‘All we need to get started is a suggestion.’
The audience—a few ounces of Southern Comfort already in their systems, empty Dixie cups littering the ground beneath their chairs—takes a moment. To swallow? To twist off a cap from one of the light beers they’ve brought? To be clever?
Forty in attendance (give or take), but only one, somewhere in the back row, way beyond the reach of the stage lights, speaks up. Two syllables, the first of which hangs like the string of saliva your big brother would dangle over your contorting face. The voice in the back row chuckles and the last syllable lands, gooier than any spit glob: Breakup.
‘The suggestion is BREAKUP!’
R E N E
The four capital letters stayed in my cell phone directory until a week ago. Until their erasure, I had tried to draw out every one of Rene’s rings and vibrations—six months had passed before she pointed out the misspelling of her name.
‘Where’s the other e?’ she asked, her lips stained purple from our four-dollar bottle of Californian red. Bob Dylan’s ‘Lay Lady Lay’ played and I sat reasonably drunk on the hardwood floor, massaging her calves. I loved what years of soccer had done to those legs! She turned on my leather loveseat, ‘Do you think I’m a boy?’
‘I know you’re not a boy,’ I said, running my lips from the word ‘wish’ on her ankle to the elastic edges of her pink thong.
‘Don’t kiss my butt!’
I sank my teeth into her tush, making sure to wipe the spittle before going to work on her thighs. She continued to examine the contents of my phone—out of what I hope was jealousy. ‘Ooh, who’s Sharon? Victoria? …. Are you cheating on me?’
‘Isn’t that what we’re doing right now? Cheating?’
‘That’s not funny.’
My palate was dry, so I went to the kitchen, ran the faucet water over my tongue, wishing the water were wine. I turned off the faucet and got a Budweiser from the fridge. Belle and Sebastian’s ‘If You’re Feeling Sinister’ was playing for my re-entrance.
‘What are you doing?’
‘Trying to fix my name,’ she said as she sat up, her fingers panicking on the phone’s buttons.
‘Don’t fix it! There’s nothing to fix.’
‘Every other girl in your phone’s spelled right.’
I took the phone from her. ‘You don’t even know what the hell you’re doing.’ I scanned it, making sure all was in order. She took the Bud from my hand and guzzled half of it. I put the phone on my desk, and snuggled my face into her lap. She ran her dampened fingers through my hair, scratching the back of my neck with her short, unpainted nails.
‘What are we doing, Rene?’
‘I have a pretty name….’
‘Prettier than mine.’
‘….and I don’t want you to forget how pretty I am….’
‘Prettier than me.’ I lifted up her gray t-shirt (one of the many she’d annexed from my closet) and pressed my lips to the roll in her tummy.
‘….and you can’t make love to a girl named Rene—with just one e—because then it’s like you’re making love to a boy….’
I kissed each hard, smooth thigh, and then I looked into her sleepy, brown eyes. ‘You’re not a boy, you’re a pretty, pretty girl, and you’re Rene with one e because I can’t spell for shit, but you’re my Rene with one e and nobody else’s. Remember that.’
‘I had too much wine,’ she smiled. Her purple-stained teeth looked false.
I licked them, trying to get drunker. ‘You gonna stay with me?’
‘I can’t tonight.’
Everything finds its way onto the stage.
In Improv, the suggestion will shock your mind into motion, reviving it from its otherwise detached walk over to the black box theatre on East 4th Street. Whether you like it or not – or realize it – you’ll start associating events (Mr. Fitzpatrick’s wake, a Halloween Party, the first time you made love) with the suggestion: Breakup. The words will have numerous connotations (hysteria, drunkenness, infidelity) and bring to mind so many traumatic specifics (the word ‘wish’ tattooed on an ankle, an 8’ x 10’ room full of Winnie the Pooh paraphernalia, dried blood on your mustache). These are the things that make scenes.
But I’m not the only one on stage. Breakup has an infinite number of meanings for the other members of The Baldwins. We each have our own first line to initiate the first scene, but I’m the quickest off the backline. I sit down in a chair, affecting a shiver, and say in my most delicate, child-sensitive voice possible: ‘Oh Christopher Robin, it is so very cold!’
The audience reacts to my impersonation with a few titters, while I attempt to tacitly script the rest of the action to come:
Enter CHRISTOPHER ROBIN. He looks at quaking POOH with horrified eyes. Christopher Robin realizes what he must do in order to survive the Arctic winter.
