This piece was first developed with 2nd Story.
I’m sitting in a navy blue sedan, across the street from Danny’s – the bar – and it is hot. Humid. Sticky.
The air full of something that manages to smell like both brownies and piss at the same time. The kind of air that, no matter how many times you shower, leaves you with a thick layer of sweat and dirt that never seems to go away. My thighs are sticking to the seat but I’m too self conscious to move them in fear of making an awkward noise.
I’m on a date.
With a poet.
I meet Leo in school. He’s a guest speaker in my Freud and 20th Century Arts class. He shares his poetry and the moment he speaks his first line, I’m entranced:
I will be destroyed by a 17 year old girl.
I’m 22, but that still sounds like a dare. I was a bored acting major at Columbia College with a fully realized problem with authority figures. I was tired of playing animals and maids and slaves. I craved any type of outside influence and Leo was more than willing to give it.
At the end of his lesson he jokingly asks us to facebook him if we dug his work. I do and this begins our “relationship” which is played out over messages, e-mails and texts. Each one getting more and more flirtatious and challenging:
June 18th, 1:47pm:
I do have this sense that you and I “rhyme” in a weird way that’s coming out in this gabbagabba & I love it, but you’re somehow resistant to it. Speak to that.
June 18th, 2:03pm:
I’m intrigued and captivated and maybe a bit disturbed. Not resistant at all. In Fact
Fully inebriated by it. Speak to that … if you feel inclined.
June 18th, 2:07pm:
“Fully inebriated by it” – I like the sound of that. So this exchange is doing it for you? Ha me too.
Four weeks later I accompany him to a poetry reading that his live-in girlfriend of 15 years can’t attend.
He tells me that she, Lydia, can’t join him and asks if I would do him the pleasure of being his date.
I should mention that I don’t like Lydia. I don’t even like the name Lydia. I’ve never met her but I’ve read poems about her and I know she’s his muse and when I YouTube’d him, which I did – I YouTube’d him – when I YouTube’d him, I saw videos of her watching him as if he was a God among ants. And he was hers.
So I say yes.
After telling my disapproving roommate my plan for the night, I jump on the Damen bus and meet him at Danny’s.
Leo does not look his age. He’s got tan skin and beady little espresso like eyes. A head full of dark waves. He’s tall with broad shoulders and wears shirts with the first couple of buttons undone. Little sprouts of hair peeking out. He has a younger spirit, it’s mischievous and dangerous in all the most cliche ways one can be dangerous and not a murderer.
I feel good standing next to him. Full. More womanly. I think together we make a good looking, dangerous couple. He agrees.
We sit together and listen to three poets do their thing. Leo is unimpressed.
“Lazy,” he calls them, rolling his eyes at the man reading a piece I can only assume Leo has heard before.
“Typical,” he whispers when the next poet finishes with a rather ambiguous ending.
I thought the last one was pretty good but I couldn’t articulate why and I didn’t want to look like a novice in public. Through phone calls, I’d jump at the chance to disagree just for the sake of disagreeing with Leo. He’d call me “proud and tough and brassy and self sufficient” but that was in the safety of my room. In front of his colleagues, I couldn’t hide my age.
“That was tragic,” he says after the reading is done, his hand on the small of my back guiding me out the bar.
We sit in his car for a bit, his hand on my thigh, not saying anything. I’m relieved that it’s night time right now because he can’t see me blushing. I open my mouth to ask him why Lydia couldn’t join him but before I can scrape the words out he interrupts:
“Hey, promise me: whatever you make out of us, make it good. I wanna sit in an audience and say to the people to my left and right: Eat it, you two! She’s talking about me!”
“And Lydia’s busy,” he finishes.
I roll my eyes.
“Look, she knows I’m here,” he says – smirking. “But if I told her that some hot 20 something black actress is considering whether or not she wants to fuck me while we listen to sub par men wax poetically about their mommy issues, it would drive her up the wall. Why do that? She means too much to me.”
I stare at him for a moment, then:
“You think I’m hot?”
We drive to a nearby Mediterranean place. He orders for me and begins talking animatedly about the high school girls he tutors for the SATs. He calls them his Emilys and Maggies. My mind wanders to the things I would do to be able to spend 2 hours alone with Leo, every day, his hand on my arm, peering over my shoulder as I purposefully struggle with my math work. He’d whisper the steps to the equation and I’d lose my train of thought, feeling his hot breath on the side of my cheek and all of a sudden I’d feel light headed. I realize I’m in the middle of my daydream when I hear Leo mutter:
“They are all so disgustingly clingy.”
In between our hummus and chicken shawarma, I wonder if he talks this way to Lydia about me.
There’s a lull and I ask him, confidently:
“Don’t you think this is kinda inappropriate?”
“What?” He asks, his eyes twinkling.
“This. Going out without telling Lydia. All of those letters we’ve wrote to each other.”
He eats a bit more, slowly tearing his pita bread and dipping it into the hummus. He hasn’t broken eye contact with me. I stop eating and drop my gaze. He intimidates me. Smart men always have.
“Our relationship isn’t normal, but who made you the normalcy cop anyway? You don’t gently bite my neck, I don’t gently bite yours … we’re not doing anything wrong.”
