I knew there was nothing to say. You kept glancing down the line, then looking over at me to see if I’d caught you. That alone said everything. I followed your gaze to the end of the line where he stood lingering, watching us from afar.
The familiar anxiety began again, pooling inside me like a pit of acid. Like a fever it took over my head, dizzying, until the rain that began to fall on us was like a godsend.
You pulled one of your scarves up around your head, peeking out from under it to give me a hopeful smirk, pretending there was nothing going on.
We’d stood in this same line a hundred times. What money we hadn’t spent on kung pao chicken at Wing Hoe, or bail for our friends, or weed from that twitchy guy in the high rise overlooking the lake, we’d spent to stand in this line. We’d stood animated, stoned, our bodies locked together in anticipation of each of those nights: Blue Öyster Cult, Led Zeppelin, the Eagles, Curtis Mayfield, Parliament, even Helen Reddy (with your mom). We’d scratched them all off our shared list—all of them except the band we were seeing that night, the band that had brought us together summers ago, when you had only to turn on the radio just to hear one of their songs.
The line began to move towards the entrance of the theater, and you with it. When you realized I was no longer beside you, you turned to see me. The marquee lights were shining like a great bonfire on Lawrence Avenue.
“Is it over?” I asked.
“What?” you said, as if I’d just woken you up in the middle of the night. You stepped towards me. “I’m not going to fight here. You’re not going to ruin this for me.”
“After tonight,” I said. “Is that when it’s over?”
“I’m going inside.”
“We’re just going to pretend nothing’s happened?”
“Everything was fine a second ago,” you hissed.“We bought these tickets months ago, and we’re going to enjoy them even if we have to sit in silence the whole time.”
“Maybe I should ask him what he thinks?” I said, nodding to the end of the line again, over the heads of dozens of other shaggy-haired teenagers wrapped in amulets and scarves, T-shirts of past tours.
You faltered. “Ask who?”
“I slept with Diane,” I confessed. I think I’d smoked some bad grass before meeting up with you. Maybe I was delirious. Maybe I just wanted to hurt you with the only card I had left to play. Or maybe I just wanted it to be over.
“Diane?” you whispered, caught between shock and guilt.
“It’s not serious,” I conceded.
After a minute, you spoke again. “I know.”
“Hey, man,” someone said from behind us. “You going to move up?”
The line had practically disappeared several yards ahead, swallowed up by the great rock palace, the former Jazz Age ballroom looming up from the alleys and floating on blue clouds of marijuana smoke, like some psychedelic factory on the edge of town.
We moved side by side as if everything was cool. For a moment, we were even silent.
“How did you know?” I asked finally.
“Same as you probably,” you said. “Second hand news.”
You couldn’t stop listening to “Dreams.” By your own admission, you’d run your vinyl copy ragged over the course of that entire summer. Over and over, you swayed tirelessly to that bass line, forcing me to try and sing those harmonies with you, calling out everything new you noticed with each listen: how there was a definite difference between the version on the radio and the version you played incessantly in your bedroom; how the lead singer wasn’t actually saying, “whistle at me” but instead, cooing “It’s only me”; how you’d only just noticed those ethereal chimes marking the rise to that chorus you wanted tattooed on your body. You couldn’t stop listening to “Dreams,” and because I liked getting laid as often as possible, I pretended not to notice.
“I read in a magazine that she’s a witch,” you said, pausing to take a breath of the joint I’d rolled for us.
“Who?” I asked, naked, from the bed.
“Her,” you said, pointing at the record player while you continued to dance in the shawls and scarves you’d started collecting from boutiques and thrift stores since first discovering Rumours.
“Don’t tell your mom that,” I said. “She’ll make you burn the album in the street.”
“We should have a séance!” you suggested suddenly, the shawls and scarves falling limp against your bare legs as you stopped.
“Since when do you believe in that stuff?” I asked. “You laughed through that entire Omen movie.”
“Don’t you have any respect for the supernatural?” you said, twirling as the chorus began again.
You looked like a little girl, and truth be told, sometimes that was a turn-on for me. There was something virginal about you, even though we were both far from virgins. Me: Lacy Singleton in ninth grade, at the pool house in Chase Park; You: Me, Valentine’s Day, a week or so after Rumours hit.
“What does a séance get us?” I asked. “A bunch of ghosts hanging around that we can’t get rid of?”
