The Shirt? Yes, of course I remember The Shirt. You wouldn't know it to look at me now, but once upon a time I, Rupert Rumple, used to wear The Shirt, and we were often seen together in public. Oh, I know you don't want to believe this, but I have an album somewhere with clippings and photos of the two of us together. There was a time when I thought The Shirt and I would be together always, and that we were destined for glorious things.
I'm going to let you all in on a little secret -- how I first discovered The Shirt. The truth is about to come out anyway, for reasons you'll hear about further on. So here it is: I actually found The Shirt at a P.P. Farthings in Lincolnwood. Oh, stop it, I'm being deadly serious. I know people have all sorts of glamorous theories about the origin of The Shirt -- everything from a serendipitous shopping trip in Soho to abandoned extraterrestrial luggage -- and I know that our kind isn't supposed to even dream about setting foot in mall-barns like Sears or Wards or P.P. Farthings.
But for precisely that reason, what nobody seems to know is that those stores always have a little club trash corner where they keep the loud, tacky disco shirts they assume only closeted 17-year olds will be interested in.
And yes, my children, it was there that I discovered The Shirt -- on a rack of hundred-percent polyester atrocities, cowering between two garish Kung-Fu dragon prints. It was hideously embarrassed, and every so often it let out a kind of piteous mew, like a lost kitten, which is what led me to it.
I was immediately struck by its possibilities, and within seconds I knew I was in the presence of a real find. It managed to achieve just the right mixture of campy sci-fi glamour and tacky lava-lamp charm. It was pure New Wave, a spiritual throwback to the days when sartorial irony was younger, fresher, happier and more earnest. And as I marched to the counter at Farthings, I knew it was mine, all mine.
Of course I wore it to Life on Mars that very night. I was feeling tired of being a drab little man nobody looked at, and with The Shirt on my side I thought I was ready to make a real splash.
Life on Mars was Chicago's most distinguished New Wave club night -- six delirious hours of The B-52's, The Buzzcocks, Soft Cell, Roxy Music, and all the David Bowie you could stand, every Thursday night. It was populated by a mutant cocktail of punks, transdivas, tough chicks, shy Morrissey boys who were as terrified of the Halsted Street reindeer games as I was, and more brazenly bohemian homos who needed a freak-friendly environment in which to fly their festive flags.
Of course I'd fallen in love with it the first time I stumbled into its eccentric, elliptical orbit. I thought of it as the Island of Misfit Toys -- with a dance floor. And for the first time in years, I found myself dissatisfied with my dull, rumpled wardrobe, dreaming of a ferocious new look that harkened back to the resale chic of my youth, something worthy of dancing to The Human League, Madness, Ultravox, The Psychedelic Furs and Grace Jones, all in the same evening.
Tonight, that promise would at last be fulfilled. Within five minutes of my arrival at Mars, I knew The Shirt was a hit. Milo told me, softly and a little fearfully, that he was in awe of it. Francisco swept me onto the dance floor and wouldn't let anyone else near me for a solid half hour. And dear Messy Margie, a kindhearted soul whose usual role was to cheer me up when I was too depressed to dance, told me that she thought I was perhaps entering a new phase of being and she thought she'd better read my Tarot cards sometime very soon.
Back on the floor, I was danced with by a series of happy drunk women in leopard print, the occasional Morrissey boy and even a couple of butch punk boys, until at last I was surrounded by a trio of adorably tousled Mod boys in skinny ties who pogo-ed with me to The Jam in the most disturbingly erotic manner until I fled in absolute terror. At which point I was approached by a photographer from ClubDumpster magazine, who -- instead of asking my advice on whom he ought to photograph -- actually posed several other people around me and took my picture.
But the real triumph happened later that night, when Milo, Messy Margie, Francisco and I went out for our usual post-Mars snack at the Day-Glo Diner, accompanied by Kozmic Kweenie and Flaming Mae. Instead of being made to wait twenty minutes for a rickety little table in the middle of the restaurant, the host took one look at The Shirt, lit up like a string of chili pepper Christmas lights and said "Love the shirt," before steering us to the large comfortable corner booth in the back usually reserved for members of moderately famous local bands. On our way there, a table full of shop girls in black velvet burst into applause as we passed. Even one of the busboys confessed his admiration of The Shirt to me, in halting English, as I made my way to the powder room. Cute busboy, too.
