all. So I saw the most. Because I was invisibly in the background, smoking Ms. L’s Virginia Slims with Ricardo in the Prop Closet; because I was the least wild of the late-80’s Corona High Thespians, I’m the one left to tell the tales.

Not that I’d do that now, online. Not that our stories amounted to a #MeToo—at least, not with me as the ‘Me.’  I always kept quiet, confiding only in Ricardo. The one that our two stars hurt the most. What if I contacted them, now?  What if, in memory of Ricardo, I typed the truth?

I hug myself in the chill of my Paradise Valley condo. The home I used to share with Mom, the central-air these days always too high for one person. But I need the ice-cube office-cubicle chill to keep me awake as I numbly crunch sales numbers. I face down my screen, neither of us in work-mode yet. I lick my sticky sweet lips. I’d almost choked on my Diet Mocha, seeing it onscreen, his name.

Freddy Tyler. It shines before me now, tiny and bright. I jam on my new reading glasses and re-focus, processing the pixillated name listed among others on a defiantly upbeat Summer 2020 TheaterBuff page. Still ‘Freddy’—though he’s supposedly grown older, like all of us.

Try to remember. Annie Samson, ingenue eyes wide, watching Freddy sing. The kind of September. Me in the wings beside Annie, facing her dirty-blonde curls. Breathing her sweet, teenage-girl sweat as she waited, trembling, to go on. When love was an ember. Ricardo lying crammed into his silver-painted coffin-sized box onstage, awaiting his cue. Try to remember. All of us listening to Freddy belt out the chorus. And follow, follow, follow.

 

  1. Corona High

It all began in the Drama Room. Our haven at sports-crazed sun-dazed Corona High in Paradise Valley, Arizona. Where the football fight song was the theme from TV’s ‘Bonanza;’ where tan jocks did lines of cocaine and did numbers on us Thespians. A joking jock once announced over the loudspeaker that all ‘Lesbians’ should gather for their Yearbook Photo in front of the school by the ‘fag pole.’ Amidst our lowliest Snack Bar humiliations, we’d tell each other to tap our heels together like Dorothy in Oz so we could be transported back—if only in our heads—to the Drama Room.

My Freshman year, I first viewed the Thespians from the audience, beside my Mom. I saw YOU’RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN both times. Well, one and a half times, since Opening Night I’d left at intermission to get sleepy Mom home. Walking her to our rusty Vega; driving super-carefully since I only had a Permit and wasn’t supposed to drive at night; slipping the emptied Wine Cooler bottle from Mom’s purse; helping her to our couch; turning on Late Nite Cinema Classics.

“Why do you have to see it a-gain?” Mom quavered the next evening when I left to watch, alone, the second night of CHARLIE BROWN. When the Techies stomped out for their sheepish, shared bow, I made my decision. Those kids in black were the ones who made the whole show run. And I was already used to that. Being the hidden one really in charge.

September, 1986. I made my Drama Room entrance in my Sophomore year, keeping my head down, THE FANTASTICKS cast list about to be posted. The anxious wanna-be stars clustered around a central stage platform. Unnoticed, I slipped into Ms. Laydon’s empty patchouli-scented office to apply for TECH CREW. Through the open office door, I caught my first glimpse of Annie.

In her corner, posing with her permed hair and pert dancer’s body and wide lip-glossed mouth and stage-sized whisper, she held court. But Freddy Tyler had out-cooled Annie by not even showing up for the posting. He was busy with one of his ‘semi-professional’ theater gigs.

“Freddy’s SO gonna be the Try to Remember dude—”

“And if Annie doesn’t get The Girl—”

As the actor and actress types angsted their way around the oversized Drama Room, I sunk onto Ms. L’s couch and filled out my Techie form, signed my plain name. Peg Jarrett. Then I lifted the newest PEOPLE from a sloppy stack. My lank ‘wings’ of hair hid my face. Someone entered the office. I felt that someone bend close, skimming my same page.

And I gazed up into the dark-lashed eyes of Ricardo Lopez.

“Of course, people have told you,” he breathed, “you look just like Jodie Foster.”

Of course, no one had told me any such thing. But Ricardo fixed on the part of me no one else usually noticed. My clear-skinned clear-eyed face.

“Yeah, I’ve thought that too—about me and Jodie,” I agreed. “But not Jodie in TAXI DRIVER. More like Jodie in ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE— saying in her weirdo tomboy voice, ‘Weird.’  You know, she really should’ve said it about Phoenix…”

Ricardo nodded big, as if already onstage. Then this skinny dude with the movie star eyes and acne-ridden skin fell on his knees before me. Simultaneously, we recited: “‘Weird. That’s weird for Phoenix—and Phoenix is the Weird Capital of America.’”

