1. Shitty Things and Other Treasures

    image

    I held onto my Droid 4 for years, watching every one of my peers switch to an iPhone, or at minimum a Samsung.  A few months ago I spotted a contemporary of mine sporting her Droid, also in a blue cover, also brandishing a slide-out keyboard.  We nearly pissed ourselves. 

    We instantly recognized in one another, this stranger who was about my age, an unwillingness to let go of the clickety-clak of our keyboards, an unwillingness to fly with the rest of the flock.  We were old ladies before our time: insistent on doing things the way they’d always been done, with keyboards.

    My friends would tease me, looking at my Droid like it had fallen in from another planet, a planet whose language was both barbaric and ineffectual, like using Morse code to recite poetry.  Their iPhones, meanwhile, would glimmer in their hands like flying snakes: aerodynamic, chimerical and yet real.

    But the doorman in my Philadelphia building had a different attitude.  He’d see my Droid and smile with techy respect, because to a tech geek such as Erik, who does computer repairs for extra cash while he sits at the reception desk, the Droid is for those who “get it”.  Unlike the Apple operating systems, designed for user-friendliness, designed to be intuitive, the Droid system is made to be ultra-customizable for the savants among us.  He pardoned me for being somewhat tech illiterate, because at least I had the good sense to own a Droid and wasn’t trouncing about like those iPhone toting lemmings, aka the rest of humanity.

    For me though it was all about the slide-out keyboard.  I liked to feel and hear the clicking under my fingers.  I craved the tactile experience that told my brain, “YOU are getting shit done.”  And I loved that I could dash around that board to access all the punctuation I might need, allowing me to respond to bizarre typo-laden iPhone texts such as,

    “Did u get Julia’s sausage&” with a properly punctuated,

    “Yes.  I did indeed get Julia’s message.” 

    My friends Ariana and Zachary, both Apple devotees and Steve Jobs super fans, grew tired of my constant Droid defending and excuses.  One night Zachary handed me his iPhone 5S. 

    “Shut up and play with it,” he commanded.  I did.  The videos loaded immediately.  Every article I wanted to read came up quickly and crisply at the speed of my own desire.  I saw a whole new world stretch out in front of me like the Yellow Brick Road to Oz. 

    “But I’m really going to miss the keyboard.  I need it,” I crooned as my footing shifted on this new and foreign terrain.

    “I know,” Ariana said in mock understanding.  “But here’s the thing.  Sometimes we hold onto things that make us feel different or safe or special.  And that’s fine, but then eventually… we just end up with a lot of shitty things.”

    My Droid 4, with its wonderful keyboard and lethargic operating system, is now deep at the bottom of a wicker drawer in my bedroom.  I’m saving it for just in case the iPhone 5S doesn’t work out, but um… it’s definitely working out.

     


  2. Teaching Pixley to Read: A Story of Redemptive Babysitting

    image

    I am naturally good at spelling, people pleasing, having long ankle tendons, and never giving up.  These are my only truly innate skills.  I do alright, though, because of this last one: my chronic inability to give up.  I am gritty and persistent.  I tend to outlast naturally talented people in fields as diverse as amateur wrestling and amateur classical violin because I simply don’t know when to quit.  My mother, R, told me constantly as a child and to this day that I am special, loved, and brilliant such that I quite truly believe it, rejection after rejection, and simply cannot swallow the fact that I’m anything less than a genius.  I have been brainwashed into my own inevitable success that will surely come at least once before I die.

    I’m therefore plagued by the cognitive dissonance that many spoiled kids face.  My two Jewish mothers told me I was perfect, but upon entrance into the post-collegiate world, it dawned on me that they were lying.  Nobody really needs my services as an actor or a writer.  The story of the struggling artist is cliché, but when you are actually inside it, it feels remarkably specific and insulting.

    Like many comedians, I am a babysitter. 

    Pixley, who is named after a South African activist, is an extraordinary child and it is a myth that all children are extraordinary.  That simply isn’t how bell curves work.  Not everyone can be extraordinary, because then statistics would break.  Pixley has an EQ and an IQ and an intellectual curiosity that simply make him more interesting than your child. 

    Today we are suffering together over a story about superheroes.  He has just turned seven and is learning to read.  The felt brontosaurus on his T-shirt squirms over his fat belly as he hyperventilates, “Ch-ch-ch-ch.”  He looks like he’s going to shit his intestines and then pass out.  Just before he does I offer, “‘Challenge’, that says ‘challenge’.”

    He looks up at me in a haze as if he isn’t sure he recognizes this language as his native tongue.

    “The ‘G’ makes a ‘J’ sound and the ‘E’ is silent… in this word.  You just hafta memorize it,” I shake my head in commiseration, as if I too sometimes can’t read the word “challenge” when I’m tired.  