“This isn’t Scooby Doo,” you said, smirking. “It’s serious stuff. You can ask about the future, about the afterlife.”
“Like, is heaven really all clouds and golden gates and angels with harps?”
“Hopefully you’d ask something more intelligent than that,” you said, resuming your dance. “Never mind.”
You hated it when people didn’t take you seriously. You hated being dismissed as some whack-a-doo hippie, some drug-addled gypsy wandering about our neighborhood in search of everything and everyone eclectic. How you landed on me, a hockey player, an average student, a Catholic, I’ll never know.
“Fine,” I said. “What would you want to know? From the spirits.”
“I’d ask them about my Grandma Ruth. You know, the one who played the organ?” you replied. “I’d see how she was doing first. And then…” You stopped dancing, poised on your pink rug, barefoot, half-clothed in shawls and your Stones shirt, thinking carefully. “I’d ask if I was going to be famous some day. You know, like her.” You nodded again towards the album, towards the stack of magazines with the blond-haired images peering back at us.
“Famous?” I said. “Since when do you want to be famous?”
“What do you mean?” you said, half-laughing, half-incredulous.
“I just… never knew that was something you wanted.”
“Isn’t it what everyone wants?”
“To be famous? Like on magazine covers with reporters following you around all day?” I said, laughing. “I think people want it, and then they hate it.”
“Well, sure,” you said. “It’s not for everyone.”
“What would you even be famous for?”
Once more you stopped. The song went on underneath us, just as it always did. Even when we’re away from the record player, it’s on the radio in the car, it’s playing in the pizza parlor or on the jukebox at Ollie’s, or on some chump’s 8-track player as he drives past on Broadway Avenue, and we’re standing there, holding hands like we always do, sweating through our clothes, always on our way home to make love and listen to the album all over again.
“There’s no point in telling you, if you have to ask.”
“You never said anything until now,” I said, irritated.
“You should know me by now,” you said—no, you demanded.
“If you’re expecting me to know everything by six months, then what are you expecting in a year? A wedding ring?” I laughed.
“Why are you laughing?”
“I bet you don’t know everything about me,” I said. “What do I want?”
You laughed derisively. “You want to lie in bed and smoke dope all day until you can’t see straight. That’s what you want.”
We were shouting now. The music couldn’t even be heard over us. We fought through most of the album, until the record was through and plunking out an empty pulse, marking time until we were finally quiet again. Somehow we had traded places and now you were in bed, and I was at the window, watching the shadows lengthen on the street.
“Are you scared?” you finally spoke, barely audible in the gathering dusk.
“That we’re fighting like this?”
“What’s there to be scared of? Isn’t that part of it all?”
“Not like that,” you said. “We shouldn’t fight like this after only six months.”
“Just a second ago, you were saying how long six months was,” I reminded you. “Don’t expect it to be perfect.”
“It’s not,” you said quickly, and for a moment, I wondered if I should launch back into it, or maybe even walk out. I took it and let it go.
“So what do you want to do then?” I asked.
You regarded this for a minute more. Then slowly, you patted the space beside you, the space usually occupied by your own body, now free to accept mine. I went to you, but you stopped me.
“Put the record back on,” you muttered, a hint of a smirk on your mouth.
I obliged, taking off the clothes I had somehow put back on during our fight, making my way between the record player and your bed. As I laid down beside you, once more “Dreams” filled your bedroom and eclipsed the sound of the waking world attempting to burst in through your window, always open to clear out the scent of marijuana in the air. We didn’t hear the L train, or the homeless man shouting obscenities in the alley, or the public pool just a few blocks away. For once, we only heard one another, breathing to the sound of your favorite song.
The night we met, I broke your boyfriend’s nose. When I looked down at my fist, the bloody imprint of his face was between my knuckles. He’d been talking shit, saying loudly that Frampton Comes Alive! was overrated as he tried to knock the eight ball into a side pocket. So I decked him.
“What the fuck did you do that for?” you shouted at me, crouching beside him as he reeled and spat blood to the floor, sticky from past fights.
I didn’t have an answer. No big Humphrey Bogart tip-of-the-hat, no Clark Gable one-liner. I just stared at you. Your dark blond hair tightened in wiry curls in the damp pool hall air, while the neon light of Schlitz signs caught your wide brown eyes and the January snowflakes tumbling outside.
Your boyfriend—what was his name?—tried to pick himself up, but you pushed him back down, making a stand for the both of you.
