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Dangerous When Wet: A Memoir

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Dangerous When Wet: A Memoir

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  Table of Contents

  About the Author

  Copyright Page

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  For Mama Jean, who wouldn’t have it any other way


  Allow me to raise a glass (some habits die hard) to family, friends, and colleagues without whom I’d still be soaking wet and swimming in a sea of words in my head, not on the page.

  Cheers to:

  My common-law husband, Michael “Michahaze” Hayes, who lived through most of it and he’s still here. I love you.

  Dad, who collaborated with Mama Jean to make me the man I am today and not only gave me his love and blessing to publish this book but gave me the opening line of this book. My brother Jeffrey for being my third parent and for all he did for Mama Jean at the end. My brother Ronny for just being Ronny and for calling me Pank.

  My literary agent, Lisa Gallagher, who believed in the book ever since that fateful lunch at Le Veau d’Or and found the perfect publisher for it at St. Martin’s Press. My talented editor, Charlie Spicer, whose passion and enthusiasm combined with his keen and ruthless editorial hand made this the best book possible. The peerless team at St. Martin’s Press: Sally Richardson, Jennifer Enderlin, Jeff Capshew, Brian Heller, Tracey Guest, Laura Clark, James Sinclair, Meg Drislane, Steve Boldt, Elisa “Legal Lisa” Rivlin, and Brittani Hilles. Special toasts to Michael Storrings for the marvelous jacket design, Jessica Lawrence and Joanie Martinez for launching the book, and April Osborne for her editorial support. Also photographer and friend George Anttila for the courage to take my picture.

  Robert Allen and Mary Beth Roche and their marvelous team at Macmillan Audio—Brant Janeway, Samantha Edelson, Chealsea Pita, and Laura Wilson—for publishing the audio edition and letting me narrate it.

  My writing teacher, Phyllis Raphael, whose rare gem of a workshop was the incubator for the book. By merely saying to me early on, “You need to be pushed,” she pushed me. She also gave me invaluable editorial guidance outside of the workshop. Workshop peers, talented writers, and friends Kevin Brannon, Maia McCann, Wesley Usher, and Bruce Ward.

  The superb writers Henry Alford, Josh Kilmer-Purcell, Wally Lamb, Eric Marcus, Paul Rudnick, and Neil White for blessing the book with their sparkling words; Will Schwalbe for being an early cheerleader and champion; especially Mary Karr, who not only gold-dusted the book with her endorsement but told me early on to “keep writing.” Those two words were as powerful as rocket fuel and helped me enormously to “bring up a book.”

  My “analysts,” the late and deeply lamented David “Dave” Eliseo (Helen Lawson thanks you) and the ever-present Dr. Anthony Demma (Blanche thanks you).

  Three cheers and special toasts to close friends: Jason Brantley for always laughing at my jokes when others didn’t; David “Big Daddy” Collins for being my first “real” reader; Stella Connell, who is always ready for a “sip ’n see”; David Cobb Craig, aka “DCC,” whose taste and editorial precision devastate me; Nicole Todack Cubbage, who is my first and bestest BFF; Michael “Bunny” Hill for the first triage; Kevin Johnson for being a mentor; intervention angels Jennifer Naparstek Klein, Smith Patrick, and Janine Tiago; Allyson Hancock Kinzel, who predicted all of this when I didn’t believe it; Hedda Lettuce and Steven Polito, both of whom—bald or be-wigged—can always make me laugh; Mama Jean’s friends and mine Dottie Crane, Nancy Dryden, Joan Gilliam, and Sissy Park; Jo Ann Miller for never turning her back on me when others did and for introducing me to Phyllis; John Murphy for being the first to show me a new way of life; Yann Samuels for the second triage; Keith Seabolt for his boundless generosity; Bob Stack for being the first to show me how to live a new way of life; Michael “Mr. Parker” Stainback for loving me “wet or dry” and reminding me that in writing this book “everything’s at stake”; Debbie Stier for paving the yellow brick road out of the corporate forest; Warner gals Diane Ekeblad, Ellen Herrick, Patricia Keim, Kelly Leonard, Hera Marashian, and Karen McDermott; Stephen Wilder for introducing me to Cherry Grove; and Karen Wolny for telling me that Liz recognized the potential in me.

