A Thank You

There’s a quote that’s been circling the internet; “Someday someone is going to hold you so tight that all of your broken pieces will stick back together”

It’s clearly intended to be thought of as a reminder to hold out for that soulmate coming down the pipes to fix everything simply by existing. (Pardon the cynicism)

When I first took it, I saw the romantic context and ignored it. I thought of my brother whose answer to anything is to hug me until my shoulder blades merge or to act as a breathing heating pad and flop on top of me. I thought of my roommate who has warm meals waiting for me on the bad days, and whisky for the worse ones. I think of how grateful I am for the people determined to not let me actually break into pieces.

I hit a spot of continual bad luck and not-so-good people recently. I’m in a town far away from my support group and the strain causes the cracks to break. Like any healthy, well-functioning adult, I continue to pick at my scars. I have the good days and I have the bad days. Even on the good days I feel  the lead weight in my chest and the sharpness of the broken edges.

You start waiting for the person to help put you back together.

I certainly wasn’t expecting who it would be.

Then he calls out of the blue. A former roommate from an internship years ago. Two years since the last contact I had with him. We catch up. He lives on the west coast now, but he’s traveling. He’s going to be in town, am I able to see him?

We meet for drinks that turn into dinner. I’d forgotten how he cuts through my defenses. How he calls me out on my bullshit and notices when I distract from questions I don’t want to answer, or have an answer to. He asks the difficult questions. He demands answers. He interprets my answers and recites them back to me, simplified. I spend hours untangling the knots in my mind. He cuts through them in seconds.

He tells me what he knows about me, that he doesn’t think I’m aware of yet, or ready to embrace yet. From a few months as roommates and friends, he lays out a bold judge of my desires, progression, and what’s holding me back.  And infuriatingly, he’s right.

He tells me about his life. His travels and where he’s currently settled, for now. He’s in an incredible open relationship, the kind that makes you believe in love and people being in love and the simple ways to make things work.  Things are never as complicated as we want to make them. It’s beautiful how devoted he is to her, how in love they are, and how they are in constant, completely honest communication. It’s refreshing. It’s hopeful. It’s also startling when I’m informed that she fully expects him to spend the night with me.

Which is the short version of how I woke up this morning tangled in my sheets with another person. And you remember that there is a difference between feeling desired and feeling valued.

While I won’t see him in another several years, while I am likely to not hear from him for another year at least, the man next to me is someone who both desires and values me, who respects me and pushes my boundaries and tries to get me to push them for myself.

He makes me think about the next steps. I know I’m sitting at a crossroads now, he made sure I saw the other paths to take, or make on my own.

In the moments before I acknowledge my consciousness, I notice that for the first time in long time, the edges feel not so sharp. The familiar pain and weight in my chest feels warmer, softer. A balm has been laid on my beaten heart, the bruises are fading, the scabs to scars. It’s a road yet ahead, but the pieces have remembered how to fit back together.

You find the help and the inspiration in the places you don’t expect, in the people you don’t expect. They arrive and they shake things up, help you stand up, and let you alone to try to find your own balance again.

I’m a cynic who believes in fate and fairy tales, not of the garden variety. And I believe in gratitude, for I am lucky in the people that I manage to find who pull me out of the deep end when I need it.

 

The Not-So Stranger

We spent hours talking together again last night.

That’s three times this week we’ve spoken until 3am.

You don’t have my phone number, I just recently learned your full name. We know each other’s childhood stories, we exchange notes on museums and authors, we know religion and politics, and yet we don’t really know each other.

You know how I have a gift for faces and first impressions, you tease me and quiz me on strangers that wander into the bar. I know I surprise you and throw you curveballs, but you don’t want me to know, so I pretend not to see your blush or the slight raise of your eyebrows.

You think I’m silly and interesting, I think you’re funny and clever.

You walk me home when it gets late. It’s only recently you’ve hugged me. You’re not from a world where people hug like I am, but you noticed, so you hugged me goodbye a few months ago. For the first time, it was you that surprised me.