POOH unintentionally rubs his russet fur. He has already licked the dregs of honey from his paws. A singular patch of hair falls to the cold floor. He tries to understand Christopher Robin’s survival instinct—that this moment of separation was bound to come. Pooh scans the icy grotto, looking for the words to save the both of them.
POOH: My poor friend Christopher Robin. It is so very cold and you are only wearing shorts and a Polo shirt. I wish it were summer. I wish we were not in the Arctic. Then you would not have to skin me—But I am so very small, Christopher Robin! You will not even get a hat out of me!
CHRISTOPHER ROBIN (in tears): Pooh!
POOH: Christopher Robin, I am so very small….
But when Christopher Robin, as played by Dan, does break from the backline, the scene changes drastically: the icy walls of the grotto melt away to reveal the bare stage.
‘Damn it, Pooh!’ Christopher Robin says, pissed off. ‘You know that you’re supposed to handle all of the bills. It was your job to pay the heating bill…. Now what the hell did you do with the money?’
Pooh, no longer fearing the skinning knife, responds: ‘I bought honey with it.’
The first big laugh comes, and Christopher Robin waits to deliver his next line: ‘I knew it! Piglet told me not to trust you. Here I am, believing that you quit the junk, and then you go behind my back and cop honey—with my money!’
‘I’m sorry, baby,’ Pooh says, pawing at Christopher Robin’s shoulder. ‘This is my last time, I swear.’
‘I’ve heard this all before, Pooh.’
In a later scene, Christopher Robin, Tigger, Piglet, and Rabbit will organize an intervention, but ultimately Pooh will overdose in the last scene of the night, succumbing to the same fate as his fellow user, manic depressive Eeyore.
The audience eats it up.
We were always drunk. I don’t think Rene and I ever needed a sober moment. We had first met at a wake—well, at Donovan’s Pub after a wake. Mr. Fitzpatrick had suffered a myocardial infarction. I was childhood friends with his son Walter, and Rene had dated Walter when she was at Binghamton. Walter had been a nice weekend screw, she’d tell me minutes after I’d drop my line on her: You know, I was gonna wear that dress tonight. I’m glad I didn’t though. That would’ve been so embarrassing.
‘That is the worst pickup line I’ve ever heard,’ she laughed. ‘Are you wearing Reebox? Those are the worst!’
I defended the honor of my sneakers, using words like ‘hip’ and ‘dig.’ I dug her right away. I liked her dress too, a black number that fell a little above the knee, her cleavage inviting.
‘Are you looking at my tits now?’
She wore her hair pulled (always) into a ponytail, a few deviant strands behind her left ear. She was drinking Woodpecker Cider that afternoon, and bought me a Corona. She handled the lime for me, pushing the wedge through the mouth of the bottle until it broke the surface of the beer. She handed me the bottle, then ran her thumb once over my lips.
‘Thank you,’ I said. I can still taste the lime.
The pub—it wasn’t even three o’clock yet—looked like Happy Hour in Midtown. Mr. Fitzpatrick’s mourners crammed against each other, and someone’s dollar bill found the jukebox. James’s ‘Laid’ was the first song to hit the air and Bon Jovi’s ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’ wasn’t too far behind.
Rene let me buy the next three rounds. She introduced me to her friends, and not a minute after handshakes did Rene pull me aside and tell me all about the venereal diseases her ‘sluts’ had contracted: Karol (Pollack, gap between her teeth—condyloma) and Moira (Irish, left-handed—Herpes Simplex Virus-2). I think it’s safe to say that Rene wanted me all to herself.
‘You’re an actor?’ she said, sips later. ‘You gotta be kidding me, you’re a fucking actor?’
‘No. I’m a performer.’
‘What’s the difference?’
‘If I could act I’d be an actor.’
‘Funny guy!’ she said, speaking into the mouth of her Woodpecker Cider. ‘I bet the girls just love that.’
‘Every single one of ’em,’ I laughed and put the Corona to my lips. ‘I’m fuckin’ hysterical!’
She dictated her phone number, and I entered the digits into my cell. She didn’t have to repeat her name, but she did: ‘I want to make sure you remember the pretty Italian chick you picked up at a wake.’ And then seconds later: ‘I don’t like your goatee.’
‘Well, fuck you, honey. I already got your number.’
‘I guess I’m stuck with you then, huh?’
‘We’re practically married.’
