Day: October 3, 2018

New Galilee

Everything reminds me of everyone.

For example, today I was listening to music through a set of wireless headphones while I was working, and the song “Saints Preservus” by Andrew Bird came on and it made think of Elena Brücker, who I used to be in love with, even though my memory of her has nothing to do with the song. The song is actually from a more recent album of Bird’s, Are You Serious, released in 2016, long after I walked out of the lives of everyone I used to know, including Elena Brücker, and into the lives of everyone I know now. My wife is one of the people I know now. So is her best friend. One day in the early fall of 2016, my wife, her best friend, and I drove a hundred miles to see Andrew Bird perform a set of songs from Are You Serious. After the concert we stayed at the apartment of a friend of mine, getting in close to or after midnight, a little drunk, and fell asleep: my wife on the couch, her best friend on the other couch (my friend had two couches, maybe still has two couches—I haven’t been to his place since he moved to Los Angeles a year ago), and me on an air mattress on the hardwood floor. I woke sometime around 3am to pee and my wife’s best friend was still awake, looking at her phone. I could tell she was on her phone by the glow of it on her face, but I couldn’t see her face itself because my vision without contacts or glasses is dreadful.

A few months earlier—Fourth of July weekend—my wife and I had travelled with her best friend to her best friend’s family’s lakehouse. That weekend I realized I was in love with her, my wife’s best friend. I wrote a book about it.

A long time ago, about a year before I was in love with Elena Brücker, I was in love with Jamie Carney. Jamie Carney introduced me to Andrew Bird. She put the song “Masterfade” from his album Andrew Bird & the Mysterious Production of Eggs (2005, Righteous Babe) on a playlist. She made two playlists: “Gloriously the Slow One” and “Some Not So Slow Songs I Have Fallen in Love With.” I don’t know what happened to “Gloriously the Slow One.” Probably my best friend from those days took it and hid it somewhere or threw it away. I think Jamie Carney was in love with him. I was in love with her, but she was definitely in love with him. Probably too I was in love with him, in that small heterosexual way a man is often in love with his best friend, especially when his best friend is thinner and stronger and better looking than he is, and undeniably pretty.

I still have “Some Not So Slow Songs.” I don’t have it on purpose—like, I didn’t hold onto it intentionally out of some sense of nostalgia, I don’t need to hold onto things because they remind me of some person or time; I am not a nostalgic person; I own not a single photograph, neither digital nor physical, from those days—but somehow the playlist is still on my phone, after all these years, transferred from cloud service to cloud service, a background task, happening without my knowledge but with my inexplicit consent. Here is the tracklist for “Some Not So Slow Songs I Have Fallen In Love With—A Playlist by Jamie Carney”:

  1. For Nancy — Pete Yorn
  2. Unless It’s Kicks — Okkervil River
  3. Bridge and Tunnel — The Honorary Title
  4. Masterfade — Andrew Bird
  5. Meantime — The Futureheads
  6. Son’s Gonna Rise — Citizen Cope
  7. Fork and Knife — Brand New
  8. Eyes Like a Levee — Johnny Irion
  9. Periscopes — The Beautiful Girls
  10. Music — The Beautiful Girls
  11. Baby’s Got Sauce — G. Love
  12. The Bucket — Kings of Leon
  13. Being There — The Stills
  14. Let’s Roll — The Stills
  15. Secret Smile — Semisonic
  16. Sweet Pea — Amos Lee
  17. Seven — The Long Winters
  18. Flake — Jack Johnson

Consider the above a soundtrack, if you’d like, even though soundtracks for books are dumb and I will not be an enabler. If you want to listen to the above playlist, you’ll have to make it yourself. Break it yourself. Speak for yourself. 

And don’t waste your time trying to find the hidden link between these words and the lyrics of those songs. There is none. I’m not that clever. I wish I was that clever, and I’ve tried to be that clever, tried to write a book like that, but I’m not capable of it. Besides, it’s been done before. To death. The above is just a playlist from another time. I probably shouldn’t even have included the tracklist here. 