    At this point some weeks ago he’d have given up, but not today.  He wants to impress me and this is why.  Two months ago, when his mom casually said, “Hey can you help Pixley with his reading?”  Followed quickly by, “Also, can you read Hebrew?  Pixley needs help with that too.”  And in that moment a star was born, and that star, routinely rejected in her other aspirations, was me, Pixley’s newly minted genius reading tutor.

    That first day Pixley hung his head in exhausted shame after five minutes of “t—ha-ha-ee”, recognizing just a few blessed words, like ‘said’ and ‘wow’.

    “I’m hungry,” he said.

    “No you’re not.  Look at me.”

    His head lifted and I cued my own possession.  The lights dimmed with the power and focus of my own two eyeballs.  I spoke slowly with a haunting deliberateness as I have done to creep out lecherous and unhinged men in Bed Stuy, “You… are going to be a great reader.  Do you believe me?”

    His right shoulder shrugged carelessly, but his eyes were glued to mine and wide with the awareness that a new reality had descended upon the dining room.

    I continued to captivate him as my volume and urgency rose, “What if you became the best reader in your class?  Do you think that could be possible?”  I spoke as though slowly extoling the awesome benefits of Scientology.

    A silence hung over us for a half-second.  Pixley’s eyes dropped to the table in momentary introspection, then lifted to meet mine dead on.  I held my breath.  …He nodded vigorously.  Cue montage training music. 

    And we were off.  I taught him everything my first grade teacher, Ms. Leonardi, taught me and verbatim too.  I was shocked to find that every mnemonic device I’d learned in 1992 had stuck.  We talked about “super ‘E’s” and what they do to vowels before consonants and about how “when two vowels go walking the first one does the talking.”  We acted out the vowels taking a silly walk together, imagining what topics they might have discussed.  It was like I got to be a mom without gaining weight, going broke, or sacrificing my dreams, while getting paid for it.  I was flushed with the appeal.  It was thrilling to watch him improve.

    But more inspiring than watching him succeed, was watching him struggle.  Every word was a journey and I found myself entranced as he sputtered “f-f-ay-ay-kuh-key——FAKE!  Fake.”  And the glory at the end of every word was my own redemption—- every comedy video I’ve made that’s gotten not so many hits, every unpaid acting project, every embarrassment as I explain to my relatives projects that I’m doing that sound like space age Internet tinkering.  Every time he got a word, I got a job writing sketch comedy.  Every time he got a word, I had a literary agent.  Because his persistence, every tiny skirmish, was proof and embodiment of my central theory that dies everyday on the vine: that if you work hard enough, you get what you want. 

    Anybody can teach a kid some vowels and that alone is a fantastic gift to impart, but I was teaching persistence and it made my heart sing to watch him tire at the half-hour mark and not the five-minute mark as he once had.

    This is the awesome power of the narcissist.  (I’m speaking of myself.)  We get a bad rap for being vain and useless, but who but a narcissist can cast herself as the brave protagonist in everyone else’s obstacle-laden story?  I am the Olympic ice skater as she backs into her final jump pass.  I am Odysseus trying to resist the sirens and get home.  I am the little war torn Girl Scouts in the Syrian refugee camp, trying to get their lives started as Nina Totenberg signs off on NPR leaving me with my feelings.  For a striving narcissist like me, every struggle feels like my own.  A narcissist says: “This boy will read or I am a failure.”  Call it determination or call it ego, Pixley will be the best reader in his class and it’ll be ‘cause an amazing babysitter had a massive chip on her shoulder.

     

     


  3. Gchat: “The Birth of a Drag Queen”

    This is my edited Gchat with Stephen (Stevo) Arnoczy aka “Liz Beta”.


    image

    Emma Tattenbaum-Fine

    my cat is trying to jump up so if you see nonsense on the screen, that’s gonna be him.

    Stevo Arnoczy

    hi emma’s cat! KJHAShkk to you too… in advance.

    Emma Tattenbaum-Fine

    so how did you create your drag character?

    Stevo Arnoczy

    SO Liz Beta was born after a show I acted in last year (TROIKA, dir: Kristine Lee). I played a drag queen goddess named Elizaveta who was a kind of Russian bombshell.

    Stevo Arnoczy

    i had comically large boob puppets. we called them buppets.image

                                                                                 Photo by Sasha Arutyunova

    Emma Tattenbaum-Fine

    YES now i remember everything. those were amazing.

    i remember those, ur cheekbones, and the rest of the play from there.

    So you had never played a woman before?

    Stevo Arnoczy

    that was the first time i played a woman.

    i remember being challenged as an actor because of the vulgar things Elizaveta said… and it truly all clicked after the first dress rehearsal where i put makeup on for the first time

    its that finding the character from the outside -> in thing we talked a bit about a few nights ago.

    Emma Tattenbaum-Fine

    yes, the same experience I had when Kelli Bartlett made me up to look like a dude.

    image

    However, what is this business of being scared to say vulgar things? That surprises me. You can’t say vulgar things as Stevo?