  Dear friends, many of whom were early readers, whose encouragement and rah-rahs kept a flame burning under my writing chair: Ben Bruton, Adam Chandler, Nick Fiore, Stephanie Glass Flatten, Gene Giles, Michael Halliday, David Littleton, Jamie Malcolm, Kristen McGuiness, Lou Miller, Charles O’Connell, Richard “Bella” Iorio, Sara Nelson, Pam Radford, Kelley Parker, Mark Shenk, Mark Solan, Nickey Bohl Scarborough, Elizabeth Conn Waddill, Maggie Weir, and Suzanne Halbert Wohleb.

  A final toast to that invincible bunch: my fellow alcoholics in and out of recovery (especially the Marybills), HIV-positive folk, suicide-attempt survivors, and people affected by Lewy body dementia.

  To all of you, I take “a cup o’ kindness yet for auld lang syne.”

  Author’s Note

  My father, brothers, and I each had our own deep, complex, and loving relationship with my mother, Mama Jean. This book is the story of my relationship with her told through the lens of my love affair with alcohol, the other dominant relationship in my life. Hence, my father and brothers often have only cameos here, but in the cast of our family they each had as big a supporting role as I did to Mama Jean, the star of our lives. Some of the names and places have been changed.


  Ready or Not, Here Comes Mama! (2006/1987)

  Whoever said you can’t get sober for someone else never met my mother, Mama Jean. When I came to in a Manhattan emergency room after an overdose to the news that she was on her way from Texas, I panicked. She was the last person I wanted to see on that dark September morning, but the person I needed the most.

  “She doesn’t need to know about this,” I told my brother Jeffrey, who sat in a dark corner of the room. “Call her. Stop her before she gets on the plane.”

  “It’s too late,” he said in a monotone. “She’s already in flight.”

  There was no stopping Mama Jean.

  At thirty-eight I had been living in New York City for sixteen years, almost as long as the time I spent growing up in little ole, flat-as-a-flitter, hot-and-steamy, oil-refinery-oasis, cancer-capital Beaumont, Texas. Beaumont is a southeast Texas port town on the banks of the muddy-brown Neches River with the smaller towns of Port Arthur and Orange, not far off of I-10. The Golden Triangle, this triumvirate of towns is called. With the corrosive winds of the Gulf (“guf”) of Mexico a mere thirty miles away, Rusty Troika is a better name. Pardon my dust, but I fled that backwater to New York City, where I had carved out a successful career in book publishing with some fancy executive-vice-president titles, alongside my architect boyfriend, Michael Hayes, or Michahaze, as he was known in our circle. “I am going to get sophisticated if it kills me,” I loved to say, throwing back a martini, Beefeater gin, dry, up, with a twist. I was quoting a line from one of the many old Joan Crawford movies that taught me how to be glamorous and sophisticated. And it nearly did kill me.

  I didn’t need Mama Jean in the middle of this m
ess. I could imagine how she’d greet me. “God … damn it!” Her goddamn it was said with a pregnant pause after god that left the object of her scorn bracing for the explosion of DAMN it! “I knew you’d end up like this. I just knew it.” I was tired of being in the red with her. The cars. Trips to Europe. College. The apartment.

  I moaned at the thought and ran my hands through my copper-red hair, which was fading along with my looks. With an expressive oval face, and nearly six feet of skin and bone, I had never been handsome, but musical-comedy cute—the sidekick, not the lead—all bow ties and polka dots. Had there been a mirror and I’d had the courage to look in it, that’s not what I would have seen. Gin-soaked at thirty-eight, my puffy complexion was redder than my hair, which was dissolving to a dull auburn, and my lanky frame didn’t want to carry the yeasty dough I had poured on the middle. The lights in my brown eyes were off.

