When I was young, I wanted to be an actress. I was so young, I didn’t know acting could be a job that real people did. I wanted to be Dorothy navigating Oz. Or Alice. Or Fred Flintstone.
I had a $3 tiara and was Queen of the Gypsies. That was actually my mother’s nickname for me because I would wear pounds of dime store costume jewelry. And my grandmother’s dresses from the 60’s that would fall to my ankles. Oh, and my mother’s go-go boots – a much needed element for the role of Puss in Boots.
Much of my childhood sought to beat this out of me, to grind me down and remind me what I was. To remind me that I was a powerless, ugly and fat kid living on my Dad’s death benefits from social security. That I was subject to the will of overprotective grandparents on a fixed income. That I was sick all the time and could not play outside. I kept this world secret until I was seven.
Then I moved in with my mother and stepdad John in Ohio. And whatever else happened with my mother, she pried that lock off my creativity. She encouraged me and my imagination. She bought me art supplies and art books. The first night I lived with them, she handed me an oversized Peter Maxx book. I did not sleep that night.
She also tortured me by enrolling me in tap and ballet. I was not good at it. At 5pm every Tuesday and Thursday, I went to every class and tried my best. I also harbored a secret hatred of the class because I had to miss the last 15 minutes of Batman. The Adam West and Burt Ward dynamic duo started double episodes at 4 o’clock. I never got to see them actually foil anyone. I’d drag chubby, leotard wearing butt off the couch and tap on out the door dejectedly.
Aside from drawing what I imagined, I wrote little plays. Left alone, I would recite all the parts and act out all the action. I pilfered sewing notions and headbands and ribbons. I hot glued a Leopard Lady costume for myself out of leftover fake fur. Because Cat Woman needed an ally!
John was a trucker and was gone all week until Saturday night. So every Friday, Mom and I would stay up late, eat popcorn and watch Big Chuck and Hoolihan. This Cleveland tag team ran creature features and ran original skits like “the Kielbasa Kid”. He was “a certain ethnic gentleman” who carried a holster with a kielbasa in it. It was the first place I saw “Creature from The Black Lagoon” and “The House That Would Not Die”. We would fall asleep on the sofa and loveseat.
The thing about my imagination – it was hereditary. The things my mom imagined scared her. She did not like being alone. Yet, she devoured every Stephen King book and every new horror flick that came out.
One night we had a matter-of-fact conversation just as Big Chuck and Hoolihan was starting. I had closed all the doors in the hallway. She wanted them open.
“If something is coming I want to see it.” She said. It was understood that she meant if a monster is coming down the hallway, I want to see it.
“But if they have to open a door, it will slow them down and you can HEAR it. Before you see it. The door to your room creaks. The bathroom doorknob has a loud click.”
She squinted at me. “Okay.” She nodded. “That makes sense”.
She handed me the popcorn. “Ghosts?”
“Doesn’t matter. They don’t use doors.”
So we watched our movies and I discovered my love of the horror universe. By snagging lurid paperbacks from her reading stacks, by going with her to see “Jaws”. She let me control the television remote one night flipping back and forth incessantly because I wanted to see both. I just could not choose between the animated “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe” and “Scream, Blacula, Scream!”
And I grew to have a semi-healthy relationship with my shadow side. And my acting developed into a juvenile rendition of classic gothic horror. I was now Mina Harker, the bride made for the creature, the vampire siren rising from the misty lake. I was still Leopard Lady too, albeit a more ferocious one. And now I was helping “Manimal” solve crimes.
When John died, this all disappeared. At least on the surface. At least the fun part. We could not afford electricity, let alone art supplies and dress up junk. Our house burned down shortly after that. So any trinkets I had, any clothing or drawings or stuffed animals, even my small keyboard – all gone.
I showed up at my grandparent’s house, stripped of the tools and écoutrements that enabled me to live in a world where the supernatural and imaginary make sense.
I wore Sears’ shirts and ugly high-waisted jeans. I did not have anything I thought was beautiful.
I was not allowed makeup. I had a light up mirror that gave me back a pale, sickly girl with no plans or dreams.
But you cannot kill the creatures that we are so easily.
The body lives encompassed by the spirit. Sure, our spirit is within us, but it also surrounds us. It is part of the framework that makes us- our skeleton – our bones. Star-stuff. Ethereal cotton candy. My body – our bodies- are just that layer between.
Actors, the really superb ones, are adept at changing that skin. They are the same creature in their bones, even if the role they are playing the very antithesis of that. They can pull experiences into their spirit halo and work them to shape and fashion a new skin to briefly wear.
For the next six years, I would transform and absorb and reject and purge and literally make cuts to this body – the layer between. I would stretch it across the bones of a girl who still believed in magic, who could be anyone or anything she wanted to be.
Eventually, she would find her way out again.