We collapsed onto the beige carpet in shared snorting laughter. We sat out the cast-list wait on the squeaky couch, his lean and my not-so-lean thigh pressed together through our jeans. My dirty-blonde and his black hair brushed as we bent over a vintage photo spread. Ricardo’s finger quivered, pointing to a black-and-white Montgomery Clift, circa A PLACE IN THE SUN.

“Not that I’m anything like—” he whispered to me. “But that’s who I’d want to look like…”

“You look way more like him than I do like Jodie,” I whispered back as he, suddenly, stood.

A flurry outside the office: Cyndie Laydon had finally sauntered into the Drama Room. From her own office, we watched her post the Cast List, her messy hennaed hair twisted in a bun. Her dusky pink pants seemed sewn onto her muscular ex-dancer legs.

“OK Chickies, this is it!”  Ms. L. spun dramatically. “Make way, children!”  She shouldered through the students gathered round her like fans. The first squeals rose like sparkler rockets.

Smelling of cigarettes, she never smoked in front of us, Ms. L. padded into her office. She nodded at frozen Ricardo and me like we were already familiar fixtures. She collapsed heavily yet gracefully into her swivel seat, facing her script-stacked desk, a single photo on her desktop, shoved to the edge.

A mustached man with a squinty dead-on gaze. Older than thirty-ish Ms. L. The man that Ms. L. (like a famous and evasive star) would call ‘my friend;’ the man who ran the downtown Phoenix cowboy bar where the best of ‘our boys’ would later go to work. And, well, to play.

“Wish me luck,” Ricardo muttered and he rushed out the office door. Then Ms. L. glanced at me wryly, her mascaraed eyes glinting as if she and I were the only sensible ones, watching from afar.

“You did it!  You got it,” I heard Annie’s satellite gals shriek.

“I did?” she shrieked back with almost convincing shock. “Wow I’m so stoked!”

From across the Drama Room, Ricardo flashed a braces-revealing grin as he signaled me— me!— with his jaunty thumbs-up. Oh Ricardo: if only you could’ve been mine.

 

  1. Follow, Follow, Follow

Freddy Tyler, I read over again onscreen, on this May morning in 2020, three decades later, bleary-eyed. How can I tell if it’s really him? I press another key, following a link into the Tweet woods. Freddy’s personal page vibrates. I scan it, noting links to Midwest theater companies in St. Paul, Minneapolis. One with a ‘Like’ from an ‘AnnieSam-G’

My eyelid twitches. My old ‘Sergeant Carter’ eye twitch. Or so I’d dubbed the tic in high school, in honor of the stressed-out Sergeant character on GOMER PYLE. The kind of TV-trivia reference that Ricardo always ‘got’. Surely AnnieSam-G is Annie Samson? So Freddy is Freddy.

If only I could phone Ricardo. I fold my arms over my pillowy breasts and my solid stomach. Pre-pandemic, I’d kept my weight under control. Now I’ve slid into Taco Bell/KFC take-out.

I peer through my glasses, my right eye still twitching as I face Freddy’s page. Hundreds, not thousands, of followers. Fantastick Freddy. His Twitter photo is a set of red theater curtains, closed.

Maybe he’s known in the small world of Midwest regional theaters. Those theaters at risk for closing down, like the Little Theater where I’ve been volunteering, doing Lights. Keeping the Thespian spark in me alive. But with their 2020 Season all on Zoom, they don’t need Lights. Don’t need me.

Nothing I might post about Freddy or his past would get noticed, much less go viral. Years ago, when he’d just moved to LA, before he’d gotten his HIV diagnosis, Ricardo confided to me that he’d tracked Ms. Laydon down teaching at a Community College in Flagstaff, Arizona. From just that fact, she’d be findable. I glance at the headlines atop my screen: a hotly disputed #MeToo accusation.

I remember an infamous 2018 ‘selfie’ that did go viral: an actress and #MeToo activist in bed with a 17-year-old actor, his boyish gaze distant and stagey. Like Freddy’s. Maybe the last time I really thought about Freddy, till today. I reach for my lowest desk drawer, my once-secret stash of cigarettes. I fumble with the pack. I’ve been putting off a masked drugstore run. One cigarette left.

The one time I saw Ricardo cry was when Freddy left town before graduation. Without a word to Ricardo, as if nothing had happened. I finger my last cigarette, as yet unlit. On my inner soundtrack, the catchiest Fantasticks melody warms up, unstoppable once it starts. Like this itch in my fingers to smoke. Or to break a silence that no one alive knows I am holding.

Try to remember and Before I can stop my finger, I press FOLLOW.

