Chapter 13/ 2008
Walking After Midnight.
As the buffed whitewall tires of the Armenian’s black Mercedes screech out of the parking garage, the Persian carpet under my feet melts into grass cooled by early morning dew, cozy dachas wink at me from the Hudson River Valley paintings, the wooden benches in their cherry orchards offering relief from the tightness in my back. The residents have all been given their pills on time. Blood pressures are normal. Sugars are within acceptable parameters. Oxygen is flowing. When he asked for it, I made sure the faggot friend had the correct spelling of my last name before he left for the night. The Armenian managed to put extra pills in almost every med cup I had prepared for the last med run of my shift. By the time her ruse is revealed, the damage had been done. Bringing the med books with me to explain to the residents which pill was which only made me look like the bumbling Ferapont, a half deaf old man trying desperately to answer the questions thrown at him. As if I was sitting spellbound before “The Seagull’s” shattered Nina, I can see what life has done to the residents I minister to. Having shattered their routines and rituals, I am the bad nurse. It takes weeks to repair that kind of damage. I will try to make it better.
Doesn’t every nurse say that as his ship is sucked into the Bermuda Triangle?
The med trays empty of their potions and washed down with rubbing alcohol, I have a minute to pee. Locked in a bathroom overwhelmed by lavender potpourri trapped in pink satin sachets, I squirt out what I have been holding in for the past seven hours. I think about pissing on the caregiver. Problem is, he would like it. He would like it a lot. I zip up the fly of my khakis and carefully tuck in my blue linen shirt. I could say I have been through worse. I have not. Not even my seven year stretch at San Francisco General Hospital comes close to this muggy evening amongst the fake paintings, the MIA co-workers, the plastic plants in plastic terra cotta pots hanging from the ceiling of every room by plastic chains, the withholding kitchen staff and the books, whose promising titles possess no pages in their guts.
I check on the actress. She is awake, lying languidly against the white lace covering her thick pillows, her yellow muumuu making her tiny body look like a mangled grapefruit.
“How’d your monologue go?” she asks.
The sound of saws biting into the trees in the Hudson River Valley paintings leaks through the walls from the hallway, its thudding anger seeping in through the door’s half open transom window: “He’s the unprofessional…THE WORST NURSE!”
The caregiver is going home. Call lights flash and buzz in the wake of his hip swinging waddle to the elevator.
“I’ll have the bad one fired!”
I have a half-hour left on duty. I look out into the hall. The buddies walk as slowly as they possibly can to answer the call lights. I do not say a word. I am the bad one. Even the faux Persian carpets know I am evil, I can feel it as I trip over their fringed borders.
“I was flying when I finished,” I say, shutting the actress’s door. “But, I can’t remember performing it.”
I sit in the lotus position on a leopard skin pillow at the foot of her bed.
“It was like I was on stage for a few seconds. The words came out of my mouth from another place, like someone…or something else…some other power was channeling through me.”
“I knew you didn’t belong here the moment I met you,” the actress says. “Your heart is beating. I can feel it.”
Having forgotten, accidently on purpose, to sign the Armenian out early, I punch myself out and return to the actress’s room. She talks until the streets become damp with middle of the night tears, her voice, deep and husky, pulling the tightness out of my muscles.
“You stand in front of your audience and lose the weight of your body. Use everything, my sweet boy, fuel your performance with your demons and fears. The only freedom we have is to plant our feet on the stage and make the connection. Take care of yourself…get out of this place. Our job is to walk into the mystery of the stage…serve it above anything else. It’s all people like us can do.”
The actress falls asleep without taking her nightly Vicodin. I kiss her forehead good-night, thinking she would make a luminous Arkadina to my heartfelt Konstantin.
I smile as I drive home, my solid black tires floating on the soft clouds of her voice.
If I open my heart, if I plant my feet in the right place and tell the truth, I can make it through any nightmare.