The chorus to ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’ came on, and everyone in the bar sang along, their wake-wear loosened with drink. I raised my fist in mock salute. When I turned to Rene, she was wiping her eyes with a paper napkin from the bar.
‘It’s okay,’ she said, a curt laugh breaking through her reddened cheeks. ‘I do this all the time.’
I don’t normally play the straight man in scenes, and tonight is no different, having already put Winnie the Pooh through a spin cycle of withdrawal and intervention. Greg edits the scene and I recede to the backline. A little sweaty from the stage lights, I wait to support the next scene.
My mind drifts to the bandage on my chest and the stitches inside my mouth—the traumatic evocations: Rene’s scent on my t-shirt, her Irish boyfriend’s bloody fist, Christopher Robin wearing Pooh’s pelt.
These details, I like to think, would make for an interesting character. Someone you’d like to watch for a while. I try to tell myself that’s the reason I stayed on for so long (nine months the lover). I try to chalk up the last nine months of my life to the performer in me—the ham who’s always searching for hysteria and comedy—but that’s too simple. I loved her.
I was wrapped up in her details. I loved her in parts: imperfections, peccadilloes, the word ‘wish’ tattooed on her ankle. Her name felt so good to say—still feels good—I felt like a poet pronouncing it.
Rene, I’m on the backline, for what feels like forever, Rene-ing to myself.
The audience quiets down.
We were always drunk, and she was always a bitch—I loved it.
‘Your abs are disgusting,’ she said one night, tracing my hard-earned four-pack with her fingertips. ‘You should just stop working out and get a beer gut like Paul.’ Then she peppered my stomach with kisses.
The first time we made love—after an afternoon stroll through Central Park (‘You’re really trying to make this romantic, aren’t you?’) and 60 ounces of Budweiser—she cried, something she ‘always did.’ At first I thought it was out of guilt, she having some poor mick bastard waiting for her at home, but then she kissed me so hard, caught my bottom lip between her teeth, and pulled me deep inside her, her legs wrapped so tight around my lower back that I couldn’t move.
‘Just stay inside of me!’ she said, her face feverish. ‘Just stay inside me.’
I kissed her cheeks as more tears slid out from the corners of her eyes, then cupped her ears, dampening my fingers with her sweat.
‘Thank you,’ I said. I buried my face between her neck and shoulder and wept. I wasn’t on stage. We weren’t on stage. We lay there until her legs slackened and her lips found my ear, then her tongue, her teeth—
She moaned, pulling my hair in order to get at my mouth, our tongues uncontrollable and sloppy. She made a motion, and then I was on my back, my head hanging over the edge of the bed. And she pushed and pushed—the red bed sheet slipping beneath us—until gravity yanked me to the floor and Rene went flying into the closet door. We were two thuds, drunken and naked on the cold hardwood. Rather than move to the bed, we lay there at the point of impact. She slid me neatly inside her again, and we remained motionless, examining each other: a pimple at her temple, the pads of her feet cool, a slight tinge of beer on her breath. Instead of saying, ‘I love you’ we laughed and kissed, until our laughter grew hysterical, until it hurt.
I come off the backline and Doug follows me. I want to relive the event, every single event that brought Rene and me to our first ridiculous moment. I wish I could shoot Rene into Doug’s brain, give him all of her sweet complexities, every little detail.
‘Rene,’ I start, inadvertently addressing the audience. ‘You know, I was gonna wear that dress tonight. I’m glad I didn’t though. That would’ve been so embarrassing.’
I’m ready to play it all over again, ready to leave out the extra e from her name, ready to take her to Central park, ready to get drunk again—but of course, that’s impossible. Rene’s not on the stage with me—Doug is. And the cough in the crowd is another reminder of the impossibility.
‘Yes, it would have been embarrassing, huh, Clara?’ he responds, his voice and body attempting a feminine form. ‘You know what else would be embarrassing? Huh? If you accidentally burned all of my dresses so I couldn’t compete in the beauty pageant.’
‘Rene, just one—’
‘—more time, please.’
And then another. Doug waits.
I know I’m on stage, and there’s nothing else for me to do but to take on the Valley girl archetype and respond, ‘Well, like…you know how clumsy I am with matches’.
‘No more chances!’ Doug responds. ‘It’s over!’
‘I know it is.’
The scene painfully rolls on—prays for an edit. The audience has definitely laughed harder.