 

  1. The Kind of September

Suddenly that September, my sophomore year, I switched from being tomboyish Peg Jarrett (in grade school, Piggy Peg) to being the cheery jean-jacketed Head Techie, ‘PJ’. For the FANTASTICKS cast and crew, the standard sunny Arizona autumn was suffused by the new glow of belonging. To each other; to ‘our show.’ Together, we strode the Corona halls with new purpose. Bursting after school into our auditorium to rehearse. Gathering for laugh-fest lunches inside our Drama Room.

In my former Freshman life, I’d hid behind dark blond hair that looked ‘dirty’ no matter how often I washed it, shadows under my eyes from watching late movies with Mom. I wore oversized tee shirts, hiding my big breasts and stomach. I’d dropped out of Girls’ Basketball, which I only looked like I’d be good at. What I was really good at was carrying a whole show (more fun than a whole crappy condo household) on my broad sophomore shoulders. Suddenly that September, I was ‘running lines’ with almost-famous Freddy. Suddenly, even skillfully, I was aiming spotlights at petite Annie Samson, aglow in the peach-pink leotard that set off her swimming pool tan. She sang ‘Soon It’s Gonna Rain’ with a longing that made me want to stop and listen. But I kept moving. Hauling folded scrims and providing the packets of ‘sparkle’ that Ricardo tossed in the air, bursting from his glittery box. I kept special track of Ricardo’s—aka The Mute’s—every prop. Not that I shot Ricardo any Annie Samson Stares.

Onstage, Annie aimed those intent ingenue gazes at the jock cast as the ‘Boy.’ Offstage, she aimed them at the elusive Freddy, aka El Gallo. Freddy came to rehearsals late and left early. Because, as he often ‘let slip,’ he was ‘doing’ another show that fall, at a semi-pro. theater in Tempe. Freddy was tall and bony, his lean beaky face a blank. Until my spotlight lit his suddenly expressive features.

He raised his head high, his hawk-nosed profile dramatic. Sometimes Freddy sang softly so as to, he explained, ‘save his voice.’ In later rehearsals, when he’d let it rip, I worked to hold my hands and the light steady, especially when Freddy launched into the big song’s killer climax.

 

  1. When Love Was An Ember

Was it? An ember about to billow, even for me? The week before Opening Night, Ricardo and I huddled in our usual gossip-and-smoke session in the Drama Room’s prop closet. The two of us compared notes on how many times Annie gazed with real offstage longing at Freddy.

“Like Ms. L.; she’s got her eye on Freddy too—and on you,” I informed Ricardo.

“Me?  Oh c’mon,” he protested, unconvincingly casual, burying his cigarette stub in the trash. “You think ol’ ‘Cyndie Just Wants to Have Fun’ might ask me to audition? For her boyfriend’s Dance Hall thingy?  To ‘cowboy up-’” Ricardo struck a mock-cowboy pose, thumbs hooked in his perfectly fitted jeans. One long leg extended for a balletic leap. To where?

“No way,” I told him. “It’s Freddy she’s got in mind for going pro…”

“And going—’dot dot dot’…” Ricardo added archly, opening the Prop Closet door. Hot hot hot, I chanted to myself as I followed Ricardo’s black-jeaned ass into the deserted school parking lot. Had I fallen in love—or was this mere friendship? Whatever it was, it hurt.

My teenage heart ached, once the day’s hubbub lay behind us. Heavenly scent of orange trees mixed with car fumes as I trudged up to our stucco-walled Cholla Vista condo. The desert evening sky stretched above me: peachy clouds decked with antic streaks of magenta. I tried to picture kissing Ricardo. But I couldn’t make the picture fit, gazing into the pollution-enhanced technicolor sunset.

Mom was asleep on the couch, lit by Singin’ in the Rain. She lay curled in a lump in her tent dress, hugging her heavy arms in the air-co chill. Trying not to wake Mom— who’d ask me wistfully why I’d come home late, yet again—I settled close to her and lifted her Rocky Road.

In the jumpy TV light, I spooned melted ice cream soup, watching dapper Gene Kelly; picturing Ricardo and his quick sly grin. The boy who got my jokes; the boy who looked at me when I talked. Though not the way I looked at him. What was the line from the Bette Davis flick Mom liked?  Why wish for the moon when we’ve got the stars?  Didn’t I have Ricardo, my star, as a friend?  Wasn’t that enough, for now?  I slowed my spoonfuls of Rocky Road, making it last.

 

  1. You Must Be

The next evening, sultry at 100-plus degrees, Ricardo and I headed back to the Drama Room to share our post-rehearsal smoke. As we eased open the main door, we heard music. A radio playing Madonna from Ms. L.’s lair. You must be my lucky star, Madonna in her Minnie Mouse voice sang loud enough to cover Ricardo’s and my steps. We padded across the carpeted Drama Room floor. To the light under the door. The low voices under the loud music.

