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

 

 

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