Concert Buddies

Oh, the injustice.

There she was, standing next to him.  She was smiling, he was laughing at something she said.  She was inches away from where he stood, and I was miles.

I zoomed in on the picture on my phone, if only to torture myself.

So he was real.  So I didn’t just imagine him.  She had met him.  She was the proof.  Though I hadn’t seen her in months – wait . . . years – she hadn’t changed at all.  Still the tattoos.  Still the same signature ‘come hither’ smirk she was now using on him.

I tried being reasonable.

I hate her, I thought to myself.  I hate her stupid face.  I hate everything about this day!

I blinked back tears and looked up from my phone.  The scene was more than I could bear.  I was nothing short of trapped at an airport, waiting to get on a plane that never came, while my favorite band was about to take the stage just miles away.  And an old acquaintance of mine had just met the lead singer.

There was more than jealousy going on here.  This was some kind of twisted metaphor.  This was the story of hopeless defeat and crushing disappointment.

I was supposed to be on a plane, comforting myself with the knowledge that I was going on vacation and they probably weren’t that good anyway and the likelihood I would have been as lucky as the woman in the picture was next to nothing, and they were only just a band.

But the plane was delayed.  Then the flight was canceled.  Then the crushing disappointment finally got to me.  I officially lost all common sense.  The rest is history.  It is Madness.

There is a loneliness to being in love with a band that no one has even heard of.  It is not the same for people who love The Beatles or The Killers or The Rolling Stones.  If you put ten people in a room, there is a one-hundred percent chance they have heard of those bands, and the odds are just as great that two out of ten of those people will like the same band.  A kinship is then born.  What’s your favorite song?  Favorite album?  Who’s your favorite band member?  How many times have you seen them perform?  Why does that particular band speak to you?

You get my drift.

Instead, when I’m in a group of two or ten or even a hundred people, there is a ninety-nine percent chance I’m going to hear “The Airborne Toxic Event? Who is that?”

So for months, it was just me, by myself, alone.

Then my best friend ran into an old acquaintance at a music festival.  She was glowing and excited, having met Mikel Jollett only minutes earlier.  She had the pictures to prove it.  My best friend sent me her pictures while I was feeling sorry for myself at the airport, with the disclaimer (or warning) that “she’s just as obsessed with the same weird band as you are.”

It’s like being an only child and then finding out you have a twin somewhere.

Once I got over my petty jealousy – and met the man himself at a show two days later – I decided we were long overdue to get back in touch.  After all, she was in her mid-twenties and I was just a stupid teenager the last time we hung out.  Back then, we didn’t have very much in common.  Now she had a family and I was a bereaved mother.  Things had definitely changed.  But somehow, for some reason, we liked the same obscure band.  I wanted to find out why.  I wanted to know her favorite song, her favorite album, her favorite band member.  How many times had she seen them perform?  Why does this particular band speak to her?

Later, through the magic of social media, I went from having a twin to an entire family – a whole group of people who shared the same kind of obsessive love for the same band, for reasons not unlike my own.  We are a kind, empathetic lot.  Most of us have experienced the uglier side of life.  But at a show, all of us remind me of happy children, laughing and singing and smiling in spite of our circumstances.  We have more in common than we even realize.  And we are sharing a moment.  We are making memories.  These concerts are snapshots of our lives, and we’re all in the front row, smiling like we have never felt pain.  But more than likely, we smile and sing and dance like this because we have.

The acquaintance in the photograph is now a friend again.  We are each other’s devil’s advocate, plotting ways to get ourselves to Airborne shows, be they a hundred miles away or a thousand, perhaps to the chagrin of our long-suffering husbands.  It could be said I am grateful to her, for without her I never would have gone to California once or Chicago twice, and we never would have hung out backstage with the band That One Time.

But at the end of the day, I was right the first time.  They are just a band.  She and I, however – we are friends.  And I am grateful to the band, because I know so much more than her favorite song.  Without them, I might never have known what a kind, selfless, passionate, funny, and fascinating person she truly is.

I might never have stood in the pit of the Chicago venue with her, several feet away from Mikel Jollett.  We were not in the front row.  We didn’t have the chance.  My obsessive-compulsive need to be in the front row would just have to get over it.

Oh, the injustice.

But there we were, standing next to each other.  She was smiling, I was weeping during “The Graveyard Near the House.”  She was inches away from where I stood.  Then she closed the distance between us – all those years we were out of touch, all the space and time we could have been friends but weren’t – and she put her arms around me and held me as my shoulders shook and the tears poured down The Airborne Bird on my cheek.

I love her, I think to myself.  I love that she is here, and that I am not alone.

So many of us are waiting for friends like her.  The next time you go to a concert to see your favorite band, take a look at the people around you as you share a moment and make memories.  You have more in common than you realize.  Such friends are closer than you think.

Until the End of Time . . .

Suddenly the world seems such a perfect place . . .

A friend told me she recently watched the movie Moulin Rouge and it reminded her of my wedding, specifically the song “Come What May.”

I laughed at first, for two reasons.

The first was that I forgot there was a prior version of myself from way-back-when, when I used to love that movie and that song.

The second reason I laughed was because I forgot it was our wedding song.

I forgot.

How do you just forget the song you danced to at your own reception?

I spent nine months planning our wedding.  Years of dating had yielded plenty of inspiration.  Then there was The Proposal, but I was uninterested in using a Disney song.  Or perhaps Hubby was not on board.  I can’t be expected to remember these details when I can’t even remember what we chose.

No one particular Disney song fit us, anyway.

There really was only one song that we could even begin to call “ours,” though perhaps it was a stretch at the time.  After all, “we were only seventeen . . .”  What did we know of love and life?  We weren’t even dating.  Yet.

Hubby’s band was playing a gig for friends in his grandparents’ backyard.  And since I was part of this rather unusually large network of friends spanning two states, my best friend and I were invited, though my invitation came straight from the bass player himself.  I had an inkling that he liked me.  And I was surprised that I was falling for him, too.  We were already good friends.  He was a gentleman and he made me laugh.  He also played the guitar.  Just how well I didn’t know until that day.

I must have told him that I could kind-of, sort-of sing, because I remember him asking me to sing something that day.  Any old thing would do.  I remember wondering if he was joking, or just trying to be nice.  He did have a reputation for being a nice guy . . .

However, on the day of the gig I came down with a bad sore throat and a fever.  Singing seemed out of the question.  But nothing was stopping me from going to hear the band play on that warm summer day – August 2, 2002.

