My biggest fear has always been that if my life were to pass before my eyes during a moment of life-threatening duress, it would be rated PG. Now that it's happening—with a furious sixtyish redhead in a floral jumpsuit named Loretta aiming a shotgun at my palpitating chest—I decide I might as well go for a PG-13 and swear a little.
"Oh fuck," I gasp.
"It's all your fault!" Loretta hisses. "And now you're going to pay."
A part of me always knew this day might come. I've been an assistant cruise director for Empress Cruise Lines for nearly five years and, as such, part of my job is to hand a loaded trapshooting shotgun to passengers who can't even control their own bladders. An accident seemed inevitable. But this is no accident. This woman wants me dead.
I catch the eye of my fellow assistant cruise director, Mitch, who gives me an I'm-going- for-help look, then disappears inside.
"What's my fault?" I stammer, trying to stall for time.
"Don't play dumb with me," Loretta growls, as she circles the gun around, causing everyone here on the Aloha Deck to do what might best be described as the opposite of the Wave. When she finishes, she returns the business end of the shotgun back to me. I watch in frozen horror as her wrinkled trigger finger starts to contract and I entertain my last hope: that after I'm gone, Valerie Bertinelli might be willing to cut her hair and play me in the TV movie.
"Prepare to die," Loretta says.
"No... no... no... " I cry.
"Well, then we also have nice tortellini."
I slam open my eyes to see the perplexed face of a redheaded woman, but this one's young and not nearly so unfoxy. And she's not wielding a gun.
"That's fine," I say.
The flight attendant slides over my pasta dinner and moves on to the next row.
"Are you okay?" asks the blonde house-wife type sitting next to me. "I think you were having a nightmare."
"Yeah, I was," I respond, in regards to what, in the last four months, has become my version of a recurring Vietnam flashback. "But I'm fine."
"Are you from Phoenix?" she says, referring to our destination.
"No, but I went to college at Arizona State," I say between bites. I'm actually from a small town in northern Arizona called Holbrook. Though geographically qualified, Holbrook was left out of the song "Route 66," a fact that I've always resented. Perhaps there were just no kicks to be gotten there.
"Wow! I work at ASU," says the woman excitedly. "My name's Rhonda Whiting."
"Craig Clybourn," I say with a smile so forced that I might just as well be back on the Lido Deck emceeing a limbo contest to Buster Poindexter's "Hot Hot Hot."
After our dinner trays are cleared Rhonda decides she wants to show me pictures of her adorable spawn. I ooh and aah politely, then start digging in the seat pocket in front of me hoping to find something to read or inject.
"What did you study at ASU?" she asks.
"Broadcasting," I say as unenthusiastically as whenever someone asked me that question at the time. It wasn't that I didn't have any interest in broadcasting. Quite the contrary. But at the time, planning for my future took a backseat to going to movies, hanging around with my friends from the theater department and playing bass in my roommate Ulysses' garage band.
"Where do you live?" Rhonda asks as I thumb through a left-behind copy of Star magazine I was lucky enough to find behind the barf bag.
"Phoenix now, I guess, but I'm moving to L.A.," I say before glancing down to the tabloid and noticing a familiar face. With this woman here, I nearly add.
There, under the headline "Would You Be Caught Dead In this Outfit?" is my best friend since college, Dandy Rio. Sporting plaid bell-bottoms, a crochet top that even on the page reeks of thrift store, and a big fuck-you smile, Dandy seems to be replying, "You're damn right I would."
I smile when I recall the day Dandy and I met back at ASU. It was at the first rehearsal for the theater department's spring '88 production of that old toe-tapper Anything Goes, in which Dandy and I were partnered together in the chorus. Looking like a brunette Ann-Margret circa Viva Las Vegas in black tights and a clingy fuchsia sweater, Dandy burst into the room with such panache that I could practically see the cartoon thought bubble that appeared over the threatened lead actress's head, which read, "Who does this bitch think she is?"
"Do my tits look big in this sweater?" was the first thing Dandy ever said to me.
"Do you want them to?" I replied.
"Of course," she answered.
After rehearsal, we went to 7-Eleven for a Slurpee and while we were checking out, Dandy picked up the Star, opened it to the "Would You Be Caught Dead" spread and said, without a trace of irony, "Someday, Craig, that's going to be me."
Since then, Dandy's been caught dead more times than I can count.
"She's on my show," Rhonda says, imbedding a Lee Press-On nail into Dandy's forehead. "I can't stand her."
