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Big Daddy, Sweet Mama & Road Dog

In May of 1994, my best friend Mike Sweeney and Cheri Oteri plan a trip to Maui, and Mike asks me to join them.  I’m still not making great money, but I wouldn’t miss this for anything.  Mike fronts me the cash for the ticket, and I pay him back in two installments, while also setting aside a little spending money for the week we will spend there.

Mike, who is not simply thrifty, but proudly and almost aggressively thrifty, has secured multiple books of discount tickets and coupons for any and every imaginable tourist activity that is available on such a small island.

It is fortunate that all three of us have been able to secure a week’s vacation at the same time:  Mike from his box office job at the Groundlings theatre, Cheri from her job at A&M Records, and me, of course, from my own at ABC Productions.

We rent a car at the Maui Airport and proceed directly to our hotel, which is actually a condo complex in which we’ve rented a unit.  We got a really great deal on the place, and during the drive we are all mentally preparing ourselves for lackluster accommodations, reassuring each other that we’ll make the best of it because of the great deal it is, money-wise, saying things like “who cares if it sucks? We’ll be spending all our time on the beach anyway”.  We drive past Lahaina, the major resort city on Maui, and each of us tries not to show disappointment as we spy the beautiful resort towers and sculpted white sand beaches littered with tanned, glistening bodies of those more financially fortunate than us.   Our destination is a place called “Napili Bay”, and I can’t help but think it sounds more like someplace in New Jersey than a town in a tropical paradise.  We pay attention to the drive now, fully expecting to be making the trip back to lovely Lahaina on a daily basis, where we will try to blend in with the suntanned better-offs.

Mike is a huge fan of cheesy 60’s and 70’s music, something he and I have in common.   I’m not sure if Cheri enjoys it, but I can tell she is having a blast as we pop in a mix tape I made for the trip and we all sing along – without embarrassment –  to Connie Francis’ “V-A-C-A-T-I-O-N” at the top of our lungs.  The warm, humid air, so different from the dry air of Los Angeles, wafts across our smiling faces as Mike steers the compact rental car, cautious in his curious old-man fashion, up the highway towards this place called Napili.

We are in the middle of a raucous sing-along to the Andrews Sister’s “Hold Tight”….’I want some seafood…MAMA!” when It is upon us suddenly, and a left hand turn into the parking lot reveals what looks like a glorified motor hotel, although it has been garishly decorated to heighten the “Hawaiian” feel.   Once inside the lobby, however, we are suddenly elated.   It isn’t bad at all.  It’s no Four Seasons, but it’s bright, and clean, with polished ceramic tile floors and glossy surfaces.  We allow Mike to check in, because we know from past experience that this will involve negotiating, and possibly the presentation of coupons.  For some reason, coupons and haggling are mortifying to both Cheri and myself.  I can’t speak to Cheri’s embarrassment, but I know mine comes from years of not being able to afford things, growing up avoiding bill collectors, and a general sense of feeling less worthy of the comforts of life than other people.  I don’t even like to haggle in places where it’s expected, like flea markets or garage sales or Tijuana.  Just tell me the fucking price and let me decide whether to buy it or not.

Mike, however, is an exceptional, highly practiced bargainer, and of course somehow manages to get the rate of our room lowered even more than the ridiculously low price we were already paying. So even though Cheri and I have wandered off, feigning absent-mindedness and perusing tourist pamphlets while Mike talks to the desk clerk, we converge on him once he has our keys in hand and congratulate him, in awe of his abilities, knowing the money he just saved us will translate into many more Mai Tai’s than our original budget would have provided.

The room itself, when we reach it, elicits gasps of incredulity.  While hardly spectacular with its standard holiday-inn furnishings, it is large, with a big, clean kitchen, vaulted-ceiling living room, separate bedroom and….best of all…a balcony with an ocean view. Thanks to Mike, we are paying less per night for this room than we would be for a room in a Motel 6 on the mainland.

Napili Bay itself is a small, slightly rocky cove, and it is gorgeous.  Anchored on one end by our condo complex and a much more glamorous Ritz Carlton on the other, is not ideal for swimming because of it’s crags, but for that same reason the beach itself is mostly deserted, and we flop down on the warm sand, watching the orange sun begin to set and firming up our plans for the week.

Again, Mike takes charge. After all, he is the man with the coupons, and Cheri and I fall into line as he maps out our week for us.

We have agreed, beforehand, that we will each choose one activity and that the others will join us in it, regardless of personal reservations.   I have chosen parasailing, having done that on my strange trip to Oahu eight years before.  I can tell Cheri is not altogether pleased with my choice, but she has gamely committed to it in the spirit of solidarity.  Cheri’s choice of activity is to rent mopeds and tour the island.  Mike’s singular passion is to visit the local nude beach.

