(INT. GAY BAR, NIGHT- Tucson, Arizona. Really a former barn with a raftered roof and concrete floors, with an array of bronze, copper and iron tools of the variety seen in westerns, as if you might come to this place to have your horse re-shoed. In the center of the room, around a rectangular bar, a dozen men sit in pairs or singularly, nursing various drinks served by a tank-topped twenty something with a nose piercing. HUGO enters, assesses the situation, orders a beer, and exits to the terrace. A moment, and then A MAN in black t-shirt with a white feather embossed over the right breast picks up his nearly empty beer, and follows.)
As my trip to Arizona… my trip home, rather… comes to an end, I find myself, lingering mentally over a series of little moments which the late 90s independent film maker in me wants to Linklater into a Sundance contender, or at the very least, into a play from the Stuverse.
The last week has felt very much like a week in the life of one of my many alter-egos, the best fit being Hugo, who like me would have spent the time reconnecting with friends both regularly kept in touch with and only sporadically contacted, visiting old haunts and haunted places, and skulking around the same gay bars he once wanted to burn to the ground. The play would have, of course, culminated in him connecting with a new character, followed by an ambiguous and yet hopeful ending in which the future would remain, as it does at the end of every play in the Stuverse, unknown but probably, against all odds, benevolent, the world of those plays being, fundamentally, one with so many possibilities.
(EXT. GAY BAR TERRACE, NIGHT- HUGO sits at one of two outside bars situated under opposing ramadas, a fountain trickling between the two, men scattered at various wrought iron tables littered about the courtyard under the full moon. The MAN emerges from the bar and pretends to look around before immediately turning and walking over to HUGO. He is bearded, strong, blonde with streaks of grey, and smiles widely under a handlebar moustache. He has an improbable Italian accent.
MAN: Is this place always this dead?
HUGO: This is actually pretty hopping for Tucson.
MAN: Oh. I’m not from around here. You?
HUGO: I used to live here. But I’m just visiting now.
MAN: Welcome back.
HUGO: Thanks. First time?
HUGO: Do you like it?
MAN: It’s different than I thought it would be. You? How you remember?
HUGO: Exactly as I remember. Like I’m pretty sure all those guys were there the last time I was here.
MAN: Ha! Well… not me. I just got here.
He sits down at the bar.)
If I haven’t written in a play in the Stuverse (the name for any works connected to my 1998 play, THE EXILED) for quite some time (and AGE OF BEAUTY in 2013 was the most recent one, though I’ve been low key working on a follow up ever since) it’s partly because I’m not always sure that I continue to believe in a benevolent universe as adamantly as I once did, and also because I no longer feel the need to hide behind fictional versions of myself. Writing very directly and unapologetically from my experience has often proven to not only be beneficial for my own process of making sense of this life I lead, but of assistance to others with their own journeys, sometimes in the way I illustrate back for them the role they play in mine, sometimes through comparison and observation. That my anecdotes may contain recognizable supporting cast occasionally raises questions around the ethics of depicting other humans who may not realize they are contributing material, but by and large folks have often been flattered to be featured. It helps that I move amongst articulate, thoughtful, and complicated humans. It’s certainly the reason the dialogue in my plays is often praised. A lot of it is cribbed from my actual life.
This last week is no exception to that. As I moved from friend to friend, conversation to conversation, I found myself invited into the uncurrated world of people’s actual lives that often countered or colored the projected Facebook versions of the last two years. Frequently the conversation would reach a moment where someone would say to me, “You’ve been so open on social media about everything and I just really admire that and so I wanted to tell you…” followed by something they thought of as a confession, and I thought of as news. Sometimes there was laughter, sometimes tears, more than once there were questions asked with deep sincerity and more than a little trepidation, either because the person asking was unsure of how to ask, or unsure if the way they were going to ask might be of offense to me. A lot of my friends, but in particular my Arizona friends who tended to marry younger, are now at an age where their children are teenagers, and more than once I uttered the phrase “you’re in safe space” (a cliché I despise) in order to empower someone to wonder out loud about concerns or fears or just questions that strike me as perfectly legitimate ones for parents to have about their kids. That these often centered around sexuality or gender and that I might be the queer person they knew best and hence the person to reach out to, I took as flattering and answered with as deep a sense of responsibility as possible. For me, these conversations are never a nuisance or unpaid labor; on the contrary, it is often a chance for me to learn about myself, and to think about my own experiences.