"Rhonda's show" must be Lifestream, the daytime drama that Dandy's been on for nearly six years doing double duty as twins Nola and Manohla Hughes. Dandy's break came via Milt Greene, a smarmy New York agent whom Dandy endeared herself to on one of his annual talent scouting visits to ASU. Perhaps endeared is the wrong word. A better word might be, um, blackmailed, since Milt had nothing but malice for the would-be starlet until the moment when, in a last ditch attempt to get him to give Dandy's monologue a listen, we caught the Star Searcher banging some blond business major in the bathroom at Sky Harbor Airport. Dandy agreed that she wouldn't tell Milt's actress wife about the indiscretion if Milt would represent her in New York for six months. Five and half months later, Dandy landed the gig on Lifestream. The day after that, she changed agents.
The last time I saw Dandy was nearly four months ago. She and a handful of her photogenic cast mates had come on board the Regal Empress to shoot a few scenes and sign a few autographs as part of a special Lifestream Takes to the Ocean cruise. It was on the day she arrived, while strolling down a cobblestone street in Old San Juan, that Dandy announced she was leaving Lifestream to move to L.A. and star in her own sitcom.
"The network guys like it when I do funny stuff on the show," she chirped. "They want the sitcom to be ready in time to be a midseason replacement. You have to come out there with me, Craig." Dandy flashed me a mischievous smile, then shouted, "Cocksucker!" before disappearing into a gift shop.
It wasn't until a few seconds later that I realized Dandy wasn't calling into question my murky sexuality, but giving the appalled tourist couple videotaping a few feet away a nice audio souvenir. It was a pastime we'd indulge in repeatedly over the next ten days.
"Do you have a girlfriend?" wonders Rhonda.
"Not anymore," I shrug, as though the only girlfriend I ever had didn't dump me my sophomore year at ASU.
After two semesters of cohabitative bliss, would-be ballerina Michelle Lee (not the one from Knots Landing, the one from hell), ran off with the hirsute hoofer who played Rum Tum Tugger in the touring company of Cats . Hence Dandy's nickname for her, "The Catfucker."
"Single, huh?" says Rhonda. "I should introduce you to some of the gals I work with."
I beat a hasty retreat to the can and when I return, Rhonda's fast asleep and drooling onto the Star. She doesn't come to again until we're on the ground. As we file off the plane, she offers to give me a ride to my aunt's house in Tempe, in lieu of the Supershuttle I had originally planned to take.
"I may not need a ride after all," I say delightedly, as we clear the gate and I notice a sign poking up from the awaiting crowd that reads Vanilla Ice.
"What are you doing here?" I say to the bearer of the sign.
"I wanted to make sure you didn't chicken out about coming to L.A.," says Dandy, before slapping me on the forehead with the sign and giving me a hug.
We're about to make our way to baggage claim when I notice Rhonda shuffling by with her brood. Recalling my row partner's distaste for the two-dimensional Dandy, I'm curious to see how she'll react to her in 3-D.
"Rhonda," I call. "I want you to meet my best friend."
"Oh my God," she says, dumping her two-year-old onto the ground. "I watch your show every day."
I smile as Dandy scrawls Rhonda an autograph, knowing that she's recently taken to writing, "If you don't love me, I'm sorry,"—a salutation she ripped off from the porn star Savannah, confident (perhaps erroneously) that the pair have no fans in common.
While we wait for my bags to tumble out, Dandy grabs the Star from my carry-on and regards the cover photo of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee walking through an airport and grimacing.
"It looks like she just farted and he's smelling it," I observe.
"Smelt it," Dandy says flicking her middle finger at Tommy. "Dealt it," she adds, flicking Pam.
On the way to Dandy's hotel, we stop at the Dairy Queen on Mill Avenue.
"Look who's here," says a voice from behind us.
Dandy and I turn around to discover Troy Mendell. Troy was the director's kiss-ass assistant when Dandy and I were in Anything Goes. He wore T-shirts with slogans like Triple Threat and Gotta Dance on them and had the major hots for Dandy. When she failed to return his affections, Troy proceeded to boss us around like we were some kind of troublemakers or something.
"How's the Big Apple treating you?" Troy asks.
"Actually, I'm moving to L.A.," says Dandy. "I'm going to be starring on my own sitcom."
