Right Now. WORK.

Lydia’s brain felt swollen in her head as she gazed at the computer screen. Her fingers hovered over the keys, but couldn’t seem to move. It had been a long day.

Two days before Lydia returned from her holiday, she was informed that not only was her department head on sabbatical, but the head administrators for her entire department had been fired. Something about falsified time sheets.

Suddenly a part-time job was a full-time job, and suddenly everything felt really important. Lydia absentmindedly shut down the computer, brain whirring and purring, but not getting much done. She gathered her bag and down jacket, laptop and charger, phone and keys, and stumbled out the door. She had to grab the lanyard with her keys with her teeth to pull it out from the pile of things in her arms; once freed, she stretched two fingers out to grasp it, plunge it in the hole, and lock the office door. In the hallway, she dropped her things and packed her bag. I guess I could have done this before leaving the office. The logical moment passed and her head pounded with the rest on her to-do list. Oh. Dinner. Also I should check my email again. Oh, also…

On the train home, Lydia sat in an orange bucket seat, pressed against the wall by a woman and her large coat. She let her head fall against the window. The loud thrum of the subway tearing down its steel tracks seemed to jostle thoughts free, and they floated past her eyes. I can’t let myself get this exhausted doing this stuff. This is supposed to be priority number two. How did I let it take over my life so quickly?

Unwillingly, her eyes filled with tears. It sounds like an exaggeration, but it’s true. I want to be an actor. She thought of the program meeting, hearing the students talk about the experimental productions they saw while studying in Russia, the inspiration of pure play in a show off-Broadway, realizing with each other that these are the moments that define why they do what they do. They don’t know how lucky they are. They don’t know how idealistic.

Lydia could imagine a world where all she did was act, but her mind was too saturated with logic to make much sense of it. Money sometimes precludes passion, making rent trumps exorbitant ticket prices. I never thought it would be easy, but I also never thought I’d have a week like this. Tomorrow was her day off, but already she had two phone conversations scheduled. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

As she clumped down the cement platform at her stop, Lydia tried to think forward to when things might get easier. Suddenly she felt a thought clang into her skull with the force of a steel pipe. It’s not going to get easier. I might have a full-time job next year. Or I might lose my job entirely.

For a moment, everything stopped, and the chaos fell away, and Lydia felt still. The only thing left was a thing, transparent certainty, like an icicle that would not melt. I will do what it takes. I have no doubt about what I want in this world. She forced the hot flames of anxiety, of frustration, of jealousy, of exhaustion, of not-fair-ness, down and away. It all comes down to this.

Stability is not in the cards for Lydia. She knows this, and she has learned how to live with it. It hurts, and aches, and burns and chafes, those demons of money and jealousy and frustration and every closed door can leave her so furious she could hack at it with an ax, The Shining come alive in a casting room or an agent’s office.

But those shining moments that can bring tears to her eyes in crowded rooms of students– that’s why she bears it.

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A really long post about theatre and feminism and critics and ingrained gender norms

I’ve gotten feministy on you guys before, so this should come as no surprise, but, like, I’m a strong independent woman?

Haha women are funny.

To the point.

In the last couple of weeks, I saw two plays off-Broadway that were within a few blocks of each other. The first, Small Engine Repair, is a “taut, twisty, comic thriller” starring four men (one of whom is the writer, another of whom is most famous for being on Pretty Little Liars, not that either of those things are inherently bad). SMALL-articleLargeThe second is How to Make Friends and Then Kill Them, a “provocative surrealistic fable about codependence,” stars three young women (I’ve seen two off-Broadway before, again not that it matters, just trying to give equal coverage here).14howto-web-articleInline

It’s pretty unfair to compare these two plays on their merit as plays and as productions because they are markedly different. While both feature unexpected violence and cruelty, SER is written and performed purely realistically, while HTMFATKT is surreal and strange. There is swearing in both, brief nudity in both, some comedy in both, and both feature an exploration of relationships bonded in friendship.

However.