“Lower, lower…”

The raspy sprung springs of Ms. L.’s couch. Then—we inched closer to each other—Freddy’s unmistakable stage-trained voice.

Freddy: Um, you sure?

Ms. L.: I’m kinda sure you are—ready, Freddy?

Silence, then springs. Ricardo and I exchanged gazes like two kids outside their parents’ bedroom. I took hold of Ricardo’s hand. He squeezed mine.

Ms. L. (softer this time, more urgently): Lemme just help you with that—

Freddy (softer too): Um—do you—hear something?

We spun round. We shot over to the main door, let it swing shut behind us. Then we raced into the parking lot, leaped into Ricardo’s Dad’s El Dorado.

“‘Lower, Lower’!” Ricardo backwards-steered in screeching Reverse. Off we whizzed, warm wind in our faces. Both laughing. But I felt my stomach churn at the thought of Ms. L. stripping off her skin-tight slacks and unzipping Freddy’s jeans. What did Freddy feel, lying there?

“Think she’s sucking him off right now? Sucking Freddy’s cock?”

I shook my head at Ricardo’s wind-muffled question. And his barking laugh.

“M-maybe we ought go back and and—like, rescue him?”

“Betcha Freddy don’t wanna be rescued,” Ricardo shouted, an edge to his voice.

He veered down Goldust, his convertible weaving like he was drunk. We both chanted, “Ready Freddy, Ready Freddy!”

Till Ricardo’s car—with a jolt, overshooting my condo—halted at the next beige brick building. Ricardo didn’t notice. He seemed not to see me, even as he twisted towards me, his eyes wildly bright.

He leaned into me and we kissed. My first, our first. A quick smacking stagey kiss.

We both pulled back. Playfully, Ricardo nudged me away. I backed out of the El Dorado, slammed its door. My face all hot; my heart thump-thumping. Ricardo peeled off in a dramatic screech of tires. His tail-lights zig-zagged, then vanished. Leaving me standing in desert-night chill at the foot of the walk to the wrong damn door.

 

  1. The Rape Ballet

Neither of us acted much differently with each other in the days that followed. Busy days of rehearsing, posting posters round the school, re-spraying silver paint on Ricardo’s battered stage ‘sword.’  Our kiss seemed to have taken place in a dream. Maybe Ricardo had meant it as a joke?

Ms. L. and Freddy seemed the same too, onstage. Ricardo wondered aloud if we’d really heard what we’d heard. If it was a faked performance somehow. The way in the show the kidnapping isn’t real, is mislabeled as—a joke I didn’t get, even when Ms. L. explained it was a daring ‘play on words’—

a Rape. A song many schools chose to cut from The Fantasticks, but not us: The Rape Ballet.

“Bet you want it not to be true—what we both know we heard,” I finally told Ricardo. Not even sure what I was implying. I coughed, waving away our shared smoke.

Ricardo shrugged, his face shadowed in the Prop Closet. “Maybe I just want a chance too, like Freddy. Heard he’s getting offered a pay-job singing at Josh’s Music Hall. Getting ‘higher, higher’ by going ‘lower, lower’…”

I laughed, though I knew Freddy was plenty good enough to rise on his own. Freddy’s mom was divorced like mine. Freddy had won some special ‘scholarship’ for the voice lessons he took at ASU. Ricardo’s family lived in cushy Scottsdale; he had two parents and two cars. What did he know?

“You saying you want to go ‘lower lower’ with Cyndie Lay-down?” I stood up, letting the glittery skirt I held in my lap drop. Annie Samson’s stage skirt. It was late, dark outside.

“Lay down with Ms. Lay-down? Moi?” Ricardo gave a comic whole-body shudder. I laughed gamely, taking his cue. And I chased mock-horrified Ricardo out of our smoky closet.

We almost ran into the Principal of Corona High. “Whoa there, cowboys,” he told us, then awkwardly corrected himself, looking at me. “And cowgirls.”

Big bluff Mr. Shaft, a whale out of water. He stood by the Drama Room door fanning his ruddy face with a sheaf of papers. Distantly, the band was practicing our High Corona fight song, a game about to begin. Maybe that was why Mr. Shaft ignored the whiff of smoke.

“You two know where Miss Laydon might be?”  he asked us, eying the PEOPLE’d wall.

We exchanged glances. She and Freddy were still down at the theater together, too late. Up to we-knew-what. I drew an uncertain breath. What if they got caught?  Would the show not go on?  Ricardo beat me to the punch, cutting in smoothly.

“Um, I can take those papers to them, to her.”  Ricardo lifted the sheaf from Mr. Shaft. Then he shot me a look and shot out the Drama Room door.

“Light on his feet, isn’t he?” Mr. Shaft murmured absently to me.