    Stevo Arnoczy

    It was more about the ownership of saying the specific vulgar things, from a female perspective… I’m paraphrasing, but Elizaveta said things like “I’m gonna make you cum after I tease you with my slippery nips… and other things like that.

    image

                                                                                 Photo by Sasha Arutyunova

    never was i opposed to it… but looking like a sexpot-y dominatrix allowed me to RELISH in the teasing.

    i guess the tone allowed me.

    Emma Tattenbaum-Fine

    And what made you decide to appropriate the character for your own purposes? u must have gotten a ton of positive feedback, for starters.

    Stevo Arnoczy

    drag was something I was interested in (from the sidelines) and LOVED watching starting in college. drag as cultural touchstone and community creator. When my friends saw Elizaveta and gave me their amazing feedback, I saw an investment in learning how to do it properly as a new way to express my creative self… a new way to build character.

    Emma Tattenbaum-Fine

    What is/has been your previous forms of expression? You are a video editor, right? Among other stuff.

    Stevo Arnoczy

    that’s right! Video editing came from a lifelong obsession with music videos.

    i guess my interest in drag follows logically - i get so excited by a fierce and spot on lip sync!

    image

    Emma Tattenbaum-Fine

    When I saw you perform I was most struck by how the sound was coming out of you effortlessly—your lip-syncing was very eerie and arresting. How the hell does one do that?

    Stevo Arnoczy

    it takes SO much rehearsal. Like way so much more rehearsal than learning lines for a play.

    Emma Tattenbaum-Fine

    what has surprised you about drag, from ur days of watching RuPaul to ur now days of doing it?

    Stevo Arnoczy

    Actors who have the great skill of mimicry make the best drag queens. I am not blessed with this skill of SKILLS, so it takes a lot of work. It’s more than just learning the words. It’s memorizing the emotion behind the inflection of the singer at any given moment…. and then you have to remember that it’s live and it’s to and for an audience….  It’s akin to juggling 5 balls of fire, to me.

    Emma Tattenbaum-Fine

    What about the purely creative part of creating the character? How did Liz Beta… who has some involvement with aliens, come out of Kristine’s character?

    Stevo Arnoczy

    I’m surprised by how many different kinds of drag queens there are. From character actresses to indie rap superstars, you name it, there’s a drag queen doing it in her weekly show… and that drag queen is in Brooklyn. It’s inspiring! And I guess personally, I’m surprised and have the most respect for the hard work that every start-up queen puts into learning the 7 seven layers of make-up, the wig crafting, the audio editing, and on and on for the opportunity to perform in one 7-minute slot on a Thursday night at midnight at a bar in Chelsea. like, it takes dedication and some money to do it on the NYC circuit!

    the brainstorming and dreaming up of the character’s back story is the most fun for me. I’ve never taken a playwriting class, but my experience with creating this persona for this play gave me access to that side of things… license to play!

    I’m a sci-fi geek. Andrew Scoville [director] and I are cut from the same cloth in many ways. I love robots and outer space (and Settlers of Catan!!!)

    Emma Tattenbaum-Fine

    I think of sci-fi as pimply straight boy stuff, not gorgeous gay guy stuff.

    Stevo Arnoczy

    I was like… well i’m thinking about this character Liz Beta. And what if she’s from the future…. and he said… “DUH! Yes! Tell me more!” and from then it was like a boulder down a mountain.

    Emma Tattenbaum-Fine

    won’t you please describe Liz Beta’s exact story?

    Stevo Arnoczy

    SO Liz Beta is from a planet (Planet f.1.S.h) which is millions of light years away.

    So far away in fact that the radiowaves from earth that are reaching her planet are from the 1940’s!

    Emma Tattenbaum-Fine

    oh yessss rightttttt… the sazerac shortened my memory of all this!

    Stevo Arnoczy

    So when she catches a stray frequency, it’s Peggy Lee, and Marlene Dietrich and Judy Garland (i know, i know)

    This is all she knows until a piece of her planet breaks off and travels the many millions of miles to crash land on earth on the meteor that hit Russia in February of 2013.

    Emma Tattenbaum-Fine

    Didn’t you sing Queen of the Night at one point too?  Was that one of the radio waves that reaches her?

    Stevo Arnoczy

    and in the performance she performed one of her standards (Why Don’t You Do Right, Peggy Lee) and we fast-forward in time for the second song, wherein she shows humankind what she’s learned on this great planet of ours, and she performs a mash-up of Queen of the Night and a hip-hop song that samples that aria (Kelis, ‘Like You’)

    haha

    and i guess she takes the form of a Russian beauty - the first thing she encounters!

    Emma Tattenbaum-Fine

    Cuz she lands in Russia!

    So has drag affected you personally or aspects of your sexual identity?

    Stevo Arnoczy

    i suppose drag has opened me up… it’s functioned as a sort of drastic step up in my sexual and mental maturity.

    when i tell guys that i meet for the first time that i perform in drag, their reaction is an immediate litmus test for whether or not we’d be emotionally/sexually compatible.