While I won’t deny that I enjoyed the twisted turn at the end of SER, nor that the performances and text were strong and amusing, but I will say that I left with a bit of a sour taste. I felt like I’d seen it before. Three white bros, one twenty-something white douche. Jokes about women. Texting. Jokes about social media. Drinking whiskey. Talking in an accent. Cyberbullying. Exacting revenge. I realized that I was pissed off because I’m so bored of seeing men do “men things” onstage as if they are actually interesting to the average bear. I looked forward to a reviewer agreeing with me when the show opened.

smallenginerepair5

Now, to HTMFATKT. It has flaws too—a bit overwrought and overwritten at times, a bit too long. But it felt fresh and unique, like suddenly I was in a room of people that suddenly realized we could actually talk about birth control with each other and not whisper or feel like a slut. You know? Like this private thing, or private feeling was being explored onstage. The world and relationships were almost devoid of time or place—the girls (eventually women) talked about their feelings openly, showed emotions physically with their faces and bodies. They weren’t good people. They were flawed and ugly and conceited and selfish and we saw right through them. There’s something so satisfying about that.

87384

So, I started to think about these two shows and my reactions. Let’s compare a few notes:

Small Engine Repair                              How to Make Friends and Then Kill Them

4 white men 3 white women
Set in time and place Could be any time/place
Comedy is based on characters’ stupidity, as well as jokes about women, social media, man things. Comedy is based on complete and utter truth-telling; exactly what characters are thinking they immediately say
Violence at the end of the play is all against one, focused on revenge Violence at the end of the play is inflicted on all, and on selves (everyone is hurt and everyone hurts themselves)
There are no consequences to the violent behavior The consequences are brutal if not law-enforced—we know they will continue a horrific pattern of codependency

So, cool! Got that. Perhaps you’re starting to see why I found HTMFATKT significantly more interesting than SER. I mentioned I was looking forward to reading the reviews. Let’s compare those too!

Now, of course, I’m only pulling representative quotes—there were a lot of reviewers who had very smart things to say about HTMFAKT (and SER). What strikes me and really gets my goat is this:

We do not talk about male-centric plays and female-centric plays in the same way.

See below:

Small Engine Repair                                How to Make Friends and Then Kill Them

NY Times

“a raw, funny and well-tooled new play”

“crackling comic dialogue steeped in the tang of male aggression and rivalry

Only male cruelty here is taken seriously. When women are vicious, they’re belittled into “mean girls.” This perversion of language creates a dynamic where men throw spears and women throw Pixie Stix. Both hit an opponent, but one is dangerous while the other is almost cute and mostly stupid.

NY Times

“Ms. Feiffer [playwright] … delves into the mean-girl genre. The play features acne, licking, acne licking; drinking; vomiting; breast baring; and more as Ms. Feiffer makes sure everyone understands that this is no feel-good comedy.”

EW

“…guides your expectations so smoothly that you’re half-shocked to suddenly realize that the coming-of-middle-age comedy you were watching has stealthily morphed.”

“one scene that’s funny, nerve-wracking, and ballsy enough to justify the whole show.”

For men, torture is ballsy. For women, torture is weird (and let’s be clear, I could argue that SER is the more vicious, but at the very least they’re equivalent in violence). Oooh, men are fighting, I’m on the edge of my seat. Ladies going at it? What strange little creatures.

EW

“As the girls get older, their co-dependent habits only deepen and becoming more disturbing until, as the title suggests, their weird little world gets deadly.”

“The manic performances and the mind-numbing repetition of Feiffer’s script suggest that everyone involved had been encouraged to binge on Pixie Stix before coming into work.”

 

NY Post

“The new comic thriller “Small Engine Repair” isn’t subtle, but it more than makes up for it by being tawdry, nasty and fun…”

Who cares! A bro wrote a show! And it’s gross! Cool!

We’re treated to intense bro chatter spiced with nonstop swearing as the trio catch up.”

Bros that add “fucking” to every sentence are just bros, man!

New York Theatre Review

“Feiffer constructs her play to sidestep all but the most superficial conventions of realism. She isn’t interested in cause-and-effect, and her script doesn’t display either psychological truth or social insight. Instead, it uses a lurid form of melodrama

Where’s the depth, ladies? I expected more considering all that hemming and hawing you insist on doing.

potently combines inflated emotion with flat characterization.”

Shut those whiny girls up.