He’s right. We haven’t. But we want to. Or at least, I want to. I’m pretty sure he wants to. We’ve written pretty vividly the things we wish we could do to each other. Silent wishes of kisses on shoulders and breasts and detailed plans of running away together … to Pilsen. We’d stay in a modest studio with exposed brick on the inside and turquoise painted walls on the outside. He’d write monologues for me and I’d perform them only for him, and maybe a few fucked up friends who were too wrapped up in their own affairs to be bothered by ours.
Every day would be a passionate fight, brought on by a character flaw he points out while we sip coffee with cinnamon and chocolate on the wood floor surrounded by papers and journals of late writing sessions we had the night before. It was all so clear.
But we don’t.The next few weeks are full of more of the same. We still haven’t been physical but I feel mind and soul, royally and morally fucked. I tell Leo I want to call it off:
This is not good. I do not feel good. And since I’m sure nothing will happen I don’t see what the point is in dragging this out. So. I don’t think we should talk anymore.
When I finish, he pauses. I can feel him smirking through the phone. He says I’m being unreasonable, reactionary, crazy even. 20 minutes later he has me convinced and I don’t know how I got here. I used to be able to flutter between guys, gaining pieces of themselves and choosing which pieces of myself I gave away. With Leo, I released them instinctively and couldn’t tell which pieces were gone until he’d throw them back, dressed in rhyme and metaphor.
3 months of the same thing goes by and I have a novel of e-mails, his manuscript of poetry and a newly realized obsession. I am obsessed with Leo. All I do is think about him and hope he thinks about me. When I’m in rehearsals, I’m no where near present and all of my conversations with my friends sound like “Well Leo said …” or “Leo thinks …” and “Leo and I …” He challenges me to write more, to stay in and write back and forth with him so when my friends invite me to go dancing on the sweaty floor of Berlin on a Thursday night, I just say “I’m kind over that scene, ya kno?”
I stay at home, barricaded in my bedroom with my laptop on my stomach-trying to outwit him. Sometimes I do. It’s rare, but when it happens, he gives me praise:
“Look at this thing, Sam. It glitters with nifty English”.
I write more, asking him to explain himself, to explain us and what that could be.
“Ask me more questions”, he begs “make me be clearer, lure me away from my work, kid.”
‘Kid’ – I eat that shit up. He acts as though he needs my criticisms, my insight, me – its intoxicating. The conversations I do have outside of Leo seem so frivolous, so light. Leo has a simple answer to that:
“They’re not part of our Tribe, Sam. You and I, we live helplessly in a fantasy of our own specialness”.
I get it. Without him saying another word. I get it and it’s starting to chip away at me. The way we talk about ourselves, like our relationship is the only unique and complex one in the world – it’s tricky. There are days that I want him to be my lover or my father, I’m never sure. The more comfortable we get with each other the more we start picking at our flaws and long conversations of flowery verses have quickly transformed into combative words used to highlight our personal shortcomings as artists, as humans. I don’t stop myself from challenging his relationship with Lydia and he doesn’t hesitate to check me on my self-righteousness.
It’s starting to sting.
We decide to meet up at Montrose beach at 2 in the morning to talk one day in late August. It’s empty and I can’t remember the last time I had been at the lake this early without friends, booze and the fear of getting caught by the cops. I sit next to him, listening as he reads some of his new stuff. He tells me he’s finished the first draft of his play, the first time he’s ever dabbled in theatre.
About what, I ask. I’m pleased that I’ve inspired him to go outside his comfort zone.
About a 22 year old girl who’s obsessed with a 42 year old man. A poet. She’s disdainful of her youth and slyly disdainful of her poet. Self-righteous yet so obviously desperate for attention and acceptance.
I’m quiet for a moment. Taking the view in silence. By this time, the sun is starting to come out. This vibrant red line is rising and a circle is forming and for a second, I have this fleeting thought of how I’ve never seen that before. And how beautiful. In the most cliche way, beautiful.
I think of one of his poems, the one that grabbed me so fiercely that afternoon 4 months prior, it ended with this:
She says she’s never felt this way before. Get over yourself Leo, she’s 17. She’s never felt any way before.
I stare at him and then look back out at this beautiful sunrise and I can’t believe I’m here with him. This practically married man. This poet. This … dude, I’ve put on a pedestal.
The sun’s up. Fully. It’s harsh and my hands suddenly feel really cold. He sighs. He kisses my cheek. It’s the first time he’s ever done that. It’s dry. Slow. Calculated, even. I can feel him retreat into my mind and start to lock doors with his words behind them…for now. When I finally look up at him to let him know that it’s ok, I’m actually really ok, I’m actually already over it: he’s leaving. He’s walking away. He’s already gone. I look out at the lake and I feel … nothing. So I breathe, and I think of Pilsen.
Sam Bailey is an actor and writer from Chicago. She attended Columbia College and is a graduate of The School at Steppenwolf. She has worked with many theater companies around the city including The Gift, ATC, and Strawdog Theatre. Her written work has been seen on live lit stages like The Paper Machete, 2nd Story and Guts & Glory. She is the creator of the upcoming ‘You’re So Talented’ which was just named as a Web Series to Watch by Chicago Magazine.