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Authors: Spalding Gray

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BOOK: Impossible Vacation
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At some point I turned to see Joe glowing behind the wheel of the pickup. I climbed in beside him and everything in that cabin was
as liquid and interesting as the valley below. As we drove down the winding mountain road toward New Paltz I began again with the what-ifs. But this time it wasn’t Seventh Street. “What if we were in Vietnam tripping right now, Joe? What if we were in the middle of that war? What if we couldn’t get our fingers off the triggers of our machine guns?”

Joe didn’t answer. He just smiled and drove. As the what-ifs spun by in my mind, I knew I could stop the Ferris wheel at any point and take the thought out and examine it. Or I could let the Ferris wheel keep spinning. Then the Ferris wheel turned into a stream just like the one I’d been standing by and its seats were now wooden boxes floating down the stream and every box, I knew, contained a thought. I could drag it out and open it up. Or I could let the boxes go—and I did. I watched them flow by.

That night I pledged myself to Meg. “I think we should try to make a life together,” I said to her at the diner over a BLT. “For better or worse, let’s try to make a life together.” Meg seemed a little surprised and then took my hand while I turned to her and said, “I like you, Meg, because things matter to you.”

M
EG AND
I had made love once or twice, but I didn’t like that out-of-control animal feeling. I liked that all-over spiritual feeling I got from the LSD better, and I began to feel that my little room in the back of the bookstore was meant to be a monk’s cell, not a sex pad, and I wanted to keep it that way. I had had the sex pad with Melissa; now I wanted something else with Meg.

One day I found a way to re-enter that joyously transcendental state without using drugs. Actually, Meg found it. Meg came up with the idea that I should try modeling for her life drawing class to make some extra money. They were looking for a model, so I took the job. I had never modeled before but I knew I’d be right for it. I was in
good shape and had an almost classic body. I had no objection to being naked in front of an art class, although a jock strap was required. I hated jock straps and had never owned one.

I bought one at the college athletic store and then, repulsed by the horrid white clinical aspect of it, I decided to dye it red. On Monday at nine in the morning I showed up at Meg’s life drawing class with an old bathrobe I had bought at a thrift shop and my new scarlet-red jock strap. I think the drawing teacher and the whole class were impressed and thought of me as a real professional.

It all happened on that first day. I made the wonderful discovery within an hour. I found that I could empty out and turn into an outline again. I could disappear without fear because I knew that the whole class was keeping me in that room with their eyes. The more people looked at me, the more I was present, and I was also free to come and go from that presence. If there were ten students looking at me, times two eyes, then I’d feel twenty times larger than I usually felt. It was their constant gaze that kept my body in that room, while my imagination flew to Bali, then out into the cosmos, getting ever closer to a state of nothingness. It was a way of constantly dying and being brought back from the dead, resurrected once again by the voice of the art instructor, which was like the voice of God bringing me back into the world of the living when he’d say, “Let’s take a break,” and
whoosh
, I’d be back in my body and putting on my robe and talking with Meg about all the places I’d been in my imagination.

They paid me very little, only $3.50 an hour, but that was fine, because I was getting paid for just standing still, or sometimes sitting, and that left my mind free to roam and soar. The only thing I had to be careful of was not to roam into any sexual fantasies, because it would lead to erections that would swell up and try to peek out of my red jock strap like some sly snake with a mind of its own. Then I would have to relax the snake by saying the simple phrase over in my mind: “Remember, Brewster, you are going to die. One day, you are going to not be—forever.” That would pretty much take care of it.

Then I’d look around, or rather my eyes would look around, because I couldn’t move my body—I had to remain very still—and I would see Meg and all these other students looking at me and
drawing me, and I would feel my whole body fill up with substance again in their eyes. I’d come and go from that. I would come and go; it was like a game of hide-and-seek.

I liked the long sitting poses in a comfortable chair best of all, just sort of lolling there, stretched out and lounging, for forty-five minutes until I turned into a soft, languid statue, like one of the figures on Keats’s Grecian urn. I’d sit in the most delicious of places, the place of greatest hope, the purest, most delicious place of suspended desire and anticipation, that place just before action destroys perfection and leads to the completion of desire and the inevitable corruption and disappointment of consequence.

These long poses not only brought a stillness to my body, they also brought a stillness to my mind. It was no longer racing over the past in a manic state. My mind came to this still place until, at last, the room and I were one.

After a three-hour session of modeling in those long poses, I would be stunned by how vividly I saw the world around me. Colors and sounds vibrated in me. It was as if I had the eyes of a ten-year-old. I didn’t mind the low pay. I would have done it for free because it was for me a special kind of meditation. It was about being alone and not being alone all at the same time. But most of all it was about my body being consumed by those eyes.

After a while it was not enough just to have my body be seen, I wanted my mind to be seen as well. I wanted to move it in some more creative direction, and that was when I got interested in theater again. I began to wonder what it would be like to get my body and mind together, so that both aspects were being seen simultaneously.

There was a little theater group in New Paltz then. They were staging real straight, traditional plays. All around me the whole world was falling apart. There was nothing straight or traditional about it. The Vietnam War was boiling, Mom was cracking up, everyone seemed to be spaced out on some psychedelic drug; and in the middle of all this I found myself gravitating toward a conservative community theater, composed of people who imbibed little more than scotch or cheap sherry. I mean, they’d just sit around sipping cheap sherry and say, “Why not do Shaw’s
Heartbreak House
?” or “Why not do
Long Day’s Journey into Night
?” And then they’d just up and do it. They
would put on the three-and-a-half-hour uncut version of
Long Day’s Journey into Night
in front of ten people.

