The Alpha Couple- a play inspired by the Mountain Goats’ album ‘Tallahassee’
A dilapidated old house, frugally furnished with a sink, a fridge, a desk with a chair and a bed. It is dark inside, because the only windows are drawn across with some hideous curtains; however we can tell that outside the sunlight is harsh and bright. It’s early in the afternoon and the temperature is sweltering. Cicada noises echo through the building. There is no other sound.
A car pulls up. Out of it step JACK and LARA, each carrying boxes. Both are in their twenties, and look exhausted- they’ve clearly been travelling for some time.
JACK awkwardly holds his box in one arm as he reaches into his pocket for the keys to the house. He unlocks the front door.
JACK: Home sweet home.
He plonks the box down on the ground and collapses onto the bed in an over-dramatic display of exhaustion. LARA is taking items out of her box and arranging them around the room.
LARA: We’re going to have to give it a new paint job.
JACK: Well, what did we expect? They always tell you to look at the house before you buy it.
LARA: It was cheap, we’d have bought it if there was a hole in the roof.
JACK: How do we know there isn’t?
LARA goes to pull back the curtains.
JACK: Hey, what are you doing?
LARA: Getting a better look at this shithole we’ve got to live in.
JACK: Are you crazy? You’ll let all the heat in. Just turn the light on.
LARA: We haven’t put lightbulbs in yet.
She tears the curtain open, and a harsh beam of light falls onto JACK’s face. He yelps and hides his face in the mattress.
JACK: (Melodramatically) The liiiight! It burns!!
LARA: (Laughs) Right, Count Dracula, let’s see what we’ve got here.
She walks around the room, inspecting the peeling wallpaper, the creaking floorboards, the chipped paint around the doorframes. She sinks onto the bed with a groan.
JACK sits up with a burst of energy and starts unpacking things from his box. He takes out an old laptop computer and places it on the desk. He feels around in the box for the next item- it’s a bottle of whisky.
LARA: We’re going to need more than that for dinner.
JACK: Want a bit now?
LARA: It’s two in the afternoon.
JACK: Who gives a shit? I’m exhausted. (He starts to pour himself a glass.)
LARA: You’re a fucking alcoholic.
JACK: (Smirks) People in glass houses, Lara…
LARA: I’m going to get groceries. Something for dinner. (Sarcastically) On the off chance you’re still conscious.
JACK: (muttering) Hypocrite.
JACK: So you’re saying you never drink in the afternoon, I never come home to find you cradling a half-drunk bottle of Riesling?
LARA: You come home from where? You never leave the goddamn house.
JACK: Avoiding the question!
LARA: When was the last time you did anything but sit on your arse and stare at the computer screen? There’s a reason this was the only place we could afford.
JACK: I’m working! (He senses this is a lie as he says it) I’m… writing.
LARA: I’m going to the supermarket.
She marches out the door, and slams it behind her. The noise of the car driving away.
JACK: (Calling after her) Don’t crash the car.
He gets up, glass of whisky still in his hand, and turns on the laptop. He pauses, staring blankly at the screen for a moment.
JACK: Here lies Jack Calfer, poet. (He downs the whisky.) Cause of death; stifling heat, severe alcoholism, lack of inspiration. (Under his breath, musing) She was my private mystery, an enigma shrouded in myth… Erato!
He gets up and pours himself another glass.
My muse. It’s clichéd but that’s what she was to me. Erato, the muse of lyric poetry, in human form as Lara Ferriman. A tilt of her head was a whole quatrain, I could have written sonnets on the way she bit her lower lip when she was worried. And one day I woke up and she was a woman.
He closes the laptop again.
Married two years and I’ve written three poems.
The car pulls up again. LARA reappears, holding two bags of groceries as she opens the door.
LARA: There’s more in the car.
JACK goes out and brings in a few more bags. They silently unload them into the fridge.
