A legendary songwriter’s assistant is determined not to make the same mistakes twice. 2,668 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Three. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Throughout dinner I listened to the veteran songwriters discuss their craft. They had both written hit songs for the Troubadours. They described composing straight from the heart and then handing the songs to one of the most famous bands of all time who imbued them with their signature style. The songwriters would struggle when performing their songs in public. They wanted to perform their music as they had written them but the audience, naturally, would want to hear the songs as they had come to know them through the Troubadours.
I was fascinated by the conversation, feeling like a fly on the wall of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, when a distracting image crossed into my peripheral vision. Reflected in an oversized mirror on the wall across from our restaurant table was my ex-boyfriend Leo Sing, hand-in-hand with his new working actress girlfriend. They were walking toward a table.
Gaping, I watched them join Leo’s agent, his manager and his assistant — his usual entourage.
Leo was a half-baked film and TV screenwriter who had used his exotic looks, charmed breeding and Cambridge elitism to finagle his way into the entertainment biz. He surrounded himself with power players and fit right in very successfully — even though, in my humble opinion, his talent was somewhat lacking .
Our first date had started and ended at Leo’s gorgeous home way up in the Hollywood Hills after an evening of fine wining, dining and martinis. Leo had laid eyes on me at a party six months prior and decided without reservation that I was the next Monopoly property he would acquire. When he invited me to go out with him, it hadn’t occurred to me that a lady deserved to be fetched from her apartment as opposed to be beckoned to a gentleman’s home. When I saw Leo’s house and his view of the twinkling city lights, it became clear that he was making sure I knew how lavishly he lived. After dinner, Leo chivalrously held my hair away from my face while I puked in his porcelain toilet. He carried me to his bed, coaxed my knees apart and proceeded to have sex with me although I had protested. I slurred “no” repeatedly while slipping in and out of blackout. I was even wearing my “there-is-no-way-I’m-having-sex-tonight underwear” but that hadn’t seemed to bother him. The next morning I was mortified, but I could only blame myself. Of course it had been my fault. I was sloppy. He was fancy.
Late that next night, Leo called and invited me back to his house. I was so relieved that our previous night together would be more than a drunken one-night-stand that I jumped at the chance to head back to his bed. This time I was willing, even though I wasn’t yet sexually attracted to him. From there we began a two-year relationship that consisted of some lovely caring moments together, many more fine dining experiences, a few exotic trips and some semi-smashing Hollywood events. But our foundation was severely cracked — for obvious reasons.
I fooled myself into believing I was in love with Leo, and perhaps on some level I had been. But that tainted passion poured out of me in the form of rage the very last time I saw him. I had never spoken of our first night together to anyone, and I doubted that Leo was even aware of his destructive actions. Instead, I became another statistic of #MeToo.
Both Leo’s agent and manager were heavy-hitters. When we were first getting to know each other, Leo dangled the pair as carrots for me to chase. A struggling actress at the time, I had revealed how badly I wanted representation like theirs in the worst way. That was what I thought I needed to exploit my own obvious talent.
Leo reeled me into a romance with him by promising to jumpstart my acting career and feigning to be the supportive type, then never following through. My naiveté and false illusions of grandeur had fallen head-over-heels for Leo’s tactics. We finally separated when I showed up shit-faced at his house late one night and slugged him in his sleep. The release of pent-up resentment resulted in a minor domestic dispute which abruptly ended our two-year courtship. That’s about as deeply as I had been willing to go at the time.
I was not yet ready to face him. Yet here he was.
Leo quickly rebounded into a new relationship with an actress who made a solid living off her craft. I was jealous when she landed a national Target commercial that haunted me all summer. Now Leo and his squeeze sat down at the table with their backs to me, Jake and Hudson. Leo’s agent faced Hudson and me.
I watched the rep alert Leo, “Sicily’s right behind you, man.” Leo and his girlfriend jerked around. I smiled coyly, raised my hand, and cupped it into a beauty-pageant wave. The girlfriend faked a smile and returned the wave. Leo scrambled over to our table. His face was bright red. He walked around Hudson and kissed me on each cheek.
“Leo, meet Jake Easton and Hudson Black,” I said, proudly dropping their names.
Leo looked like he might faint. He knew who they were. My ego loved it.
