Sunday, December 15, 2013

Moments of Steve

I had not heard or seen Steve Nicholas in years. After graduation it seemed like he disappeared from my life. I could not get his phone number, my emails went unanswered. I wanted to hear about the musical he was writing, his new projects, his upstate New York jokes. The word it felt like was 'subtraction.' Like many others before him, I somberly accepted it as the city-way. You get to know people and then one day, the connections snaps. No arguments, no overt reason, no airing of grievances. Just a sudden subtraction.

My Sunday was blocked out for a video shoot. A comedic web series. We were in the middle of filming an over-the-top death bed scene. The relatives of the lead character were carrying on, wailing, improvising lines that had the crew bursting with laughter. Many of the people in the room had experience death recently. The laughter and clowning was like a much needed gasp of oxygen. A few minutes into the mourning, I got the news about Steve Nicholas on my phone. Not knowing what to do with this information, I blurted it out to the nearest person. They didn't know Steve but they expressed the appropriate sense of subtraction. Satisfied that I had placed my 'floating feeling' into a 'call-and-response' exchange I continued working. The roar of laughter from the other room got louder.

MOMENT #1: Brother

That's a good one, brother!

 When Steve first called me brother, I thought he was being sarcastic. We had been having a pleasant conversation as first-year grad students. I said something that made him laugh so hard he coughed until his throat was red. In his whiskey hoarse voice of his, he said 'you got that right, brother.' I cocked my head to the side, smiled, and excused myself. I wasn't offended, I just needed a moment to process that. It's not often middle-age White men call you brother, right? That's not how the world works. And although I've never been invited to the club, I don't think middle-age White men call each other brother.

I thought Steve was fascinating, funny, frustrating,

MOMENT #2: Marvin Gaye

Brother, brother!
We don't need to escalate.
War is not the answer.
Cause only love can conquer hate.

Who is that?

ME (along with a few other playwrights)

Steve had been reading a part in one of my plays. One of the stage directions was for his character to vocalize his line in a Marvin Gaye falsetto. Steve circled something on his script and ignored the direction. At the end of the reading he asked, 'who is that guy?' I laughed. Surely, you're joking. I began sing/mumbling "What's Going On?" He stared at me like I farted.

"How can you call me brother and not know Marvin Gaye?" He just shrugged his shoulders.

"Were you under a rock in the 60s and 70s?" He eagerly nodded his head to end the discussion.

MOMENT #3: Charge of the Light Brigade

Another dull morning before class. The fluorescent lights tortured my early-morning eyes with its sharp glare. It was best to just put my head down and wait. Steve walked in. I always enjoyed listening to Steve in voice and speech class cause he was so consistently anti-voice and speech. He chewed his words, 'tawked' out of the side of his mouth, belted from the middle of his throat, had no connection to his chest voice. Glottal fry? Why yes, please. And can I have a shake with that?

Everything was wrong and it was pure poetry. His voice had a personality. It had style, substance, rhythm, and marched forward, oblivious to any instructions or international phonetic systems. Listening to him work through his vocal exercises was like "The Charge of the Light Brigade." Sweet beautiful doom.


Steve, you need to stop smoking!

Yeah. Whatever.

Seriously. You can barely breathe after climbing a flight of stairs.

...I know.

He smelled like cigarettes. He fell of the proverbial 'nicotine wagon.' We were in another class and I didn't know what else to say. I grew up with asthma so my lips have never even touched a cigarette. The desire to put smoke in a pair of healthy lungs and choke up the sustenance of life (breath), baffled someone who had enough problems trying to gulp down clean air. What I wanted to say was 'Steve, you are too smart for that. You know that, right? You are too smart, too important, too big, too much love. You have gone too far.

MOMENT #5: Hey, brother! You're right!

You ever notice...that teacher...she looks different.

Steve...(whispers) she had plastic surgery.

Get outta here. Really brother?

Yes. During the winter break. Just look at her eyes.

(Teacher enters. )

Welcome back, welcome back.

Hey, happy new year.

(Steve glares at the teacher for a few uncomfortable moments. )

(in a loud voice)
Hey, brother! You're right!

(wanting to hide)


The last time I saw Steve, he was in a suit and tie. I was walking down the hallways of Pace University looking for a bathroom. Steve was dressed in a suit and tie, guiding some students to their classes.

I nonchalantly walked up to him. This had been years. No conversation, no investment.

Where's the bathroom?

Hey! How are you?

Doing well. Looking sharp in the suit.

Steve said something self-deprecating about his suit and a 'monkey.' I nodded. He moved his lips and I thought 'wow, it's been years.' And then suddenly he was pointing me in the direction of the bathroom. My feet were moving. The interaction was complete. He was in the middle of work. I understood that. Freshman students needed to be guided quite literally to the right room in a maze of hallways. We made promises to keep in touch. I did something I consider 'weak.' In a romantic comedy, they say goodbye and then they look back one final moment. It's cheesy. Music should be playing. Well that's what I did: a lookback. I was headed down the hall toward the bathroom and I looked back. Subtraction one last time.

Steve was pointing a few students in one direction while he walked ahead. He didn't look back. He was too busy practicing addition and multiplication: pointing people toward their destination. I wanted to slip in the 'b' word one final time. Maybe I would shock him this time, or make him turn his head to the side and smile. But was it too late? The distance was widening between us. I could shout it down the hall, or sing it:

What's going on?


Marvin Gaye! What's wrong with you? Were you born under a rock?

(nodding quickly)

That didn't happen. Instead we kept walking.

My condolences to Steve Nicholas' family and friends. Even if he didn't know Marvin Gaye, Steve was born under the stars. My brother, brother, brother.

1 comment:

Mildred said...

You beautifully articulate the influence of fleeting friendships here.