The AuthorHillary DePiano / Humor
2001 Julia Fonville Memorial Prize for Fiction Writing
First Prize, 2001 West Branch Literary contest for Fiction
Copyright 2001 by Hillary DePiano.
Leslie includes selected quotes from A Sense of Direction: Some Observations on the Art of Directing by William Ball (1984).
All rights reserved.
This story is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to characters living or dead is purely coincidental.
Nobody has seen Leslie since the night of the play. It really hasn’t been that long, only three days, but the police aren‘t even looking for him because they think they have him in custody. They don’t, though, because I’m pretty sure he’s dead. Or if he isn’t, there can’t be much time for him.
I think it’s my fault. Indirectly.
Or maybe directly.
I don’t know.
Have you ever read that book by somebody Ball where he talks about acting objectives? I don’t remember the guy’s first name. I feel like it was Eugene but I might be making that up. Eugene Ball. Sounds right. But it probably isn’t. That would be just a little too ironic.
Anyway, his name hardly matters. Professor Constantine just Xeroxed this one chapter for our acting class to read freshman year. In this chapter, he creates a character and then talks about how the actor needs to get inside him and all. Weird stuff. I like theatre, it’s interesting enough for an elective or two, but I don’t really go for all that method acting stuff.
It’s just the way the article was written was kind of strange. Even for a theatre article. I guess it really isn’t all that relevant. I was just thinking about it today because Ball named his character Leslie too.
"In the empty space before us there is a chair . . . Now, in our imaginations we place someone in the chair. This is the beginning of acting."
It wasn’t until a few days into the semester that I noticed Leslie. Well, that isn’t entirely true. I had seen him and given him a good five seconds of never-seen-him-before thought the first day of playwriting class, but then promptly forgot about him. It was easy enough to do. Almost the entire cast of last year’s mainstage was in the class and they sat in the front row and clowned with Professor Constantine, stealing the scene as easily in real life as they did on the stage. They were funny and clique-y and I desperately wanted to be a part of that, so I laughed too, pretending that I was a part of the jokes. Playing a role. I was too busy to notice Leslie.
First week of class, Constantine asked us to each prepare a presentation on what we thought was the best written play we’d ever read or seen performed. I had done a few plays in high school but I didn’t know that many and I certainly didn’t feel equipped to pick a BEST out of the few I had personal experience with. I could imagine the upperclassmen all snottily laughing down their noses at me as I gave my answer.
So I went to the library and read through a book called The Best Plays of 1979 and selected a play from there to talk about. It was called The Chinese Restaurant Syndrome and I thought it was pretty impressive. I then wrote up a few paragraphs on note cards to read from while I gave my presentation.
But when I got to class, Constantine went around the room and each one of his buddies in the theatre inner circle laughingly threw out the name of one of the productions that the school had put on in the last few years as their best play. They added a few comments about why it was good, but essentially made it up on the spot, entirely unprepared. He would smile after each of these comments and then continue on around the room as if this was really all he had expected.
When it was my turn, I felt my face burning. The heat of embarrassment was so strong I was afraid to make eye contact with anyone. Staring resolutely at a square on the floor that hopefully made it look like I was looking around the class, I quickly hid my notes and gave the gist of my prepared speech about The Chinese Restaurant Syndrome in an offhanded way. I tired to sound as unprepared about it as possible, deathly afraid that someone would realize that I had actually done research. It was bad enough that I had chosen an original play! I raced through the words so quickly, that I wasn’t even sure what I had said until I saw Constantine give me a satisfied smile and move on to the next person in the row. I started to breath again.
It was Leslie’s turn. The entire class turned in their seats to see the solitary figure in the last row. He sat up in his chair and began to read, eyes never looking up from his prepared notes, mumbling and occasionally, nervously, clearing his throat. He had chosen Cabin 12, a play that clearly no one in the class had heard of. No one, that is, save me. It too was in The Best Plays of 1979.
Some of the people in the class threw each other looks and smiled. Dork. I dared not speak. I wanted to rush over and warn him. I wanted to do anything to protect him from the public scorn that he would be subjecting himself too. Yet he hardly seemed to notice or even care that he was committing social suicide.
He concluded his speech and Professor Constantine finished a yawn behind his hand, threw out a muffled “good” and then continued with the matter of the day. The front of the class became a buzz of disruption as it was every day, but this time I did not lean forward and try to be a part of it. I looked back at Leslie who was quietly settling his papers to take notes. I felt strangely proud of him, like he was the bravest person that I had ever known. He caught me looking at him and quickly looked away. But only a second later he looked back and we made eye contact for one weird moment and then he smiled this really genuine smile. I returned the favor a little too quickly and darted my eyes back to the front of the class.
I really don’t know what his objective was for taking the class to begin with. I can hardly imagine that he was enjoying it. He seemed a little uncomfortable and shy for theatre. But he was sweet. No, actually, I don’t know that. I’m starting to write around the facts to flesh them out, forgive me. He seemed like he would be sweet if you could actually crack that wall of silence and awkwardness that encased him. I never got to know him well enough to know more than just what he seemed.
I glanced back at him but darted my eyes towards the window feigning interest in the foliage when he became aware of my eyes. Sometimes I thought he was looking at me, but I could never really catch his eyes for more than a second.
As the semester progressed, this glance game became a daily routine. But I never even tried to talk to him. In retrospect, I probably had a crush on him. I never would have admitted it then and it hardly matters now.
He was blonde (a very faint blonde because he had shaved his head in the beginning of the year and only a small amount of hair flocked his head now) with blue eyes. He was a little taller than average, with a very pale white complexion and was an almost sickly thin. I think I heard him say that he was on the track team.
My friends and I had been visiting some friends on his hall the first week of school when he came out of the shower covered only by the smallest towel I have ever seen. It looked more like a handkerchief, wrapped around his skinny little waist.
He came out dripping in this hand towel looking tall and skinny and just generally out of place like he always did and looked right at me. So I said, “Leslie!“ It was supposed to be a greeting, since I did know him from class, but it sort of came out as an expression of shock.
And then I started to giggle this nervous I’m-so-embarrassed-about-how-he-looks-and-that-I know-him-and-for-him-because-I-kinda-like-him giggle and the next thing I know, all my friends had turned and they were all just standing there laughing hysterically. His face turned bright red and he smiled an embarrassed smile and tried to play it off. He looked at me and for once the two of us held the eye contact we had always avoided in class. I felt a tiny shudder start in the pit of my stomach but I couldn’t look away. I was drinking in the richness of his eyes and all the while felt strangely like I should be coughing up blood to justify things. I began to form a “Sorry” between my lips when he broke the gaze and then darted across the hall to his room and closed the door.
I’d betrayed him. Somehow, I’d betrayed him. I felt like a chipmunk had crawled into my mouth, down my throat, had died there and was just rotting away. I couldn’t swallow and I felt sick. I also felt panicked and sorry but mostly I just felt bad. I think that’s why I created Eugene.
"His name is Leslie. There he sits, gazing and breathing silently and motionlessly in the green chair before us; sitting there in his own clothing, in his own posture, in his own complexion, in his own thought, and in his own history . . . How shall I become him? He awes me."
For playwriting class, we had to each write a play and then cast classmates who would then perform it, without intervention from the playwright. The intent was to see if the play could stand on its own without the author there to fill in what was missing from the writing itself. Pretty good idea, I thought, though I was tempted to change my mind when I found out that my group’s plays were first. First, as in due by the next class. Lovely.
I sat down in front of