Every day we went out for breakfast at Rosebud’s Cafe. We had done our show the night before. We had our days free, except for matinees, so we wandered around Ithaca exploring, but we always began our days at Rosebud’s, reading the newspaper, slurping down cup after cup of black coffee. We were old-school.
There are times in life that might not be heavy on narrative or plot, but glow in the memory with a tangible light. To examine why would be to ruin it. It is enough to know that such times are rare, not meant to be repeated or prolonged. They can sustain you in colder days, but only if you let them go. Joy Williams wrote, “Don’t become impatient. Here is the time.”
Here is the time. You must not clutch at it.
Or you can do what I did: clutch like hell by stealing a coffee cup.
We had auditioned for the play in Chicago, and we rehearsed for three weeks there. Then we traveled, via caravan of two cars, to Ithaca where we had one more week of rehearsal in the theatre before we opened. I was in love with someone in Chicago and it had crashed and burned just prior to departure. I felt schizophrenic my last weeks in town. I would go to rehearsal and throw myself into the process. Then I would come home to my apartment, with its crumply single bed in my stuffy room, and I would lie there, eyes open to the dark ceiling, suffering, missing him so much I couldn’t even breathe. Then I would wake up and count the minutes until I got to go to rehearsal again. To some degree, leaving town for the play felt like a get-away, car peeling out, brakes squealing, the ring of fire I had been in diminishing like smoke in the rear-view mirror.
There were five cast members, two girls and three boys. Locals in Ithaca provided housing for us. Two of the boys were put up in a dark mildewy apartment over a loud rushing river. The other boy was put up out at a farm and on his free days he basked in the sunlight, with the wooden beams in the kitchen, and the red-and-white checkered tablecloth, and arbors of roses.
Laurie and I stayed in a house owned by a family who were on sabbatical. We referred to our abode as “the elf house”. The rooms were tiny, the couch had hard itsy-bitsy cushions on it, the stairs were made strictly for single-file movement, and there wasn’t a double bed on the premises. We wondered if the phantom owners had removed the double bed in order to discourage any lascivious actress behavior in their precious elf house. I didn’t know Laurie at all before the show. She was a shimmery blonde, with big blue eyes. We’d go out for a drink and she’d casually throw on a red velvet top and blue jeans and heads would turn to stare. For the first day or so, I was intimidated by this skinny blonde, who was also a dedicated and talented actress, but by the end of our stay in Ithaca, our dynamic had developed to the point where she would call to me from the next room: “Hey, Sheila! Listen!” I would stop … and hear a fart emanating through the elf house. We were sisters.
Almost against my will, I found myself attracted to a guy in the cast. His name was Michael. It was strange because I was supposed to be heartbroken. Michael was 20 years old. I was 26. Michael was serious, very focused. Good actor. He seemed to go about his business at rehearsal with very little fanfare or nonsense. He was movie-star handsome with black hair and green eyes. I liked him. I found myself behaving like a breathless teenager, pacing my steps so that we would walk into the rehearsal room together. Turns out, he was doing stuff like that, as well, manipulating his movements so that we would end up sitting next to each other by “accident”. “Ohh, you again? Imagine meeting you here!”
I had left Chicago, my apartment, my friends, with some sadness, but other than that, I was thrilled to be out of town. It seemed to me that heartbreak might be just a matter of geography.
Unmoored from our homes, our old routines, there was a strange disconnect. Did my old life even exist anymore? I have never known a time when the present-moment took on as much of a vital glow as it did during that autumn in Ithaca. Only the moment mattered.
I can’t remember when green-eyed Michael and I started dating but it was pretty much the second we crossed the county line into Ithaca. Normal courting rules still applied in Chicago: We didn’t know each other, he was shy and serious, I was nursing a broken heart and six years older than he was. Once we got to Ithaca, he didn’t “ask me out”, I didn’t “ask him out”. We just started. It seemed the only logical thing to do. And looking back on it, it was as though we were there for years, instead of months. There are pictures of the two of us playing cards, hanging out, and we display the ease of long-married couples. We even dressed alike. This was the Grunge Era. Flannel shirts, corduroy pants, big boots, glasses with Elvis Costello frames. Every night after our show, he would walk back to the apartment with the rushing river below his window, and I would walk back to the elf house, filled with quiet, nothingness, the feel of Michael kissing me still on my mouth.
