The Landlord's Daughter, Part I
Updated: Mar 8
Never date a man you meet while wearing full stage makeup: that was the wisdom I'd acquired thus far in my young career. Or at least, I had casually intended to have learned in my 25 years, but everyone knows how well people of that age stick with their laurels. People react to you differently when you're heavily made up. They make incorrect assumptions, conduct themselves by a looser set of rules - and in general, treat you with subtle disrespect. Except, of course, when one is actually working the stage - then you are treated as divinity on Earth, sent down to bless Her humble inhabitants, and you are worshipped accordingly.
On this particular night, whereupon I gravely regretted abandoning my conviction, my band opened up for a Motown tribute act at a beach club in Raleigh. As soon as the gig was over, the rest of my roommates were going to pile into my car and head to the beach. One problem, however, was that none of my roommates wanted to come to this gig, to save me the trouble of driving back home to pick them up before leaving. Oh, how the trajectory of my entire adult life would've been different if only they had joined me at the beach club on that night - May the 12th, 2011.
My roommates and I called ourselves the Muses, and we were a group of three ladies rooming together in a town home, developing our own careers in different veins of the Arts. Marian the theatre major, and myself, the musician "young professional", were renting from Priscilla the art major, who's parents owned the townhouse. I had found the vacant room on Craig's List when I first moved to Raleigh, which was upon my return from studying opera in Austria, while simultaneously escaping an unsafe relationship. I could not have found a better living situation for myself if I'd tried - affordable rent in a new building, with two other souls completely kindred to my own. All our artistic endeavors supported the others. We were alike enough to understand, but different enough to not be competitive. I almost instantly found myself with two new best friends in our miniature Fine Arts commune.
But that night, the Muses were being less supportive of me. I sat there all alone, at the front of the house next to the dance floor, running the spotlight. My band's set was over and I was making myself useful for the Motown act, as I passed the time until my bandleader would hand out tonight's pay cut, and leave. It was a slow night, and I alternated between watching a handful of dancers practicing collegiate shag, while staring listlessly ahead. I desperately wanted to wash the makeup off and change into comfortable clothes, but I dutifully manned my post and aimed the spot at my colleagues when they hopped off the stage to lure people onto the floor.
Suddenly, a group of college kids walked in, and onto the dance floor as a herd, while I manned my post. How strange it was to see them there, amidst all the Baby Boomers that otherwise exclusively populated this nightclub -- and clearly many of these kids weren't even of legal drinking age. Who knew this club would be a hangout spot for the state university...?
They immediately broke into random pairs, joined the shaggers, and held their own. One particularly tall young man dominated the scene, and danced with a proficiency beyond his years. I gawked from behind the spotlight in envy, discreetly rolling up the cuffs on my pants in hopes that they'd notice I was a dancer too, because I was wearing ballroom shoes for the choreography that was required during my earlier performance. When there are excellent partner dancers in the house, I absolutely must participate. I'm a trained dancer too, I'm regularly practiced, and there is nothing in the world that brings me more joy.
I was noticed by the herd, but perhaps not for the reasons I'd hoped. I was being stared at inconspicuously -- who was that strange younger woman alone behind the sound board, dressed to the nines and made up enough to work the red light district, just to be operating a spotlight? -- they seemed to think.
How could I break the ice? All I wanted to do was dance. If I could catch one lead's eye, and communicate nonverbally the desire to share a song, the way that only true dancers know how, it could snowball from there. I sat straighter on my stool, and angled my body towards them.
I waited, and watched, and waited. My heart was sinking. The beginner dancers were starting to tire, and one by one the group migrated towards their seats at the edge of the floor. The tall one, however, was still going strong, and perhaps was looking for some "fresh meat" (as dancers jokingly refer to other dancers who arrive fresh and energetic to an event that has already been going on for a while, when everyone who'd been there from the beginning is wearing out).
I stood up. He noticed, but avoided eye contact. A new song started, and I took a step towards the group. He turned away. No one else was looking for a partner, so he kept turning slowly back around. By then I had him cornered.
"Would you like to dance?" he asked, charming yet skeptical of my suitability as a partner.
"Yes please," I took his hand. The entire group put down their sodas, stopped their conversations, and observed apprehensively.
He moved me through the basics first, as any experienced lead does with a new follow. I passed inspection. A few turn sequences went satisfactorily, so he subdivided the rhythm of the music differently with footwork. I aced the test, so he began improvising. He lead confidently with pressure from his middle finger, so all communication was precise -- and we just clicked. He was the right height for me, even with my three inch heels I was only up to his chin. Faster and faster, close embrace to open, round and about, on the beat then off...until everyone in the building stopped to watch us discover undeniably profound dance chemistry.
"Do you have a bellybutton ring?" he shouted in my ear, grinning widely as he lead me closer.
"A BELLYBUTTON RING?"
I smirked, shook my head, and said, "No..."
"OK great!" he exclaimed as he bent down to my thighs, grabbed me around the hips, and flipped me headfirst over his shoulder, landing me square on my feet on the floor behind him. I screamed bloody murder in complete and utter fright, all 360 degrees around.
