Maybe in some ways talking to the lawyers was good practice for talking with the plainclothes police officers who wanted to interview me about Claire’s drug use. And maybe listening to Digger weasel out of a lot of speeding tickets and the like helped, too, but let’s not think about that.
They came to the hospital to talk to me. Claire seemed to know one of them, greeting him by name and smiling her flirty smile despite still looking, shall we say, not her best. I honestly can’t remember his name. Robinson or something like that.
There were two of them. We talked in the hospital cafeteria. I mostly remember it the way I remember a solo I improvised on stage, in bits and pieces that all made sense at the time but now I couldn’t really tell you exactly how it went and I couldn’t do it the same way twice.
I guess that’s the thing. It wasn’t like a performance. It was a performance. One with a lot of yes sir, no sir, and a fair bit of playing on the sympathies of two hardnosed guys who really didn’t see the point of making a terminally ill woman even more miserable. I played up the dutiful son angle. I played down the internationally known rock star angle, although at one point they asked me about my own drug use and I told them I was clean and sober and didn’t even like taking aspirin. That was tricky, because if I used too much of the rehab language it might just convince them I was some junkie on the perpetual verge of relapse.
But they bought my “scared straight” story. (Do you remember when “straight” used to mean not-criminal as well as heterosexual? I don’t think it does anymore, does it?) They at least seemed convinced that Claire was not single-handedly trying to supply an international drug cartel, anyway.
It ended with Robinson or whatever his name was saying the following. “You seem like a good kid. Listen. Once she gets back to the hospice, if you see or hear anything that you think might help us out, you know, from other in-patients or support staff or whatever, just give us a call.”
“Definitely,” I said and shook hands with them in turn as we all stood up. “That is, if she goes back to hospice.”
Grim grimaces all around and one of them patted me on the shoulder. Yeah, thanks. I hadn’t actually been told by a doctor that she wasn’t likely to leave ever, only that they didn’t know when she would be, but maybe I just had a feeling.
I think it was that same evening, or maybe the next, that Court and I had dinner with Claire in her room. They had moved her from the ward she was on to a different one, and it was clear to me that all those family-member “might be the last time you see her” protocols were in place. We could come and go whenever we wanted and there was a cot where one of us could spend the night right in her room, with another one down the hall if we needed it.
Claire held court with us like she was hosting a tea party in Buckingham Palace, complete with redundant small talk. She was sitting up unassisted in bed, her back ramrod straight, while she daintily moved her knife and fork around on her plate and asked questions like, “Courtney, dear, how is your friend from Boston? Have you heard from him?”
“You know, I haven’t,” Court said, shooting me a sidelong glance. “Um, I’ll give him your regards.”
Claire made a satisifed nod. “And Daron, that reminds me, how’s your godfather?”
She meant Remo. Who was not actually my godfather, but somehow me being Remo’s son’s godfather had translated in her head into Remo being my godfather all along. “He’s fine,” I said automatically.
Again that nod. “So, Courtney, I know you’re going into business for yourself. Have you finished all your whatever-it-is… paperwork and so forth? There’s always so much paperwork in running a business, you know.”
Claire had never run a business in her life, of course, and normally her trying to act like she knew about it and had advice to give us would have rubbed me the wrong way, and it would have driven Court absolutely nuts. In fact Court opened her mouth to object but I somehow forestalled her with a hard look. Court flapped her jaw once and then waved her hand vaguely, in a very CLaire-like gesture, and said, “Oh, Mother, you know we have people taking care of that.”
“Good, good.” Claire dipped her spoon into her chocolate pudding and tasted it.
And on it went that way. And it struck me all over again in a new way: it was a performance. It was one hunded percent a performance and she expected us to go along with it. Not only that… our whole childhoods were supposed to be performances, too. That’s why it was all about appearances, about what extracurriculars we did and what we wore and whether my sisters were on diets or not. Because we literally weren’t allowed to be real people.
This wasn’t just because I was gay and therefore not allowed to be myself. None of us were allowed to be ourselves. That just wasn’t done.
And I could see it, then, how the love triangle between her and Digger and Remo worked. She clung to Digger because he would at least play along with her most of the time. I’ve told you mostly about us sneaking out at night to strip clubs and honky tonks and motel prostitutes, but all that was his escape from acting all day every day like he had “gone straight,” an upstanding father and small businessperson in town, measuring kids’ feet for shoes all day in his father in law’s shop.
Meanwhile Remo had no artifice in him. What you see is what you get. All man, all whiskey and denim and beard stubble. To some part of her, that had been irresistible.
We played along, although Court looked more and more alarmed in her sidelong glances to me. Like she was worried Claire had actually lost her mind, like the drug overdose had left her with no grip on reality. But this is the Claire I’d always known, who never had any grip on reality.
When she declared she was tired and it was time for a nap, I gave her a kiss on the forehead and wheeled her tray out into the hall as a way to exit the scene. Court followed me.
As soon as the door shut behind us, she let out a long sigh of relief. “Oh my God. She’s mental.”
I bit my lip. I gestured at the plates. Claire hadn’t been eating. She had been miming eating, the way you would on stage, in a play. “Pretending is her way of coping. It’s always been her way of coping.”
Court’s eyes filled with tears suddenly. “She didn’t eat lunch either. Told me she didn’t fancy it but didn’t want to make a fuss.” She wiped her eyes with shaking hands. “You know what this means.”
“It means she feels like crap,” I said, trying not to read too much into it.
But Court was reading everything into it. She was convinced the end was near.
Mindful of Claire’s fear of dying alone, I went back into the room while Court went to call Remo and whoever else. Ruth, I guess.
Later that night, she woke up and called my name. I went and held her hand. And she asked, “How’s the song coming along?”
I couldn’t pretend. “I haven’t hit on it yet.”
She patted the back of my hand. “You look as bad as I feel.”
“I’ll look and feel better when I have an idea I like,” I said. Which was true, but did sort of imply I’d had some ideas I didn’t like, when actually I hadn’t had any ideas at all. That was as much of a lie as I could let myself get away with to make her feel better. “I’ll work on it when Court gets back.”
When Court did switch off with me, I made a call of my own. To Ziggy. And told him I needed him there.
(Another song that was a hit at the time. Freddie wrote it when he knew he was dying and it was on Queen’s 1991 album. Queen performed a version with Elton John singing it at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert and it hit the charts. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to write a song about my own impending death. -d)