Figment

There were a lot of firsts that day.  It was the first time I heard them play.  It was the first time I became something of a band’s fangirl.  And it was the first time I knew without a doubt that the bass player had a crush on me.

“I’m sick,” I told him when the band took a break.  “I can’t sing.”

“You’ve got to try,” he said.  “After I told everyone how good you were and everything!”

“But you’ve never heard me sing.”

“I don’t need to.  I already know you’re good.”

“Um, okay.”

Then his cousin chimed in.  “Come on, Colleen.  I’ve heard you sing even when you were just goofing off and you were still good,” she said.

One reluctant agreement later, I was in the living room of his grandparents house practicing to an audience of one, Hubby’s 14-year-old friend.

“Man,” he exclaimed suddenly after the first verse, “that’s how you sing when you’re sick?  You must be really good when you’re healthy!”

“Not really,” I told him modestly.  Anything else seemed a lie.

Nevertheless, I told my friend the bass player that I was ready.

Since they had already been videotaping his band perform, he grabbed the video camera and stationed himself stage left as I nervously stepped into the hazy evening sunset glow that served as a spotlight.

I closed my eyes as friends’ and strangers’ voices fell to a hush.

Never knew I could feel like this . . .

When I close my eyes now, I open the ones that remember that moment like a snapshot in time.

The first thing I see is the bass player holding a video camera cocked to one side, as he stares at me transfixed.

Now it makes me laugh, seeing him like this – the 17-year-old boy with a crush on me.  But back then, I was too stunned to do anything but close my eyes and try to not to look so obvious as I trembled with the microphone and tried to sing.

There was no rhyme or reason why I chose the song from Moulin Rouge.  I just liked it.  I spent that whole summer obsessing over that movie, over Ewan McGregor (he can sing!), and that one scene where they dance in a Parisian sky and pay homage to Singin’ in the Rain with the Eiffel Tower.  The movie itself was nothing more than a bloated music video that stole songs from 20th century, from Elton John to Nirvana.  “Come What May” was an original song written for the film – just as hopelessly romantic and bloated as the film itself.

But I was 17.  I practically lived on bloated hopeless romance.

For me, however, the romance was just beginning.  It was this tiny, blossoming little thing out of a friendship with a bass player.  Three days after the backyard gig, we were dating.

Fast forward five years and I was on a mission to find our wedding song.

Why not this one?  After all, in those five years we had – for all intents and purposes – stuck together “come what may” in spite of it all.  High school, college, disapproving friends who thought we were too young, not too mention the distance between us – we overcame it all.  We even overcame ourselves and our own youthful selfishness and hot tempers.  We had broken up more times than I can remember.  But we could never stay apart.  We were each others’ best friends.  Naturally, the next step was to get married.  We felt like seasoned pros at hardships in our relationship.  Bring on the storm clouds and the colliding stars.

And so we danced to “Come What May” on our wedding day.

We really were tempting fate, it seemed.  Laughing in the face of it.  Double-daring life to really put the screws to us.  Invincible wedded bliss.

Nearly seven years have passed since I married the bass player.

Storm clouds gathered like the jobs we had and lost, the apartments we lived in, the house we bought.  Seasons changed and we changed with them, and somehow along the way I forgot all about our wedding song.  With each situation and challenge, I evolved into someone who probably wouldn’t even like that movie anyway.

Then I found myself sitting on the toilet in the bathroom, sobbing as I held the hand of the bass player, who was sitting in a dry bathtub because I could not be alone for a moment – not even to go to the bathroom – because just a few days ago our baby boy had died and I was terrified to be alone for any stretch of time.

Those bygone days of backyard gigs and pool parties and bloated hopeless romance were blown away, leaving barely a memory of them here in this wasteland.  I stopped singing, and he stopped playing the guitar.  Even our wedding day seemed but a hazy dream.  Were we ever really that happy?  How was it possible to experience such joy, when the only things we felt were excruciating, unimaginable pain and the cry for numbness that followed?

The days came and went like the tide.  They would have come regardless, stretching out the time between our wedding day and the present day.  The days between are what make a marriage.  Not the wedding day.  Not the song, either.

But now, the bloated, pretentious song seems ironic when I see the bass player hold our newborn son in his arms in the middle of the night, his eyes betraying both lack of sleep and the joy we thought would never be ours to experience again.

Suddenly the world seems such a perfect place . . .

My friend’s words are recent, but they seem to echo from the past.

“I watched Moulin Rouge tonight, and I got to thinking about your wedding song and how fitting it turned out to be. You guys have loved each other through thick & thin, come what may. I admire you two.”

I guess I chose the right song after all.

More importantly, I chose the right person – that boyish bass player who became my best friend and then husband and undoubtedly the man I can’t wait to spend the rest of my life with, no matter what life has in store for us.  No matter what happens next.  Every day, I love him more and more.  I love him until the end of time.

Come what may.

 

Surprise(s)

I’ve been carrying a secret for the past eight months.

It started last year in June when Hubby and I went to California in pursuit of a certain band, The Airborne Toxic Event, for a special performance in the little town of Visalia with the Tulare County Orchestra.

That's me severely fangirling, with the bird on my cheek and everything.

That’s me severely fangirling, with the bird on my cheek and everything.

If you’ve been to an Airborne Toxic Event concert, perhaps you noticed at the end of every show, Mikel Jollett thanks the audience and then very tongue-in-cheek declares for everyone to “go make some babies.”

This is exactly what happened.

It didn’t take long after we arrived back home for me to realize I was pregnant.

It also didn’t take long for me to descend into a constant, swirling storm of anxiety, fear, and disbelief.

The last several months have been a whirlwind of doctors visits, ultrasounds, miscarriage scares, progesterone injections, and alternatively the Most Support I’ve Ever Received from Friends and Strangers.  Even from the band members of The Airborne Toxic Event themselves (thanks guys).

I couldn’t be more grateful for this, and for the fact that I’ve made it this far, 34 weeks and counting.

The Bump

A most recent picture of me, sans bird. But the disbelief is still evident all over my face.

But the reason for this post is twofold:  To explain why I’ve been M.I.A. from blogging recently (pregnancy eats creativity, much in the same way I’ve been eating for two) AND because you and I and everyone else have been invited to a Virtual Baby Shower being held in my honor.

I wish I could explain what a Virtual Baby Shower is.  But I can’t.  It’s a surprise, hosted by a few Friends I’ve Never Actually Met, but whom – for some reason – are moved to show their support in a way that befits our method of communication in the realm of which we have gotten to know and care about each other.  Pretty cool!

