Dangerous When Wet
(St. Martin's Press)
When Jamie finally gets into rehab, he offers up a quick meat-salad for his fellow drunks and dopesters: I threw the facts out onto the cutting board like raw meat: gay since birth; drinking since fifteen; everyday drinker by mid-twenties; healthy --- and unhealthy --- doses of drugs along the way; became suicidal; tried suicide. Voilà! Here's Jamie!
In other words, it may sound serious to you, but it's really just a joke.
As so much of Dangerous When Wet seems to be an extended joke. "Don't take me seriously" is the message. Despite the fact, he is telling us, that I am addicted to drugs and booze and have AIDs and my mother never let me even think about getting away from her and I tried to kill myself: it's all for laughs.
Jamie can be funny as hell, and we suspect in person he would be one who could leave us in stitches. There are a few moments like that in Dangerous When Wet. As in: during one of his pickups, where, as usual, once the business end is over, he passes out. When he comes to in the morning, he finds he is, o god no, in New Jersey, in bed with a nice Mexican who insists he must visist the Great Falls of Paterson.
The young man says "The Great Falls make me very proud to live here. It makes me happy to show them to you for the first time." And Jamie says, sotto voce, what anyone direct from the upscale gay life of Manhattan would say: And to think that all these years I was just a van's ride from the Great Falls.
Then there is the problem of mother, who he calls Mama Jean. This is the mother who, when he was growing up in Beaumont, Texas, would tell him, "Oh, I wish I could shrink you back to age five. That was the perfect age!" What Jamie suspects is that he never left that perfect age. Because "before I started elementary school and before she went to work, I was her constant companion. Those halcyon days were filled with sewing, shopping, movies, and hairdoing."
And when he is to start school:
"Now, Jamie, all of your teachers may not love you or even like you as much as I do," Mama Jean told me as she sat on her king-size bed with me perched on her lap.
"She had placed me on a pedestal and I loved being there."
"Where's my precious baby?" she'd call from her bathroom. I'd jump up from the floor in my room and run to her. She towered before her bathroom-sink mirror in her white bra and panties . . . She'd cut her eyes in my direction and ask my reflection, "Where have you been, Lord Randall, my son? You weren't pressing were you."
"Pressing" the author explains was what he liked to do on the floor when he was quite young. Mama noted his very first erection. "It looks like he knew what to do with it," she said. "Maybe," reflects Jamie, "that's when I earned the nickname Tally Whacker Baby."
I did know that to do with that thing, and I was fearless about using it. "Pressing," Mama Jean called it.
What a dickens he was. And what a dickens it must have been to know, to know that he could hide nothing from her, ever. There was no escape: neither inside. Nor out here.
§ § §
Many years later, when Jamie had moved to New York City, Mama Jean comes up with Dad to visit the apartment that she got for him and his lover. They are watching Oprah. Imagine flying up all the way from Beaumont, Texas, to New York City to be with your son and sit around watching Oprah interview a meth addict.
The phrase "barebacking" turns up on the program, so Mama Jean wants to know that very moment exactly what it means. No secrets permitted. Jamie explains as best he can in a few words and She screwed up her face in disgust. "Oh, God."
Just then Jamie's lover Michael comes in from work. As we get to know him through the book, we see him as an elegant, decidedly calm and gentle person, one who must have had "the patience of a saint" (as my own mother would say) to put up with the daily drama represented by this presser from Texas.
Jean says to Michael,
"Have you been barebacking lately?"
Hello? Here we are in New York, with a guy her son obviously cares for; one, we would hope, she could, perhaps, leave alone, leave well-enough alone.
But this woman definitely marches to the beat of a different drummer. "Dad was shaking his head in resigned exasperation, his eyes raised." And Jamie? All that he says is "We laughed uneasily over Mama Jean's little gotcha."
Little? Gotcha? I'd call a spade a spade: it's a reckless invasion of a private space, and I would probably, at that moment, be reaching for the shotgun. But that isn't their way. At least, not right now.
Not soon after, he attempts to shotgun her, from another angle. With pellets of Ambien. Most of the bottle. Taken with vodka on the rocks. Alone.
After he was raced to the hospital to detox and a week of isolation from his family, when they finally let him out, when she sees him, he notes that she was "Standing there in her nightgown without her face on, holding on to the bar as if it were a crutch, she wasn't in charge. She almost looked lost." Exactly.
In a later meeting of AA (where Michael is invited to participate), the latter volunteers his "concern over the hold that Mama Jean continued to have on [his] life . . . From a thousand miles away Jean still has a vise grip on Jamie. Emotionally."
§ § §
Despite some addictions that would drive the rest of us crazy (Peggy Lee, Joan Crawford, Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor) and not a few relapses into boozing, Jamie still turns to be someone it would be nice to keep on the planet. But we have to wait. Two years after his suicide attempt, Mama Jean develops dementia, which leaves her dazed, unable to communicate, unable to feed herself.
There were still some sparks at the end: when Jamie comes from New York to see her at the nursing home, she says, "Why anyone would want to come to this godforsaken place is beyond me." And when a neurologist is checking her knee reflexes with a rubber hammer, she doesn't like it, punches him in the stomach.
But after that, it is downhill. The last time we see her, she is "bathed in the flow of a warm spotlight, dressed in her Christmas-red St. John Knits gown."
§ § §
Ultimately we're left wondering whose book is this, anyway. Jamie's? Mama Jean's? A Doppelgänger?
For the book leaves us in the fabled double bind. Those of us who grew up with a Mama Jean know the feeling well. Think of it as Dr. Dolittle's Push-Me-Pull-You, spread out over a half-a-century, which forever leaves you off balance. Every time I see myself, I see not me, but the one that I thought should be me; and, by transference, the one that could never be. She (and I) must always be unsatisfied, enmeshed, incomplete; even after she is long gone.
Those of us who are lucky figure how to escape, though best not through a haze of booze nor pills, nor into electro-shock, nor to the looney bin, nor in a pine-wood box. It must come with the help of others, involves the professionals who will not be trapped our ghosts, will give us what we need to survive with a minimum of scarring . . . with a maximum of what's left of the soul intact.
It's a tough road, and Jamie can praise the gods (as my own mother used to say) that he lived to tell the tale.
More or less as it should have been told.
More or less as he should have told it.