(EXT. GAY BAR TERRACE, NIGHT- HUGO and The MAN are now sitting at the bar together, with an empty stool between them.
MAN: I mean, I love anything gothic. It’s probably my favorite kind of book. I mean, this shirt I’m wearing is from the Poe convention.
HUGO: Oh, that explains the feather over the heart.
MAN: Yeah, nevermore.
HUGO: I’d say I’m more Shirley Jackson over Poe, but Poe over, you know, Stephen King.
MAN: I should hope so. So what are you reading right now?
HUGO: Gabor Mate’s IN THE REALM OF HUNGRY GHOSTS. This book about the Middles Ages called THE BRIGHT AGES.
MAN: Aren’t those usually called “The Dark Ages?”
HUGO: Yes but, the whole point is that… actually never mind. It’s not worth it. What are you reading?
MAN: Re-reading. UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING. CATCHER IN THE RYE. JANE EYRE.
HUGO: I wrote my junior qual on JANE EYE.
MAN: Oh, nice. I’ve taught a class on buildungsomans.
MAN: I’m a literature professor.
HUGO: Oh. Well, that’s hot as fuck.
The MAN smiles shyly and looks down. After a moment he reaches out his fist and brushes HUGO’s chest, very gently, with his knuckles.
MAN: So… how are you doing, handsome?
HUGO: To be honest… somewhere on the continuum between Mrs. Dalloway and Mrs. Haversham.
MAN: Ha! Wow. That was… you just come up with that?
HUGO: I am trying really hard to impress you.
The MAN moves to sit on the vacant stool between them.
MAN: So how long we got before this place closes?)
If there has been a recurring theme to my conversations even more pervasive than “My life is not what you think it is and I’m low key terrified for the future of my children” it is, of course, The Pandemic, which progressively seems like a temporal cognoman encapsulating so much more than COVID-19, functioning the way medieval scholars often say “The Black Death” not just in regards to the epidemic of bubonic plague, but as a way of talking about the century of relatively turbulent European history as the western world transitioned from the High Middle Ages (aka, the fun part when the castles were built and the harvests were good and the monks were making the pretty books) to the Renaissance. Talk of The Pandemic invariably includes discussion of Trump (and thus the three years leading up to The Pandemic), George Floyd (that specific incident now itself short hand for discussing the larger issues around American racial tensions), the burning skies of California, the attempted coup, Biden’s presidency, the environment, the economy, and everything else you can think of up to and projecting past the war in Ukraine. Big Picture incidents and players spark conversation tangents about personal concerns and acquaintances that in turn circle back to The Big Picture. Perhaps more than ever before in life, I found myself acutely aware of being, to paraphrase a book I love, but a drop in an ocean, which is itself a multitude of drops. Additionally Time, and the passage of it, is something I find myself thinking about intensely, and my preoccupation with it resonates with others who report similar awareness of it passing. Like many of my friends I find myself feeling like I’ve made it to the other side of something else, but only to ask “What happens now?” An Odysseus whose Ithaca only vaguely resembles that which he held before him through storm and sirens.