    Emma Tattenbaum-Fine

    What kinds of reactions do you get? It doesn’t make you an immediate superstar?

    Stevo Arnoczy

    Well, there’s still a stigma against effeminate in mainstream NYC gay male culture, or at least that’s what I find.

    Emma Tattenbaum-Fine

    but aren’t there plenty of men who dress in drag and then go around comfortably as males when they are offstage?

    anyway the mainstream in any culture is usually a bunch of dumb assholes.

    Artists are pretty much always right, which gets tiring.

    Stevo Arnoczy

    Absolutely. And there are more and more of them [men who perform in drag and feel good about it] since [RuPaul’s Drag Race]. Which is a beautiful thing. And in my experience, strictly speaking from the NYC gay bar and club scene, these men are worshipped for their Charisma Uniqueness Nerve and Talent on stage, and ignored when out of drag.

    Emma Tattenbaum-Fine

    you feel really liberated by drag, right?

    Stevo Arnoczy

    I DO feel liberated by drag. I’m secure in my sexuality and the people I’m usually attracted to couldn’t care less about me being a drag queen.  or at least that’s what i look for!  i don’t give people who think otherwise the time of day, honeyyy.  

    image

    This is Stevo with his “Drag Mother” Josh Nathaniel (Kiki), who has shown him the ropes, especially the 7 layers of make-up.

    Liz Beta, Stevo’s drag persona, is developing a ‘Human Experience Cabaret’ to debut this spring.  Keep up with her on her official fb page https://www.facebook.com/lizbetaqueen, or find Stevo at www.livemusicvideo.org.






     

  4. two-and-a-half-women:

    Emma’s mom R is a star. Happy birthday!!!

     


  5. Tara Lipinski Wins the Gold and Emma Has a Rough Night

    image

    When Tara Lipinski won the gold medal for women’s singles figure skating in 1998, I experienced the wake-up call of a lifetime.  She was 15.  I was 12.  My fate met me as I reached up to place a towel on the upper shelf of the linen closet next to the upstairs bathroom.  Tara Lipinski was to win a gold medal that night and I was to put away laundry.

    There was no way that, in three years, I could a) Learn to ice skate and b) Win a gold medal.  Besides, by the next Winter Olympics, I’d be sixteen: A has-been.  My window to be a child prodigy had opened and closed and I still hadn’t even found my one true gift.  Yes, I was good at spelling.  Yes, I was in the “Gifted and Talented” program.  But those were Jewish things, expected and unexceptional.  Besides, those were fat girl gifts.  I wanted to be lighter than air and excellent beyond measure.

    My moms and I sat down to watch the 1998 Winter Olympics and I felt queasy.  I wanted Michelle Kwan to win, desperately.  At 17 she seemed more accessible to me.  Maybe by 17 I could be somebody great too.  But would Michelle’s artistry and interpretation be a match for the cold, hard technical ability of Tara Lipinski?

    Tara was the youngest ever to complete a triple loop-triple loop and a triple toe/half loop/triple salchow.  It was gut-punchingly beautiful: 75 pounds of royal blue breath and joy cut the air like a tiny goddess.

    I’ve had many talented friends and I’ve recognized this quality in all of them.  When a girl is a natural she has a glow in her cheeks, a humble exultation that says, “I don’t know how I got this gift, but I’m sure as hell gonna share it.”  You can see it in early videos of Mariah Carey too.  She slips into her whistle tone and seems to inwardly giggle, saying: “I know, right?” 

    In an early video of me, naked and covered in chicken pox, I perform “A Little Mermaid: The Puppet Show”.  I mean…  should I even exist?

    If Michelle Kwan could pull off this gold medal, I told myself, there was hope for the rest of us: all the 12-year-olds who felt things deeply, but were imperfect.  Michelle skated flawlessly, but it wasn’t enough.  For all her artistry and fine interpretation, which the judges and commentators extolled, Tara took the gold. 

    When 2002 rolled around and Michelle’s hand touched the ice in her long program, the crowd let out a wounded exhalation and it shot me off the couch like a piston, “Ok, I’m going to bed.”

    My mothers: “You don’t even wanna watch the medal ceremony?  She hasn’t even finished the routine yet.  Don’t you like the costume?”

    I lay upstairs worrying for Michelle Kwan.  Worrying for myself.  And watching her hand, over and over, touch the ice to come in second place again.

     


  6. Meeting My Father (Sorta Kinda Not Really)

    When I was 8 my mom, M, helped me to draw what I thought my dad looked like.

    Together we created the most butch heterosexual male that a lesbian femme and a little girl can muster.  We gave him blonde hair like me and put him in a Dallas Cowboys sweatshirt, asking each other, “that’s football, right?”  We put holes in his jeans, made him a very slim and modest 5’7”, gave him hazel eyes like mine and named him Francis, thereby undoing his masculinity in one fell swoop.  We gave him glasses too, deciding that he ought to be a smart sort of football fan, not one of those loud assholes you see barfing in the stands. 