By the last month we’d become ridiculous. We pumped the stereo but didn’t listen to it. Rene cried more, and so did I, and there we were, weeping pathetically until we were in bed. Barred and buried in our afternoons, we napped like the old and drank like alks, splurging on bottom-shelf spirits. She’d always ‘have to leave’ the Cocoon—that’s what I called the apartment. She called it the Honeycomb, a place for her to sleep and get fat. And like a girlfriend, she put on weight. I accepted the extra pounds because they were hers. I kneaded her softened muscles, her cellulite – another detail to love, another part of her in need of whatever I could give her. But I was not her boyfriend. She never let me forget that.
Paul would always call, P A U L lighting up the monitor of her cell phone, his ringtone the chorus to U2’s ‘Sunday, Bloody Sunday.’ I’d sing along, fist in the air, until she’d tell me to be quiet, that she’d ‘have to pick up.’ Her voice would change (become more girlish), and she’d use words like ‘baby’ and ‘love’ while I’d be nibbling for attention at her ankles. This always pissed her off.
I would try to piece Paul together, to make a man out of the few details that I knew about him: beer gut, Irish, calls all the time. From Rene’s side of their phone conversations I learned that she loved him ‘so much;’ she never hung up the phone without telling him. Even when they argued over rent (which happened a lot) she’d always let him know that he was loved. She never said she loved me, but there she was in my bed, in my arms. I never said, ‘I love you,’ either, but I was there.
He liked U2—the fucking guy was Irish, of course he did!—and Rene loved him. She loved him so much that she could not (would not) leave him. And I’d asked her a bunch of times, ‘Why don’t you leave him?’—not in those words—but I’d say, ‘Just stay a little bit longer,’ which meant the same thing to me. And she’d always respond, as if singing a refrain, ‘I can’t, I can’t, I can’t….’
I grew weary of her exits and tried to make it harder for her to leave—’Don’t leave the Honeycomb, baby!’ I’d say, playfully barring the door with my naked body and kisses, lifting her, then dropping her on the bed, hoping to screw her into a coma. But the sexual chloroform would never work, and she’d escape, one time saying, ‘God, you’re acting like you’re in love or something!’
I grew jealous of Paul’s ignorance—he never suspected a thing; even after the Halloween party. I bet he thought I was just some drunken asshole who’d gotten out of line. Fucking ridiculous! Who suggests BREAKUP!
Maybe none of it ever happened. Maybe Rene and I were just some improvised scene, some mutation off of a suggestion from the back row. I know I’m not the only one onstage. But there’s a scene in my head:
I lie on my bed, denuded. RENE, wearing nothing but my gray t-shirt, exposes her buttocks as she turns over/away from me. I run my hands along her body—even though we’ve just made love, and I should know that she’s real, I’m still thinking of the possibilities. I decide to push it.
ME (in my best brogue, which sounds quite Scottish): So, tell me about this guy. This guy you’ve been seeing. I know you have. I can see it in your eyes. Whenever you come home to me, you look like a new woman. A fair maiden, that’s what you are. Aye! (I move her ponytail and kiss the back of her neck.) So, tell me, this lover of yours…does he fuck you proper? Do you come with him? Aye! (I move her hair again and kiss her ear.) Does he love you proper? Does he love you as much as I do?
RENE cries like she always does, and I’m there to spoon with her, until she has to go.
It’s the last time she comes to the Honeycomb.
Dan and AJ roll around on the floor, and the audience comes alive again, their laughter almost sticky. Doug and Greg follow them downstage, and all four of them knock into the front row. Pretty soon they’re growling and slowly clawing at the patrons’ ankles, scratching the laughter out of their shins.
I’m lost on the backline.
The word ‘wish’ tattooed on her ankle. The last gray t-shirt of mine she wore. The way she chose her words: ‘I don’t want to see you ever again.’
Why didn’t she just sing, ‘I can’t, I can’t, I can’t….’?
Two days without an R-E-N-E ring or vibration—I had to break the first rule! I had to run over to their apartment, bang on the door, force my way in no matter what the cost. I had to see where she slept when she wasn’t sleeping with me. I had to see the alternative Honeycomb. I had to see this poor mick bastard she loved ‘so much’—I had to see if my impersonation was dead on.
He wasn’t there. But the bedroom was. Rene was, standing in the living room, crying like she always did—even though there was no music playing, even though she was sober, even though the place stunk of rettes and laundry, even though it wasn’t my place. Not my Cocoon!
