"Happy Birthday, Cher" by James Cihlar

James Cihlar

James Cihlar

James Cihlar's most recent poetry book,  The Shadowgraph, came out from the University of New Mexico Press in 2020. His previous books are  Rancho Nostalgia and Undoing. His poetry chapbooks include What My Family Used, A Conversation with My Imaginary Daughter, and Metaphysical Bailout. He earned his MA and PhD at the University of Nebraska—Lincoln, and his BA at the University of Iowa. His writing has appeared in The American Poetry Review, The Threepenny Review, Lambda Literary Review, Prairie Schooner, Nimrod, and Smartish Pace.

Happy Birthday, Cher

As children, the number of hours my sisters and I logged in front of the TV watching you far outnumbers your age, I know. Recently my eldest sister sent me a photo of you on stage, having finally seen you in person on your latest final tour. I always loved your entrances on your eponymous show, the one you hosted on your own after your divorce. You appeared in a Bob Mackie confection, torching up a song until an up-tempo beat emerged and you shed half your clothes while promenading on a thrust stage.

In 1996 you guested on David Letterman, singing “One by One” from your new CD. I worked in publishing then, a big company in a small town where, unfortunately, I learned pure isolation. Dislocated in a corporate complex, editing on screen while Muzak played, weird flashes of pentimento ran on a parallel track. This is my hell, a string of memories only I can’t forget. Twenty-five years could be an hour ago. The middle child, I was always the sensitive one in the family, the artistic one, for a while my mother’s favorite, because she knew what it was like. She was praised as a kid for her artistic talent, too; she was squeamish about food, too. She told me once that if she saw a guy with a rubber band around his arm, she couldn’t eat a meal, the image of bound flesh turned her stomach.

On my eleventh birthday, my mother tried her best. After a tense visit to the VA hospital to visit her ex, my dad, I walked into our house crying to see she had arranged to have four of the boys from my school waiting for a surprise party. She didn’t know that these were the same friends who also sometimes bullied me for being queer. We played a game of tag on the open balconies of the apartment complex next door, while dialogue from Mod Squad floated through the open windows.

At work, the Muzak track played over and over, until I thought, wait, I know that voice, it’s Cher. And on another song, Peter Cetera, the lead singer from the band Chicago, whose poster my mother had on her apartment wall after the divorce. Even though I lived surrounded by trees in a cottage on an idyllic lake, my escape back then was heading into the nearest town. In the music section of Target, I looked for a tape of your latest, It’s a Man’s World, and heard two cute little girls happily chirping Peter Cetera, Peter Cetera to their mother, excited to buy his album. I was so lonely then I would drive nearly three-hundred miles to visit my nearest friends—shout out to Linda and Bruce!—for a weekend of sanity and human companionship, fried chicken and movies, board games and cats.

I knew Linda from college, where we worked in the hospital school’s cafeteria together. Our job was to carry food trays to med students at their tables. Two blue-collar kids in the century’s most capitalist decade, the one when you won an Oscar for Silkwood. I lived then in a converted house where my apartment was the room behind the old living room—a fireplace breast protruded in a smooth expanse of plaster, the perfect backdrop for performance. When my sister stayed a summer, she took photos of me leaping in the air, a light at my feet. Before that, I posed in front while singing along to show tunes on my Walkman—Barbra in Funny Girl, Liza in New York, New York, no, unfortunately not you, although wouldn’t that have been perfect?—bowing when the recorded applause played.

On Letterman, you said when you’re just starting out you’re stupid and you do stupid things, but you learn. You once called him an asshole on TV, and you were right. This is your opinion, you told Letterman, and who are you? You’re just Cher. You kissed him on the mouth and he pinched your ass. Two fifty-year-olds clowning like kids.

We’ve cried at funerals, we’ve dressed inappropriately, we’ve feuded with family. We’ve always bet the next big thing is still ahead. Happy birthday, Cher. In my heaven, all my childhood TV shows are still on the air, all the characters showing their age but still doing the same act.