Naturally I couldn't wait to wear The Shirt to Life on Mars again. But wearing it again the following week would have been pathetic. Wearing it two weeks later would have looked over-eager and dependent on it, even I could see that. So I held out for three weeks, which seemed like the acceptable minimum, before withdrawing it again from my closet and slipping into it like a superhero donning his costume.
If possible, The Shirt got even more attention and acclaim on our second outing together. On the way to Mars, I received numerous accolades from random strangers on the sidewalk, and friendly dudes on motorbikes yelled "Way to go! Love the shirt!" at me as they passed. (Prior to this the friendliest thing that had ever been yelled at me from a passing vehicle in Chicago took 72 hours, a box of Calmly Chamomile tea and three Lavender Tranquility herbal baths to successfully blot out of my mind.)
And when I got to the Club, the regular Martians received The Shirt as if it were a beloved member of the coterie and a star of the scene in its own right. We were once again the center of attention all night, although there were moments when it almost seemed to me as if the fabulous boys and girls who surrounded me on the dance floor were dancing with The Shirt itself, and I was merely the fleshy hanger that held it aloft for them. But that was paranoid, insecure nonsense. I knew Messy Margie would tell me that there was no victory I was incapable of somehow turning into a self-denigrating headgame, and that I should stop it right now, so I brushed those trepidations aside and gave myself over to the motion and the music.
I was planning to wait a few weeks before wearing The Shirt to Life on Mars again, but on the following Saturday, well, Something Happened. Now, you must understand that I never go out on Saturdays. Thursdays at Mars is my big night out; Saturday is the night when everyone else goes out, in numbers that terrify me, to clubs where I'll never belong. I usually plan on staying in and getting some work done.
So it was odd that about 9pm I found myself standing at the door of my closet, looking at The Shirt, fingering it ... it almost felt as if The Shirt wanted me to put it on. But that was nonsense. Where would I go in it?
Almost before I could complete the thought, the telephone rang. It was my old college roommate Jonathan, who for some reason wanted me to tag along on his regular Saturday night excursion to Boy Wonder. Boy Wonder was my idea of a nightmare, a huge barn full of chemical smoke and shirtless Nipple Ponies dancing to that monotonous repetathud music that sounds like you're trapped inside a washing machine with an unbalanced load. Whirr-boom- whirr-boom- whirr-boom.
So of course I said no. Except that what I actually heard myself say into the phone was yes. It was The Shirt, I realized. It wanted to go out. And who was I to stand in its way?
Jonathan picked me up at 10:30 and we headed to Boy Wonder. Where, I was heartened to discover, The Shirt was, if anything, a bigger hit than it had been at Life on Mars. For the first time in the history of my miserable visits to that place, I was visible. Usually on these trips Jonathan will introduce me to a circle of his friends who flash me a plastic sorority-girl smile before muscling him away into the thick of the dance floor, while I fade into the walls before drifting home under my own power, to binge on Cheez Waffies and cheap pastries from the White Hen.
That night, though, everything happened upside down. Jonathan's friends, not to mention a number of perfect strangers, introduced themselves and started conversations with me in which I discovered that one or two of them were actually fairly interesting and knew who both Pablo Neruda and Italo Calvino were, and they all kept telling me how much they just loved, loved, loved The Shirt.
One good-looking friend of Jonathan's to whom I'd been introduced on no less than four previous occasions demanded to know who I was and where Jonathan had been hiding me, and then kissed me right on the mouth.
Most surprising of all was Damien, a crony of Jonathan's from the retail world who I'll confess I'd never gotten on with, despite the endless three-way dinners we'd endured together with Jonathan as our only point of connection. Damien worked in a Michigan avenue boutique with an Italian name that only sold salt and pepper shakers that looked like Dr. McCoy's medical devices from the original Star Trek series, and cost more than I made in a week. Damien generally affected a tone of amused condescension toward me, letting me know in a dozen subtle ways per encounter that only for the sake of Jonathan was he willing to consort with someone whose sofa didn't match his loveseat.
Yet tonight, Damien suddenly seemed to discover me. He dragged me onto the dance floor where he haunted me, grinning like a fool, and when I became unnerved by that and slunk away, he followed me back to the lounge area wanting to know what sort of salad greens I thought were the wave of the future, and who I liked on American Idol, and whether I'd like to come to his Teeny-Weeny Martini party. He also asked me, numerous times and in numerous ways, exactly where I'd found The Shirt. But I knew that was a secret I dared not reveal; if Damien knew the Shirt came from P.P. Farthings he would not only instantly lose his affection for it, he would feel humiliated for having let me know he liked it.
