Michael is a rock star. I don’t know this at first. I think he is a guy in Mississippi, coming out of the bathroom, doing up his fly. He puts me on the guest list. On stage, he is all lit up, like Jesus on a prayer card. “Don’t eat meat,” he calls. “Don’t quit school.” Outside his hotel, all these kids want to take photographs with him. He doesn’t want to take photos with them—you can tell. Still, he does. In his hotel room, with his entourage, he lies back on the bed and scratches his crotch. I think this is a little rude, though I don’t say anything. I am on my way to Florida, or maybe Iowa. At the door to his tour bus, Michael tells me, “Come to Athens.”
The Greyhound bus stops in Athens next to the Java Café. Michael’s house is down the road, rundown and plain. His entourage is on the lawn, planting a tree. Inside, Michael is drinking blue tea. On the wall he has tacked up a long curly lock of his hair. “You know,” Michael says, “I think you stopped at the Java Café. And I think you’re a little nervous to be here.” I am nervous. “And the thing is,” he tells me, “you remind me of everything I hate about women.” My chest freezes when he says this. All the air in it stands still. This remark of his—it has nothing to do with me. Later, we go out for a beer. That night, I sleep on his living room floor. The next day, I move to an abandoned house. There is no light. Cold pours through the smashed glass windows. They say he goes looking for me, but I don’t hear him. I am not this bohemian, I think, and leave the next day.
Judson is a blind date. Should I dress up or down? Should I go conservative or a little indie? I have no idea what he would like. In the end, I play it in the middle: white blouse with a circular neckline, black skirt to the knees, flat shoes. What the clothes lack I can make up for with personality. He arrives in crumpled khakis and a ripped sweater. He is rich, I have been told. Yet he is also against the rich. He wants nothing to do with the world he is from. We go to an expensive restaurant in Soho. I am boring, he thinks. Where I work is boring. I want to tell him that before this, I travelled the world. I had an affair with a married man, and spent four months in a psychiatric hospital with Vitus Gerulaitis. But I am boring. I can’t even choose my own clothes. When Judson hears my step-brother is a writer, he says, “Well that’s interesting. Let’s go see him.” We sit in silence then. I feel kind of sick. “What’s he written?” Judson finally asks. Then he goes slightly mad, the way I hoped he wouldn’t. “Leafscar? No kidding. That’s your brother? Wow,” he says, “Wow. At least you have that.”
Judson himself was going to join Greenpeace, he says, but then realized, “Why work for Greenpeace making a pittance, when I can make a whole lot of money and give it to Greenpeace?” That’s why he is getting an MBA. I don’t believe he will give his money to Greenpeace. I believe he is fooling himself.
“Tell your brother to call me,” he says, slamming the door of my cab. I feel so bad; it is as if I’ve been stabbed. Twenty years later, I see him pictured in a tuxedo at the Annual Palm Beach Dinner Dance. I see him at the Frick Autumn Ball. He runs an investment fund for the assets of his family.
Jay is an intern at the Magazine—as am I. He goes to Yale and studies Russian and carries a gray canvas bag, one of the $5 ones from Canal Jeans. In the hallway, he leans in with his bag swinging at his thighs. He is handsome and has met my parents and loves my writing. He has thick blonde hair and blue eyes. “You are wonderful,” Jay says. “Everyone loves you.” He tries to kiss me but I will not let him. He is my age, we are both interns, we both go to decent schools. “It is too appropriate,” I tell him, laughing, pushing him back. “What does that mean?” Jay asks, trying again, taking my hand in his. “Well, you see,” I have to tell him—looking down the hall—“I am in love with an older man.” “With what older man?” Jay asks and looks suspicious. I won’t tell him though. I won’t tell him anything. When my affair is finally discovered, it is a scandal, and worse. I lose my job and my apartment and don’t know where to live.
I visit Jay at his first job in Miami. He has an “efficiency apartment” with orange shag carpet. He serves brie that is rubbery at the edges. He is unhappy there and unhappy at his job. We go to a Cuban restaurant and he is unhappy with the chicken and also the plantains. “You are so different,” he says. “You are troubled and obviously on medication, and at first I hardly recognized you.” We go to the Laundromat where he has a snow cone and reads Isherwood. At his apartment at night there are two single beds beside each other. He sits on one and I sit on the other. In a few years, he will marry a television news anchor. I know her—she is my age and went to my school. He will be press secretary to a President. Now, he leans back with a pillow against his lap. He cares for me, he says. He will always care. “But you’re completely different,” he says. Then he adds, “I can’t help you.” Listening to this, gripping on to my own pillow, I understand, I know he can’t help. I just wish he hadn’t said so.
Greg is in Key West. He comes busting through the screen door, one Saturday night, in June. He is tall and tanned from the sun, his face ravaged and his eyes fire blue, opals. In my hand he places a rose, plucked from a roadside bush. Not even on a bed, but on some pallet on the floor, we lie all night, hardly sleeping, damp from the heat and each other’s bodies. We are between sleep, between waking, lust and desire all through us, a kind of urgency as if it is our last chance. It is our last chance. In the morning, at 6:00 a.m., he takes me to my scheduled flight. In the terminal, we are breathless, dizzy. Our hands lock together; his lips return to my neck, cheek, temple. My lips return to his. He gives me a card for my wallet with three words on it: Expect a Miracle. It takes a long time to realize that this is it, this is how a miracle feels.
Steve is a police officer. I watch him calming down some men in a fight in Soho. I am so impressed by this—by his calmness and his presence and quiet authority, I begin talking to him. He is forty-two and retiring next year. He has seen gruesome things, he says, mentioning a head in a bucket. Yet somehow he is unjaded. He is light and gentle and almost pure. Last year, he tells me, he “shot an individual in the line of duty.” The individual didn’t die, but Steve is being given a medal for bravery. Do I want to come to the awards ceremony, Steve asks? I do. It is near Police Plaza, one Saturday in August. I wear my best clothes. Steve and fifteen thousand other police wear their blue uniforms. Mayor Guiliani is there and applauds all the bravery. We receive a pamphlet about bravery and it turns out that all the acts of bravery receiving awards today involved the shooting of individuals.
At Steve’s apartment, that night, we play with his martial arts equipment, his balancing pole and punching bag and nunchuks. We look at photos of him scuba diving in the Caribbean. “My brother’s been in prison,” I say suddenly. “What, in New York?” Steve asks. “In Rikers, lots of times. For drugs.” We lie on our backs on the bed and he opens his fanny pack. He takes out his gun, which he keeps in there. “Here,” he says, “do you want to hold it?” I do want to. It is, I think, aerodynamic. It is black and heavy and blocky. I point it at my feet, at the wall, at the ceiling. When I put it down, I feel very tired. It is not, I realize, something a person like me should have.
Excerpted from 52 Men, copyright © 2015 by Louise Wareham Leonard. Forthcoming from Red Hen Press mid-August. All Rights Reserved.
Feature photograph © Teri Fisk. All other photographs from the private collection of Louise Wareham Leonard.
Book cover art by Isabelle Jelonek.