Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Most of my friends are crooks, which can be a bit awkward for a semi-honest man. I find myself continually wondering, How sociopathic do they have to get before I'll raise a red flag?

My friend Andrew owns a jewelry business, and he hired our mutual friend Charlotte to work for him. Charlotte is a bit carefree and self-centered, to the extent that he fired her two weeks later claiming she stole five thousand dollars worth of gems. "How can you still be friends with her?" he quizzed me. I didn't really have an answer, other than the fact that I couldn't exactly believe everything my friends believed. Like there are ghosts, and karma, and people who can touch their toes.

Lots of people warned me about Stephanie, but she was too exciting to resist. Every week she had another fabulous party, was featured in another national magazine. She started a spa on a shoestring by convincing unemployed people to work for her for free, promising them actual jobs after the place took off. The spa instantly hit the big time but the paychecks never showed, and she just replaced everybody with new rubes as the old ones stormed off. Soon her staff was massaging everyone from Gwyneth Paltrow to the mayor, and the money was rolling in. Like all fads, though, this one eventually faded, and a week after Christmas I got a call.

"Roman," she said, "I'm closing the spa. Can you meet me there at two a.m. and help me strip the place?"

I said sure, despite some reservations. I mean, a lot of people close businesses, right? And she was the owner, so obviously she could take whatever she wanted. We loaded a rented truck in the dark of night, then papered over the windows and left a sign, per her lawyer's instructions, saying she was closed for redecorating. When I finally got into bed as the sun came up I was congratulating myself for being such a good friend. A good friend with a new Persian rug and $1,400 worth of toiletries from her gift shop.

Not two days later she called me. She was moving to another city, in a rather hurriedly fashion, and she wanted to take her car. Since she was also bringing two dogs, though, she needed somebody to come along. "I'll pay for everything," she promised. "And we can stop anywhere you want."

What can I say? I'll agree to just about anything, which explains my carefree expression and resistance to most vaccines.

I knew Stephanie well, so I wasn't surprised when I ended up doing all the driving while she played with the dogs in the back. When we stopped for gas, though, she asked me to pay half of it. When I saw a billboard advertising the best smoked-ham sandwich in Pennsylvania, I headed for the offramp. "WHERE ARE WE GOING?" she screamed. "Who said you could get off the freeway? Am I your hostage or what?"

And that night at our first motel, when I said I wanted to take the car and explore, she said, "Roman, I've got eighty thousand dollars worth of jewelry hidden under the spare tire. You're not taking that car anywhere."

And that's when it hit me. Hi, I'm RomanHans. Count me in among the rubes.

The next morning was somewhat frosty, but then came the coup de gras. Somehow, in an undistinguished part of the south, we drove right past the gates of Dollywood. Right. Past. My jaw dropped. As an ardent lover of kitsch, these were the Pearly Gates. I immediately threw a U-turn and headed for the parking lot. "I'm going to Dollywood!" I shrieked with delight.

Stephanie stared at me blankly. "So, I'm just supposed to sit in a hot car with two dogs?"

I argued. I repeated her promises. I yelled. And I caved in. We covered another two thousand miles without speaking a single word. She actually followed through on one promise, though: after I dropped her off at her new place, she bought me a ticket to fly back to New York.

When I got home, there were hundreds of messages on my answering machine. Evidently Stephanie had left behind a mountain of unpaid bills, and had even stiffed her employees for massages that they'd performed. They knew I was her friend, so they came to me looking for her. The message that really bothered me, though, went a little something like this.

"Hi, Roman," a husky voice said, "my name's Mike. I'm trying to contact Stephanie, and I hear you're a friend of hers. I bought eight thousand dollars in gift certificates as Christmas presents for my friends, and a week later the spa closed down. Needless to say, I'd like to speak to her. If you can give me her phone number or address, I'd appreciate it. I work for the Yankees, and I'd happily give you a pair of season tickets."

To make a long story short, I went for it. I even took the high road and turned down the tickets, though if he'd worked on Broadway I'd be watching Mary Poppins right now. In the end, I decided you should believe everything your friends believe. Now I think cauliflower is awful, Baltimore is fun town, and cave men had dinosaurs for pets.

And my friends know you need to watch your back if you keep a gay man out of Dollywood.

No comments: