If I had written a list of pros and cons, I might have seen how moving to Austin from Seattle with a boyfriend who had just kicked heroin, and with stripping as my only job prospect, was not a recipe for success. Two years later, I was still floundering. “Always make sure you’re running toward something, not away from something,” a friend of mine had warned me before I moved. I was running in place. I had yet to forge any truly strong friendships. Stripping had ceased to be exciting and edgy and had become something I dreaded.
The club I was working at in Austin was the Crazy Lady, which was the shabbiest and smallest club in town. Depressed and lonely, I spent my nights working at the club or watching Forensic Files marathons for hours on end. I constantly pictured a homicidal man climbing the outside of my apartment building. Steeped in isolation and paranoia, my life had become a horror movie starring just me.
The problem, aside from a state of anxiety and depression, was that I had no plans. My biggest plan had been to fix up my junkie boyfriend. I wanted to turn him into the man I knew he could be. I admit it was a Pygmalion thing. Two years after our move, he still wasn’t that guy, and I was left holding nothing but a chisel and a hunk of marble. Heroin had been replaced by Jim Beam and Shiner beers, and we were constantly at odds. After five years of trying to make it work, I kicked him out and was living alone.
The only thing that made me feel less alone during that time was Rufus Wainwright. One morning, I was listening to a local radio show, Eklektikos, hosted by John Aielli, a slow-talking man with a bass voice and an unwavering interest in the weather. Sometimes he would spend ten minutes talking about the wind. “It’s an easterly wind today. If that’s a word. I think it is. I could look it up, how would you like that? Anyway.” He was this incredible encyclopedia of music: classical, pop, country, opera. He seemed to capture a part of Austin that I associated with most of the people I knew there, and had not yet grown used to: a steadfast sincerity that included a lack of appreciation for sarcasm. Austin didn’t get me, and I didn’t get Austin.
John Aielli said in that slow, bass voice of his that vibrated the window near my stereo speakers, “I don’t think I appreciated how musically complex this song was the first time I heard it. Now I can’t get enough of it.” The song, “Poses,” started with the piano, simple in the beginning, then interwoven with cello and violin and the most intoxicating male voice I had ever heard. Androgynous and strong, the voice seemed like its own entity. I leaned against my wall, listening.
I bought the album that day. The cover is a black and white photo, a profile of Rufus shot from about the clavicle up. It’s easy to see that he’s beautiful and young. His shaggy black hair is damp, like he has just taken a shower. His skin is as white as a calla lily. His eyelashes are thick and lovely, and he is looking down. His lips are small and turned down slightly at the corners. He looks depressed and vulnerable.
Wainwright wrote the album while staying at the Chelsea Hotel in New York. I did go from wanting to be someone, now I’m drunk and wearing flip-flops on 5th Avenue. I was doing the same thing here except with less vivacity. I had all of this moxie and optimism; now I was drinking shots of Patron in strip clubs in the daytime in a hipster Texas town. I had wanted to be a writer and now I wasn’t writing at all, instead focusing all my energy into alternately breaking up with and getting back together with a guy who didn’t understand me and didn’t want to. My addiction was the guy. He was the bag of jelly beans I would throw in the trash then dig up again to finish.
But as lame as he was as a boyfriend, he got Rufus Wainwright. He came over to borrow my car, and I had left the CD in the car, queued to the title track. I didn’t mention the song to him, but I wanted him to listen to it. When he dropped off the car, he said, “I liked the CD you had in the car. I want it.” He smiled. “I kept listening to the title track over and over. Great stuff.” He dropped off the keys and walked down the stairs. Every time he left, I felt like I was saying good-bye to him for the last time. Every time I both grieved and hoped that it was true.
The first song on Poses is “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk.” With a synth intro, it sounded like a grown-up version of Really Rosie at the beginning—after failing to gain traction with her movie, taking stock of her addictions.
Cigarettes and chocolate milk
These are just a couple of my cravings
Everything it seems I like’s a little bit stronger
A little bit thicker
A little bit harmful for me
Then it lifted into lush background vocals and drums, some minor chords insisting bad shit could happen:
A little bit stranger
A little bit harder
A little bit deadly
It isn’t very smart, tends to make one part…so broken-hearted.
His lines slid right into one another, no gap for a breath. With the tympani drum, strong vibrato, and strings, “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” escalated at the end into fireworks and orgasms:
I’m just a little bit heiress, a little bit Irish
A little bit Tower of Pisa whenever I see ya
A thread of hope embroidered the entire album. Hope for love, hope for getting a clear head, hope for making peace with lost love, for making peace with death. Wainwright explored the despondency of coming up short of one’s big dreams, but he never ripped you off totally. There was a promise within each song.
For the first time, I had also found a therapist I really connected with. I told him I didn’t want to let go of my failing relationship until I had something or someone else.
