We were already on our second round of drinks, and Howard had shown no sign of calming down. In fact, I think his indignation was rising along with his voice. At least we were sitting outside. That way the noise ﬂoated up and away rather than bouncing off the walls and driving the other patrons crazy. The International Sky Café has a nice little patio where you can drink and smoke unmolested and that’s where we had been encamped for the last hour and a half, almost two. The outdoor seating promised that the pungent smell of world-class ganja would gently surround anyone passing by, and practically guaranteed a contact high if you lingered. Marijuana and hashish are legal in Amsterdam, and it is not uncommon to see people sitting in outdoor cafés, reading newspapers and having a little smoke with their morning coffee, but Howard and I weren’t smoking today. We were ordering champagne by the glass and trying to make sense of what had just happened. “I’ve been thrown out of places for being too black, too queer, too loud, too drunk, too hip, and too too, but I have never, ever been tossed out on my ass for being too American!” Howard was working himself up into a pretty good rant, but we were entitled. We had been asked to leave the funeral of an Iraqi director who had been a close friend and collaborator of ours for years. The problem was that Halima’s relatives were there from Baghdad and the war wasn’t just a blurb on the six o’clock news to them. It was real. Even though she died in a boating accident, nowhere near a war zone, her family was still outraged at the presence of Americans, any Americans, soldiers or not. “It wasn’t a question of degrees, Howard,” I said. “It was a question of citizenship. They were pretty clear about that. No Americans. Period.”
Thirty years ago, our pain at the loss of our friend and our general sorrow about the fucked-up state of the world around us might have spun us into a long afternoon of passionate, awkward, just need to feel alive sex, ending in a good long cuddle, maybe a nap, and an evening out laughing too loud, drinking too much, and not giving a damn. The fact of Howard being unapologetically gay would not have been part of the equation. At those times, it wasn’t about gender. It wasn’t really about sex. It was about comfort, connection, and an unequivocal afﬁrmation of life. This happened frequently when too many of my friends were dying of AIDS in the early days of the epidemic. Being a practical sort, even in the midst of panic and confusion, I learned to put my diaphragm in and pack condoms before funerals, just in case.
Howard was still fussing. “I’ll tell you one thing, missy, this is my ﬁrst and last time being tossed out of somewhere for being an American. An American! Can you believe that?”
His voice rang with equal parts incredulity and indignation. The very idea that he, Howard William Denmond, Jr., born and raised on the south side of Chicago, Illinois, could be mistaken for a ﬁrst-class American citizen was beyond the scope of Howard’s experience or comprehension. We were black Americans, after all, not the other kind, and we were not used to being held accountable for their sins.
“So I look like John Wayne to you?” Howard was on a roll. “Can’t they see that we’re niggas?”
We spend so much time deﬁning ourselves as outsiders when we do get invited to the party, sometimes we can’t remember why we even wanted to go. I raised my eyebrows at him.
“Oh, excuse me, missy. We’re Negroes, okay? African Americans! Jigaboos! Take your pick! All I’m saying is, we’re not real Americans!”
It suddenly occurred to me that in all the confusion, I hadn’t had a chance to share my other bad news. It never rains but it pours.
“Try telling that to François,” I said.
“What are you talking about? François knows it. He’s been around black folks so long he’s practically an honorary spook himself. If it wasn’t for that damn accent, we could pass him off as a Louisiana Creole and nobody would be the wiser.”
“He ﬁred me.”
Howard was waggling his long, slender ﬁngers at the waiter to indicate we were ready for another round. My words didn’t register at ﬁrst.
The waiter, gliding between the tables like a dreadlocked Fred Astaire, nodded to acknowledge Howard’s gesture and disappeared.
“Fired me,” I said, draining the last of my champagne in preparation for another. When I turned ﬁfty, I decided that the only alcoholic beverage I would consume would be champagne. Now I can spend all that time I used to waste looking at the wine list looking for a new job.
Howard frowned at me across the tiny table. “He can’t ﬁre you!”
“Well, he took me into his ofﬁce, closed the door, took my hand, and told me the board didn’t want me to open the season. What would you call it?”
“The board?” Howard snorted derisively. “That’s absurd! Beyond absurd! Since when does the board make artistic decisions? They wouldn’t even have a theater if it wasn’t for you! And François would still be directing those wretched little pieces he used to do in that awful space by the train station.”