“He sure is.” I forced a smile. From the Drama Room doorway, I watched Mr. Shaft amble back out into the balmy dark toward the lights of the football field. Peering in the opposite direction, toward the unlit auditorium, I saw two figures emerge on the path: two slim boys, side by side.

Ricardo called over to me as he and Freddy Tyler sauntered by. “I gave Ms. L. the stuff—My Dad’s picking me up and we’re gonna drop Freddy off—”

“Great,” I said stupidly as the two walked toward the parking lot. Ricardo had never offered to have his stern black-bearded Dad drop me off. Can I come too? I didn’t want to call after the boys.

As they disappeared, Ms L. followed at a distance on the same path: pale and disheveled with her lipstick worn off and her bun of hair mussed. She raised Mr. Shaft’s sheaf toward me, a salute.

“Thanks,” she called to me as she passed. Like I had—Ricardo and I had—saved the day.

 

  1. Get Smart

“Wasn’t it GREAT?” Ricardo pulled me into a breathtakingly hard hug, in the rush after curtain calls. Everyone hugging and high-fiving.

“SO great,” I agreed as Ricardo tugged me into the darkest reaches of the wings. The cast was surging back onto stage to receive the shouted acclaim of their families. My mom, I knew, would take longer than most moms to reach that stage.

“So so proud of her!” Annie’s mother: her voice always a notch above the other moms. Annie told everyone her Mom ‘like totally’ hated her.

From the rope-hung wings, we heard Cyndi L. let loose her hooting laugh amidst the onslaught of Congrats! and What a show!  And (directed at Freddy): THIS young man—HE’S destined for big things!

He wants to talk to me.” Ricardo’s whisper thundered in my ear.

Freddy-he?” I cut in, playing dumb. Ricardo bobbed his head in his big stagey nod, like he’d done onstage, playing the Mute.

Up in my Light Booth, all through the show, I’d kept remembering what Ricardo told me he’d seen after he’d run to the auditorium with Shaft’s papers. Ricardo had called out into the empty auditorium. Sheepishly, Ms. L. had climbed down from the Light Booth. Then Freddy had poked his tousled head from that same booth—my Light Booth—as Ricardo handed over the papers. Freddy climbed down slowly, meeting Ricardo’s gaze (or so I pictured; Ricardo left out that part) while Ms. L. ignored both boys and bustled about the auditorium, locking up.

“Shush—I’ll tell you in the car—” Ricardo spun on his heel. He strutted on stage to receive his due. Belatedly, I slipped onstage myself amidst the fallen glitter. Families were scattering.

“It was lovely, lovey!” Mom filled my light-dazed sight. “And I know it was you, keeping it all running!” She patted my shoulder. I smiled back at Mom. Was it possible at this hour of the evening, usually a time I’d expect no clear-headed words from her, that she’d had no drink?

I let her pull me into her flowery powdery hug, feeling her lean on me. That was when I smelled it. Only a bit fainter than usual, in her quicker breaths. I pulled back fast enough to make her wobble. “Hey, you know I’m going to the after-party, right?  With Ricardo?”

“Yes, yes,” Mom assured me in a tipsy stage whisper. She tottered beside me on her unaccustomed high heels as I helped her off the stage. “With your young man, yes!”

I hustled Mom down the aisles of emptied seats to the lobby. “He’s not my Young Man,” I hissed to her. “And you, are you— OK to drive yourself?”  This last came out almost pleading.

P-Jay,” Ricardo called out as his mini-entourage of parents and aunts and black-haired cousins swept him through the front doors.

“Meet you at your car,” I hollered back. Then I hustled my mom through those same giant glass doors. Was she OK to drive? I hugged her again, hurriedly. Watched her wobble off into the night.

I worried about Mom all through the windy convertible ride beside Ricardo. His El Dorado smelled of the yellow roses my Mom had splurged on, for me.

“I can just feel it,” Ricardo was babbling at the wheel, “He, Freddy, when he said he wants to ‘talk’—maybe he does want to tell me all—”

“About Ms. L.?” I demanded into the wind. “So you did ask?”

“Shit NO!”  Ricardo sped through a yellow-turning-red light. “But Freddy knows I saw the two of them up in the Light Booth thingy.”

“My Light Booth,” I muttered though Ricardo barely paused.

“And Freddy practically admitted it in the Dressing Room before the show. He told a bunch of us he felt like Ms. L. was giving him one big ‘audition’ with El Gallo—an Audition for Josh’s cowboy club. Freddy says he wants that pay-gig so he can move right to New York—”

“What—and leave you behind?” I dared to inject. Ricardo burst into peals of laughter, which melded with his screeching tires as he veered into the Samson’s high-walled ‘development.’

“Now don’t tell any-one any-thing,” Ricardo admonished as he parked. He made a ‘Cone of Silence’ sign like Maxwell Smart in Get Smart. Then Ricardo rearranged his blow-dried hair in the rearview. “I look OK?”” He faced me: his face shadowed so no acne showed.