It feels wonderful, being here with these two people.  I can’t explain it, but around Mike and Cheri, I feel like a different person than I do with others.  With these two, I feel no need to impress.  I can completely shed that constant need to appear physically desirable, I can ignore that voice that is always telling me that I’m not witty enough, that I need to try harder to be funny.  The best thing about being with Mike and Cheri isn’t coming up with amusing things to say, it’s the simple, joyful act of sitting back and listening to these two truly, naturally funny people as they riff off each other. If, and only if, I have something funny to say…I add to the repartee.  I don’t feel judged, I don’t feel like a captive audience the way I do with some other actor or comedian friends. I just feel like me, and it’s comforting, because I don’t feel like me very often.  It’s as if that imaginary camera that follows me around in my mind’s eye has been turned off, and now I’m just kicking back in the green room laughing with friends, between performances of this narcissistic soap opera I call my life.

The moped excursion turns out to be a blast, even though I nearly run head-on into an oncoming car as I wobble unsteadily out of the rental parking lot.  Soon I get my motorized-bike legs, and we putter our little red vehicles all over the island.  We bestow biker names on each other, Mike christened “Big Daddy”, Cheri is now “Sweet Mama” and I proudly embrace my new moniker of “Road Dog”.

The parasailing venture starts out okay, but once we are out on the speedboat, the beautiful blue water stretching out on all sides, the sharp Maui mountains looming in the background, Cheri, with her fear of heights, begins to get cold feet.  I don’t want to say that we actually gang up on her, but Mike and I cajole and coerce her with such enthusiasm that the two guys running the boat begin to join in.

It’s really fun,” Mike and I say to her in unison.

“It’s awesome, you’ll love it!” echo the two tanned, blond parasailing dudes.

Finally, bravely, Cheri acquiesces and we all applaud as she straps herself

into the harness and stands at the back of the boat, waiting to be launched hundreds of feet into the air.  One screech and she is yanked off the boat and into the air by the force of the great billowing sail.   Her expression of terror is soon replaced by the gleeful grin of a three-year old on a  merry-go-round, her white-toothed smile evident to us far below.

Then, the entire sail suddenly pitches downward and to the side, and Cheri goes with it, shrieking with delight at the sudden, surprise movement.  She is so into it, I half-expect her to wave her hands in the air the way the suddenly emboldened do on the second drop of a rollercoaster. Immediately, however, one of the parasailing dudes looks concerned.

“How much does she weigh?” he asks me.

“Um, I don’t know….95 pounds, maybe?” I reply, giving it my best guess.

The two boat operators look at each other, exclaim “fuck!” in unison, and even with those nut-brown tans I can tell they have paled slightly.

“What’s the matter?” I ask, beginning to worry.  “What’s wrong?” echoes Mike, as they thrown the winch thing into reverse and begin reeling her in.


We find out later there’s a minimum weight requirement, and that someone of Cheri’s tiny stature runs the risk of flipping over and crashing to the ocean below.  Clearly, the two boat guys had become so involved in our encouragement cheerleading that they had neglected to ask her weight.  Cheri, upon returning to the deck of the boat, is laughing while complaining that her ride seemed shorter than she had expected.   Mike and I exchange glances, and silently agree, at least for the time being, to let her remain oblivious to the danger she was in.  Later that evening, after a few Mai Tais and Lava Flows in a busy Lahaina tavern, we fill her in.  Our tiny beloved friend safely between us, surrounded by partying locals and tourists, we find it funny.  Okay, not just funny, we find it fucking hilarious, the memory of Cheri smiling ear-to-ear, kicking her legs happily as she cruised the Hawaiian skies strapped to The Orange and Blue Parasail of Imminent Death.

The week speeds by, and not a moment, nor a coupon, is wasted.   We lay out on the beaches, one day driving to one of the fancy hotels where we sneak onto the private beach and illicitly commandeer an unused cabana.  We recline within the striped sanctuary, sucking back sugary raspberry and rum cocktails while noting how grateful we are to be staying in beautiful Napili and away from these great throngs of ostentatious tourists.  One night, we each dress up in the one nice outfit we’ve packed and walk across the sands of Napili Bay to the Ritz, where, coupon accepted, we indulge in an all you can eat seafood buffet.  We stumble home in the moonlight, stuffed to the gills and nearly vomiting from the mass quantities of shrimp and lobster we have tucked away.

Puttin’ on the Ritz (Carlton). Mike had coupons.

We’re there four days when I get a phone call.  It’s a woman named June Beallor.   I had interviewed with her for a job that I considered a long shot, working for Steven Spielberg on some Holocaust documentary project that he was doing in the wake of Schindler’s List. June had worked on “China Beach”, and I’d sought her assistance at one point for a project ABC Productions was considering, and I’d spoken to her a couple of times to get budgeting information.   The project had never gotten off the ground, but June had remembered me and asked me to interview.  Now, she was calling to tell me I had the job, and wanted to know if I could start in two weeks. I am thrilled.  Even though I’m still not exactly sure what the job is, I know it involves interviewing Holocaust survivors, working for the great Spielberg, and that it means I can finally give notice to ABC, where I’d begun to feel stifled after five years of the same work.   I agree to the start date, and Mike, Cheri and I celebrate by attending the lamest luau ever, complete with plastic stackable resin chairs, watered down drinks and traditional Hawaiian dancers going through their hip-swaying motions but whose faces convey all the enthusiasm of DMV employees fifteen minutes from their lunch break. We have a blast anyway.