At the bottom of the page are links to the party.  And since you’re invited, go ahead and check them out with me.  It’s a surprise for all of us.

Thanks for coming to this special event.  I’m not even sure a Virtual Baby Shower has been done before, or even one that is Airborne Toxic Event-themed, so you might be apart of both Internet and band history here.  And I don’t quite know what to expect.  All I know is that I’m grateful and excited, and – as you probably already know – being a mom was All I Ever Wanted.  Thank you.

P.S. -

It’s a boy!

Here are the links to the party:

Jamie’s TATE-inspired Baby Gift

Susan’s TATE cake

TATE Trivia Challenge by Glen

Wendy’s Stylish TATE Baby Gift

Stephanie’s Fashion Forward TATE Baby Gift

Thanks, everyone! <3

All At Once, I’m Out of Control

Originally posted on This Is Nowhere:

By Glen

In 1979, an up and coming Irish band released their first official recording: a 7-inch EP called U2 3. The A-side was selected by listeners of the Dave Fanning Rock Show on 2FM.

“One day I’ll die
The choice will not be mine
Will it be too late?
You can’t fight fate.”

On “Out of Control,” U2′s first single, a young Bono wrestled with some weighty ideas – matters of life and death, in fact.

“‘Out of Control’ is about waking up on your 18th birthday and realizing you’re 18 years old and that the two most important decisions in your life have nothing to do with you – being born and dying,” the singer later explained. “The song is written from a child’s point of view and it’s about a vicious circle. He becomes a delinquent but the psychologist says, ‘It’s in his childhood.’ No matter…

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Pretty Blue Eyes

Her name was Peggy (or at least that’s what she called herself, but we’ll get to that later).  She was my maternal grandmother, and from the time I was born she lived by herself in the same house where she raised my mom and aunt.  I remember visiting her many times as a young child, likely afternoons when my mom had errands to run or bathrooms to caulk.  We would sit in her yellow kitchen and she would make me peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on whole wheat bread.  For dessert, she would give me one of the Archway oatmeal cookies she kept in the refrigerator.  After lunch, she would take me down into the basement, past the large sign that hung in the stairwell that read something like “I WILL TRIP AND FALL DOWN THE STAIRS IF I AM NOT CAREFUL,” written in her own cursive capital letters.  But these signs were a common site in her house.  She had reminders for everything, little notes placed here and there that were either instructive in nature or served to jog her memory.  At first glance one might assume she was a writer – and perhaps, for all intents and purposes, she was – but she never kept a journal, diary, or wrote anything about her life that was longer than a sentence or two.

Downstairs, she would let me water her orange tree that grew to the ceiling beside the only window in a dark, unfinished basement.  As a child, I used to love this task, though I have long forgotten why.  Then we would go back upstairs and she would close the basement door and lock it with a skeleton key tied with a scrap of red cloth.  Sometimes she would let me lock and unlock it, and then lock it again, always making sure it was secure.

I would lead her into the dining room, past the table that was always covered with newspaper clippings, ads, photographs, and more handwritten reminders, of course.  She had a display of a few figurines that I regularly liked to pick up and examine, and hear the stories of where and how she had acquired them.  One figurine was a porcelain girl in a pretty dress with her mouth in the shape of an ‘O.’  Grandma used to say she was an opera singer, and I would beg Grandma to make her ‘sing,’ which was her attempt at an opera solo that just sent me into giggle fits.  When I had tired of the figurines, I moved on to the coloring book she kept in the drawer beneath them, along with the pack of chunky, made-for-small-fingers crayons that would last me up until I was too big for coloring books, and beyond.

Sometimes she would show me the paintings she had done in her earlier years.  Most were landscapes, but one was an overview of the city I didn’t recognize, likely from some bygone age.  I would ask if I we could paint, but she would tell me she didn’t have the supplies anymore.

Finally, I would ask to go upstairs.  She would follow me up the old, creaking, wooden staircase – always a few steps behind – and into the largest bedroom in the house.  There she kept her ‘toys,’ though she never called them that.  “These are antiques,” she would say, “so you have to be very careful.”  These ‘antiques’ were actually barely a decade old – Strawberry Shortcake dolls and dollhouse, Barbies and Barbie-related clothes and furniture, Care Bears, and other toys reminiscent of the early 1980s she had purchased at neighborhood yard sales and the Big Lots up the street.  Painstakingly she watched as I pulled them out of their boxes to dress and arrange them under her careful eyes.  Some were still sealed in their respective packaging, and I asked why she did not take them out.  What good are toys still in the box?  “They are worth more money if you keep them in the box.”  I didn’t understand, so she explained, “I might sell them someday,” unaffected by the possibility that a young child might not be able to comprehend why on earth one would sell a perfectly good toy.

I repeatedly asked her over and over again if I could take some with me.  The answer was always no.

In another bedroom was her pride and joy – a large 3-story furnished dollhouse that probably was an actual antique.  Under her watchful eyes, she would let me examine the furniture inside and even “play” with the 1950s-era family who lived there.  Grandma couldn’t help herself with this, her favorite yard sale find.  She would squeal with delight over the miniature toilet paper, toothbrushes, and every household item you could think of sized down to the length of my little fingernails.  She especially loved the pink canopy bed that belonged to the little girl of the house, and we both agreed we wished we could shrink ourselves down to size and live there.

“Tell me about when you were a kid,” I would ask.

She would tell me stories about growing up on a farm in Tennessee.  She liked playing with the baby chicks, she would say, and she would try to steal them away from their mother!  The mother hen always came after her, she said, pecking at her skin, trying to get her baby chick back away from the hands of my grandma.  Then every year, the circus would park on her family’s farmland and she would get to ride the rides for free.  I listened with eagerness to these stories, wondering what it must have been like to grow up with a circus in one’s backyard, with a plethora of baby chicks to play with.

Then we would hear the front door open downstairs.  “Mom?” cried a voice.  It was my mother, coming to pick me up.

When I told my mom about her childhood stories, she would always look confused and then surprised.  “She never told me those stories,” she said indignantly.

My mom would call her on the phone every single day for years.  Sometimes I would ask to talk to Grandma, and I still remember her little old voice on the other line when I held the receiver up to my ear – “Hi, Colleen.”  I don’t remember what we talked about, except I often asked if I could come over that day.  “No.  Not today,” she would usually say.  And I would follow with, “Tomorrow then?”  But she usually told me no.

When I was ten years old, she broke her arm and had to stay with us for a while.  She slept on the trundle bed in my bedroom, and I used to think it was funny she liked to sleep with her feet uncovered “so they would be cold.”  She was a hard sleeper, and therefore didn’t mind when I turned on my flashlight and read books late into the night, though she herself was not a reader at all.