All of which is to say that a trip home could not have been better timed, and the coincidence of it being #Easter/Passover weekend, and a full moon, no less, is not lost on either Stuart the Human, nor Stuart the Writer Who Creates a Narrative Of His Life Because To Live Without Meaning Is Neither Preferable Nor Possible. On Saturday, after having engaged in three different social events with three different friends (which is how every day of my trip has gone), I found myself slipping into an early evening doze on the couch in my rented cottage, echoes of conversations from that and the previous day mingled with my on going interior dialogue about the transformative cycles of nature, something I’ve been publicly marking with monthly posts about the druidic calendar, which associates each month with a seasonal stage, time of day, and deity who represents a part of the universal journey from womb to tomb and back again. When I suddenly awoke at just past midnight on Easter Sunday with the full moon streaming through the windows it seemed almost inevitable that I would decide to, instead of moving to the bedroom, put on my shoes and head two blocks down the street to the nearest bar, which just happened to have been one of the two local gay bars left standing from my youth. On the way, passing through the unlit streets of residential mid-town Tucson (our streets are, FYI, darker than most municipalities due to ordinances about light pollution thanks in large part to the number of observatories in and around the city) I quickened my pace not because I was worried about the time or the silence of the deserted avenues, but because I felt like I was being called to. I felt very strongly that something was about to happen, or perhaps better phrased: something needed to.
(EXT. SIDEWALK IN TUCSON, NIGHT- A treelined pathway of deep shadows due to overhanging palo verde tree branches, which create a kind of tunnel that would be lovely by day, but at night plunges the pedestrian into darkness. HUGO and THE MAN, tipsy, are stumbling down the sidewalk.
MAN: So are you… where are we… I mean, is this far?
HUGO: Just one more block. We’re almost there.
MAN: Okay, it’s just, you said two blocks-
HUGO: That was fifth, I’m at fourth-
MAN: I’m sorry, I’m just- okay it’s too fucking dark.
THE MAN suddenly darts away, running to the center of the empty street, where the full moon continues to shine down. A moment. He nervously stands there, hands in his pockets. HUGO joins him.)
“I’ve never had a five year plan,” one of my best friends had said to me earlier that day, as we sat in the cottage ramada having beers in the late afternoon. “My answer to that question has always been that I imagine myself doing okay, and hope my family and friends are doing well too.” Looking up, he smiles and finishes, “That’s all you can hope for and it’s important to be open to what exactly that might mean. Especially when it comes to my kids.” A sentiment which echoes one I’d shared earlier that week with my sister when I’d first arrived, and I’d passed on one of my favorite pieces of advice: “Always leave room for who you may yet turn out to be.” It’s something an actor I was in a show with once said to me, when we were talking about… I don’t know, probably theater but just as likely, sex… and which I’ve thought about again and again at different stages of my life, sometimes (often, if I’m honest) when I’ve found myself wondering if I’ve left so much room for who I may yet turn out to be, that I’m not sure I’m ever going to actually turn out to be much of anyone. Then again, you can only ever be who you are and where you are. If you never seem to arrive, at some point that probably has more to do with your expectations than the reality of your situation. Of course, considering the last few years, just what constitutes reasonable expectations is, to say the least, debatable.
Coming out of this is going to be an evolution, my friends, and evolution is slow.
I’m not just talking about me.
(EXT. STREET, NIGHT- HUGO and THE MAN in the middle of an empty street at 1:45 AM.)
HUGO: Are you okay?
MAN: I’m sorry. I’m freaking out a bit.
HUGO: I can tell.
MAN: It just hit me that I don’t know who you are and I don’t know where we’re going and this is a strange town and you… I’m sorry.
HUGO: You don’t need to be sorry. What are you… I mean… are you scared right now? Because I’m sort of scared.
MAN: Yeah? What are you scared of?
HUGO: You first. You’re the guest.
MAN: Okay, um, how about that you might stab me? Or that we might be about to have really bad sex. Or you’re not going to like me when you turn the lights on. Or I’m gonna say something really stupid. Or I won’t be able to get hard. Or I’m gonna, you know, too fast. Or I’m going to want to spend the night and you’re not a cuddler. Or that you might stab me.
HUGO: Really? You’re going to bring up the stabbing thing twice.
MAN: I have an active imagination.
HUGO: And you like gothic literature.
MAN: I do.
HUGO: Well, my place doesn’t have floorboards so I can’t just bury you under them.
MAN: You could shove me up a chimney.
