*When the lady on the phone introduced herself as a producer from the Oprah Winfrey show, I tried not to sound anxious. After all, this was “Oprah.” To anyone peddling anything, Oprah is a god. In 1988, I had nothing to peddle, but that didn’t matter. An appearance on Oprah can change lives. I was down for whatever.
The producer explained they were developing a show about people who had “unfinished business” with those formerly in their lives. She was given my phone number, she said, from someone who wished to rendezvous with me on Oprah’s stage to “get closure on some things.” The Oprah staffer wanted to know if I’d be interested in being flown to Chicago to appear on the show.
Unfinished business. As far as I knew, there wasn’t a single person with whom I had such a thing. Now, there’s no accounting for the moody ways of certain short-haired terriers. And somewhere out there was an ornery Praying Mantis from my childhood, no doubt still holding a grudge. But people? I didn’t have any unfinished business with people. At least that I knew of.
“Who is it?” I chuckled, the way people do when they’re nervous. “What is the unfinished business?”
“I can’t tell you,” the producer answered coyly. “But, ‘unfinished business’ isn’t necessarily negative. I will say the person is female.” That ruled out the Praying Mantis. However, the proposition itself sounded about as much fun as an evening stroll to the gallows. Who’d sign up for this?
“Well, don’t make a decision this instant,” the producer piped up, responding to my ambivalence. The resourceful talk show producer is nothing if not intuitive. “Think about it. This could be cathartic for you. Call me with your final answer before the day is out.” We hung up. Gee. I said I was down for whatever. This was the whatever. I sat on the bed for a few minutes, mystified. And then I thought of Earlene.
We met one afternoon, summer 1985. Reagan was President, the “Rambo” sequel proved huge, a young discovery named Whitney Houston was hitting with “You Give Good Love” and I’d had it up to here with my toilet. In the plumbing aisle at a West Hollywood hardware store, I’d just consulted with a clerk about stopping the annoying running water on my porcelain throne. He was walking away, when from behind me, in a playful, you’re-gonna-be-sorry lilt, a female voice softly advised, “He’s selling you something you don’t really neeeeed….”
She was about 5’6, with a sandy, short and sassy ‘do, exotic brown Asian eyes and a round brown body that filled out a jade designer jogging suit. Earlene was my age–33–but looked younger. In her tiny, manicured hand was a water nozzle for the shower of her cousin, with whom she was staying while in Los Angeles, vacationing from a bank teller’s job in Dallas.
“You don’t need to buy anything,” she said gleefully. “Just reach inside the back of the toilet and adjust that little arm holding the floating ball until it rises and stops the running water. Make any sense?”
Kind of. What made more sense, after nearly an hour of our chatting among plumbing materials, tools and the odd eves-dropping customer, was to exchange phone numbers. Climbing out of the charred rubble of a recently imploded relationship, I was open and ready for something new. Could Earlene could fix more than my toilet?
Three weeks filled with lunch, visits to two museums, one beach and a great seafood dinner in Silverlake crescendoed one humid Friday night at the Disneyland Hotel. Earlene had wanted to sleep there ever since she was a kid, when her father would bring the family west during the summers. “We’d get on the monorail in Tomorrowland,” she recalled wistfully. “It would stop outside the Hotel, but we never got off.”
One room and twin beds, “Ozzie and Harriet style,” was her idea. A sexless slumber party. The ’50s TVsit-com sleeping arrangement caved in at about two AM. By noon, checkout time, the tacky little room at the “Happiest Place On Earth” had become just another scene for the complexities of intense infatuation.
We vowed to develop what we’d discovered. For several weeks, expressive letters and phone calls between L.A. and Dallas reflected our giddiness for the possibilities.
And then I dropped the ball.
Earlene’s correspondence, increasingly sporadic and circumlocutory, gave me the impression I’d become a nuisance…or something. But that was no excuse for my disappearing act. Instead of exercising maturity, in the shittiest of exits, like Dobie Gray, I simply drifted away. I know it most have hurt.
“So, you figured it out,” said the Oprah producer when I told her the mystery woman could only be Earlene. I couldn’t face her on national TV, not even on Oprah. Especially on Oprah. The producer, though disappointed, said she understood, and we said good-bye. But minutes later, she was calling again. “I told Earlene of your decision,” she said. “She wants to talk anyway, but won’t call if you don’t want to.” The Oprah producer as romance emissary. I just couldn’t avoid taking my medicine.
On the phone, Earlene conceded it ridiculous to drag me onto TV to speak her mind. “But,” she said, conjuring that earthy guffaw of hers, “When I called in, I never expected to be chosen!” I asked her how she’d been. She ignored the question. “I have wanted to speak my mind for a long time,” she declared. “You’re going to hear this.” I braced myself for a verbal flogging. Earlene took a deep breath and solemnly exhaled three words: “I was married.”
“When we met, I was married. I still am. That’s why I might have seemed elusive. That’s why I wouldn’t let you come to Dallas; why I couldn’t talk sometimes. That’s what double beds at Disneyland were about. I told myself nothing would happen. I had no business being there with you.”
Earlene said that when we met, she’d been married to her high school sweetheart for seven years. I wasn’t her first marital transgression. “I wondered what else was out there.” When she found the nerve to confess everything, including me, her husband forgave her. “That did it–I fell in love with him all over again.”
The two went to work salvaging their marriage. “We said as part of our healing, I had to tell you the truth. I just disappeared on you. That was pretty shitty.”
I was quietly flabbergasted. To think: all the time I harbored guilt for what I’d done, so had Earlene. Inviting me to a TV show didn’t seem like the cosmopolitan Earlene’s style, but I’ll be damned if it didn’t take Oprah to straighten it all out, so to speak. No, I didn’t mention my own self-reproach. Call me chicken, but I didn’t see the need to wake those dogs. I never heard from Earlene again. I hope she is well.
However, a few minutes after our conversation, the phone rang. It was the TV producer. Again. “Maybe I can interest you in something else,” she said, laughing at her own audacity. The enterprising talk show producer is nothing if not nettlesome.
“We’re working on another show, where people are fixed up with blind dates.” She asked if I was familiar with Siedah Garrett, the singer/songwriter who wrote “Man In The Mirror” for Michael Jackson. “She’s going to be on the show. We want to introduce you as her blind date.”
“What if I walk out and she doesn’t like me?” I asked. “I’ve seen those kinds of shows, and you can always tell when the person is disappointed.”
“She’s going to like you,” assured the producer. “If she doesn’t, she’s not going to show it. We’ll tell her not to show it.”
Talk about ingenuity. Graciously, I declined. I hung up and then held vigil by the phone for a call from Jerry Springer’s people. At that point, I was sure it was not a matter of IF I heard from the truculent Mr. Mantis, only when.