I’ve been thinking recently about the summer of 1997. I was a couple months shy of 18. It was that glorious time when we’re done with high school but not yet in college, so we’re this strange kind of free that is unique only to those few months. It’s impossible for me to believe that was 16 years ago, and yet in other ways it seems like forever ago.#PRIVATE#
That was the year I was an actor in summer stock. Among other roles, I was “Honey” in Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolf? – opposite (get this!) Ron Palillo, who you might recall better as “Horshack” from “Welcome Back, Kotter.” The play was intense. Ron was intense. All of the theatre I performed that summer — play after play after play — was like a whole world unto itself. Many of us rotated through several of the plays — I, for some reason, was in all of them.
That was the year that three people I knew suddenly died. First, there was Muriel — my father’s second wife (though he was already remarried to his third — and final? — by then). Muriel had been my step-mother for several years, and after she and my father split, we stayed in touch. She was thoughtful and patient, artistic and funny. She died of cancer, on the same week that my best friend’s brother died. He had been extremely ill his whole life, due to improper handling at birth, and at 20 years old he finally passed away. A week later, my high school theatre teacher suddenly died of a horrible infection, and my knees finally gave out beneath me. Theatre had been my entire life — I had just gotten voted “Most Dramatic” at my high school (shocking, I know). And so, though it was a tumultuous relationship, my teacher, Reyla, and I had been extremely close. News of her death — which occurred just a few weeks before graduation — permeated the air of our school and forever affected me. My summer stock director, Nick, had once upon a time been a student of Reyla’s, and when rehearsals began for our whirlwind summer, he took me under his wing.
So did Jimmy. 1997 was the summer we met. He was 25, blonde and blue-eyed, and looked like a cross between Kurt Cobain and a “surfer dude.” In truth, that looked odd against my black hair and raccoon-inspired eye makeup. Still, we fell madly and furiously in love, and our relationship lasted for many years thereafter (with a few breaks here and there). Jimmy was as devoted as he was fragile. When he helped me move into my college residence in late August — on the closing night of Virginia Wolf (and the night that Princess Di was killed), he wept copiously. Years later, after one of our “breaks” — the one where I had come out as “bi” — we got engaged. We lived on the bottom floor of a small house in Jersey City — Jimmy was a waiter at night, and I was working as an actor-educator with a theatre company. 9/11 had just happened (Jimmy had actually been at the World Trade Center less than one hour before the first plane hit), and the City was still trying to collectively catch its breath. Years after we broke up, Jimmy moved into the tiny second bedroom of my Washington Heights apartment. And then one day, just like that, he up and left New York, returning to rural Pennsylvania to work as a car mechanic. He soon found himself with a girlfriend, and even though by then I had come out as a lesbian, said girlfriend was uncomfortable with the intimacy of our relationship (maybe I don’t blame her), and Jimmy stopped talking to me. I still try to call him once a year, just to make sure he’s still alive (he did, after all, fancy dangerous, daredevil motorcycle moves, and was completely fearless). The last time I called, he picked up the phone and said, “Hi, Jazz,” as if no time had passed.
Had it passed? The summer of 1997 is one of those times in my life that I swear is still going on somewhere in a parallel universe. Somewhere, there’s a girl with silver eyeshadow (“a young Liza Minelli,” one of my newspaper reviews had said) and fluorescent green overalls who is overacting just a touch, and underestimating the forever effect that those two months would have on me — reshaping my life’s trajectory. That summer is still there somewhere, lingering. When I look back, I realize how much I gained from it — the beginning of my identity, perhaps, along with a few dozen pounds — but also, I distinctly recall how much I lost (aside from my virginity). That was, I suppose, the summer I began the painful but liberating process of letting go of who I had thought I would become.
I always thought I would be an actress. To be honest, I still think I will — even though I haven’t updated my headshots or gone on an audition in years. There’s still a part of me that knows I’ll play that part, get my name on that marquee, win that Tony. It seems weird — even though I love my career and wouldn’t trade it for anything — to digest the fact that, well, I won’t…
To be honest, the kind of art I created with theatre was self-centered. Maybe I would have grown out of that aspect of it, and wound up creating theatre that changed the world. But by the time animal activism took hold of my life, I was still pretty self-obsessed — a quality that goes with young (and sometimes old) actors. I don’t know if, at the time, I would have been capable of creating un-selfish art. I wanted to act so much because I’m a good actor, but also because I wanted to be famous. I wanted recognition — I admit it. It was in it for the craft, sure, but it was also for the respect that comes with being a successful artist. Ironically, the artists I look up to today are the ones who give of themselves unconditionally, allow their audience in, and, while they are at it, try to make a statement that will change the world. That kind of artistic altruism is all too rare.
There is just no way that 16 years ago — a whole teenager ago! — I would have been able to conceptualize my life today. I never would have thought that anything or anyone could move me off the path I had paved from the time I was a little kid in acting school, until the time I was in my mid-twenties and pounding the pavement as an actor in New York City. I also never would have thought that there would be a day I’d be in a relationship with someone other than Jimmy — we were going to be an award-winning actor couple. We were going to have little babies with black hair and blue eyes.
And yet that’s all so foreign to me now. I guess most of us feel that way about our young adulthood — the precious and inexplicable late teens and early twenties, when we’re so sure we’re right.
Now that I’m pushing 34, I’m absolutely sure I’m right! (Feel free to eye-roll at me. Hopefully you can taste the sarcasm in my self-assured facade. The truth is, I know nothing.)
But I can’t imagine having a life that is more fulfilling than this one — creating independent multimedia that will change the world for animals, and emboldening others to get involved, too. I can’t imagine being in a relationship more well-suited and wonderful than the one I am in with Mariann — my life partner, my other half. It seems ridiculous to me to spend my time on earth doing anything that’s not centered around helping to alleviate unnecessary suffering. And I certainly don’t think there’s anything noble about that. It seems pretty obvious, in fact. Do I sound self-righteous? Maybe I am. And maybe self-righteousness is underrated.
We all have these experiences, these summers, these moments in our lives that we think about on sleepless nights — such as mine right now, as I write these words. They are formative. They are magical. So much went on for me in the summer of 1997. Even though I didn’t know it then, it was a turning point for me, a first glimpse into a future where life is lived sometimes nonsensically, love is felt sometimes frantically, and new meaning is permanently brought to the idea that there is no turning back.
With the unfathomable suffering going on for animals behind closed doors, it is that kind of frenetic passion that is required to make people see, to make the world change. Once you’re in this fight, there is literally no turning back. Bring your passion, bring your past, bring yourself. We need it all. They need it all.
Thanks for letting me vent. 1997 has been on my mind.