“I have to travel how far? To climb what? To reach where? The valley of the pills? Oh, Valley of the Dolls.”
My ears were popping already. I hate flying.
“I had Jem dolls and She-ra dolls when I was a kid. Do those count? I bet they relieved anxiety, and I didn’t have to take them with water. Anxiety relief and drought awareness. I was such a responsible kid.”
“And your Judy doll was where?” she asks from the seat next to me.
“I didn’t have one, Miss Garland,” I admit. “But when I watched The Wizard of Oz, sometimes I wore Mom’s black pumps and carried a mini basket with a mini Pound Puppy in it, if that counts.”
“Count, count. Does anything count, you keep asking,” she says.
Keep asking? How long had we been talking? How long was this flight?
Is this a dream; am I here? Where are you?
“My doctor brought up the idea of pills when I told him I was afraid of flying.” I think I was asking her a question.
“Pills, darling. What kind?” How and when did Judy Garland become my pharmacist?
“Lorazepam, I think it’s called. The name reminded me of Gonzo, that blue Muppet with the banana nose. Everyone and their mother told me not to drink on those pills if I try them, or I’ll . . . ”
“End up like me, darling?” Judy smiles. Her imperfect front teeth seem to nudge themselves far out in front of her face, but not at all unattractive. Humanity is so enticing when it appears in a creature of such immaculate talents.
“From what I read, I think most doctors mention Janis or Jimi Hendrix,” I say, as she glances over me, scanning the aisle for the flight attendant. “My ‘Piece of my Heart’ is decent in the shower, but I’m no Janis. And I always thought heroin was her pleasure.”
With no attendant in sight, her gaze drifts back to me, and before she can accuse, I blurt out, “I mean, of course I sing all of yours first.”
What, like I’m going miss an opportunity to suck up to Judy Garland? How often do you end up liking the person sitting next to you on a long flight? Judy Garland was to be my conversation pill, and she always takes effect quickly.
When will I know; where will I
How will I think of my name?
“I get panicky when it comes to pills,” I breathe in and admit. “I’ve seen addiction up close, and I’m terrified of becoming an addict or going through any of the crap that I saw when it happened to others. I don’t want to lose control.”
She eyeballs the aisle again and without looking at me says, “Yes, you do.”
Excuse me? Angry. I get a little angry. I get a little angry with Judy Garland who is sitting next to me on a plane with a destination that is still unknown.
Is this a dream?
“I do? You think I want to lose control? I get on the Oakland Bay Bridge every day to leave San Francisco, and when I get in the car, I put on the song that I want to be listening to if I happen to die that day. If the bridge blows up, I want to be listening to a song that I love, not the morning talk radio with their ‘Hipster versus Geezer’ call-in games.” I’m getting angrier. I’m getting close to shouting, as close as I’ll allow myself in a public place, or anywhere, really. I stop and look up and down the aisle myself.
In a low voice she begins to ask, “Who are you . . . ?”
“Never mind what song I’m listening to!” I interrupt, even though her question calms me slightly. “I’m thinking that if the terrorists chose that morning to come after the liberal, green, free-love loving hippies and hipsters with their billions of dollars and ridiculous trigger warnings (we’re all such victims, pass me a pill), that I want to be listening to one of my favorite songs if I die on the commute to a job that bores me to tears. I do this on the bridge. I do this on BART . . .”
“The who, darling?” Judy asks. “So you have a boyfriend? Not sure I enjoy his name all that much, but if . . .”
“No, no BART is the Bay Area subway that goes under the water. And since it’ll make my ears pop seconds before I’m killed in an underwater tunnel, the music is crucial.”
“Still, dreadful name. Sounds like a placeholder name in a cartoon script.” She takes one last look up and down the aisle before reaching for her purse. I hear the subtle yet familiar rattle before her hand meets her mouth, and she swallows dramatically.
“I’m sorry not to offer, darling. Breath mint?”
“Nice touch,” I tell her, the anger subsiding. “Can I get back to me?”
“Oh, had we left you? I had no idea.” Okay, I loved her again.
“I get on BART (Judy rolls her eyes), and I’m convinced that the day has come when they decide to blow up the tunnel and kill thousands of heathens with one stone. On planes I grip the armrest so tightly turning takeoff or (god forbid) turbulence, that I’m afraid my knuckles will start bleeding. I look around and realize that I’m sitting in a flying murder weapon, and you think this sounds like someone who wants to lose control?”
She looks at me puzzled, an expression not unlike the ones that I used to give an algebra pop quiz in middle school. Why are they quizzing me on things I haven’t learned yet?
Still clutching her purse, she pulls out a cigarette. A cigarette after a breath mint? Eh, who am I to judge? After an exhale to the ceiling (they were polite smokers in her day), she shifts her tiny body weight so she’s facing me with her entire being, which isn’t much. It’s the itty-bitty Judy Garland Show Judy who’s daintily sitting next to me. I think I hear “You Go to My Head” start to play through the earphones that sit in my lap, but I ignore it. Why does that thing start playing randomly when it’s been sitting turned off for hours?
“Your bridge. Your car. Your train. Your DART (I don’t correct her) Your bay. Your death. Why, may I ask, are all the terrorists after you in particular, darling? If you sounded this way and were on pills, I’d have little to no concern for you at t’all. But if this is how you are without pills, maybe you should try one.”
I can’t contain my smile. I always smile when someone exposes a trait or behavior that I thought I kept hidden from the world. And I both love and hate that she knows it.
Judy leans in a bit more, and I focus not on her teeth but on those eyes. “You’re trying to stay in control in situations when your own only guarantee is that you have absolutely none. You try so hard that you even set the score to the disaster scene. I bet you have a playlist ready for morning.”
How will I think of my name?
“Oh no, you do, don’t you, darling?” She leans back, perhaps debating whether to poke me with her cigarette. “Which ones are . . .”
“Many,” I promise quickly, “but ‘The Man That Got Away’ has always been at the top of the list.”
“Fine.” Phew, she’s satisfied and can get it together enough to continue. “Of course you want to lose control. What else is there to do at a time when you have zero chance of gaining it? It’s the trying that makes your knuckles bleed, darling. That, and you need a good moisturizer.”
She places her hand on mine. Judy Garland – singer, dancer, actress, therapist, beautician.
“You watched Valley of the Dolls recently, didn’t you?” she asks, changing and not changing the subject.
“Yeah, one of my publishers is about to release a 50th anniversary edition of the book, which I’ve still never read. I watched it the night my doctor brought up the idea of pills.”
“It’s a dreadful movie, isn’t it?” She is starting to fish; I can tell. We all know tales of her preproduction history with the film.
“I guess it made its point pretty quickly. k.d. lang’s cover of the theme song was in the first and last episodes of Nurse Jackie, so with that and the book, it’s been on my mind.”
Judy’s face lights up. “Edie Falco, I like that gal.”
Obviously I agree, but I’m a tad startled by her praising another actor. It was like the bad girl in detention admitting that she loves the homecoming queen’s performance in the school play. And talk about control – show me a scene when Edie Falco is not in complete control. Judy locked horns with director in the business, and probably maimed a few, but I can’t imagine a director ever taking issue with Edie Falco, onset or off.
So Judy Garland knows who Edie Falco is, but she doesn’t know that BART is a subway train, not my boyfriend? Although I’m still unsure of this plane’s destination, I am sure that I need my hallucinations to be consistent in their knowledge of modern day life. I reach for the rattling bag underneath the seat in front of me, wondering if there’s a pill for such a thing.