A Year Ago Today

A year ago today, I walked into the theater. Did I walk behind you, or in front? I can’t remember.

I was wearing that simple, sleeveless black dress, the one with the high neckline and the flouncy skirt. Boots and tights and a light purple cardigan looked nice. My crystal wand, strung on a necklace, dangled just below my breasts. I like to think I wear it to look cool, but I actually wear it because the quartz and amethyst calm me down, and the glass and metal binding them feels cool to my palm when I start to be too anxious. That night my nerves were aflame. It was our first real date.

Only a few weeks before, I’d experienced the panic of finding that a casual acquaintance was actually a kindred spirit. We listened to Neutral Milk Hotel and leaned against each other as we sang along to every word. On the way home that night, after hours of drinks and conversation and laughter, I looked out over the city skyline from the back of Wheels’ car and realized that my hand felt funny. I looked down, and saw with not a small amount of shock that your fingers and mine were intertwined. Like they were supposed to be that way. Like it was OK. It was not OK. But I did not remove my hand, any more than I told you that it was wrong, that I was not yours to touch. I just let my mind linger on the sparks that flew between our fingers. It needed the energy.

But that was before a year ago today, and before anyone is invited into the story. Let us fast-forward back to the intended beginning.

We walked into the theater. I think maybe I was in front. Did we stop so you could smoke a cigarette first? The black dress and purple sweater and boots were a good choice. I felt hip and sophisticated. I felt like we matched. What did you wear? Probably your black hoodie. And those amazing Union Jack Doc Martens, the ones you wore the week before at the comedy show.

Oh man, the comedy show. It could have been a date, had I not attended with Wheels (who did not tell me that you were coming, by the way). I saw you and your friends hanging out before the show, and instead of walking to your table to say hi, I made a beeline for the bar. I was still there, back to your table, waiting for my drink and rehearsing the proper nonchalant opening line when you walked up behind me. Don’t worry, you said, I had to take a Xanax. I laughed, and was immediately OK.

I think that was the last time I felt truly anxious around you. From then on, your presence has set me at ease. Just the sight of you makes me take a deep breath, unknots stubborn solid muscles in my neck, gives me the urge to let a smile scrape its way past my scowl. A year ago today, walking into the theater with you, there was just one thing that kept buzzing around in my mind, though – we hadn’t kissed yet. When would that be? What would that be like? Would it be tonight? I felt like a teenager again.

I can’t remember the shoes, the coat, the first cigarette. I can’t remember what we were drinking, though I’m relatively sure that you had a Jameson and water, and I had a Jameson on the rocks. We’re so predictable. I remember the balcony. We were sitting way up high, almost at the very top, so that we could step over the backs of our chairs and into the balcony bar area (so handy, we said). The people sitting just to the right of you were a mother and her teenage son. This is only important because of how annoyed she got with us after we talked all the way through the first act, and into the headliner, Broken Bells. We couldn’t stop talking! We still can’t.

As soon as we sat down, drinks in hand, I started to feel self-conscious. What next? We’d held hands that one time, but ever since then, we’d played it by the book. I hadn’t wanted to cheat on my boyfriend, and I especially didn’t want you involved in any kind of drama of that sort. I just wanted out of that relationship, and was simultaneously realizing that, even though it was completely idiotic and totally not the right timing, I also wanted in on you. Badly.

So now, three weeks after attending one concert as friends, we sat in a different part of the same theater, at a different concert, nursing the same drinks, thinking about becoming lovers. In my memory, it’s the longest three weeks in the history of the world. I used it to end a long relationship, figure out where to live, and listen the Spotify playlist you made for me overandoverandoverandover. Dry the River, The Nationals, Amanda Palmer, †††, Chvrches…

At the time, though, this night seemed much longer than those three weeks had – mostly because I couldn’t figure out how to get you to hold my hand again.

I tried to remember how holding hands had happened as a kid. What do middle school girls do when they want their crushes to grab their sweaty little palms and caress them skill-lessly? We talked, the band played, and my mind wrapped itself around this conundrum. Your hands stayed firmly on your own lap, well away from me. It started to feel like some kind of statement, one I wasn’t keen on letting stand. Finally I decided it was now or never. I put my hand on my knee, then slid it down my leg a bit until the pinkie finger side of my hand was touching your leg. At first, nothing happened. Nothing. You drank your drink, I drank mine, my hand lingered awkwardly between our thighs, fingertips enjoying the subtle prickling of a few stray leg hairs as they poked through my tights. I’ll be so glad when they perfect laser hair removal.

