A pregancy scare following a hat-trick of lovers, and a cheesy show about a wedding gone haywire leave Beth Franken contemplating the purpose of monogamy.
I believe it was Aristotle, or perhaps Roger Ebert, who said that the great, salutary property of drama is that it allows you to feel for a moment that you are the character up on the stage or screen. If the character is suffering some horrific loss, then when the show is over you’re relieved it wasn’t really you, and you feel better. Or, if the character is discovering true love, you experience vicarious pleasure. This is why we go see movies and plays.
I’ve often felt that a show is my life, or that my life is a show, but I never felt this more strongly than the summer my boyfriend took me to see the stage play Mamma Mia in Chicago. I know Mamma Mia may seem an unlikely conduit for self-recognition. The movie took a critical thrashing for its cheese-factor. On the other hand, it grossed $325 million in one summer, and the stage play has been seen by something like 30 million people, so the show must attract a few people, in addition to me, who identify with its characters.
The premise of Mamma Mia (besides seeing how many ABBA songs can be insinuated into a plot) is what is known as a hat-trick. Scoring three times. A young woman, raised by a free-spirited single mother, is getting married and wants her father to walk her down the aisle. She discovers by reading her mother’s diary that one of three men her mother knew during a romantically busy month could be her father. She mails wedding invitations to all three, believing that she’ll know her father when she sees him. The three men show up one after another, and everything goes haywire. Meanwhile, 26 ABBA songs are sung.
I’m not proud of it, but I confess that once, once, decades ago, I had a hat-trick myself. I was 22, and I had broken up with a guy I was seeing (#1), started seeing someone else a week or so later (#2), then went on a trip back East and accidentally slept with the roommate of a friend (#3).
That third story goes like this: My friend and his roommate, actors, had moved to New York after college, and they shared an apartment in Midtown that had two bedrooms but no beds. They took turns sleeping on a fold-out couch on alternate nights. They could have both fit in the sofa-bed, but they were the handsome-singing-dancing type of actors, and didn’t want to leave the impression they were gay, so one slept on the floor and the other slept on the sofa-bed, and the next night they would switch. The night I was visiting, it was the roommate’s turn for the bed. They were complete gentlemen and offered me the other half of the bed, and if it had been my friend’s night for the bed, then nothing would’ve happened. Instead, it was the roommate’s turn.
So, after my little visit in New York, I went to Boston to visit other friends. It occurred to me that my period was overdue. What had I gotten myself into, and how was I going to get out of it?
I didn’t have even second-hand experience with pregnancy. When I was a freshman in high school, there was one senior who walked the halls: blonde, gravid and alone. The other kids drew into clusters and whispered. She sat at the sewing machine behind me in Advanced Sewing, and one time told me, “Don’t do what I did.” I nodded gravely, thinking she had meant, “Don’t have sex,” which, at 14 and a committed Sunday School attendee, I had no intention of doing. Now that I think about it, perhaps what she meant was, “Don’t forget to use birth control.”
Besides this girl, no one else ever appeared to get pregnant, all the way through senior year. The same held true at my college: not a pregnant girl on view—or on leave. I had no tracks to follow, and no one to make the journey with. Whatever I was going to do, I was on my own with it.
I sat alone in my friends’ Boston apartment while they were at work, the shades drawn, the living room dusky, and I tried to draft in my mind the letter I might send the handsome roommate. “Dear Gary, I’m pregnant and the baby might be yours. . .” And letters to the other two as well? Oh, what a miserable creature I was! What an airhead! What a moron!
Then my period came. It was all of thirty-six hours late, but in that brief interval, I’d had an epiphany. Not about my own life. It was about the history of ideas. Specifically, about the genesis of morality. This was why you were not supposed to sleep with more than one person. So you could establish paternity. Chasteness was something I had been taught and had accepted on faith. But suddenly I understood: the root of morality, its purpose and reason, was not religious. It was economic.
I didn’t know anything about the plot of Mamma Mia when I went to see it in Chicago. My boyfriend had gotten the tickets—his parents were in town and the four of us were to have a night out. When I realized what the show was about—I’m not referring to the hat-trick, which barely registered with me; I mean the ABBA songs and the bumptious audience—I adopted an attitude of grim forbearance. The daughter mailed her letters; her mother sang a song; the three potential dads made their consecutive entrances. When the last one, “Sam Carmichael,” came on, I gasped aloud. My boyfriend turned to me, the spill of stage light playing on his profile, but I just kept staring at the actor who’d come on stage, a dark, chiseled hunk of a man. It was my friend’s roommate from 20 years before. The hat-trick being acted out on stage was my hat-trick. I was having my own private Mamma Mia—at Mamma Mia.
I pawed through my Playbill, held it close to my nose, and couldn’t see a thing. But I knew it was him. Mamma Mia is not the kind of play that demands careful scrutiny, but I completely lost track of the story from that point forward because I was busy obsessing about a) whether or not I should go backstage after the show to say hello, and b) how much of this I could keep from my glowering boyfriend. It was like sitting next to a lit and lidded kettle grill. He knew something was up and was seething.
He was an excellent boyfriend, the kind who could anticipate, then solve my problems. I’d say, Darn, I lost my Chap Stik, and he’d show up that night with three new ones. But this close attention came with a measure of possessiveness, and I knew it wasn’t going to sit well with him that I’d had a hat-trick two decades before I’d ever met him, and that one of the three men was now on stage singing disco songs in a nasal baritone.
After the show I did go backstage to say hello, and when I rejoined my boyfriend and his folks on the sidewalk in front of the theater, my boyfriend angled himself between me and his parents, I think so his dad couldn’t see the glow on my face. He was horribly steely with me that night—probably my ebullience upset him the most—but ultimately he was disarmed by the massive synchronicity of it all. Plus, I think he knew one day I’d be writing about it, and he wanted to appear favorably in print.
These days we laugh about it. Come on, I say when he ribs me, it’s a terrific story; you have to admit. Besides, he had scored a hat-trick himself back when he was in college, and his occurred in a single weekend, which, please, I never would have done. I am always quick to spike this right back over the net to him.
But I think there’s another lesson here too, beyond “We’re all guilty of embarrassing mistakes.” I think it’s that, no matter how cheesy or dull or tawdry our lives seem, we are, all of us, starring in our own summer movies, our own long-running plays. All of us have stage-worthy lives, tales that could fill the screen, a story that could rock the house.
All that’s missing is the ABBA underscoring.
Photo by Tomofumi Kitano