I used to ask her what she did at home by herself.  “Oh, I don’t know,” she would say, her voice trailing off.  “Sew.  Watch the evening news.”

“What do you do before you go to bed?”

“Listen to the radio.”

“Like, music?”

“No.  Not music.  Just the news.”

As we both got older, her mind began the slow descent into dementia.  Eventually, it became clear she couldn’t live by herself anymore.  By then, one of my brothers had moved out and a bedroom was free.  She moved in, leaving her old house and the place she probably considered “home” – her beloved dollhouse – to live with us.  She was not happy about it, and often wanted to go “home.”  In order to ease the pressure, I took it upon myself to keep her mind occupied.  “Grandma’s depressed today,” my mom would say.  “She needs you to make her laugh.  You’re the only one who can do it.”  For whatever reason, that was the honest truth.  She would laugh at my goofy attempts to humor her, though for the life of me I can’t remember what it was I said or did that was so funny to her.  Sometimes I would read her passages from the books I was reading at the time, which she also enjoyed.  But over the years, as her mind continued to dim, so did her ability to concentrate and comprehend.

The year I got engaged, she fell in the dining room and broke her hip.  At 80-something years old, this required major surgery and a long, painful recovery.  My parents and I were unable to provide the 24-hour care she needed.  It was decided she would have to stay at a nursing home, a decision that broke my mom’s heart.  It was difficult to watch a woman in relatively good health suddenly take a turn for the rest and never quite recover.  Still, my mom would visit her almost every day to feed her, scold her nurses, and generally make sure she received the best possible care.  If the nursing home wasn’t living up to her standards, she moved Grandma to a better one.  When that nursing home failed as well, she moved her again, all the while my grandma’s mind was successfully being defeated by a cruel foe.

During this time, my mom did some digging into her own mother’s hazy past and ancestry.  She knew very little about her parents, and what she uncovered was rather shocking.  My grandmother had always hinted she was a great beauty, that she had many boyfriends, and that the boys liked to call her “Pretty Blue Eyes.”  She ran away from home in Tennessee at sixteen, and married my grandfather at age 24.  Sometime in the years between, she had another great love.  On the back of the only photograph she kept of the two of them, she had written, “I really loved him.”  But she had told my mom that his mother didn’t like her, and she was the catalyst to the end of the relationship.  Out of spite, she then married my grandfather, who was only seventeen.  In fact, they lied about their ages on the marriage certificate!  And my grandma, who had gone by the name ‘Peggy’ for years after a boyfriend (perhaps the one she “really loved”) decided it better suited her, legally changed her name to Peggy Florence and never told a soul her birth name was actually Florence Naomi.

In the years following, my grandfather went off to fight in World War II, and my aunt and mother were eventually born.  Sadly, my grandparents’ relationship was no love story.  My grandfather was an alcoholic and rarely home.  My grandmother retreated into herself, often locking herself in her bedroom for hours, leaving her two daughters to themselves.  Eventually when they were older, she finally divorced my grandfather and never married again.

My aunt married and moved to Arizona.  My mom married at eighteen and my parents lived in my dad’s hometown a few hours away for a some years until they eventually moved back to raise their young family just minutes away from my grandma and the house where my mom grew up.

All those years in between, my grandma lived alone.  She didn’t have any friends.  We were her only visitors, and only when she wanted us to visit.  She was somewhat of a hermit, and preferred not to share her life with others.  As a little girl, I could hardly understand why my grandma was just a little different from other grandmas.  My friends’ grandmas were always a beloved topic of conversation, with the time they would spend with them baking cookies and going shopping and being showered with presents at every opportunity.  My grandma was not like other grandmas.  But as I got older and we all got to see through a small window into her past, we realized that perhaps that wasn’t her fault.  She had a difficult life, it seemed, and perhaps the result was the person I knew as a child.

But in the time she lived with us, some of that brightness she used to possess was somewhat restored.  It was in her smile, in her laugh, and in the “Pretty Blue Eyes” that sparkled when she shared a few pieces of her fading past.  I’m glad I was able to have those moments, otherwise I may never have seen a glimpse into the woman my grandma used to be.

She passed away this year at the age of 91.  There were just a few people at her funeral – our family, and some of my parents’ friends came to offer their support.

But it can hardly be said she was ever “alone,” or that her life was not significant.  Like most of us, she was burdened with her own “ruins” from a life she probably never expected, or maybe even wanted.  But that wasn’t who she was.  And it isn’t who she will be.  We may never have known that person, but I hope to one day.  I want to hear her story as much as I want to tell her mine.  By then, however, our stories will long be the stuff of legend, as much the “antiques” that she used to collect when I was a girl.

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Once Upon a Time

There was a castle here once.

If you look closely, you can still see remnants of its foundation here in These Stunning Ruins, a line of stones left in the grass.

Perhaps this is the most ruined part of this metaphorical space, and it is one I do not care to visit often.  I have no interest in trying to rebuild it.  It is largely ignored, forgotten, and altogether despised.  What’s left is subject to the overgrowth of the earth with bitterness at its roots.

But I remember when this place was an empire, and the castle was at the center - what I used to believe was “the heart” of these ruins.  I remember the children who played here – the prince and the princess – who were kind but foolish, and naïve in a way that was both admirable and pitiable.  With a wave of their shiny plastic scepters, they thought they controlled the weather with each passing day full of sunshine and rainbows.

Little did they know they were powerless to stop the eventual destruction of their beloved home, and the resulting flood that would wash away their plastic beliefs and dreams, so that both the castle and the couple who lived there were unrecognizable.

But I remember them, because they were us.

Once upon a time, I was a princess.

I grew up during the Disney Renaissance – that period of the 90s when Disney’s animated films were celebrated works of art.  In addition, my parents made the pilgrimage to what has been described as a modern-day “Mecca” and a rite of passage for every little boy and girl in the United States: Walt Disney World.  I used to tell people that this was my “home,” and the place I “grew up,” but there is no growing up there at all.  It is the real Neverland, and for all its commercialism and propaganda, it truly had the power to transform its tourists from bitter Mr. Darlings to playful Peter Pans.

I had no interest in ever growing up, and this was an ideal I clung to through adolescence and into early adulthood.  My long-suffering boyfriend was aware of this childish belief and love of mine, and decided to indulge me.

