When I was in high school, I was captain of the drama club. Not theatre. Drama! Anger! Angst! But I was also in theatre and forensics, which are gateway drugs to drama.
Ask your typical teenager, “What’s forensics?” and she’ll reply, “Crime scene investigation.” Ask the same question to a gay teen and she’ll squeal, “I love speech and debate! Last weekend, my dramatic interpretation qualified for state, so…see you in Beaumont.”
Dramatic interpretation is otherwise known as D.I., appropriately named because in these 10-minute performances most characters D-I-E:
I am a Jewish girl in the Holocaust/
I never saw another butterfly/ Why?
Because I die
Starting Monday, I’m going to take a road trip with my best friend/
Starting Monday, I will swim in the ocean/
Starting Monday, I’ll ask out the man of my dreams/
But Monday’s a lie / Why?
Because, Sunday, I die.
Every weekend, thousands of kids travel to schools around the nation and participate in drama tournaments. 16-year-olds perform monologues about topics with which they are intimately familiar: AIDS, cancer, drug abuse. Bus drivers act as judges, rank ordering teen drama queens from least to most dramatic.
These tournaments were everything to me when I was in high school. After the judge called me to perform, I’d walk to the front of the room and ask, “Judges ready? Time keeper ready? Audience ready?” like I was about to perform brain surgery.
My freshman year of high school I performed a dramatic monologue from the play The Addict. My character died after a bad LSD trip:
“I woke up and…there were rats chewing behind my eyes! I beat my head against my fist again and again but they wouldn’t stop. I picked up my grandmother’s knitting needles and shoved them into my eyes.
shoving until the rats
While other high school boys played football and baseball on weekends, I pretended rats were chewing behind my eyes.
I also dabbled in theatre. I played French waiter in The Pink Panther Returns, but I’m probably best known for my work as Jack in Into the Woods.
There are big, tall, terrible, awesome, scary
Wonderful giants/In the sky!
After graduating high school, I majored in Theatre at the University of Houston. The year is 1994.
Another version of MAY
Is she perverted like MAY
Would she go down on you in a
My acting teacher at the school is a peroxide blonde named Carolyn Boone. Carolyn’s a big hit on the community theater circuit with her searing rendition of My Left Breast. She takes the stage, pulling Chic jeans down by the belt loops, giving her camel toe just enough breathing room. Carolyn Boone starts her monologue: “One of my breasts isn’t real. Do you know which one?
(Carolyn grabs her right breast.)
It’s this one.”
Then she grabs her right boob, which kills any suspension of disbelief in a show called My Left Breast.
Theatre’s a safe space for gay high school kids; but college theatre’s a wasteland when you’re aggressively homosexual.
“Why’s your Oedipus so…flamboyant?”
“Brick wouldn’t be so…obvious.”
“You realize Biff Loman isn’t gay, right?”
Carolyn Boone’s smoke-weathered eyes scream at me, “Butch it up, Fox!” Then she kicks up her right leg and queefs.
(Ragan mimics a queef.)
Not really but she’s a villain in this story, so let’s go with it.
At the end of the semester, in the midst of the AIDS pandemic, tragedy strikes: I got a “B” in acting. And I got crabs.
Something had to change. I transferred to the University of Texas that fall and auditioned for the forensics team. Time to go back to my roots, back to where I cut my teeth, back to performing death in ten minutes. Judges ready?
Give me a D-I-E!
I performed Josh Kornbluth’s The Red Diaper Baby, which chronicles the author’s relationship with his Russian, Jewish, Communist father…who dies. “And I put a shovel-full of dirt on the lid of my dad’s coffin in a hole.”
You may be good at football
You may be good at track
But when it comes to death in prose
You better watch your back
I dramatically rendered the autobiography of gay comic Bob Smith. You’ll never believe what happens to Bob’s father at the end of the book. He dies! “When we walked into the room we saw him lying in his casket. His face was heavily made up. He looked like an old drag queen, which is not how most heterosexual men want to be remembered.”
1-2-3-4, death is knocking at the door!
I performed all these pieces while Alzheimer’s disease, like an aimless sculptor, slowly chipped away at my father.
Well, life has a funny way of sneaking up on you
When you think everything’s okay and everything’s going right.
Let me go back.
I was a late-in-life child for Dad, who was 56 when I came slithering out of Mom’s—va-gi-na. Growing up, whenever I asked Dad how old he was, he’d reply, “50.” I thought he was perpetually 50 for the first ten years of my life. One night, we got into a car accident and I heard a police officer say my father was born in 1920. In that moment, I became Stephen Hawking.
(Woman doing math meme plays on screen.)
Imaginary numbers fell like Tetris blocks before my eyes. 1986-1920 and the square root of Pi after carrying the two. My dad is 66!