“I know you,” you announced.
Others around us were pausing to watch now.
“You and your goons hang around here a lot,” you said. “You’re always picking fights.”
In those days, I was mean and wayward. You were right. I was a pissed off truant, always looking to start something after curfew. Each day, I left a trail of knocked-out assholes leading from geometry class to the bars on Clark Street to home, where another crop of assholes brought home by my mother were walking in and out of my life and leaving us with nothing.
“Why don’t you go somewhere else to fight?” you shouted. “People are here to have a good time, not get their faces busted in.” You turned away sharply, while my friends and some of yours snickered at me, the tough guy with the Warren Beatty haircut with the broad shoulders and the thin wrists, now put in his place by the petite chick in a denim halter top and the leather coat hand-stitched with flowers and peace signs.
“Let’s go,” I told my buddies.
“I thought you were gonna deck her too,” someone said as we stepped out into the snow, lighting cigarettes and hiking up our collars.
Maybe that was it. Maybe all I had to hear was those words. The thought of me hitting a girl, or being angry enough to do so was frightening. I’d seen it before with other people. I’d seen it happen in my own kitchen, by men bigger and angrier than me. Maybe it was that and the close memory of you leaning towards me with your furrowed brow and your small fists clenched on either side of your body, maybe that was what brought me back hours later, sober from the cold, to see if you were still there.
You were hunched over at the bar with a girlfriend, crying and drinking Tequila Sunrises, playing Todd Rundgren on the jukebox. Turned out your boyfriend hadn’t liked your big show of bravado. He hadn’t liked being defended by a woman or found it sexy like I had, and he’d broken up with you on the spot.
You stepped outside a while later, not bothering to put your coat on as you joined the cold where I was shivering and waiting for you. You bade goodbye to your friend and shuffled off to the bus stop.
“You shouldn’t walk alone,” I said, stepping into a pool of streetlight.
You tilted your head back in annoyance. “Listen, man, I don’t want any more trouble tonight. I can scream pretty loud if I have to.”
“I’m not here to hassle you,” I said. “Just wanted to apologize.”
“I shouldn’t have cold-cocked your boyfriend like that,” I said. “I gotta learn to let some things go.”
“Well, it turns out he sort of deserved it,” you replied.
“I didn’t mean for anything to go down, I swear.”
You shrugged. “Sometimes it takes something like that to show you a person’s true colors.”
“You two are on the outs then?” I asked haltingly.
“When aren’t we?”
“I could talk to him. Maybe explain that I was in the wrong?”
“No, man,” you said. “I’m never going back again.”
I didn’t say anything at first, just studied you, looking small and forlorn in the winter dark. Finally, I asked, “Do you wanna get a drink somewhere?”
“I’ve had too many.”
I nodded, watching dumbly as you finally put your coat on.
Inside the bar, the jukebox began again, with that guitar intro I recognized instantly. Since summer the radio stations had been buzzing with it, spinning that witchy chorus about dreams unwinding and love being a state of mind right at midnight for full effect.
“I like this song,” I said absently.
You looked up from your coat buttons. “You do?”
“Sure,” I said. “They play it a lot, but I still like it.”
“It’s my favorite song right now,” you said. “My boyfriend—or ex-boyfriend—he doesn’t go in much for music.”
“I saw Stevie Wonder at the Aragon last month.”
“I go to a lot of concerts,” I said. “Basically the only thing I spend money on.”
You hesitated. “Not your girlfriend?”
“Don’t have one.”
You regarded this, then nodded towards the music. “They have a new album coming out. I’m dying to hear it.”
“We should listen to it together,” I suggested.
You looked back at me, enough snow in your hair now to look like diamonds.
“I’d like that,” you said.
You were a waitress, and I was a sales clerk at the plant shop, Green Venture, on Broadway. The first month we were dating, I brought you home a Venus flytrap as a joke, but you took it in with wonder, watering it and feeding it bugs you found in the window slats or under the front porch of your house on Magnolia. You started collecting insects off trees, scooping them out of the air as they swirled maddeningly around porch lights. Other girls—whoever they were—would have shied away from spiders and wasps, but you went after them and dealt out death with the palms of your hands.
I wondered if you had shown this side to the other guys. Had they seen this carefree, brazen girl running up the porch steps and blowing past the goodnight kiss to swat a moth out of the air?