Every time we part at the corner, I always wonder. What could happen, what would happen, if I lingered longer, if I kissed you on the cheek, or squeezed your hand as I left? It took me so long to get more than a greeting out of you when our paths began to cross. Months have passed since then, the neighborhood recognizes us as friends now, I don’t know when my thoughts of you moved past that. I wonder if you ever get that spark, or wonder about me. Do you think about grabbing my hand when we bump at the bar? Do you wonder what I’d do if one evening you leaned in?

Or is it all in my head? Are you just quiet? Too shy to say something or uninterested in your young conversation companion.

At what point do I choose to be the one to bridge the gap? Or do I at all?

Maybe I don’t. Maybe I sit here and smile as you mock my youth and I tease a smile out of your serious face. Maybe I fall a little further as you straighten your sleeves and re-button your cuffs before you rise to leave. You’re precise and crisp in your movements as in all of your decisions. Was one of them me? Or not me?

My movements and decisions are messy and impulsive. Am I too much mess, or just enough to maybe shake you up?

That’s my messy decision to make I guess. Whether or not I shake you up one night or let you live in your crisp, defined world because my coloring outside the lines may be too much.

But we all could use some color, don’t you agree?

First Impressions

For anyone who has ever done Summer Stock Theatre, the terms “company manager” and “change over weekend” come accompanied by a wince and gratitude towards the crazy men and women who willingly elect to become the temporary parents for hundreds of actors/interns/staff/etc. and steer the ship through the chaos of 24 hour work calls. Or shudders of horror in recollecting those who were not up to the task.

If you haven’t done Summer Stock Theatre, take pride in your sanity. Imagine a small town in the middle of nowhere with just a theater as the major attraction, maybe there’s a lake or mountain if you’re lucky. You hire and drive/fly/train/bus 300-500 theatre professionals for three to five months, stick them in rental houses with roommates and shared rental cars and hope for the best. There are anywhere from 10 to 30 events that happen in this small time span, plus parties to celebrate all of them, all of which are under the watchful eyes of rich donors, patrons, and members of the board of directors for the theater.

Imagine everything that could possibly happen in those three months, never mind go wrong, and you have a rough estimate of Summer Stock and only an inkling of what it means to be a company manager for these crazy circuses.

Unsurprisingly to anyone, I spent two years on a company management team. The two women heading the team are the best company managers I have ever met, and even they had a fifth of whisky in their shared desk by July.

It was the end of July and in the span of 36 hours we had 56 people departing the theater for their real lives and 26 arriving for the final show of the summer. People had to be driven to airports, train stations, bus stations, with massive amount of luggage in tow. The open rooms had to be flipped (cleaned) to return rental houses to owners or prepare for their new tenants arriving. The tech crew was working in overnight shifts to take down one set and put in another, we had to coordinated 4 meals for them and keep caffeine and water flowing.

We made a plan. We practiced the plan. If we kept to the plan, it was all easy. We even had 6 hours each to sleep! We all had copies of the plan in our back pocket. We started at midnight on Saturday. By 8am Sunday, I was picking up a group headed to bus station when I heard a noise downstairs. The boiler in our biggest house looked as though it had been stabbed and there was a foot of boiling water in the basement.

And there goes the plan!

I am calling everyone on my team while tossing luggage into my car. I get the first group on their bus and turn around to take the second group to the train station. An actress felt bad about the mess she left behind and decided to run the dishwasher to help us. I arrive in time to watch mountains of suds ooze across the linoleum. I’m covered in suds and shoving laundry to catch the water when my boss arrives with our handy man in tow. I grab the actors leaving with me and drive the hour to the train with soap still in my hair while my boss tries to salvage the plan.

I have a lovely breath of silence on my ride back. I return with refills of supplies and to the team being mostly back on track. It’s only a few hours of work later when the company phone rings.