At last, you shifted a bit and placed your hand next to mine, fingers dancing over mine ever so softly. There it was. The electricity from that night in the car. Then we were listening to music and letting our hands explore each other. It was PG, but also intimate. Every time you caressed my palm with your thumb, shivers ran up and down my spine.

That’s probably why the transition from holding hands to kissing was so subtle. I used our tangled fingers as an excuse to snuggle closer to you in those uncomfortable wooden theater seats, leaning my head on your shoulder and breathing in deep. Can I tell you one more time just how amazing it is to love the very smell of a person, sans stupid colognes and body sprays and stinky deodorants, just plain old deliciously-scented masculinity? I had to kiss you. And I did.

A year ago today, we went to see Broken Bells play at the Civic Theater. I didn’t know who they were before we went to the show – I just said yes because you were going to be there. But you knew that. The show was good, but honestly I don’t remember all that much. Because once we start talking, we can’t stop, and once we start kissing, that’s all we ever want to do. I’m fine with that.

Nerd Girl Meets Bad Boy (aka. Closing Time)

This is the second installment of a series I’m calling “Nerd Girl Meets…”. Two of the biggest themes in my life thus far have been the seemingly endless search for romantic companionship and the definitely endless search for great music. Love and music tend to go together in my life, for better or worse. Almost every person I’ve cared for has had a song that is forever etched in my memory, either as a defining factor of the person or a thematic element of the relationship. I want to share some of those relationships and their songs here, as a way of examining the moments that have made me, as well as a way of celebrating the soundtrack of my life. Even if it hasn’t been exactly perfect, it’s still mine.

Junior year in high school was a breakout year for me. I came into my own when I turned 16, and though I wasn’t one of the popular crowd, I was cute, geeky, and weird enough to catch peoples’ interest. There were plenty of girlfriends to pass notes and gossip with, and suddenly it wasn’t looking all that difficult to find boyfriends, either. There was one particular guy that really held my attention; always one for the bad boy, I’d singled out a dude named Henry who met all of my requirements. He had big, rough hands, spoke in innuendo, loved to make me laugh, and was just as keen as I to make out in the back hall by shop class when no one was looking. During the few months we were hanging out, I’d often sneak downstairs after my parents had gone to sleep just to call him up and talk for hours.

It wasn’t a great relationship, though, and that’s mostly because it wasn’t a relationship, at all. In the time-honored tradition of being an absolute jerk, Henry was gaming the system. I didn’t know it, of course. I didn’t even know he had other love interests, though there were rumors that he’d dated a particularly needy and possibly psychotic girl in the grade below ours, and that the breakup was dramatic and ongoing. The rumor mill was churning out all kinds of juicy gossip on Henry’s ex, including the fact that she’d threatened other girls to stay away from him in the past, and that she’d even talked about getting pregnant to force him to stay with her. At the time, I didn’t believe a word of it, but soon I started to wonder if I should.

Henry shied away from being seen with me at school. There was no explanation of why, and in my naive way, I just assumed that he wasn’t into PDA. He was cute, and I was really into him, so I just let him call the shots. We exchanged notes, snuck kisses, went on dates, and spent countless hours on the phone, but at his request, I didn’t tell anyone about him. Then, one afternoon after school, I got a phone call from the crazy ex. Surprisingly, crazy ex sounded kind of sane, and wanted to be friends. We’d never even talked before. Alarm bells (finally) started going off. I extricated myself from the phone call as soon as possible, and started reassessing my interest in this guy.

That weekend, I went out with Henry on a date. There was only one real option for a proper date within an hour radius of my hometown (for those of us with 10pm curfews, anyway) – quick dinner and a movie, 15 to 30 minutes of making out in the Walmart parking lot, then home again, home again, jiggity jig. In keeping with the tradition, we’d watched a movie, and were in the middle of making out in Henry’s truck outside of Walmart when “Closing Time” by Semisonic came on.