    Together we colored in Francis and then looked at him against the background of the wooden floor,

    image

    colored pencils splayed out and rolling away from our masterpiece.  He was so “dad-ish”!  And like Pygmalion I gazed into his eyes, imbuing him with personhood and easily loving him.

    When I was 23 I met Francis at a Halloween party at Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theatre.  I was on the dance floor dressed as the sexy green M & M.

    image

     I was with a marvelous spindly guy, who was dressed as a marvelous spindly guy, dancing my heart out when his friend approached.  His friend was dressed as a marvelous spindly guy’s friend and was a terrible dancer, but his interest in me was clear.  He was blonde and pale.  I felt instantly that I had met him before.  We started to dance, badly, and his more talented friend left us to stare into one another.  He introduced himself as Edward, nervously touching his glasses and blinking his hazel eyes.

    We started dating casually and I found him to be warm, compellingly bizarre, and formidably intelligent.  At a speakeasy one night I told him that as an eight-year-old I had drawn an eerily accurate rendering of him and that I was essentially dating my father.  He took the news in stride.  No one is really impressed by anything at a speakeasy. 

    When he dumped me, citing vaguely that he was either horribly depressed or gay or both, I wrote no fewer than 19 poems and one comedic sketch about him.  Most men I’ve slept with get 0 poems and one sketch written about them on average, to give you a sense of comparison.

    Edward had promised to help my sketch comedy group submit a pilot to MTV, where he was working.  However, after months of our blood, sweat, tears, and fundraising, he read the pilot and said it was utterly incoherent and bad and never pushed it any further.

    image

    So that was Francis, having never actually existed in the first place, incarnated as an unsuccessful relationship and a botched networking opportunity.  This is what happens, I suppose, when you try to date your father and you’re working off of a drawing. ; )

    image

     


  7. Better to be Straight if You Can

     image

    I asked my lesbian mother whether she would prefer if I turned out gay or straight.  We were in my loft bed: a private place at the top of the world, perfect for a hushed conversation like this.  I was aware of the topic’s sensitivity and I knew I’d put her in a bind.

    “Well,” she was choosing her words carefully, but she wouldn’t tuck me in without telling me the truth.  “I want you to be happy and to be whoever you are, but, if you can pick, I’d want for you to be straight.”

    “Why?”

    “Because it’s easier.”

    She tucked me in, adjusting my stuffed elephant’s position under the blanket, and began her descent down the bed’s ladder, passing my Mongolian Box Turtles, “Harry” and “Kiwi”, as she went and wishing them a good night too.

    Years later, in middle school, I sat at our crowded lunch table, a mix of cafeteria trays and my vegan/pre-anorexic munchies jockeying for space on the small square table. 

    Leah started in “Who do you think is cute?  What about Mike?”

    Mike stood in the lunch line looking just as cute or un-cute as any boy.  I could barely tell them all apart, the boys, with their boring, colorless clothing and their loud dumb voices.  But I held back my lack of opinion, concerned that this was not the correct response and anxious to hear what the other girls would say.

    “Aaron.  I think he’s cute.”

    “I knew it.  I knew you liked him.”

    “I’m not saying I like him, I’m just saying he’s cute.” 

    Well, this was the longest I’d ever maintained any period of listening or silence, so I chimed in, unable to restrain myself and giving in to a long held curiosity:

    “What exactly are we looking for,” I began, “when we say ‘cute’?”

    Leah patiently explained, “Well, like, do you like his face, his body—”

    “How he dresses.”

    “The stuff he says in class,” the other girls chimed in, stealing from my pile of Brazil nuts.

    And their eyes returned to the lunch line.  I could feel in their bodies an energetic charge, a graining tension pulling from our table toward the cash register, where the boys now filed out and took their stratified places among the royalty and the proletariats of the middle school feudal system.  Their trays were piled high with cookies, and Gatorade, their bodies rail thin from the ravages of early male puberty.  I admired how they could eat so much and still be skinny, but I could tell the other girls were seeing something more in their tossled greasy hair and skater pants.  My presence seemed to bring down the table, the only girl not moving about to get a better look at so-and-so.  I sipped my Fresh Samantha and pulled off a piece of my Latvian bread, wondering if, in some dispassionate way, I was fated to be a lesbian.

    Really I felt pretty asexual.   I had fixations on girls; wanted to be pretty like the prettier girls, thinner like the thinner girls.  I thought that female bodies were beautiful.  I remember the Russian immigrant girls with their enormous breasts, already ashamed at their hand-me-down clothes and broken English, slumping their shoulders to hide the fact that they were a year or two older than their naturalized peers. 

