by Lara Tupper
Long before I’d heard the term “codependence,” I had an unbalanced relationship with an older man I idolized beyond all sense of reason. I was five years old. He wrote the songs that made the young girls sing. He had no idea who I was and still, for more years than I care to admit, I clung to the hope that he would. I had an electric blue bumper sticker on my bedroom door, a gift from my Nana: Barry M. Loves Lara T. His poster-sized perm filled the space above my bed. I liked his sad eyes and the moon-shaped medallion against his collar. There was a smudge by his ear where I’d pressed my mouth to talk to him.
I couldn’t say how or why but even then I sensed it: There was safety in following another into obsession. It was easier than figuring out what was going on in my small, murky head.
Fast forward to age 19: I wore blue corduroys that buttoned just under the knee and ballooned like Oompa Loompa pants, the uniform for all Interlochen Arts Camp employees. As Concert Officer, I held a walkie-talkie and a clipboard. I supervised the daily recitals for campers and ushered the performances in Kresge Auditorium, the moneymaker, where the summer roster matched my pre-teen record collection: Dolly Parton, Aretha Franklin, Willie Nelson, and Barry Manilow.
Barry was the reason why I’d put up with the culottes. At last, we would meet. He’d learn about our special intimacy: the nights in the living room when my parents didn’t look up from their books, allowing me to focus on dance steps, nights I wore a shawl with pom-poms and listened to his live album on repeat, the one where he joked about Brooklyn and his beagle named Bagel. I knew that he was talking to the stadium of people who’d paid to hear him, but also just to me. He spoke like my grandfather, who grew up on the Lower East Side.
At Interlochen, as though ordained, a beautiful rumor spread: Barry would need a back-up choir for his Kresge concert, and that choir would be comprised of staffers. Are you kidding? I asked my boss, a trumpet player who led the marching band at an enormous university.
“I wish,” he said. “You want to be in it?”
It was that simple. This was before Facebook. I called everyone I could think of. The camp paper did an interview and I told them about the poster. What I didn’t tell them was my wish: You, he’d say. I need you. Come on tour with me for the rest of my life. A post-college plan.
But when it came time to rehearse, his back-up singer taught us the parts in a musty shed behind Kresge. At sound check B. sat in the last row with a microphone, invisible from stage, his scratchy voice saying, “Tenors. Think about where you’re going.” Something zipped inside me, hearing him speak, a flash of recognition. This was our true beginning! He asked if someone could bring a cup of tea with honey.
During the encore, we filed on for “I Write the Songs” and, for one moment, he turned with arms spread, dazzling in a well-fitted jacket, the Great Oz revealing the singers behind the curtain. He beamed at us, strangers on a platform. The auditorium roared.
And then it was over. The back-up singer gave us t-shirts: Hit Man! Greatest Hits and Then Some Tour, 1993.
I couldn’t leave. It wasn’t supposed to end this way. It wasn’t supposed to end, ever. But there was someone outside his dressing room who wouldn’t budge, a man in a sleeveless shirt and bow tie, like a Chippendale dancer who’d taken a wrong turn. I cornered his percussionist, but he couldn’t help me either.
For a long time I walked around the campus in the dark, my insides like sad, shrunken balloons. It was like the night, peering under their bed to find the tea set, when I’d discovered that Santa was really my parents. All that Barry love. It was just my relatives making stickers and buying posters. I’d devoted all that time to something that wasn’t real.
Willie Nelson came, and Dolly. They didn’t need altos. I went back to college and got a part in Godspell. My roommate gave me a poster of Barry, a recent one, and I hung it on my wall out of habit. I tried, in a moment of weakness, to arrange “Copacabana,” but the horn parts were tricky and I quit. There were so many songs better suited to my voice—like “My Funny Valentine.” I finished that piece and my a cappella group loved it. I took the solo for myself.
Lara Tupper’s autobiographical novel, A Thousand and One Nights, is about singers at sea. She’s at work on a memoir about codependence and yoga titled Meet, Stay, Shove. Visit her website for more.