Performance Art

In 1984, when she was a popular and pretty high school senior and I was a skittish wallflower two years younger, my family lived in a parsonage: a brown sided Garrison style house with blue shudders, owned by the church where my dad served as minister. It lay just a few houses short of the intersection of North and East Streets, in the center of town in Tewksbury, MA.

Upstairs there were four bedrooms and one bathroom that was shared by the five of us. At the very top of the stairs, Nanci’s room lay to the immediate left and the bathroom straight ahead. The close proximity of the two rooms was both convenient and annoying to her.

It was a Friday evening and Nanci was getting ready to go out with her friends. I, having few friends and fewer places to go, was gearing up for a big night of the Dukes of Hazzard and a bowl of popcorn. As I reached the top of the stairs, I could hear the tinny sound of Stevie Nicks’ Edge of Seventeen coming from her turn-table.

And the days go by Like a strand in the wind In the web that is my own I begin again Said to my friend, baby Nothin' else mattered

Her bedroom door was closed, but not tight. I tapped on it.

“Yup?” she called out.

The door rubbed the top of the carpet with a shoosh. Nanci was sitting at her makeup table, in her bathrobe, elbow upraised and positioning a curling iron, just so. She had been looking straight ahead at the mirror, but now angled her head down, so that she could see both her reflection and myself just by flicking her dark brown eyes in either direction.

The scene was a common one – me stopping by her inner sanctum to see where she was going – and I could usually tell by the greeting she gave if I were welcome to stay for any length of time. When I did stay, I would usually lie down on her bed and we would talk while she finished getting ready. Sometimes I would even fall asleep. But I knew not to assume anything. Nanci could run hot or cold, and I was pretty good about taking her temperature by asking innocuous questions.

"What are you up to tonight?"

Nanci uncurled the iron from her hair and placed it down on the table, and sighed (warning!).

She rapid fire responded that, Karla was picking her up at seven and they were probably going to so-and-so’s house. So and-so and so-and-so were going to be there, and if that was lame, they might go to so-and-so’s because so-and-so were going there instead of going to so-and-so's. Nanci was popular – not because she sold out. She was popular because she knew who she was, and anyone at the age of eighteen who knows who they are, especially in conform or be cast-out Tewksbury, had an advantage over others. Nanci did not get involved in the fray of high school. She tolerated it and thought herself above it, and sometimes used it to her advantage.

“Is Bobby going?” I asked.

“pfft.” (danger!)

When Nanci provided sounds instead of words, I knew it was time to stop asking questions and begin a retreat. Her gaze moved back to the mirror but she asked me, sounding obligated rather than interested, about my plans, “Where are you going tonight?”

“Not sure,” I replied, and as I backed my way towards the door, I dropped, “Probably just to the bathroom.”

She reacted with a distracted laugh and, “You’re disgusting.” Then she picked up her curling iron, clamped it down on a gathered ribbon of hair and followed it with a couple of quick deliberate turns of her wrist.

I exited and pulled the door back to its original position and found myself in front of the vacant bathroom.

To me, the engagement with Nanci was unfulfilling.

I had an idea.

I walked in and lifted up the porcelain toilet seat cover, hard, so that it clinked loudly against the water tank. I knew Nanci could hear it as her make-up table sat on the other side of the very same wall. Now what? I was standing there, like an improve actor trying to figure out his next move.

In a moment of spontaneous genius, I leaned forward over the toilet and pressed my palms flat against the wall. I nuzzled up close and put my cheek between my splayed hands and began to grunt. I let out a few quick, “ugghs,” followed by a bearing down-like, “arrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrhhhh!”

There was a fearful moment of silence, but I heard the sound of her giggling through the wall. I knew I had her.

I repeated the sounds, this time with increased volume and depth, but was aware that I had to step up my game if I were to bring her to an acceptable laugh level. Nanci was hard to please and her sense of humor was no exception. But when she did laugh out loud it was usually over someone else's misfortune, or something crude or dark. As a teenage boy, crude was (is) my specialty. So, I began to sprinkle in graphic vocab among the grunting, and yelled out tortured phrases like, “Oh God!” “What is happening?!” and, “When will it end!?”

When Nanci reached a laugh crescendo it usually sounded like an exploding, “I just got the joke” kind of eruption – a “haaaaaaaaaa!” that lasted until she exhausted her breath, and it was typically followed up with an intake gasp mixed with a phrase, such as, “Oh my God, that’s _____!”

The blank was could be filled with an overstatement, such as, “hysterical” “disgusting” or “gross.”

By now, Nanci’s giggling had turned into the full blown laughter I was seeking, and she was yelling back at me through the wall, “Stop it! That’s disgusting! Oh my god, you’re so gross!”

Mission accomplished.

But I still needed a final punch line – an ending that would wrap things up and allow me to leave my porcelain stage to a standing ovation.

I paused and desperately looked around for something - a prop - to take my routine to the next level, and there it was, on the floor next to the toilet. Keeping one hand on the wall, I leaned down and yelled out, “Here it comes! This is it!” Then I grabbed the toilet plunger off the floor and slammed the rubber base down into the bowl.

When Nanci heard the exaggerated splash she let out a noise that sounded like a barking seal. I could picture her holding her curling iron away from the side of her head while she instinctively looked down and closed her eyes, her face contorted.

I stood over the toilet with the dripping plunger’s handle in my hands and my pants marked with toilet water splash. Then, for a finishing effect, I let out a having your pain relieved, “Ahhhhh,” and flushed. Nanci’s rolling laughter rained down on me. I dropped the plunger, like a microphone, and exited the bathroom victoriously, stage left. I stood outside in the vacant hallway relishing the success of my performance, and as an encore I proclaimed to her bedroom door, loudly, "Phew! That was a doozy.”

Nanci let out a chamber emptying laugh and threw me a verbal bouquet.

“Scott, you’re so disgusting.”

But I knew - or maybe I just hoped - that she meant I was hysterical.

I made my way down the hall to my bedroom and the relative silence of the house returned. I flopped down on my bed, under the gaze of Van Halen and a giant cheeseburger poster, and clasped my hands behind my head and stared at the ceiling.

Three doors down, Nanci turned up the volume of her record player. Stevie Nicks and Don Henley's scratchy voices filled the empty upstairs air with “Leather and Lace.”

Is love so fragile And the heart so hollow Shatter with words Impossible to follow You're saying I'm fragile I try not to be I search only for something I can't see

I closed my eyes and took a nap.

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