LARA: (Awkwardly) Jack, I’m… sorry. Your writing is your work. I guess I’m just tired or something.
JACK: We’re both tired. It’s been a long day.
LARA: And it’s just so hot.
JACK: It’s fucking hot.
LARA: (looks at the unfinished glass on the desk) How much did you drink?
JACK: Only one.
LARA: (Disbelieving) Really.
JACK: That’s the second.
LARA: Whatever. (Beat) I may as well have one too.
She pours herself a glass and brings JACK his.
JACK: Almost three in the afternoon, you realise.
LARA: Practically evening. I was just worried… you know, about what the neighbours would think. We just moved in.
JACK: They’re all holed up inside anyway, no one goes out in this heat.
LARA: That’s true. Anyway, this isn’t the classiest neighbourhood. Everyone at the supermarket was walking about shirtless in jandals.
JACK: Women too?
LARA: (Laughs) You wish.
JACK: (Kissing her) If it’s still this hot tomorrow, you should try it.
LARA: And drive you mad with jealousy, eh?
JACK: I’m too straightforward for that. I’m the kind that kills any man I see eyeing up my woman.
LARA: It’s your artistic temperament. Challenge them to a duel.
JACK: Run them through with a broadsword.
They laugh. JACK kisses LARA, pressing her down softly onto the bed. LARA’s phone rings in her pocket, suddenly and loudly.
LARA: Hold on.
She wriggles free and stands up to take the call.
LARA: Hello? Oh, hi, yeah. Uh huh. Well that shouldn’t be any problem. Yes, alright. Okay, well I guess I’ll see you then.
LARA: (Nods) Steven wants me to come in this evening.
JACK: You told them we were moving today, right?
LARA: Yeah, but it’s only going to be a couple of hours, I said I’d go.
JACK: A couple of hours? God, Lara.
LARA: It’s my job! I have to work.
JACK: You don’t have to work nearly as often as you do. He’s got you at his beck and call, this Steven guy-
LARA: If I don’t keep my job then neither of us has one, do we.
JACK: (Dangerously) What else have you been doing to keep this job?
LARA: Don’t you dare accuse me-
JACK: I’m not accusing you of anything. Why, is there something you want to tell me?
They stare each other down. JACK breaks eye contact and starts toward the door.
LARA: Where are you going?
JACK: Out for a smoke.
LARA stands rigidly, as she watches him go. After a pause she goes to her box and starts pulling out picture frames, placing them about the room.
LARA: I was a twenty-one year old girl. Always doing the right thing, doing what is expected of me. Did well in school, went on to university, studying economics. Never took drugs, never smoked a cigarette, never broke a boy’s heart, never impulsive, never selfish. One day I’m at a bar and I meet this wild, romantic poet, who teases me that I’ve ‘never lived’. He calls me out for being hopelessly sheltered and he’s right, of course. I had never lived. And he knew that even when he asked me to marry him.
She stops for a moment.
So, when do I get my chance to live?
The next day, the heat of the afternoon. The curtains are drawn again, as LARA is at work, and so is JACK. The whisky is depleted to half full next to JACK as he types, shirtless, at the computer. He looks into the screen like it’s an oracle, pleading for it to divulge some kind of meaning. With a frustrated groan he gives up.
JACK: No use, no fucking use.
I can’t write about her. But I can’t write about anything else. Look at this bullshit. (He reads from the screen) Fluttering bright above the heavens, a traffic light in a storm, a single tranquil butterfly. (He closes the computer angrily) Bullshit. Butterflies? Writing about Lara makes my brain implode. But it’s better than this saccharine, pastoral trash.
He throws himself down on the ground, looking up at the ceiling.
How do you describe the indescribable? I’m painting a picture of God. You can’t do it. A sane person can’t. (Beat) Then let me go insane.
LARA comes in the door, her handbag over her shoulder.
LARA: You’re drunk.
JACK: You’re beautiful.
