I went to Wild Goose Creative last Thursday for their "Speak Easy". It’s basically a moth-style, spoken-word, true story gathering that meets the first Thursday of every month.
Last night’s theme was Epic Fail. This, I can relate to.
The evening started out at Sarah’s. I got to her place and we cheerfully talked about what we wanted to tell.
I had printed out my story but wasn’t certain if I should read it or just stand up there and tell it. What I’d chosen was the “cream horn story”, one that I’ve told multiple times, in a few variations (almost all of them as a "straight" story) and only to 3 to 5 people max. I felt that the version that I’d written was perfect and didn’t need to be messed up by leaving out specific things that I really wanted to get across. I wanted to just read it.
Sarah warned me about the time limit (5 to 7 minutes) and the amount of pages I had (3.5) she figured I should try and tell it from simple notes or off the top of my head. She wanted me to practice it at least once and tell her the story, without any notes, as we walked down to Wild Goose from her place. It was about that long of a walk.
I’d had a specific beginning in my head, one that was different than the original: "There are stories that define people." I wanted to use that phrase because I felt that the story defined something intrinsic about me that I found to be both sad and hilarious. So, as we walked, I told her my story trying to focus on specific beats I wanted to hit, trying not to drone on too long on a beat. I wanted to avoid the horrible “ummmmmms and uhhhhhhhs…” that I knew sucked the life out of a spoken-word story. I felt that this was one of my funniest stories, one of my biggest failures, such a clear memory – I’ve told it so many times. I wanted to express the silliness that I always felt when telling it to friends.
I finished as we stopped at a hookah/coffee bar across the street from Wild Goose and discussed what I’d said.
She felt it went really well but I felt as if it had missed a few things. So, while we sat there drinking iced coffee and leering at the really hot server, I took the back page of my print-out and started pulling out little phrases and notes that I wanted to make certain I should use in my spoken story. We discussed it closely, turned over phrases and I found more memories I had completely left out of the original write-up. I scribbled all of this down gratefully, feeling the words cement in my head as I put them into my notes.
The problem is that I felt that I was missing something really important that existed in the story that I posted here: the pipe-links. You just can't say something and simultaneously express a contrary thought or idea in that same exact moment. I felt that the true failure in me reading or speaking the story is that I would lose the pipe-links.
When I wrote regularly on E2, I pipe-linked obsessively. Since I've re-written this to actually put here I'm even embedding them (although minimally) in this story so I don't really have to explain what they mean or how they work. The problem is that they don't work in other formats, not the same way as here. I look at many of the things that I posted here and see lots of ideas in the pipelinks that I love - because they add in-jokes and contradictions and depth in a way that simple writing doesn't.
Now, when I look at the pipe-links on that story I have a greater understanding of the rest of the evening and what happened to me.
Subtext, subtext, subtext…
We left the coffee shop and walked across the street. When I got there I wasn’t even slightly nervous. I cheerfully signed up, put my name in the fishbowl and we sat down. Tyler and Bart showed up shortly after we did. Bart, thankfully, had a flask and I asked for it a few times. The place us BYOB so having a drink or two was high on my priority list.
The stories were pretty fantastic. European driving disasters, Peace Corp fail, Homosapien beats redneck… Bart told a fantastic story of J.R.’s disastrous pyromania at one of his parties that was phenomenal. Sarah got up and told one of my most favorite of her tales of an airport, a bathroom and a long walk of shame.
At this point, I already considered this a night well spent but it continued after a short break.
A pretty blond girl told a few stories of airports and flatulence, a bad boss and his visible penis. An older gentleman with a grizzled white beard and a military cap stood and read a strictly structured, rhyming poem about a bee hive and gasoline. One, an oddly speaking younger guy with a forked beard and long hair got up and, between quick and rather constant sips of his beer, spoke of almost getting stuck on an isolated island in Georgia in a hurricane. Last was Ryan, the MC, who told a hilarious tale of a disastrous male beauty pageant in rural Ohio.
I was third from the last. I don’t know if I would have done better if I had spoken early tho. I’d had a few sips of Bart’s flask but was feeling nothing.
When Ryan called my name I was calm- until I walked up to the stage, my hand pulling my notes from my pocket, and started speaking.
I started with what I was feeling at that exact moment. “Wow,” I said, my voice was really shaking, “I’m a lot more nervous that I expected to be.”
And, wow, I was. It wasn’t the horrible trembling that I expected, but this weird tightness in my chest. The oddest part was the feeling that there was something hanging low over my head – that is about the most significant thing I remember about speaking, was that odd feeling that something hung down over me. I glanced down at my notes in my hand, scribbled and crazed looking, I'd crumpled them in my hand.
It was the last time that I would look or think of them until almost the end.
“There are stories that people tell that define them.” As I began I felt this strange stinging in my eyes. “I could probably rename this story ‘Bad experiences between haircuts’. I’ve told this story a lot and I hope I can tell it correctly because I almost always get completely cracked up at it. We’ll see.” I paused again feeling this silence in me while I said that I always get cracked up, I didn't feel remotely like laughing.