"And I'm going to be starring on my own couch," I say before excusing myself to go phone my aunt to tell her I won't be staying there tonight after all. When I return and report that the pay phone is broken, Troy invites me to use the one at his computer showroom across the street.
"You can't bring that in here," he says as we approach the door to Mendell's Megabytes. "It'll drip all over the place."
"Okay, Dandy, I guess I'll call you later," I say.
"I meant the ice
cream," Troy clarifies, as unamused as I've ever seen him, and
I've seen him plenty unamused.
Later, Dandy and I are sprawled on her hotel bed watching scrambled soft-porn movies and making fun of Troy, when Dandy pulls a photo out of my organizer and says, "Who's this cute stuff?"
"His name is Sergio," I say of the curly-headed Italian posing with me in front of a waterfall in Martinique. "He's from Italy and he worked in the galley. He joined the ship the cruise after you got off. Nice guy. Greenest eyes you've ever seen."
"Is he seeing anybody?"
"Sort of," I say before steeling myself for the big bomb. "Me."
I don't know how I expect Dandy to react to this news—tears, a high five followed by a declaration of "It's about time," the vapors—all of the above seem possible.
"Can I watch sometime?" she asks.
Though that wasn't on my list of predictions I think I like it best of all.
"Well, I doubt I'll ever see him again," I say. "But if I do, you're welcome to hide in the closet."
"Somebody's got to, apparently," she laughs.
I spend the next three and a half hours giving Dandy every juicy detail of my first consummated crush since the Catfucker.
"So you're officially into men now?" Dandy asks with as much matter-of-factness as she can muster.
"I guess," I say, before killing the light. "Should I send out a press release or something?"
"Nah," she mutters into her pillow. "Just get a few T-shirts printed."
"Homo," I say as though I'm reading it off a marquee.
"And an I'm
The next morning, we hop in our rented Blazer and drive to my aunt's house to retrieve the few belongings she's been nice enough to store for the last five years. A half hour later, we're on our way to Los Angeles, with me behind the wheel and Dandy fingering my bass guitar in the passenger seat.
"So how's the screenplay going?" she asks.
"It's going," I say before letting out a yawn.
"It better be."
I hand the driving duties off to Dandy after we pass the state line, then lean back and close my eyes.
"What's my fault?" I scream as Loretta waves the shotgun in front of me in a devil-may-care figure eight.
"Manohla's leaving Willow Springs," she screams, "and it's all your fault."
Manohla is Dandy's good-girl character on Lifestream, which Loretta apparently has a problem differentiating from reality. Though Dandy's exodus from the show hasn't been officially announced, rumors of it have been circulating on the ship for days. Granted, most die-hard fans would hate to see Nola and Manohla get written out, but Loretta's the only one who thinks pulling a gun on Dandy's best friend might keep it from happening.
"No... no... you don't want to do this," I say.
"Oh, yes I do," she says caressing the trigger.
I'm sweating through my polo shirt and preparing to meet my maker, when suddenly I hear the voice of my best friend booming over the ship's loudspeaker.
"This is Nola Hughes," Dandy says firmly. "Put down the gun... ."
Loretta gasps as though she's seen a ghost. Without lowering the gun, the she tilts her face up to the speaker like an X-Files extra being beckoned by her mother ship. Dandy, in what could be the best acting of her life, conjures the kittenish Southern drawl she employs as Nola, the baddest girl in Willow Springs, and says, "Put down the gun or I'll come to your house and poison you in your sleep, just like I did to Sonny... ."
As Dandy continues to threaten her, Loretta becomes more and more confused and distracted. I can see the gun lowering one centimeter at a time. Just as it bows enough to avoid hitting me, should it go off, a blur in a white tank top tackles the polyester-clad terrorist from the back, sending the gun hurling into the air and over the side of the ship.
With Dandy still going for the daytime Emmy, I look down and see her cute but nerdy costar, Andrew Ormiston, untangling himself from the deranged redhead.
"What a wacko," I say to no one in particular.
"What are you talking about?" says Dandy.
I open my eyes and discover that Dandy's voice is coming not from a ship intercom but from the driver's seat across from me.
"I had that dream again about your crazy fan," I sigh.
"Forget it," Dandy says. "You'll be having lots of exciting new dreams soon enough."
I look outside and notice that it's evening. Our vehicle is one of a gazillion parked in rows of four and winding like polka-dot serpentines into the distance. The skyscrapers from L.A. Law loom on the horizon.
"We're not moving," I say.
"Welcome to Los Angeles," says Dandy.