The Lost Ones
I’d gone to an enormous and historic theater in midtown Manhattan because Roger Sample’s musical The Lost Ones was being given a special one-night revival as part of a summer concert series. A guy from work (we were fact checkers for the Associated Press) had invited me, explaining in a conceited manner that he knew “Roger” personally and had obtained several free tickets from the celebrated composer himself. I was slightly worried that this man, whose name was Rich, might be interested in me. A crush would have been awkward. Not only did we work together, but he was technically my supervisor and also well into his thirties, which seemed geriatric to me at the time.
On the other hand, Rich often talked about his boyfriend (a successful publicist) in a tone of heated affection and so maybe I’d misread him. They had rented a place on Fire Island that summer. That’s the invitation I really wanted. So I reminded myself that he hadn’t been too much of a creeper around me yet. It’s just that I’d caught him checking me out every time I walked past his cubicle, though in fairness I was getting similar attention from all directions back then.
I hadn’t been in the city long and didn’t have a real social life, though this was fine with me because I was trying to reinvent myself anyway. Before I’d arrived in New York I had lost over forty pounds. My daily gym routine was paying off too. I was toned and muscular, legitimately ripped and hot for the first time in my entire life. It would be the only time I’d ever have washboard abs, that priceless gay currency. At five-foot-nine, I still wished to be an inch or two taller, but I had a great tan (from lying out in Central Park during my lunch hours) and sported a military-style crew cut which I knew flattered my recently thinned out and chiseled facial features. It was a new experience for me to enter a room and be aware that my presence had elicited a stir, raised some temperatures. Nevertheless, the fat, lonely kid still remained rooted within me like an engorged tick, so I often teetered uncomfortably between preening vanity and a sort of default self-deprecation. Worried that I would betray this complicated disposition if I said too much, I mostly said very little, projecting a strong, silent demeanor which I hoped went well with my new strapping appearance.
I was twenty-three and had come to New York to be an actor after getting my BFA from Northwestern. I’d met with a couple of agents already (through college connections) who expressed genuine interest, but wanted me to have new headshots taken to better reflect my current look. I was trained as an actor and could sing well “in a clear and sweet baritone”—at least that’s how my voice had been described by the professors in my theater department.
I’d even performed a small role in a Roger Sample musical at school, but it was one of his later, more successful efforts. I wasn’t at all familiar with The Lost Ones, which had been his first production. The show was considered a misfire when it debuted Off-Broadway fifteen years before, but the soundtrack had since developed a cult following. It was being revived now because of the success of his more recent ventures, including the musical score for an extremely popular Disney film that had been released the previous winter. One of the songs from that movie had been so overplayed it had seeped, like an airborne virus, into the national consciousness.
When Rich offered the ticket he told me how I should dress for the event, explaining that since it was the height of a sweltering summer and that it wasn’t a particularly formal evening—and that people wore anything to the theater these days—I should simply dress comfortably.
He suggested a tank top and running shorts.
This gave me pause. We lived in Connecticut before my parents’ divorce and once or twice a year my Mom would persuade my Dad to take her to Manhattan to see a Broadway show. It was always a super dressy occasion for her. Ma, a city girl from Chicago, often described the suburb where we lived as a cultural and intellectual wasteland and took any opportunity she could to escape it. I remember her putting so much effort into getting ready for the theater that it was actually a stressful thing for the rest of us to even witness, like watching someone stumble through an obstacle course.
Ma changed outfits countless times, and then stood in front of the mirror in a belligerent and accusatory standoff with her reflection. She’d curse about particular accessories that had gone missing or the inadequacy of her jewelry until she’d eventually threaten to cancel the whole evening, which she had no intention of doing—all this while my Dad paced angrily around in a crumpled suit, jangling the change in his pockets and staring off into the middle distance. When my parents finally left to catch the train to the city, things would have come together well enough so that my mother looked rather stunning, but they would also have stopped speaking to each other.
Anyway, in some weird deference to Ma, not to mention my own evolving body image (I still wasn’t comfortable enough with the new me to flaunt anything), I wasn’t going to wear a muscle shirt to the theater, but I did settle on khakis and a tight blue Polo. When I got there, Rich was standing outside on the sidewalk under the marquee with the three guys who were the recipients of the other free tickets. If he was disappointed with my fashion choice, he didn’t say anything. Maybe because the others had obviously taken his advice.
At first glance, they were almost interchangeable—young, super fit and laboriously groomed pretty boys. In their matching tank tops, they looked like some hot gay triplet act. Two of these three were named Steven. They all clearly knew each other already and when Rich introduced me to them they looked me up and down with a mixture of resentment, critical assessment, and blatant horniness—captured in the complex facial maneuvers that are the exclusive province of young and desirable gay men.
We entered the theater lobby and were ambling about in the happy, buzzing crowd when I saw Roger Sample making his way toward us. The throng parted for him in a biblical manner as he approached. He nodded a greeting to Rich, the way one would to a familiar maître d’, and then turned his attention to the triplets and me. I had seen a picture of him recently in the Times, probably advertising this event, so I knew what to expect. Though he was even older than my co-worker (later I learned Sample was forty-five) he looked hearty and youthful. I could see that he would probably always be described as boyish.
His handsome face was unlined and his salt and pepper hair attractively arranged to disguise the fact that it was thinning. Sample was about my height and wore a white linen suit that accentuated his trim physique. As Rich introduced him around our little circle, Sample revealed a fun energy and a charming laugh. When he got to me, he reached out to shake my hand, but I was so tongue-tied all I could think of to mumble was my name, “Tobias.” He gripped my hand firmly, cocked his head, and repeated my own name back to me in a warm, amused tone while holding my gaze several beats longer than was strictly necessary. I flat out blushed at this and looked away, but he kept holding on until I met his eye again and when I did he was flashing a wide grin at me.
“Very nice to meet you, Tobias,” he half-chuckled.
I noticed the third triplet, the one who wasn’t named Steven, but whose name was Vincent, staring hard at me over Sample’s shoulder with an expression of blind and murderous hatred. An officious young woman appeared then, a handler or functionary of some kind. She whispered something to the composer and led him away, but not before he made lavish apologies for leaving us.
“It’s so encouraging to see such handsome young men coming to support my early work, but please don’t judge it too harshly,” he bellowed. The charming laugh again—and then, before he was swallowed up by the crowd, he half-shouted to Rich. “I think we should all meet for drinks after the show, don’t you?”
Rich looked relieved.
I was pretty naïve at the time, but even then, I think I figured out that my colleague was acting as some kind of procurer for Sample, providing good-looking guys for him, as if we were items on a take-out menu. I do remember asking Rich on our way to our seats (which were good ones in the orchestra, seventh-row center) how he was acquainted with the composer in the first place.
“Sweetie, I was like you,” he said, “came to the city to be on the stage. I was even part of an early workshop for this very show a hundred years ago. That’s where I met Roger. But the fucking producers went in another direction when the show headed Off-Broadway, so I was replaced, but Roger and I have . . . stayed in touch through the years.”
He said this last bit slowly and in a mysterious fashion like a cartoon villain. If Rich and Sample had a past, I wondered if that explained why there was no sign of the publicist boyfriend that night, but I never got around to asking him anything about that.
The show began.
The Lost Ones, Sample’s very first musical, is about a group of young runaways who live under an abandoned bridge. They form a make-shift family, discover friendship and love and meaning in their lives, even as a ruthless developer threatens to tear their “home” down to build condominiums. In the first act, each of the characters, who have escaped abusive situations or are struggling with their sexuality or battling some other challenge, are introduced through specific, individually tailored songs. In the snarky Times review, which appeared after the show originally opened, this concept had been described as derivative and monotonous, Sample’s lyrics dismissed as banal. And it is true that at first I thought some of the rhymes were landing a tad hard: I’ve waited far too long; with the world telling me my love is wrong or That’s a sure bet; because baby you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. But I was enjoying the show. It was beautifully sung by a talented cast and the music had an undeniable power and appeal, created as it was by a promising, young composer at the beginning of his career.
The curtain came down at intermission to loud and enthusiastic applause. I excused myself from the others and headed to the men’s room, with Vincent still glaring at me, as if I’d dropped sand down his jock. It was a massive theater and it took me a while to make my way through the crowd. In the bathroom, I was queued up in a long line leading to the urinals when I was suddenly jostled. I felt someone’s warm breath in my ear.
“So, are you staying out of trouble, Tobias?”
It was Roger Sample, of course. As I turned to face him he leaned in quickly and kissed me hard on the mouth for a good seven or eight seconds, while slowly grazing his hand over my crew cut. Then he pulled away from me and crossed to the sinks. Stunned and blinking, I stared at him. He was watching me in the mirror as I watched him. Sample was grinning at me like he had been when we first met and I was blushing again too. I knew there were people in the men’s room who recognized him and were now watching me after witnessing what just happened, wondering who I was to this man. I was wondering that too. The bathroom line was beginning to move. Sample washed his hands, reached for some paper towel, and then he walked out.
