Lesfic: ‘Norah Unplugged’

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“Make a wish dear,” my Grandfather Charlie whispered across the room as I blew out 18 candles scattered over a homemade strawberry shortcake my mother had spent the day whipping up. Acts of service is her love language and she was speaking it fluently I’d say. She knew strawberries had been my favorite fruit since I was able to eat solid foods, and there is proof as she had documented it in my baby book. It was also noted in the baby book that I rolled my eyes at my Uncles when I was a year old, which, was apparently the first time I got my first public “laugh”. But who’s counting? One can only assume they were talking about the Catholic church but please excuse my memory as, at one, it’s a little foggy.

art by Leora Juster

The birthday was already off to a good start as my brothers, Joshua, Jacob, and Jeremiah all pitched in and bought me the Bodyguard Soundtrack by Whitney Houston. My favorite.

 

But the greatest gift was from my Grandfather. He pulled me to the side of the party and told me he was sending me to the South of France to learn how to play the piano for the summer. Apparently his good friend from College, Mr. Jones, had retired there and taught for only close family and friends. I gave him a tight hug, he started coughing which I felt bad about but knew he would recover. “Thank you Poppy…I always wanted to learn how to play the piano.” He smiled at me and said “Okay dear. Very good.”

My Grandfather was a democrat and man of the arts. He made his living as a writer and married a feminist Beauty Queen, my Grandmother Mary Margaret an only child who loved playing Bridge and going on cruises which pretty much went hand in hand. No pun intended. Mary Margaret was the daughter of a self-made millionaire, Dell Winterfield. Dell loved getting the day old newspaper out of the trash, leg lifts, and cheese curls. Charlie fell in love with me when I dressed up in a black curly haired afro wig with a red barrett and performed Roseanne Roseannadanna at my cousin Maureen’s Confirmation after party. I guess he saw something in me after that. Art was the thread on the inseam of a pencil skirt that connected us, and Gilda was the seamstress that brought us together. I’d Radner not think about her loss, as I miss her so. As you can see I’m using word play to deal with my grief which is a typical Gemini emotional tendency. Thank gosh my Venus is in Cancer so I have some chance of diving into my emotions in the most sensual of ways which is foreshadowing for this story. Okay commercial break over! Back to France.

Fantasy

Next thing you know I was flying to the south of France shaking in my Reebok Classics I was so excited. It felt good to take a break from my corn picking duties and being the town’s best athlete. I mean I liked athletics, but the pressure to always win was endless. I needed a break and a new challenge. The Piano calling kept tickling underneath my armpits like a mischievous young mom in the suburbs. I’d tickle too if there was nothing else to do. As I ate salted peanuts and drank seltzer water I thought it would be a good idea to put my headphones on and listen to my new CD by Whitney. I had a bad habit of singing out loud in public but it was also part of my charm. As I sang…

I don’t really need to look Very much further
I don’t want to have to go Where you don’t follow

I will hold it back again This passion inside Can’t run from myself There’s nowhere to hide

The flight attendant came over, tapped me on the shoulder and raised her eyelids like she had just seen a father yelling at his child in a Kmart parking lot. I said, “sorry, It’s hard not to want to sing along.” She laughed and then almost twisted her ankle as she pranced to the back in her stiletto high heels after winking aggressively at me.

Before I knew it the flight was over and I was as happy as a girl in Hollywood who just booked her first Progressive commercial. I glided through the airport looking for a man in his 70’s named Mr. Jones with a sign that read “Welcome Charlie’s Granddaughter.” Low and behold we found each other right in front of a Wexler’s Pretzel. Which was the last time we would be surrounded by processed food because we were about to step into France baby! He was gentle and kind. He had olive skin and the warmth of an old bear waving all his paws at kids peeking into a zoo exhibit. I felt safe already. He offered to carry my duffle bag and I said, “No way Jose, let me carry your Jacket.” It looked heavy as it was made of a really nice corduroy fabric…my favorite. He chuckled and it was the beginning of us getting along like Peas and Carrots. What can I say, dads love me.

When we drove through the countryside I felt free as a bird on a wire. Lavender fields soothed the air and lots of artsy folks, that looked like sock puppets with their expressive faces, colored the scene. It was underdeveloped like Guatemala in the 80’s and…my love life. His home was so beautiful and modest like the home Georgia Okeefe built in New Mexico, where the art supported her life and her life supported her art. When we arrived, the cute rancher Mr. Jones told me my room was upstairs and that if I wanted to take a nap or bath, there were fresh towels on the bed.

