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An Opera Singer's Facial Cancer

And Life Transposed


Chapter 11

Dancing Day 


previous year, he left each of five children a modest inheritance, wholly unexpected, and “modest” only when divided by five. With some of my share, I was determined to throw a first-class party, a broad celebration of the life our parents had lived, to outshine the memory of the grinding difficulty of their last years.


Evie and I had by then survived years of rom-com shenanigans. Finally happy, we were eager to spread ourselves around. I wanted the party to include our family and friends, and my parents’ friends. I imagined the event as an elegant multi-purpose affair, such as one generation might stage to launch another generation into the good life, with witnesses to mark the moment in time. Essentially, I was cooking up an event I could call by any name other than what I undeniably wished for: a wedding. For Evie and me.


The year was only 1996, after all. True, it was a lifetime since the nerve-racking afternoon in 1965 when, at twelve, I had locked the door and hunched up to the TV for a daytime rerun of The Children’s Hour, Lillian Hellman’s cautionary tale of the headmistress (Audrey Hepburn), and the lesbian pariah (Shirley MacLaine), who loved the headmistress that way (kids had whispered about it at summer camp).

It was a whole decade since my answering machine told me Jim would not be returning my call. He had died, according to the stranger’s voice, after suffering “every horror you’ve ever heard about AIDS.” Jim had been my fiancé at a time when we were both active Mormon converts, and nothing was more urgent to either of us than to be not gay—each of us believing we’d found the special someone who could make that possible. By 1996, AIDS awareness was more a life skills admonition than the reign of terror which had decimated the community a decade earlier.


In 1996, gay culture in Cape Cod’s Provincetown had been commoditized and commercially profitable for at least a generation. Hollywood had begun to recast the gay pariah as sympathetic protagonist, inducting a larger world into this still mostly secret society. The star-studded, Oscar-winning Philadelphia (1993) even offered a shattering tutorial on “La mamma morta”, the big aria from Andrea Chénier, the Maria Callas recording, “La Divina” delivered by uber-heterosexual Hollywood good-guy, Tom Hanks. All in all, by the mid-nineties, gays and lesbians were getting used to living Out, Loud and Proud. 

But 1996 was still long before lesbian activist Edie Windsor would lend her splendid face to Marriage Equality. Real legitimacy—the right to the status and privileges of marital union between people distinguished only by their love and the courage to take on one another’s lives, for better and for worse, in sickness and in health—was still ten years ahead. Nevertheless, when Evie and I hired a caterer, a band, and a private swing-dance coach, our party started looking suspiciously nuptial—and those who knew us best nudged us the rest of the way. 

We set a real date. We prepared a bona fide commitment ceremony, looking toward our future with a fond nod to the past, in music and verse. With a coy graphics package, we announced we would be “getting hitched,” in the cathedral-ish loft of an ex-dairy barn turned winery, in horse country upstate. We invited our families, friends, and our families’ friends, just as we would have, had we been given away in holy matrimony by our parents.


Through the summer of 1996, Evie and I mastered the rock-step and the J-lead. We practiced to a beginners’ mixed tape. We learned the Foxtrot was Sinatra’s go-to beat: 

You make me feel so young… 

You make me feel there are songs to be sung


But when I remember the run-up to the bright October day Evie and I got hitched, I hear a medieval Christmas carol, of all things: 

Tomorrow will be my dancing day… 

Sing, oh! My love, sing oh! My love, my love; 

This have I done for my true love! 


Great fun to sing, ideal accompaniment to a lilting heart—and all about Jesus, who probably had nothing to do with the consecrations on our dancing day. But resurrection was surely the metaphor for our new life.


On the eve of the event, my younger sister Markie showed up at our apartment in Brownstone Brooklyn, bearing gifts of matching lace camisoles and hair products for Evie and me, like a proper maid-of-honor. Bernice and Pearl and my mother’s only sister stood in for our absent kin.


And five short months after our ceremony, we discovered the hope chest I had brought to my new spouse contained, after all, little else but hope—desperate hope and a nasty tumor—though she never put it that way. When we looked over our precious and funny photographs, it was with the chilling understanding that cancer was already inside me, concealed behind the bones of my flushed face, as my smile spread over it. I had been carrying the tumor around the vineyard, ’round and ’round the dance floor, and throughout the entire roomful of love and remembrance and ringing wishes for our long future.


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