“Nice to meet you both. I’m sorry to interrupt,” Leo stammered with his snooty British twist. “Sicily, I just wanted to say hello.”
“Hello,” I purred like a kitten. “Enjoy your dinner and say hi to the gang for me.”
Leo slouched back to his table. Jake looked at me with a questioning look of amusement.
“That was my ex,” I told him.
Jake raised his eyebrows, “Not a pretty ending I take it?”
“It left a pretty bad taste.” I took a gulp of my margarita. “But I think the very last of it just dissipated off my tongue. He’s the screenwriter I told you about who believes that actors should understand it has nothing to do with art and all to do with business.”
Both songwriters laughed.
“I’d hate to read his writing,” Hudson said.
“I was thinking the same thing,” Jake nudged my foot beneath the table with his cowboy boot. “The most interesting part is not that you just told me about him today and now here he is, but that you ever went out with him in the first place.”
“I know,” I said. “Sometimes the path leads us astray. Sometimes we lead the path astray. What matters is that eventually we allow the path to lead us back in the right direction.”
“I’ll drink to that,” said Hudson.
We raised our margaritas.
“To Jake Easton,” I said, looking directly at the legend, “my new partner in righteous crime.” I pressed his boot with my wedged heel.
“I’ll drink to that,” Jake’s boyish grin spread ear-to-ear.
I had a way of making him feel special, too.
I was flying high, buzzed from margaritas and marijuana. I was in a swing on Santa Monica beach outside Jake’s hotel. It was dark. The sun had long since disappeared. A big fat moon hung above the Pacific Ocean shining.
Jake pushed me from behind, higher and higher. I was barefoot and free. At last Jake stepped aside. My momentum slowed until I was sitting still in the swing. He knelt in the sand in front of me.
“So what do you think?” he asked.
“I don’t know anything anymore, Cowboy.”
He plucked a strand of hair out of my face. His touch made me freeze. We drilled daringly into each other’s eyes until I broke the silence.
“Last one to the ocean’s a rotten egg.”
I sprang from the swing and ran toward the sea wildly, confused, hoping to find some certainty somewhere — anywhere.
I slowed and rolled up my jeans near the water’s edge. Then he was behind me with his hands grasping my waist. I jumped away from him.
“Take off your shoes, Cowboy. Roll up your jeans. Let’s run.”
“Well, I don’t know—”
“Oh, come on, Cowboy! Run with me!”
Jake dropped to the sand on command. He pulled off his boots.
“You have no idea what you’re doing to me,” he called out.
“Me?” I laughed maniacally and let out a long yell. We were intoxicated by more than just margaritas and marijuana. I tiptoed into the ocean and in a flash Jake was behind me again, barefoot. He grabbed me and reeled me around. His face was so close his beard tickled my cheek. Time stopped. We were the only two people in the world. He pulled me closer and I could feel him against me. I wanted him and I hated us both for it. I stopped breathing. There was only one move to make, but I couldn’t. Instead, I freed myself and ran deeper into the ocean. The bottom of my rolled-up jeans absorbed the water. I wanted to take off my clothes and run naked in the sea with Jake. But fear enveloped me.
I looked back at Jake. He had stopped dead in his tracks, watching my every calculatedly reckless move. I reached for the bottom of my tank top, as if I were about to slip it over my head, just to watch the anticipation on his face. I knew he was hoping we would make love for the first time tonight. I was getting off on it.
“Hey, Cowboy,” I teased. “I feel like we’re in a cheesy music video from the eighties.”
He laughed, “Maybe we are, Sicily. We’ve found present proof of a past life. Maybe we’re tapping into parallel universes, too.”
I wish I could tap into a universe where I’m able to let myself to do what I want to do with you, I thought.
I slowed down and let Jake join me. We walked together with the sand and cool water rushing over our toes. I kept my clothes on but allowed Jake to wrap his arm around my waist while we strolled. It felt nice.
Back at Jake’s hotel, we leaned on the balcony railing, gazing out at the moon’s reflection over the water. We had fallen into conversation, passing the one-hit-wonder back and forth.
“It’s important to me that you keep writing,” he told me. “Aside from everything else, I want you to know that.”
“Thank you. That means a lot.”
“You haven’t heard it enough, I’m afraid.”