 

Now, I’m willing to concede that I’m digging too deeply. However, as a woman in the arts, it is stunningly rare to see honest portrayals of women like me onstage. I can go weeks without seeing anything that explores women without belittling them, and I see a lot of stuff. And this is just a co-issue with the lack of gender diversity in produced playwrights—12% of all plays produced in the US are written by women. Ergo, 88% of plays produced are written by men.

So seeing this kind of stuff gets me feisty. I get riled. I get angry. Because women are stepping up to the plate, onstage and off, and some brave producers are willing to give them a boost. But even still… we are so ingrained with faulty notions of gender that frequently we can’t see clearly at all. Certainly none of these (all-male, interestingly) reviewers could.

All she has to do is exist.

“‘You have the luxury of time. You’re young. Young people are doing something even when they’re doing nothing. A young woman is conduit. All she has to do is exist.’ You have time. Meaning don’t use it, but pass through time in patience, waiting for something to come. Prepare for its arrival. Don’t rush to meet it. Be a conduit. I believed him. I felt this to be true. Some people might consider that passivity but I did not. I considered it living.”
The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner

One of the strangest things about day-to-day life is how mundane it seems. I get up. I go to the gym. I go to work. I go home. I make soup. I watch bad TV. I try and get auditions. I go to bed. Ostensibly, “nothing” is going on in my life.

I never really listen to music, except when I’m doing something else, like playing a game on my iPad or cooking, and it’s even more rare that I listen to music while walking down the street. But the other night, I did. I was on the train, and an Iron & Wine song came on shuffle. Now, there are LOTS of songs that bring up memories for me. But all of a sudden, this song jerked me into taking a step back and actually looking at what this “nothing” really is. And I’m shocked to discover that these days– morning to night– that feel so devoid, so par for the course, are the building blocks for an amazing life.

Sometimes I feel that way in New York. This place is idealized by so many people (I, for one, never really did– I guess I just always assumed I’d be here, and didn’t fantasize about it at all), and this is where my “nothing” life takes place. The capital of the WORLD. I have to stop myself, often, and marvel at this city. I literally stop in the street sometimes, and look up at the skyscrapers, like a nerd, and think to myself, “I am living a life that others dream of. No matter what else I’m doing, being here is a success.” Because it is. Because New York is fucking hard.

Also, because I am someone who comes from a state with two professional theatres (yes, I said “state” and “two”), I can’t forget my artistic life here. I don’t know how many Broadway and off-Broadway shows I’ve seen for free. This year alone, examples include but are not limited to: Hands on a Hardbody, Romeo and Juliet, The Nance, The Testament of Mary, Little Miss Sunshine, Golden Boy, Picnic… I have seen Julie Andrews in a bathroom, given Liam Neeson back the hat he forgot in a theatre (he was so sweet about it), and seen Patti LuPone, Phylicia Rashad, James Earle Jones, Dianne Wiest, Ellen Burstyn, Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Christopher Lloyd, Fiona Shaw, Daniel Radcliffe, Richard Griffiths, Zosia Mamet, and ENDLESS MORE live onstage, often from a few rows back. How cool is that? And I’ve met some of them too. I did a reading with Anthony Rapp. I did a reading directed by Shirley Knight. Stephen Sondheim saw me act. (sorry, Braggy McGhee just got excited).

L received news that she will receive her last chemo treatment on December 17. That’s literally two years and ten days after her initial diagnosis. She texted me and asked me to be there. I will. And I’m can’t believe it. Walking with L down this path has been so strange and awful and important and… it’s hard to talk about. When I talk about it too much, I feel like I’m being a “poor me” jerk who thinks she was more important than she actually was. But I have to be honest– I was there for a LOT of it. Probably more than anyone else besides her parents. That’s not nothing. And cancer, like all diseases, is powerful. It is a nuclear bomb, and anyone who is nearby when it explodes is infected with radiation. And those of us who bear it, and live with it, uncomfortable though it is, emerge with superpowers. Like Spiderman. (someone shut me up)

Then “Now We Can See” by the Thermals came on as I was trudging up the subway stairs. The last song in the first show “my” company ever produced. 2010. We were very young, kinda dumb, but with enthusiasm and self-confidence, poured to overflowing into this strange group of young people. What a strange, wonderful first New York theatrical experience. We won awards and got raves, yes, which was amazing and thrilling and great, but even more special was the feeling that washed over all of us as we sang this song, stomping, clutching the mikes, shaking our styled hair, in one of the most historic theatres in New York. What was that feeling? A strange mix of confidence, hope, and more than anything, joy. We overflowed. Regardless of what would happen next, those moments in the Ellen Stewart Theatre were unforgettable.

