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  • Tim Kent

NOBODY DOESN'T LIKE SARA LEE...or "How I Got My First Restraining Order"

Thoughts on listening to that inner voice

I had my fourth gallery opening in August. It went great, I mean I didn’t spill anything, I talked intelligently to other artists...I held my own. Well, in retrospect, I think I did better than just holding my own, however, a substantial character flaw hinders my acceptance of that notion…let me see if I can explain. I'm fairly gregarious, very observant, and highly perceptive...when/where balance of colors, symbolism in mythology & literature, and matters of etiquette are involved…not so much in everything else. My older brother will tell you I lack street smarts…I don’t think it’s that. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, but it seems to me that I simply don’t possess the ability to look at things that pertain to me from the same perspective I would use on anything or anyone else.

I do seem to lack a basic “self-preservation” instinct, or maybe the need to be polite, and not offend has caused the edges to be rounded off. It goes beyond that though, I also appear to be chronically unable to accept praise without assuming there is a pity motive, or potentially mocking undertone…tiresome, I know, but as I’ve said before, I’m a work in progress.

I watched a man leave the gallery during the opening, look around, seem to see something over in the back corner of the patio where Dennis and I were visiting with friends. Out of my peripheral vision, I watched him maneuver around and through the crowd, until he was standing about 3 feet off of my left shoulder. He seemed reticent to bother us, but obviously wanted something. My thought was “Oh, we have been at this table a while…we should probably get up, and let some other people have a chance to sit”. What actually went down was: “excuse me, are you the artist of the underwater piece in there?”…at my slight nod, he went on with “cool, I just wanted to tell you it’s really top notch.” Before I could thank him properly he turned and left. Kelly, one of our friends, said “that was nice, he came all the way out here to compliment your work!” I heard the voice in my head spiel off 6 different versions of all the reasons he might of come out here, all of which having nothing to do with me. I made myself stop; I pondered to my friends why it was, that if he had walked outside to find one of them, I’d be pointing out how remarkable it is that he stopped what he was doing, and came all the way out here to talk, but because it’s me, my first thought is “poor guy, must have dropped his car keys”.

I won the Visitor’s Choice award that night…I only note it here, so that I can assert that I did not, in fact, put my own name down on the secret ballot…thinking that would be improper, impolite…egomaniacal? At least this time it didn’t cost me the prize, like it did in second grade, when failure to vote for myself meant I tied with my arch nemesis, Leah Ann, and had to share newspaper editorship responsibilities instead of being the lone head honcho.

I guess the “realizing you have a problem is the first step” rule applies here…remember, “work in progress”.

Never shy about exposing my own foibles and shortcomings for the amusement of others, I wrote the following post for this month’s blog entry. Dennis has informed me that it is “too long!”, and that I would have to edit. Once I’ve written something, it’s really hard for me to let it go, so in true “you’re not the boss of me” fashion, I wrote more (and you just read it). Appropriately sized and hopefully entertaining enough for you to feel that your time has not been wasted…we may part here, obligations fulfilled…but, if you have a few more minutes to kill, read on. I will endeavor to amuse, all the while exposing even more of my ineptness, on my ongoing quest of self-discovery.

Nobody Doesn’t Like Sara Lee...

When I left NYC in ’89, I impetuously relocated to the Midwest, St. Louis to be exact…actually I quit my Broadway wardrobe, and cruise line entertainer jobs to follow some douche bag I met in a touring musical revue…but that’s really fodder for another post. For the purpose of this story, let’s just imagine that in an intuitive fit of precognition, I realized happiness awaited me under the arch, so I took the first show that offered me an excuse to relocate.

After living for a decade in New York City, shining bastion of mass transit, I was ill prepared for life in an expansive metropolis with a limited bus route…anyone who had a car, and who was heading even remotely in my direction, was a potential friend. That’s how I met Sara Lee. Twenty years my senior, a public school drama teacher, and a volunteer for the theatre company that I designed costumes for, she was a godsend. She was also coming off a turbulent divorce, a bit frenetic, and more than a touch needy. I liked her instantly, impart, thanks to the successfully ingrained work of Madison avenue’s finest, who had taught me from childhood that “nobody doesn't like Sara Lee”. Most importantly for me, and my situation, at the time, she was in possession of a valid Missouri driver’s license and a legally registered car.

