She died a few weeks ago and was laid to rest the following Saturday.
While it’s a shame when any friend or family member passes on, the fact is she left us while she was still young. She had many more years of sowing oats ahead of her. I think (but am not sure) that she was in her early thirties at most.
Penny* was a hard nut to crack. I first saw her in my improv comedy class some years ago. She was a tiny thing who tended not to say much.
I couldn’t get a read on her: maybe she was just naturally introverted; maybe she disliked me; maybe she didn’t like men in general. I wasn’t sure. Funny how that works: how quiet people are often misinterpreted as anti-social. I’d seen that happen a few times before with other shy people, so was loathe to make assumptions about her. She remained, for me, somewhat of a question mark.
Another friend, Lisa* (who was married at the time), invited me into their small gang. All of them were in the same improv class as I was, and all of them were hilarious and friendly. Penny was part of the group too.
Maybe back then I had a natural need to make people warm up to me. I was usually successful too: all it took was reading them to find out what makes them tick, and then finding something in common. Often, humour worked for me. For some reason, it just never worked with Penny. It bugged me a little bit – but only because I wasn’t sure if she hated me, or just tolerated me or what. I had to try and stop guessing and stop trying to figure her out.
The main reason I enjoyed being in our little improv gang, actually, was that I couldn’t read any of them. Not at all. This usually meant they were self-aware, typically self-confident, and curious as hell about the world. That described the gang perfectly.
The corporate training man in our group, who had the same name as me – Wolf* – was friendly, gregarious and welcoming. He could switch on a dime though. I was certain of that.
I remember going with the gang to his huge condo in Toronto after improv class one night. We were joking and having a good time, and, needing to say something I blurted out something about pot.
“Well we have some” someone said.
“Yeah, maybe we should smoke up.”
I looked around at them, thinking. Finally: “I’ve never done it”
Everyone’s eyes widened with disbelief. Including Penny’s.
Wolf said “you haven’t? Wow. Really? Not once in all your life?”
“Never” I said. “I grew up as a religious guy all during my teens. Didn’t even drink back then.”
“Well we need to get you going then. Do you want to try it?”
I did, and said so. I could tell they were pleased.
Someone lit up a joint, and we passed it all around. I coughed.
Lisa said “that’s good. That means it’s working.”
The only sensation I got was a sore throat.
“It’s not working” I said. “I feel the same”
Wolf replied “well that often happens with the first toke.”
Penny said “next time you puff, trying holding it in longer”
I nodded, happy that she was talking to me.
Wolf blurted “oh my God! We have to get you some munchies!”
And with that, he jumped up and opened up his cupboards, looking for some snacks.
“Here. Try some Doritos”.
I took a chip, obedient to the core. I wasn’t actually hungry but didn’t want to destroy any illusions.
Penny laughed. I grinned.
Ever afterward, I joined them after improv class, and we went on some typical late night adventures.
Once, we went to a Vietnamese restaurant at 3:00 in the morning to have some soup. None of the servers seemed to speak English, so we ordered off the menu according to the number assigned to each dish.
Another time, we all went to a strip club. Wolf bought a VIP lap dance for Lisa. After she went to the VIP lounge, Wolf said “let’s go watch!” And so we did. I can’t recall if Penny was there. It seems likely that she was.
I recall the bunch of us going up to the roof of Wolf’s condo late one night after improv class, and looking up at the stars. This was the first time that pot had a negative effect. I looked at the edge of roof and had the sudden thought that they could so easily push me over it, if they wanted. My paranoid brain thought “why wouldn’t they? It’d be a perfect crime. No one knows I’m here.” I got nervous, and couldn’t wait to go back to his condo apartment.
In later weeks, I only recall Penny and I doing an improv routine together just once. We were playing a couple of friends who were riding the subway while standing. Subways tend to shake a bit, so we had to shake to create the illusion. Penny looked at me and said “nice tits”.
This was so unexpected that I broke character. Near as I could tell, though overweight I had yet to develop man-breasts. She had triggered my Achilles Heel. I looked down. I forget what I said, but just remember that it was lame. What I should have said was “I just had them done. You like?” And then I should have put one of her hands on my chest. “Here. Feel.”
Penny invited a few of us over to her place after class. I knew I was finally on her approved list when she said to me “listen, I know you commute into Toronto every day. How would you like to room here with us instead?” I was honestly taken aback and so grateful that she asked.
“Um, thank you!” I said. “I’ll have to think it through, figure it out. How are you guys with cats? I have two of them”
“Oh” she said, looking at her roommate. “That might not work. Jake* is allergic.”
“Well, thanks so much for the offer!” I said. I was truly grateful and touched that she even asked.
“What are your cats’ names?” she asked.
I smirked. “Um, well one’s named Princess”.
We all laughed.
“You’re not going to believe the name of the second one” I said, through my tears.
Wiping her eyes, Penny asked “so who named them? Your wife?”
“No……” I began. “Uh.”
“Not you” she said, incredulous.
The laughter increased once again. I have no idea why it was so funny, even though I smile now, remembering it.
Once, when I moved into my small apartment in Oshawa after separating from my wife, I invited the gang in for a house-warming party. Wolf brought his girlfriend, and Lisa and Penny came too.
While waiting on the pizza delivery, Penny checked out the books on my bookshelf. I was a little embarrassed, as some of them were swords and sorcery novels. I noticed her smiling.
We plowed into the pizza and got some beer going. All night long we laughed and talked about everything. I don’t know what it was: there were no egos involved, no holding back on anything. We were free with each other. That little group of ours was magic to me. I’ve never grown quite so close to a group of people as I did to them.
The improv classes ended, and we all drifted apart, as friends sometimes do.
I heard that Penny had changed her name and had gone into standup.
Lisa did some standup too, right before she traipsed on down to California to break into the acting world there. She eventually came back to Canada and we became Facebook friends.
I was shocked when Lisa messaged me one day a few years later and said “Penny died yesterday”.
It was a death through illness. And it was a ripoff to the world.
Damn it. It should not have happened.
*all names have been changed, as per usual