January 6, 2015: Perfect Disguise

Song: “Perfect Disguise” by Modest Mouse from The Moon and Antarctica

Listen to it here

(photo from houstonpress.com)

(photo from houstonpress.com)

GRETCHEN is slowly working on getting herself ready for a reunion; slipping on a dress, fixing her hair, putting on jewelry, doing a bit of makeup, putting on shoes, etc etc.


Everyone—well, not EVERYONE everyone but a lot of us—have that person from their past that just always makes them feel a certain type of way. And most of the time, that type of way is bad. Small, ineffectual, dumb…that kind of thing. I’ve heard of people who have other people in their life who always make them feel good and comfortable but I subscribe to the theory that these people are liars weaving far-fetched tales.

For me, my person was John Tollenson. We went to school together from the third grade on and from the first time we met, he always knew how to fake a laugh, give me a look, or make a comment that made me feel like absolute trash.

So, naturally, we dated for three years in high school.

Yes we dated. Yes I thought we’d get married. Yes, I had sex with him.

Yes…I know how all that sounds. But, I did it so I have to own it.

In my defense though, It is possible my lack of emotional maturity and a fully formed brain led me to make bad choices. It’s also possible I was, and am, a bit of a glutton for punishment.

Thankfully, after high school, I moved away from town and didn’t see John anymore. He got on with his life, I got on with mine. Until our last reunion.

I don’t know how it didn’t occur to me that he might be there, but it didn’t. I was not nervous at all to go because I never, not once, spent a moment wondering if I might run into him. So when he greeted me the moment I walked into the hall with  a smile and a “fashionably late as always I see,” I think I might have blacked out for a bit.

GRETCHEN leaves the room, and kind of shouts at the audience as she goes something out of their gaze.

GRETCHEN (projecting from somewhere out of view)

Anyway, we fell immediately into the old roles. A little flirty, which is fun, a lot of condescending, which was not. Every compliment or sly innuendo made me feel incredible. Every cutting remark or roll of the eyes made me feel like an awkward 14 year old again. John was doing it again.

GRETCHEN (returning to the room and in view)

I ended up leaving early near tears. I ran out of my reunion in much the same way I ran out on my Senior prom more than 10 years earlier. The only difference this time was, thankfully, I didn’t end up on the floor of his family’s rec room, half naked, and making out a half hour later, gamely trying to forget how terrible he had made me feel all night. So…small victories!

Damn, what a depressing picture I’m painting. I promise you there’s a twist coming that’ll help.

So…I hung around town for a few more days, catching up with friends who didn’t make me think I was trash and reassuring my mother that, yes, of course we’d make an apple pie together before I left.

One night, the day before I left, I went to a coffee shop to get some time out of the house. As I sat sipping an Americano, I watched this very familiar looking older…ok, let’s just be straight with one another here, not older, just old, man. He hobbled around this way and that and while I was sure I had never met him, I couldn’t shake the feeling I knew exactly who he was.

And then it hit me. It was John. In old man makeup, pretending to need a cane, pretending not to hear and see so well. I couldn’t believe it but the moment I saw the resemblance, I knew it was true. He was in old man drag.

I waited around staying out of sight until he left and then followed him into the parking lot to confront him.

He folded like a card table, confessing immediately. He’d be doing It for years. People treated him differently when they thought he was an old man and he liked that. Good or bad, it excited him to see people treat me in an entirely different way. He even said, at one point, that it was the only thing that made him feel alive.

Now, I know that that’s tragic. And I should’ve be more sympathetic, but…I just couldn’t. It was too delicious. This man who had made me miserable in many ways since I was just a girl and he was just a boy was going in public playing at being a hobbled old man to feel good about himself. It was karma exactly but it was close enough for me.

So, tonight, when I see him, if I see him? I’m not the least bit concerned. Because I know his real face. The one he has to put on with putty and spirit gum. And that, for some reason, makes me feel like, maybe, he doesn’t get to make me feel bad about myself anymore.