Since we knew the inevitable was coming – that he would probably ask to marry me someday and these pilgrimages would become a thing of the past – my parents and I took one last trip to Disney World.  Meanwhile, I had no idea they and my boyfriend were scheming and plotting a marriage proposal that would rival the ones you see on those bloated wedding cable TV shows, with the help of the staff at Disney.  To their credit, they planned an elaborate show at no expense of ours.  They even waived the entrance fee for my boyfriend.  They took him out to lunch, making absolutely sure we wouldn’t run into each other, since this was supposed to be the surprise of the century.

They paraded my parents and I through the Magic Kingdom as the Grand Marshals.  I remember being giddy and delirious, thinking this was the perfect way to end things, at the height of it all.  “It doesn’t get better than this,” I thought.

At the end of the parade route, near the entrance to the park, we stepped down from our antique parade vehicles and into the spotlight.  They had there waiting for me the barbershop quartet, the Dapper Dans, surrounded by an eager crowd waiting for the parade.  But first, they were to receive a surprise show.  The quartet sang “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” to me as I stood in wonder and shock, asking myself over and over again the question why.  “Why are they doing this?  What is this about?”

“She’s a wonderful Disney princess,” they said after they finished.  “If she only had a prince.”

Suddenly there was a little mad searching, asking if there was a prince to be found anywhere nearby.

“She has a prince,” cried a voice.

My boyfriend.

Wearing a black top hat adorned with Mickey ears.

“And he’s right here,” he added.

Then he got down on one knee and my brain exploded.

I guess I said yes, but I didn’t hear the word come out of my mouth.  I was left breathless.  Speechless.  Dumbfounded.  Caught up in the disbelief that my boyfriend was supposed to be at home, and instead he was here with me in my happy place, the Happiest Place on Earth, and there was a ring on my finger, and after five years of dating, now we were engaged.

I think I cried.

I remember thinking that this was it.  This moment.  This was the happy ending I was waiting for.  The little girl who grew up at Disney World had found her prince.  And now we could live Happily Ever After.

Looking back, I now remember we were not the only ones celebrating that day.  There were two other grand marshals that day, a couple on their honeymoon.  I wonder if they felt like they were being overshadowed.  Outdone.  Forgotten.  They stood off to the side like everyone else, watching the fairy tale unfold that was not theirs.  I wonder what ever happened to them, and if the Happily Ever After was truly theirs, because it certainly would not turn out to be ours.

Still in the months that passed, we planned a Disney-themed wedding.  My wedding dress was a ball gown and I wore a tiara in my hair.  A miniature castle with a light inside was our cake topper.  We were the real-life version of a fairy tale.  I’m surprised someone didn’t set off fireworks as we left the reception.  But I guess we couldn’t have everything.  Could we.

We went back to Disney World for our honeymoon a few months after the wedding, but it was hardly magical.  I was sick for the majority of it.  I remember shivering with fever in 90-degree heat while eating a bowl of chicken soup at the Magic Kingdom, my long-suffering husband sighing and trying to make the most of it.  He said he had a good time.  I didn’t believe him.

Nevertheless, a year later we went back, this time with both sets of parents and our 10-year-old niece.  We returned for the last time a year after that, visiting the Magic Kingdom for a day before we went on a Disney Cruise.  My husband, the reluctant follower, was now a full-fledged convert.  We had the happiest day there, running around Tom Sawyer Island like two big kids.  I have a picture of him sitting on the little wooden bleachers at Casey’s, eating a hot dog while watching old Goofy cartoons.  He looks like a giant 10-year-old.

We kissed under the flickering colors of fireworks, absolutely in love with each other and ourselves.  We were invincible.  We were as timeless and as classic as Cinderella and Prince Charming.  Someday, we said.  Someday we will bring our kids here and continue the long-held tradition.

Kids.

Two years later, we were burying our first child.

The empire we had built was now a stunning site of ruins.  The castle was destroyed, the prince and princess stripped of their plastic scepters and dreams.  And in no time at all, the rest was washed away in a great flood of tears with the reality we had lost another child when I had a miscarriage.

Now the fairy tale ideals we cherished were not only naïve, they felt like deceptions.  Syrupy propaganda.  Unrealities.  A screen behind which lay the truth – that life was no fairy tale, that our lives were sad, that we would never be happy again, and to tell us that there was still a Happiest Place on Earth where children laugh and play while ours lay buried in the ground could drive us to the brink of going mad with grief and bitterness.

I hated it all.  Every vestige of that place, every memory I had, every moment I grew up believing my life would be a chorus of singing cartoon animals and pixie dust.

I would be sitting in a movie theater and a trailer for some insipid animated cartoon would appear, bearing the twinkling castle of the Walt Disney Pictures logo, and my skin would crawl.  Then I had the sudden urge to give it the bird.  “How dare you,” I thought.  “How dare you mock my pain with your fake happiness.”

I even hated the way my husband proposed to me.

“Someone asked me if we were going to Disney World this year,” I said during one of our late-night conversations.  “I wanted to punch them in the face.  Why would we EVER go back there?  Do people have no common sense?”

“Oh, god,” he said.  “Yeah.  I guess not.”

“I hate it.  I hate it all.”

“Me, too.”

“I hate that I have any connection to that crap.”

“Yep.”

And then I just put it out there.

“I hate the way you proposed to me.”

I hadn’t meant to hurt him.  I was worried that deep down, I might have.  So when I looked over at him, searching his face for a flinch or any sign of pain, I was surprised to see understanding instead.

“Oh, thank god.  So do I.”  And we both sighed with relief.

Once upon a time, I was a princess.

But you won’t find any pixie dust or singing cartoon animals in these ruins.  What you will find, however, is a couple of resilient souls bent on survival.  We are no longer naïve children clinging to unrealistic ideals, waving plastic scepters thinking we control the weather.  We know better than that, and we can’t help but feel bitter about our past.  And although you may still find piece of a glass slipper or half of a rodent’s ear lying amidst the piles of broken dreams that failed to be swept away with the rest, make no mistake: we don’t really care about those things anymore.  Perhaps someday we will put them in a museum for future generations to remember the people we used to be.  But our emotional attachment to them is forever lost.

You may perhaps find this story to be sad.  You may feel sorry for us, and sorry for those people who were part of the illusion.  I am sorry, too.  I miss those naïve kids.  I miss the delirious, giddy joy I experienced when I would walk through the gates to the Magic Kingdom and leave reality behind.  No one needs to leave it behind more than me.  But it follows me everywhere, and it removes the twinkling façade of fairy tales until they are nothing but twisted lies.

But although I am no longer the Disney princess they proclaimed me to be, the eager boy in the mouse ears holding the ring is still a prince amongst men.

