From experience, my husband Dave and I know the perfect vacation is the one we’re planning to take next. The one that’s still a bit up in the air, destination fuzzy, dates wide open, details sketchy. That’s when a vacation is absolutely perfect. Once the dates are nailed down, once the packing list is drawn up, once there are bills to pre-pay and animals to be seen to in our absence, already a vacation starts to feel a little less than ideal.
We prefer to keep our plans a bit open-ended. Make room for serendipity. Leave time to stop at roadside attractions, follow the sign pointing left: “antiques, five miles” or right, “historical marker, one mile.”
Last week we were at last ready for vacation. We scheduled a week and a day off work, would head west to Kansas. We would venture into the unknown by attending a men’s gathering billed as “an experiment in community building.” No appointed leader, daily decisions made by group consensus. We’d registered for three of the twelve days. If we liked it, perhaps we’d stay six. Or maybe we’d head south, visit family members in Missouri.
We were ready to start loading the car when I wrenched my lower back. I felt as if a large needle pierced my spine. Whenever I moved, it jabbed further in. I pull my back about once every other year. I have visited my more than my share of chiropractors, medical doctors and physical therapists. I’ve learned the best treatment for me involves a week of lying flat on my back. I headed for bed. I lay very still. Refused to drink. I didn’t want to have to get up to pee.
Dave and I switched plans. We would stay home. He would nurse me whilst I nursed my back. I had anticipated a relaxing vacation, but this wasn’t what I had in mind.
I told Dave I knew what awaited me: at first I would taking enjoy long naps, reading books, writing letters, listening to NPR, taking it easy, but by day four I’d be ready to climb the walls. He circumvented this outcome on day three. He brought a portable DVD player to my bedside along with Terrence McNally’s Angels in America, an hours-long HBO miniseries. He and I have twice seen the two-part stage play. I bought copies of the scripts. But we had never watched the DVD.
Angels in America won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Set in the early years of the AIDS pandemic, it traces the stories of several characters whose stories overlap and intermingle. They must wrestle with ageless themes such as the problem of pain, betrayal, death, forgiveness, politics, religion, sex, love and hope. Some of its scenes have rumbled in my mind ever since the first time I saw it on stage. When tempted to sidestep difficult questions, I often recall the Mormon mother’s response when Harper who asks if the covered wagon ride west was difficult. “You ain’t stupid. So don’t ask stupid. Ask something for real.” When loss lays me low, when I feel sad and bereft, I recall the Mormon mother’s description of how people change: God rips you open with a jagged thumbnail, pulls out your guts, musses them all around, piles them back in. It’s up to you to stitch up the torn flesh. These are not comforting images, yet I find hope in knowing others have felt the way I do, faced similar challenges, survived, fashioned art of pain and loss.
Dave and I watched the DVD together—all six hours—nearly straight through. Then I watched it again. Then I read through the script of the stage play as I watched the screen adaptation, noted where lines had been cut, scenes shifted around.
The story’s main characters include a young man living with AIDS, his Jewish lover, a big-city lawyer dying of AIDS, a closeted young law clerk and his wife. In the troubled relationship between these latter two, Joe and Harper, I hear echoes of my previous marriage. All through the piece I hear the very human drama of life—harrowing, heavenly, poignant beyond words, laugh-out-loud funny, sobering. The action centers in New York with side trips to Antarctica and heaven.
I lost count of how many times I watched Angels in America during our vacation. As long as it kept speaking to me I kept listening. I'm like that. I can eat the same food for nearly a week. I have more than once downed an entire pecan pie at a sitting. Recently I compiled a CD of Leonard Cohen's song, Hallelujah, sung by 17 different artists. I play it when Dave is not around.
I replayed the Angels DVD time and again, some scenes even more times than that. Especially the one in which the hunky law clerk strips naked on a cold windy beach. The camera focuses on his face and bare chest as he begins to undress. Then it cuts to a back view as he pulls off his temple undergarments revealing his bare back, buttocks, thighs and calves. I played this scene at regular speed, in slow-motion and in stop-action. Twice a day I masturbated to the sight of that gorgeous man on screen. Spent, I'd let the DVD play on, watch through to the end of the movie, then start in again from the beginning.
I quoted lines from the movie in casual conversation with Dave. "Even in New York in the 80s, that is strange," I'd say, and "Respect the delicate ecology of your delusions." Sometimes we quoted lines to each other. I'd thank him for bringing me yet another meal in bed with, "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers" and he'd reply (per the script), "Well, that's a stupid thing to do." We'd both laugh.
Angels wove itself into my dreams. I found myself wandering a heaven that looked very much as its depicted in the movie. I talked to angels, wrestled with issues far beyond my ken.
For much of our vacation, Angels became the lens through which I looked at the world. I read from Emerson's Essays and connected what he has to say with what Louis yammers on about on page such and such. I read a Mary Oliver poem and thought, "That's what Mother Pitt expresses when she, Prior, Louis and Belize are talking at Bethesda Fountain." I pondered my life in terms of the play, thought about the people on my "to forgive" list. Can I forgive them before I die? Before they die? I wondered if, like one of the supporting characters, I could take my hate and condense it to a pinpoint of light up in the night sky. What color of light would it emit?
Angels brings up all sorts of questions for me. What does it mean that humans have wrestled with many of the same themes for millennia? Or have we? And what is it to look back at the 80s through the eyes of Angels from the perspective of 2009? Do I know how it all turns out? Many of these characters would be my age now. How will they have grown? What will be their thinking now?
Do all stories end happily? No, of course not. Does this one? Will mine? And what is a truly happy ending? Is there truly an ending?
The main character in Angels goes to heaven and talks with the heavenly messengers. They encourage him to stay. He refuses heaven, returns to earth saying (in my paraphrase), “I can’t help it. I want more life. It’s not enough, it is so not enough, and yet we humans we keep hoping beyond hope, beyond all the body can bear, when hope should be gone, still we say, 'More life.' It’s in our nature."
More life. That's what I was after when I came out, when I stepped into the death of my known self, launched into the unknown, the unknowable. Some part of me was saying, still says, "I will not let thee go except thou bless me." Some part of me has long been wrestling with the angels.
More life. That's one translation of the Hebrew word that is also rendered as "blessing." Our vacation afforded my an unlooked for opportunity to wrestle with angels. To look at the world through different eyes. And I come away feeling blessed.
This essay remains unpublished.