For this was the essence of the difference between us: Damien was the sort of person whose world revolves around something called Prada shoes, and I was the sort of person who couldn't pick a pair of Prada shoes out of a three-shoe lineup.
So I kept deflecting the question, and Damien would prattle on about something else for a while before subtly raising the question again, and this went on in an endless cycle until the moment when, as we sat side by side on a tiny piece of club furniture, I felt his hands caressing me in a way that went well beyond amused condescension.
Well, of course I froze -- could Damien actually be hitting on me? How could it be possible? I studied him for clues, but he didn't seem to be really aware of me -- his gaze was lost in the hypnotic reflective patterns of the garment I wore. Suddenly it became clear to me: Damien wasn't hitting on me -- he was hitting on The Shirt. I did the only thing I could: I ran and hid in the washroom until closing.
But the evening had one final indignity in store for me before last call. As I was lurking in the powder room, I had the misfortune to overhear a couple of queens in the lounge outside discussing the evening's high and low spots.
"Did you see that fabulous shirt?" asked Queen A.
"But of course," said Queen B. "Pity about the sad little man it's attached to, though." And with that they scampered off.
Next thing I knew it was lights up and Jonathan offered me a ride home. Much to my chagrin, Damien volunteered to tag along for the ride. Oh, Damien, I thought, what part of no don't you understand?
Back at my place, Jonathan and Damien needed to come upstairs to pee. I felt the need to remove The Shirt and restore myself to a solo act as soon as possible, so I put on a Joan Baez album to soothe my nerves and went to the bedroom to change. I hung The Shirt in the closet and resisted the urge to stuff its breast pocket with garlic.
When I came back to the living room, Damien excused himself to the washroom, leaving Jonathan and me alone to autopsy the evening.
"So you were the hit of Boy Wonder tonight," said Jonathan. "Who knows, maybe we'll make a Halsted Street Wonder Boy out of you yet."
"Don't count on it," I spluttered. "It wasn't me that was the center of attention tonight. The truth of the matter is that The Shirt is far more popular than I'll ever be."
"Oh, Rupert, don't sell yourself short," said Jonathan dutifully. "The Shirt was just the icebreaker. Your problem is that you reject yourself before anyone else has a chance to. Aren't I always telling you that?"
"Yes, Jonathan. You tell me that without ceasing, it's like a kind of continuous Buddhist chant."
"Say," said Jonathan, "Hasn't Damien been gone an awfully long time for a simple wee-wee excursion? Damien, what're you doing in there, looking for the bidet?"
Damien appeared rather hastily, looking as if he'd been caught out somehow, but for the life of me I couldn't figure out what that was about and I was too tired and dispirited to worry about it. I showed them the door and went to bed.
Needless to say, I wanted nothing to do with The Shirt for a while. I knew that it probably wanted to go out and be seen, but I deliberately wore clothes out of the dresser to avoid running across it in the closet and falling prey to its charms.
But even as I was trying to ignore The Shirt, its fame was only building in the outside world. Postings began to appear on the Life on Mars message board, speculating as to when The Shirt would make its next appearance. The phone kept ringing, too. A columnist for one of the gay rags wanted to do a piece called "All the Dirt on The Shirt." A local musician was shooting a video and wondered if I'd allow The Shirt to appear in it. And over the following week, I received no less than three party invitations in the mail, all addressed to The Shirt, care of yours truly.
Gradually, it was becoming clear to me that I did not own the shirt; I merely accompanied it on its nightly revels. I partook of its radiance, but was not transformed by it. I began to realize that The Shirt was not a character in my story; alas, it was the other way around.
The denouement of that story came sooner than I expected. The following Wednesday evening, I came home to a message from Jonathan, letting me know he'd never forgive me if I didn't show up at an impromptu party Damien was throwing for him that very evening, in honor of the incredibly important promotion he'd just received at work. No, Jonathan wasn't a manager yet, exactly; nonetheless it was an undisputable fact that he was now completely in charge of the boxer-brief area of the men's underwear department at Carson's on State.
It was clear that I couldn't refuse, despite a feeling of ill foreboding. When I arrived at Damien's apartment, the party was in full horrible swing. Every snooty shop queen in Chicago was there and they were all drinking something called a Penis Colada. I didn't want to ask what was in it.