The AC unit in a lead actor’s apartment unit is missing. His contract requires one. We have one window unit left in storage. I am handed the unit and off again to the next town over where he’s staying.

He is a charming, older actor who has been working at this theatre company almost since its inception. He’s a favorite among the staff so I’ve heard plenty about him though this is our first time meeting. He offers to lend me a hand as I work to install the unit in his room, which I readily accept. We’ve got it settled in the windowsill when I reach up to close the window to secure it. And watch him let go of the unit. As our last AC unit tumbles out of the window towards the asphalt below, I am struck with the horror of how this is going to end. The unit will smash, I will have to interrupt the plan once more to track down the petty cash to buy a new one, assuming we can find any left in stores this late in the summer, and there will be an additional layer of chaos tossed into our already maddening stretch. I don’t remember making any decision or choosing to act, I just remembering thinking “No!” before diving out the window to catch the unit by the electrical cord.

The world stopped, stunned for a second at the sight of a tiny 22 year old girl dangling out of a second story window clinging to the cord of an AC unit suspended maybe a foot above the pavement below.

Not knowing how to break the stillness I uttered the obvious. “I caught it.” The laughter that roared out of my companion was enough to shake the house.

He went outside to the ground level to help pass it back up so I could haul it back into the window. We successfully secured the unit in the window, and made sure it worked before both of us collapsed again into laughter.

We made it through the rest of the changeover weekend. The end of the 36 hours stretch was created with whisky toasts and an immediate collapse into our beds.

The summer continued as normal. The story of the crazy intern and the AC Unit spread through the company. I was given a helmet in case I felt like diving through any more windows.

The summer ends and we all go back to our regular lives in cities across the country. We all stay in touch and laugh over our misadventures this summer. We see that our old favorite actor will be performing over the winter. Of course we have to go see him.

We meet him backstage and he is overjoyed to see us. He introduces my friend and I as the best company management team he has ever seen. He winks at me before continuing, “And I have a great story to prove it…”

First impressions die hard, but they often leave behind great stories.

A Goodbye

Have you ever noticed how crying, the real heavy sit down and bawl crying, sounds like laughter? My neighbor in the hall asked what was so funny. Before he noticed my eyes were red.

I am not a pretty crier. I don’t glisten like the girls on tv who look ethereal and shimmering through their tears. I snot and wheeze and bawl every ounce of my being fighting the unfairness of the world that brought me here to tears.

I’m red and puffy and sniffling. It does no good. You’re still gone. Nothing has changed.

And the wheel keeps turning. It’s both beautiful and cruel how the world keeps moving. Time stops for no one.

When you leave for college your freshmen year, you expect your world to stay the same, much like your childhood bedroom you leave behind. It’s as though the past 18 years of your life are a painting, you simply step out of it leaving a white patch, when you return, you slip right back in. The kids you babysat remain kids, the puddle in your driveway remains unfilled, your siblings are still short pre-teens, your room remains brightly painted and filled with posters covering every inch of ceiling space your parents would allow you to pin into, time is supposed to halt without you to watch it.

You were supposed to be the same. We lost teeth together, in fact, you definitely punched out one of my baby teeth. We learned how to write in cursive together then we joined the same local Brownie troop, you teased me for not being a member of the Daisy troop the year before and then again when I continued to be a girl scout once you quit, and later a cadet.

We did Math Olympiads together, and some silly terrible youth cleverness team competition where we shocked the judges. Not because we did well, but because our team had been so damn terrible at our performance project we had spent months working on and yet came in first place by far in the team problem solving tests. I think our score wound up being somewhere in the middle when averaged out. We didn’t care though. We were all so excited to play on the really cool playground on the quad at GHAMAS. We played tagged and got covered in mud because it was still early spring. Your mother never forgave us for that.

