“Writing on the Breath”

This last week, the news has been full of tragic events which have garnered much of our attention, and continue to evoke many potential responses from me that might end up here.  But today,  I am posting the first  few pages of a short story. 

It may be challenging to commit to piece of fiction online, what with the all the options flying around our screens and atop our bedside tables.   But you have already shown your curiosity by reading my blog right now—I am grateful, and hope to hear from you. My main question is always the same:  does it hold your attention?

I queried a few publishers with this material and have not yet received a green light, so I’m sticking with my time commitment of getting it “out there” by November 2018.  Hopefully, it will find an additional home, but in the meantime, I’m taking the bull by the horns, like I always do, and doing it myself.

Writing on the Breath — part One

by Rachel LePell

November 2018

Gone for 30 years.

He died of AIDS in November, 1988.

He was 35.

He died an unknown, unrecognized man, save for a handful of friends, who gathered in Golden Gate Park, stood in a circle, and shared a few anecdotes. He had no boyfriend at the time of his death.   The sad truth is that I cannot even recall one name of even one of those persons who came to the park that day;   I had met one or two of these men, but only in the last weeks of his life, as we passed in the halls of Mount Zion during visiting hours.  I never knew their last names, and now I am completely lost to ever finding them.  Sigh.

I was not a member of his small cadre of buddies, lovers and pals, all youngish men in their 30s, most of whom knew each other in social circles.  I was not part of this cadre.  I was a straight woman, fresh to motherhood just a few weeks before his death, living a much less wild and daring life than theirs. In fact, my life was conventional, perhaps even boring to those around him. I wore pink maternity smocks, I cooked spaghetti and purchased baby blankets at Target during the last year of our relationship.

None of his biological family was in attendance. He had long been estranged from his family;  his homosexuality was too much to bear for his traditional family in Indiana in the 1970s;  like thousands of other young men, he had fled to San Francisco so he could live his truth. All contact with his immediately family had been cut. This was a familiar narrative during those years. When he died, there was no obituary, no announcement, no public tribute to his life, his work, his impact on the world.   No, he was not tossed into a ditch with a shroud wrapped around him, another statistic in a battle-worn location.    But he died a small death.  Is there really such a thing?

Now it’s time to tell our story.  Why did it take me 30 years to do this?

His name:  Jim Jordan.

I have named every computer I have owned since 1988, “JJ” in his honor.

__

In 1984,  I lived in Oakland, in a old, lovely, one-bedroom apartment on Ivy Drive with my boyfriend, Michael (not his real name).  The apartment was part of a small complex, and sat up away from the road, atop a steep hillside that was covered in Ivy, hence the name, I figured. A steep, dark brick stairway led from the street up to the residences; our mailboxes at the foot of the stairs.  That’s where I met Jim Jordan. At the mailboxes.  We fiddled with our worn-out mailbox keys, while we complained about the unstable little locks.  We were neighbors.

He lived in one of the studios about 75 feet away from my place.  Our apartments had beautiful corner windows, were shrouded by heavy foliage, and seemed a bit sequestered from the urban noise surrounding the neighborhood.  They were beautiful apartments really.  Modestly priced, glimmering wood floors, deco tile in the old kitchens.  I set up house in my place, decorating it with plants and old scrounged furniture, a stocked kitchen, complete with cupcake tins.  Jim’s kitchen was virtually empty.  His studio space littered with clothes, scattered worn books, papers, a stained loveseat.  He had a small desk that faced the front window.  On his desk, a typewriter.

We met on the brick stairs by the mailboxes.  He was dressed in Levis, a plaid, flannel shirt, work boots.  His brown hair floppy on his head, and moustache.  Very 70s.  A “mountain man” — one that I was quite familiar with, having had boyfriends of the same ilk.  Ooh, maybe he’d be another one?