When I walked up to my summer room I felt like I died and had gone to the South of France Heaven. The room was painted a happy mustard yellow and there was a rocking chair in the corner with a small bookcase. Dr. Seuss and Van Gogh caught my eye. Mr. Jones said, “Ohh Mollie, My granddaughter Norah will be arriving later tonight. You two will be roommates. I hope that’s okay.” “Of course. I’m used to sharing a room with 3 boys so that will be a nice break for me,” I responded down the stairs with a grin on my face as I brushed me teenage teeth. He smiled back and I felt connected to him. Perhaps because I related to him. I too wanted to build my own house, live in Europe, and value creativity, love, and community as the foundation for good living.

Then he said, “ We will be playing a lot of piano but tomorrow we are down a player for my softball league. Your grandfather tells me you are a very good athlete. Want to play with us?” “I’d love to Mr. Jones. If you put me in the outfield I’ll catch everything”. He chuckled and started cutting lemons and limes to place in a glass pitcher of water for the week ahead. What a guy.

Let’s just say, When Norah arrived everything changed. She stopped me dead in my train tracks. If Poetry in motion is a real phrase, she was more like Walt Whitman doing back handsprings on the floor exercise routine in the Barcelona 1996 Summer Olympics. They didn’t make em like her where I grew up. She was sophisticated and her voice was old fashioned like the movie Fried Green Tomatoes minus the murder. She was affectionate with her grandfather, kissing him on both cheeks. She was terribly shy, but a real fine observer. As we ate tiger prawns, spinach citrus salad, and red skinned potatoes smothered in butter and dill that night at supper I realized two things.

  1. Dill is like a tattoo on your taste buds.
  2. And Norah would soon leave one on my heart.

Her brown eyes were so grounding that I finally was able to be still. Her lips were like two fluffy couch pillows waiting to be pressed against. I felt like If I looked at her too long I’d have the same effect as one does when they look at sunsets on social media for too long. So I had to use my better judgment and stop. Apparently she was a Piano Prodigy to top it all off. Great…I was done for. I didn’t really admit to myself I was gay, never had a good enough reason to. But Norah was different. She was exotic. Mr. Jones said he was getting sleepy and was off to bed. Norah and I did the dishes together and I asked her why she took herself so seriously. She laughed and said, “you noticed.” Her eyes flickered like an old porch light in Alabama. She made flirting fun.

art by Leora Juster

When we go upstairs to bed she tells me it gets hot at night and that sleeping naked is the way to go. Okay! If you say so Norah. I follow her lead and we get under the white down comforter with linen pink sheets. I try to act cool but this is the first time I’ve ever been naked in front of anyone past kitchen sink baths with my mom. The Mustard room glows in the dark and being next to her in bed feels very different than any of my friends at school. I have no idea why. She rolls over and kisses me quick on the cheek and says, “Tomorrow I will play you a song”. “Okay Norah.” I say. “Tomorrow I will do a comedy routine for you”. She says, “oh I can’t wait”. And I say, “You are going to have to because we have to sleep. To which she says, “stop it you’re making me laugh so hard”. Except she’s not audibly laughing. Which in turn makes me laugh. “Shhh…be quite, my grandfather is a light sleeper”, she says. And then we fade away like clouds parallel parking in San Francisco.

The mornings in France are slow and loving like Forrest Whitaker. I walk downstairs and Mr. Jones is pulling blueberry scones out of the oven and slicing green apples while he cooks coffee on the stove. He is adorable and I wonder why he’s not married. “Mr. Jones, how come you’re not married, you are such a catch?” He softened and said, “I forgot to stop and smell the roses.” “Well, my dad says it takes two to tango” I retort to lift his guilty burden. I offer to help him but he declines and says “save your energy for the softball game Mollie.” He says my name like he really knows me. Norah comes down like a literal morning dream and we all eat blueberry scones and laugh about Mr. Jones and his sports goggles and knee brace situation. I love their family.

The Baseball field feels open and free like a Tom Petty Song. What a perfect time to daydream about being with Norah… Then a ball comes 10 feet away from me, so I sprint like Jackie Joyner Kersee post asthma and make a diving catch. The whole team goes nuts and when I get up a ladybug is on my hand. As Mr. Jones pitches a third out we head into the dugout to switch teams. You would never know he was in his 70’s that’s for damn sure. I give the ladybug to Norah as a love memento and she giggles. “How did you catch that ball”, she asks. I tell her, “Ohh It was easy, my body was relaxed”. Her soul knows what I’m referring to but we don’t need to use exact words. We win by 2 and Mr. Jones is the happiest I’ve ever seen him. Who knew piano teachers loved sports so much? I guess we all need balance. Can’t play too much piano and not enough sports and you can’t play too much sports and not enough piano. France was already teaching me things about the greater meaning of life. Thanks, France!

When we got home, we all let the showers wash off the baseball diamond dirt and headed to the living room for our first piano lesson. Norah was iconic and obviously going to be one of the greats. Mr. Jones had such a passion for teaching you could tell it was “one” of his callings. And let’s just say, I was much better at sports.