LARA: I’m beautiful when you’re drunk? That’s to be expected.
JACK gets up unsteadily and kisses her passionately.
JACK: I missed you today.
He attempts to unbutton her jeans, but she pushes him away.
LARA: Not when you’re drunk.
She strides over to the window and pulls at the curtains. They’re made shoddily and the curtain rail falls down as she tugs.
LARA: Shit. Shit!
She attempts to hoist the curtain back up, but it all comes crashing down. LARA crumples; the sight of the curtains seems to affect her in some profound way and she starts sobbing. JACK, confused at first, approaches her.
JACK: They’re just curtains.
LARA: I know they are, I know…
JACK: (Comforting her) No use crying.
LARA: It’s this house, it’s this heat… It’s you being off your face when I come home.
JACK: I’m sorry, I’m sorry…
LARA: I hate this. I hate it. My life wasn’t supposed to be so… I was supposed to ride off into the sunset with you. I was supposed to start living, and experiencing things, and I don’t know. Eating pizza in Italy.
JACK: You want to go to Italy? Okay, okay, we can save up-
LARA: No it’s not that. You don’t understand- can’t understand. You had a life before you met me. I had never lived. You told me that. Then you come and steal my life right out of my clutches.
JACK: How is it my fault?
LARA: You trapped me. You married me. Now the only life I can have is being your wife. My life is a stagnant pool of water; I’m evaporating in the heat, and someday I’ll die and will have done nothing but be married to you.
JACK: At least you have something!
LARA: And you don’t?
JACK: Before I married you I was brilliant. I was a rising star, I was going to be world-renowned, and then I met you. My inspiration. For six months I wrote verse upon verse about your fathomless eyes, your wine-dark lips. I thought it would last forever, I thought if we married I could write about you for the rest of my life, but somehow you tricked me.
LARA: I tricked you!
JACK: Yes, you tricked me. Somehow you went to sleep my muse and woke up my wife, and now all I can write about are my memories. You drained me of my talent and now I’m nothing.
There is silence.
LARA: Well, go ahead then. Leave me.
JACK: Why don’t you?
For a long moment, their eyes meet. Neither is willing to break the connection. As if on cue, LARA’s phone rings. She gives a pained look as she picks it up.
LARA: Hi Steven.
JACK: Don’t go in. Please, Lara.
LARA: Okay, I can come in just for a minute. Yes. Alright, see you in five.
She hangs up the phone and avoids JACK’s eye contact as she grabs her handbag.
JACK: How long have you been sleeping with him?
JACK: Your boss. It’s written all over your face.
LARA: Don’t do this now, Jack.
JACK: You bitch.
LARA: Jack, please.
JACK: Anything you’ve said, anytime you said you loved me, was a lie. From what you said before I know it was a lie. So do you love him?
LARA: I don’t! And I never said I didn’t love you.
JACK: It sure sounded like it.
LARA: What about what you said? I tricked you and sucked out all your talent? How does that even work, do you keep it in your dick?
JACK: Fuck you, I knew you wouldn’t understand.
LARA: I understand that you hate me, that you absolutely hate me, and you never loved me. Even when you proposed you were thinking about your work, your fucking work!
JACK: I don’t hate you, I resent what you did to me.
LARA: (Sarcastically) Oh, you resent me! Well that’s alright then!
JACK: If I didn’t love you, then why would I care so much that some prick is fucking you down at the office?
LARA: If you loved me then I wouldn’t be fucking him!
JACK slaps her across the face. LARA raises her hand softly to her face as both of them realise what has happened.
JACK: Oh god, oh god…
LARA: Get away from me.
JACK: I’m sorry, Lara… oh my god I’m so sorry…
LARA grabs her handbag and walks slowly toward the door. In the doorway she stops and turns.
LARA: I’ve never hated you so much as I do now.
She walks out.
