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Meet Roger Webber

July 4, 1988

With one big breath, Roger Webber blew out the thirty candles on his birthday cake.  His two roommates, Roland and Ned, cheered and clapped.

“What did you wish for?” Ned asked.

“I can’t tell or it won’t come true,” Roger said  He was too embarrassed to admit that he’d wished to be thirty pounds lighter, to have a place of his own, to be starring on the London stage, to have a handsome boyfriend and to have the love of his father and brothers.  It was a pathetic and ridiculously unrealistic list.  He would be lucky if he could stop gaining weight, let alone lose a pound.

“More champagne?” Roland asked.  He was a tall, slender redhead with long fingers and a puckish smile.

“Sure.  I’m only thirty once.  It’s all downhill from here.”  Roger offered up his glass.  They were on their third bottle of cheap sparkling wine.

As he was pouring, Roland asked, “You know what I think we should do to celebrate?  We should dress up and enter the drag contest down at the Manhole.”

Roger groaned.  “Not on my birthday.”  He took a big swig of bubbly.

“I think that’s a fabulous idea,” Ned said.  He was a chubby young man with a shaved head and a pug nose.  I’m in a Sophie Tucker mood tonight.”

“I’m thinking Liza,” Roland said as he sat down and helped himself to the coconut cake.

“Must we?” Roger asked.  “I was thinking naked men dancing on a pole would be more fun.”

“Oooh.”  Ned shivered.  “Strippers make me nervous.  I like Roland’s idea.  We’ll have much more fun in drag.  And who knows?  You might win.  Then you could pay for a private lap dance.”

“I’d never pay for it,” Roger said.  “But I could use the cash.”

Roger had been living with Roland and Ned since his mother had kicked him out.  Six months after he had arrived in Toronto from London, she had caught him smoking pot in his room.  His sister, Elaine, had managed to patch things up between them, but Bernice did not want him back in the house.  “You’re almost twenty-five,” she had said.  “You shouldn’t be living with your mother.”

Up to that point, Roger had been unemployed.  Forced into the workforce, he had found a job as a waiter at The Cloud Room, an upscale restaurant at the top of one of Toronto’s tallest buildings.  Roland and Ned were actor/waiters, too.  Roger had met them at an audition for a punk rock version of A Little Night Music put on by the Snakepit Theatre Troupe.  Roger had landed the part of Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, and Ned had been selected to play Madame Leonora Armfeldt.  It had been Roger’s first acting job in Toronto, and he had been thrilled.  He had thought he was finally on his way.  But then Stephen Sondheim’s lawyers had shut down the show after the second week for copyright infringement and defamation.  In the next three years, he had managed to pick up small parts in neighborhood theatres, but nothing had topped his reviews for Count Malcolm.

One of the benefits of working at a fancy restaurant was that, at the end of the night, there were often some tasty dishes that would go to waste unless the staff filled their plates.  The venison and veal were even better with vintage wine from half-empty bottles abandoned by diners who’d pickled themselves with too many aperitifs.  The rich food and fine wine had soothed Roger’s depression, but it had begun to collect around his midriff.  In the last couple years, he had been losing parts because he was too “thick” or “beefy” as some casting directors had put it.

He’d landed in Toronto with a firm determination to find himself a boyfriend.  Tall and handsome, he’d had some luck at first, but none of the relationships had lasted.  “I need someone to complete me,” he had told his sister Elaine.  But none of the men he had met had been willing to complete him, or fix him or put up with his baggage.  As he would tell anyone who would listen, he had grown up in Cape Town, South Africa, the son of Piet and Bernice Webber.  They had adopted him because they had thought they could not have children.  And then they had proceeded to have three children, Dirk, Claus and Elaine.  Piet had been a wife-beating, racist cop, and Bernice had begun treating Roger like another woman’s child once she had learned she was pregnant with Dirk.  His brothers were blonde bulldogs like their father and would have nothing to do with skinny, dark, sensitive Roger.  Only Elaine would listen to him.  In high school, drama club had been his escape from reality.  And with a scholarship to Cambridge University, he had fled Cape Town, never to return.  After he came out, his father had disowned him and his brothers had refused to speak to him.  When Roger’s acting career had faltered in London and Bernice finally had divorced Piet and moved to Toronto with Elaine, Roger had joined them, broke and broken.

Drag had been a strictly private indulgence for Roger.  He had jammed a second hand dressing table into his small bedroom and, when he was alone on a night off, he’d perch on the edge of the bench, lean forward and apply his eyeliner.  It was a skill he’d picked up at Cambridge, where the British boys did drag revues at least once a term.  He’d taped one of his London head shots in the upper left hand corner of the dressing table mirror and would gaze up at it from time to time as he transformed himself.  When he put on his wig, he’d look up at the photo and say, “Don’t worry, Roger.  This is just for fun.  Soon, we’ll be out this rat hole and on our way back to London.”

One night, he’d forgotten to lock his door and Roland had walked in as he was lip-synching Hello Dolly.

“Carol, darling, you look fantastic,” Roland had said.

Roger, in a dynel blonde wig and white sequins, had curtsied and said “Why thank you, kind sir.”

At the Manhole, the night of his thirtieth birthday, Roger was the last act.  He stepped out from behind the shiny gold curtain into the spotlight wearing a large curly red wig and a low cut green satin dress, the bodice of which was filled with every sock he owned.  He was the third and tallest Bette Midler of the night.  Unlike the other contestants, he’d asked to perform a cappella.

When he started to sing in Bette’s husky, soulful style, the bar went quiet.  “She was forty-one and her daddy still called her baby.  Everyone in Brownsville thinks she’s crazy.”

Cheers and whistles went up from the crowd, and the applause swelled, allowing Bette to take a dramatic pause and acknowledge her people.  Roger continued with the heart-wrenching story of the once beautiful woman who for decades had carried her suitcase down to the train station each day to wait for a mysterious dark-haired stranger, a man of low degree who had promised to take her as his bride.

When he reached the chorus, the entire bar was singing with him, “Delta Dawn, what’s that flower you have on?  Could it be a faded rose from days gone by?”

Roger gathered confidence with each phrase and stretched each note for maximum effect.  Every man in the bar was watching him and he knew he owned the room.  A rush of emotion made him choke up momentarily.  All of which came off as the perfect dramatic effect for the rockabilly sonnet.  By the time he hit the final refrain, “He’s gonna take you to his mansion in the sky,” he was drowned out by cheers and applause that lasted until he agreed to an encore from the Divine Miss M, with an eerie rendition of Do You Want to Dance?.

Not only did he win the two hundred dollar cash prize, but he kissed and hugged scores of men that night, many of whom bought him drinks to celebrate his victory and his birthday.  When he awoke in his bed the next afternoon, he discovered that he’d lost his wig and most of his socks.  He thought about sitting up to unzip his satin dress, but his head was pounding too severely to allow him to move.  In the dressing table mirror, he could see himself, mascara smeared and lipstick uneven.  Despite the pain and dishevelment, he smiled.

“You’re a star, Roger.  You’re a star.”