I want to tell you about an album I’ve been listening to a lot lately. The Best of: My Younger Thinking. Side A is one long toddler snarl with a fiddle whimpering low in the mix. Side B shows a progression to more pop-indebted construction, executed with varying degrees of success.
Tracklist, Side B:
1. “Driving by Grandma’s Grave Again” (from The Long Car Rides to Summer Camp)
2. “Where Is She Hiding It?” (from Bathing with My Cousin)
3. “Let Me Be Like People Here” (from Moving Across the Country in Junior High)
4. “Hard to Get to Sleep, Hard to Stay Awake” (from I Guess I Already Knew Then)
5. “I’ll Be the One Who Hates Himself Instead of Hating the World” (from The Second Vacation to Hawaii)
6. “Time to Stop Wiping Your Nose on Your Sleeve” (from I Wasn’t Snotty by Choice: Diaries of a Congested Punk)
You agree to give the album a spin if I finally watch that film you gave me last year for my fortieth birthday, Sternum Collapser: A Love Life. I haven’t watched it only because it’s a loop-based 16mm performance for multiple projectors. I don’t have the technical wherewithal. I asked you to perform it for me and you said that you had been for a long time.
We are both performers but we aren’t making enough money. Because you perform in drag you get mostly nightclub jobs. My act nets me more day functions. At breakfast one day we inventory our assets.
“What’s for sale with you?” I ask. Your gigs as a Dusty Springfield impersonator helped support us for years, but with age they have become more infrequent.
“I can do Dolly Parton and I’ll start seeking certification as Madonna,” you say.
Impersonating a man is easier. My Frank Sinatra tribute shows will pay into old age. My only complaint is I have never once been hired for my Jacques Brel impersonation—my personal favorite. I don’t have to wear makeup for it. We have the same waxy jaws. You request the Brel from me on special occasions, though. Anniversaries, the nights we have performer friends over for drinks.
“En français, nous disons la petite mort,” I say as Brel, “mais, en anglais c’est the suicide squeeze.”
It feels great when you want Brel from me, but it’s a sad impersonation and I tend to get very sweaty.
Your Dolly Parton shows become a sensation in Silver Lake, especially after you bring in a dude to play Porter Wagoner. “You need to focus on your act,” you say when I ask why I couldn’t be Porter. You say I’m a crooner and my stage presence is getting depressing. In the Dolly-Porter dynamic, Dolly needs to be the struggler.
I say, “He’s too good-looking to play Porter.” You say, “That’s what makes it funny.”
Our schedules fall out of sync. As Sinatra, I book every weekend afternoon charity event and every early-bird dinner theater I can. You’re offered a residency at a cabaret.
I get home around nine most nights. We have a quick dinner and glass of wine, and you leave for your show. I take out my blue contacts and shower off my stage sweat and eyeliner. Then I sit around listening to The Best of: My Younger Thinking. Our wigs are everywhere. There are also some Porter Wagoner wigs here because you got mad at the actor for taking bad care of them, and now you bring them home with you. I saw that fight between you and Porter. He had driven you home after a late Sunday show. From the living room window I watched you sit in his car in our driveway, swatting his hair. It was flirty, too similar to the way you’d bicker on stage. I sing duets with dudes, too, so I know. But maybe that’s just the way you are with him.
I think if we were both crooners, if you stayed Dusty Springfield and if I ever became a bankable Jacques Brel, we could call that a life. I can’t sing you the songs of My Younger Thinking, they’re too far out of my range now. But if I could play you the album, you’d understand why my part in our relationship is taking so long to learn.
While you’re at work, I dig through the closet, through your stockings and my Sinatra fedoras, my Brel turtlenecks, your board shorts, beach blankets, your breastplates, your old home and away college baseball jerseys, your enormous hair bumps and frilly-necked frocks from your Dusty Springfield show that remind me of how honeyed and lavish your voice can be. I find what I’m looking for, the chest labeled Sternum Collapser: A Love Life.
I set up three projectors, load the film reels, and play them according to the instructions you included. The first piece is the pilot episode of the sitcom we watched when we first started dating, but with the laugh track removed. Characters pause and look worried in the dead time. There is a lot of coffee pouring and leg crossing and swallowing. The jokes are still funny.
At the first act break, your instructions say, Turn on the second projector. I do. A title card says “Camera Trap: Domesticity in the Wild.” Documentary footage of a lone beaver in his den rolls under the sitcom transition music from the first projector. The beaver gnaws at the walls, unable to separate work from home. The film cuts from the beaver den to a bear den, where two stir-crazy bears hibernate. The bears pace and feel fat and underemployed.
At the second sitcom act break, I turn on the third projector. I must not have loaded that reel right—the film jams and spoils in the sprocket. I shut the broken projector off and watch the first two play out. The third act of the sitcom offers little resolution, since it is the pilot episode. The main character thinks he may be able to make the best of things in his new surroundings. Meanwhile, the nature documentary cuts back to the beaver, whose partner has come home to find the gnawed walls of the den. They go out together to gather more mud and twigs to reinforce the interior. I imagine one beaver makes a joke about chewing the scenery. On the back of the last instruction card, you’ve written, You’re the flesh in my silicone life.
When you get home from work, I ask you about the third reel.
You say it was supposed to break. I don’t know if I believe you.
I ask you if you’ll listen to my album now.
“What do you think I do while you’re gone all afternoon?” you reply.
“Coiffe Porter’s wig.”
There is a companion album to The Best of: My Younger Thinking called The Rest of: My Younger Thinking. It’s a collection of B-sides and outtakes and things I would never tell you. It’s terrible. A nostalgic cash grab.
You’re doing well enough that I can announce my retirement as Frank Sinatra. I am a full-time freelance Brel. I curate A Night of European Crooners featuring imitation Nico, Charles Aznavour, Engelbert Humperdinck, and Jacques Brel, and nobody attends. I had asked you to be Nico but you said you had a brand to protect.
I take the third reel of your film to Photo Center to see if it can be salvaged, but they tell me there was nothing on the print in the first place.
The dude who played Porter Wagoner gets a job on a soap opera. I again offer my services as Porter, but you say the story is playing out exactly right—that Dolly needs to do it herself. Your show loses momentum. We have more free nights now.
We come home from free taco night at the bar and abandon plans of making love.
“Am I wrong to be satisfied already?” my stomach gurgles.
“Without me?” yours replies.
I help you take your boots off. You collapse onto the made bed. I take off my cowboy hat but leave on my bolo tie.
“I have to do the dishes from earlier,” I say.
You call to me in the kitchen but I can’t hear clearly.
When I come back to bed, the skin on my hands is dry and cracked. My stomach says, “I’m sick of being sick.”
Yours says, “I’m sick of hurting.” You sit under the covers, bracing for another day without work.
“Have we run out of duets?” I ask.
“Crooners don’t stop and listen long enough to duet.”
“And Porter is renowned for his listening?”
“My audience listened. I wish you’d been in it.”
Stomachache refluxes to heartache. You tell me you accidentally overexposed the third reel of Sternum Collapser. I ask what it was, but you say never mind—the way it turned out says something about expectation.
There are strands of our younger thinking that we still have in common. We talk about it more now. We remember when we were in sobbing uncertain love and we’d watch movies about sobbing uncertain lovers and those were the most terrifying movies. That pulse is still in our veins and the imprint of our butts is still in the leather couch where we first kissed. You promise to find new footage for the third reel. I donate My Younger Thinking to Goodwill.
The next day, I come out of Sinatric retirement and you start practicing your Dean Martin. You finish your Madonna certification and I start crafting my Prince act.