It was Saturday, December 15, and I awoke from my second night in my basement “lair”, as my mom was now jokingly calling it. My clock-radio had been tuned to the Rock radio station WABX last night and the music popped on. As I was wrestling myself into consciousness I heard that great lyric from the “Karn Evil 9” song on the new Emerson, Lake and Palmer album…
Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends
We’re so glad you could attend, come inside, come inside
My mind pondered the lyrics. The “show that never ends” indeed, or Shakespeare’s take that “all the world’s a stage”. Life seen as a performance, a grand drama and comedy, with each of us playing a character, perhaps multiple characters, in an endless array of stories all woven into or conflicting with each other. Maybe I shouldn’t be so timid, so reticent, to play my character, because my character facilitated other people playing theirs. On stage, I could hide behind my character, not have to take responsibility for its excesses or even outrageous actions. In real life, I had to play myself, and take full responsibility for everything my “character” did.
I had spent yesterday afternoon and evening with Avi, Jerry and Clark in Avi’s basement family room. We had combined our four sets of Avalon Hill’s Panzerblitz game together and tried to play a “blind” scenario. Each side, German and Russian, had their own version of the same battle map board where they deployed and moved their forces, with a screen hiding the other side’s forces from view. Avi was the “judge”, who was not on either side but saw both sides’ forces. He decided which of the enemy units each side could see based on terrain and line of sight, and would place any enemy units he judged visible by your side onto your map. It had been Jerry and I as Russians attacking from two sides Clark’s central position as the Germans on a set of wooded ridges, essentially two of the game’s ridge board adjacent to each other.
Come inside, the show’s about to start
Guaranteed to blow your head apart
Rest assured you’ll get your money’s worth
Greatest show in Heaven, Hell or Earth
We had gotten high of course, more of Clark’s great stash of Mexican “Acapulco Gold” weed, light brown in color rather than the typical green, half a joint of which I still had squirreled away in one of my dresser drawers in my “lair”. With the THC juicing our brains, the little shiny cardboard squares representing armored vehicles, infantry and artillery, deployed on the colorful terrain maps, had been visually intoxicating. I hadn’t gotten home until about three in the morning, and not fallen asleep until after four, so thus the struggle now getting fully conscious.
Soon the Gypsy Queen in a glaze of vaseline
Will perform on guillotine, what a scene, what a scene
Even my fantastical imagination struggled with what that “scene” might look like, though I figured it was more clever rhyming scheme than thought out imagery. Bet whoever wrote that lyric was pretty stoned on some serious drugs!
I flipped my clock-radio’s switch from FM to AM, to catch the news at the top of the hour on WJR. Not much in the headlines, just more stories about Gerald Ford who had just been approved overwhelmingly by Congress as the new U.S. Vice President, replacing the resigned Spiro Agnew. More speculation that if Nixon somehow resigned or was forced from office, Ford could be the first unelected President. Watergate, talk about a show that never ends!
Finally orienting to the here and now, I remembered that I had made a plan to meet Lane and Angie at Angie’s house, which was just around the block from mine. I ascended the two flights of stairs to the bathroom for a quick bath, though I did not wash my hair, and then had my new favorite Kellogg’s Concentrate for breakfast.
Yesterday I had finally unloaded my pack. Each item I pulled out had memories attached to it. The orange poncho that I wore every day during my three days in rainy Amsterdam with Butch, Burton and Gwendolyn. My down jacket, that stuffed into its tiny bag, that was now stained from Coke I spilled on it in the train station in Bern Switzerland, and a paler orange than when I got it new from REI back in August. The metal knife, spoon and fork from World War II that my dad had given to me that I used to eat yogurt for the first time, and cut any number of slices of hunks of hard cheese or salami. The Christmas presents I got for my mom and dad, leather gloves for my mom and the decantar for my dad, both looking pretty underwhelming now.