I had all this free time in Ithaca, a new experience for me, so used to the hustle of having to do temp-work, or office jobs, to pay the bills. I had nothing to do but my show every night. I went to church almost every day. Sometimes Michael came with me. I cooked for him while he read. We went out and had ice cream. We hiked up the hill to Cornell. We were crazy for each other. We had make-out sessions that left decent conventional rooms looking like a crime scene. I went running. It wasn’t a big “party” cast, we didn’t get hammered after every show, whirling through Ithaca in a two-month long bacchanal. We went out to eat at the famous Moosewood Cafe. We went to “Trivia Night” every Wednesday at a local pub. Michael and I went to an underage dance club (after all, he was underage) for their Disco night, one of my favorite memories of the two of us. There were only three movies playing in town: Reservoir Dogs, Schindler’s List, and The River Wild. We saw them all repeatedly. “What do you want to do this afternoon?” “Bookstore? Church? Ice cream?” “Nah. Let’s go see Schindler’s List again.” Jerry Seinfeld stole my life story, because one matinee, in the empty theatre, Michael and I made out for most of Schindler’s List. We had already seen it 4 times. Michael and I would sit on the porch swing at the elf house, and I would lie with my head in his lap, and he would read out loud to me until I fell asleep and then off he would go, into the night, back to his apartment.
Strange. How fearlessly I got used to him. I could never do that now.
There were times when the experience was like a certain kind of montage that is par for the course in light-hearted romantic comedies, you know the montage I mean: a city girl, perhaps a bit jaded, goes into the country, for some reason or another, and within one weekend is canning peaches as breezily as though she were to the farmhouse born. It’s the age-old canning-peaches montage. Apparently, even if you grew up in the Bronx or Detroit, when you stay in a farmhouse for even the smallest amount of time, you immediately know how to put up an entire basement-full of peach preserves. On our first day there, Michael, Laurie and I were exploring the elf house, and we found, in a dirt ditch on the side lawn, a black kitten so small it could fit in the palm of my hand. It made the teeniest little “mew” you ever heard. I suppose the kitten was all of a piece with the “elf house” motif. I picked it up, and the panicked “mew mew mew mew mew” tore at my heart. Laurie was one of those girls who knew what to do in such a situation. We had been in town only an hour, and she found a vet in the phone book, called him up, asked him what we should do to take care of it, and then somehow procured the necessary supplies, all while Michael and I wrapped the kitten in a tea towel, and hovered over it. We fed the kitten warm milk with an eyedropper. That’s what I’m talking about: we were Chicago city kids, pavement-bound, and within an hour of being in the tree-bowered elf house we were feeding newborn animals with eyedroppers, while sitting on the porch swing.
Laurie and I kept the cat the entire time we were there, and found a good home for him when we left. He recovered from his Dickensian beginnings, and got sleek, and terrifying, ambushing us from around corners in the elf house, eyes gleaming and insane.
Michael and I met up for breakfast, nursed endless cups of coffee, as we both read our books. Then we lay down in the park on a blanket and took a nap. We walked around after our show, enjoying the night. Talking. Not talking. Kissing until our mouths hurt.
He said to me once, a whopping four weeks into the thing: “I think we’re in a rut. We need to shake things up.” We were in a rut after four weeks.
But could that kind of thing, with its casual acceptance of constant togetherness, exist amidst the bustle of everyday life back in Chicago? With other obligations pulling on us? Would I fit into his life, and how would he fit into mine? Was what was happening real or just a matter of geography? Not to mention the fact that I was heartbroken over another man. Member that? Heartbroken! And I kept forgetting about it. How long had we been away again? Years and years?
I wrote in my journal a month in:
He is reading Brando’s biography, I am reading Howards End. I cook for him. I had an out-of-body experience staring into one of his eyeballs. I don’t know how else to describe what happened. It was 2 a.m., we had been kissing ferociously for hours, and I fell into his eyeball and that is all that I have to say about THAT.
Leaves turning. Orange – gold – red – flame – purple – lit from within. Freezing nights. Warm blue-skied days.
Michael’s parents came to the show. We have been spending every minute of every day together, so for two nights he hung out with his parents, and he missed me. He was obsessed with what I did during those two days. I went to go see Reservoir Dogs with Pat and Michael was absurdly jealous. “What did you guys talk about? Why won’t you tell me? What did you do after the movie?”
I take care of him. I’m good at it, surprisingly enough.
In a lot of ways, he and I do not speak the same language, but at the same time we’re both really good listeners. So, weirdly, it all works out.
I know how much I will miss this experience when it’s gone. I will miss this situation, knowing these people in this way. It won’t come again.
I’m not sure how I sensed that what was happening was a respite and not a new beginning. It’s a fine distinction, usually lost on youth. I was so young. I still had a lot of time then. Time to make mistakes, to mess things up, to grieve in an operatic way and take my damn time getting over things. To luxuriate in the present without worrying over what it all would come to. But something in me must have had my eye on the future, when all of it would pass. Something in me must have recognized the respite for what it was.
The spell would break when the show ended. Up until then, I floated inside a charmed bubble. A perfect world of autumn leaves, morning coffee, and chilly nights wrapped up in Michael’s arms. Even our fights (and we had a ton of them) were interesting, ferocious, and, in a strange way, fun. My life took the form I most would want it to take if I didn’t have to have a day job, if I could wave a magic wand and say: “My life should look like this …” Long open days, small projects, exercise, church, reading, sex, nature, evenings at the theatre.
