If he timed it right, he’d have a little under four minutes to make it backstage, take a bump or two, clear his head, before he had to face the crowd again. If he timed it wrong, Cady and Marissa would have to vamp.
Tonight was Triple Threat with Teddy French, his monthly residency at the overpriced Hell’s Kitchen Lounge, which was in a bit of a downturn in popularity. It was also his birthday show, and billed as such. He was turning thirty (officially) and thirty-four (in reality).
He darted offstage, leaving behind his cohorts, the girls: Cady, wavy brunette hair and zaftig, and Marissa, half Irish and half Puerto Rican, with glossy black hair, storky with her impossibly long legs and thin arms and birdlike movements. They would be doing their standard duet from Rent, “Take Me or Leave Me”, and he could hear their well-rehearsed banter. He left them to the clanging and scraping of cutlery, the nasal brays of the twinks at the table to the right of the stage who somehow still believed that fruity cocktails served in martini glasses were acceptable, ah youth, but worst of all to the bachelorette party — a galaxy of shrieky, giggly girls with light-up rings and hot pink boas and plastic tiaras — which really set Teddy off.
The day began with a phone call from his mother, one filled with awkward pauses and unvoiced truths, which he followed by responding to messages on Facebook, engaging in a desultory jerk-off session, a shower, early dinner and cocktails with a few close friends and more to follow later.
He ran the gauntlet of gathered gays, mic still in hand but switched off, his brow still sweaty and his armpits damp from his last number, “Don’t Leave Me This Way”, which he’d been doing onstage since, well… it was also the anniversary of that dismal failure. Still, it was his signature song. He weaved past the DJ booth, with a quick wave to Hector, and nearly collided with the bus boy he’d fooled around with in the bathroom downstairs a few months ago, and had to weave through a couple of older businessmen, who must have come for happy hour but were still here, now obviously past an acceptable level of intoxication, faces flushed and tie knots loosened, one with a silver strand of hair flopping down over his eye. Gathered around the back bar, there were three boys, well, men really, about his age, wearing T-shirts from her concert tour. She was playing three sold out nights at an arena across the river.
Once safely ensconced in the grim little cubby that served as the dressing room, that smelled like ammonia and hairspray, he chopped out a few lines. It had all become terribly rote. Opening number, a bit of crowd work, banter with the girls, a do-si-do of solo and duet numbers, a reminder to the crowd to download his single off iTunes. He had a single, now. He was working with a producer, again. He had guest spots on several other shows; he was in talks about doing a few slots on ____’s tour. Possibly. He was angling for a residency at another club just down the street, another late night slot but the audience was more moneyed, theater types and cabaret aficionados. He wanted to pitch a memoir, maybe.
It didn’t usually bother him, this life. But like a broken bone aches with the intimations of an oncoming storm, there were times where the pang was too present to ignore. He took another line up his nostril, and thought: the time of lost fabulosity.
It started and ended with “Star Search”. He’d beaten a girl named Candace, why he remembered her name he couldn’t say, she was no one special, after, and come back to face the champion: her. The clip was on YouTube, it had been seen on countless music television docu-programs and When They Were Nobodies clip shows. Little Teddy, all of six years old, decked out in his black felt cowboy hat, bolo tie, shiny black cowboy boots – his lucky outfit. He’d sung, of course, “Don’t Leave Me This Way”, but even then he could read a room, he knew the energy was off. Then she sang “Love Can Build a Bridge” and it was all over. He stood there, hat literally in hand, as the judges’ tallies came in, Ed McMahon standing between them, a doughy hand resting on each of their shoulders. Then with a firm push he was heading towards the wings, the click-clack of the heels of his boots on the polished stage drowned out by the audience’s applause. His birthday, too, that day. It wasn’t his fault that his parents divorced six months after. It wasn’t his fault that he and his mother had to move in with her sister, his aunt Lucy, until they could get back on their feet. It wasn’t his fault, but if he had not lost…
The schadenfreude he allowed himself to feel, when she was at her lowest, at least in the public eye, spilling panty-less from staggeringly high black SUVs, or commandeering a karaoke event backroom of a nightclub, throwing a used tampon at a paparazzo, all forgotten with the next PR blitz airbrushed personality rehabbed Twittered crest of the wave, manufactured resurgence occurred. Never underestimate the public’s willingness to embrace redemption, however coldly manufactured.
From the cramped nook of the dressing room, he could hear Cady and Marissa cueing him to come back onstage. It’s a very special Triple Threat this evening, Cady trilled. It’s our very own Teddy French’s birthday, Marissa followed. Let’s get him back out here, and on the count of three, let’s sing “Happy Birthday”. In unison they counted down 3-2-1. Teddy remained where he was, gaze fixed on the mirror, as the off-key strains of the song started in earnest.
Mike Dressel is a writer and educator. His work has appeared in publications such as Litbreak, The James Franco Review, Chelsea Station, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn, among others, as well as in the anthologies Best Gay Stories 2016 and Best Gay Stories 2017. He co-produces the nonfiction reading series No, YOU Tell It!
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