Each article of clothing, that had gotten so much use as one of only three changes of clothes that I had. The paisley dress shirt that I was wearing on the train to Venice when sexy older woman Sophia flirted with me. The plaid flannel shirt that always felt most comfortable against my skin, that was now fraying on the collar. The blue denim work shirt, which had a couple of small holes in the elbows. The dressier flared gray corduroy slacks that looked particularly good with my paisley shirt. My favorite blue bell-bottom jeans that represented the wannabe hippie in me and looked so good in my two-inch heels. My one plain white t-shirt. My red “Rutgers People’s Electric Law School” t-shirt my YTU friend Saul had given me, that now had a frayed collar and a couple small holes in the seams. My dark blue “Michigan” t-shirt with yellow letters. Three pairs of white briefs that all looked pretty shabby. One pair of white cotton sox. One of thick gray wool sox. And a pair of dressier dark gray cotton socks that I liked to wear with my heels, that had a hole in the toe now.
My mom had washed everything yesterday, except for my down jacket, and walked me through the laundry process again, with the understanding that I would wash my own clothes going forward. We were playing it as two adults now, living in the same household, and I was totally onboard with that. My mom gratefully spared me making it explicit, but I knew that if I was going to smoke weed in the basement and come home well after midnight, I better do my own fucking laundry at the least, and move toward finding myself a job and contributing to the household financially.
So today I wore my newly washed bell-bottom jeans and new Heineken t-shirt, emblematic, at least to me, of my emerging new “Coopster” persona. Yeah it was cold outside, but I recalled Monika in her braless t-shirts and open jacket in cold snowy Grindelwald. I already had had my personal sexual fantasy down in my “lair” starring her. I put on my regular dark green winter jacket, which had been too heavy and bulky to take on my backpacking trip. My mom had shown me yesterday how to clean the suede leather on my two-inch heels with dish liquid suds and a toothbrush. Thus rejuvenated, I stood atop the things once again. I had the other Heineken t-shirt I had brought home for Angie nicely folded, still starchy and brand new, to give to her.
I was looking forward to seeing the two of them, but also felt some trepidation. Though perhaps not quite as close to me as Jerry, Avi and Clark, they were my two best female peer friends. They were also each other’s best friend, which was part of what attracted me to them. I was becoming increasingly comfortable in the world of women, their worldview, their struggles, and the best of their relationships with each other, particularly those based on camaraderie rather than competition. I was perfectly happy being a “third wheel” of sorts to a pair of female buddies like that, mostly checking my gender at the door and enjoying the kind of space they created between them.
That is not to say that both Angie and Lane were not awesome on their own. They were both short and feisty, smart and funny, and as actors each could easily steal a scene on stage. But together, there was a kind of synergy between them that I just totally dug. They were like sisters, while at the same time a comedy duo like the Smothers Brothers, except each could take turns playing the mischievous Tommy or the straight man Dick. And underneath it all they were not ego involved, cared deeply for one another, and always admirably seemed to have the other’s back. I had been so impressed by the quality of their relationship, I think I modeled it in my own friendships with Jerry, Avi and Clark.
I had known the two of them since I first got involved in the Youth Theater Unlimited theater group in the fall of my junior year of high school three years ago. And over that timespan had had crushes on each of them at times. Lane had had one for me at one point a couple years ago, when we had been alone at her house one night and she kissed me and indicated an intention to see where that would lead. She was one of only two young women I had kissed romantically on the lips. I had kissed several other of my female peers on the lips, but that was on stage playing characters in a play. Certainly not any less enjoyable as such. In fact, in one of the stage kisses, my YTU comrade Claire, playing a young woman who was trying to steal my character from his girlfriend, and had a crush on me herself, slid her tongue into my mouth. Though I got the message, I unfortunately did not respond to her attentions, which I imagine was frustrating for her. I had a crush on someone else, Natasha, which never went anywhere. Ah me, always wanting someone else, never taking Stephen Stills’ advice to “love the one you’re with”, though I’m sure that line was aimed at a woman that he wanted to have sex with in the moment.
Lane’s kiss probably would have led to something more, but I got timid and scared and bailed, riding home from her house in the middle of the night on my bicycle, regretting my retreat ever since. If she had just been willing to try me one more time, I probably would have overcome my fears and maybe gone for it. But men were conventionally supposed to make the romantic moves anyway, so expecting her to try again was unrealistic. We never really talked about that night afterwards, Lane figuring I guess that we should just be good friends.
It had been Lane’s idea originally to backpack through Europe with her friend, but Angie had been immediately on board with the project. Hearing their plan, and loving the thought of experiencing such an adventure with the two of them as their male sidekick, if nothing else, I had asked if I could join them. They said yes. Now whether they would have been uncomfortable saying no to me, I don’t know. Again, I was too timid to ask emotionally honest questions like that. As fate would have it, a couple months later Lane dropped out of the proposed journey, some sort of family issue I recall.