We don’t follow the formula of Happily Ever After.  But in spite of everything – all the grief and tears and destruction of this empire – we have lived this simple truth:

Love. Conquers. All.

onceuponatime

 

Twenty-Three

Jess stared at the tickets in her hand for the one-hundred-and-fiftieth time that night.

“It says the doors open at 7:30.  But it’s already 7:24.”  She looked up at me with panic on her round face.  “What if it doesn’t happen?”

I resisted the urge to roll my eyes, melting scolding words down to reassurances, like I did with my younger siblings.  “They can’t just call the whole thing off.  It’ll happen.  What did the email say?”

As she pulled a folded sheet of paper from her back pocket with trembling hands, I glanced at the line of concert goers at least two miles long.  It snaked around the venue, down a street I did not know.  After all, this wasn’t our little West Virginia town.  We were over 100 miles from home, in a god-knows-how-long line to see a musician I barely knew, and it had just started to rain.  But I wasn’t here for myself.

“It just says congratulations, you’ve won, blah blah blah, and to be in line at the venue by 7:30.  We will be assigned a number, and if that number is called, we will . . .”  Her voice cracked the way it always did when she was excited about something.  “. . . get to go backstage.”  Her blue eyes lit up shamelessly.  “Duncan!  I’ll die if I don’t get to!  Please, oh please!”  Then she danced around nervously like a kid who has to go to the bathroom.

I looked away, afraid she would draw attention to herself and therefore me.  But the people we were standing around seemed preoccupied with their own conversations.  Still, the excitement in the air was almost contagious, even for those without the “golden tickets.”

Jess had spent many a failed attempt trying to get me to like this guy, this Jack West.  “He’s a visionary,” I remember her saying.  “He plays lead and sings and he writes his own music.  And it’s beautiful.”  I, however, was not so impressed.  I was more of a Daft Punk kind of guy and he was a little too John Mayerish.

But Jess had scrimped and saved to afford for us to go.  The majority of the money she got for graduation was going towards this very night.  And she had entered her name god knows how many times into the drawing to win backstage passes, and somehow – in spite of her recent string of bad luck – she had actually won.  It seemed the universe was on her side this one time, for this one thing she desperately wanted.

Naturally, she was hopelessly in love with the guy.

“Oh my god, oh my GOD!” she squealed in a private lovesick glee that for some reason, she chose to share with me.  “I will just die if I get to meet him.  I will just keel over and DIE.”

“I thought you said you would die if you didn’t get to meet him.”

“Either way, I’m going to die,” she said casually, averting her eyes.  I was gutted.  But this was something we did not discuss.  “Might as well live it up.  Right?  Oh, Duncan.  Will you ask him to kiss me?  Please?”

I turned my head and to scratch the back of it and closed my eyes.  “Sure,” I said slowly.  “But what if he turns out to be a jerk?”

“Oh, he won’t.  He can’t.  It’s impossible.  If you would just listen to his songs, if you would just listen to the lyrics, you would know he’s a kind, warmhearted, selfless person.”  She glazed over in a kind of euphoria.

I bit my lip.  I did not want to disappoint her, nor did I want her to be disappointed.  I had known Jess for most of my life, and over the years we somehow became fellow outcasts in our rundown school district that was strangely populated by other pathetic outcasts who were higher on the totem pole than we were.  Now that we had graduated, I wanted nothing more than to get out of that old mining town.  Jess just wanted to live.  Both of us were trapped.

I had applied for a few scholarships for the local community college just seven miles away.  Jess had bought tickets to a concert in Richmond, Virginia.  Somehow, she seemed like the one who had broken free.

“You promise you’ll ask him to kiss me?”

“Why can’t you ask him yourself?”

Because.”

I growled.

“Come on, please?  For me?”

“Jess, you know what happens when I get nervous.”

“Come on, this isn’t speech class.  This isn’t a debate.  I promise you won’t stutter.  I promise you.”

I gazed down at her condescendingly.  The truth was, even if I did ask him to kiss her, I highly doubted he would even want to.  Jess wasn’t exactly the most attractive girl I had ever seen.  She had a great personality, sure.  She was funny when she wasn’t dancing around like a five-year-old with a full bladder.  But she had a round face and squinty eyes and was just otherwise plain.  She was also on the heavy side, but then again, so was I.  We had the same tall, heavy build, and the same dark brown hair.  To onlookers, we probably looked like siblings.

But we weren’t, and she had been my best friend since second grade when she told the other kids to stop saying I smelled like “old oatmeal.”  What could I do?  We had six or seven cats back then.

“I’ll try,” I told her.  But I made no promises.

A tall, lanky guy blew open the venue doors.  “Okay!” he cried cheerfully, aiming to get our attention.  “For those of you who received an email yesterday, please have your printed copies ready with your IDs!  I have a number for you!”

While Jess went searching her pockets, I checked the line to see how many were doing the same.  At least a dozen other girls were doing the nervous potty-dance, waving their folded pieces of paper like white flags.

I couldn’t fight the internal monologue that started with What am I doing here?  Was she really taking me to see Justin Bieber?  Something deep in my soul was dying, but I was too far in it now.

The lanky guy, who looked to me like the very definition of a bona fide douchebag, checked off Jess’ email with a red Sharpie.  Then he handed her two numbers with adhesive backing – 22 and 23.  “When you get inside, the line forms to the left,” he told her.  Then he moved on to the next so-called lucky pair.

Jess handed me the 23.  “What’s wrong?”

“You mean we have to wait in another line?”

“I owe you so much for this,” she said absently.  “Like, a million dollars.  Or a girlfriend.  I promise to find you a girlfriend when we get home.”

“Jess, this is several hours of my life I will never get back.”

I had said it without thinking, of course, and I beat myself up when she looked away with a twisted expression on her face.  “Yeah, well, me either.”

Mayday, mayday. 

“Hey,” I said, hoping to turn things around, “I hope this is everything you thought it would be.  I hope he asks you to marry him.  For all this trouble, he should.”

She was defenseless to fight the urge to smile.  “Will you ask him that too?”

“No,” I said as the line finally began to move closer to the doors.  “Absolutely not.”

Inside, we made our way to the left as others headed for the bar.  We were already behind at least ten other females, all of whom were unbelievably attractive, and all of whom barely gave me a second look.  In fact, when she wasn’t looking, I saw one of them give Jess the once-over and then proceed to whisper something to one of her friends.  Suddenly, we had walked through the doors and stumbled into an alternate dimension where we were back in high school once again.  My stomach turned.