“You know you do.”

“You too,” Ricardo answered, distracted. Meaning I too knew he knew he looked good? I stopped to gather my rose bouquet. So I wound up behind Ricardo as he strode the curved flagstone walk to Annie’s Mission-style ranch house. Was he speeding his steps so as not to seem to ‘be with’ me?

But Ricardo re-smoothed his hair, waiting for me to alight the stoop beside him. “Ready?”

I nodded, hugging the lushly scented flowers. With a stage-worthy flourish, Ricardo rang the Samson’s doorbell. As if she’d been waiting just for us, Annie Samson flung open the heavy carved-wood door. She smiled wide, more lovely and vibrant than she’d been onstage.

“Great show, Annie.” Impulsively, I shoved my yellow-rose bouquet into Annie’s arms.

 

  1. (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life

What I remember best about the Cast Party is its end. In a night of firsts, I had my first drink-drink from the spiked punch bowl. A syrupy sweet taste of why Mom drank. The Samson’s ‘shades-of-beige’ living room turned blurry bright. ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ blared like an anthem, in honor of Cyndie L., nowhere in sight. No grown-ups anywhere in sight.

I danced, making minimal choppy moves with a couple giggly chorus girls. Then when the truly cool actors—the Fantasticks—took to the living room dance floor, I refilled my cup. I collapsed in my backstage black onto a puffy couch, to watch.

“Welcome to my cloud,” I slurred to Annie Samson as she settled lightly beside me. Leftover glitter sparkled in her hair. Her sweat smelled of rum. She gave me a sizing-up side glance.

My cloud,” she corrected, her close-set green eyes still smokily shaded. “My Cloud Couch.”

I ran my hand over the puffy fabric, silken and taut like a parachute. “We’re floating together.”

“And they’re out there together,” rum-breathed Annie confided to me. Suddenly serious, and sullen. No one nearby. “You know—Freddy and, and him…”

“Freddy and him,” I repeated, my rum-slowed mind processing her words.

“Your ‘him.’ Ricard-o Lo-pezz.”  Annie nodded at the sliding doors. Doors that led to the backyard ‘pool area,’ deserted on this chill October night.

The pool was walled-in; the yard beyond that wall was hidden. Our couch faced the shiny glass doors like a big blank movie screen. Other Thespians traipsed about behind us, fleeting bright reflections. Annie leaned close. Her whiny confiding whisper burned my ear.

“They’re out there to-geth-er—Like, way-close together. They didn’t even see me see them…”  She pulled back enough to meet my gaze, daring me to deny what she whispered next. “Freddy’s not like that, y’know. But do you think Ricardo’s gonna, you know, try something out there with him?”

I sealed my rum-sticky lips, my head aspin as I held Annie’s green-eyed stare. Annie Fantastick, sharing a secret with me. One I hadn’t known I knew. I’d gone mute: like Ricardo in the play, all his nods exaggerated. I felt myself nod that way, one big nod I immediately wished I could take back.

 

  1. Happy Ending

ENTER: Ricardo and Freddy, through the sliding doors, separately. FREDDY first, as always. Freddy with a deadpan nod strolling past our couch; RICARDO following, eyes lowered, hair mussed; trailing Freddy. Who makes a point of snubbing RICARDO. Who hovers like a scrawny bodyguard behind Freddy as Freddy slurps his punch then too-loudly toasts his ‘FELLOW PLAYERS.’

PJ ON THE COUCH (that’s me, amidst my out-of-body experience) rolls her eyes. Yet she raises her emptied punch cup with the others. Including a suddenly wide-awake ANNIE. Gazing with those widened made-up eyes as Freddy TYLER strides grandly over to her.

RICARDO gapes at Freddy who bows before ANNIE and takes her hand.

Somehow (has Freddy gotten control of the piped-in music?) the swelling climactic song from DIRTY DANCING begins to play. I’ve had—the time of my life—

Freddy and ANNIE rise as one. They begin their own stiffer version of a Dirty Dance. RICARDO, by default, settles beside me on the deflated-seeming cloud couch.

He winks at me (our tell-you-later signal) and shuts his long-lashed eyes. Like it really is all a dream. Freddy and Annie gracefully exit to the kitchen, where the loudest laughers are gathered.

I lurched to a Spanish-tiled bathroom to wretch. Without asking permission, I used Annie Samson’s phone to call my Mom. Who didn’t answer, back at our condo.

Had she had an accident going home?  I wondered, wandering back to the couch. It was past midnight. I told glaze-eyed Ricardo that Mom hadn’t answered.