So then it was just Angie and me, a very different dynamic between travel companions. We were just friends, and not a romantic couple. Still there was that male-female “what if?”, and certainly assumptions from others we’d meet in our travels that we were a couple, and due to shared closeness over a long period of time, maybe the opportunity or pressure, depending on how your framed it, to try being more of a romantic couple. When I had heard that Lane dropped out and Angie was still willing to go, I had fantasized that maybe the trip would kindle something between us. After blowing it with Lane, maybe there was a second chance with her best friend. But no pressure, right?
So it was just Angie and me that were driven to Metro airport outside Detroit by her mom, and boarded the BOAC flight to London. And after a week on the road in England, she had decided to return to the States and not continue. So the adventure Lane had originally conceived with Angie had become my odyssey alone. And now I was going to see the two of them for the first time since my return from my eleven week journey around Europe. As I started the three minute walk from my house to Angie’s, carrying her Heineken t-shirt and wearing mine under my jacket, I wondered if they would have any feelings that I had somehow horned in on and “stolen” their adventure.
I walked toward Angie’s house across the street from a chilly Burns Park, though kids were still playing basketball on the small outdoor court, their breath visible in the cold morning air. It occurred to me that I had the t-shirt for Angie but nothing for Lane. My mind struggled with how to frame this in case Lane was disappointed somehow. I recalled a prior Christmas when I had gotten Angie a fortyfive of Seals and Crofts “Summer Breeze” as a present, since I knew she loved the song. As an afterthought I had gotten Lane a fortyfive of Helen Reddy’s “I am Woman”. Angie had loved her present, and Lane had loved it too. But Lane had been obviously disappointed at hers, sensing either less thought involved, or my not being tuned in to her sensibility. It was just a little thing, but Lane had her heart on her sleeve much of the time. Back to the t-shirt, Angie had been my travel partner after all and not Lane, but still. I thought maybe I was overthinking things and Lane would probably be fine with it, and I was probably making a big deal about nothing! But what if she did in fact feel slighted again?
I finally stopped in my tracks on the sidewalk in sight of Angie’s house. I wanted to reconnect with my two friends, not jeopardize anything between us. It occured to me that maybe I should take the thing home and give it to Angie another time. I thought about maybe giving Lane the one I was wearing, but it was way too big for her, while Angie’s was smaller than mine so I thought it would fit her. I finally decided to walk quickly home, leave the shirt there, and return.
Six minutes later, relieved, without the other shirt, I rang Angie’s doorbell and her mom answered the door, her gray blue eyes twinkling like her daughter’s. She was short like Angie, and a character like her as well. Her light brown hair was shorter than mine, but thicker and more wiry.
“There you are Cooper. Welcome back to the U.S. of A! You look taller somehow.”
I chuckled. “It’s the hair and the heels”, one hand pointing up at my big teased out mane of hair, and the other pointing down, plus lifting my foot to show my shoe.
I could see behind her eyes her processing all that, but saying nothing. And then finally, very theatrically with a big hand gesture, “Angie and Lane await you.”
I could also see that the two of them had been sitting on the couch in the back of the living room and were now standing up looking in my direction. Though they both were smiling there was a little more tension in Angie’s face. Angie addressed me.
“Hey there you! Mister traveler. Nice t-shirt!”
I moved toward her with my hands out to give her a hug, like I had gotten used to doing with some of my closer female comrades in Europe, when we parted company for the last time. Realizing my intention, I could see her face relax a little and she responded in kind. It felt good to have our arms wrapped around each other and bodies pressed together.
“Ah…”, Lane cooed watching Angie and I hug. “Shucks!”
Disengaging from the hug, Angie put her hands on my shoulders and took a step back as if she was a doctor examining my face, or a coach checking my stance.
“You did it. No thanks to me.”
Before thinking, my first response was to nod. It immediately hit me that I did not want her to think it was no thanks to her. I struggled for the right words.
“I… It was an amazing experience. But I don’t think I could ever have gotten on that plane to London by myself.”