Small talk:  “Oh, I wish these keys worked better.”  “Yeah, I had to get a new one.”  “So… what do you do, as in…a job or something?”  “I work in a print shop.  You?”  Oh, I…well I… yeah, I’m a waitress.  But actually, I’m…well, I’m…I’m a director.  For theater.  Actually. I’m currently doing some work for the Bay Area Playwrights’ Festival, working with Tony Taccone.”  “Oh.” In 1984, I always felt compelled to announce things like this.  I guess I was primarily driven by pure ego; I didn’t want people to think I was just a waitress. Not even strangers.  I wanted to wear a permanent sign around my neck:  “smart, talented, ambitious, trailblazer in the theater.”  I had already made a living for a few years as a theater artist, a staff director in fact, and hey, didn’t I graduate with highest honors from a top university?  I couldn’t bear anyone thinking I was just a waitress.

Oh oh oh, youth.  So important to announce these things to the world.  It’s embarrassing now; why couldn’t I be more at peace back then?  Why did I have to wait for decades, and maybe I’m still unsettled of course, but at least my need for advertising myself has lessened.  Sigh.
“Oh.  I have a play I’ve written.”

“Wow…”  I think, what’s a printer doing writing plays?

“Where did you study?  What university?”

“I didn’t….I didn’t go.   Well, I went for a year. I’m from Indiana.  I dropped out.”

“oh.” I think, what’s a printer slash college drop out slash guy from Indiana doing writing plays?

“Would you read it?  I can leave it here by your mailbox. “

“Well…uh… “

Oh god, I think, why is he asking me this?  I don’t want to read some damn play written by some mountain man printer neighbor I just met.  Can’t he see that I’m a serious artist?  I’m not available to read schlock from someone who has no theater connections.  Jeez… this I like being at a party and hearing that common response: “I was in a play once.  It was fun.  You must have fun at that.  I was in Peter Pan, I played the…”  Oh God, spare me…and why do people so often say “oh that must be fun?”  This is serious business,  this theater work.  It’s serious art. I’m a serious artist, okay?

“Sure. Okay.”

That was that.

I didn’t see any play dropped off by my mailbox.  I went about my business. Waiting tables for cash, and doing serious work. I was, after all, working with Tony Taccone, who had recently directed the premiere of  Angels in America,  was the artistic director of the Eureka, and who had called me on the phone to ask me to work with him at the Playwrights’ Festival.  I was starting to make it, whatever that meant,  wasn’t I?

A few weeks pass and we meet again on the long brick stairs.

“Sorry I didn’t get you that play yet.”

I think, damn,  I wish he’d forgotten about that. “that’s okay, I’m pretty busy right now anyway.”

“I’ll get it to you, promise.”

“Okay.”  (I get my mail and start to go up the stairs)

“What are you doing these days anyway? I have a friend who is a theater director.  We’re talking about putting on the play I told you about.”

(I stop halfway up to my apartment.)  Oh god, now he thinks he can put on his play?  What the fuck?

“I’m…well, I’m…I’m currently working in the city at the One-Act, working on Arthur Miller’s Playing for Time. I’m working with Simon Levy, the artistic director.”  Again, the sign around my neck.  Actually, this was true, but what I was doing most of the time was going to work and asking people if they wanted another cocktail with their lunch.

“Oh.  Sounds cool.”

I wonder if he’s ever heard of Arthur Miller.  The guy is a mountain man, works as a printer for a living.

I’ll get you that play, don’t worry.”

I’m only worrying that he will give me his play, and then I’ll feel obligated to read it. Ugh…

Now it’s important to note that the play I was working on, Playing For Time, was a serious play for a serious young artist like myself.  I spent my evenings in downtown San Francisco, wearing a lot of black and one of my signature berets (please don’t throw away my story, please? I was 24, okay?) and calling myself a director. I was actually only an assistant director, a glorified coffee girl, but I was interpreting the play, coaching the actors (much to Simon Levy’s dislike), reveling in my ability to analyze a text, showing off my keen intelligence,  my well-schooled preparation,  my sizzling hot abilities as a young upstart. The play was dark.  Heavy. It’s Miller, okay?  It’s about the Holocaust. Music. Women prisoners. Desperate measures.  Human tragedy.   I’m not sure anyone smiled during rehearsals, much less laughed.  That’s okay, we were all serious artists doing this serious work.

Damn,  a stack of slightly curled pages arrives on my doorstep, barely held together by a broken staple.  The title page: The Circle of the Serpent, by Jim Jordan.  1984.   Oh god, I hate this title.

__

By sheer obligation, I glance at a few pages.  Huh.

I laugh a little.