We learned about death together. We were 13 when he had the accident and later she took her life. We knew death of course, but for grandparents, for reckless teenagers. But our friends? Their siblings? It was inconceivable. I was sitting between my parents in the catholic church when I saw you. I didn’t know what to do, so I waved. You’re not supposed to wave at a funeral apparently.

I wish I could go to yours. I’d wave at  you. One more time.

We drifted apart in high school, you were better at math and science, and couldn’t have cared less about grades. I loved languages, theatre, and psychology, and I wanted good grades to help me leave our hometown for good. We didn’t have a class together for years. Until photography, then other art classes, and you joined the ballroom team with Rachelle and laughed at me as I pretended to know what I was doing and teach the underclassmen. You loved to laugh at me, I was stubborn but I was also aware that I provided plenty of material. I would laugh along with you.

You watched me as I pretended to be an artist creating jewelry both beautiful and horrendous. You also pointed out the obvious, what kind of crazy high school teacher left me alone with a blow torch?? I had allowed myself to think I was special. I was a responsible adult-like student who could be trusted with an open flame. Looking back, you were totally right. She was nuts. Thank God the building is still standing.

Then we graduated. I don’t remember seeing you in a cap and gown. I don’t remember seeing you since. I can hear your laugh, see the chipped dark polish on your nails that you never really stopped biting. Did I see you when I taught at the Summer Arts Academy? Or are those halls just so full of our memories that I hear your laughter in them and insert you into the recent years?

Our friendship felt like my childhood bedroom, no matter many years, it would still be there, unchanged. I waited for the day we’d cross paths, maybe a quick coffee chat at the Avon Starbucks we used to think was so cool. We’d chat and promise to hang out again. Then years later, it would happen again. One day we’d see each other and vent about how our children are just like us, God knows how we survived to adulthood! We would maybe exchange christmas cards, in the way that old friends do. We would lead different lives but honor that history. We were each others “weird friend” who’d always been around. Who always would be, maybe on the periphery, but always there, a social media click away.

But that’s not how the world works, is it?

I came home after a year of college to find my childhood bedroom rearranged and repainted. White. From purple and green and eclectic to white. The posters were neatly wrapped and packed away for me. There was a sewing machine in it now. The kids I babysat were entering Jr. High, High school, driving even, my parents filled in my favorite puddle, and my baby sister became a tall, beautiful  cheerleader.

You died. And no one thought to tell me.

Time doesn’t stop moving just because we aren’t watching.

You had only started your quest to see the world. You’ve done amazing things in the 24 years you were given, but oh what could you have done, had you had one more chance?

I was waiting for our paths to cross again, because of course they always will.

My mother called to offer condolences today. I had no idea what she was talking about.

In what world could you have been gone four days, and I have not noticed?

The same way we barely noticed each other anymore.

The last time we spoke was a Facebook birthday wall post. That was the only communication we had for years. Facebook. Years of playing and teasing and being stupid kids then teenagers reduced to Facebook.

Of course no one thought to tell me you’d died. Facebook would do that for them.

 

You deserved better. From me, from the world, from the damn drugs, all of it should have been better. You deserved a bit longer.

I am sorry for what I could control. You deserve better. You deserve more.

May the angels protect you. May you give them hell.

With love, always.

Kevin Bacon Challenge

There’s a running joke among my friends. I can beat Kevin Bacon, with me it’s not Six Degrees of Separation, it’s two. Maybe.

It gets rather ridiculous. With the existence of social media, it’s worse than ever before.

The final straw for a friend of mine happened at a random fundraising event we were invited to attend. The event director was an actor who I’d missed by mere weeks when we were both seasonal employees at a theatre company. After his departure, his headshot was pasted in every dressing room as a joke. I recognized him instantly. We’re now friends on Facebook and run into each other everywhere.

So a challenge was laid forth. I had to top the ridiculous instances of connection with mere strangers. I had to find a story of two degrees of separation that involved a dog, only the dog.

She was rather displeased to find I already had one.

