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The Moments Between

Stage Directions

By Helen Zelon

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Up on the scaffolding, 20 feet above the stage, I had time to think. Between sound cues, I thought of home. Between prop checks, I thought of Randy. Was he awake? In pain? Alone? Switch gears, I ordered my imagination. Back to rehearsal. Focus.

We were opening in two days. Today was dress tech, when all the elements – costumes, lights, sound, text, props – get trotted out and knit together. This show’s elaborate set, complicated music, and large company promised more minefields than most. It would, we all knew, be a very long night.

“Ladies and gentlemen, places, please, for Act II. Places please, everyone.” We took our places, and waited some more.

Before rehearsal, as usual, I had visited Randy in the hospital. Despite St. Luke’s familiar corridors and the predictable whoosh! of the pneumatic doors that separated the HIV unit from the regular beds, I was never ready for the smell. Notes of disinfectant mingled with cigarette smoke, underpinned by rubbing alcohol fumes and the soap-and-bleach scent of clean laundry. Eau de Hospital.

The first time Randy was in St. Luke’s, they drew a radiation map around the lesions on his back in black Sharpee marker, so the technician would know where to aim. The second time, for chemo for Kaposi’s sarcoma, his drawing hand swollen and swathed in gauze from the botched IV line that burned his flesh. A third stay, for the skin graft from his belly the docs took to ‘fix’ his hand, and a week beyond, to treat the infection that crept in after the surgery and wouldn’t go away. And this round, again in bed, tethered to nasal oxygen, his scrotum swollen to the size of a melon, unrecognizable. A nurse spread a soft cotton sheet across his lap, a tender modesty. I had not realized, had not recognized this body part grown giant and huge, lolling like a violet orb.

“Hi, Helenka,” Randy said softly, patting the side of the bed. He had lost so much weight; the skinny twin bed was as big as a lake, plenty of room for two.

I climbed up and he curled close. Catheter tubing and IV lines got tangled in the sheets; the nurse helped resettle him and I began to read, out loud, from a book we’d started the week before. I felt his breath on my cheek. The skin on his face was sheer as onionskin, stretched tight and shiny. Hazy with pain meds, Randy struggled to keep his eyelids open. They drooped, he propped them open with his fingertips, and they drooped again.

“Just close your eyes, pal,” I told him, “Not a problem, no pictures for a couple of pages. You can rest.” His eyes dropped to half-staff, then finally shut.

I laid the book flat and held him, felt his breath rise and fall in even measures. His eyes trembled under their lids, a twitchy dream. I felt his forehead for fever – no – and brushed his hair off his face. I listened to the beeping monitor that traced his beating heart and thought, he looks like shit.

Even in the pink of health, in his glory days, Randy was no beauty. At his best, he looked a little like a well-groomed dachshund: Long nose, narrow face, barely bulging pale blue eyes; tiny glasses, deliberate chin, rumpled thatch of sandy brown waves. He wore Wilkes-Bashford and Barney’s even when he didn’t have his rent; in dressing as a handsome, ravishing man, he intermittently became one. Now, he looked worn, old, drawn. He wouldn’t have liked what he saw in the mirror.

Our friendship, sealed years earlier, was bound by three equal passions: Theatre, which we both adored. Men, whom we both coveted, in every variety and permutation. And Rage, against the injustice of having been born into families of boorish idiots, strict thinkers who condemned our free-spirited lives. The hell with them! we’d toast as we slung back gin and tonics, sucking the lime pulp from the skin. The hell with them all!

Our drunken denunciations rang in my ears later that morning, when I found myself in the hospital cafeteria, facing the Dragon Lady who had sired my best friend. Randy’s mother, his nemesis, here at last.

Mrs. Drake had arrived that day. After all the waiting, she had come.

Randy had been sick for more than a year. In the pre-AZT era, before protease cocktails and T-cell boosters, his HIV quickly progressed to AIDS when those four letters meant imminent, looming death. Early on, he wrote his parents about being sick. Their response? Newspaper clippings, packets of them, on the proven perils of the gay lifestyle, the certain mortality of AIDS, the painful deaths.