I don’t see many mistakes, as in typos (We typed on typewriters back then)

Huh.

These characters are kinda funny.  They’re pretty sharp.

I read some more pages.

Oh my god, these characters are gay!  Oh, Oh… I see…yes, this guy is trying to hook up with this guy and this guy is… oh my god,  this is another coming out play!

Wait a second here —  is Jim gay?  No, he’s not gay.  He’s just writing about gay guys.  Okay, whatever…

Huh.

Wait a second here – this is another coming out play! Oh Jeez,  must I read another coming out play?  I feel like 9 out 10 of the new plays I’ve been reading at festivals are coming out plays.  Variations on a theme, yes, but the theme is omnipresent. Okay…I’m gay.  I’m gay.  I’m gay and I need to talk about that right now, tell my story, okay?  This is my play and my play is about coming out as gay.

Sigh.

Still, these characters are very funny. I am giggling out loud as I read this.

Wait a second here.  This guy from the stairs… he’s not gay.  Why is he writing this story?

__

“sorry I didn’t get to that show you were working on in the city.”

“That’s okay, it’s hard to get out and see stuff.  I don’t see as much stuff as I should.”

“You read my play?”

“Yeah, well… yeah, most of it.”  I look again at him carefully.  He’s not gay.

“My buddy, Joel, he’s getting a bunch of actors together and putting it on next month. It’s gonna be at The Stud, in an upstairs room they have, we’re going to turn it into some kind of performance space. Cool, eh?”

“Wow…that’s very cool. “

“wanna come see it?”

“Well,  okay, if I can, I mean, sure…if I can, you know how it is.”

“did you like it?”

Oh god, this is always the worst.  This moment of “did you like it?”

Pause

“Yeah.  It was…it was good.  Funny.  I like the part about “cat people” and “dog people.”   I want to blurt out, this is another coming out play, I read these all the time!”

And it was good.  And it was funny.  In fact, it was the best coming out play I had ever read.  But still, I was so confused:  who is this guy?

“I really liked it.  I’m not crazy about the title.”   One of the reasons I say this is because A, it’s true, but B, to make sure he knows I have opinions about things. I’m no dipshit here… remember, I have a degree in this stuff and I analyze things and I am serious.

“You don’t?”

“I just… I don’t know… it doesn’t work for me.”  This is what you say when you have absolutely no analytical basis for what you’re talking about.

“How come?”  (oh god, we don’t ask this follow up question…My response was meant to close the subject, not open it.)

“I just…uh… I just didn’t connect it to the text at all.” (that’s good, use the word “text,” because it reminds him that are you have well-schooled skills.)  But like I said, I thought it was good.  Funny.

My main question under all of this yakking is, “are you gay?”  It seems like he’s slightly flirting with me, which I was pretty keen about in those days.  Hmmm.

This guy didn’t look gay, sound gay, act gay, or signal any other gay energy.  I thought, I know gay, I mean, come on…I worked in the theater for the past 7 years, alright?  Duh.   During some of my gigs, I was surrounded by mostly what we called “queens.” (that’s the language that the gay community, and the straight community,  used quite easily in those days. At least, that’s how I remember it – of course, maybe I missed something all together?  No, not me, not possible… I was a serious artist,  I was a theater artist.

I feel a certain neighborly pressure to see Jim’s show, which will actually be performed only for 2 nights in an upstairs storage room of a gay bar.   I actually know the director of the show from other theater gigs, so I’m doubly obligated now.

My boyfriend and I go to the bar for the show.  We squeeze through a very crowded, very smoky place, inching our way up a crooked, skinny stairwell.  I feel like the only woman in the room.  My boyfriend is a doll, and gets a lot of flirty looks as she nudges his way through.  The room has been cleared out a bit, about 20 chairs are strewn around in a horseshoe, and a few platforms have strewn together upstage.  People brought their cocktails with them,  placed them gingerly next to their rickety chairs. Jim sat nervously in the corner, genuinely shy in his red and black plaid shirt and Levis, scraping the label off his bottle of Budweiser.   Huh…  Is he gay?

I don’t actually remember the specifics of the show.  The details are lost to me after more than 30 years, but the overall experience was a life-changer.  This is not a dramatic exaggeration.

It was so…joyful.