But I wasn't prepared for the sight that greeted me as I rounded the corner into the living room where Jonathan was chatting with Damien, and Damien ... Damien was wearing The Shirt.
Everything went into slow motion for me then. "That's my Shirt!" I screeched. "You filched it out of my closet!"
"I'm sure I don't know what you're talking about," said Damien.
"Who said what about felching?" inquired a Marshall Field's manager who was half a Penis Colada away from total oblivion.
And in that half-second I suddenly realized that this wasn't about me and Damien; this was about me and The Shirt. Damien had snuck into my closet and taken The Shirt, sure enough. But by this time I knew enough about The Shirt and its ways and its powers that one thing was clear: If The Shirt had gone with Damien, it was because it wanted to. The simple fact of the matter is that I had caught The Shirt cheating on me.
"Why, you filthy little polyester whore," I said, and Damien, who thought I was addressing him, said "You take that back, you chubby little Ricki Lake reject!"
But there was no stopping me now. "Back off, you!" I snarled. "This is between me and The Shirt!"
Sensing real danger, Damien backed off.
"I have an idea," called out one festively sloshed drag diva in the corner. "Why don't we put The Shirt on the floor between them, and let them both call to it, and see which one of them it goes to?"
But I had a better idea. It was time, I felt, that somebody taught The Shirt the limits of its powers -- and I was just the girl to do it.
"Listen," I said, fixing The Shirt with a dead stare, "You think you can just use people to get where you want to go. You think it's all dance floors and swank parties and corner booths at the Day-Glo Diner and it doesn't matter whose back you have to ride to get there. Well listen, Shirty, everybody needs a little reality check once in a while, and yours comes in three little words: P... P... Farthings!"
I must take a step back here and search for an appropriate simile with which to describe the precise quality of the silence that descended over that tacky little apartment. To say that the silence was heavy, like a lead soufflé, or cold, like a crushed ice enema, is merely to begin the approach.
The Shirt, if it was possible, seemed to cringe, and to shrink into itself, and its flashy metallic luster seemed to grow chintzy and dim.
I felt a twinge of pity for it, but it had chosen its path. I turned on my heel and left.
But of course that wasn't the end of the story.
About a week after Damien's party, I got a call from Evan, a kind and sensitive go-go boy who occasionally stopped into Life on Mars after his dancing gigs, and who had been one of the few friendly faces in the crowd that awful night at Damien's.
"Listen," he said, "The Shirt wants to talk to you. I know you're feeling hurt and angry, but believe it or not, The Shirt hasn't had an easy week either. Once all those upscale queens at Damien's found out it was from Farthings, nobody would have anything to do with it, so I brought it home. But it's not just that. I think it truly feels bad about the way it treated you. I offered to wear it out go-go dancing a couple times, just to lift its spirits, but it said it wasn't ready to face its public until it had faced its demons. It's telling me it needs to make things right with you."
In spite of myself, I was moved. Who among us can remain hard-hearted in the face of a quest for redemption? Evan talked me into a meeting on neutral territory, at a low-key café-bar in my neighborhood. When I arrived he took off The Shirt, and carefully draped it around the back of the chair facing me.
"I think you two could use some alone time," he said, and went off to let some of his admirers buy him drinks at the bar.
I asked The Shirt what its plans were, and it said it was considering a long trip to sort things out. One of Evan's colleagues was leaving to dance on the European club circuit over the fall and winter, and had offered to take The Shirt along. This seemed like the ideal solution; in Europe, where scandals are less scandalous, The Shirt could forget its past and reinvent itself. It wasn't hard to see that The Shirt had a bright future in Eurotrash.
And what about us?, The Shirt wanted to know. Yes, I thought: What had become of all our possibilities? We were going to do so much together ... once.
The Shirt said it expected to return to Chicago sometime next spring, by which time it hoped I might have forgiven it and that maybe, when I was ready, we could dance at Life on Mars again.
I decided that after all we'd been through, The Shirt deserved another chance. And I knew that if I rejected The Shirt now, I'd only be doing it to protect myself from some theoretical future rejection. If The Shirt was willing to face the scene as a known export of P. P. Farthings, then maybe it had grown a little; and if I were secure enough to wear The Shirt in public without worrying about being upstaged by it, then maybe I had, too.
Well, I said, I didn't want to rush things. One step at a time. But I told it to keep in touch.
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