We return, slightly drunk, from the luau and crash.  There are two flowered couches in the living room, and mike has been sleeping on one, and I on the other.  Cheri, being the girl, has taken the bedroom.   Mike, who has always snored, is particularly hard at it tonight, a fucking adenoidal chainsaw practically rippling my hair with each exhale.  I can only take about fifteen minutes of this before I grab my pillow and knock on the bedroom door.  Cheri, groggy, gives in to my plea for mercy and scooches to one side of the king-size bed.  I crawl into the other side, offer a grateful thank you, and quickly fall asleep to the hypnotic whisper of the ceiling fan.

I dream about Patrick.  We’ve only been on two dates, and the second one of those was spent in an emergency room where I tried for hours to pass a kidney stone while he improvised comedic songs to distract me.  (“The pain you’re in must be heinous / like pushing a bowling ball from your anus”)  I don’t know where it’s going with him, but I know where I want it to go.  I want someone like him, someone different from all the GQ hipster puddle-shallow guys I’ve been dating, someone who makes me laugh, even when I’m in agonizing pain.  In my dream I hold him.  I am lying beside him, caressing him, reaching around, slipping my hand beneath the cups of his bra….

I awake to a scream, and hands slapping at me.

Oh Christ, I realize with a start.  Sometime during the night I have moved up next to Cheri, and have been dry humping and groping her in my sleep.  I am red-faced mortified, and I offer apology after apology, professing my commitment to homosexuality in wave after wave of embarrassed babble.  Gradually, the shock wears off for both of us, and we are able to go back to sleep, but not before Cheri has me retrieve one of the giant padded bolsters from the couch and plant it firmly between us.

Cheri eyes me a little warily the next morning at breakfast at the little gazebo cafe next to the bay, probably trying to figure out if I’m a closeted heterosexual.  Fortunately for no one except myself, we hear on the news that Jackie Kennedy Onassis has just died, and this sad and shocking information provides ample distraction from the groping situation. We gather in front of the television with cocktails Mike has made to watch the endless coverage of her death.

Of the three activities we have each promised the others we would do, only Mike’s request is still outstanding.  We’ve put it off as long as we could, hoping that it might slip by unnoticed, but when Friday rolls around Mike makes the announcement that makes our blood run cool even in the tropical heat:  It’s nude beach time.

Little Makena Beach, as it is called by the locals, is accessed by hiking over an outcropping of rock from the clothing-required side, and back down onto a small crescent of palm lined beach.  The climb up and over isn’t too bad, although I have to stop periodically and help Cheri up in some places.  Mike has a slightly more difficult time, burdened as he is by both the traction-less flip-flops he is wearing and the giant silver inflatable pool raft he has stubbornly insisted on bringing along.

“Who brings a pool raft to a nude beach?” Cheri asked him, but the question was immediately rendered rhetorical, because before Cheri and I can spread our towels out and get our fully-clothed selves comfortable, Mike has already stripped bare and is blowing up the huge air mattress.

We settle down into the sand and watch our pink-skinned, slightly pudgy friend run bare-assed into the waves and fling himself onto the totally out-of-place raft and paddle out into the bay.

Cheri and I look at each other, laughing at our friend’s bravado. Low on the beach, we watch Mike’s bare white ass as it rises up on each swell, then briefly disappears in the trough of the wave.  Wave, ass, wave, ass.  Several other nude bathers seem a little amused by the site as well, but soon lose interest.

Cheri and I finally strip, but only down to our bathing suits, the only two such items of clothing in evidence on the entire beach.  Normally, I’d have no problem going nude, but for some reason it feels inappropriate to do so with Cheri, who I’ve begun to feel a very sibling-like affection for.  Also, after the groping incident the previous night, I’m not about to do anything that even remotely smacks of the sexual.

Mike floats in the ocean for what seems like almost an hour, and when he returns, standing over us smiling, exhilarated, dripping wet, it is obvious that his barely-pigmented Irish skin is deeply sunburned.

That image of my wonderful friend, backlit by the bright Hawaiian sun, bushy eyebrows playing host to shimmering droplets of sea water, is one that is frozen like a snapshot in my memory.  The vacation ends the next day, and we will return to our real lives.  So many changes are waiting for us as we drive back to the airport, relaxed, happy. We are still young, relatively carefree, and completely oblivious to what is waiting for us in Los Angeles.   The Spielberg job will jumpstart my career, and I will travel the world in as Global Director of Production for this prestigious and personally rewarding project. I will begin living my life with Patrick, the man I have essentially stalked for a year.  Cheri will begin getting acting jobs and quickly achieve a level of notoriety that no one, not even Mike and I…her biggest cheerleaders….could have predicted.

Of the three straws that the capricious universe will offer us in it’s giant fist, only our funny, wonderful friend Mike will draw a short one.


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