The Cala lilies are in bloom again…
I could have said that as I stepped onto our back deck, into the sun. I guess I did say it, to myself, marveling at the flowers blooming at the edge of our shoddy, uneven deck. To a kid from Minnesota the sight of white lilies uncurling in the bright midmorning sun in February is just another confirmation that I won’t be moving back to the Midwest any time soon.
It’s President’s Day and I’m home from work, writing on the back deck for the first time since I moved in last summer. There is the sound of hammering and buzz saws echoing over the hills, from the houses of people rich or lucky enough to afford construction in this economy. There are birds singing, a dog barking, two hummingbirds dueling or flirting among the branches of the tree off the deck; the sound of their wings like a hand flipping quickly through the pages of a book.
This morning I pick up the Stanislavski book on acting from the corner of the bathroom sink, where I had left it the night before. Something falls from its pages and I look down at the envelope addressed to me in my mother’s handwriting. I can tell from the shaky edges of the “M” in Michael and the “C” in CA that it was written after the onset of her symptoms. And by the postmark, September 2000, I know it was when we still thought she might have Parkinson’s. In six weeks, at the end of October, we’ll know she has ALS instead.
It’s the size of a small greeting card, and certainly not heavy enough to warrant the two 33 cent stamps stuck in the upper right hand corner. One stamp shows a lacy pink heart, a Victorian valentine with pink roses blossoming along its edges. The other is a child’s drawing; a bright red rocket in a dark blue sky, headed for a pink moon. Below the rocket the child has scrawled, in yellow lettering, “Mommy, are we there yet?” On the edge of the stamp, in tiny letters, it reads “Morgan Hill, age nine”.
I carry the card and the book and a cup of coffee back with me to bed. I throw the comforter over my cold feet and rearrange the pillows, and then open the envelope. Simple gray cardstock with a line of silver letters: “Wishing you wonders great and small”. I open the card and there’s a silver star shooting across the surface of the card. It takes me a moment to realize that the card is backwards; the star should be on the front, the greeting inside. The back cover, with the card company’s name etched in silver, is folded against the front cover of the silver shooting star. Above the star, in her handwriting that has just begun to unravel, it says ” Hi Michael, I’m really happy you’re in the play and working two jobs. Love, Mom”.
Short and terse, unlike her usual cards and letters, which were always full of weather updates and travel plans and training schedules for the marathons she and Lee used to run together. Today, years later, I realize that it was probably Lee who urged her to send the card, perhaps even bought the card. As the illness progressed my mother withdrew from me, and from others. Of course, we didn’t know much about the dementia then, either.
The play she refers to is “The Collected Works of Billy the Kid”; not really a play, actually, neither a novel nor a collection of short stories. Written by Michael Ondaatje, the author of “The English Patient”, it read more like a collection of dreams and nightmares and images, written in Ondaantje’s vivid, visercal prose. I had been cast in the lead role, Billy, and she and Lee would visit me soon and see the performance.
It’s funny to still feel the kick of resentment, the phantom pain of anger towards her. It was just like her to talk about work all the time. Towards the end, the only question she’d ask me on her own initiative was “How’s work?” As if some shitty job title; the organic grocery store stock boy, the coffee shop barista, the paid-under-the-table office clerk; as if any of those mattered to me then. “Fuck work,” I wanted to say, “You’re dying.” I wanted her to say something, anything, about the important shit. Just a few words that weren’t about work. Something about illness, about the sudden shift in priorities, about the value of love and friends and family. I wanted wisdom, I wanted what everyone thought I’d get when they recommended that fucking “Tuesdays with Morrie” book to me. I wanted golden afternoons with my dying mother in which we talked about life’s most important lessons. But Morrie didn’t have the rare type of ALS that included dementia. And the author of that book spent an hour a week with Morrie, he didn’t have to wipe up drool or help Morrie cough over a sink when food got caught somewhere among the weakening muscles of the throat, like I did with my mother. Also, as she once pointed out, “Morrie was in his goddamned seventies already. I’m fifty-three.”
I didn’t get golden movie-of-the-week moments, I didn’t get a thin strand of her pearls of wisdom. I got a mother who answered every question with one word and who could only ask of me, “How’s work?”
Caught somewhere between the dementia and the stoic German work ethic of her father and the Catholic guilt of her mother, my mother seemed to feel that as long as she kept moving, the disease couldn’t catch her. When she lost her job over the illness, she’d never let herself relax. She’d wash loads of laundry everyday, run the dishwasher half-empty, dust the spotless living room. She’d grasp the broom in her weak fingers and sweep the back patio. Afterwards she’d sit with me for a minute at the window, until one leaf would detach from a tree and fall gently onto the perfect patio, and she’d go for the broom again. It all made me very tired.
