I never saw it coming.
When my live-in boyfriend said that he wanted to perform with me at a drag show, it wasn’t anything unusual. He’d been playing around with drag himself for a while, and was in the process of developing his own stage persona. The fact that it was a male-female duet was a little odd, but I went with it.
When he said he thought we should do the number in formalwear…well, that should have been the first clue. The song he’d chosen, “You’re Timeless to Me” from Broadway’s Hairspray, is a comic number with vaguely disguised fart jokes and playful jabs between a couple who have been married for years and have seen it all. Not the sort of thing you need to rent a tux for, especially for someone whose usual idea of dressing up usually involved a Hot Topic lounge shirt. But somehow, the hidden meaning slipped by me.
When we showed up to the venue (remember Sensations? Ahh, how I miss you…) and his mother was there, I really should have known something was afoot. But instead of taking two and two and putting them together to make four, I asked her if she was wearing a wig. Seriously. In my defense, she’d made a pretty radical change to her hair (cut it super short and dyed it super dark) and I was rushing around in my usual pre-show haze, and we were in a room with a bunch of people for whom wearing wigs is standard procedure. Still, probably not the best question to ask your future mother-in-law an hour or so before her son is going to propose to you.
And so there we were, him in a spiffy tux and me in my Miss More Head 2014 gown (nude mesh with silver holographic sequins and dangling crystals), channeling our best Wilbur and Edna Turnblad, laughing and joking about a life well-lived. When the song ended I retrieved my microphone and attempted to continue the show only to see him emerge, sans bald cap, get down on one knee, and ask me to marry him.
For one of the few times I can ever remember happening at a drag show, I was speechless. Knowing that I’m anything but traditional, he opted for a large lab-created opal stone, sort of square in shape but with rounded corners, with three small blue zircons on either side. Blue zircons are his birthstone; it seemed a fitting way to have a part of himself incorporated into my ring. The whole moment was lovely and very personal. And a part of me knew it wasn’t right.
We were two people who had some shared interests and a deep affection for one another, but we were never really, deeply compatible. I liked that despite his quiet, shy nature he pursued me. I think he liked the larger than life persona, the fact that I was “somebody,” that my place in the community we shared made him feel important when he was with me. On my darker days, I thought that I should just count myself lucky that someone wanted to be with me even if we didn’t feel connected, if there wasn’t any passion or fireworks or whatever. In my own way I loved him very deeply, but I was never fully there. Neither was he. We were two people who weren’t very happy with their lives who found something comfortable that made things a little easier, at least for a while.
And so when he got down on his bended knee and asked me to marry him, I said, “Yes.” It’s what you do. Even if I felt troubled, even if I felt disconnected, even if I was scared…I was more scared of the alternative. To answer in any other way would mean having the type of vulnerable, painful conversations that we were never good at. It probably would have ended earlier, and I wasn’t ready for that. It would have been terribly embarrassing, for him and for me, and would have run contrary to the “happy couple” façade we’d spent so much effort building. And for all my faults, I did love him. So I said, “Yes.”
Looking back, the alternative might have been better. Messier, certainly, and more painful at the time. But if we could have managed to be candid and vulnerable, maybe we’d still be friends. Of course, maybe it would have been the unforgivable truth, a wound so deep we wouldn’t be able to recover. There isn’t much use in looking back and trying to guess at the possible outcomes. It’s not a Choose Your Own Adventure book; you can’t keep your finger on the last page to easily flip back in case you don’t like the outcome of your choice.
And I’m fine with things – I really am. I’m only bringing it up for context. To set the stage, as it were, for what’s going on now.
As I’m sure you’ve heard (after all, I just won’t shut up about it!), I’m currently playing Edna Turnblad in the Empire Theatre Company’s production of Hairspray. It’s one of the two absolute “must play” roles on my bucket list (the other, Joanne from Company, is going to be a little trickier to make happen!). I love Divine and the original movie – in fact, I love pretty much all things John Waters – and because it’s one of the few drag roles where being a drag queen isn’t necessarily a joke. Sure, there are jokes that play on the audience’s reading of my gender, but Edna is also a fully realized human being. She’s got some sweetness and some sass; she’s got dreams that she thought would never come true. And when you strip everything away, she’s got two people, her husband and daughter, that she loves so much more than anything material life could give her.
Each night, I get to sing “You’re Timeless to Me.” It’s such a sweet and funny song, and it has so much history behind it. I can’t help but think back to that proposal. To all of the dreams and ideas I had about what that relationship would be. I also get to look into the eyes of a dear friend who has gone through his own personal struggles. Both of us have been bruised by love, and here we are portraying these characters who have such a deep and abiding love for each other. It could be a very sad moment: we could choose to get all weepy and think about what we’ve lost and the terrible choices we’ve made. But for me, it’s such a hopeful song. True, things haven’t worked out exactly the way I expected…but if I hadn’t had that terrible, dark time I never would have gotten on the path that lead me to this particular stage, this particular show. Maybe, if we had stayed together, I would have ended up here anyway but I don’t think so. I was withering; we were both withering. This place I’m in now, this is a sort of blossoming. It’s the opposite of where I was, of where I was heading.
And singing “You’re Timeless to Me,” watching my fellow cast member crinkle up his eyes as my adoring Wilbur, I know that love doesn’t always look the way we think it will and it isn’t always magical and scripted out of a movie. It can be hurtful and confusing, and sometimes it just has to end. But there is always more love in the world, and when we find a love that complements us and shelters our wounded, broken places we can face the world knowing that we’re stronger for all the shit that’s been there to fertilize our flowers. And along the way, we find other loves to sustain us: the love of friends who help us pick up and keep moving; temporary loves that might not shake our cores, and they may not be the timeless matches we’ve been searching for, but that bring passion and sweetness back in where we thought we’d lost them; and even the love of work, the love of the exhausting process of building and shaping an artistic experience, bringing together talented people who give themselves to something in order to delight and entertain, finding themselves enriched in the process.
As we neared opening night and we were all pulling together little details to round out our characters, Edna needed a wedding ring. It seemed absolutely natural, right somehow, to grab that beautiful opal ring out of my jewelry box and place it back on my finger. What else would I do? What else could I do? That ring, that song, all of it is a part of me, part of how I ended up right where I am. For a second, I thought maybe I would cry or feel sad, or it would make it that much harder to get through that song every night. To my surprise, it has actually made it easier. When I’m singing that song, up on stage with my friend who had his own battles to go through to get up there with me, I just feel light and hopeful and filled with possibility. I thought there would be an ache; instead, there has been a warmth to soothe it. It has been nothing short of a blessing.
And that I definitely never saw coming.
Tags: Blessings, breakups, Champagne Dreams Productions, Chris Berg, community theatre, Dar Williams, Divine, divorce, Edna Turnblad, Empire Arts Center, Empire Theater, Empire Theatre, Empire Theatre Company, Hairpsray, Hyrum Patterson, Janessa, Janessa J, Janessa J Champagne, Janessa Jaye, Janessa Jaye Champagne, John Travolta, Marc Shaiman, marriage, Miss Jaye, theatre, Wedding, World of Champagne