You know what? You should just ignore it, pretend I named neither the songs nor their artists. It’s all worthless information, significant of nothing. I promise.

Anyway, Jamie made this playlist, and the other, lost, slow one, for my best friend, Gus. She gave them to him on a thumb drive. He copied them to his hard drive and then returned her thumb drive. Then I gave him a thumb drive of my own and he copied the playlists to my thumb drive and I copied them to my hard drive. And in that way I told myself that Jamie Carney had made me a couple of playlists. And I fell in love with her. I fell in love with her because of her taste in music and because of her two dogs and her swimming pool and because of her white Mazda and her love of coffee and because of the way she could swing dance. I lived in Youngstown, Ohio, at the time, and so did Gus, and nearly every weekend we would drive to Pittsburgh, where our other friends lived, and swing dance. It was Jamie’s idea, and Steve’s, and Alexander’s, and Jessica McClain’s, and maybe one time Elena Brücker did join us, but it wasn’t her thing, you could tell.

Before dancing, there were lessons. I missed the first lesson. Gus went without me. My parents wouldn’t let me go. Didn’t want me driving so far. I was seventeen. They didn’t trust me with a car. I’d only just finally gotten my license. Not because I didn’t want it but because they wouldn’t let me. My first car was a teal Pontiac Sunfire. With a pink racing stripe. I hadn’t yet driven it further than my high school or the restaurant at which I worked. My parents were afraid, I’m sure, that, were I to drive from Youngstown to Pittsburgh, I might get hurt. I hadn’t yet proven myself as a motorist. Two weeks later I ran into a tow truck, to their credit. So I told them Gus would drive—“He’s had his license nearly two years”—but they were not persuaded. So Gus went without me.

When he came back he showed me what he’d learned. Move your left foot like this, your right like this. Hold the other person like this. “Here,” he said, “you need to learn how to lead, so for right now I’ll pretend to be the woman, give me a second to figure it out.” And how easily he did figure it out: just take what you’d learned and do the opposite, look at yourself in a mirror, see how good you are at one thing and then be good at it another way.

I was good at little. I’d shown a certain predilection for art, sketching and doodling, especially faces and bodies, although I could never nail down composition, could never place subjects aesthetically on a page. Writing came easy, even if putting in the work did not. But most other things I had no talent for. Certainly not music. Certainly not dancing. 

The next week no one went swing dancing. Nor the week after that. But the following week everyone was on board again, and by then I’d convinced my parents to let me go.

Gus drove. His Toyota Scion. A box of a car. Feminine yet clunky. We listened during the drive  to Pittsburgh to artists like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and big-band standards like the song from the Chips Ahoy! commercial. “You’re going to love this,” Gus promised me.

I could not get the rhythm at first. One-two-backstep. One-two-backstep. But eventually it came to me, never mind that I’d forget it the following week. But eventually it seemed to stick. The dance was not so difficult. If you timed it right you could do fancy little movements on the backstep: spin your partner round and round, bring her into the crook of your arm and kick your leg out and then step back again and throw her forward, just don’t let go of her hand. And if you were Gus or Steve you could let go of her hand, because you had nailed the impressive technique where you could then, almost telepathically, bring her back to you, just in time for the final note of the song, concurrent with which you’d engage your partner in a shallow dip, or a deep dip if you were strong enough, and everyone would applaud, and your dance partner would say thank you.

If you dance with someone or have sex with someone and afterwards they do not say “thank you” you have done something wrong and probably should never dance or have sex again. But if they do say thank you, you can say “you’re welcome.” And if they say thank you but you know they don’t mean it, that they did not enjoy themselves, but they say thank you anyway, then you know at least they like you, or pity you, and may even dance with you again, next time, if no one else will and you look very lonely.