Night. JACK is pouring bottles of alcohol down the sink. While doing so he is quietly sobbing. LARA enters, from the front door. Her cheek is slightly red from where she was hit.
LARA: I’ve come to get some of my stuff. I’m… staying in a motel. Not with Steven.
JACK: Okay. (Beat) I know this won’t make any difference, but I’m not drinking anymore. Not after what happened.
LARA: Thank you. I guess.
During the next few lines LARA is moving around the apartment, collecting items and putting them into her box.
JACK: I don’t know why I did that. It wasn’t because I hate you, or resent you or anything. I didn’t mean it.
LARA: You meant it when you did it.
JACK: Did you mean everything you said?
LARA: When I said it, yes.
JACK: I love you.
LARA: (Stops in her tracks.) What?
JACK: I don’t think I’ve said that in a long time. And I do mean it.
They face each other.
LARA: Ever since we got married I’ve wanted to get out of it. Run away. Leave all this shit behind.
JACK: Leave me behind.
LARA: No. What I want, more than anything in the world, is to run. And for you to chase me. I think that’s where I’m happiest. I’ve never loved you more than in those months before you proposed, when we were in love, but still individuals. We weren’t a couple, it was just you and I, and I was free and you were chasing me. That’s what writing is, isn’t it?
JACK: It’s what?
LARA: Chasing someone. Trying to pin them down on paper before they fly away. Then you caught me and you couldn’t write, and I couldn’t run.
JACK: Yes. That’s what it is. What we were. A hunter feels nothing but contempt for a captured prey.
LARA: And a caged bird resents its cage… even when it loves its captor.
JACK: You did love me once?
LARA: Sometimes I think I still do. Other times I’m not so sure.
They sit in silence for a moment. Cicadas echo through the still night, punctuating the couple’s thoughts.
JACK: You bring out the worst in me.
LARA: I know. (Beat). When I’m gone, will you write again?
JACK: I hope so. (Beat). I’ll keep chasing you.
She gets up, kisses him softly, picks up her box and walks out the door. JACK looks after her.
JACK: There were moments, even then, that I hated her; that I wanted to howl at the injustice of her leaving me. There were also moments when I wanted to kneel before her and beg her to stay. She was an addiction worse than cigarettes or alcohol. She was beauty and pain and God and festering cruelty, all of them and all at once to me, and in the same breath I wanted to worship her and make love to her and strangle her and blame her for everything that went wrong in my life.
LARA comes onstage, outside of reality; JACK can’t see her.
LARA: We were poisonous to each other, delicious and evil and deadly. We seduced each other, we tore at each other. He set me free and caged me in one swift movement. He placed me on a pedestal and trampled me into the dust, and I hated that I loved him anyway.
JACK: I wanted to leave her, to escape into a haze of unconsciousness, but she haunted my dreams, and then I missed her when I woke up.
LARA: I wanted to hurt him, to tear his heart to shreds and see him buckle under the torture; and then I wanted to comfort him and nurse him back to health.
JACK: I wanted her to die. And I wanted to die with her.
LARA: And somehow I escaped. But when I run, I can always see his shadow on the road beside me-
JACK: Gaining on her-
LARA: Every day a little nearer-
JACK: Arms outstretched-
LARA: Ready to catch me at last…
First of all, I should say that I managed to read this whole thing. It really grabbed my attention and you should be proud of that. By the end...I was moved, believe me. You did a great job creating characters that were BELIEVABLE, and by the aforementioned end I felt, well, really bad for them both.
Just a random tidbit here as well: about two-thirds of the way through the play I expected it to be a "love is more important than your job" kind of thing. I'm glad you didn't take it in that direction, TBH.
I also enjoyed reading it. I do wonder about the possibility of looking for more subtlety in the disintegration. Everything seems to be laid out neatly and works well, but if there were any lingering to the story we might be even more consumed by it.
This all comes with the caveat that I like what I read and only want more so I can keep reading.