  “Where’s Michael?” I searched the gloom of the windowless room, lit only by a slash of jittery fluorescent hall light, for my Michahaze. We had been together almost as long as I’d been in New York, and he had never left my side despite all of my peccadilloes. Did he get me here?

  “He left about an hour ago.”

  “Oh.” How long have I been on the gurney? What time is it? What day is it? How long until Mama Jean arrives? Then panic again. “Oh, God. You’ve got to tell Michael to hide my…” I knew she’d be staying in our bedroom, and I didn’t want her rifling through my drawers, which contained something more revealing than porn.

  “I know. It’s already taken care of,” Jeffrey answered.

  Big relief. I couldn’t hide my drinking from her anymore—have I ever been able to?—but she didn’t need to know all my secrets.

  Lying on an emergency-room gurney, my primary concern wasn’t who or what got me there. Well, I knew what got me there: the overdose of sleeping pills I’d taken the day before in my own bed—a cliché straight out of Valley of the Dolls. The prescription on the pill bottle read “Take as needed.” I followed directions. All of that I could figure out later. I was worried more about what Mama Jean—my greatest champion and harshest critic—would say. I was still in denial—Jesus, I was barely conscious—but I was about to face the two most important relationships of my life: booze and Mama Jean.

  I could never predict what was going to come out of her mouth. Had I been able to read her mind, I would have known, because whatever thought went through her mind was the next thing she said. Mama Jean could have had a great career in silent pictures. Anyone peering through a window into her house would instantly have known what she was feeling by watching her histrionic gestures, which were as broad and iconic as those of her favorite soap-opera stars. With her raven mane, which was always done to a tease, and her Rubenesque figure, her looks were reminiscent of Elizabeth Taylor’s. She had the split personality of Auntie Mame and Mama Rose. She was every inch the star: self-made, image obsessed, demanding, with the patience of a firecracker, makeup camera-ready, and almost always in close-up. Like the quintessential Leo she was, her roar could be loud and fierce.

  I thought of one of her iconic close-up moments with nineteen-year-old me. It was the summer of 1987, after my freshman year in college. She and I were at a turning point. For me, that first year away at college had been a liberating breather from her all-consuming love, a love that had always cloaked me like a cashmere blanket in August. For her, that year was a year of mourning: mourning over my deserting the nest, mourning over the loss of her idealized notion of me as her perfect child, and mourning over my newly declared homosexuality.

  After that first year of splashing joyously in the waters of boys, booze, and drugs with impunity, it was a culture shock being back under her roof. To her, anyone who liked more than two drinks was a lush. Drugs were criminal. And sex? I can see her reflection in the makeup mirror dispensing her two warnings with a flick of her mascara wand: “A moment’s pleasure isn’t worth a lifetime of regret” and “A stiff dick knows no conscience.”

  I did manage to circumvent her warnings that summer and find a bit of glamour and excitement in the form of a ballet dancer I met at the Copa. Not the Copacabana. This Copa was Beaumont’s “premier” gay bar, with delusions of New York glamour, located on a desolate corner downtown, which had been gasping for air since the mall smothered it in the seventies.

  The dancer taught at Dolly Pepperdine’s School of Dance, or Miss Dolly’s, as everyone called it. He’d take me there late at night to show me moves at the barre Miss Dolly never dreamed of teaching. In the mirror, I could see we were being watched. The girls I had grown up with, in their little-girl pigtails and pink leotards, gazed at us from photos on the wall. Some even seemed to giggle.

  The first couple of times I went out with the dancer, I lied and told Mama Jean I was going out with this or that high school friend. Before the third date—assignation, really—I thought, This is ridiculous. I’m in college. She knows I’m gay. I’m nineteen. I’m an adult. Honestly, what’s the big deal?

  I marched into the den where Mama Jean was supine on the peach velvet sofa in her maroon-and-pink, velour, zip-up caftan and gold slippers. This early evening she was watching As the World Turns, her “story.” It had been taped earlier in the day on the VCR (programmed by me) while she was at work.

  I genuflected at the corner of the mirrored coffee table by her head. “Uh, Mom,” I said, my adult bravado starting to waver.