We started to get really into the dancing. We watched the movie Swing Kids and started dressing in three-piece suits and wearing fedoras. Gus could pull off a fedora. Alexander and Steve started wearing zoot suits: bright red suits with pinstripes and huge lapels and jackets down nearly to their knees. Alexander could get away with them because of his dark skin. Steve because of his sheer audacity. The girls wore black dresses and red dresses and light blue dresses. Gus once pulled off a move where he picked up a woman and spun her around him like a hoola hoop before catching her again in the crook of his arm. He tried it again some weeks later on Jamie Carney, but this time he missed the catch and she fell and in a panic she bit his upper arm, nearly taking with her a chunk of flesh, and somehow the whole thing to them was funny, almost romantic. Gus knew I was in love with Jamie Carney and that she was almost definitely in love with him, but he was not in love with her and he felt bad, he told me, because there was nothing he could do about her feelings. 

Somewhere in there I turned 18.

One Sunday morning, around 1:30 am, we were driving back from Pittsburgh. By now I’d convinced my parents to let me drive sometimes, so this night we were in my Sunfire. We had the iPod plugged in. The Sunfire didn’t have a built-in auxiliary jack; I instead had purchased one of those cassette tapes with a cable sticking out of it, and the cable plugged into the phone and relayed the music to the car’s inadequate sound system. I’d tried using a wireless device that streamed the iPod’s music over FM radio, but the results had been unpredictable. We were playing “Gloriously the Slow One” at near-full volume. We were singing with the music. Sometimes Gus and I would belt out songs together during nighttime drives. There was something raw about it, emotional. We were particularly fond of Irish singer-songwriters—Damien Rice, Glenn Hansard—whose songs seemed always to start so soft, so melancholy, and end in a heartbreaking, guttural yell. We would yell with them. Together we’d share that release. It was therapy, yelling at the night at 1 am. Years later, I would become friends with an Irish singer-songwriter. I would write a press release for him. One of his songs would be my wedding song.

Gus and I were yelling. The music was turned up very loud. A fog rolled in. We were not so far from home, somewhere between Homewood and New Galilee. We passed the Sandwich Factory and the Burger King, and at a red light the high-beams of the driver behind us cut dimly through the heavy mist. The traffic light turned green and I accelerated. Gus reached over and turned the volume up. At the next intersection I made a right turn. Half a mile later those high-beams were still behind me; diffused through the infinite suspended water droplets, they were prismatic. In my rear-view mirror they were especially blinding. They dimmed, and then they flashed bright again. Dimmed again. Flashed.

“What’s the deal with this asshole?” I said.

Gus laughed. “I think you’re not going fast enough. I think he wants you to go faster.”

I accelerated further, leveling out around 85. I drove another half mile. The asshole continued to flash his lights.

“That’s dangerous,” I said. “What the hell does he think he’s doing?”

“Yeah,” Gus stopped his singing to say, finally looking concerned. “You should probably let him pass.”

We were on a two-lane road. I slowed. The other driver matched our speed, did not pass us. We couldn’t see his car; he was still to us just a pair of phantom, aggressive headlights.

But then, puppeteered by the outstretched staff of Moses, the sea of fog before us split in two. We could see the road, the cornfields on either side of us, the stars above.

“Dude,” Gus said. “That’s a cop.”

Red and blue lights, before enshrouded in cruel mist, flashed behind us.

Gus turned the music down, turned it way down, and we could hear the sirens.

“Well, shit.”

Understand this: We were two young males out very early on a Sunday morning, driving a teal Pontiac Sunfire with a pink racing stripe through rural Pennsylvania, going 65 in a 45. A highway patrolman pulls in behind us after buying a spicy chicken sandwich. He wants nothing but to eat his spicy chicken sandwich. He sees us speeding, follows us a quarter mile before finally realizing we aren’t going to slow. He flashes his headlights at us. Kindly. A warning across our stern. We go faster. Eighty-five in a 45. Honestly, maybe 90. He resigns himself to the fact that his spicy chicken sandwich is going to get cold before he has a chance to eat it. When he approaches the car, he finds us sitting there in our three-piece suits and striped fedoras. I’m trembling—I’ve never been pulled over before.