“Twenty-two and twenty-three,” Jess whispered, oblivious.  “Twenty-two and twenty-three.”

But there were at least twenty other people in the line behind us, mostly other teenaged girls or twenty-somethings.  They were sticking their numbers to their shirts.  Some were sticking them over one breast.  I began have to have serious concerns about my manhood.

I turned to see Jess applying hers to the upper part of her hoodie, in the center of her chest.  “You should put yours on, too,” she reminded me.

“No, thanks.”

“What if they don’t let you in?”

“Who cares, as long as you get in?”

“Duncan!  You can’t let me go in there by myself!”

“Actually, by the look of things, that’s probably what everyone else wants.”

“I need you.  I can’t do this by myself.  I will die of nervousness.  I’m about to throw up right now.”

“It’s fine.  Look, there’s that guy.  I bet he’s about to announce our numbers.”  I sincerely hoped this was the case.  I could not bear to stand in another line.

“Okay!  Ladies and . . .”  He glanced at me.  “Gentlemen!”  Then he spoke fast and lacking finesse.  “I will read the winning numbers chosen at random.  If your number is called, please follow security up the stairs behind me.  Good luck!”  Then he looked down at a clipboard and cried “Number 36!”  And that was when the squealing began.

“Number 42!  Number 49!  Number 53!  Number 57!  Number 69!”

It continued this way until half of the line had been whittled down.  Sixteen girls received backstage passes.  Jess was not one of them.  There wasn’t even a number called from the group of 20s.  If there were any at all.

“Thanks for coming, folks!” he said, turning the charm once again.  “Enjoy the show!”  Then he turned to climb the stairs, two steps at a time.  In less than three seconds, he was out of sight.  And we were out of luck.

The groans were audible above the growing crowd of people in the venue’s foyer.  I took a quick glance at the girls left remaining and realized a horrible truth – they all were either plain, heavy, or simply just less attractive than the girls I watched climb the stairs.  I could feel my sense of justice upset.  The scale had been tipped.  Worse yet, the weights had been tampered with.  The whole thing was rigged.

“Aw crap,” Jess said in a brave attempt to hide her disappointment.  “That really sucks.”

Did she not see what had just happened?

Do I tell her?

I couldn’t do it.  I couldn’t disappoint her after so much disappointment.

“We can wait around afterwards.  Maybe he hangs out after the show to talk to fans.”

She brightened up.  “Yeah!  Come on, let’s go down to the pit.  Hopefully we can still find a good place to stand!”

I wasn’t sure whether her enthusiasm was well-founded or just downright naïve.  In any cast, I followed her into the darkened theater, past rows of seats, and down to the open floor that was already four or five rows of people deep.

Jess had forked over the cash for general admission, which meant we could stand where we wanted, or into whatever space we could push through.  I got us at least to the third row – my height and glare was enough to scare a few girls out of our way.  I settled into my 12 inch-by-12 inch spot and realized I was going to spend the rest of the night standing and sweating in this very space.  For all I knew, I was going to die here, and possibly be buried here too.

She waited in reverential silence for the show to start, nervously biting her nails and shifting her weight from side to side.  I wondered how many girls I would take out if I suddenly passed out from dehydration.

The time crawled by even slower than it did outside.

Finally, the opening band came onstage.  Jess had told me their name, but I had forgotten it.  They weren’t half bad, but Jess looked disinterested.  There was only one person she was here to see.  They and everyone else – including myself – were expendable in her eyes, no matter how much she begged for me to come with her.

The opening band finished their set, and I sighed with relief.  We were that much closer to leaving.

As they began setting up the stage for the main event, Jess turned to me.

“I hope they do ‘The Heart.’  Oh my god, Duncan.  I can’t believe I’m actually here!”

I smiled at her good-naturedly, knowing I would be saying the very same words when I was back in my own bed at home, hundreds of miles away in both space and time.

After an agonizing wait, the band finally came onstage.  The crowd was cheering.  The girl next to me had an especially ear-shattering, banshee-like scream.  Then I realized it belong to Jess.

The man of the hour came onstage, fresh from his backstage exploits with sixteen attractive females.  I couldn’t help but seethe at him at the same time Jess was nearly in tears.  He smiled at the crowd, and I thought for sure I was going to have to carry my best friend in a puddle out of here.  She was very nearly melted to the core when he picked up his guitar and began to play and sing.

I barely recognized any songs.  Jess had played a few of them for me a long time ago, and we had listened to some of them on the way here.  But when one isn’t at a concert of one’s choice, the songs all bleed together into a cavalcade of noise.  One right after the other, each eliciting shrieks and cries from the girl standing beside me.  He may have been the most talented guitarist there ever was, but I’ll be the first to admit I didn’t know a talented musician from one who just faked it onstage.  However, it seemed he was the real deal, and his songs were kind of moving, and to top it all off, he had a violinist with him who looked like the girl from Parks and Recreation.  She was hot in a deadpan, scary, yet ethereal kind of way, and there is always something about a girl who can shred the violin.  Suddenly I found I was enjoying the show in spite of myself, and in spite of the fact – whether he knew it or not – this so-called “visionary” had slighted my best friend.

For the encore, he opened with the notes of what I assumed was the song Jess had hoped for, based on the way she began screaming and shouting just like everyone else in the building.

They put on a decent show, and while I probably wouldn’t listen to them regularly, they certainly took my mind off my aching feet and back for an hour and a half.

Amidst cheers and cries and utter madness, they waved and air-kissed the audience before disappearing backstage.

The lights came on, and the crowd slowly began to disperse.

“What do we do?” Jess cried.  “Should we wait here or go outside?”

I didn’t have a choice.  If I didn’t get outside, I would spontaneously combust from heat and sweat.  “Let’s go wait outside.  Maybe we can hang out in the back of the building where his tour bus is.  Dude’s gotta come out sometime.”

She followed me to the doors, but not before buying a large men’s t-shirt.  I thought about asking why she didn’t buy a women’s, and then I wondered in horror if she was buying it for me, until I realized she probably couldn’t fit into anything smaller.

She carried that thing outside like a trophy, and buried her face into it like a stuffed animal.

I wasn’t sure what I was thinking, slinking around the building like a stalker.  Then I saw a group of fans waiting by the tour bus, blocked by a makeshift metal gate that prevented them from getting any closer.  I sighed with relief as much as I cringed in horror.  Another line.  Another group of girls.  But this time, Jess would get to meet her idol.

“See?” I said as we approached the gate.  “I told you.”

“Oh my god,” she whispered nervously.