In an attempt to brush off the gut twisting charge of six hundred dollars for weight training DVDs I never ordered on my American Express bill, which hit my mailbox at approximately the same time the caretaker first spotted his prey, I stare at the week’s accumulation of unwashed dishes in what was, until a few months ago, a gleaming white porcelain sink, now stained with tea bags reused until their innards have disintegrated. I try to remember the provenance of the peanut butter crusted spoons marinating in glasses of brown water, cobalt blue plates pock-mocked with crumbs of hardened tofu and stainless steel pans shellacked with dried out rice, bits of celery and Persian cucumbers. Gut hangs over my boxers. I have nine dollars for the next two weeks’s groceries. My mission, should I choose to accept it, is to figure out where the three hundred and fifty dollars in minimum credit card payments will come from. I will read this week’s “New York Times” over the weekend. I say that every weekend. I say it whenever I pass my dining room table, piled to the point of sagging beneath unread books, “Interview,” “Vanity Fair” and “Entertainment Weekly” magazines and the “Calendar,” “Magazine” and “Book Review” sections of “The New York Times.” The heel of my right foot has become welded to a sticky section on the black and white linoleum of my kitchen floor. Guess I should break out the mop.
The clouds of the actress’s voice have floated away, hovering over a man luckier than I.
I have been home from work for an hour.
My neighbor glides his car into the parking space facing my kitchen window. Unlike the light I melted into onstage, the glare from his halogens tightens the muscles in my back, sending a cold numbness down my legs, where it finds safe harbor in my toes. I used to make the bed as soon as I got out of it, write out my morning pages to center myself for my writing day, proceeding on to do five hundred sit-ups, taking short breaks to put away my dried dishes. All of this accomplished by 9 AM, all now forgotten, like the ritual of drinking coffee and reading the morning paper, saving Maureen Dowd and Paul Krugman for last before taking an hour long walk in the Bronson caves.
I look at the film coating the glasses in my sink, my only coherent thought being that I can drive to the assisted living facility in under fifteen minutes.
I never want to go there again.
“I don’t know why you keep working in that place,” the straight boyfriend says the night before I am scheduled to go back on the road and get on with the show. “How do you put up with their BS?”
“It’s a job. I’ve got a New York work ethic.”
“It’s something different, guy. I don’t like what it does to you.”
“I just have to plant my feet there and make it through until September. I like the patients. By the time I learn to hate the teaching, I’ll be old enough to retire.”
“You’ll be a big time writer by then, with your famous blue raincoat and your smart glasses.”
I give him the undiscovered-writer-working-the-nurse-day-job Viagra fueled pounding.
As always, he feeds me from his limitless supply of blue diamonds.
Where two weeks before, I had seen waves of heat rise up from the sections of the floor not covered by Persian carpets, now icicles drip from the perforated ceiling tiles. The Prada boots I bought for ten bucks from a stubbly out of work actor at a garage sale walk quietly over the fake threads beneath their red striped soles. All eyes avoid mine. No one talks as I pass by, phones ring without being answered, my punch card is missing from the dented green metal rack in the nurse’s station.
“Why didn’t you come into work yesterday?” the Nursing Supervisor spits out in her braying Southern drawl.
“I wasn’t scheduled to.”
“You were scheduled to be here. You’re a no call, no show. That’s grounds for termination.”
The cook who charged me a buck for the OJ enters the supervisor’s office.
“I was hired to work every other weekend. Why would I be here on a Friday?”
No whining from the fuchsia lips before me. The cook stares at me.
“Is there some reason he’s here?” I ask.
“Whenever a manager disciplines an employee, our policy states that another manager be present.”
“That’s rich,” I say. “Let’s hope no one needs any orange juice.”
“That’s what nobody likes about you, your mouth. I have letters here from three residents, all complaining about you.”
She hands me the letters. I am unprofessional. I am arrogant. I mixed up the residents’ pills.
“Strange,” I say. “Odd actually, that a person who’s had a stroke can be so articulate. And shocker, all three say exactly…I mean word for word, the same thing.”
“Do you deny any of it?”
“I’m not saying anything. I already know what’s happening to me.”
“Will you sign these papers?”
She pushes papers across her desk at me.
“Will you look at them?”
“We can’t have someone like you working with our clients. We’re a high-end facility. This is nursing for the rich.”
“I didn’t go to that nursing school. I went to the one where you checked on a patient after she fell. Minus the suggestion of an ulterior motive. The school where you’re taught to prioritize and take care of the sickest patient first.”
“You need to get your priorities straight.”
“You mean when all these crises are erupting and the staff, including this bozo, mysteriously disappears, you want me to cater to the least acute patient? You think it’s appropriate for a caregiver to strut down the hall screaming so all the residents can hear…hear about how awful their charge nurse is?”
