Blackout

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Blackout

We met at an Oscar party downtown. It was the year Marisa Tomei screwed up everyone’s ballots by winning for My Cousin Vinny. Jasper had arrived there looking mopey and complicated. I was intrigued. I stole glances at him as he sat in the corner. I watched him descend into a prickly impatience, something I’d later come to think of as his everyday personality.

I walked over and introduced myself.

“I take it you don’t like the Oscars,” I said.

He gripped his chair as if enduring a dental procedure.

“Actors shouldn’t compete with each other!” he told me in an accusatory fashion.

He was a housing rights activist, as it turned out, and a part-time union organizer too.

“Acting is a cooperative art!” Jasper yelled out loud, but no one was listening. The Tomei award had just been announced and everyone was hollering, ripping their ballots into little pieces.

After the party, we walked along the noisy city streets together until we came to a hospital.

“My mother was a nurse here,” Jasper said, gesturing. “She was on duty during the big blackout in the Sixties, when the lights went out all up and down the Eastern Seaboard.”

Jasper told me it was her job, when the power was lost, to crank up the iron lungs. There was an entire ward of patients in steel oxygen tanks who couldn’t breathe on their own. She had to wind them manually, the way they used to start antique cars, moving from one to another, saving lives in the dark. Jasper said he was often reminded of his mother’s heroism that night ― a nice little lesson in perspective. I saw that the Oscar anger had been wrung out of him. His voice was wistful and calm. He told me his mom had passed away the previous winter. I reached for his hand and took him back to my place.

Two years later we were out for dinner with a couple who didn’t know us well. They asked us how we met. I smiled and told them the story of the Oscar party and the hospital and Jasper’s brave mother.

That’s when Jasper laughed and told me he’d made the whole thing up.

“Excuse me?” I said.

“My mother never worked at that hospital,” he said. “She was a nurse at my middle school. She gave tetanus shots and checked for scoliosis.”

Jasper must have seen the shock and alarm flicker across my face.

“So sue me!” he snapped. “Maybe I was trying to charm you that night.”

I thought about Jasper’s charm, the fleeting and mercurial nature of it. It had led me here, to this moment, with Jasper shrugging his shoulders and that couple we didn’t know suddenly watching us with real interest. It felt like we’d arrived at the end of something, but then he must have charmed me some more, because it went on for years and years after that, until no one was watching at all.


Photo used under CC.

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About Author

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Bill Gaythwaite lives in New York City. His short stories and essays have appeared in Subtropics, Chicago Quarterly Review, Grist, North Dakota Quarterly, Oyster River Pages, and other publications, including the first two volumes of Hashtag Queer: an LGBTQ+ Creative Anthology and Mudville Diaries, a collection of baseball reminiscences.

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