I smiled away the threat of tears. He was right.
“Sometimes it seems we poets are a dying breed,” Jake said. “People forget how important the words are. Especially in music, the words are often taken for granted as a means to get a song out. It used to be the other way around. Song is a way to get your words out. Otherwise, the music can stand-alone. Music doesn’t need words. If the words aren’t purposeful, don’t put them in, right? You’ve got something to say, Sicily. Say it. Get it out there. Don’t stop.”
The silence was pregnant. I waited while Jake sorted his thoughts. I marked the moment as one to remember. It seemed as though he was giving me information that was vital to my life’s purpose. I thrived on these conversations with Jake. I wanted to soak up every bit of wisdom he was willing to share.
“What I’m trying to say is this — no matter what happens between us, remember this conversation tonight, on this balcony, on this beach. Remember what I’m saying.” His tone softened, “I guess I never expected you to be a true writer, that we might learn from one another, but here we are.”
“You inspire me, Jake.”
“We inspire each other.” He took both my hands in his and I allowed him to hold them as he repeated, “Most important is that you keep writing.”
I leaned my head backward to prevent tears from spilling.
“It’s funny, Jake, since meeting you I’ve been writing a lot of poetry for the first time in years. I’ve been reading it to friends and even strangers. The response has been so positive. I’m not sure if I’ve had a breakthrough in my writing, or if I’ve had a breakthrough as a person. It’s like I feel more confident in myself and others pick up on that.”
“I’d say it’s a combination of both,” he reasoned. “The confidence will shine through in the writing. I can’t tell you to stop seeking validation from others, because we all do it, especially artists, but I will tell you to be careful. Be wary of constantly seeking validation. For someone like you, it’s always best to go with your heart.” He squeezed my hands and touched his forehead to mine, “Your heart knows, Sicily.”
Every muscle in my body tensed. A confusing combination of Jake’s validation, for which I yearned, and the threat of his intimate physical contact, sent me reeling and rendered me speechless. Jake dropped my hands and walked into the hotel room.
“Come here,” he called from inside. “I have something for you.”
I entered and Jake handed me a white envelope with my name scrawled in his writing. I opened it with shaky hands and pulled out a black and white greeting card. On the front of the card was an antiquated photograph of a cowgirl balancing on one foot on the back of a galloping horse, her arms spread wide like a ballerina. The wind blew through her hair. She wore a gracious smile.
Inside the card Jake had written: “Sicily, Here’s photo proof of a past life: yours. I saw this card and felt certain that you would ‘get it.’ Keep on doing exactly what you’re doing. Don’t stop. Yours, Jake.”
I flipped the card over and read: “Vera McGinnis is remembered as the ‘cowgirl who rode the fastest and dared the most.” Tears rushed my eyes. I couldn’t look up. I stood motionless for what seemed like a lifetime staring down at the picture on the front of the card.
Jake waited for my emotion to subside. He lifted my chin with his fingertips. I knew he was about to kiss me. My stomach dropped. My protective wall flew up. In an effort to avoid his kiss while still remaining close to him, I stepped onto his cowboy boots and threw my arms around his neck. I rested my head on his shoulder. He encircled my waist with his arms and started to slow dance with me on his feet.
We danced like that for a long time while I silently cried.
I glanced at the clock on the bedside table. It was nearly ten. I was acutely aware that I could stay the night with Jake. I could crawl into bed with him, between soft sheets, and feel safe — but I was scared to death. I could give in to his advances. I could give in to my heart. I could let him take care of me. Rocking on his feet, to the sound of crashing waves, I felt for the first time ever a chance to stop fending for myself. I thought of my family, my dead daddy, my ailing stepfather, my domineering grandfather. The thirty-year age gap between Jake and me was unacceptable. I felt an impulse to get away as fast as possible.
I untangled myself and stepped down from Jake’s boots. I wiped away tears with the back of my hand. “I have to go. I have an early morning rehearsal. I’ll be back afterwards to take you to the airport.”
“Okay, my dear, if you must.”
I placed the cowgirl card back in its envelope and held it up in the air. “This is the most beautiful gift I have ever been given. I’ll cherish this forever.” I was crying again. It was useless to try and stop the flow.
“Thank you,” he said, as I walked out the door.