    I thought the skinny tall girls with their training bras and mosquito-bite-sized breasts were beautiful, and the petite girls with silky hair and stylish clothing.  The girls were so interesting to me: Which ones covered their acne with thick powder and which ones didn’t.  Which girls had gotten their period and which ones hadn’t.  With so much to admire and speculate on, it was confounding to me that my friends even noticed the boys, who trounced about like two-legged dogs, eating everything and smelling like moldy onions, with little variation among them.

    But if I really thought about it… thought so hard it made my brain hurt…

    “Yes, there is a boy I find cute.”

    “Okay, who is it?” Katie asked, maybe just a little doubtful at this point as to the veracity of my claim.

    “Greg.”

    “Ugh.  I hate Greg.”

     “I know, I hate him too,” I said, “but for some reason I think he’s cute.”

     “Why?” Leah asked.  And it was true, there had to be a reason he was cute, or I was failing to fulfill the rules of the conversation.

    “Well, he kind of looks like my dog.”

    Leah shook her head, “I don’t think you’re really getting this.”

    “But think about it, doesn’t he kind of look like a Jack Russell terrier?  ‘Cause he has brown hair, very white skin, and his nose and mouth kind of look like a snout.”

    There was agreement and laughter on this point.  Greg was one of the popular boys.  From our distant vantage point, he appeared to be relatively attractive and stylish, with a sour personality.

    “So you think Greg is cute because you love your dog and your dog is cute,” said Leah.

    “Yes.  Greg reminds me of my dog, which I mean in a nice way.”

    But when eighth grade rolled around a year later, suddenly the boys, even without breasts, long hair, or colorful clothes, took on their own special sort of appeal.  The girls were still more interesting to look at, but the boys had the consummate advantage of being mysterious and, if they were nerdy and Jewish, just a little nervous when they spoke to me.

     


  8. Wish You Were Dead So I Could Have a Daddy

    

    When I was six-years-old, I told my mother that I wished she would die so I could have a daddy.  We were in a yellow NYC taxicab on the way to my sixth birthday party, an affair which, like my wildly successful fifth birthday party, would be held at a children’s theater.  A performance of Goldilocks and the Three Bears was to be held in my honor, followed by ice cream cake and a sing along.  My other mother, the one I loved unreservedly, was already at the theater awaiting our arrival. 

    As soon as I said the words, I regretted them.  I had tasted them before, like a recipe you consider before making.  In the same way you wonder if ricotta cheese might be nice with pine nuts, I had thought… what would it be like to put the words “dead” and “I wish you were” with the words “so I could have a daddy.” 

    I had found my non-biological mother’s Achilles’ heel and swung a golf club into it.  And it felt like shit for both of us.

    Because I was about to have a birthday party and because neither of us knew what to say, we said nothing. 

    By this point I had been in therapy for two years.  I just wasn’t getting along with R and it was toxic to our family.  I firmly believed that I was in therapy because of what I perceived to be a bat hidden in the overhead light of my bedroom.  I would tell the therapist how I was afraid of the bat in the light in my bedroom.  She would, I thought rather nonsensically, ask why I hated my mother.  I would respond, for what seemed like the ninth time, “You do realize that there is a bat haunting the overhead light of my bedroom?”  Then I would chug Perrier and help myself to a fistful of the therapist’s amazing jelly-filled cookies.  We didn’t seem to be communicating.  I was four.

    The therapist’s name was Annie and her office was the first place I ever experienced a cushioned toilet seat.  I thought it was miraculous because it was like peeing into a couch with a hole through it.  I loved therapy.  Then I would start to play with dolls and Annie would watch.  I thought it was a little dumb that she wasn’t playing with me, but I didn’t let it get in the way of my fun.  I would just mumble softly between the dolls to give myself privacy and ignore the total weirdness of a giant adult peering into a dollhouse.  I wrote her off as a very, very attentive babysitter with excellent taste in food and beverage and an exceptionally soft toilet.  Then suddenly, just as one doll would kiss another goodnight: “Let’s talk about Mommy R.” 

    In case you are not in a sufficiently privileged position to know; there is nothing more jarring for a little kid than to be interrogated midway through her play therapy.  

    Another therapist showed me Rorshachs: those ink blots that are supposed to reveal the depths of your spirit.  I saw black butterflies, black clowns, black horses, black clouds and then… still butterflies.  Sometimes I saw boats, but I never saw any clarity on a) the bat who haunted the light fixture in my bedroom or b) my relationship with my mother, Mommy R.

    She would buy me presents, endless presents from her business trips: Dolls and headbands, watches, beautiful clothes.  She gave me everything I wanted, but you can see in those childhood photos, in footage of birthday parties, that I was angry at her always.  At my third birthday party, covered in frills and blonde bangs, I push the knife into my birthday cake and scowl at R: A small, supervised, angry child with a knife. 

    R’s enthusiasm and love for me was Herculean.  She was fearful of losing me; anxious at her legally tenuous ties to me.  Anxious at the dearth of a genetic tie to me. 