“I have to start by saying that I was a person in deep, deep denial. For a very long time.” I looked out across this audience, nice face, smiles. There was something about saying that ambiguous sentance that shook me because I could see the question "denial about what?" on some of the faces.
“I grew up in Indiana, horrible redneck place. “
There was laughter, which was ok. “The thing was, in this time I really wanted to change myself. While other guys my age spent time in the bathroom fantasizing about being with another person, I just wanted to BE another one.” I shook my head. “I did all sorts of things to try not be me."
I took a breath. "I wanted to somehow arise, like the phoenix, this perfect straight guy from the flaming gay kid I was.” I saw the realization of the earlier statement on faces. It was time to keep going.
And then my voice caught… like seriously caught with this strong emotional sob that bubbled up from me. I was completely stunned. I was standing there trying to tell one of my favorite and funniest stories and I had just about broken out in tears at the very beginning- which was the stinging. I don't know what expression was on my face but I went through this panic wondering if I was going to be able to go on. Which was just great. Jared tries to tell his funniest story on stage but has to stop and run away because he breaks down in tears. I stopped, open mouthed trying to figure out how to continue.
There was absolute silence and I shook my head at my physical and emotional reaction trying to clear my eyes – I remember seeing the faces in the crowd, they were staring, questioning what was happening and if I was ok.
“I dyed my hair black.” It came out as a croak. More pauses… “…and... I worked at a mortuary at the time. So, it did not go over well at all.”
When I got that out I felt this weird shift in myself and realized that I could push forward, I heard some people begin to chuckle at this, as if there was a confusion on if this was really supposed to be a funny story or a sad one. I took a deep breath.
“I had to get out of redneck Indiana, so I moved…” another pause as I looked up at the ceiling. “To Texas.” The absurdity of that statement hit people and this got a really good laugh. I felt these ridiculous tears stinging again.
I pushed forward and continued on. “Once there, I needed to remake myself again.” I felt myself breathe and kind of laughed.
“So I grew a mullet.” More people laughed at this one more, realizing that it was really ok to laugh. “People just got the impression I was some kind of hippie redneck.”
I felt better but I was still fighting to keep my composure. Every pause that I made for people to laugh was unintentional; these were moments where I fought to get my composure again. My eyes were bright and glassy from those stupid tears that would not stop.
“You see," I said as enthusiastically as I could, "I wanted to be that guy! That perfect straight guy!” I said and then sobered and shook my head. “…with the mullet. It didn’t go over well.”
“A friend of the family, Tracy did hair, so I went to her. She said…” I tried to do my best southern drawl as I fluffed my hair. “The mullet doesn’t work; your hair is so light, so I want to give it some body. So I’m going to do a body perm.”
I remember muted gasps from many of the girls in the audience and a quietly whispered ‘oh no’. Yes, there was laughter.
“I sat and waited for her to do what she did to my hair and then turned me around.” I paused and looked out at the back of the room like it was the mirror. “And It was perfect! I was perfect! I was that perfect straight guy!” Again, I said that line enthusiastically and then calmed and looked out. “… with the body perm.”
This brought out a lot more laughter.
“I had made some friends at the nuclear power plant, where I worked, and they all wanted to go out one night. We went to this bar called ‘West Side Stories’, kind of a warehouse with all kinds of bar types inside. Dance bar, country bad, Jazz bar, sports bar. I decided that I wanted to be forward and talkative. I wanted to be that perfect straight guy out there being talkative. My friends called me ‘brave’ for doing something so different.”
More laughter at the word brave. I was glad I used it.
“Of course I was going to dance at the pop dance floor.” I looked out at the audience with the ‘Hello! gay guy! Dancing!’ look.
Pause… “Afterward I danced the two-step at the country bar.” I held out my arms as if I were dancing with another person. “That was interesting.”
“We went to the Jazz bar and listened to the live band.” I bobbed my head softly.
“The thing was, I wanted to be outgoing and talkative- something that I wasn't normally at all. But, I was THAT GUY! That perfect straight guy! Who talked to people!” I made that finger gun and turned it towards the audience to emphasize 'that guy' this time.
“So as the night ended I went to the restroom. All the dancing had made my face hot and red and I was tired.” I faced the audience like I was at the sink, in front of the mirror. “I needed to cool off my face so put some water on my face.” I made these motions, covering my face, leaning forward and then parted my hands to look up at the audience. “And then I realized that the ‘body perm’ had somehow congealed and moved in the heat and sweat and had become…” I started spiraling my index finger from the back of my head to my forehead. “… a long, single curl that started at the back of my head and stuck out at my forehead.” I held my hand on top of my head, trying to duplicate the effect of the curl with my index finger pointing out of my limp, curled hand.