He was starting to get too handsy, and I wasn’t comfortable with doing anything but kissing, so I calmly disengaged. When he pulled away from me, for just a second I glimpsed anger in his eyes. He smothered it, but not before I saw that he was hiding himself from me. That was the moment that everything just clicked. I suddenly knew what was going on. Things weren’t over with his ex. He wasn’t willing to throw away his sure thing, a girl who would sleep with him, for a girl with no plans of losing her virginity. In the space of the song’s chorus, I suddenly understood everything I needed to know to get me through the shittiest parts of interacting with men for the next 15+ years. I also had a good feeling that I’d never go after another bad boy (at least on purpose).

Henry drove me home, dropped me off, and then never spoke to me again. There were no harsh words spoken, and no inklings of a breakup. He avoided me in the halls for a week or two, and I got the hint. Not long after, I heard that he and his ex were once again an item. For awhile, she kept up her weird habit of calling me up once a week to pretend that we were friends, so she could gloat about how much fun she and her boyfriend were having now that they were back together again. But it wasn’t long before those phone calls stopped, too.

I’ve never really enjoyed “Closing Time,” even though Semisonic is one of my favorite 90’s bands (in fact, “FNT” and “Secret Smile” are two of my all-time top songs). The song doesn’t give me bad memories, or make me feel bitter. Instead, it feels like flipping through the channels and suddenly running across a movie that you had to watch for a class project. Part of you recognizes that it’s a good movie, but the rest of you can only think of how this movie was once school work, and since school work is tedious, by extension the movie must be, too. The first chords make me groan internally. I’m immediately annoyed at this unfair ending. Or maybe I’m just annoyed at the 16 year old who was already going for losers in what was basically an attempt to not be the last one sitting at the bar when last call comes around. But hey, we were all there once. At least that’s what I tell myself.

Over My Head

It’s night. Gravel crunches under the tires of the old Dodge Ram as it rattles, just a few mph too fast, down the two lane track leading to our house. It’s years before the streetlights will be installed on Old County Road, and the truck’s headlights fan out, casting a milky glow over the chest-high weeds that grow along the ditch banks bordering the lane.

The truck’s air conditioner hasn’t worked in years, which would be a problem during the day, but the cool night air mixes sweetly with the gravel dust as it floods in the open windows. As we roll past our neighbor’s expansive back yard, the scent of freshly-cut grass and wild onions layers over the dust smell, almost canceling out the danker smells of the truck – work boots, old chip bags, spilled soda, sweat, wood shavings…the things that make up my father at 33. He shifts at the wheel, a slight rise and tilt of his tailbone, giving a second of relief to his bad left hip. The pain always gets worse when he’s irritated about something. Right now he’s irritated about something my mother has just said.

My mother sits on the passenger side, elbow on the window ledge, fingers tapping the top of the cab. She is 28, with silky brown hair and a long, straight nose that, to my five-year-old mind, just begs to be grasped between thumb and forefinger with a giggly “honk”. She is quick to smile and hug and race, and I’ve already done my fair share of trying her patience, but she’s also monumentally slow to anger. It’s no surprise that her voice bears all the marks of true patience, floating demurely alongside my father’s gruffly barked opinion, right over my head. I find myself sandwiched between the points in their argument.

“But if he loves her…”, she says.

“What does it matter if he loves her? It’s still wrong.”

“But, Butch, if she loves him and he loves her, and if he can take care of her…isn’t that all we could – ”

“How, Pat? How’s he going to take care of her? And what if they have babies, what then? They’ll be outcasts!”

“Babe, all I’m saying is that if she’s in love, and he’s good to her, I don’t care what color he is – brown, green, purple with polka dots. And it’s not going to be up to us, anyway, so you’d better get used to it.”

“If she marries a black guy, she’s out of the family, Patricia. That’s final.”

“Well, not my family.”

The truck whips into our driveway, nearly taking out the mailbox. It slows to a crawl, weaving its way down the rutted path, lined by two acres of woodland that threatens to reclaim the road, the house, and us one day. Ahead, the front porch light flickers into view. My mother grabs her purse and the bags of groceries sitting at her feet in the floorboard. She gets out of the cab before the truck’s engine sputters off, stalking towards the front porch without a backwards glance.

My father sighs deeply, turns off the headlights, then takes the keys out of the ignition. Then he just sits there for a moment. It’s just me and him. I know that something big just happened, but it doesn’t make much sense. I’m little, but they sometimes talk about me like I’m a grownup. I have a sneaking suspicion that my mother won the fight, but it doesn’t matter. There are much bigger problems on my horizon. For instance, right now, tying my shoes is looking to be an insurmountable obstacle. I squirm. I’m old enough to unbuckle my own seatbelt, but this one sticks and needs an adult to push the button. I’m waiting for him to push the button so I can go inside, too. There was Neapolitan ice cream in one of those shopping bags.