    She loves me with the force that perhaps only a non-biological mother can.  A force that is less like the strength of blood and more like the strength of a Mack Truck.  In the absence of a genetic bond, our mother-daughter relationship has many dimensions; she is my confidant, my mentor, my coach, my guide, and captain of my cheerleading team.  Our connection has a greater sense of wild coincidence, like two spirits blown together in a powerful windstorm.  Maybe it was just plain old-fashioned fate, but there was very likely some sort of windstorm involved.

    Throughout this turbulent preschool/elementary school period, and indeed always, I told my friends and the strangers I met a simple story:  “I’m Emma and I have two moms.”  As it must be for the Kardashians and any family with a public image to uphold, reality gets streamlined: “Yes, they are both my moms.  Yes, I love them both the same way and with no differentiation between them.”

    The constant assertion that both M and R were my moms in the very same capacity perhaps made me angry, though I was the one promulgating this most vocally.  I don’t know how much I actually wanted a dad.  I think the last thing I needed was more parents.  But the lack of a dad was the thing I could point to.  I wanted for nothing else, so naturally that came to mind.    

    I think I told R that I wanted her to “die so I could have a daddy” because a) children are horrible, and because b) I didn’t know what our relationship was and I was tired of pushing and pushing for there to be another identical mom spot when I already had one filled.  Never in a million years would I have said this to a therapist as a four-year-old, because a) I just figured it out when I wrote this and b) when you’re blazing a path for LGBTQ families, there is little time for troubles.  Things simply must be good.  They must be good and they must be simple or you’ve lost your platform. 

    When I was 10 years old, R would take me and a sizable group of my closest friends out to the movies.  We all held hands in the giant empty parking lot, forming one long snake of kids.  She would jerk her supremely strong arm and we would ripple and dance with her superhuman energy throughout the parking lot.  In those moments, thrown around at the end of a chain of powerful love, I didn’t feel angry at her.  I just held on tight, laughed and shrieked, and let her force carry me.

     


  9. Gay Pride March vs. “Christians”

    When I was eight, my moms and I attended a gay pride march and I got my first taste of blatant homophobia.  We were marching with our rainbows and chanting, “We’re here, We’re Queer, Get used to it!”

    And from across a waist-high barricade, the “Christians” responded: “You’re here, you’re queer, You won’t be here next year!”

    So ominous.  Where would we be next year?  I imagined us, the whole throng of us, evaporated in a quiet mushroom cloud, like we’d never happened. They were holding signs covered in hell fire.  The signs themselves seemed passive and fairly innocuous compared to the energized, shrill sound of their voices.  They were so real and so close and they hated us.   Well, no, I suppose I should clarify: They loved us but hated our sins - a.k.a. our families.

    I remember the experience as a movie I’d suddenly jumped into.  In my normal life I was just a kid with two moms, but now I was a character, a heroine, and these shouting bigots, who just looked like regular people if you saw them on the street, were playing the enemy.  I wasn’t scared - my team was bigger, happier, and better dressed.  I was just surprised that hate was such a real and nearby thing.  I had never seen adults behave like this before.  I was familiar with kids who said homophobic things, and to them I’d patiently explain away their mis-education and they always listened.  But this crowd, with their posters and their sinister variation on our chant was so beyond playground re-education…  I couldn’t fix them.

    The images of fire and rainbows, to an eight-year-old girl raised on My Little Ponies, broadcast such a simple good and evil paradigm.  I was certain that we were in the right.  I was holding my moms’ hands.  I was the viewer of a spectacle that I myself was, in part, creating. 

    The antipathy of the protesters felt like a big misunderstanding, like a voicemail they’d forgotten to pick up: “Didn’t you get my message?  I said gay people are your equal.” For other kids around the country raised by two moms, this type of homophobia must have been routine, but for me it was blessedly exotic: tourism in the land of oppression.  

    I regarded them as we passed, not exclusively as bad guys, but also as younger children who couldn’t read yet - disempowered people in need of education.  And that is exactly how these religious adults must have seen me; one of the few kids sprinkled throughout the big gay crowd, bedazzled in rainbow gems with the heat of hell fire nipping at her little heels. 

    “Oh if only that little girl knew Jesus like I do,” they thought.  “Then she could be saved from the clutches of the evil gays.”

     


  10. Blonde American in Abu Dhabi

    In the way that a baby will repeatedly drop an object for the sheer delight of watching you pick it up, I, as a 24-year-old, threw myself in front of men to see if they would pick me up.  And like a delighted baby, never happier than when seeing a dirty spoon returned to my highchair to be dropped again, I felt my confidence grow with each conquest.  This did not necessarily result in promiscuity. (I mean, not always.)  Lots of the flirting I did that year was a sonar call, a blind bat sending out a message: “Do you think I’m hot?” and the nearest cave wall responding, “Yes, bat, you are hot.”  And the bat responding, “Ok, cool, just checking.” 