Then the phone rang and Mr. Jones said he had to head to Italy last minute. That the woman he loved was ill and he had to follow his heart. He was such a dear man. I hugged him snuggly and he left just like that.

And then, of course, Norah and I were alone together. Mr. Jones leaving invoked some honest emotions in the room as Norah and I became rather candid with one another. She told me she loved coming here for her summers because her dad was really absent. And that she had to be good at the piano so maybe one day he would finally notice her. When she told me this, I knew I was falling in love with her. I thought about telling her about my home life but it seemed too great a burden to let anyone else in on. So I kept it simple. “I have to be good at sports and comedy because if I’m not…then I’m just me and if my parents knew who I really was they would never love me.”

After we bared our souls we laughed upside down on her bed. We talked about our inspirations. Norah loved Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Duke Ellington. She loved Jazz and soul. I told her about my love of Molly Shannon, Amy Sedaris, and Zack Galifinakis. I told her Zack was my number one crush and she giggled knowing full well I was tending towards lesbian on the Libra Scales.

Then she strolled to the piano and played a song for me that went like this…

Come away with me in the night Come away with me

And I will write you a song

Come away with me on a bus
Come away where they can’t tempt us, with their lies And I want to walk with you
On a cloudy day
In fields where the yellow grass grows knee-high
So won’t you try to come
Come away with me and we’ll kiss
On a mountaintop
Come away with me
And I’ll never stop loving you
And I want to wake up with the rain
Falling on a tin roof
While I’m safe there in your arms
So all I ask is for you
To come away with me in the night
Come away with me

After she finished playing, I tried to act like it wasn’t the best thing I’d ever heard so I played it down and said, “Not bad”. We both smirked and I knew Norah was going to be the death of me.

Then it was my turn so I went and changed into a head to toe corduroy outfit and did a character I created named Janice Delcampo who was a motivational speaker recovered lesbian. Norah was dying laughing. We had fun.

Norah and I spent the week just enjoying the simple pleasures in life. Food, water, and good loving. One night we went to this pond in the middle of the countryside and skinny dipped. She said, “My toes just touched the water”. And I retorted, “Sounds like your next song”. Which it turned out being. I will never forget the first time Norah touched me though. I was putting on my sage colored t-shirt underneath an oak tree before we headed back home and she came up behind me and put her hands all over me and felt me up.

Let’s just say she was really good with her hands. She said, “I want to take you somewhere.”  She took me to an abandoned greenhouse that had nothing but a piano, piano bench, and some wise old succulents. We made out by a patch of honeysuckle bushes before we stumbled into the old greenhouse on a Tuesday afternoon. I started to look around and she put her warm breasts on my back. She kissed my neck and pulled me into her. Then she was inside me and I turned over to match her move like two ponds on a chess board. She felt so good. We made love for so long that we fell asleep in each other’s arms. I thought my whole world was going to change after that. And it did, but not exactly like I imagined.

When I woke up she was sitting on the piano bench singing

Sunrise, sunrise
Looks like mornin’ in your eyes
But the clock’s held 9:15 for hours
Sunrise, sunrise
Couldn’t tempt us if it tried
‘Cause the afternoon’s already come and gone

She had a song for everything it seemed. Sometimes I just wanted to hang out you know?

One day she was bragging about playing a show with Ray Charles and Willie Nelson so I chidded her a bit and told her I was making Humble Pie for dinner and the next day she wrote this song called “Humble me.” It was extremely good but I tried to keep her humble for a smidge longer by telling her it was “Cute”.

The next day I called her from a pay phone and told her I was close to home but would be another hour as I just wanted some alone time and the next thing you know she wrote a song called “The Nearness of You.” She just kept writing songs about me. She was like the Joan Rivers of songwriting. Relentless. It was flattering at first, don’t get me wrong. But I felt like everything I said she was just waiting to make it into a song. It wasn’t helping that she was drop-dead gorgeous. At this point, hummus and woman were my weakness. In that order. One night when she was sitting naked on a chair with nothing but a guitar in hand as she sang…

Like a flower waiting to bloom Like a light bulb in a dark room

I’m just sittin’ here waiting for you to come on home and turn me on.

Naturally, I gave her what she wanted as sports and sex were apparently my only strong suits. I felt like I was in a VH1 music video I couldn’t get out of. Thank Goodness I had a return ticket because there was no other way to break it off with Norah.

When I got back to the states my brothers chatted before bed about the Charlotte Hornets and I tried to tune them out by turning on the radio. Norah was singing “I’ve got to see you again” proving Whitney Houston was right. You can’t run from yourself, there is nowhere to hide. Especially not from Norah Jones.


Mollie Merkel is a lesbian comic, writer, actor and director. Read more of her work and check out her film projects HERE.

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