Neither Gus nor I spoke during the ride to the Beaver County Jail. The patrolman muttered occasionally into his CB radio. The Beaver County Jail was back in Aliquippa, 20 miles in the direction from whence we’d come. Closer to Pittsburgh than Youngstown. Closer to far away than home.

I’d never been arrested before. Gus had never been arrested before. And through the present, as far as I know, Gus has never been arrested again.[ But the narrator has. This is important. This must be a climax of some kind]

The patrolman escorted us through the police department’s front entrance, into a lobby that looked like any other lobby except there were fewer people, more stacks of papers, and more glass and walls around what in a different building would have been the receptionist’s desk. We were not wearing handcuffs. 

“Stand here,” the patrolman said, maneuvering us in front of a pillar the drywall of which was the yellow-green of mucous and crumbling in places. He walked to the glass partition. “Arlene,” he said.

“Joe.”

“You gonna let me in back or what, Arlene?”

“You sound like my husband.”

“Arlene . . .”

She extended her arm, touched something I couldn’t see. A buzzer sounded and a door to the inner parts of the building swung open slowly, as if it were made of iron, not wood. But it was clearly made of wood.

Gus moved to follow Patrolman Joe, and I to follow Gus. “Stay put,” Patrolman Joe said.

We moved back to the pillar.

Through the glass I could see Joe and Arlene talking. I could hear them mumbling, but couldn’t make out the words. Joe disappeared and Arlene followed. I looked at Gus. He shrugged.

“This is odd,” I said.

“A little bit,” he said.

“Couldn’t we just walk out the front door?”

“Probably cameras,” he said. “And he has our IDs.”

“Good point,” I said.

“And plus . . . where would we go?”

He was right. There was no way we were walking back to my car, which we’d left sitting by the side of the road where Patrolman Joe had pulled us over.

“Are you scared?” I asked.

“Of course I’m scared,” he replied. “What the hell are my parents going to say when they find out I’ve been arrested?”

I thought of my own parents. Gus and I were both adults, or near-adults, and still terribly fearful of what our parents would say when they found out we’d done something wrong.

“Will they have to bail us out?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

“I don’t think my family could afford that,” I said.

“I’m sure my parents would bail out both of us.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right.” Maybe my parents would never have to know.

We stood for a while near the pillar. I don’t know how long. There was probably a clock in that eerily empty lobby, but I didn’t think to look for it. I sometimes have an eidetic memory, but when I think back to our time in that police station lobby, I remember few physical details. There must have been chairs, a clock, art of some sort, maybe inspirational posters, signs with instructions or lists ordinances, a metal detector, more doors than the one leading to the station’s mysterious inner chambers through which Patrolman Joe had disappeared, security cameras, vending machines, carpet. . . . But I can recall only the pillar, the teller-like window, and for some reason austere marble floors, like a bank lobby or a Greek temple. I shuffled my feet and the squeak of my polished black dancing shoes echoed throughout the chamber. I tensed, certain Patrolman Joe would have heard, would return to chastise me, us, would decide the squealing of my too-shiny footwear was the final straw, the transgression that would lead to our imprisonment for life. Your honor, if I may offer my expert opinion, the character of this young man is such that he should be denied bail, denied the possibility of parole, for who knows what he might do next.

“Hey,” Gus said.

“Shhhhh,” I replied. We weren’t cuffed, but I couldn’t raise my finger to my lips.

He spoke again, but whispering this time. “I have something to tell you. It’s important.”

“What?” I asked, whispering myself.

“I’m moving,” he said.”

“No, stay still,” I replied. “He told us to stay still.”

“That’s not what I mean. I mean I’m moving. To Texas.”

What?” The question squeaked worse than my shoes had. I swear the puberty I’d gone through years before, the same puberty that had cursed me with a blanket of body hair, with a satisfyingly large penis I’d probably never use in anything more than a urinary way, had left its work on my voice unfinished, had broken for lunch one day and never returned to the job site, citing union problems, no doubt.