“Not even a fucking tin of chocolate-chip cookies!” he’d rail, mood black. “God forbid they actually help with the rent! God forbid they pick up the phone and fucking ask ‘how are you?’” And the son did as his parents taught, and didn’t call them, either. Didn’t reach out to ask for help, never let on that he was suffering, broke, and frightened for his life. Still, the clippings came, every week or so. Nothing he could count on – nothing he could cash – and then boom! Another envelope, addressed in her familiar hand.

I looked across the Formica tabletop at Mrs. Drake, then down at the abstract swirl in the plastic, and up, at the fluorescent lights overhead, giant suspended ice-cube trays buzzing with the low hum of purpose: Busy electricity.

The resemblance between mother and son was evident in the common planes of their cheeks, the steep slope-to-a-point of their noses, the shallow arch of the brow. But while Randy was a human faucet of conversation, all dish and free advice, Mrs. Drake tended to drone, in a flat-vowelled monotone. She talked about her plane trip, on and on. I could barely listen. This is bullshit, all crap, I thought, swirling my Styrofoam cup of tepid coffee, the creamy streaks of milk a pale, tiny cyclone. Her son is dying upstairs and she’s telling me about the in-flight pretzel mix. I lacked the courage to say what should have been said, and instead, raged silently at the obscenity of our polite conversation.

“He was a lovely baby,” she said, knowing I had a baby at home. My days were a circuit of constant motion and conflicted intent: Mornings at home, noonday visits to Randy, afternoons at rehearsal, evenings home again for more baby, husband, domestic life. Late nights, I cooked: noodle kugel, roasted chicken, spinach pie, baked ziti. Comfort foods that Randy liked, things that were tasty and easy to eat, homemade counterweights to the hated, bland hospital food.

“What’s on the menu today?” he’d crow, peeling back a layer of aluminum foil. “Ooh! Lasagna, fabulous! Let’s dump this institutional drek and do some real eating.”

Mrs. Drake chewed a mouthful of cherry pie. “He was just a lovely little boy,” she said, patting the corners of her mouth with a folded napkin. “It was only when he got big that we didn’t get along. His father, well…” She glanced away. “His father and I, we had so much trouble with him.” A silence, then: “It’s just so hard for us. It’s not that we’re not grateful. We just didn’t know how bad it was, not hardly, until Silvio called and said to come.”

They had no idea. That’s what she said. Mrs. Drake, who had no idea, had sat in her swank ski condo with her scissors and stamps and snipped the articles that told of Randy’s doom. I tried to imagine baby Randy on her lap, his arms reaching for her neck, her kisses on his apricot cheeks. I knew this love. Where, inside the understated Talbot’s sportswear and handmade Belgian shoes, was the dried-up kernel of that passion? Could this woman, this mother, have so changed? Can that love go away?

I watched Mrs. Drake crimp the edge of her paper plate, pie crumbs dusting the tabletop. “He’s missed you,” was all I could manage. “He’s missed you and his father a great deal.” I slid a Parliament from its flip-top box and struck a match, grateful for the scent of sulphur and the sting of the smoke.

“I don’t like being here all on my own,” she said, pie gone. She made no sign of leaving the cafeteria for Randy’s bedside, where he dozed in a morphine-fringed twilight.

“I’ve got to get to rehearsal,” I said, slipping on my coat. “I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”

“That’ll be fine,” Mrs. Drake said. “That way, you’ll get to meet my husband.”

While we were students in Berkeley, in the halcyon, pre-AIDS era, Randy frequented San Francisco’s bars and bathhouses. Saturday afternoons we walked Polk Street, eyeing the parade of men like so much testosterone candy. Evenings, however, were boys-only. Strictly off limits, even to best friends, if said best friend happened to be female.

Sunday afternoons – there were no waking weekend mornings, then – Randy would detail the night before over Champagne mimosas, opening my eyes to the carnal joys of towel-less saunas and bedside tubs of Crisco. I tried not to look shocked, and took mental notes for the adventures I hoped to have, one day soon, myself.

Fifteen years had passed since our Sundays of cocktails and man-talk. Through everything, Randy was there, advising on décolletage and heartbreak, seductions and sex toys. “Stick with the edibles, kiddo,” he’d say, listing serviceable fruits and veggies. “Stay away from the rest. Nothing mechanical, nothing inflammable, that’s my motto.”