The supervisor smiles.
“You’re smiling because you know I’m speaking the truth,” I tell her.
“Do you have anything else to say?”
“A cynical person could say that you want me out of here because you suggested I…what was it you said? Right…yeah, that I get on top of one of the female patients?”
The cook cracks up.
The supervisor’s shaking hands push my final check at me. Her nails are painted pink, they glitter with the fierceness of the diamond ring on her finger. The cook’s dead eyes look like they are ready to deck me. Maybe he has been on top of her. I bet he liked it.
“A cynical handsome person could say that,” I say to the two as I open the door. “But, I’m about making the connection.”
I walk past the Armenian on my way out.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “I liked working with you.”
I give her the look, the few seconds too long stare which for years has told nurses like her that one more word out of her red lips and I will not only slash her tires, but pour sugar into her gas tank.
New Yorkers are like that.
In the lobby, the residents sit in a circle for Karaoke Saturday. With a heavy Filipino accent and the worst enunciation this side of the pre-Oscar Penélope Cruz, the caregiver is singing “Feelings.” Apparently, we all possess the need to make the connection. The caregiver tears up as he launches into his final crescendo. As if my stomach was burping out the trapped gas of cheese laden lasagna, I let out a big, deep, cleverest, best joke I have ever heard laugh. The room follows my lead, breaking out in laughter so pants wetting and heartfelt one would think the residents are at a matinee of Neil Simon’s “The Good Doctor.” The eyes of the actress, who won a Tony for singing in a Broadway musical, dance with kinship as smiles and blows me a kiss.
I enter the elevator to the parking garage, tipping my imaginary hat to the actress and shooting a quick wink at the caregiver.
Given the heave-ho from my truck and bus tour, I am a lucky man once again.
Like a good Chekhov heroine, I spend the first twenty-four hours after getting the boot reclining on the jet black velvet of my couch, TCM hypnotizing me with Barbara Stanwyck and Greta Garbo movies. I do not understand any of it. When Stanwyck goes off and gets tough, people listen. When I do it, I am shown the door.
The boyfriend switches the channel from “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” to the Democratic Convention.
Obama chants: “Enough. Enough.”
It is enough, for all of us. Even the kid and the karaoke caregiver must be feeling the burn of the last eight years.
The crowd in Invesco Field screams out the Triumph of the Democratic Party’s will.
“He’s a charismatic jerk,” the boyfriend says. “Wait till they discover the man behind the curtain.”
Having grown up in an Evangelical family, I should believe my blue eyed, square jawed boyfriend, but I do not catch on to his logic. I get it a few months after the election.
In the morning, the boyfriend and I lie next to each other, floating in a silence so deep and endless I am sure no one else is in my building or even on my street. In the drawn blinds blue of my bedroom, the boyfriend’s head sinks into a pillow, mine resting on his thigh. He is in trouble, big time, major trouble. The boyfriend funds his product placement business at high-end parties on lines of credit, his profit being the difference between the money spent up front and the money paid to him when the party is over. Within the last month, all of his lines of credit have been cut off, the limits on his personal credit cards topped off to the nearest thousand dollars.
“I have twenty credit cards,” I tell him. “You can use them to cover a job or two.” “Twenty credit cards, guy?”
“When AIDS happened, I applied for as many as I could, in case I got it and needed money to live on. I figured I’d be dead before the first payment came due.”
“No way would I risk that,” he says. “I’d end up doing a party and the client would bail on me.”
He laughs and squeezes my earlobe. For a moment, I can feel the air on my skin.
The clouds of the first twenty-four hours have passed, the glow of the boyfriend’s skin has left to hunt up work. I have never been fired before, never been pummeled by such hostility at a job. I can not get off the couch. I jerk off and sleep for a day or two, until American Express gets me moving at three in the morning, when I find myself walking the length of Franklin Avenue from Beachwood Drive to Western Avenue. I can only assume I am walking after midnight because I do not want anyone to see me. I do know that, while my skin can not feel the air, I do not worry about what I can feel, the stinging needles in my fingertips or the constant churning in my gut. The demons I was to use to fuel my performances and writing slither about in my brain like worms, the roughness of their tongues licking the insides of my skull, each sandpaper like stroke telling me that a lucky guy like myself deserves every bad break he gets.