“I took the grasshopper to London and told him to jump” said Angie, imitating the voice of the Master Po character from the Kung Fu TV show. “Jump grasshopper, jump!” She gestured with her hands in front of her.
“My plan… my plan!”, Lane chimed in, waving an index finger in the air in front of her as if to make a point, mugging and batting her eyelashes and looking up at the ceiling.
Part of me wanted to say to the two of them, “I’m sorry I stole your trip!”, but I got shy and didn’t. What I did do was give Lane a big hug, and enjoyed her squeezing me back with her feisty gusto.
Lane disengaged, putting her hands on her hips, elbows out.
“Well shoot”, she said, doing her best Jed Clampett imitation, “You’re a sight for sore eyes. Set a spell. Take your shoes off!”
Now me hamming it up, I took a deep breath, puffed out my cheeks, and exhaled noisily with eyes bulging, teetering on my heels, turning and collapsing into the center of the couch. Angie descended similarly to my right and Lane to my left, three peas as it were. Lane then pantomimed pulling down imaginary glasses to gaze at me from above them, and broke into a sort of Sam Dash at the Watergate hearings thing.
“And so Mister Zale, can you recount the events of those ten weeks after you left the alleged Miss Westin in London?”
Angie, playing along, did her own Southern Senator accent.
“Alleged indeed”, that directed at Lane, and then at me, “You are under oath sir!”
“Gulp”, I said loudly.
“Cut”, Lane called out, waving her hands at some imaginary camera like she was the director. “You don’t say ‘gulp’. You gulp!”
Angie and I laughed. I did my best to noisily gulp.
Lane wrinkled her nose, making a “so so” gesture with her hand. Angie chimed in, “We’ll fix it in post production!”
Ice broken and connections reestablished, I spent the next two hours telling my tale again, an ever evolving version of what I told to my mom and Mary Jane, and then to Jerry, Avi and Clark. I was totally unintoxicated so I was not egged by weed or alcohol to go into the racier moments. Like Steve asking if he could climb in bed with me. Trix’s great verbal recovery after inadvertently flashing her boobs while pulling off her sweater. Older woman Sophia’s sexy flirting on the train to Venice including her tale of losing her virginity. Sarah and Jen’s passionate kiss in the Venice hostel. Monika’s awesome butt, braless boobs and general male hormone juicing physique. Or Gwendolyn’s smoldering stoner sensuality. But besides rattling off the travelogue of places and sights I had seen, I did try to create portraits of the bigger all the bigger than life characters I had encountered along the way, female and male.
They liked all my verbal portraits, being theater people accustomed to embracing and performing other characters on stage. Several of those portraits particularly caught their collective fancy. They loved my tale of socially awkward, culturally insensitive, but cluelessly courageous Miranda. How she defied conventional wisdom that women should not travel alone, and hitchhiked or took trains by herself from New Zealand, across Australia, Indonesia, Burma, Red China, the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe to reach Western Europe where I met her in West Germany. Her trip included the longest train trip in the world, riding the entire length of the Trans Siberian Railway, from Vladivostok on the Pacific to Moscow. How she asked for “Pommes Frites” with the most butchered French you could possibly imagine. To add a dimension to Miranda’s character for my audience of fellow thespians, I even shared with them the scene where Miranda hit on me in the restaurant in Cochem Germany, along the Rhine river, an advance that I declined. Though I hadn’t shared other sexual stuff, I felt her proposition was an important aspect to do justice to her courage and clueless pluck.
Lane burst out in laughter. “She hit on you? Good for her!”
That last comment caught me by surprise, and I pondered if she might be referring back to the night she had hit on me herself, but I did not pursue it.
They also loved Monika and her almost stepsister Ragna in Grindelwald. Monika with her alpha charisma and statuesque Swedish movie star looks, plus the funny way she said the word “guys” more like “gice”. The story of her celebrity artist mom dying of cancer and her widowed dad shacking up with Ragna’s mom who had divorced Ragna’s dad. Then nerdy Ragna with her black plastic Clark Kent glasses, deadpan delivery and dry wit, plus her whole card playing croupier persona, referring to me and my other male comrades as “gentlemen”.