“You’re afraid,” he said, “of the empty space that happens when people leave. The time before the next—possibly better—thing comes along. You want to fill the space before you can feel that emptiness.”
“The void can be scary. I wouldn’t dream of telling you to inhabit that space and see how things unfold for a change.”
That’s what made “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” such a perfect song. Wainwright knows he’s addicted. And he’s sad he has to give it up. At the end of the song he sings slowly, drawing out the words wistfully: Cigarettes and chocolate milk… The sad lonely piano ends on a down note, as if to say, “I hate to let you go.” To everyone else: So please be kind if I’m a mess.
After I finally broke up with my ex, I became friends with a dancer from the club, Stella. She was drop-dead gorgeous and interested in exploring bisexuality. She was wild wild wild. Feral. Men fell over dead for her whenever she walked into a room. They became cartoonish, all eyeballs and heaving chests.
We became inseparable. We worked every once in a while, and we smoked weed at her house and took care of her plants and cooked together and watched Home Movies. We quoted Walter and Perry all the time and told everyone we were going to be them for Halloween. We slept the day away. We showed each other songs for hours on Kazaa and we took each other’s songs very seriously.
Although we weren’t romantic, we did try to have sex a few times. Once, after a long night of drinking and a few lines of coke, I fucked her in my ex-boyfriend’s bathroom on a blanket. I remember one drunken night she went down on me for an hour while we listened to Ween. Hey there, Fancy Pants. I couldn’t come and the whole thing was kind of ridiculous. I just wasn’t feeling it. I had always been more attracted to butch girls anyway. We eventually forgot about the sex thing, but I was still madly in love with her.
In the car and at my apartment, I still listened to Poses all the time. I had burned another copy so I wouldn’t have to keep taking it in and out of the car. Rufus’s range was difficult for me to sing along with. It was in the wrong key, so I sang harmony part of the time and an octave higher the rest of the time. I liked singing it without him but I missed the orchestral grandiosity.
I wanted to date someone. I was still alone, confused, and feeling like I sucked at life. I wanted to date someone who wouldn’t see this. I wanted to date someone who would be gentle and reflective and a good listener. Yet someone without any needs at all. A mannequin but with better people skills.
Who will keep
Keep me in this evening
They are not here with me
Feel the world around me
Fighting through the whiskey
Stella and I started working at XTC Cabaret, which was bottomless and topless. There was more cash there and the only thing different was that we showed our vaginas to people. That didn’t seem like a big deal to me because when I lived in California and Seattle, I did that all the time. Plus I wasn’t showing my vagina to anyone special right now.
With a partner in crime, stripping felt fun again. We made enough money that we didn’t have to work every day. I liked not having to show up if I didn’t feel like it. Feeling a buzz from fistfuls of cash at the end of the night kept me going. One night we decided ahead of our shift that we would split whatever we made. We made a shit-ton of money that night. “It made me want to work harder,” she said, “knowing that it was for you.”
“Oh my god, we’re each other’s pimps.”
“No,” she said seriously, “we’re each other’s wives.”
I blinked at her. Then we both started laughing. I was glad to have her as a fake wife. It worked perfectly that I didn’t have to work at anything yet.
You will keep
Keep me in this evening
You are not here with me
I hooked up with a speed freak and had some drug-fueled weekends with him. My therapist asked me if I was really into the speed freak. I said, “Well, not really. I don’t know. He seems pretty into me.”
“You can be honest with him in a way your ex never was with you. You can give him a chance to take care of his feelings by being up-front with him.”
“What if I don’t know if it could be anything?”
He looked at me. “You knew within five minutes of talking to him.”
Eventually, I got tired of trying to keep admirers orbiting around me because at their core, these relationships were unsatisfying. I needed to be alone, as painful as that might be. The short and poetic “In a Graveyard” talks about getting comfortable with death.
Death was on my mind. Not because I was suicidal—I wasn’t. But the transition from my past to what I was hoping would be my future involved a kind of death, inside of me. I cut off communication with my ex, and cooled on my friendship with Stella. I loved her and missed her, but we had different lifestyles. My focus on trying to be more conscious and all of the things I was learning from therapy were probably totally annoying. She wasn’t doing anything wrong. Like me, she was just letting her life happen to her. We just stopped being aligned. Even though it had always seemed lame to me, I applied to community college and started taking classes.
I finally stopped listening to Poses after about a year. By that time, I had quit dancing, started attending classes in earnest, and initiated friendships with people who would become part of my tribe for many years. I had fallen in love with the man I would later marry. I started listening to Nellie McKay’s debut album and Ella Sings Gershwin all the time.
I bought all the other Rufus albums that came after Poses and loved every single one of them. Even the Judy Garland one. But none of them carried me through the way Poses had. It had acted as an operatic talisman while I lived in an uncertain void—leaving room for that new, better thing to come along.