“And then I remembered that my friends had called me brave for doing something so different.” I said. “I had looked like that all night – “
I looked out at the audience.
“AND NO ONE HAD TOLD ME. They all had this unspoken question on their lips ‘Did you mean for it to look like this?’”
I turned sideways, hopefully to show the example of the curl sticking out of my forehead. “I danced at the pop bar.” I bobbed my head fast with the curl, “I two –stepped…” a little slower bob. I paused and closed my eyes and said softer. “The Jazz bar…” long, slow bounce… this seemed to get a lot of laughter.
I started flattening my hair on my head asn I looked out over the audience. “I wet my hair down to try and get control. When I walked out of the bathroom, all my friends were waiting for me. No one ever said anything about my hair.” I looked out at the audience. “But they knew.” I paused and then looked out somberly, feeling that emotion well up again.
I looked down at my notes – it was the first time I looked at them since I had started speaking and I was afraid that I had left something out. I was too emotionally engaged at that point to even see anything I wrote in them except for one word I had written out near the end and underlined three times: Perfect.
“I never went back to that bar, I never really talked to those friends again.”
I wasn’t certain how it was all going. I felt as if my entire body was being wrenched by that emotion that I had locked under the surface - it was all I could do get it under control. As I spoke, every time I had tried to look out and see the faces of my friends, the people that I loved, I would feel that surge of emotion that threatened to take over everything. I looked at the ceiling when this happened.
“In the morning, I went back to Tracy and, when she had stopped laughing, cut it all out of my hair.”
I paused again and fluffed up my hair and fell back into her drawl. “Well, the curls didn’t work. How about we try some highlights.”
I waited a moment and looked back out into the audience.
“It was perfect. I was that perfect straight guy!” I shook my head. “With highlights… I left Texas shortly afterward.”
… it was over.
I walked, head down, back to my seat and saw people applauding but it was muted for me I just wanted to sit down.
My trembling hands shoved my notes back in my pocket and I sat back down next to Sarah. I tried to relax but I was a live nerve, jittery and exhausted. Bart handed me the flask from which I took a large, warm slug.
After the last story they ended the show and I had people come to me and tell me that I told a great story. The cute blonde girl who had told the story of her boss and his penis came up and asked if she could hug me… for some stupid reason all that went through my head was “why? Because I just went up there and was an emotional train wreck on stage?”… I let her hug me but I did manage to get the “why?” question out.
We stayed for a few minutes but I really needed to get out of there. I hadn’t been expecting to be rendered so vulnerable on stage. I expected to tell that story in a light, funny manner, not in a way that showed the pain and desperation I’d felt when I was actually living it. This was pain that I had buried and had almost forgotten.
It was the most unusual feeling of exposure I’d had in a long time. I understood that everyone there was warm and accepting and really wanted me to succeed. I just didn’t expect to go up and show them the pain… I wanted to make people laugh. I did… but somehow I did something else. It made me feel good that I had somehow connected, it was emotionally devastating to me.
I spent years building walls and forget that the locked-up emotions that stay trapped behind will burst out at the most inopportune times when I begin to open up.
That night was the first time I ever just stood up in front of strangers and talked about being gay and how difficult it was for me to come to terms with it. Starting the story with the words “You have to understand that I was in deep deep denial” was an initial fissure that opened into a canyon through which the entire story ran. That initial crack released this intense flood, a river, that cut down painfully and left me raw. It exposed everything that I said and felt and experienced but funny and sad.
I don’t even remember a lot of what I said or did. It took a while for me to even piece together enough to even write this down and I've guessed at some of it. When my emotions take over, all things become hazy for me. I don’t have any Zen feeling where I am there, experiencing the moment and time slows down for me to see every aspect.
It was just me, on a stage, fighting to tell the one of the funniest stories I can about myself and my emotional reaction became the pipe-linked words behind every spoken word.
Subtext, subtext, subtext…
The story that I put here, long ago, was a funny one, that I enjoyed, but when I look at the pipe-links I feel the subtext of what erupted from the subsurface. I think E2 is the only medium I’ve ever seen that has this specific, beautiful way of expression.
Somehow that spoken word moment drew all of that together on stage for me.
There was more to the night, that that I'd describe in detail. It took Sarah and Bart a while to convince me that I wasn’t a train wreck on stage, and that my telling of that story, that night, had been the best they’d heard – because it was more than just a funny story. Whenever I'd told it they hadn’t understood what the story had really meant- what it really said about me. It was real and I was really human and vulnerable and telling a true story that had meaning.
It wasn’t just a funny story about life between bad haircuts.
I feel good about the night and I hope to do it again – although I hope to have a more ‘in the moment’ and not a ‘raw, bleeding nerve’ experience. I’m so grateful to Bart for kicking me in the balls to get out there and encourage me to do it and to Sarah for being the most excellent listener and fine-tuner. I love you two dearly.
As an aside to this, not planned at all, the next day I got a haircut.
I think it looks pretty decent and totally gay.