I spent four years with my therapist, and now I’m phasing out. I think I have two more sessions. WHO KNEW I’d ever get to this point? I sure didn’t. I frankly didn’t know what I thought, but in the last four years, I’ve felt so far from “stable” that leaving wasn’t even a thought. But here I am. Moving forward, out of therapy, because I have done so much goddamn work. And that’s the most amazing thing– not, “oh my god, weirdo me is leaving therapy! Crazy!” but “Look at all this SHIT I had to fight through, tooth and nail, to get to this point. Look at how hard I worked. Look at all the time I spent fighting for the life I have now. I battled an eating disorder, crushing anxiety, self-hatred, depression, mania, self-injury in every way you can imagine, and I’ve come out the other side. And I have confidence that I can care for myself, for the first time in a long time. Isn’t THAT crazy?”

My life is nothing special to me, as I walk through it. And yet, I realize that I have walked through incredible forests, forded wild rivers. I am lucky to have it, and I am grateful. Overwhelmingly.

 

High school is where the heart is.

Where I went to school, everyone knew who they were. We were the best, and that was proven because we were there.

We had yet to feel the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

I see the faces now that were my family in those days, and I feel this thin, clear string, like a fishing line, that links me to them.

We are different now– a little longer, a little stiller, little duller in tone– but with something inside that can only come from being trusted with a future from the age of 16.

I touch these waists, these shoulders, and I feel how we’ve grown thicker, tougher. Real life has no mercy for the special. We have experienced love now, loss, disappointment and frustration. We are thicker because we’ve blistered, then calloused.

And yet we are here. We touch, we whisper, we giggle. My hand around her waist, her squeeze, her voice, is the same as it ever was. The gasps over kisses shared, the bluntness of our expressions of love, the easy comfort of each other’s company.

When you are sixteen and the best, you are untouchable.
And yet, everything touches you.

Every face is burned into your memory, every nice thing ever said, every hurtful moment. The wind on the lake. The smell of her room. The slippery concrete, iced over, between the cafeteria and your 8am class.

We grew up together. We formed a world in which only we existed.

College was wonderful. I made important, remarkable friends in college.

But to be sixteen and on our own, hemmed between two lakes, yet without the bind of the “real world” telling us who to be, we were special. Our parents let us go so we could become who we are.

There is nothing like that place, and those years, in the entire world. We built it, and it’s stronger than that land, those buildings, or any one of us. If we went back it wouldn’t be there.

Where it is now is at a bar on Orchard Street, with arms wrapped around each other, easy laughter and genuine interest in each other’s minutiae. It is in a rehearsal room on 29th street, where suddenly you are not alone; the you of those moments when things started to become clear, are known by someone. It is in a Facebook message, where the years are no deterrent to the pull of that thin fishing line.

I am lucky. Not because I got to go to Interlochen, not that I was deemed “special,” not that I had good friends there. I am special because I was allowed the space to discover what was special about me. I never worried about “what I wanted,” because I had it. All that was left to me was creating the community I wanted to be with me for life. All I had to do was find my family.

And I did. I found Nora, Rebeca, Will, Drew, Auden, Holly, Warren, Tor. Even the ones who scared me– Loralee, Caroline, Chase– they are my family. We shared the moments in our lives when we began to realize who we were. We were there for the surprises, the meltdowns, the times when we suddenly realized what success, what struggle, what love WAS.

That can’t be replicated. I will never, never, have anything like what Interlochen was again. I had those years, and they live in me now. They will, forever.

I was sixteen and the best, and now I am 24 and ostensibly just like everyone else. And yet, I feel that fishing line, tugging, tight and secure, that binds me to the people and the moments when I realized who I was becoming.

These are my people. This is my universe.

My Universes

I am a participant in so many tiny universes.