I was jumpy on my way back to my seat and was glad when the lights went down again and the second act started. I didn’t want to deal with any questions from Rich, who’d been eyeing me strangely since I’d gotten back from the men’s room. The rest of the show was darker and sadder and I was immediately transfixed. One of the most likable characters gets killed off and then there is a raucous protest, but the developer succeeds in bringing down the bridge anyway. At the end of the show, the group of runaways has to split up and move on. Some decide to go home; some face an uncertain future. The finale, sung by the entire cast, is a breathtaking ballad about endurance and getting through the inevitable pain that the world has to offer. This song just soared, as if it had been written especially for me—the fat, gay, insecure boy from a torn apart family who only wanted to belong. It just slayed me. I felt the tears streaming down my face before I was even aware I was crying.
That’s when it really hit me—that the man who had kissed me in the bathroom, the one who apparently couldn’t stop grinning at me, the one who I’d be seeing again right after the show, was the same man who had written this music that had reached straight into me, stirred me up and reduced me to sobs. During the standing ovation, where Sample emerged from somewhere backstage to take bows with the cast, my heart was rocketing out of my chest as I cheered and whooped along with everyone else.
We walked to the bar, which was a noisy, wood-paneled place on the edge of the theater district, and waited at a table in the back for Sample to finish up with the post-show festivities and join us. I was trying hard to think of what I could say to him to convey exactly what I felt about the genius of his work, but mostly I kept replaying that kiss in my head. I was nearly shaking with the anticipation of seeing him again.
However, when Sample finally arrived it was clear that Vincent had his own plans. He practically climbed up to sit on the composer’s face as soon as he settled himself at the table. Vincent was an actor too, of course, but unlike me, he had already been working in some small shows around the city, so we all heard about that for a while. He was also very familiar with Sample’s body of work, so he kept peppering him with gossipy questions about past productions as well as the one we just saw. And Sample, laughing and good-natured, seemed perfectly content to be monopolized by this glossy, half-dressed moron.
There was no more eye contact or grins for me, part of which had to do with my unlucky seating at the table, down at the end, between the two Stevens, who surprisingly enough were not struggling actors or cater waiters, but both first-year associates at Cravath, Swaine & Moore. They talked about trial deadlines and cutthroat partners over my head and how they probably wouldn’t have another chance to go out again for weeks.
I sat silent, pondering the fact that my newfound hotness hadn’t really gotten me anywhere. Vincent was hot and assertive, which was the way you had to be in this city and maybe the whole world. I’d already been told repeatedly in college that my offstage shyness was a serious detriment and had probably (along with my chubby, second banana looks) kept me from scoring any leads in the school shows. Rich sat across from me looking tired. At one point he offered me a wistful smile and a wink over his wine glass. Sample still hadn’t looked in my direction. I felt invisible and destroyed.
I was not much of a drinker. In fact, I was a famous lightweight at Northwestern, but I ordered a Jameson and then another and then one of the Stevens ordered chocolate fondue for the table. I wasn’t sure why I was even sticking around. But just when I started to make my move to leave, Sample waved for the check and we all found ourselves standing on the dirty sidewalk outside the bar, sweating in the muggy, July night. Vincent was still chattering away, but the words weren’t making any sense to me. It was as if he was speaking some desperate and indecipherable twink language.
I knew I needed to get Sample’s attention, to thank him for the ticket and the drinks and to finally conjure something meaningful to say about what this evening had meant to me, but then miraculously he was staring at me all on his own and repeating what he’d said in the men’s room, “So, are you staying out of trouble, Tobias?”
But this time I met his gaze and answered him in the deepest, most provocative voice I could muster. “I guess that depends on you, Mr. Sample.”
It was the most flirtatious thing I’d ever said in my life and the most ridiculous. It sounded like a line out of a bad, gay indie film.
Sample’s grin came back to me then, full force, like the sun, and he moved to the street to flag down a cab, but not before turning back to ask me (only me), “Can I drop you somewhere?”—as if this had been Roger Sample’s plan all along, which maybe it had been.
I didn’t answer, but simply swaggered toward the taxi when it pulled up. We climbed in together and Sample gave the driver his address on the Upper East Side. There would only be one stop this evening. I looked out the window. Rich and Vincent and the Stevens were watching us from the sidewalk. I couldn’t read Rich’s expression, but strangely enough, Vincent looked resigned and almost amused, as if he would have tipped his hat to me in congratulations if he had been wearing one. (Or that’s the way I remember it at least).
It had all happened so fast. A minute before, I was prepared for a long subway ride home to Queens, where I would be forced to analyze this latest defeat in my life, but now I was on my way to Roger Sample’s apartment. The logistics of that began to hit me. He was obviously going to expect us to have sex. I mean, what else could he assume? I hadn’t slept around much, having not really been in demand before this summer, but I’d had a few hook-ups with guys I didn’t really care about, guys who hadn’t written the music to The Lost Ones or made me cry with their art.