If I were a different kind of girl, I might have made for damn sure that Michael and I were “hitched” in an official enough way by the time we left Ithaca that he would not be able to get away from me once we returned. Laurie and Pat would date seriously for a couple of years after returning from Ithaca. Some girls are good at “getting” men. They put the pressure on, they take the reins of the situation. If I had been that kind of girl, I would have pestered Michael, talked about the future, and at the very least made plans with him for the weekend we came back to Chicago to segue us as a couple into our “real” lives. But I’m not that kind of girl. Never have been. I wish now that I was that kind of girl. It seems I am lacking that essential competitive womanly spirit.
A couple of days before the end of our run, the melancholy started creeping in. I could feel it almost physically, like a shadow from a cloud. The chill approaching. I wanted the floating bubble to go on forever. It had been, like so few things in life, perfect. Worse, I was the only one in the cast who felt that way. Everyone else was itching to get home to girlfriends, jobs, auditions, overdue bills. Michael was in transition, moving out of his parents’ house for the first time, ready to start his life in Chicago as a young man. I started to take long walks, by myself, feeling that old heartache, the one back in Chicago, coming to claim me again.
Geography made irrelevant.
Our last day in Ithaca, we had breakfast at Rosebud’s. Michael had slept over at the elf house the night before, the two of us struggling to not topple off the miniscule single bed. At one point, Michael, holding me in his arms in the thick blackness, felt me holding back, maybe felt my sadness too, and started whispering at me, intense, “Fear is death, Sheila … let go … don’t be afraid … fear is death … fear is death …” The cracks came then, I broke into sobs, into waves of pleasure, Michael whispered again, “That’s it … that’s it …”, his intense support holding me, protecting me. Total blackness in that room. So thick you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. Passionate connection. Raw and emotional. It was love. No other word for it. Then he put me into a hot bath, and sat on the closed toilet-seat beside me and read out loud to me from the Brando biography as I soaked in the heat. My face felt puffy and bruised.
The next morning, at Rosebud’s, we didn’t talk. We didn’t talk about what had happened the night before, although it seemed to be between us. Michael would reach out and hold my hand, and I remembered his hot sex-whispers in the dark. But we were separate now. His mind was already moving out of the experience. It was already over for him. He wasn’t cold to me, or distant, but he was okay with leaving our bubble. I felt ashamed that I was holding onto it. We both were kind of quiet, restless, and uncomfortable with each other at breakfast. I didn’t feel safe anymore. It was a cold world out there. What I felt that morning, at that breakfast, was new, in my experience. A soul-chill. Fear is death, indeed. More than anything I have ever wanted, I wanted to stay put.
I thought of my dark room in Chicago, my temp jobs, my broken heart.
After we paid the check, I considered my now-empty coffee cup. It was of a classic design, used in diners across the country. Dark brown china, round handle, slightly scooped-in sides. I looked at it for a second. It was in no way distinct. It could have been any other cup. Without thinking, I reached out and stuffed the cup into my duffel bag. My crime went undetected. Not even Michael noticed, and nothing got by that guy. I didn’t tell him what I had done. We walked out of Rosebud’s Café for the last time.
I did not analyze my actions at the time. In looking back on it, I think I sensed that tough times were coming (I had no idea just how tough or how long-lasting it would be), and I would need sustenance. A talisman from my golden-lit autumn-drenched season with Michael.
A physical reminder that I could touch, feel, and say: Look. There. It was.
And it kind of worked, in a weird way. The cup I stole has moved with me from Chicago to New York to New Jersey. It has lived in no less than fifteen cupboards. Of course I don’t always think of my Ithaca bubble when I pour coffee into that cup now. It was years ago. The cup is an object. It’s in my cupboard, one of many cups.
But sometimes, while shuffling around in my kitchen at six in the morning, slippers sliding on dingy linoleum, pulling out a coffee filter, I’ll take the cup down, and suddenly, from out of nowhere, the pictures and sounds come: the night stars, rushing water, ice cream, dry autumn grass, my cheek resting on Michael’s shoulder, his hot whisper in my ear, the soft flannel of his shirt.
Coda #1: A couple years later, Michael asked me to marry him. I said yes. But I’ll leave that cliffhanger of a story for another day.
Coda #2: Michael went on to direct/act/write Kwik Stop (2001) (championed by Roger Ebert) – my review here – and while clearly I am biased, I think it’s a terrific film and it holds up to multiple viewings. The first time I saw it, there’s a scene in a diner. There’s one overhead shot of the table. Like I said, the coffee cup should have a (TM) sign. It’s not in any way original. However, when I first saw the image on the screen, I have to admit I smiled.