I had been waiting patiently beside him, though I initially found myself there on accident. Pressed into a crowd of a hundred eager faces, I was just another fan awaiting my turn. Only this time, the music pulsated from the speakers. Onstage, Steven Chen – Airborne’s lead guitarist – was DJing the party. At the outskirts of the fan crowd, a few people had begun to dance. Still more were returning with posters and T-shirts to the masses near the stage where Mikel Jollett stood, graciously signing autographs, smiling in pictures, and hugging pretty, giggling girls. Someone even handed him their boot. He looked at them as if to say, “Really?”
This wasn’t a dream. This was the first early morning of 2013 at a Chicago venue after an especially heartstopping, intimate, and lengthy show. It had been nearly six months since I had seen them the first time during my throw-of-the-dice daring jailbreak. Things were different now. As a band, they were more relaxed, appearing to have enjoyed themselves just as much as their audience. This was their party, after all, and it seemed they weren’t about to let us have fun without them.
As a result, there were mistakes made. Mikel had to restart “Sometime Around Midnight” at least three times. I was standing to his right, resting my hands on the stage, wondering what it must be like to be in his shoes. The singer. The songwriter. The front man. The rock star, with the song everyone is aching to hear, the song that everyone loves, the one we all identify with. And he couldn’t make it sing.
I’m not a musician, so I don’t pretend to have understood the logistics of what happened. Was the guitar out of tune? In the wrong key? The distortion incorrect? In any case, he hid frustration behind good-natured jokes in an attempt to set us at ease.
But things were different now. I was different. It had been three months since I received the letter from him. Three months of these ruins being open, of Colleen Without Bars. Three months of letting people in, or letting myself out – as I now was in Chicago. Three months of facing and slaying fears. And three months of taking on the feelings and situations of others – making friends and fighting off negative feedback, both from the outside and within. I was in the middle of a battle that early morning in January, of claiming myself and my life as worth living.
That night, however, I just wanted to be the fangirl. I had no past. No heartbreaking tragedies. At an Airborne concert, I leave them at the door, and I and the music are one. There is no yesterday, no tomorrow. Just now.
I was also feeling very tongue-in-cheek that night.
“I believe in you, Mikel,” I said genuinely, but wearing a teasing smile.
Perhaps it was presumptuous or prosaic. But he seemed to think it was funny, stopping from tuning the Gretsch to point at me and laugh.
At the next attempt, he nailed it. The crowd cheered, everything having been set right again.
But the time between failures and success felt like hours. People were getting impatient. The instant it failed the first time, the pressure began to build at an alarming rate. When you fall, most people don’t offer to pick you up. They stand there impatiently, wondering when you’re going to get up off the ground. They want you to succeed, but they’re not willing or able to offer the help you need. And when you keep falling, time and time again, they think something is wrong with you. They’re quick to pass judgment, to think “Well, obviously, he’s not good enough,” and some will even brand you a failure.
However, there are a few brave people who both witness your failures and share in your success. These are the people you want in your corner, offering a helping hand, no matter what obstacle is tripping you up.
In those three months, I had begun collecting those people, and I aspired to be one myself. After months of relative isolation, of hiding behind my grief in a desperate attempt to protect myself, I was ready to embrace this new person I had become. I could do this forever, I thought. I could just be Someone’s Fan. A fangirl.
But transition is often slow-going and riddled with failures itself. I was – and still am – painfully shy and withdrawn in crowds. So when it became apparent I would not have to approach Mikel Jollett at all this time – that I would eventually be pushed into his personal space by an eager crowd – I decided to go with the flow.
Standing beside him for a few moments, I had a rare opportunity to observe the way he treated each fan. I also took a proverbial step back to observe the way each fan treated him. I realized we are a demanding, grabby sort. We want to be recognized. We yearn for a moment, a memory. We all want our piece. Most of us are polite. Some of us could stand to improve. But we all seem to forget, at least temporarily, there is a human beneath the rock star exterior.
He looked tired. Physically spent. Maybe even exhausted. But he was never disconnected. He was gracious and obliging to every demand – every picture, every autograph, every request for a kiss. He would lean down to lend an ear for every fan with something that needed to be said above the pulsating music Steven was churning out behind us.
By the time he finally turned to me, I was nearly ready to make my escape. I realized I had my picture. I had his autograph. I even had a kiss. And I had told him everything I wanted to say, everything that needed to be said.
But there it was.
And I was not immune.
I managed to squeak out a “hi” and held out my phone to snap a picture. I gave him a hug. And then I walked away.
This time, the crowd parted for me like the Red Sea. Get out of here, fangirl. Your turn is over. It’s our turn now. You don’t belong here anymore.
As I left the building, the reality of who I was and Who I Am came rushing back. With every mile I drove home, the horizon of my ruins grew closer.
Get out of here, fangirl.
You don’t belong here anymore.
There was no place for her in these ruins. Here, she seemed like a silly apparition at best, an annoying reminder at worst. Suddenly, these victories I thought I had just seemed like petty attempts at happiness, little respites now and then from a wasteland. I had tried to return with some renewed sense of zeal for myself, but it was short-lived once the reality of my situation was staring me in the face.
This fangirl business. This was never what I wanted.
This was never who I thought I’d be.
I was going to be a mom. That was all I ever wanted. That’s who I wanted to be. Not the swooning but painfully shy girl in the front row at a concert.