Today is A’s 28th birthday. Over the Labor Day weekend, we were at his parents’ house in PA. We drove to Annapolis to see his brother compete in a drum corps competition, we golfed nine holes at the local course, ate a lot of shitty food, played board games, and dipped in the little pool. This has been a world I never could have expected to be a part of– one that is in countless ways different from the others. It’s a humbling place to be.

On Monday night, I went to see L’s play. This is the girl who, almost two years ago, was diagnosed with Aggressive T-Cell Lymphoblastic Lymphoma. I was there for her diagnosis, I was there when she checked into the hospital, I was there on her 23rd birthday when she was so frail and thin that she looked like a ghost, tubes coming out of her arms and chest, food pumped directly into her stomach. I was there when she wrote a short scene, very Ruhl, very Fornes, about a year ago. And now, that scene is a play, and that play was accepted into a festival, and I saw the closing performance, with L in the lead. I cried the whole way through, not meaning to, but unable to stop. It wasn’t sadness, either… more like pride. Admiration. I’m not sure I would have the strength and momentum to throw myself into life after the terror of the last two years. But L did it, and it was magnificent. I feel privileged to live close to her heart.

My parents are coming up for Thanksgiving. My dad hasn’t been to the city since I graduated over two years ago. I’m looking forward to it. I do miss them, but I also want them to feel like a part of my life. Whether or not I’m calling every other day or telling my secrets, I am a part of their universe as they are a part of mine.

I have a universe at work, where the students know me (some as an administrator, some as an actor, some as a peer), and the faculty know me (partly as an administrator, partly as a student, partly as a colleague). I waft through the halls in perfect comfort here, sometimes remembering as I pass ID services the night that I sat with a boy as he played his uke for me, drunken nights in the studios, crying with frustration in acting class in the black box. I have been many things in these places, but they are now mine.

My high school friends, my roommates and peers, sometimes close and sometimes just seen from a distance, live on in social media posts. They also live on television, onstage, in the news. Beyonce’s sax player lived on my hall. One of Buzzfeed’s hottest twins played my brother in a Shakespeare play. One of the princesses in Shakespeare in the Park this summer ate cheerios from the box with me in bed one night. Even people I wasn’t with in school inhabit the same small universe.

Looking at A’s Facebook page today, loaded with those lovely “Happy Birthday!”s that pop up through the day, I noticed my universes converging. That’s how life goes, I guess, and love is the catalyst for it. Actors I worked with last summer post greetings after friends from college share their blessings. A knows these people and they know him because I exist. I love A, so I bring him places. I love my friends, so I make a point to go to those places.

I know I’m not the only one with these many orbiting galaxies, meshing and meeting, with only me, my strange and special life, at the center. How did I become someone whose world has so much variance? It makes me feel good. It makes me feel like I exist.

Summer Showers

A huge droplet of water slapped the sidewalk in front of me, and I sidestepped towards the street, squinting upwards. A/C pee. I walked past the Post Office, and I felt another, like a single finger tapping the top of my head. As quickly as it took for me to look up from the ground at the offending tapper, the cement in front of me was being painted with quarter-sized water stains, dark at their center with just a bit of excess splashing in tiny pinpricks around the nucleus. The sky above the Trump Tower was bright– not the cloudless blue of many early mornings in the NYC summer, when the sun begins to burn the dew off the lawns of Central Park, but the earnest gray-blue of a sun that can’t decide whether it’s shining or crying.

As with all sudden shifts in climate in the city– whether a rainstorm, a traffic jam, or a celebrity leaving his theatre in Schubert Alley– the people began to move in flocks. They swept in running packs across Broadway, and huddled under the Starbucks awning, arm to arm with fellow refugees.

By now, the wet, round stains on the sidewalk had been washed into floods, rivulets of water coursing down the streets into the gutters, pooling in dips in the cement, ceaselessly pockmarked with the fall of new droplets. I wanted to stand in the center of the sidewalk and let the rain batter me with cool wetness, my shirt clinging to my back, face wiped clean of makeup, sandaled toes nearly submerged in a growing puddle. But I’m self-conscious in this city– surrounded by "others."

My one rebellion was to walk at a normal pace, to keep my chin up, to not avoid the backsplash from hundreds of feet slapping the saturated pavement. I reached the 59th Street station, and there was a rotunda of commuters, staring up, squinty-eyed, just as I glared, frustrated, toward a phantom A/C dripping mild water on my head. I push past them and swipe into the station, scraping my wet hair across my face, and smile.

