When Carlos asked why I would risk my whole career for Peter Torrelli, I told him he had to understand that in those last three years of high school, Peter and I were the only two gay boys in Chicago.
So Drew starts his tale. He and Peter were best friends in high school, shared a phobia that they would be suddenly transported into the body of an actor or priest or musician or speaker and would have to figure a way out. They kissed once, and didn’t speak for two weeks after; sometimes intimacy is too hard to bear. Peter, extremely good-looking, became an actor because “the only way he could enjoy a play was from the inside.” Drew does publicity for NPR, and his partner Carlos has been leaving him in slow-motion at the time the story opens, with Peter Torrelli, falling apart.
Peter does this falling apart during a performance of Richard III when he forgets how to act in between two lines: “…I was some kid in eighth-grade English and I had to read my poem out loud. It was just me, and there was no character, no play, just these words I had to say. You know our whole thing about leapfrogging into someone else’s body? It was like that, but like I suddenly leapfrogged into myself.” I love this description, and I understand exactly what it means. What I don’t understand is why it happened at that moment, which would seem to me to add some meaning to the event.
Predictably, Peter’s career declines. Third-rate dinner theatre becomes a way of life. Then Drew, playing caretaker, offers Peter a job reading stories at an art exhibit. This seems to be a career risk for Drew, though I don’t quite see why. It isn’t a command performance, things always go wrong at events like this. And of course things do go wrong, and the story becomes unbearably beautiful. The art exhibit is wonderful, stories and poems inspired by paintings. Peter reads a story titled “The Gum Flies Away” to accompany a painting of a giant pack of gum hovering over the city. A dream about things leaving, notice of a landmark disappearing, things flying away all over the place. Things change. The gum flies away. And we get used to it, which is the saddest part of all.
Addendum: I’m very happy to see this story in BASS 2011. Rebecca Makkai’s Contributor Note is almost as good as the story:
When I started this story, I was at that point in my twenties when I realized that the adult world to which I had worked so hard to acclimate myself was in fact changing and disappearing…. two local icons, Marshall Field and the Berghoff, went up in smoke at around the same time (although the Berghoff has since reinvented and reopened), while the Art Institute hid its armor upstairs and put its crown jewel, Marc Chagall’s America Windows, in storage…I wanted to write about the metamorphosis of one person – someone around whom the narrator’s adult personality had grown like a vine – whose existential crisis would seem, to his friend, like a crumbling of the entire known world.
It should be noted that Rob Spillman of Tin House edited this story under the most heroic of circumstances. Shortly after his hand was badly injured when a water-filled light fixture fell on it, I emailed him to say (rather hormonally, I fear) that my c-section was scheduled in a week, and if he wanted anything changed, he’d better act fast. Between the two of us – he typing one-handed, I separated from my desk by an enormous belly – we managed to get it done.
There’s also a mourning for NPR (sigh), and a challenge to the Art Institute to put on an event something like the one Drew coordinates. And I am thinking of Painters, Players and Poets, the exhibition of Maine artists, poets, musicians and chairmakers. Not exactly the same thing (it wasn’t live, for one thing), but in that direction.