We weren’t there five minutes before the tall lanky douchebag appeared again.  “Sorry, everyone,” he said.  “Jack West has already left the building.”  Then he added cheerfully but stupidly, “Be safe getting home.  Thanks for coming tonight.”

More groans and sighs.  Most turned around to leave.  Some stood their ground, shouting questions to the man who seemed to know his whereabouts.  But he kept repeating “I don’t know where he is.  Sorry.”  And then finally, when he was finished with us, or tired of repeating himself, he simply turned around and disappeared behind the bus.

Jess was determined to wait.  She crossed her arms and narrowed her brow.  It almost looked like she was willing him back to the venue, wherever he was.  But after several minutes had passed, even the most diehard fans surrendered to the fact he really was gone.

I turned to Jess and started to speak.  “Well . . .”

But I could see the tears she was fighting to hold back.  Her lips quivered, and she bravely brushed me off.

“Let’s go,” she whispered.

Disappointment was all she ever knew, and she faced it more bravely than I ever could.

I put my arm around her and we began making the short walk back to my car on a side street a few blocks away.

I took the keys out of my pocket in anticipation of getting in the car and getting my Coke.

“Wasn’t it everything you hoped?” I asked, grasping at straws.

“Yeah,” she said softly.  “It was.”

But we both knew it wasn’t.  Whether he realized it or not, he had given a false hope to a girl who needed the real thing more than anyone in that building.  The contest was cruel and calculated, weeding out the unattractive fans for the hot ones.  Typical, I thought.  But it still pissed me off.

Once we were close enough, I unlocked the doors, and Jess and I parted ways so she could get in.  “Hey,” she cried suddenly, “did you keep your number?”

“What?”

“Number 23?”  She pointed to her own number, still stuck to her hoodie.

I patted my pocket.  Then I went searching for it, in all the pockets of my jeans.

“Huh,” I said, realizing it wasn’t there.

“You lost it?” she cried.  “How could you lose it?”

“What difference does it make?”

“What do you mean?  It makes a WORLD of difference.  It’s our memento of the time we almost got to go backstage.”

“But we didn’t.”

“So?  It’s a memory you and I will always have.  You know . . . forever.”

Oh, God.  She was pulling the guilt over on me like a sheet, burying me in it.

“Is it that big o’ deal?  Isn’t the ticket enough?”

“It’s a big deal to me.”

I sighed, trying to think of where I could have lost it.  I knew I hadn’t thrown it away.  “Maybe I dropped it when I got my keys,” I told her hopefully.  I’ll go back and look for it, if it’s that big of a deal.”

“Thank you,” she said, and got in the car.

I sighed again.  There was no reasoning with her.  I would have to wait a little longer for that Coke after all.

I searched the ground for that stupid adhesive piece of paper with the light of my cell phone, looking down as I walked.  I was so intent on finding it that I wasn’t watching where I was going, and I didn’t see that I was about to run headlong into someone.  When we collided, I was caught off guard, and then the shame and embarrassment was quick to follow.  “Sorry,” we both said at the same time, never even looking each other in the eye.

But as he passed, I caught a quick glance – enough to register a face, then a smile, then a guitar, and finally an entire stage.

I had just ran into Jack West.  And he was walking away from me.

“Hey!” I cried.  “Hey!”

But he continued walking, and now he was holding a cell phone to his ear.

I’m not sure what came over me.  Maybe it was simply the fact that I was bigger than him.  Maybe it was my upset sense of justice.  Maybe I just wanted to see Jess happy again.  Whatever it was, I suddenly found myself charged with what could only be described as stalking – and then, for all intents and purposes, harassing - a man I hardly knew and hardly cared to know.

“Hey!” I cried again, catching up to him.  I stood in front of him, blocking his way.

He put the cell phone away and smiled.  But I could tell he was annoyed.

And as scared as I was of public speaking, or speaking to strangers at all, I put that aside to say a few words to this guy, who was quickly becoming the real douchebag of the evening.

“Listen,” I said, “I know you’re Jack W-w-west and all, and I know about your little cont-t-test.  And I know the whole thing was r-r-rigged.  And I don’t want your autograph and I certainly don’t w-w-want a picture with you, but my friend loves you, okay?  She loves you.  God knows why.  If you could just take a minute t-t-to say hello to her, I sure would appreciate it.”

“Sorry,” he said.  “I’m kinda on a time crunch, buddy.”

“So is she.”  Then I got brave and went for broke.  “She’s dying, man.  She’s sick.”

This at least seemed to get his attention.

“Just a minute,” I said.  “Just to say hello.  You will literally make her life.”

He was staring at me now.  I could see the exhaustion behind his stone-faced expression.  Then he looked away, staring off into the darkness.

“Where is she?”

“In a car.  Just a block away.”

“I’ve only got a minute.”

“That’s all she needs.  Follow me.”

It was the longest walk of my life.  In those two, maybe three minutes, I walked beside someone who probably considered himself to be a veritable rock star.  Likely he had been on TV and performed for thousands – perhaps millions – of people.  I hated him.  I wondered how anyone could possibly even like him, let alone obsess over him like Jess did.  I thought back to what she said earlier – If you would just listen to his songs, if you would just listen to the lyrics, you would know he’s a kind, warmhearted, selfless person. 

What a load of crap.

The real warmhearted, selfless, and kind person had befriended me in second grade and was sitting in my car.  This guy was just a phony.  Perhaps we both were.  But she was the real deal.  And if he didn’t treat her like she was another one of his attractive blonde fans, I toyed with the idea of making sure he never played another song again.

“What’s her name?” he suddenly asked as we rounded the corner.  I told him.

Jess saw us coming.  Her squinty eyes suddenly got huge and she covered her face and started to cry.

I opened the passenger door.  “Someone here to see you,” I said.  My attempt at lightheartedness.  Then I moved out of the way.

He kneeled down beside the car and smiled at her, turning on the charm.  I was glad.  If I could fake civility toward him, he could fake the rest for her.

“Hello, Jess.  How are you, sweetheart?”

She was wiping tears away, smiling at him like he had just saved her life.

I decided I was no longer needed.  Just an accessory, a third wheel to a moment that was not mine.  He was signing her T-shirt when I turned to walk away, saying something that made her explode into one of her genuine laughs.  I realized it may be longer than a minute for both of us, and I was going to have to wait for that Coke.  But it would be worth it, whether he realized it or not.

I looked down at something blowing around on the ground.  I took a few steps before I recognized the paper and the number on the back.  Number 23.  A genuine memento.  A memory we would keep forever, of our bravery, hers and mine.

The End