After my walk, I hit the couch and call American Express to dispute the weight training DVDs charge.
“If you look at what I’d been charging for the past year, it’s only cat food and groceries. I would never buy anything like this.”
“Are you sure you didn’t purchase these DVDs?”
“I’ve stopped charging anything to my cards months ago.”
“Except for your ‘New York Times’ subscription. Mr. Epstine, you are in fact charging on your card.”
“Don’t do this to me….you’ve got to remove this charge. I can’t…I can’t…”
“I sympathize with your obvious frustration. We’ll start an investigation into this charge. You’ll hear from us in six to eight weeks.”
The next week, the credit limits on the three cards I have balances on are topped off to the nearest thousand dollars. As well they should be. Not only did I once live on what I made, I had a savings account. The worms speak the truth: even if I made that type of scratch now, the job would fall apart in a few months, if not after a week or two.
All I can afford is one meal a day. I will not be hungry once my stomach shrinks. To kill the hunger pains, I tap three drops of peppermint essential oil on to my tongue. Maybe a smaller stomach will stop the churning and twisting in my gut.
Gold’s Gym in Hollywood is at its least crowded after 10 PM, which is the time I choose to go, knowing, as all lucky men do, there will be a lower percentage of successful and preternaturally muscled gay men to work out amongst, men who will ignore a man whose water bottle is perennially half empty. My fingers wrapped around the vertical rubber handles above my head, my feet sink down on a bar affixed to eighty pounds of black rectangular weights as I do fifty pull-ups on my favorite machine. In that moment, I am weightless and free, the iron below my feet pushing me up to fly, the blood pumping through my veins no longer caring who sees me walk home to save on gas. Not the least bit winded, I rest before doing another fifty.
My balls pulse with slivers of pain. Of course, that has returned.
Plan A is to teach in September. Plan B is to sleep, but the boyfriend will not let me. He comes by at nine in the morning, opening windows and pulling back curtains, the round muscles of his biceps making the drawn blinds blue disappear.
“At least take a walk before it’s dark out,” he says, as his thin fingers mute Garbo.
“I don’t get what you see in her.”
Me either anymore. A lucky woman, Garbo is a sleepwalker who the world can never quite reach. The unrelenting fingers of the same Los Angeles light Garbo walked and lived in scratch against my skin as the worms hammer into my skull, the sockets cradling my eyeballs screaming for respite.
“Do you think there’s something wrong with me?” I ask the boyfriend.
He draws open the living room curtains, the light illuminating the dust floating in the air. What a joke. I will never feel the air on my skin again. I am afraid to ask the boyfriend if he still can.
“Do you think I’m too in your face?” I ask. “Do you think my mouth gets me in trouble?”
“What is all this? I love your mouth.”
He laughs. I lick my lips. Our mouths have been good to each other. Very good.
“You’re your own man. You write what’s real. Guy, you wail on stage.”
I look at his clean shaven face, his pores appear to have tightened. We have both stopped buying Bobbi Brown astringent,replacing it with witch hazel from the 99¢ Only Store at the bargain price of two bottles for ninety-nine cents.
“You’ve worked parties for me. You’re the only guy I trust not to lose it in totally stressful situations. You’re fine.”
He appears to be telling the truth.
“I could’ve been nicer at work…more agreeable, more politic.”
“You were too civilized for what went on there. Ge’ez guy, for all intents and purposes, you were working in a third world country. You’ve been doing your insurance job for two years. They love you. Look at how much work they give you.”
I close my eyes.
“You can’t keep putting yourself in these arenas,” he says. “It’s like those old nightshirts you keep sewing together. Can’t you see they’re torn to shreds?”
Sleep will calm my gut, silence my balls, relax the sockets of my eyes, maybe kill the worms. Up since dawn, the boyfriend has already hiked the Bronson caves. He takes a shower while I measure out two cups of coffee from the on sale at $2.99 can of Café Bustelo. I watch his Adam’s apple bob up and down as he drinks his black joe. My lips want to lick the thick blue veins on the top of his bare wet feet as he stretches them out on my grey 30s Sears carpet. This man has seen me on stage and liked me, listened to my stories and wanted to hear more. He puts his cup down and holds his arms out for me.
Unlucky man, he can not see who I am behind the curtain.