“I know,” he said. “My family decided. Dad’s business has been slowing down here, and he got an offer from a practice that needs a new orthotics specialist, and they’re paying more than he makes now doing things on his own, like way more, and—”

“What about the house?”

“It’s sold.”

“You guys were selling your house and you didn’t tell me?”

They didn’t tell me. Apparently it closed like a week ago. I had no idea.”

“Dude, it’s like the end of senior year.”

“I’m gonna finish it out homeschooled.”

“But what about—”

I was interrupted by a loud, distant sound. Like a door swinging on thick iron hinges. We froze. Then the door by the teller-like window opened and Patrolman Joe appeared. At first he seemed to not see us. He was carrying a paper coffee cup. The top two buttons of his shirt were misaligned—the lower button pushed through the other’s intended buttonhole.

Then he looked at us. “Get out of here,” he said.

“Where?” I asked.

“What?”

“Where are we supposed to go?”

“Home, whatever. Wherever you want. I don’t care. Drive more slowly from now on. Don’t play your music so loud. Use your fog lights. Don’t do drugs. Et cetera. Et cetera.”

“Aren’t you going to take us back to our car?” Gus asked.

Patrolman Joe shook his head, jingled his keys, walked toward the station’s front door. “Can’t do. I’m heading in the opposite direction. Shift’s almost over. I’m going home.”

I wanted to ask how his shift could possibly be over. Wasn’t it like an all-night thing? But after he’d driven off and left us standing on the sidewalk (“No loitering in the station parking lot!”), Gus pulled out his phone, which Patrolman Joe had returned, along with our keys and our identification (but not the pack of spearmint gum he’d confiscated from my inside jacket pocket). “Shit,” Gus said. “It’s nearly 4am.”

“Can you call us a cab?”

“You have any cash?”

“Yeah, probably enough.” I didn’t know what enough was; I’d never taken a cab before.

Rural Pennsylvania was at the time still clinging to its pay phones, and we found one just a half-block away. It had a phone book, from which we found the name of a local cab company. Local being a relative term. A driver would be there in thirty to forty-five minutes to pick us up. 

“We’re going to be home so late,” Gus bemoaned.

“Early,” I said. “So early.”

“Yeah . . . shit.”

A 4am return to Youngstown we probably could have gotten away with. We could have crept quietly into our respective houses, in bed before anyone woke, could have slept till 10 or noon, as we often did after Saturday night swing dancing. But now, with nearly an hour wait, a half-hour cab ride, and the final stretch of our drive home . . . we’d be lucky to arrive by 6:30.

“My dad will be up at six,” Gus said. “He’s always up at six.”

“You could stay at my house. We’ll say we got in at one but you decided to sleep over. We’ll get some flack, but it’s better than saying we just got back, that we were arrested.”

“Your parents won’t be up?”

I shrugged. “They might be. But they might not. Probably not.”

He shrugged too. “I don’t think we were technically arrested,” he said. “There’s not like any record or anything.”

“Yeah, well, whatever. My parents won’t care whether there’s a record, just that it happened.”

“I mean, but we’re adults, so what’s it really matter?”

“They can still kick me out,” I said. “They could especially kick me out, since I’m an adult. Probably they’d kick me out.”

“That sucks. I don’t think my parents would kick me out.”

“Wait,” I said. “You could move out.”

“What? Why would I want to do that?”

“I mean about Texas. You don’t have to go. You’re an adult. Like you said, we’re adults. We could move out, get an apartment, be roommates.”

“I’d have to get a job.”

“You have a job.” I did too; I’d been waiting tables since the day after I turned 16, walking to work until just recently.

“Yeah, at my dad’s practice. Which will cease to exist in a couple weeks here, remember?”

“A couple weeks? So you’re moving . . .?”

“End of the month. And, well . . .”

“Well what?”

“I want to go, man.”

A pair of headlights illuminated his face, first distantly, dimly, and then brighter as the car got closer. I thought perhaps it was the taxi, but for a moment I didn’t care whether we ever got home.