My final year of school, I interned at a costume shop as an assistant to the head costumer. I spent weeks in a basement surrounded by clothing from any time period you could imagine, sorting, cleaning, cataloging, and preparing paperwork for designers. My favorite moments were when designers would come in to discuss the pieces that had to be built from scratch. Hours would be spent poring over watercolor sketches trying to match fabrics and discuss silhouettes. Bolts upon bolts of fabric would be brought out, it was always exciting, colorful, and the heart of the creative process, taking the idea and figuring out how to bring it to life. Many of these designers had small dogs that they would bring along. You could always tell when the dog had been around the costume shop before. There was one who came in several times, a snooty french bulldog named Paul. He would walk into each dressing room and sneeze before sticking up his nose and walking out. Twice I was sorting costumes when he made his rounds. I had never felt so judged by a dog before. When his owner began comparing fabric, he would roll his eyes and stomp over to his traveling crate until she finished. His precise judgement, eye rolls, and general behaviors were hysterical to watch. His owner was close friends with my boss (as well as incredibly talented and working on a large show that season), because of this, I got to watch Paul roll his eyes at our staff every week while I was working there.

Fast forward over two and a half years later. I’m working at a different regional theatre in a different state, nearly two hundred miles away. I’m now in the management office, I’m the apprentice to the Managing Director. Instead of costumes and watercolor sketches, my day-to-day now involves contracts and tax forms. I’m working in my shared office in an ancient house turned office building when I hear the soft click of nails on hard wood. There’s a familiar looking french bulldog that has somehow wandered into our office. He raises a judgmental eyebrow at the artistic office across the hall. In surprise, “Paul?”, slips out of my mouth before I have put it all together. The dog is as surprised as I am, clicks his way over to my desk before rolling his eyes and extending his head (and permission) to be pet. As I reach down to pet him, I hear the thud of footsteps from the other end of the hall. “Paul, what on earth are you doing here?” I ask of the dog as I check his tag to make sure, and indeed somehow this snooty dog and I have found each other again. An out of breath actor I’ve met only once hears me and runs into the room. He looks curiously at me and I look back at him just as puzzled.

“This is Jess Ford’s dog.” I say. He stares at me rather confused.

“I’m Jess Ford’s husband” is his response.

Of course. The man I heard her talking about to my old boss, about how Paul wasn’t sure if he accepted the new beau in her life. Two years ago in a costume shop miles away. Turns out he’d been in the audience for both shows I’d worked with her on, we chatted at the company parties about her designs and the shows. She came up for the opening weekend of his show and laughed hysterically when she realized that the common connection was discovered through Paul and his familiar attitude.

Two degrees of separation. It’s a thing.

The world is a tiny place.

 

As Life Moves On

Dear Friend,

Tomorrow marks the beginning of a new chapter, a new adventure in this crazy story we’re trying to write. You took the brave step, you looked around and realized that what once was our home has become a new story where you no longer fit.

I want you to know how proud of you I am.

Your infectious smile and attitude brightened the halls of that office. You welcomed hundreds of nomads like us into a temporary home and each season for them, and for us, it was home. It was our lovely sanctuary. Every inch of that small town is covered in memories of silliness and kindness and making names and lives for ourselves for the first time. We lived for years in a fairy tale.

There’s something so heartbreaking in outgrowing your fairy tale. Your happily ever after is no longer. Did they change? Did we? Somehow the shoe no longer fits. You waited longer than I did. Determined that the world we loved would return, you stayed to save it.

Then overnight it became beyond saving.

You grew so brave. The girl I met with so many years ago would never have been able to face down our mentor, father figure, and friend to tell him you’ve been pushed too far. You gave your notice and walked away with barely a backward glance.

I remembered the first night we met. Our cars full with everything we could call our own, stashed in the attic room of a dilapidated intern house. We’d be moved to another house the next morning, they didn’t know what to do with us so they stuck us there for the night. You had long dark curls and a huge bright white smile that lit up the room. We sat cross legged facing each other on a creaky twin cot and began telling each other our life stories. Somehow in those first hours we knew, our life stories from here on out would include each other.