He opens the truck door and steps out. “Come on, Boo Bear.”

I make a show of kicking my legs and trying to squeeze out of the safety belt, and we both laugh. He reaches in and unbuckles it, then helps me climb out of the driver’s side, letting me hold his index finger as we walk to the house.

I love strawberry ice cream. One day I’m going to change my name to Strawberry. Wouldn’t it be funny to be named Strawberry and get married to a purple polka-dotted man? What color would our babies be, I wonder?

You, Me, and a Bit of Bubble Wrap

So what that he stood about half a foot shorter – he carried himself with such confidence, I couldn’t help but be charmed. Plus, you know I’ve always had a thing for musicians. It was about a year after the end of what had been my only true love affair, and my heart was still out of commission. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t in need of physical comfort, and even mismatched physicality is better than nothing at all. Or so I thought.

He was a great singer, and his charisma made him an excellent front man for his 70’s sci-fi themed rock band. On stage, he looked so capable and cool in leopard skin pants and platform boots, thoughtfully manipulating his electric guitar. I imagined this was the way Sonny looked to Cher, just with more exciting musical stylings. We met through friends, and shyly circled each other in public, sharing a noncommittal laugh here and there. There was minimal chemistry, so months went by with nothing.

It was the 4th of July. I spent the day on a friend of a friend’s couch, getting stoned and watching a Led Zeppelin concert video on repeat, probably ruminating on why my boyfriend had dumped me (that’s all I did for a few years, so it’s a safe assumption). By the end of the day, I needed a fix. I needed to feel loved. It’s funny how from a certain angle, one person’s rejection can look like the end of all possible connection from that point forward. I just hadn’t figured out how to change my vantage point yet.

I took a brief accounting of my man situation, realized I had no options, and got a girlfriend to drive me over to the short musician’s house. We were supposed to have a beer, but then one thing led to another and we were soon having lackluster sex. My friend later mocked me for sounding so disinterested – she’d overheard my bored moans. But I wrote it off. My mind was in another place. I needed comfort, and this was all I could come up with.

A week later, he invited me over again, sans friend. The pretense was that we were going to hang out and drink, maybe watch a movie, but we both knew why I was catching a cab to his place. I let my hopes buoy the rest of me for a moment, too. Maybe this was the start of something good. Surely it was time to be moving on with my life. He was a fan of Boo Berry cereal – how bad could he be?

Once I got to his house, we hung out for awhile, listening to music and drinking beers. We talked about his favorites – Frank Zappa and Steely Dan. We discussed Star Wars, and how difficult it was for a guy to find leopard skin pants. He told me he was thinking of moving on to something a bit more mainstream, like gold spandex. I can’t recall saying anything clever; I was only there to feel like a viable human again. I needed to top up with something approaching affection. It wasn’t long before the conversation devolved into slightly-less-than-heavy petting. It was all going according to plan.

But then out came the bubble wrap, and there went my night.

It was that jumbo type of bubble wrap, where the squishy plastic bubbles are about a half an inch thick, and almost as wide. He had it in a box under the bed; as we kissed, he’d had one hand fishing around past the dust ruffle, and now he held a large swath of plastic triumphantly. There was a new light in his eye. I didn’t like it one bit. We should use it, he told me, hold it between us and try to pop the bubbles mid-coitus.

A few years ago, someone told me that my poker face is shite. Apparently my eyes speak volumes, even when I’m desperately trying to maintain a cool facade. I wonder what the musician saw. My initial reaction was a deep, soul-shaking hysteria. I wanted desperately to point and laugh. But as new as I was to the game in those days, I still understood how cruel such a course might have been. So I remained calm, told him no thanks, and left it at that, anticipating that we’d go back to making out, and the sex might be slightly more than lackluster – maybe even somewhat satisfying.

Instead, my rejection touched off a chain reaction. He heard the laughter in my voice, no matter how I’d tried to hide it, and immediately dialed for a cab to take me home. It was the first and last time a man kicked me out of his bed. We never spoke again.

I can’t say I miss him, but I do miss those leopard skin pants.