I was at a closing night party, regaling the assembled crowd with a wardrobe malfunction story about some random Broadway diva in a state of undress, as you do, when I noticed Sara Lee on the edge of the crowd. She was laughing a little too loud, a little too hard…I had a fan, and who doesn’t need a little adoration from time to time. As fate would have it, my ride hooked up with one of the chorus boys, and I quickly realized I would be heal/toeing it home. Sara Lee followed me out, saw that I appeared to be walking to a distant parking lot, and asked if I needed a ride to my car. I thanked her, but explained that I didn’t have a car, and was “just gonna walk home”. She would have “none of that”, and insisted on giving me a ride, as she lived “near my apartment". I gratefully accepted, as a small bell tolled in the back of my head…maybe the tiniest flash of a warning light…all of which I resolutely ignored. Now, If you were not totally swept away by my lush style of prose, you may have noticed that she did not ask where I lived, yet somehow knew that we were, in fact, neighbors…don’t jump ahead, stay with me!

The banter was fun on the ride to my place; already warmed up from my cast party performance, I was on overdrive. She seemed totally transfixed by the small triumphs and minuscule struggles of my day to day existence, not to mention my dazzling wit..."why yes, you should have got that part"..."what would they do without you?"... "It's obvious that you're an integral part of their success"..."well, I think that he's totally jealous of you"...OMG, she was so intuitive, so supportive, and so obviously brilliant! I thanked her profusely as she dropped me off in front of my building, and walked into my cold, dark apartment thinking “getting a ride was great, but how nice to make a new friend”!

The next day, after work, I walked into rehearsal for a community theatre production I’d been cast in, to find my new friend, Sara Lee, talking animatedly with the director. What a coincidence! It was explained that she would be our new assistant director, and, I secretly thought, “my new chauffeur!” As the evening drew to a close and we started stacking chairs and returning the community center furniture to its original positions, Sara Lee walked up and asked “how did you get here tonight?’. With a studied nonchalance, I explained about how one could catch a bus to the central hub, downtown, and then eventually transfer to another bus heading back out to the county…”it only takes about an hour and a half”. She looked truly horrified as she told me “we can do better than that”. Suddenly not having a car wasn’t really an issue.

Over the course of the next few months I spent a lot of time with Sara Lee; we became great friends. Now before you think “what a mooch, he just used that poor lonely lady”, I’ll have it be known that I gave as good as I got. I benefited from rides here and there, but I gave freely of my time and skills as well. I costumed the junior high school musical she directed, I redecorated her home, on a minuscule budget, turning out one “trash to treasure” project after another, with all of her junk store finds. Ever refinish a piece of furniture? It’s hard work!

I didn’t begrudge any of it, I was happy to help my friend…but If I’m being honest, and I think I am, at this point in our story, I mostly don’t want you to think ill of me (if you’ve read any of my earlier blog posts, specifically “An Artistic Outing”, you should have an inkling of why I’m hoping you won’t decide to not “Like” me.

But, as is my habit, I digress…where were we? Oh yes…

During this time in our friendship, I also found out that there is no such thing as a coincidence…she called that director, to offer her services as his assistant, but only after overhearing me talk about rehearsal during the party, and she did live “near me”, if by “near me” she meant 25 minutes in the opposite direction…in hindsight, this was also about the time I started hearing a constant faint ringing, like an alarm bell, echoing in the recesses of my empty head, whenever we were together. I had a couple of local friends who raised a few eyebrows, but I think they were happy not to have to give me rides, so unless she was dragging me to satanic cult meetings to participate in ritual killings, they were willing to sit back and watch the drama unfold, and I resolutely ignored everything in favor of less time on the bus.

We went on with this give and take for about a year. She’d give me a ride, I’d reupholster her couch…I needed to get to the store, she needed new window treatments sewn for the whole house…little things like that. It was about this time that I also met Quenten, someone who is still one of my dearest friends to this day. We went out on a date, Disastrous (you’ll notice it was so bad, I capitalized the “D”)…horrible, horrible date. We realized we’d just be better off as friends, and since we worked for the same theatre company, it was nice to have a work ally. Sara Lee was not having it! I didn’t know there were so many “friendship rules”, but she enthusiastically filled me in on every violation that Q made…maybe she was right, maybe he was just using me to further his career at the theatre box office, and I really did need to focus on her son’s wedding! That’s right, I almost forgot. I designed her son’s wedding.

In addition to consulting on the flowers, music, and food, I made the bridesmaid’s dresses for cost, Sara Lee’s Mother of the Bride gown, decorated the house for the family only post reception gathering, at which I also served the food and cleaned up after, not to mention stepping in to sing at the wedding when the groom’s sister backed out.