By the next year we were known as a pair. They roomed us together, and when our contracts changed, they moved us again under the same room. We spent our days working to support a company we loved and our nights on mountaintops, covered in paint, or slipping each other love notes and McDonald’s apple pies when we got caught working or loving too hard.

Ups and downs have always been the two of just skipping rope and stepping on forward.

Then I got an offer out of state, you got a full time contract, I fell in love with my city, you created a life in the small mountain town.

I hitched up to see you this summer, and when you had to work, I cleaned houses alongside you just to be able to see you and pretend like old times we were still moving side by side. We moved like nothing had changed, while around us, everything was changing.

I produced a play I knew you’d hate. You raced the Metro North to Poughkeepsie after missing your stop in order to make it for the closing show. You brought a card for me, I had chocolate and a stuffed animal for your upcoming birthday waiting with your ticket.

You wrap up your end at this place that was our beginning. There’s a love note like this one waiting at your door. In a few weeks, I will be waiting too.

So much is changing, one story ends now, the next is just beginning.

I don’t know where these new stories will take us, but I know one thing for sure; your name will be in the pages.

 

 

How It Began…

It’s a commonly known, and commonly mocked, love of mine. Since I could read I’ve had a love of language, but since summer 2005, I’ve been involved in a longstanding affair with the words of William Shakespeare.

Though while that was when I first began devouring his plays, I was always destined to be with The Bard.

I was born in a blizzard in 1991, a lovely palindrome of a year. My parents were not told what gender I would be, as the doctors had been unable to tell from the ultrasound. But like all McCombs babies from the past century, it was assumed I would be a boy. Imagine the uproar when I appeared lacking the expected genitalia. With no female name even considered, I was quickly given a family name from my mother’s side. The newest addition to the McCombs Clan would be not Jack or Donald, but Katherine.

But Katherine quickly did not seem to fit this new and prickly infant. My mother, being an avid theatre goer herself, quickly dubbed me Kate. “for you are called Plain Kate, And Bonny Kate, and sometimes Kate the Curst” (Taming of the Shrew; Act II Scene 1)

As she loves to remind me, I was not a pleasant child.

I was 14 when she enrolled me in what we all still affectionally refer to as Shakespeare Camp. It was all downhill from there.

There was a girl in the corner with hair that fell nearly to her knees and a mischievous glint in her eye that asked me if I was Kate the Curst. When I tentatively answered yes, she responded with “A title for a maid of all titles, the worst!” She needs no other introduction.

Over ten years later, we are still best friends. We’ve played the evil sisters in King Lear together, directed poor school children (and even unluckier college students) in countless scenes and plays, sent each other terrible Shakespeare puns for Valentine’s Day, and are those girls that harass the poor kid on The High Line who quotes Shakespeare for tips. (If you ever read this sir, we’re mostly sorry.)

We now live in separate cities with new separate lives. She works for the Mathematical Association of America in DC and I still roam Manhattan and Queens in my many hats. But even long distance, Shakespeare still acts as part of the major glue of our friendship.

We both still send out and share Shakespearean Valentines over the internet. I found a sampling posted on Facebook.12670609_970046643090320_2107517520056317066_n

Not to be outdone, I received one from Pinterest:

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It’s been pinned so many times, I’m struggling to find the original creator to credit. Whoever you are, you’re my favorite.

For my last birthday, I received two books. One on Shakespearean themed cocktails, and a second on Shakespearean interpretations of contemporary pop songs or Pop Sonnets by Erik Didriksen. I flip through at random often and am consistently delighted. I’ve suddenly discovered an appreciation for Carly Rae and T Swift.

With over 25 years defined by history’s greatest storyteller, is it any wonder that my life has become defined by a myriad of stories that I continue to live and tell?

I am so excited to share them with you.