“Why would you want to go?”

“I—”

“I mean, dude, it’s Texas. I lived in Texas for a few months, remember, when we moved here from San Diego, when I was like six, when we drove and drove and stopped and thought we might live in Texas. There was nothing special there.”

He was once again shrouded in darkness. Or not darkness, but a darker brightness, the car and its headlights gone, uninterested in us, leaving us under a lonely streetlight.

He shrugged. “It’s not here, man. I mean, it’s not here.” He gestured. Pennsylvania. Ohio. I knew what he meant. I couldn’t fault him.

And yet oh could I fault him.

“Texas,” I said. “Not Paris, not Italy. I always thought your family would end up somewhere like that.”

“I never did. Those were always just places to visit, you know? We love those places. We love Europe. But . . .”

But at their core his family had never been anything but American. The type of American whose love of all things not American—things like homemade wine, and Édith Piaf, and reproductions of da Vinci’s notebooks—was the very definition of their Americanness. Gus’s family were the sort of people who denounced consumerism and yet whose home was lavish, full, defined by paintings, sculptures (originals and reproductions), too many couches that had a way of swallowing you when you sat on them, Perrier bottles in the recycling bin, a recycling bin, wine racks with wine in them, a beige and lavender and deep deep purple color scheme, vases with fresh flowers, fresh lavender—the sort of people who proclaimed their love of thrift stores but who at every opportunity shopped the Avenue des Champs Elysées.

“I don’t think that’s true,” I said. “About them maybe, but not about you. There’s something authentic about you.” Something hiding behind the inauthenticness. Otherwise, how could we have ever become friends, he and I? For I was an authentic person. Authentic in my awkwardness, my failure to as have yet come into my own. 

“You’ll go to college there?” I asked.

He shrugged. “Probably. Or I might not go to college.”

I had a full ride to Youngstown State, a combination of test scores and a journalism scholarship. I would live at home, commute fifteen minutes to the university, wait tables.

Except I knew right then that I wouldn’t. I’d known for a long time that that wasn’t what I was going to do, but still it had been the plan. Suddenly, so very suddenly, it was not the plan. Now the plan was . . . what?

The taxi smelled of rotten eggs and canned fish, and the driver attempted conversation. What’s with the hats? What’s with the suits? But we were exhausted, depleted, each of us disenfranchised from the other. Something had broken. We were silent, not intentionally, but somehow muffled. Worse couple a’ passengers I’ve had in ages, the driver said. The trip cost sixty-three dollars. I had fifty-eight in my wallet, a collection of small bills, tips from three mid-week evening shifts. Gus had a five. The fortuitousness of the situation was lost on us when I realized we couldn’t tip and so didn’t even acknowledge the custom. Worst couple a’.

My Sunfire’s driver-side window was shattered. Two of the tires punctured. Inside, the emergency break handle had been torn free of its assembly and left dangling by wires. Missing: a couple DVDs I’d been meaning to return to the library; my backpack, which had contained my schoolbooks, my trigonometry homework (undoubtedly incorrectly answered), and a pornographic photo I’d printed off the Internet; Gus’s iPod and the audio cable that had connected it to the cassette adapter, but not the cassette adapter itself, although without the cable it was useless—indeed, it had been jammed into the console, and I would never get it out, would be cursed with FM radio all the rest of the days of that car.

Again we turned our hopes on Gus’s cell phone, but who were we going to call? The police? Our parents? Patrolman Joe, whose fault we agreed this all was?

As we deliberated, around our feet shards of broken glass, dawn slipped itself into our conversation. First distant, a warm glow on the horizon of a dead cornfield. And then closer.

Before he could decide who to call, the cell phone rang in Gus’s hand.

I’d always wondered: Was Pennsylvania the Midwest, Northeast, or Appalachia? Especially right here, where we stood, just a couple miles from Ohio?

And then finally, as Gus spoke into the mouthpiece, it arrived: the fire of a clear-skied, red-eyed Sunday morning.