    At this point in my life I was “self-actualizing”: I thought my self had finally gotten hot and wanted to know if this was actually true.  The mirror, with its past history of subjectivity and lies, did not feel like a proper gauge.  Men did.

    In an interesting confluence of events, during this time of sexual exploration, I got a thrilling opportunity to do a show in Abu Dhabi.  This is a place where sexual exploration, unless it’s sex with your husband, can get you arrested.

    The spoon was in my hand, tilting floorward.  Within these new repressive parameters, surely I could explore a little without ending up beating down the door of the American Embassy.  The warning stories I’d heard, about a couple imprisoned for years for kissing in public, were so ludicrous.  I believed them, but I couldn’t really wrap my head around a society that would be so easily offended.  I was anxious to find out who I was in this new place, and whether the khanduras and burqas would reflect my sonar bat call.

    Before going, I, and the other women in the cast, were warned endlessly… not to go out alone and not to talk to men.  And of course, not to drink outside hotel settings or better yet, at all.  So when the show was over, and the rest of the cast had left the country, I stood alone on the deck of a resort overlooking the ocean.  While applying sunscreen, I caught the eyes of some young Arabic men I wasn’t supposed to talk to.  

    They came over and offered to get me a drink.  We introduced ourselves to one another and we sat together, the three of us drinking very alcoholic sugary drinks as they proceeded to tell me how powerful one of their fathers was. 

    Through connections, the boy was working as a bodyguard to a shah.  It later became clear that “bodyguard” was a mistranslation and he actually meant “member of a shah’s entourage”, which made a lot more sense.  I could see all of his bones and up close it was clear that he was trying, and failing, to grow a light mustache of upper lip pubic hair.  He didn’t look like he could protect himself, much less some other person.

    He was soon wasted and stumbly.  It was then that the embarrassing fact emerged that he was convicted of “raping” his younger girlfriend  (the air quotes are his, not mine) and he had done jail time.   My eyes wandered to the scars on his forearms and he told me that he had tried to kill himself while incarcerated.  He told me that this ex-girlfriend of his had really big breasts so… the whole rape thing was bogus.  I did not follow the logic, but the story definitely put me off my boozy, chocolatey drink.  Even with my chronic, open-minded optimism, I saw that this guy was “no good for me.”  I cut my losses and shifted my attention to his hotter friend, who was demure enough to keep quiet on his criminal record, if he had one.

    We chatted about what all they did for fun in Abu Dhabi (smoking shisha, coming to this resort on weekends, the much anticipated arrival of the Formula 1 race track) and we did achieve a formidable conversation about the new vs. old culture there, and Western assimilation.  This was more soul-baring and camaraderie than I was expecting between the chasm of our sexes, especially given my status as a foreigner.  My Jewishness was a fact I had been explicitly warned to omit from conversation, and this advice I heeded.  Oh, and I also didn’t mention my lesbian parents.  As an unmarried, childless, 24-year-old blonde, I was already other enough.  “Look at me, just sitting here and breaking barriers,” I thought.

    Then the conversation turned abruptly to the fact that since I was “an American girl anyway”, I should just come up to their room.  This was disappointing.  I naively thought that, while I had batted an eyelash or two to start the conversation, we were now having a legitimate intercultural dialogue.  After all, my bathing suit was a one piece.  Was I not projecting some conservatism?

    I was sorry for them that they were doing exactly what I was warned they’d do… but then it occurred to me that I was doing exactly what they’d been promised an American girl would do: drink in a bathing suit and talk to them, alone.

    I told them no way I was coming to their room and I fled to the ocean for a swim (not unlike bounding upstairs in a horror movie,  I know).  The skinny jailbird stayed back to loll around drunkenly and the hotter, more sober, less suicidal boy followed me into the water.  We waded out, with him just behind me and when I turned he said resolutely… “Tonight I’m going to give the concierge your name and find out your room number and me and my friend are coming to your room.”

    At which point I realized I had made a mistake.  Now I was a bat in what had turned out to be a very small cave, using echolocation to quickly seek the exit.  Perhaps Abu Dhabi really was the wrong place for my self-actualization.  (I know that you, dear non-judgmental reader, had that moment of realization several paragraphs ago when “raping” was presented with air quotes.)  I then became very adrenalized as I switched gears and used what I call my “self-defense” voice, a voice you too can achieve by tensing your abdominal wall and roaring like a banshee from the depths of your vagina: “YOU ARE NOT COMING TO MY ROOM. WHAT YOU ARE DOING IS RUINING MY ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME VACATION.  GET OUT OF THIS OCEAN RIGHT NOW.” 

    And with a flash of my entitled, “slutty” American tail, I swam away.  And the “darkly handsome” predator left the ocean.  And we both became “more culturally aware”.

    Then I returned to New York and continued to look for love in a few more of the wrong, albeit way less dangerous, places.

     A version of this essay first appeared on politicalsubversities.com.