  “Um-hm,” she muttered, all but ignoring me as she stared at the TV and sipped a Diet Coke from a plastic, jewel-toned cup, part of a set originally meant for the pool. She hated to be disturbed while she caught up on her stories.

  “You know, I’m not going out with Nicole like I told you earlier.”

  She was never a fan of Nicole, my best friend since high school. She thought Nicole was pushy and demanded too much of my time. Plus, she didn’t wear enough makeup. I thought ditching Nicole as my evening date pointed us in a positive direction.

  “Well, who are you going out with?” Her eyes were still fixed on the TV.

  The familiar queasy knot in my stomach—LBD, as in lower-bowel distress—hit, as it always did, whenever I had something to tell her that I knew she wouldn’t like. “Um, Carlos.”

  Her head spun at a forty-five-degree angle to face me. “Who is Carlos?”

  “Carlos Novarro. Carlos Fitzpatrick de Novarro.” That was the dancer’s name.

  She put down the Diet Coke and paused her story. Lisa, the reigning diva from As the World Turns, was frozen mid-gasp. I had Mama Jean’s full attention. “Who the hell is Carlos duh Fitz-whatever?!” She stared me down with a this-better-be-good look.

  “He’s a ballet dancer.”

  “Is he gay?” she asked in the same way she would ask if he was a Democrat.

  “Well, yes. That’s kinda the point.”


  I decided to shift gears. “He teaches ballet at Miss Dolly’s.” I threw that out to legitimize him, give him a tutu of respectability.

  Silence. She stared at the ceiling with her arms folded over her chest, her face locked in a frown.

  I decided to try to impress her with his credentials. My experience with her was that all could be forgiven if you’d made something of yourself in the big city. After all, her childhood friend Henny had become an actor in New York and she always thrilled to see him in those insurance commercials. “Come quick! Henny’s on TV! God, I remember how we used to put on shows in the backyard.” Henny had recently died from complications caused by AIDS. The virus was still a mysterious and uncontrollable forest fire, big cities being the charred open wilderness.

  “Well, you know, he used to dance with the New York City Ballet.” I almost smirked.

  “New York?!” The interrobang is a punctuation mark that combines a question mark with an exclamation point when a question is asked in excitement or disbelief. It was invented for her.

  “Yes. New York City.”

  “Have you heard of A

  “Have you heard of safe sex?”

  “There are only two kinds of sex: oral and anal!” She’s forgetting vaginal, but that’s her problem.

  I was speechless. She lay there, rigid as a corpse. After what seemed like an airless five minutes, I got up and left her to the daytime drama of As the World Turns.

  When I returned from my date later that night, I slipped into the kitchen through the back door as quietly as a ballet dancer en pointe. The kitchen was dark, save for a swath of light spilling through the archway from the den. I turned my back from the light to lock the door. Through the door’s window, I could see Mama Jean’s black Cadillac sitting in the garage like a panther. When I faced the light, it darkened with Mama Jean’s tall shadow, her bubble of hair a circle sitting atop the triangle of her floor-length, satiny nightgown. But once her gold-slippered feet set down stakes—one here, one there, about twenty-four inches apart—her shadow went vertical and she was live and in person. She placed her left hand on her left hip and her right hand on her right hip. I couldn’t see the angry glare in her eyes or her gritted teeth in the dark, but I could feel them. It was as if she had caught me bent over Miss Dolly’s barre.

  We were both silent for a moment before she fired like a machine gun her verbal salvo of interrobangs. Each shot was punctuated with the thrust of her perfectly sculpted, red fingernail.

  “Where the hell have you been?!

  “Do you know what time it is?!

  “I’ve been worried sick!

  “How dare you keep me up like this when I have to get up for work in the morning!

  “Work that’s paying for that precious school of yours!

  “Work that pays for the car you drive!

  “The car that you use to run the streets all night—with no regard for me!

  “And you’re drunk!”

  She took a much-needed breath before firing her last shot: “Where the hell did you get that shirt?!”

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