My pal, my partner in crime, my staunchest comrade in affairs of ambition and of the heart, my Randy had HIV. Souvenir of a careless time, life-robber and heartbreaker, it was killing him now.

“Meal break,” called the stage manager, before the act began.

“Whaddya mean, meal break?” the director asked.

“Four hours, they gotta break, it’s in the contract.”

I called the hospital and spoke with Silvio: Randy? Sleeping. Mrs Drake? Smoking in the family lounge down the hall.

“I’ll try to call back. Say hi to Randy when he wakes up.”

“OK, Helen, OK.” Silvio answered. “I talk to you later.”

Backstage, two dresses hung on my rack. A fitted gray dress for Act I, and a sickly green rayon sheath for – of course – my favorite scene, a romantic duet, part spoken, part sung. Shit, I thought as I changed into the rayon disaster, I can’t wear green. I sat down at my makeup table. I hate green, I hate that green in particular, and I hate that dress, it’s gross and looks like vomit. I’m going to look dead in green like that.

Sponge in hand, I caught my reflection. Did I think that? That I look dead? Spit that out, I told myself, sneak-spitting between my index and third finger. Don’t joke about that stuff, not now. Get ready.

“Can you believe this dress?” I asked Jennifer, who zipped me up the back.

“Disgusting,” she said. “Looks like it’s been in a suitcase for years.”

“Looks like it’s been in the trash, to me.” I said, as the stage manager walked past.

“Five minutes, please,” he called. “Preset your props, check your changes, and mark your moves on the set.”

Act II was sung-through, the dramatic action layered over a pre-recorded score. We clambered up the scaffolding, waited for our cues, and waited some more, as the techies squabbled in the dark.

“Don’t you hear that?” from the director in the black of the house.

“What?” challenged a spotlight operator. “What am I supposed to hear?”

“Don’t you hear those French horns?”

“I’m not deaf, thank you. I heard the damned horns, I just didn’t know that was the cue.” I could hear Randy mimicking the tech’s pissy tone in my mind’s ear. This is just what drives him nuts about the business. Egos and bullshit, all in the way of the work.

“Going on, please,” the stage manager said, “Places, everyone.” We lurched through a cue to cue, then ran the act.

“Ladies and gentleman, thank you for your patience,” the director said. “We are now ready to move on.”

Moving on meant Act III, and the duet I both loved and dreaded. Being in the spotlight thrilled and frightened me; I wanted to be there, yet feared – what? Exposure? Failure? Embarrassment? All of it, and even more. I wanted what I did, what I made, to be real – not some game, navel-gazing pretending tricked out with fancy lights and a lovely score. I wanted life, on that scaffolding, and wasn’t sure I could deliver. Not, at any rate, in that awful dress.

I smoothed the dress front over my stomach, more plump than I liked. I didn’t like my post-baby pot belly, not a bit. Randy laughed at me months ago when I complained.

“Oh my God,” he mocked, hands flung up near his ears. “This gorgeous baby alive and yours and you’re talking weight loss? You’re out of your fucking mind.” He loved the baby, loved holding her, loved pulling off her socks to see her toes. “Gay boys don’t get too much baby action, sweetie,” he’d say, fussing with the ties of her knit cap. “No, we don’t get much of this kind of action at all,” he whispered to her, his pointy nose against her snub, breathing the same air.

That was when Randy was well, or well enough to travel, work, be on his own. Now, he was never alone, and rarely without advice for me – on how to be the kind of mother neither of us had.

Weeks earlier, I went to see him at home, in his fourth-floor walkup in Hell’s Kitchen, hallways smelling of cat piss and canned soup. Faced with crumbling plaster and a truculent landlord, Randy gold-leafed an entire wall, now an expanse of near-molten warmth. This was Randy’s life – making beauty mask decrepitude – even when things got personal and he began to bloom with wine-colored lesions and raw patches of skin, pink as a new burn. We didn’t talk about the makeup he wore, his mask. I knew he worked on his face before going out, and he knew I knew. But love grows certain deliberate ignorances. Together, we agreed to pretend.