I haven’t acted since Billy. After the play ended I moved back to Minneapolis for a few months to be with her. Even when I came back to San Francisco I avoided auditioning, knowing that any day I could get an urgent call from home. None of the small companies I performed with had the budget for an understudy. But now she’s been dead for a year, so I can’t use her as an excuse anymore.
Billy was very tough. I was very very raw, sober for like thirty seconds, taking on a role that one critic said had more lines than Hamlet. I was very unsure of myself. I was out of shape and dreaded the scene where I wore nothing but a towel onstage. Our boots walking across the floorboards of the set echoed all over the converted gymnasium in which we performed; the audience would sit forward and strain to hear us over the noise. The reviews were mixed. I remember one review in paticular, from a free weekly newpaper that everyone in San Francisco reads. The critic said I lacked the charisma for the role. That morning I wanted to drive around to every kiosk, steal all the papers and burn them in my fireplace. But I didn’t.
Looking back I understand the criticism. I didn’t feel charismatic then. I was thin-skinned and overwhelmed, and even the wonderful reviews I received couldn’t change that. It was such a relief when the play ended, and I guess you could say that I haven’t wanted to be that vulnerable since.
Recently one of the crew from Billy asked me to read the script of a short film he’s directing. The character he wanted me to play was an asshole, but that didn’t bother me much. I like playing assholes. That’s why they call it acting.
But there is one scene where my character has sex with the lead character, an underage boy. More partial nudity, this time on camera. I’ve never acted on film. But really, I asked myself, how many people will ever see a 30-minute film? At least, one that’s not a porno? Also, I look better naked now. I said yes. It’s scheduled to film next month. One scene will be shot in the bar where I used to work; the one I call the gateway to my own personal hell. It’s where I pick the kid up and bring him home. I find that very funny.
The first time I auditioned for a professional acting job, I was fresh out of college and didn’t even have a head shot. I got the part, beating out 100 other guys. They paid me $300 a week just to act. I worked with one of the most brilliant directors I’ve ever met at a great little theater in Minneapolis. The play ran for three months; I performed six shows a week. I played Martin in Fool for Love. For my entrance I would run onstage in the dark and tackle the leading man as he fought with his sister. Then the lights would come up, catching me as I held his collar in one hand and cocked back my right fist for another blow. One day we punched a hole in the plaster wall of the set. It was great.
A year later I auditioned for a part in a dance/theater piece with a very funny, very talented choreographer. After her first choice was deported over visa issues, she gave me the role. I got paid again, and at the end of our run she was invited to bring the show to New York. We got paid to dance and act crazy at DTW off of Eighth Avenue. Before we left Minneapolis she told me that she was happy I got the part.
During the day I would wander around Manhattan, returning each evening to Chelsea, where I would meet the others and warm up in a cramped dressing room backstage. The choreographer was also presenting a piece that featured just the women dancers. I would watch from the backstage, as three women in Catholic school uniforms prayed reverently in a spotlight to “Ave Maria”. Slowly, as the song played, something poked from between each of their lips, and then dangled lower and lower over their throats. They were rosaries, drenched in saliva.
I was feeling a little apprehensive about this whole film thing, so I decided to re-read my books on Meisner and Stanislavski, which helped get me into the groove a bit. It’s nice to be old enough to know that I don’t have to believe everything I read, either. Then later I turned on the TV and Bravo was having a marathon of Actor’s Studio, so I watched Michael Caine and Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore and Martin Scorsese. And that helped, too. And I daydreamed about what it would be like to be Meryl Streep’s best friend. And then Julianne Moore’s friend, the one she takes the subway with to the gym or whatever. As if all that acting karma would sorta rub off on me by osmosis. And I will admit that sometimes I picture myself in the chair opposite James Lipton, and he’ll have a stack of blue cards all about my life, and I will pretend to be amazed at the thoroughness of his research, and humbled by his proclamations of my acting genius. Then I will also pretend not to expect the famous quiz invented by what’s his name for whatever that French place is at the end of the show, so that all of my answers appear hilarious, deeply moving, and completely spontaneous. Then, in the intimate question-and-answer session with the students I will be very generous and spend lots of time with them so that they’ll think I was the coolest actor ever.
What, like you don’t daydream about this kind of shit?
It sucks being your own worst enemy, letting fear keep you from the things you love, letting it tie you to mediocrity. Haunted by ghosts who only value work. But the ghosts are dead. I’m alive. I don’t need a lot of money, or my name in flashing lights. I just want to do what makes me happy. I want to write and I want to pretend like I’m other people and I want to get paid a little money for it. Is that so wrong?