It was an awful space, and most of the work that was presented there was distinguished by its passionate intensity, not its artistic excellence.
“I did some good work there.”
“Exactly! You did! Not François and the rest of that crowd. You! ”
Howard snapped his ﬁngers for emphasis as the waiter appeared with our drinks, scooped up our empties, and then stopped to peer at me quizzically. I knew that look. He just realized that he’d seen me in a movie, or at a ﬁlm festival, or on a stage somewhere. The idea that I could have stopped in to have a few too many glasses of champagne in the café where he happened to be working was not something he had ever considered. In New York or L.A., I could walk down the street stark naked and not get the time of day, but here in Amsterdam, or London, or Paris, even Rome on a good day, I’m a recognizable face if not a household name.
“You are a bona ﬁde star, missy. What possible reason could he give for ﬁring you?” Howard said, not even noticing the waiter.
“Would you believe for being an American?”
Howard choked on his drink and started coughing like a maniac.
“Excuse me,” the waiter said, seeing his break and jumping in before Howard could catch his breath.
“I’m sorry, but . . .” The waiter was ignoring the presence of other thirsty customers as if we were alone in the room. “But are you...are you Josephine Evans? The actress?”
As opposed to Josephine Evans the pig farmer. I nodded, smiled, reached out to shake his free hand. “Yes, I am.”
“Thank you,” he said, his eyes ﬁlling up with tears. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
“Well, you’re very welcome,” I said, wondering what I had done to deserve such unabashed adoration.
Howard, fully recovered, was grinning at me like the Cheshire cat. “So you know Ms. Evans’s work?”
The waiter nodded. “Oh,yes! I’ve seen every play you’ve done since 1992. You’re the reason I became an actor.”
An actor-slash-waiter, I thought. “How old were you in 1992?” He looked like he was barely old enough now to be legally serving us drinks.
“I was ten,” he said, sounding breathless and amazed. “We were in a play together.”
That could mean only one thing. The only play I’ve ever done with children was Medea and I got to kill them at the end. A lot of actors will tell you never to work with kids or animals because they’re too cute or too ﬁdgety, and in either case, you can’t compete. I thought that was good advice the ﬁrst time I heard it and I still do, but the kids are on stage for only a minute or two in Medea, and she’s so wonderfully crazed by then, there is no way any kid, even a seriously cute or terminally twitchy one, can compete with that.
“Were you my son?”
“Yes!”He almost gasped in his delight.“I was the older one.The one she stabs ﬁrst. I can’t believe you remember me after all these years.”
“She never forgets a line or a face,” Howard said, reaching in his pocket for a pen and a piece of paper which he slid across the table to me. He knew the drill. Smile, acknowledge, autograph, say goodbye.
“Well, my son, you grew up nice,” I said, teasing him gently, pen poised above the scrap Howard had provided. “Would you like an autograph?”
“Oh, would you mind?” he said, still ignoring the increasingly impatient people nearby, hoping to catch his eye for a reﬁll.
“What’s your name?” I said, unprepared for the crestfallen look my question elicited. Oh, my God, I thought. This sweet baby actually thinks I remember his name after ﬁfteen years!
I twinkled at him in a way that once would have been ﬂirtatious but, since I’m old enough to be his mother, was only sweetly conspiratorial. “You know how we theater people are,” I said apologetically. “I only remember your character’s name. Do you want me to sign it that way?”
His smile returned. “Yes, of course, that would be ﬁne. Oh, no, that’s not good. Then no one will know it’s for me. You better go on and make it to Julian.”
“To Julian,” I wrote, “a great actor and a wonderful son, your loving mother, Medea-slash-Josephine.”
He read it, smiled as if we now had an ofﬁcial private joke, bowed slightly, and backed away as if he were leaving the presence of royalty.
“See? That’s just what I mean,” Howard said, taking a sip of his champagne.
“About what?” The exchange had been pleasant, even routine, but suddenly I felt exhausted. The events of the last two days had ﬁnally caught up with me. I considered going back on my resolution and ordering up a vodka on the rocks with a splash of lime, but I don’t want to be unemployed and drunk on the same day.
“About the idea of them ﬁring you being beyond absurd.”
“They ﬁred you.”
He snorted dismissively. “They ﬁred me for destroying those hideous costumes, not for being an American.”