MAN: I’m sorry. I don’t know where that came from. Look, it’s been a rough couple of years and-
HUGO: Yeah, me too.
MAN: Sometimes I don’t know how to be… I’m just not… I don’t know. Say something.
HUGO: I mean, nothing I say right now is going to make you feel more comfortable. I mean, I’m a nice guy I promise but you’re kind of freaking me out too, like, I keep looking at your hands in your pockets and wondering if you’re about to mace me or something-
MAN: I’m sorry, it’s something I do when I get nervous-
HUGO: You don’t have anything to apologize for. Look, for what it’s worth, I haven’t done anything like this in a really long time. I mean, actually, just met a guy in a bar and was like… “Hey, come home with me.” And the last time I met someone off the internet they sort of kicked the shit out of me so… hey. Let’s just… why don’t I call you in the morning? We could meet for breakfast or something and if the vibe was still there we could pick up where we… or I could just fuck off, it’s cool. Really. I will take no for an answer just tell me what you want to do. I mean, you started talking to me so-
MAN: You had a hippocampus on your shirt.
HUGO: Good eye, but-
MAN: I just thought you were a good looking guy with a hippocampus on his shirt and it’s a full moon on Easter, so…
A moment. HUGO holds out his hand. The MAN shakes it. The MAN heads west. HUGO heads east.)
“My perspective around exactly why changes, but what I love about this place always stays the same,” I say to the guy sitting on his porch in the house next to the little bungalow my sister has rented for my stay. I had just walked yet one more visiting friend to her car, our hours of conversation in my AIR BNB covering a myriad of topics that all came back to the same thing: who am I now, after all these things have happened, and how do I best use this time, knowing all the things I now know, and recognizing I have no idea what is coming next. And always time. Is there enough time?
The guy sitting on his porch turns out to be a visitor too, in from New York to do a project at the U of A. “I had no idea what to expect but I’m sort of in love with it,” he tells me, and I nod, listening to my friend’s car start. It had been three years since I’d seen her, the last time being at my mother’s funeral. So much has changed since then. Several friends have gotten divorced. One has had their first child. Another’s child has just come out as gay, another’s as non-binary. One friend has moved back to Tucson, while another has moved away. Jobs have come and gone, along with boyfriends, girlfriends, careers, and houses. Nobody has died, but several folks came close to it. Everyone’s parents are older. Everyone’s memories are mistier. Everyone’s siblings sent their regards. Nobody’s schedule overlapped enough to plan any kind of group get together, but everyone more or less found a moment to sit down with me, whether it was around a fire, at my favorite restaurant, or on a bench in the park. I assumed they all thought I probably needed it, and I did. What I discovered was how much some of them needed it too.
I listen to my friend drive away and wonder if it will be another three years before I see her again.
(EXT. STREET, NIGHT- HUGO walks down the middle of the street. From behind him, THE MAN calls-
He joins HUGO in the street.
MAN: It’s just one more block, right?
MAN: Promise me I’m gonna be safe.
HUGO: I promise you.)
Easter Day, sitting in the front window of an ice cream parlor, alone, bathed in the light of a sunset blistering across the Sunday sky, I texted my former partner “Jeremiah was a bullfrog!” the song he loved playing on the shop radio. From all the way across America he texted me back the lyrics as I watched a train departing for Los Angeles cross the bridge that separates one half of Tucson from another. I’d taken that train once, years ago after visiting my mother in the hospital, during what turned out to be the final time I would see her alive. It leaves every evening, and arrives at its destination just after dawn. As you pass through the desert in the dead of night, it becomes impossible to tell where in the journey you are until you suddenly pull into a station. I remember feeling this enormous temptation to get off before my stop, and an equitable imperative to keep going. I remember how good it felt to arrive in LA, even though that meant I still had so far to go.
(EXT. THE STREET, NIGHT. HUGO and THE MAN, kissing.)
On my phone, the screen reads, “Joy to you and me!”
(Above them, the moon, full.)