He wasn’t so out-of-it not to hear my panic. “We’re motoring,” he announced, rattling his car keys. On the way out, we passed the darkened living room corner where Annie and Freddy lingered, standing face to face, posing as a couple. Passing them, Ricardo tried to catch Freddy’s eye. No dice.

“Hap-py end-ing,” Ricardo half-sang to me under his rummy breath. Wistfully, mockingly; the way Annie should’ve sung those lyrics in the show.

Ricardo and I slipped through the front archway unnoticed. How could we have thought, I wondered as we stumbled off the stoop, that we’d become true ‘Fantasticks’ too? And how could I have nodded at Annie, betraying that secret about Ricardo I’d known without knowing?

We drove to my condo in tense silence. Only the cool night wind in our faces kept us from throwing up on Ricardo’s Dad’s red leather seats. As Ricardo pulled the El Dorado to a shaky 1AM halt at my condo, we sobered up, abruptly. Because we saw it—her.

My mom: fallen over, lying on the front stoop in a shadowy curled-up heap. My heartbeat halted, the car still rocking. But Mom not moving. I screamed. Somehow, we stumbled from the car. Ricardo and I ran as one up the walk to the stoop. I imagined in those drawn-out seconds the starless dark of life without Mom. I knelt on the chilled concrete where she’d fallen, curled up, one high heeled shoe off. Ricardo kneeling right behind me, both of us holding our breaths.

I touched Mom’s soft shoulder, Ricardo’s hand steadying my shoulder. Groggily, Mom blinked. And stared up at me, scared. “Mom,” I whispered, scared too, “It’s only me.”

 

  1. Flash Forward

In our next years as Corona High Thespian ‘insiders,’ Ricardo and I were to share many a cast-party hangover and Prop Closet confession. Freddy nabbed his prized pay-gig as a star Singing Waiter at Josh Hartley’s Cowboy Club, where parents had to sign release-forms to let their kids work and where Ricardo later worked too. Seduced in short order by dashing Josh Heart-less himself, who kept up his own supposed romance with Ms. L. Meanwhile, Freddy kept secretly meeting Ricardo, who told only me, whilst Freddy officially dated Annie. Who ruined Ricardo socially by spreading her gay-boy rumors about him. Rumors that I told myself Annie surely would have spread anyway—with or without that mute nod I never did confess to Ricardo and never could take back.

So much to discuss, or not discuss, smoking Cyndie L.’s Virginia Slims. Cyndie surely knew—we intuited by glances and remarks—that we knew what she’d been up to. But she kept us busy, show after show. And I guess we (Ricardo pointed out in his final long-distance phone call) kept her out of trouble.

“I kinda wish I could, I don’t know, re-do that part,” Ricardo told me years later, from LA, weak-voiced yet firm too. “Maybe I shouldn’t have—kept her secrets, y’know?”

“Maybe we shouldn’t,” I corrected him gently. “Remember,” I added, since his memory had gotten spotty, “we both stopped Mr. Shaft that night…”

“I guess,” Ricardo went on dreamily. “You played a role, sure, in a minor way…”  I forced a half-laugh, Ricardo’s words stinging. “Back then, I felt like we were both these—minor characters,” Ricardo went on, rambling the way he did on his meds, “The ones who show up in a scene because we are gonna, y’know, witness something big involving the big characters. Like remember when I said to Cyndie L. as La Director, Why am I there?  Me being the ‘Mute,’ me wanting some motivation or shit.”  Ricardo paused to cough. “And she says: You’re there to see them. Them being, you know, the stars…”

“Hey,” I cut in, trying to think of an un-corny way to say: Hey Ricardo, you were always a star to me. “Hey Ricardo, you want me to fly out there?  To LA?”

No, Ricardo answered softly from his hospital room, his loyal LA boyfriend by his side. No, Ricardo decreed: I needed to stay with my Mom. She was starting to slip beyond confusion around that time. Like she was drunk when she wasn’t. Sometimes, I confessed to Ricardo in that phone call I didn’t know was our last, Mom snapped at me, warning me against getting ‘fat’ like her.

“I kinda miss her seeing me like, y’know, her star…”

Ricardo sighed hard from LA. “My parents are more disappointed I’m not some big star than they are that I’m—sick.”  He hacked, harder and louder. “Your mom,” he went on in his new ‘slower but wiser’ tone, “She’s always loved you like you are.”

I tried a joke, almost the last thing I said to him ever. “You’re saying you think I’m ‘fat’?”

At his Memorial Service in LA two weeks later, I snuck up on Ricardo’s elegantly black-clad mother. She’d chosen to display by his closed coffin a framed professional photo of young frozenly smiling Ricardo, his acne air-brushed away. His mother was gazing at the photo more tenderly than I’d ever seen her gaze at the real Ricardo.