He was right about that. Six months ago, a guest director with more ego than experience had clashed mightily with Howard about his designs from the ﬁrst day of rehearsal. Nothing pleased the guy, and although he had no talent or experience as a costumer, he demanded changes up until the day before the ofﬁcial opening. After a while, Howard gave up trying to reason with the man and just did whatever was requested. If the director said he wanted a bustle on a miniskirt, Howard whipped it up and handed it over. The actors were mortiﬁed.
“What are you going to do?” I said the night before the opening after I’d watched a dress rehearsal and realized the costumes were even worse than anyone could have imagined. “Your name is still listed on the credits.”
“Don’t I know it,” Howard said calmly, hand-stitching a piece of pink silk with great concentration. “Pick me up at seven thirty tomorrow, okay?”
The next night, Howard dawdled around so long getting ready that by the time we got there, they were halfway through act one. I ﬁgured he was just putting off looking at those terrible costumes as long as he could, but when we crept up to the balcony to sneak a peek at the show, I was amazed to see the actors going through their paces, beautifully dressed in Howard’s original designs. Seeing my surprise, he put his ﬁngers to his lips and led me outside around to the back of the theater. There in a pile of ugly orange, yucky yellow, and inappropriate purple were the hideous costumes the director had requested, neatly cut to ribbons.
Of course, François had to ﬁre him for unprofessional conduct, but his costumes were so fabulous, and the story was so good, he’d been working nonstop ever since.
“Tell me François’s exact words.”
“Your ﬁring makes a much better story than mine,” I said, trying to move on.
Howard raised one eyebrow in a way that people who didn’t know him found intimidating. “His exact words, missy.”
I couldn’t resist trying to lighten the moment by doing the accent. François was a Frenchman, raised in Spain, who had been living in Greece for a decade before we arrived in Amsterdam on the same rainy afternoon almost thirty years ago. He walked up to me at the airport, looking very hip and European, told me he was a director, and asked if I was an actress. Of course I was. I fell in love with him immediately. We lived together off and on for ﬁve or six years. At that point, we decided to stop driving each other crazy and just be friends.
In an attempt to be all things to all people, not one of his ﬁner qualities, François deliberately rolled all his accents into one so that nobody could quite ﬁgure out where he was from. “I’m a citizen of the world” was his habitual response to direct questions, and most people let it go at that. That’s one of the best things about theater people. It’s our job to make stuff up. Characters, accents, costumes. The speciﬁcs of real time, real place are less important to us than the integrity of heart and sweetness of soul. Nobody held François’s accent against him. We had all come from somewhere else. Many of us had come from someone else. But once we found each other, we became members of the same tribe.
The most passionate relationships we ever had occurred in the context of rehearsal and performance. Our lives outside the theater often seemed ﬂamboyant and extravagant, but that was only because when you spend three hours a night doing Shakespeare, Ibsen, Sophocles, Wilson, Hansberry, you have to live your real life at that emotional level, too, or risk boring yourself to death until showtime. If anyone appreciated the necessity of reinvention, Howard and I did. Plus, we both loved François, even after he had sent us packing. You can’t forget all those years of friendship, love, struggle, collaboration, and sex just because the world was going stone crazy and there wasn’t a damn thing you or your friends could do about it.
“ ‘Josephine,’ ” I said, exaggerating the famous accent until I sounded like a combination of Pepé Le Pew, the cartoon skunk who thinks he’s Charles Boyer, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, the actor who thinks he’s the governor of California. “ ‘You know I love you...’ ”
Howard groaned. “He didn’t go there, did he?”
I plowed ahead. “ ‘But we’ve gotten some calls at the theater. Some letters. The board just thinks this isn’t a good time to have an American actress open the season this year. They’re afraid it sends the wrong message.’ ”
“The wrong message to whom? Do they think you set American foreign policy in between performances?”
I was still doing François, but it wasn’t as funny as I had hoped it would be. “ ‘You know, Josephine, I would not be where I am today if it hadn’t been for you.’ ”
“At least he had the guts to say it.”
“But he didn’t have the guts not to do it,” I said in my own voice, amazed to feel my eyes ﬁlling up.
“Fuck ’em,” Howard said, pretending he didn’t see me blinking back the tears.
“Be sure you tell François that the next time you see him, will you?”
“This is all the work of that little Cuban ﬂoozie if you ask me.”