He spun back to face me with artistic flair to resume dancing, but I grabbed his arms in a lock hold as I recovered from my terror. I'm what is referred to in the dance community as "not an aerial", meaning that I generally don't get lifted off the floor, let alone over someone's head, because I'm so tall and big-boned. He laughed sheepishly when he saw how ill-prepared I was for a flip, which grew contagious. Apparently that was his signature move, and his posse guffawed as if they'd seen this reaction in many unsuspecting women he'd tossed through the air all willy-nilly.
As I laughed it off with the rest of the crowd, we danced through the end of the tune. It is customary in most social dancing to switch partners after every song. Dancing two in a row with the same partner implies certain things (wink wink), and unless the partners know each other extremely well, you part ways as a courtesy, and might dance again a few songs later. We hugged each other incredulously, and giggled as we exchanged our names in true dancer fashion: only after we’d first shared an uncommonly intense connection.
"Hi, I'm Jess."
"Nice to meet you, I'm Paul."
My phone woke me the next morning. I rolled over to find myself tucked in on the floor of my friend's beach-front double-wide, surrounded by the rest of the Muses in their respective sleeping bags. I grabbed my beloved Samsung Juke and silenced it before it woke anyone else.
Text messages by the dozen, from Paul the Dancer the night before, were ringing off the hook. We had danced a few more times, hit it off quite well, and exchanged numbers with the commitment to dance together again, as often as possible. The Muses really missed a good time last night, I thought. Real dancing to old school music with boys their age is exactly what they'd consider a fun night out. If only they had listened...
But now I had this young dude texting me lavishly, talking about everything from our world views to my plans for the beach. He was very cute and charismatic, there was no denying, and extremely mature and articulate for a man who was obviously younger than me. How much younger, though, I could not figure out. At least it was nice to have someone cool crushing on me, for a change. Don't start dating, you were wearing stage makeup.... My rule fluttered through my mind and out one ear, as I enthusiastically responded to his texts.
My day at the beach was cropped short when I had to abandon the fun with Priscilla and Marian to doll up for tonight's gig, this time with a different band. Tonight we were headlining at my favorite venue, The Emerald Club, with a four hour show. A venti latte was definitely in order for two gigs in a row.
The caffeine worked, because I had a blast singing the night away, and sawing my fiddle in half for enthusiastic drunk beach goers. But tonight was even better with the Muses in the house. Between the three of us, we owned that club. People still too sober to line dance to Copperhead Road? No problem: we have a petite, spritely raven-haired firecracker who's capable of engaging anyone in active conversation; or we have a green-eyed-ballarina-bodied blonde who'll tell you corny jokes until you crack; or we have a tall, porn-star built brunette fronting the band -- what's your pleasure? Everyone's invited, let's get out on that dance floor and WERK.
There was no air conditioning in that club. Mascara melted off our faces as hairspray surrendered its hold and let strands fly into the stratosphere, and by last call we could've hosted a "sweat" T-shirt contest. We looked back over the series of photos taken on my camera and laughed until it hurt while I packed my gear. We needed to head to the next beach house we were crashing at -- there was more maritime mischief on the menu for us tomorrow.
All the festivities were a farewell romp in honor of Marian, our ballerina-blonde, who would be moving back to Nashville later that week after graduation. Priscilla and myself already felt the void she was to leave behind.
Several days passed of more heavy texting with Paul, and our schedules at last aligned for us to go dancing again. We'd hung out a few times casually, and that had gone well. I had to drive him everywhere because he couldn't afford a car while in school, but that at least afforded us extra one-on-one time. He got along with my friends too...perhaps a bit too well. Marian had moved, and Priscilla and I were trying to fill the emptiness. She was all too eager to have Paul come around, and he was all too flattered by the affect he so obviously had on her. I thought it strange, but he still seemed into me -- maybe even a little intimidated, in the good way -- and I trusted her with all my heart, as my dear friend, implicitly.
On the day of the dance, we were bursting with excitement while we planned the entire evening, and decided to include anyone who wanted to join us. Text messages heated up as we flattered each other with complements and anticipation -- when no longer did I have to guess at his age -- he revealed it. He was almost 20 years old. Almost. I was six years his senior. A pain grew in my gut.
No matter how I tried to reconcile it, I couldn't bring myself to permit this romance to progress any further. But I was so into him. We texted during every waking hour, and used every excuse possible to be together. We fit so well, but now I couldn't unlearn that fact, and it needed to be addressed.
I took a big breath, and told him my age. I waited for his reaction -- it was tactfully neutral. After another deep breath, I messaged, "We can't take this any further. Our age difference isn't healthy."
He texted back, "Yes, I agree. Of course, we would be dating if we were closer in age, but for now, let's just have a good time, dance together as much as possible, and make everybody jealous!"
I was so relieved to hear that he still wanted me to be a part of his life, despite the fact that we were now off limits for each other. How rare to both be on the exact same page!
Dancing was a thrill that night, albeit a heart wrenching one. Together, surrounded by friends, we were royalty on the floor, and the nagging discomfort inside my head made me appreciate how good we had it all the more.