They called themselves the New Age Players, and that was odd, because there was nothing new age about them. But I liked working with them because it gave such order to my life. Having to rehearse and learn lines was so focusing. And I didn’t have to be me. Not that I felt that there was a real me to be. I mean, taking the LSD had showed me that I was really empty, so I was perfectly happy to be filled up with someone else’s words and someone else’s personality. That’s what I liked about acting in plays. I felt like no one; and I guess that in some secret way pretending to be someone else saved me from the giant fear of death. It allowed me the fantasy that I had to be someone in order to die, and that as long as I was no one, or just an actor, death would never find me; death would somehow pass me by.

So I played small roles and big roles. I even got to play Edmund in
Long Day’s Journey into Night
, When Mom heard that I was in
Long Day’s Journey
, she immediately wanted to come up and see it, which made me think that she was getting better. But Dad didn’t want Mom to see
Long Day’s Journey
because he felt it would be as disturbing as
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
had been for her. So he brought her up to see
The Knack
instead, a very silly, sophomoric English play where three very cool and crazy kind of guys try to learn the knack of picking up women. I was cast in the role of Tolen, a kind of cocky, strutting stud. At the time that was a real big stretch for me as an actor.

So Mom came up with Dad and they stayed at a motel. You can imagine how disappointed she was having wanted and expected to see me play the role of poor tortured Edmund in
Long Day’s Journey into Night
and ending up instead seeing me strut my wares as Tolen in
The Knack
.

After the show, Meg, Mom, Dad, and I all went back to their motel for drinks. I could tell that Mom was annoyed. I think she was beginning to perceive that she’d been brought up there on false pretenses, and she was just sort of clamming up at the table. She was polite to Meg, but that was about it. She sat there like a nervous little bird sipping her 7UP. Dad, on the other hand, got slightly drunk on bourbon and kept dropping hints about how nice it was to be back
in a motel with “your mother” (that’s what he always called Mom in front of me) after all these years. She didn’t respond to his motel innuendos. She only got annoyed.

Anyway, that was the night that I broke it to Mom and Dad that I had gotten a paying offer at the Alamo Theatre in Houston, Texas. Some sort of talent scout for regional theaters all over America had seen me play the role of Boss Mangan in
Heartbreak House
. He asked me to come down to New York City to audition for two major regional theaters. One of them was in Wisconsin and the other was the Alamo Theatre in Houston. I chose the Alamo because they were planning to do Chekhov’s
The Sea Gull
as one of their plays that season. I loved Chekhov and loved that play ever since I’d seen it through drunken eyes in Providence. I had always wanted to play the role of Konstantin Gavrilovich because of the way I often acted so tortured and hung up on Mom. That’s exactly how Konstantin was: tortured, sensitive, and very much hung up on his mother. Also, and best of all, Konstantin gets to commit suicide at the end of the play—every night! over and over again!—and for some reason I thought that would be really neat, to be able to kill myself every night and come back to life the following evening to do it again.

I broke the news to Dad and Mom over motel drinks that night. Meg and I had spent a long time discussing it. It was her plan to finish school and then join me for the summer in Mexico, where we would have our own perfect vacation after I’d finished my first season at the Alamo Theatre. That was to be our first vacation together and our first time out of the United States. Dad’s response was “How much are they paying you?” And Mom just looked sad and said, “I wish you’d get a job acting in Providence so we could come and see you there.” That was it. That’s all they said.

After Mom saw me in
The Knack
Dad had to send her to Fuller Sanitarium again. I think it had to do with the fact that he had brought her to see me in
The Knack
and not
Long Day’s Journey
. She was most likely angry at him but kept turning all her rage back on herself. It was going in instead of out. In the old days when something was bothering her and she couldn’t talk about it she would often fart at the dinner table. That would drive Dad wild. He’d jump up and go read his newspaper. I don’t think he really read the paper; I think he
just held it up in front of his face like a paper wall or a Japanese screen. And there he would sit in the living room just steaming and fuming behind the headlines of the
Providence Journal
.

Now instead of just farting, Mom got real crazy. She had what they call irrational behavior, and Dad would not put up with it and packed her off again to Fuller Sanitarium.

Then shortly before I was due to leave for the Alamo Theatre, I got this letter from Mom:

Hi Darling!

I’m home and all well and deliriously happy to be here! I called Cole a few nights ago and broke the news to him. He was overjoyed as are Dad and Topher. I wanted to talk with you but Dad says you can’t be reached by phone so will you please call me right away quick!! I can hardly wait for us to be all together for a while anyway. What a reunion that will be! I feel as though I have been reborn. They call me the miracle patient at Fuller Sanitarium. The doctor said he had never seen anyone get well as fast as I did. The other patients there couldn’t understand it. They kept asking me what I had that they didn’t have.

Love Ya!

Mom

Just reading this letter made me nervous. I could hear Mom’s old frantic voice in it. I didn’t trust her miracles anymore. I wanted to believe she was healed but I feared the worst. I knew when I called her I had to be careful not to let that fear show.

On the phone Mom sounded really high and told me all about this big family reunion she and Dad were planning to welcome Coleman home from Spain and to send me off to the Alamo Theatre.

I went home with more than a little trepidation, but it turned out to be fun, almost like going to the drive-in to see
Mary Poppins
. I was amazed that Mom had made such a miraculous recovery. She seemed to be back to her old “7UP Kid” personality again. Dad was in good spirits, cooking his big fat steak on the portable barbecue in the middle of the driveway. It was good to see Coleman back from
Spain, and Topher, who had taken a brief break from playing the pipe organ, which he had grown obsessed with, going through a pair of shoes a month just working those pedals like a maniac. It was really a wonderful family reunion.

BOOK: Impossible Vacation
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