But maybe we could just talk and get to know each other. This seemed unlikely, so I began to negotiate the sex in my head, graphically imagining what I would and wouldn’t do in bed once we got to his place. Sample probably thought a guy who looked like me, I mean this new me, had a lot more experience.
Sample was watching me, looking relaxed and cheerful. He reached over and squeezed my gym-toned arm. He may have been older, but he was undeniably handsome, certainly in this light and in the way he was looking at me. But again, that part didn’t seem to matter either. I was having lots of thoughts actually, but they were coming at me like fastballs and for some reason I was having trouble sorting them all out. My head was spinning with all kinds of notions or actually my head was simply spinning and that’s when I realized it was because I was drunk from the two whiskeys. This explained why I was having trouble sorting things out and it was probably what had given me the courage to say, “That depends on you, Mr. Sample.” But there was something else too, a sour feeling in my stomach. The fondue. And just when I began to process that piece of information I threw up all over Roger Sample in the backseat of the taxi cab.
Ben, my husband, will often ask me to tell about the time I threw up on the famous composer guy. He gets a big kick out of it, so I’ll usually give in and tell the story. It gets good laughs at parties. We live in Westchester, so the Broadway glamour aspect of it goes over well, until I get to the vomiting part which people find hilarious. Somewhere in the middle of the story, Ben will usually volunteer a phrase like, “Tobias used to be hot as balls back in the day,” or, “Tobias was such a knockout when he was young,” or something equally explanatory and dispiriting. But I smile along with everyone else as they squint at me, trying to imagine my lost looks.
No—I never made it as an actor. The new headshots apparently didn’t do the trick and those “interested” agents passed on me. Then I tore my ACL doing a deadlift and I stopped going to the gym. Eventually, I gained most of the weight back. The tan, of course, had faded by then and my crew cut began to fall out prematurely too. The truth is I was never sufficiently ambitious to succeed in the field, and probably not talented enough either. I went back to school for accounting and now I do the books for the little sporting goods store Ben and I own here in town.
Ben says being a Dad is what I do best though and it’s probably true. As a parent, I’ve had some fine moments, but I suppose it only matters what our kids, Max and Kate, will think when they look back on their childhoods with the benefit of perspective like military historians.
I’m not a complicated person. I believe you get the life you are destined to have and I am grateful for this one. There’s no point in wondering too much about what might have been anyway. However, when Ben gets me to tell the Roger Sample story, it is an edited version. For one thing, Ben thinks I threw up at the bar and not in the cab on my way home with the guy. Ben doesn’t know I was on my way home with the guy. It would make a difference to him. And for comic effect, I usually say that Sample hollered his head off at me and made a big scene after I got sick. But that’s not true either. He was actually, shockingly, quite sympathetic, while I blubbered out apologies and popped some breath mints in my mouth. He never said a word about his ruined suit. The cab driver was furious however and Sample gave the man a $100 bill to calm him down and then we got out of the car and stood around getting some air while I sobered up on the corner of Park and 56th.
Sample took off his suit jacket, which had gotten the worst of it, balled it up and threw it into a nearby trash can. When he thought I was well enough, he flagged down another cab and handed over some more money and told the driver to take me home to Jackson Heights. The last time I saw Roger Sample, if you don’t count watching him pick up a Tony Award on TV a few years ago, he was strolling up Park Avenue toward his apartment.
I figured he told Rich what happened because back at work things were never the same between us. And Rich never asked me to do anything else outside of the office for the rest of the time I was employed there, certainly no invitations to Fire Island, so I didn’t break into any dazzling gay beach crowd. But many years later it occurred to me that maybe Rich didn’t shut down on me because of what happened in the cab, but because he thought I really had hooked up with Sample that night and was jealous of me or of Sample or maybe even the both of us. Who knows?
Obviously, I don’t share any of this when Ben asks me to tell the story. And I don’t mention that I would have traded away a year of my life simply to be alone with Roger Sample that evening or that if I had made it to his apartment I am certain that I would have gladly done anything he asked of me, despite whatever kind of ridiculous sex negotiation I’d been concocting in my inebriated head. And I certainly don’t tell anyone that before Roger Sample put me in the cab home that night I reached my arms around his neck (sober now, thoughts collected) and told him that I’d fallen irretrievably in love with him during the last scene of The Lost Ones and wished more than anything that he would find a way to love me too or else I knew I would never truly get over it. This was something the composer pretended, with great humanity and tact, to not even hear, before he smiled tightly and sent me on my way.