What a Hug from Phil Rosenthal Can and Cannot Do

by

09/11/2023

Neighborhood: Upper East Side

Phil Rosenthal

This is Part 2 of a three part story by Nina Camp. Part 3 will appear on Thursday. Click here to read Part 1.

I went into the theater, threw my coat across two seats to save them, went back out to the lobby and called Alex again. He was about to walk into his voice lesson on the West Side. I paced back and forth, ignoring the incoming crowd, the security guards, and the growing pile of knapsacks behind a rope in the lobby.

“This isn’t working,’ I said. He was silent. “I can’t do this anymore. I’m so thirsty, where’s the water fountain? Wait, I think it’s down this hall.” I found it and sipped. He waited. “We need to go to couples’ therapy,” I said. I felt his resistance and anger, but at least he was still on the line. “Okay,” I said, concluding our one-way conversation. “They’re calling us into the theater.” 

In the dark, I struggled to pay attention. The show started. Phil, on screen, not yet live in person, was clear in his intro. Yes, this was Tel Aviv, but he would not focus on politics and strife. He was there for food and beauty. He would, however, comment on the natives. They worked too hard to sell you on the greatness of their country, he said. When they weren’t selling, they were complaining. Israel was the birthplace of kvetching and pettiness, he explained. He made a whole scene out of how hard it was to get two groups of old ladies in a mall to join at one table and chat with each other. (He succeeded in getting them together though, at least for the camera.)

Tel Aviv seemed like a digestive minefield to me. Everything had too much spice, oil, or gristle. There were fibrous green stalks that don’t break down when you chewed them. Nor could I digest the humor, though Phil was in top form. As I watched and cried, I wondered if I might have enjoyed myself if I’d been single and on my own in this synagogue. After leaking tears for forty minutes, I walked out of the theater and the building.

—————-

What were we really arguing about?

The cats? I know there are people who let their cats wander apartment halls and into back yards or even onto balconies. But I also know I’m not the only paranoid, hyper-protective cat owner in the city.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had nightmares in which my cat runs away. Among the culprits are ripped screen doors, windows left open, and the inscrutable instinct of the cat. Her reasons for running are unclear. All I know is that she’s about to make a fatal mistake.

Frantically, I try to fix the screens or close the windows. But the rips never patch sufficiently, or I discover more rips, and the windows are invariably stuck in their open position. Sometimes I wake up just before she plummets. Occasionally I see the fall. I scream – the voiceless kind – till I wake up.

Since I’d moved in with Alex, my real-life hysteria had grown steadily worse. I started checking our apartment door compulsively whenever I passed it. I begged him to keep the door locked. After a certain amount of me flipping out, he stopped apologizing: I was overreacting to a small, harmless issue. Then, the argument, like most of our arguments, morphed, with head-spinning speed, into the argument he really wanted to have:

“You don’t get it!” he yelled, about forty times a month, followed by, “I need you to understand!”

Did I not see how exhausted he was from fifteen miles of daily dog walking? I did see how exhausted and distracted he was. That only made me panic more about his inability to remember to lock our door.

He didn’t have enough voice students to drop even one dog from his schedule. He had no time to prepare for opera auditions. The apartment door was the last thing he cared about. And why, for that matter, didn’t I care about his suffering and offer to help in any way possible?

“You know if the situation were reversed,” he said, about twenty-seven times a month, “You know I’d help you!”

In addition to him not locking our door, at least once a week I’d come home to find the keys dangling in the lock, and Alex inside, collapsed on the sofa. I felt the need for constant vigilance. Often, even when he was relaxed, I couldn’t relax with him. He’d ask me to join him for a movie on the television, usually something with superheroes, and within minutes I’d seize up with fear. My focus would turn to the living room windows. They were open only from the top down, with screens, but they were too open. I’d get up and close them a little, but that didn’t make me feel safer. It was too easy for someone to open the bottom window without thinking. Eventually, I bought white gorilla tape to match the window casing and taped the bottom windows shut.

Alex thought everything I was doing was pointless and crazy. I thought everything he did was short-sighted and ineffectual.

So there we were — me, a basket case, and him, completely fried.

There were islands of calm and normalcy. Sangria and chips at the Mexican place near our apartment. Phone calls to one another from cafes — “I’m getting a latte, do you want anything?” Moments of repose on the sofa with animals on our laps and at our feet – dogs, cats, and humans in equilibrium in a shared space.

There was also our television time. It wasn’t easy to find the sliver where our interests met, but we worked at it. He was into sci-fi and adventure — and all things time-travel. I liked classic sit-coms and drama – Cheers and Taxi, and Noah Baumbach movies. Alex craved futuristic tech fantasies and time loops. I wanted a regular hang with people who were slightly hopeful but would never change, or change only in tiny increments, and would always be there with witty things to say. Star Trek was our middle ground – soft sci-fi, traditional drama, light humor. Somebody Feed Phil was our surprise winner.

But mostly, our relationship was a time loop of recurring heartbreak. No matter where we set our course, we always fell through a wormhole in space that took us back to the same drama.

————

Having abandoned the screening before Phil’s Q and A, I called Alex while walking back home. It was 8:05. He was in a cab on his way to the synagogue.

“Where are you?” he said. “Why do I hear street noise?”

“I’m ten blocks from the synagogue,” I said.

“Why did you leave?!” he yelled. “Go back! I’m almost there!”

I hailed a cab. Alex was there when I arrived. The security guards gave us a hassle, but let us back in. I started crying again during the Q and A. Alex held my hand and whispered, “We’re okay. Please don’t cry.”

He kept looking over at me and warming my hand. His intention to comfort me was palpable. He was very good at transmitting love, visceral and enveloping. It’s one of the reasons I’d stayed with him for three years.

A young woman raised her hand, took the mic, and told us that she suffered from anxiety and depression, and that food and Phil’s show were the ways she pulled herself out of it. Phil answered that he suffered from that as well and to work through it, he focused on the joy in little things.
 
The evening ended on a hopeful note. Phil offered hellos and hugs to anyone who wanted to meet him. He waited, blue-eyed, relaxed and open, in front of the stage as the line formed.
 
Alex wanted to meet Phil, so I waited in line with him. When it was our turn, I surprised myself and went up to him.“

“I just need one,” I said quietly. He hugged me. Held in his embrace, with fragile emotion thinning out my voice, I said, “We love your show, you make us so happy.”
 
“I love to hear that,” Phil said. But I’m pretty sure he heard the helplessness in my voice. He could tell the words were a plea: We’re not happy, and you’re the closest we can come to pretending.

I’d never asked a stranger for an uplifting gesture of affection before. It felt like hugging Mickey at Disneyworld: for a moment, you’re safe inside an animated, boundless love.

“I’m jealous now, I need one too,” Alex said, and went in for his own hug.

Alex asked someone to take a picture of the three of us, Phil’s arms around us both. Later that night, I looked at it. Phil’s smile seemed halfhearted. Had we accomplished the unthinkable? Had our sadness bummed out the happiest guy on Netflix? This was rock bottom. Time for some serious climbing.
[END, part 2 of 3]

***

Nina Camp‘s humor and personal essays have been featured at HuffPost, GoodhousekeepingCosmo, Introvert, Dear, and Mogul. She’s currently putting the finishing touches on a novel with the working title, How to Break a Romantic Curse in Seventeen Years or Less.

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