The script was so taut, so clean, so precise.  The characters were absolutely full of life – complex, full of struggle and laughter.  Sure, it was a coming out story.  It was comprised of a group of gay friends, playing around, goofing and teasing each other, and it was structured like a well-made play, as we say.  Exposition, rising action, rising stakes, a dramatic question, the whole nine.  It worked.  But it wasn’t just the play that worked,  it was the room.  So much joy.  The actors, all volunteers of course, brimmed with delight at getting a chance to speak such punchy and poignant lines. They exuded joy.

This joy filled a small, backroom of a gay bar in San Francisco,  in 1984, where 20 people were gathered, sitting shoulder to shoulder in rickety chairs. The audience giggled,  sighed, applauded, breathed…we were all changed.

Okay, maybe no one was changed.  Except me.

My work was always so…so filled with a signs around my collective neck—“look how important and serious I am.”  Playing for Time was filled with artists like myself, and together we mounted an important piece of art in downstairs of a well-worn theater downtown. The audiences came and went, and we took them down down down, reminding them of the horrors of the world.   But here, in an upstairs storage room,  the audience stood up in joy.

Oh my god.

I had lost the joy of it all.

Where had I lost the joy of it all?   Where and when had I traded joy for importance?  For ego perhaps?  For announcements of serious intent and professional ambition?  When, where, how had I lost the essence of it all, the joy of human expression, the connection, the love?

I had it all wrong – I had theater all wrong.  How could this be?  After years of university study and accolades?   My whole identity…my whole self…I had it wrong.

Suddenly the show I was working on, filled with trained and serious folks, was awful, burdensome, and worst of all, self-important.  Ugh.  I hated it now.  I didn’t want to watch nother performance of it. Ever.  I was even a bit ashamed of it.  How could I not have sensed this before now?

This stranger, this errant neighbor of mine, had brought me back to the ocean.  I had no idea I had been thirsty in the desert.  After the show, Jim was diffident, self-conscious, as he shuffled over toward me.  Why did he care what my opinion was anyway?  I’ll never know.  I just hugged him:  “I loved it, I totally loved it.  The show was glorious.”  He hugged me back.  We held each other for a moment.  But there was no sex in this hug, no extra pull toward each other, no hint of a pelvis thrust from either side.

He was gay alright.

I’m not sure he ever said to me, “I’m gay, you know.”

But his play was from his own experience (of course) and I had begun to meet a few of his boyfriends as they ambled up the long stairs, past my apartment, on their way to his place at all hours of the night.

This blew my mind at the time – now, 30 years later, it sounds naïve, shallow, narrow-minded of me… and perhaps it was.  But I considered myself pretty well-embedded in the gay community by then.  So many of the men I knew well were gay. I knew older, younger, political, public, private men in lots of fields who identified as homosexual. My college years were filled with gay faculty members, and even my folks back home entertained a handful of gay men.

But Jim just didn’t have any effeminate qualities at all.  In fact,  he was another “mountain man”  logging trees,  building things, climbing rocks…wasn’t he?   And these guys weren’t gay.  Gay guys lived and worked in a very different world. Didn’t they?

Okay,  sigh and roll your eyes… “little twit…so ignorant.”

Okay.  Yes.   It was 1984.  I was 25.  And yes, okay.  I was ignorant.

Was I guilty too?

Guilt out of ignorance? Okay, sometimes that’s the worst kind.

But that was not the only other thing I had wrong.

I had theater all wrong.  Would I ever get it right someday?

 

4 thoughts on ““Writing on the Breath”

  1. Francie Sloan says:

    Rachel, I really like your story! It took me back to being 30 and my own initial “encounters “ with gay friends. My conservative little world grew much bigger. You captured the feelings very well and the physical descriptions are wonderful. I was right there at Ivy Drive again
    I would suggest a little bit of editing. In particular, I think the first set of dialogue is a bit too long and/or “clunky”. There are a couple of typos. I would also condense a few of the sections.
    However, I eagerly read through to the end! Good stuff!

    Like

    1. rachellepell says:

      Thank you so much Francie, for your thoughtful comments and response. Agreed –I have some tidying up to do on this story, including a few easy fixes, but I’m thrilled to hear your comments.

      Like

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