‘This is where you live? This your Honeycomb?’ I said, looking over the plaid loveseat. ‘Where do you sleep?’
‘The bedroom’s in there.’
It was all bed. All bed and Winnie the Pooh. Figurines, birthday cards, posters, clock, nightlight. Every wall. Every inch of the place. ‘I’m obsessed,’ she’d told me one day. ‘You should see my bedroom.’
Yeah. I sat down on the bed, felt smothered by the cartoon bear. She came to the doorway naked: paunch, pubic hair thriving, calves relaxed. She pushed me back onto a company of stuffed Poohs, unbuckled-unzipped me, then pulled my jeans and drawers down to my knees. I was pinned.
‘Let me stay inside you,’ I said, trying to bridle her hips. ‘I just want to stay inside you.’
She held my arms at my sides, bared her unstained teeth, bit down on her lower lip, and closed her eyes. I went—shook till exhaustion.
She let me pull up my pants, and then she led me to the door.
‘I don’t want to see you ever again.’
Whatever the guys’ scene is, it reaches its apex, so I edit it. With our 25 minute set coming to a close we probably have room for just one more. I have a scene etched in my mind already; I initiated it about a week ago:
I stumble—drunk of course—into Donovan’s Pub, Halloween night. Unable to find an adult-size costume, I was forced to buy a children’s size (6-8 years old) Winnie the Pooh suit. I cut it up and fitted the pieces to my frame as best I could: leg warmers, sleeves that covered my forearms, Pooh’s torso worn like a backpack, his head as a helmet. A yellow polo shirt and blue shorts cover what Pooh’s pelt cannot.
I get wrapped up in some synthetic gossamer that’s been draped across the entrance. Witches, nurses, angels, devils, mullet wigs, false crooked teeth, etc. take up most of the space in the pub. James’ ‘Laid’ plays on the jukebox.
RENE, hair pulled into a side ponytail, sips from a martini glass. She is surprised to see me.
ME: What are you doing here?
RENE: What did you do to Pooh?
ME: I had to, Rene, I was freezing to death. I had to survive. (Pause) So, who are you supposed to be?
RENE: Deb from Napoleon—
ME: You know, I was gonna wear that. Would’ve been embarrassing, huh?
RENE: Please leave.
ME: You here alone?
RENE: Just leave, I don’t want there to be any trouble.
ME: Then what’s the point of me staying?
I stumble into her, grab hold of her ponytail, and kiss her hard and sloppy. Her martini glass falls to the floor. She tries to push me away, but I have her by the hair. She cries.
I’m struck on the back of the head; then I’m thrown into a wall. I look up at PAUL, wearing his cheap costume. I’ve seen three others just like him already.
ME: Fuck you, Napoleon Dynamite!
I charge, my open palm connecting on Rene’s reddened face. I’m soon on the floor, being stomped, bottles breaking around and under me. I cover my face and crawl to the door. Paul’s on my back, breaking his hand on my head. Napoleon Dynamite is beating the shit out of Winnie the Pooh! Fucking ridiculous! Breakup!
At some point, I’m free to run away. It’s so cold outside. The blood in my mustache is drying. I check the slice in my shirt, the gash runs deep under my skin. I’ve lost my Pooh head.
‘I feel like Christopher Robin’s crawled up my asshole and ripped me from the inside out.’
The audience takes this in, as do the rest of The Baldwins. I’m by myself for what feels like forever.
Dan springs forward and justifies my line: ‘Pooh’s overdosing! C’mon, everyone!’
I fall to the floor and do the OD-shake. Dan cradles my head in his lap, pretending to weep. The other guys come off the backline to support:
Stay with us, Pooh!
You can’t die!
Dreams don’t die!
Where’s the rent!
The audience is in hysterics. I convulse for the last time and play dead.
‘He’s gone,’ Dan says. ‘Just like Eeyore.’
We bow and give thanks to the audience. There’s some leftover Southern Comfort, which we offer to those who want it.
‘That was my suggestion,’ a white kid in a hooded sweatshirt says as he takes a Dixie cup. He downs the shot and leaves the room, happy with Breakup.
Really, he could’ve suggested anything and I would have thought of Rene. Try it. Pick a word, and try not to follow it back to your lover of nine months, try not to obsess over every detail, every traumatic, hysterical, ridiculous specific. The stuff that made your scenes.
*This story first appeared in the collection Born in the 1980s.