The after party happened on Sunday afternoon, and it was early evening by the time we had all the food packed up and the house returned to its proper state. Sara Lee seemed out of sorts. The usual plethora of wedding emotions coupled with hosting her ex-husband and his very thin wife in her house were more than she could easily handle. I gave her a casual hug, told her she had done well, and it would all be better soon…evidently that wasn’t what she wanted to hear. She started to sob, and as my discomfiture grew, her hold on me tightened. “If I needed comfort, you’d be able to climb into bed and hold me right?” I was saved from having to answer, when a knock on the door announced the arrival of my cab. (Yes, I had called a cab so that she would not have to drive me home after the busy weekend, because I’m thoughtful like that!). I said my goodbye’s, and we made hurried plans to eat leftovers the next night, since I did not have rehearsal. As I exited the house I kept looking around for the fire truck, I swear I could hear alarm bells going off, but couldn't see the source.

Monday dawned fresh and new, and I floated into work on a bevy of weekend accomplishments, only to run smack dab into Quenten’s disapproval. “Is that what you’re wearing tonight? Tell me you brought a change of clothes.” At the writing of this, I don’t remember where we were supposed to go, but knowing Q, I’m sure it required a mandatory outfit change. While he was worried about my wardrobe deficiencies, I was frantically calling Sara Lee to let her know I had accidentally double booked myself, and couldn’t join her for leftovers as I had already made plans with Quenten. I left the message on her machine, as we did in the days of yore, long before everyone had a cell phone attached to their hand/hip/ear. I told her I would see her tomorrow “before rehearsal”, so we could ride in together, I hung up and went about my day thinking “there must be something wrong with her machine; I’m sure I heard some kind of frantic high pitched buzzing in the background.”

Like every other student to successfully pass 9th grade English, I was fully versed in the themes and characters of Charles Dickens’ immortal classic, Great Expectations…this, however, did not prepare me for what I found in Sara Lee’s dining room the following evening. “Holy Miss Havisham, Batman!” (see how I slipped 2 widely different literary references in there? I’m killing this writing thing!)

The table was draped, to the floor, in a handmade lace cloth. I know it was handmade, because I had spent several hours, after a ride to the grocery store, repairing areas of loose threads. On top of the cloth were two complete settings of Wedgwood china, and 3 glasses at each place of Irish crystal…all of which I had hand washed after a trip to the Laundromat. Completing the place settings were sterling flatware, polished after a trip to Sam’s, and linen napkins, pressed and folded after a pick up from work. The center of the table was resplendent with her best serving pieces and an array of silver and crystal candlesticks. My brain wasn’t really registering what I was looking at. Was that cold, dry, congealed food in all the serving dishes? Had those candles burnt down and dripped all over my newly repaired areas on the tablecloth? Whaaaaat? I was flipping through the “hints to Heloise”, stored in my long term memory, for anything on wax removal, when the clearing of Sara Lee’s throat caught my attention. Startled out of my internal research, I slowly turned my questioning focus to a sheepish Sara Lee. “Last night…”, she began, “…when you stood me up on our date…”

Wait? What? I stumbled out with a “I called”, mentally scrambling through all the “friend rules”, and settled on a light response of “leftovers don’t constitute a date”, but she shook her head in a “let me finish gesture” and went on with her statement. Her voice modulated in pitch and volume as she corralled her thoughts. “When you stood me up…I couldn't help but think of All Of The Times That YOU WERE NEVER THERE FOR ME AND THE CHILDREN, NEVER!!!”

While I remained frozen in shock, and in time for that matter, I’ll take this opportunity to point out how I have cleverly used capitalization and the “bold” key to denote intensity, in the last paragraph. Read on.

I was stunned. Usually quick witted, I found myself at a loss as how to respond as the f#cking bells in my head seemed to escalate like…like something important that I just couldn't fully grasp. I came back into the moment to realize, she was still talking…a rolling list of my failings as a husband assaulted my ears, as my gaze was drawn back to the table. We had an audience. Every chair had an occupant…the porcelain doll, whose dress I had remade in exchange for a ride to the mall, sat in Sara Lee’s seat. Stuffed animals and vintage toys filled the other seats…and in the chair that would have been mine, sat a large brown bear. The bear slumped, as stuffed animals are want to do, but this seemed excessive. On closer inspection I noticed that not only was his head ripped halfway off, cotton batting askew, but also, he was wearing a “Hello, my name is” tag, personalized with a boldly drawn “TIM”. First thought: I’m NOT sewing his head back on; second thought, to paraphrase Oda Mae Brown in GHOST: “Molly, you in danger gurl!” I needed to get out of here! If only there was some kind of early warning system in place to assist with these types of situation, like…I don’t know, an internal alarm. It was at that this point that I literally thought, “this ringing in my head is gonna drive me crazy”…followed by “Ohhhh…got it, a little slow on the uptake, but I got it”.