If someone had told me, “A few years from now, you’re going to go ga-ga over some indie rock band. You’re going to follow them around the country. You’re going to annoy your friends with how much you talk about them. You’re going to meet the lead singer, and you’re going to make a fool out of yourself,” I wouldn’t believe it. I would have said, “You’re confusing me with someone else. I’ll be too busy raising kids to follow a band.”
Yet, here I was.
And I hated myself. I hated the person I had become. I hated what had happened to me, the consequences of what was beyond my control.
Get out of here, fangirl.
You don’t belong here anymore.
You never belonged here to begin with.
In the middle of a breakdown one night, I voiced these things to Hubby.
Tearfully, I told him my hatred of who I had become. “People just think I’m crazy,” I said. “They think all I care about is some stupid band. But that’s not who I am! It’s not what I want! I don’t CARE. I’m standing there in Chicago, waiting outside for two hours in 20 degrees, and I’m wondering what I’m doing there. Then someone behind me starts talking about their kids. They left them at home to see a SHOW. They LEFT them! THEY LEFT THEIR KIDS. TO SEE A BAND!”
I’m crying the words now, the person I am at heart wrenching herself out of the fangirl, as if I’m trying to scream myself awake.
“I DON’T CARE ABOUT A BAND!” I screamed at him. “I JUST WANT TO SEE MY KIDS! I WANT TO BE A MOM!”
I collapsed to the floor, an angry, sobbing, pathetic mess.
But I was still falling, having failed so severely it seemed there was no recovery. I was mortally wounded, bleeding internally from a broken heart of the worst kind. And it seemed that everyone was waiting for me to get up, to move on. People were holding their breath for me, and I was letting them down. They started to get impatient. The pressure was building. But no one was offering to help. In a moment, they would write me off. And in a moment, I would too. I was a failure, not just as a fangirl, but a human being. I was failing not just at living, but at life.
These ruins were anything but stunning. They were cold and desolate ash. I had hit the very bottom of whatever abyss I was falling into. There was no tree, no last-ditch rescue. There was only darkness now.
I felt Hubby’s helping hands reach down to pick me up gently, like a little bird.
“I know who you are,” he said softly. “I don’t think you’re crazy. I know what you want. I want it, too.”
He held me even as I continued to cry. “I know,” he repeated tenderly, “I know.”
“I can’t go on like this,” I told him. “I’m crazy.”
“You’re not crazy. Just be yourself,” he said.
“I don’t know who I am anymore. All I know is I don’t want to be this person.”
“I know. But I love you anyway, just the way you are.”
As I wiped my tears away, I realized something incredibly beautiful and profound, like a beam of light shining down into this abyss.
I wasn’t just Someone’s Fan.
This man holding me in his arms after witnessing failure after failure, and sharing in my stupid tiny victories – he was the fan all along. My fan.
He is the one who reminds me time and time again that I have value. That I am not a failure. That I am loved. That the show must go on, no matter how many times I screw up the song.
I will get it right eventually, no matter how long it takes. He will never become impatient with me. He never thinks something is wrong with me. He will never brand me a failure. He has always believed in me – always – all along.
Love is ardent fandom of the purest kind.
And even when I am ready to give up on something that, for whatever reason, gives me moments of joy unlike any I thought I would ever have – he reminds me that just because it’s not the life I wanted, it doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy it. Embrace it. Celebrate it. Let it define me for a little while, at least for now, until I can be the person I want to be.
He has given the greatest gift of all – the freedom to be myself, whomever she may be.
And suddenly, I have a plan.
Suddenly these ruins don’t look so desolate anymore.
From these canyons and valleys echoes music, like a whisper. On the scarred mountainsides are lyrics, reflecting whatever light finds itself here, glowing and ethereal. If you follow them, they will tell you a story, both theirs and mine. They will lead you to the deeper parts of these ruins, a cave of words and ideas that sparkle like diamonds. They will take you to the edge of my civilization, where the unknown meets my reality, and there you will find an empty bottle in the sand. And they will show you the hinges where metal gates used to shut out the world and all the feelings in it, trapping all my feelings inside.
But somehow these songs found their way in, and somehow they grew here in this desolate wasteland in the form of a leafless, dying tree.
Something had grown here, which meant other things could, too. Not just grow, but thrive. There was potential here. This could be a place others could visit, and this could be a place I would not be afraid to show.
And though I was wounded, surely I wasn’t the only one. There were others, too. There was the bird in the tree that could still fly.
There was a reason that bird was still flying.
I wanted to be that bird. I wanted to be more than just the ashes. I wanted to be a phoenix, and I wanted to fly.
I never expected to be here.
I certainly never expected things to go this far.
I just had this broken heart, and they were just a band.
I am the girl in the front row emblazoned with the wounded bird on her face.
I am trembling from excitement that they are playing here – an outdoor amphitheater with an orchestra – here in these stunning ruins. There is a full moon tonight, and the stars are twinkling in a cloudless velvet sky. But I am standing next to you, staring wistfully at the wounded bird that hangs precariously above the stage, as I finish my sad story of the giddy fangirl of The Airborne Toxic Event.
But you know that’s not just who I am, nor is it all I ever wanted, or all I’ll ever be.
The lanterns begin to dim as the air grows quiet for a moment. Then we collectively realize what’s happening.
The show is about to start.
I take a breath. Here we go.
to be continued . . . .