“These are for the baby,” he said to me, after I’d set two trays of food in his fridge. He had framed three watercolors, costume designs for Three Sisters, for my daughter. “They are not, I repeat not, for you. You must let her do whatever she likes with them. Don’t get in her way! They are hers, from me. You,” he sniffed, in his mock-monarchical tone, “are merely the messenger. Hands OFF!” His eyes glinted with mischief and longing. Suddenly, I knew what he knew: He wouldn’t be able to give the paintings to her, himself. I would have to do.

And day before yesterday, more advice, in between bites of apple cake. “So much for my girlish figure!” he joked when our ‘tea visits’ first began. Digging into his cake with a hospital-issue spork, he asked me to read to him – Page Six and Rex Reed. Reading helped. I couldn’t believe he would really die, not if I kept bringing him food and reading him stories and combing his hair when it got long. But Randy changed his mind; no more reading, he wanted to talk. I cranked the back of his hospital bed up 45 degrees to allow him to sit.

“I need to talk to you,” he said, in a whisper. I moved to the edge of the bed and sat near his knee, leaning in to hear.

“I need to talk to you about the baby,” he said slowly. “Nothing is more important than her, now. No work. No role. No nothing.” He rubbed his eyes. “The important thing is, just love her. Give her what we didn’t have. No matter what, do you understand? Nothing matters more. And PS, those are fabulous earrings you’ve got on.”

“I get it, Randy. I do love her. I always will, I promise. And I’m glad you like the earrings.”

“I like you better,” he had said, grinning, his chapped lips taut, “but I like her best of all.”

Randy, whose talent and ambition once dwarfed that of mere mortals (like me), whose success came early and held him aloft for years, now boiled life down to its simplest essence: Love. Loyalty. Passion. Family.

Where was his mother then? His father? She hadn’t yet arrived. He, still locked in anger, kept delaying a visit. In lieu of blood family, then, my new-hatched family and I would have to do.

“Act III places, please, and quickly, please,” said the stage manager, tiredness pinching his professional tone. The company took their places on the stage floor. Up on the scaffolding, Paul (my paramour, in the world of the play) and I sat on the edges of opposite platforms, heels dangling, eyes telegraphing across the stage space. “Helen, can you please stand on your mark?” called the director. I stood, in my extremely ugly dress.

“Hit her with that light now,” said the director.

A second later, a blinding spotlight shone on me, dropping the balance of the stage into black. The light shone brilliant green, the very yellow-green of the ugly dress. In my moment of would-be romantic glory I looked completely chartreuse, an image of jaundice on heels.

“What the fuck is going on?” hollered the director. “Who fucking called for a green light?”

“I did,” said the lighting designer, “and I like it. It’s gritty, it’s street – I like it.”

“She looks like shit,” said the director. “She looks dead. And what is with that dress? Is that the costume or a housecoat?”

“That IS the costume, thank you,” hissed the costumier. “It’s totally period, and I love it. If she had a warmer light, she’d look fine.”

“The green light stays, it’s part of the concept.” The designer dug in. “If you had put her into something a little more flattering, we wouldn’t be wasting our time now bitching about a fucking dress!”

“Bitching! When I complain it’s bitching, when you complain it’s concept?” The costume designer strode down the center aisle, cigarette in hand, puffing in fury. “I put her in the dress because it’s a beautiful dress. If you had put her in a pink light, she’d be beautiful, too. But now she looks like hell – sorry, honey – and you’re pissed off about your precious green light.”

“Ten minutes! Break!” called the stage manager, eager to diffuse the conflict. No one left the stage. This was better than the play. It was ugly, it was petty, but boy oh boy, it was real.

I stood on the scaffold, still awash in acid green. The director walked out, but the designers kept going: they screamed, they cursed, they bickered, they fought.

Alone in my light, I wondered, what’s this all about? It’s only a play, only make-believe, a game we all agree to play to entertain the well-fed, well-groomed cognoscenti – those who can afford $75 a seat, who enjoy the smug satisfaction of seeing a novel staging of a classic work by a McCarthy-tarred American playwright. It’s all fake, I thought, as suddenly as the spotlight had turned its electric fire on me, all a sham. All pretend. I sat down again, dropping out of the hot orb of light, and looked around the theatre with cold eyes.