François’s new girlfriend was a Cuban actress who had joined the company two years ago and was both talented and beautiful.
“She’s not a ﬂoozie and she hasn’t got that kind of inﬂuence over the board anyway.”
“They don’t deserve you.”
I took another swallow of champagne to soothe my frazzled nerves. “He took great pains to tell me that they were prepared to let me keep the apartment and pay me half salary even though I wouldn’t be playing such a visible role.”
When I said that about the apartment, Howard looked as shocked as I had felt. I’d been living there so long, I had almost forgotten it technically belonged to the theater. Apparently, François’s memory was a lot better than mine.
“What did you tell him?”
“I told him I wanted all of it in writing so I could show it to my lawyer.”
“Good for you! I didn’t even know you had a lawyer.”
“I don’t. No job. No lawyer. I’m batting a thousand.” I could never remember whether a big number or a small number was better in baseball. “Is that the bad one?”
Howard smiled and patted my hand. “I’m not a big sports fan, sweetie. I couldn’t tell you.”
“Well, whatever is the worst, that’s what I’m batting.”
We just looked at each other. This was bad and we both knew it.
“Should I act like a real American and go over there and kick his ass for him?” Howard said.
“With pleasure. All you have to do is say the word.”
“I’m not there yet,” I said, “but hold yourself in readiness.”
“Can’t you teach classes or something?”
I looked at him.
“What? You’d be a fabulous teacher.”
“I’m a fabulous actress, remember? I don’t have the patience to teach.”
“Maria Callas gave private lessons.”
Callas was Howard’s favorite opera singer of all time, but the legendary diva’s voice classes were famous for making mincemeat of those who came to worship her.
“She made people cry and slash their wrists,” I reminded him.
“Nobody slashed their wrists.”
“That’s because they had to leave all sharp objects at the door.”
“Okay, okay,” he said. “I get it. Teaching is out. So what are you going to do?”
The truth was, the funeral had come up so quickly on the heels of my demotion that I hadn’t had time to really consider the question. It would take me a minute to process the possibilities and come up with a plan that would feed me creatively and put champagne on the table.
“I have no idea.”
“You still going to do your trip?”
I was leaving for Atlanta in two days. My granddaughter had been on the periphery of a high-proﬁle murder case that consumed Atlanta gossips for months and exposed her to a level of scrutiny and speculation for which she was unprepared. Shell-shocked, she had withdrawn from college in the middle of her senior year. Her mother was worried and so was I. Howard loved Zora almost as much as I did. Almost. He’s the one who taught her to speak French and took her to her ﬁrst Paris fashion show. She’d been ﬂying to Europe to spend part of the summer with me for almost ten years, but this year she told me she just wasn’t up for the trip.
“Good for you,” Howard said. “Strategically, it’s absolutely the right move. Leave your outrage hanging in the air and haul ass back to Atlanta until I can sort things out here.”
Is that what I was doing? Hauling ass? “I’ve never run from a ﬁght in my life.”
“This isn’t running, sweetie. This is a strategic withdrawal.”
“What is there to sort out?”
“Everything,” he said. “Did you not participate actively in the conceptualization and actualization of the Human Theatre Company?”
“François had the theater when I met him. You know that. Technically, it’s his. He can do anything he wants to with it.”
“Fuck technically. I’m talking about truth. Did you or did you not?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Were you planning to stop performing before François’s surprising announcement?”
“Of course not. Not yet anyway.”
“Not yet? Not ever. Great actors are ageless, sweetie. You’re just hitting your stride.”
“I can’t see myself doing Medea when I’m sixty.”
“Then do Clytemnestra. Do Rose Maxson. Do Lena Younger or that three-hundred-ﬁfty-year-old voodoo girl in August Wilson’s last opus.”
“Second to last. There’s one more after that.”
“You’re missing my point, sweetie. Our board used to be like us. Artists and a few rich eccentrics and, if we were lucky, somebody who owned a café close by. Now they’re a bunch of stone-faced bean counters who wouldn’t know a piece of art if it hit ’em in the face.” Howard’s voice was rising again.
“Calm down,” I said. “We don’t need to be thrown out of anyplace else today.”
Howard ignored my suggestion. “Just because it’s no longer me and you and François and Halima sitting up in my funky little apartment, dreaming and drinking and smoking bad dope, doesn’t mean this thing we created now belongs to them. Fuck that! Let’s ﬁght for it!”