They liked the character of Butch in Amsterdam, with his self-deprecating flamboyance, and intellectual and political consciousness. Getting me stoned on his hash, buying us candy bars when we got the inevitable stoner munchies, and eloquently with mock obsequiousness making the critique of white privilege. They laughed at his referring to me as the “Manster Coopenstein” with the “low spark” of my two-inch heeled shoes. And they howled at my blow by blow account of booking my plane ride at the BOAC office, stoned out of mind, and with the officious young female clerk with the natty uniform and perfectly painted fingernails. Gwendolyn parrying with the “nice hair” line.
And finally of course, bigger than life, extroverted Aussie Jen and her comrade and “handler” Sarah, and how Jen coined my “Coopster” nickname, which got propagated to others in my backpacker cohort that I met when Trix invited me to join their compartment of fellow female backpackers on the train to “Firenze”, aka Florence.
“Coopster definitely suits you”, Angie chimed in, her own gray blue eyes twinkling, “It captures that flashy side of you that you show off when you are on stage.”
“Strutting Peabody”, Lane chimed in, recalling the character I played in last summer’s YTU musical, The Flahooley Incident, before Angie and I flew off to Europe. Lane actually got up from her perch on the couch to imitate me playing my character walking out on stage in the opening moment of the show, snapping my clapboard to start the take. I had never had the experience of seeing someone trying to imitate me, and particularly Lane, the consummate actor that she was. I was taken by her impromptu portrayal of me. I could see the swagger, strutting in my heels. It was a swagger that in real life, shy timid me had been mostly afraid to strut. But on stage, if the character demanded it, I gave myself permission to do so with all the attitude I could muster.
Once I was done telling and embellishing on my tale, Angie launched into her own, of her journeys in England after we parted company. She had stayed at that little hotel in London, where we had spent our last night together, for another four days. She had toured the city, hitting the tourist spots like Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Hyde Park, the Tate Museum, and the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. Her parents finally arrived for their previously planned trip around England. Angie joined them and they had toured the British Isles, from Cornwall in the southwest to Scotland in the north. She had gotten to see Loch Ness, though no appearance by Nessie, a place that had always intrigued me but I had never gotten to the summer I spent with my mom and brother in England.
Hers was not like my odyssey backpacking through Western Europe mainly on my own, or the different version of that oddyssey we might have had together. Other than those first four days alone in London, hers was with her parents, staying in hotels and visiting family friends. Still, she spoke of her experience fondly, and I was glad to hear that.
I pondered again how different my own trip might have been if Angie and I had done it together. I could only imagine that it would have felt much less like a lonely ordeal than it did at times. But then, traveling with a partner and being shy, I would probably have been much less likely to reach out and get to know so many of those intriguing fellow backpackers about whom I had just regaled my two theater buddies. My relationship with Angie would have presumably deepened, maybe even adding that romantic component. It was all just speculation, a road not taken.
Lane seemed antsy. She always seemed to run at a faster RPM than most of the rest of us. The characters she played on stage always exuded that energy and charisma that she had. She had mostly been listening to Angie and I and our travelogues, though doing plenty of laughing and pithy comments. Currently sprawled again to my left on the couch, she noisily cleared her throat to get our attention.
“So while you two were off touring the trodden paths of the Old Country”, followed by a full-fledged faux yawn, “I was embarked on a series of REAL adventures!” She delivered the line in her best breathlessness. “I walked to the Frieze building, EVERY MORNING. I journeyed into the depths of the UGLI and trod the broad hallways of the LS&A building.” Then ramping up her lampoony schtick, including flinging her arms around, “Oh my god, then I went on an odyssey to the far away village of Dexter”, which was the little town outside Ann Arbor where her parents had moved to and owned a graphic design and printing business.
“I feel like I’ve seen the whole fucking world!” She flung her arms wide with her feet in the air banging down onto the coffee table next to the couch so her petite frame was now spreadeagle across the two pieces of furniture. Lane never worried about being feminine or ladylike, unless she was playing a character on stage that required such trappings. I always admired that about her. She was just herself, Lane, gender shmender.
Waiting several beats for our appreciative giggles to subside. Lane continued to hold the floor.
“Anyhoo…” She looked up at the ceiling and I could see in her eyes her sharp mind crunching away.
Then continuing, “I was wondering if you two fabulous human beings want to join me in crashing the Cinderella rehearsal at Pioneer? Watch Sadie and Max do kissy face in the second act?”
Who could say no to that?