I drove him home, and got out of the car in his driveway to hug him goodnight. We stood there awkwardly, shifting our weight from side to side. Each wanting to talk about recent developments, neither knowing how to initiate it. Finally he moved in to kiss me, and I darted out of reach.
"No, Paul. We've never kissed before, and let's just leave it like that."
"Come on..." he pleaded. His body language lost maturity when he thought he wasn't going to get what he wanted.
"No! We both know we won't stop there, and then we'll have a big mess on our hands, causing drama, ruining everything, because we're at such different places in our lives."
He smirked and looked away, shook his head, then put his arm around my shoulders. I let it linger for an instant, then I pulled away, saying, "I can't do this."
The next afternoon my mind was racing and my heart hurt. Thankfully I had a full roster of students at work to keep me occupied, and I was determined to take advantage of that escape. Paul and I had texted throughout the morning, but I wanted to pull away from this kryptonite, and work was the perfect excuse. By the time it was my dinner break, however, I had a phone bursting with unanswered texts, which I seemed powerless to resist.
I was unsurprised to see it was Paul, complaining of how lonely he was, how frustrated he was in his dating life, how the situation with me had thrown that into a harsh perspective. Suddenly his messages took on a new tone of weakness, making him sound unattractive, maybe manipulative?
I reminded him that nothing within man's power could possibly resolve the age gap we faced, and that especially at this period in our lives, when I'm fully out in the work force and he's still below the legal drinking age, it would be more of a problem than if we'd met when we were older. No amount of joy could make that drama justifiable.
And then the angry texts started:
"I'm still a virgin! No one will have sex with me! I'm surrounded by beautiful women, all the time, but all they do is flirt with me! Once in a while I get lucky to get involved with one, but she'll only take it so far, and drop it! I'm still a virgin!"
"Well I'm sorry to hear that," I replied. "But somehow that doesn't seem true...if you can charm me, (and I'm a tough customer) you're more than capable of seducing women your own age."
"Let's just have sex," Paul messaged furiously. "Let's just be together, just once, get it over with, and we won't have to tell anybody. Everybody thinks we already did it anyway."
I'm 25 years old, I thought. Why am I having a conversation like this? Do I look easy? Do I act like I'm easy? I stopped caring about what people thought I did or didn't do in, middle school.
A temper flared inside me, and for what I said next, I'm very proud. Rare are the times in my life when I've actually stood up for how I ought to be treated. But I can't say it wasn't complete agony:
"How dare you?! Just yesterday we talk about how we're going to keep things platonic, and we agreed!! Today you feel like you have the right to ask me to screw you? If you've never been laid, it is NOT my problem!"
He backed off, and apologized. I had to cool my head to get back to teaching lessons. Then I got another text that read, "Can I come over after you're done with work? I can borrow my sister's car. I'd like to apologize."
Against better judgement, I said, "Fine."
I warned Priscilla as soon as I got home. I was shaking, my voice was cracking as I tried to explain what had happened with Paul between yesterday and today.
"It's ok honey, just take a deep breath. You'll say what you need to say," she comforted me. She knew how much I was into him. I'd dated only two or three people in the two years I'd known her, so she knew how rare it was for me to feel so strongly. Being vulnerable is foreign to me, and terrifying.
And then he pushed through the front door.
"Hi Paul!" Priscilla's face lit up, and he greeted her in turn as if he were on the prowl. As if I weren't even there. Then he saw me. The two of them exchanged a glance, and she said, "I'll give you two your privacy."
She headed upstairs as we sat down on the floor, right where we were. He began a monologue of an apology, in which I searched for anything meaningful, or indicative of genuine remorse, or redemptive for him at all. I desperately wanted sincerity, but instead was given overly articulate, hollow syllables.
"But why did you think you could ask me to sleep with you?" I pressed him.
"Uh..." he fumbled. "I guess I was just in a bad mood, thinking selfishly...I mean, you know...it's so hard for a guy..."
Footsteps came down the hall louder than his voice, and we saw Priscilla's figure round the bend in the stairwell. Paul's monologue faded into mumbling as she dashed towards him, exclaiming gleefully, "I'm sorry to interrupt, but I just heard about something I learned the other night..."
She didn't even finish her sentence, never once looked at me, and landed herself squarely in his arms. He caught her with an "oomph", and they were both flushed, smiling helplessly as they wrapped arms around each other, then legs, then snuggled up, then touched foreheads while gazing into each other's eyes....
Could I believe what I was seeing? One of my closest, most beloved friends, in the heated embrace of a man I'd only broken up with not 24 hours ago? She literally flew down the stairs -- practically clear over the bannister -- and he caught her, like a Disney cartoon. Was I really that disposable to him?
How could I have possibly been so disposable to her?
Paul spent the night. I climbed dejectedly to my bedroom on the third floor when I couldn't bear to watch that display downstairs any longer, but I heard them throughout the night. He may well have "lost his virginity" while I was locked in my room, distracting myself with anything and everything I decided was productive. I hardly slept a wink, and my life suddenly seemed so vacant.
Too bad the Muses didn't come to the beach club, I wept quietly. She could've met him first and this never would've happened.
Click for Part II.
Click for Part III.
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