Don’t be fooled by the rocks that he’s got, Dad’s not like other fathers on the block.
He loved walking around the house nude. It didn’t matter if I was having a slumber party. In fact, that probably encouraged him. He’d walk naked into the kitchen with his balls stuck to each leg, run into one of my friends and say, “Hello, John,” even if my friend’s name wasn’t John. Talk about adding insult to injury. If it were a group of friends in the kitchen, nude Dad would start serenading them with musical numbers.
Oh baby, won’t you play me
Le Jazz Hot, maybe,
And don’t ever let it end.
I tell you friend it’s really something to hear.
I can’t sit still when there that rhythm near me.
My love of musicals came from my father. He introduced me to The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas when I was six. I skipped around elementary school singing, “As for pimps, pimps are something you don’t need to get your daily business done”—blithely unaware of what I was belting to the other 1st graders. Inappropriate. Blame my father. This fruit did not fall far from the tree.
Dad had an enormous…cock. J/k. Nose. Dad had an enormous nose. We called it the famous Fox nose. It had a large crater in it from where doctors dug out skin cancer and a knobby bump on the right side. Broken capillaries marbled its surface. Long hairs poked out of Dad’s nostrils like they were jungle vines. “Swing on me, Tarzan. Climb up me and feast on boogers.”
My siblings and I used to joke with one another, “Your Fox nose is starting to bloom.”
Did you know that as you grow older your body shrinks but your nose and ears continue to grow? All six of Dad’s baby Foxes will eventually grow into his nose.
As you age, your nose grows but your brain shrivels. We literally lose our minds.
Signs of Dad’s Alzheimer’s first emerged when I moved to Austin. I thought it was just average forgetfulness that comes with age. My father was in his late 70s; this was to be expected.
May 1999. My father didn’t attend my graduation. Two months ago, he promised me that he’d come…on my tits. Bad joke. Inappropriate. Blame my father. This fruit did not fall far.
A month later, it’s Father’s Day. I call Dad right before I start my dinner shift at Romano’s Macaroni Grill. “Happy Father’s Day.” Dad immediately berates me for not inviting him to my graduation.
“I invited you. We had a conversation about this months ago. You promised me that you’d come to my graduation. Now you’re trying to shift the blame on me? You haven’t come to visit me once since I moved to Austin! You cut me off financially the moment I came out of the closet. You paid for Leonard to go to Cornell. I worked my way through college and you couldn’t even show up to celebrate.”
But Dad was adamant that I never invited him. Our phone conversation devolved into a screaming match.
He didn’t remember. The sculptor had chipped away at that memory, chiseled away at that promise to attend— turned it to dust.
Five years later, Dad was admitted into a hospice home specifically designed for Alzheimer’s patients. He couldn’t remember much but his baby blue eyes twinkled with recognition when I walked into the room.
He couldn’t tell you what happened five minutes ago but if you started to sing a song from a musical he’d finish the lyrics.
Don’t tell me not to live
Just sit and putter
(Dad) Life’s candy and the sun’s/a ball of butter
Don’t bring around a cloud
Don’t rain on my parade
Looks like Dad. Sounds like Dad. But is this my Dad?
Father, what blue eyes you have?
The better to see you with, my dear.
But father, what a big nose you have?
You better like this Fox nose because it will be on you one day, my dear.
Oh, but Father, what few memories you have.
This disease has eaten them, my dear.
My brother Leonard called me on a warm August day and said, “Ragan, I just wanted you to know, the next drip of morphine will be his last. Are you ready?”
I rehearsed this moment 1000 times using other people’s words. Death. Am I ready? Am I ready? Judges ready?
Lightning tears through Houston sky, as I sit in front my father’s pine casket. The rabbi announces that when a person you love dies, there’s a void. He said it’s a lie when people tell you that time will make it better. It doesn’t. The hole never fills, you just get used to the absence.
I want to go back. I want one more day.
I spend every day trying to fill that void with one-way conversations:
- “I got my PhD today, Dad.”
- “I landed a teaching job in Los Angeles.”
- “I was on TV! All summer!”
- “Dad, I’ve never been so in love.”
- “He broke my heart, Dad. Why aren’t you here?”
Whenever we’d argue, Dad would say, “One day I won’t be here and you’ll be so sorry you wasted this moment with me in anger.” Even at a young age, I thought, “How manipulative.” But it’s not. Those words were prophesy.
I’d like one more nap with Dad,
to revisit mornings I slept in,
to wake up and eat bagels and lox with him.
I wanna’ go back,
to bloom in reverse,
push my roots deep in the soil
in which my father’s planted.
Take me back to emerald grass pressed under his feet,
the mighty oak of my family.
Take this fruit back to its tree.