After a quick mental confirmation that at no time, ever, had I been married to Sara Lee, I sprang into action with a well-placed, if albeit, obvious statement. "Sara Lee, you are confusing me with your ex-husband, you need to pull it together girl.” I took the startled moment of silence to make sure that there were no real obstacles between me and the exit. Sara Lee blushed a shade of crimson usually reserved for open wounds, and exclaimed “that’s what Tori said”. I thought “oh thank god, at least the police will have a chance at recovering my body from it’s inevitable sub-basement resting place; she’s called Tori, and she’ll alert the police when I go missing. Wait, I thought out loud. “Tori? As in my best friend Tori? Tori, who lives in Portland, Tori? How did you get her number?” Sara Lee responded with what she obviously felt was self-evident information. “I called information silly, but I couldn't remember the spelling of her last name, so I had them give me your parent’s number in Las Vegas instead.” “Your mother is really nice, she didn’t want to give me Tori’s number without checking with you first, but after I explained our relationship she gave me Tori’s last name…the rest was easy.” I was thinking about the flashing number 8 on my answering machine this morning…I’d been late, and figured I’d just listen to them later. I’m guessing the split was about even, with 4 each from mom, and Tori. They must be really worried, if I got out of this alive I’d make it up to them…Wait, had she said she "explained our relationship" to my mother? What must she be thinking?

Again, the clearing of a throat brought me out of my reverie. Sara Lee had grabbed her purse and was heading for the door. “Come on silly, we’re gonna be late for rehearsal”. What just happened? A deep sense of shame filled me at the wild tangent my brain had just taken me on…had somebody slipped something into my food? How else could I have just imagined all of these horrible motives behind my friend's well-meaning gestures? As I hurried after her, a recent Oprah show about “never being taken to the second location” began to replay in my head for some reason. I took the scene in again as I closed the door behind me. I told myself, "lots of adults have stuffed animals, and name tags…and stuff"…granted that didn’t explain why the crotch was cut out of the bear’s underwear, or why, in fact, the bear was actually wearing underwear…or even whose they were.

I returned home after rehearsal, unharmed and unmolested, to return phone calls. I went to a bed devoid of middle-aged women in need of comfort, and nary a stuffed animal to be found…but still the alarm bells in my head prevented me from obtaining any meaningful rest.

I had a 2pm design meeting, with the Artistic Director, the next day. I walked in to find that Quenten had appeared to have confiscated my time slot. He looked shaken, and as he left the office I couldn’t read his expression. OMG, were we being fired for having gone out on a date? The fact that it had been a horrific mortifying experience for the both of us apparently did not negate the violation of company policy. I frantically worked on my pitch to save our jobs. Instead, I was asked into the office, offered a soda, and told to start at the beginning with regards to Sara Lee.

I found out later, she had come by the office midmorning with some story about helping me shop for fabric, and was found, on accident, 3 hours later, in the box office where Quenten worked. She had held him “captive” for several hours with a never ending tirade about how he was ruining mine, and her, chance at happiness, and if he would “just convince” me that being with Sara Lee was my destiny, she would let us remain friends…”from a distance”.

My boss listened to everything I had to say with the solemnity of a priest, offered me absolution for my naiveté, and introduced me to the necessary paperwork for a restraining order. All of which was a great help when I encountered a similar situation 5 or so years later (Dennis used to refer to me as the “middle-aged woman magnet”)…but again I digress.

As a parting shot he told me, he understood, “Sara Lee’s unmarried son is awful cute”, but maybe my “romantic interests should focus away from the theatre company, it’s volunteers, and their offspring.”

Wait…he thought this happened because I was trying to “get some”?

This happened, because St. Louis had a shitty public transit system, and because I am a clueless fool, who wouldn’t know an emotional early warning sign from an air raid siren…but I was young, and still a work in progress…25 years from now, I’d wager, I’ll have this all under control. I’ll be so self-aware, that I’ll be teaching classes on it, definitely writing about it, hell, I’ll have my PhD. in awareness, self and otherwise. Yup.

This is the point, at the end of the story, where you get to feel superior in your own existence, because, even if you have nothing else, at least it's not mine.

Aren’t you glad you continued to read?

You’re welcome.


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