Did it matter, this argument? Did the play matter at all? Did the work have any meaning? Did making theatre count, was it real, or just another indulgence, another inward-staring, ego-driven occupation of the self-involved? Stop it, I told myself. Stop it now. This is your work, your world. Don’t question; just do. But I couldn’t stop the questions, couldn’t stanch the rushing doubt. Tired, feet sore, in an ugly dress and at the center of an awful, mean argument, I wanted nothing more than home. I imagined telling Randy all about the fight the next day. “Screw ‘em all,” he’d say. “If you don’t like what you’re doing, life’s too fucking short.”

The director came back and we ran Act III. My dress and my light stayed green. When we finally left the theatre, the sidewalks were slick with rain.

I called Randy’s room early the next morning. A man answered, broken-voiced. His English was perfect, American, uninflected. Not Silvio.

“Hello?” I asked, “Is Randy awake?” A heaving, wheezing noise pumped in the background. “Is this Randy Drake’s room?”

“Yes,” said the man, clearing a muffled throat. “Yes, this is Randy’s room. This is Randy’s father speaking.”

The sighing sound was loud; he raised his voice to be heard over its steady tempo.

“What’s that noise?” I asked. Some new machine hooked up to Randy’s bedside, I guessed, maybe another pump for the pain meds.

“That’s Randy,” his father said. “Hang on, please.” He blew his nose and choked back what sounded like a cough. “That’s Randy trying to breathe. He’s having himself a hard time.”

A rattle; a wheeze; a sigh; then the same pattern again, and again, rushing into the gaps in our conversation.

“He’s not awake,” said his dad. “He can’t come to the phone.”

Rattle, wheeze, sigh.

“That’s ok, Mr. Drake,” I said. “I’m glad you got to see him after all this time.”

“He waited for me,” he said. “His mother said he was just waiting for me.”

“I know,” I answered. “He was waiting for you for a long time.”

“He’s under. They don’t think he’s coming back up.”

Rattle, wheeze, sigh.

A sobbing sound, a sound I didn’t know, flooded my ear. The sound of a grown man at his son’s deathbed. Who can imagine such a sound?

Randy’s breathing, labored and rattling, kept on, a kind of metronome in our silence. It was, my gut knew, the death rattle, the last labors of Randy’s life. I didn’t know what to say, but I couldn’t hang up, either. We sat without speaking, hearing Randy breathe. Finally, I found some words.

“I guess I’ll come by in a couple of hours, sir, if that’s ok.” I was due at the theatre at 1 o’clock and would visit Randy on the way.

Rattle, wheeze, sigh.

“That’ll be fine, I guess,” he answered, coughing again, regaining control.

“Ok, then, I’ll see you in a little while.”

“Ok, then,” he answered, and we hung up.

Randy died at 10:20 AM. His father and mother were in the room with him, standing at the foot of his bed. To the end, Silvio washed Randy’s face with cool terry washcloths and fed him bits of chipped ice until it dribbled down his cheeks. By noon, his bed was stripped of its linens and remade in anticipation of its next occupant. Randy’s body would be cremated that Saturday.

Rehearsal went badly. The show opened, was a success, and eventually closed. All though the run, with good houses and great reviews, I was bored, restless, unhappy in my work. My heart wasn’t in it; my appetite for the spotlight, gone.

Randy’s death changed me; the petty bitchfest of making theatre a paltry game next to life’s real and bitter drama. My focus – the actor’s essential ability to block out the world and zoom in, tight and close, on my career, my ambition, my driving ego – was shot, splintered by the rising presence of the needs of others, outside me, in my life. A core balance had shifted: Work had always, always come first. Ten years in the business, four unions, dozens of plays, tours, all of it. See, it’s a tough business, and you have to be even tougher to succeed. I’d worked hard, more than most, by putting everything second to the work. Now, undeniably, life came first. Work became the means to live the life I had created, and not the meaning of life itself. This new knowledge left a big hole.

When the show closed, I was finished with pretending, done with make-believe. I left the theatre, my heart’s home for decades. I quit my first profession and began to look for another path.