“How are we supposed to do that?”
“Who knows? For now, you go to Atlanta. Spend time with Miss Zora and help her get that lovely little head screwed on right again. Rest and play and have fun while I ﬁgure out our next move. How are your ﬁnances?”
“I’m okay,” I said, but the question set off alarm bells in my head. I’m okay only in the sense that as long as I had my regular stipend coming in from the theater and my beautiful little rent-free apartment, I could live at the level to which I’d become accustomed and continue to follow what Jack Nicholson called the universal rule of show business: the one who’s working pays. Since I’d been working regularly for the last thirty years, I’d paid for hundreds of meals, rivers of wine, oceans of beer. I’d loaned money for rent knowing I’d never get it back, paid for round-trip tickets home on the only working credit card in the group, and been glad to do it. That was the beauty of the rule. It gave those of us in a notoriously ﬁckle profession a way to handle emergencies without having to humble ourselves to outsiders with straight jobs who always feel obligated to lecture you on the precariousness of your ﬁnancial situation, like you don’t already know it.
The fact of the matter is, my ﬁnances are nothing to write home about. I haven’t got any savings to speak of. I own a duplex in Atlanta that my mother left me, but I have no idea what it’s worth, and I’ve got a couple of thousand bucks stashed here and there as a hedge against being a broke old lady, depending on the kindness of strangers. I always kind of ﬁgured that I’d add more to it later so I’d wind up with a bigger nest egg, but I just never got around to it. It occurred to me in a sickening ﬂash that if I couldn’t work this out with François, I might have to start auditioning for parts again, which would be a nightmare. An audition at twenty-ﬁve is one thing. An audition at ﬁfty-eight is something else altogether. That’s why those Hollywood girls cut their faces up and shoot them full of Botox like that. Trying to turn back time.
“Come to Atlanta with me,” I said, feeling suddenly more vulnerable than I wanted to. “We’ll only stay a couple of months, I promise. François will come to his senses and we’ll be back by spring.”
Howard shook his head. “I refuse to visit any country where you can’t smoke a joint with your morning cappuccino without getting hauled off to jail. It’s not civilized. Besides, I promised the ghost of Langston Hughes that if I ever got my black ass out of Chicago, they wouldn’t have to worry about Howard Denmond setting foot on American soil ever again. As long as I stay here, I’m living the life I dreamed about. Back there, I’m just one more black faggot with a little style.”
“You could never be just one more anything.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “How about one more glass of champagne.”
“Your wish is my command.” He waved at Julian, our waiter-slashactor, who was already hovering with a bottle of something French, which he said was on the house.
“Why are you so good to me?” I said when Julian had poured us two glasses, made another small bow, and disappeared.
It was a rhetorical question, but Howard answered it anyway. “Because you’re my best friend and I can’t bear to see them treat you this way. Plus, you’re a star, sweetie. You’ve opened and closed the season every year for the last decade. George Bush doesn’t cancel all that out by being the biggest fool on God’s green earth.”
“All right. I will leave myself in your capable hands.”
“Good! This shouldn’t take long, I promise.”
“Do you already have a battle plan?”
“Of course. First, I’m going to remind them of who you are. I may also let slip that you’ve had a very attractive offer from The Red Bird Workshop.”
The Red Bird was the new kid on the block, and François was already worried about them stealing his audience. “I have?”
Howard smiled. “Leave everything to me, sweetie.”
“I guess at this point, I don’t have much choice.”
He leaned over and patted my hand. “Have I ever let you down?”
“Well, I’m not about to start now.”
“I know one thing.”
“I’m going to miss you like crazy,” he said, his voice cracking just a little. “Jesus! I didn’t even cry at the damn funeral!”
“You didn’t have time,” I said. “We got tossed out too fast.”
Howard grimaced. “What a day! That already seems like a hundred years ago!”
“A hundred years and counting.”
Over the next two hours, what had started off as an angry drowning of our sorrows evolved into a wonderfully teary bon voyage party and a picture-perfect ending to an absolutely terrible day. All I needed to do now was call Zora and tell her I was on my way.
“Well, let’s have one last toast before we drag our drunk asses home,” Howard said, dividing the last corner of the dark green bottle between us.
“Good idea,” I said. “What are we toasting?”
“Here’s to being real Americans.” He raised his glass and grinned across the table at me. “Who knew?”