 

  1. Back-Space and Start Again

I savor for breakfast my last cigarette. A decade ago, the first time I quit smoking, I gained back all the weight I’d gradually shed. Which was when my final wanna-be-actor boyfriend ‘shed’ me. A memory that hardly hurts, anymore. I don’t miss any of them as much as I miss Ricardo. Or even my fellow theater-nerd pals from more recent years. Some of them emailing lately to organize a Little Theater Zoom chat. Which sounds as lame as Zoom Theater itself. But, I think today as I shower, it might be better than nothing. I barely look at my new naked girth as I pull on the loose comfy clothes I’m glad to wear all day, working from home. Still a half hour left before my workday begins.

Settling back in my well-worn desk chair, I scroll past stories on Black Lives Matter marches. I Google the 2018 bedroom ‘selfie’ of the 37-year-old activist/actress, her face plain without make-up, pressed cheek to cheek with the 17-year-old actor smirking into his own cellphone. Was his sated post-sex smirk an act, too?  Like Freddy’s seeming cool amidst his affair-or-whatever with Ms. Lay-down?  I swivel my chair back and forth. This pandemic gives me too much time to think, to backspace and replay old drama. Too vivid to me, these days. Irresistibly, I lean into my screen and click Twitter.

Freddy Tyler, ‘erstwhile actor,’ sent @ my ‘TechyPJ’ a mass-message, addressed to #FansOfFreddy, alerting us to a Virtual Reading at a Minneapolis theater. A skip hits my heartbeat as I notice, too, a ‘private message’ from him. To me!  Tremulously, I access Freddy’s lower-cased words.

you’re not Peg J. the PJ from corona high, r u? 

I stare into the screen light: hearing Freddy’s resonant voice, stagey even offstage. I lean closer. But I remind myself how, post-Cast Party, Freddy had averted his gaze from Ricardo’s in the halls. How much that hurt tender-hearted Ricardo, how Freddy outside of their top-secret make-out sessions ignored him. How Freddy ran off to New York without even a phone call to Ricardo.

Like, Ricardo kept saying dazedly to me, none of it happened at all. But it did happen, I tell myself now. And it did matter. To Ricardo, to me; to Freddy, even if he’d deny it. Why do I feel in the magnified silence of my morning—start of yet another lost day in lockdown—that I can make what I type into this tiny Twitter square matter?  My hands, again, shake as I start.

yes Freddy, it’s me, BFF to Ricardo. i may have seemed clueless back then, but i knew all about you and Ms. L. You and Ricardo. Back when you’d act like, in public, Ricardo didn’t even exist. Which he doesn’t, anymore, BTW.

I blink at the blunt words I’d speed-typed. My eyelid twitches like a warning. Ricardo never held a grudge against Freddy, even after being dumped. Shakily, I put on my glasses again. I stare down my tiny-lettered ‘private message,’ daring myself to press SEND.

Wishing I could, first, phone Ricardo, even longer-distance than LA, and ask his advice. Sensing if I read aloud my message, Ricardo would give a phone pause where I could practically hear him roll his eyes. I squint through my drugstore reading glasses at my petty message.

God, how is it that Freddy Fantastick still makes me feel—and act—so small?

This thought comes to me in post-shower early-AM clarity. I consider simply not replying, picturing Annie on the cloud couch. Her narrowed green-eyed gaze locking mine: a girl who always got what she wanted, back then. I never should have given it to her, my own mute mean-girl nod.

I scroll again to @anniesamson-g. I don’t move to ‘Follow’ Annie, though, as she might expect me to do. Instead, I turn in my squeaky desk chair from the flat brightness of my laptop. A warmer, more alive light shimmers around my drawn living room shades. The swarming gold of today’s hidden sunrise. Wish I could tell Ricardo—in Heaven or wherever—that he was no minor character to me. That of all the men I’ve loved, he is the only one I miss. I turn back to my screen, its light gone dead.

I tap a key; the laptop re-floods with light, its lifeless tone chiming. An elevator going nowhere, the way each day feels, these days. Except, just now, for the sharp pain in my middle-aged heart. What lingering ache does Freddy feel?  Isn’t the story of him and Ms. L. his to tell or not? Even if there’s no audience? I gaze into my re-lit screen. Trying to channel Ricardo—the older and kinder Ricardo I imagine watching—I backspace away my hastily typed lines. What I type instead, slowly, feels right.

Hi Freddy and yes, it’s me; BFF to Ricardo. Glad u r still onstage. Hey Freddy, did u know Ms L was last spotted teaching in AZ at Flagstaff Community College?  One more fact u ought to know. Ricardo. He moved to LA, found love there, then he lost his life.

I type the last lines the slowest, my heart thumping as if I’m awaiting a stage cue.

Ricardo loved you. & he loved me too. Try to remember him.

 

 

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