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How the fuck am I supposed to do this? How am I not too broken to be another person’s one person?

On Jun 20, 2013, at 5:26 PM, Awrote:

As of late, due to the general hectic-ness of life, you’ve been feeling your feelings. Which is great.

Because of you feeling your feelings, you’ve been more internal as you’ve been going through the world. Also fine – totally understandable.

I think what I’m feeling is just a sense of being left out. Often I find, whether I’m the one coming home or the one home already, when I ask about your day and things that have happened, I’m getting a short answer in response and that’s about it. However, I’m often looking to discuss it a bit more.

For example, today: it was your first rehearsal for a new play. Granted, you didn’t do much and you were reading through the play-within-the-play, but I guess I was expecting more conversational traction from that – people in the cast, your expectations, any other design stuff that wasn’t brought up, your general thoughts.
Now, if you’d prefer not to talk about it, I understand and I don’t mean to nag or place pressure; it’s just an example of how I’ve been feeling of late. I miss you. In no circumstance am I trying to make you uncomfortable, or would i want you to be anything but real with me –

I know there’s a lot happening right now and if you really do need all that space I will most assuredly grant you that and do whatever I can to be of help or comfort. I just wanted to let you know what was going on in my head and how I’ve been feeling. Bear in mind this all may certainly be magnified by what I’m going through and how I’ve been pretty non-social of late, but it’s still what’s going on with me.

Also there’s just that silly part of me that wants to make sure everything is really ok.

So much love,
A
xoxo

On Thu, Jun 20, 2013 at 6:24 PM, B wrote:

Lover,

I appreciate this email more than you know. Sometimes it’s easier to get thoughts and feelings out in writing– I know that’s the case for me– and you reaching out like this reminds me how much you do care. It also helps me understand better how you’re feeling. I want to know how you’re feeling, especially when what I’m doing effects you.

Frankly, I don’t know what to say. I don’t know why I feel this way. I hate that it pulls us apart. I don’t know why I don’t want to talk. Maybe it’s because I genuinely don’t have anything to say. Or I feel like I don’t have anything to say. Right now, I don’t have opinions. I don’t want to "do" anything. I’m not interested in anything. I’ve mentioned to you how the world can feel like "too much" for me at times. This is one of those times.

I’m not okay, babe. I’m never going to be completely "okay." We can pretend that mental illness is like Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook, but it’s not. It’s quiet and pervasive and distancing. It’s not cute. This email took me over an hour to write because I literally have no words. Nothing I could say could possibly be worth saying.

I feel like this is bullshit and sounds like I’m trying to "excuse" my behavior, which I know makes you feel left out and isolated. I wish I could tell you why, and I wish I could tell you how I was going to fix it. I can try. I WILL try, and I’ll do my best.

I’ve never spent this much time with anyone. I sort of include my parents. For most of my time at home, they found me utterly unbearable. It wasn’t until I moved out that we had a relationship at all. This EXACTLY is why Chris broke up with me. This is what got me down to 90 pounds and got me to cut myself up. I’m terrified that I’m hurting you, and I’m terrified that I’m pushing you away. I am terrified that I don’t know how to weather these patches with someone else. As you can see from the whole of this paragraph, I have NEVER done so successfully.

I don’t expect you to respond to this. I know I’m an over sharer and I’m already second-guessing myself. But there’s also a part of me that feels like if I can muscle out SOMETHING, that’s better than the nothing i’ve been giving you.

I recommend reading this blog article. http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com/2013/05/depression-part-two.html

I love you more than anything. I have never loved so hard and so deep. I promise to continue to try and let you in.

Your B.

Dearheart,

I know and understand as much as I can. I’m not sure if recent events in life have exacerbated the distancing, because – to be honest – it’s never felt as much as it has the past week or two. (Unless I’m just in some kind of place because of edit-stress that allowed me to feel it fully.) But either way, I just wanted to let you know about it.

I love you. I love how much you love me, and the way that you love me. I know you’re trying to be the best, most productive you you can be. Remember that I like and love the you that you always are.

I’m so happy we’re life-sharers.

Can’t wait to kiss you tonight.

A

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