What frightened me most was that any minute you might go back. You might remember that sniveling, bloodied boy on the floor of the pool hall and miss whatever it was that had drawn you to him in the first place. Better yet, you might find some new man during the few hours when I wasn’t there beside you. He might catch your eye and woo you with some creative line, or he might have better hair than mine. He might not be tone-deaf; he might be able to sing “Landslide” and play along on his guitar. In which case, go to him. You might as well.
But every morning that followed, you called on the telephone and asked me to come over because your parents were always up at those couples’ retreats in Wisconsin. We always had the house to ourselves and sometimes we never left, even in the summertime when the beach was just a few blocks away or our favorite local band was playing at the Wooden Nickel.
I started telling you things too. How my dad left when I was ten, and how we hadn’t seen my brother since he’d shown up at Christmas two years before, telling us he was joining the Moonies. I told you how it was just my mother and I and how I felt guilty that sometimes I was here with you instead of back home with her, giving her someone else to talk to and make dinner for. How I always felt like I was in the middle of something terrible, always headed towards some disaster because that’s how everything had gone in my life up until then.
But you kept pulling me into bed with you, whispering, “Don’t stop,” as we rocked back and forth. One time, we had sex in the middle of a thunderstorm and you screamed when a bolt of lightning sent a hush over the entire city. We laughed and it broke our mood. But we were fine with just lying there and listening to the rain breaking over us. Just you, me, and the Venus flytrap, its mouth agape, waiting for anything to fly in.
No one ever figured out our code: the long, unspoken cryptogram of heavy sighs and jealous glances, the half-veiled threats, the furtive movements to cover our tracks as they slowly, gradually led us both to other people.
At parties, while the room filled with friends and their dates, we played songs to one another over the conversation and laughter. If things were good, sometimes I’d play “I Want To Take You Higher” by Sly and the Family Stone or “Give a Little Bit” by Supertramp. If I wanted you to laugh, I put on “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” by Neil Diamond or “Julie, Do Ya Love Me?” by Bobby Sherman, who your girlfriends loved but you derided. If I wanted your forgiveness for getting drunk and hitting on another girl, I’d play you “Everything I Own” by Bread. If sometimes I didn’t want to hear what you had to say back to me, I’d put on ten minutes of “Inside Looking Out” by Grand Funk Railroad in hopes that that elongated rock opus might force you to forget whatever it was you had to say to me.
But you spun tunes like a schoolgirl writing my name in her science book: “Time in a Bottle” by Jim Croce, “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” by Roberta Flack, or “Down to Zero” by Joan Armatrading. When the dope and the pills were heavy around us: “You and Your Folks, Me and My Folks” by Funkadelic.
But when you were pissed, Carly Simon sang “You’re So Vain” followed by Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff.” And sometimes you just gave up and put on “Go To Hell” by Alice Cooper and drank yourself to bed without hearing my inevitable musical apology: “A Case of You” by Joni Mitchell.
There were messages lost in transmission too. Like the time you went out with your girlfriends, all of you dressed in high skirts with your hair down, smoking reefer in the bathroom as you got ready, while I listened and worried in your bedroom, which we were basically sharing at that point.
I called up WLS as many times as it took before Larry Lujack himself answered.
“It’s currently forty-five degrees here at WLS, the wind is west at eight miles per hour, and Animal Stories is right after these messages. But first, hello! You’re on the air, what song would you like to hear?”
“Uh, could you play ‘Go Your Own Way,’” I shouted into the phone.
“Is there someone special you want to dedicate this one to?”
Between Larry Lujack, John Landecker, and Bob Sirrott, they probably knew our entire history together. They knew when we were down and when we were up. Maybe they were secretly rooting for us to stay together, sending us coded messages through songs like “Oh Girl” by The Chi-Lites or “Into the Mystic” by Van Morrison.
They heard you request “Songbird” for me the night my mom was in the hospital for that lump in her breast. You knew I’d be listening on my transistor radio as I sat beside her while she slept.
“It’s fifteen to ten here at WLS, and you’re on the air. Hello, what can I play for you?”
“Can you play ‘Songbird’ for me?” I heard you say, your voice crisscrossing the wires through air and space to get to me there in the quiet hospital room with the noises of life support machines tinkering away like a robotic symphony.
“A lot of requests for this powerhouse band lately, so I have it right here,” John Landecker said to you. “Who’d you like to play this for, sweetheart?”
“My boyfriend,” you replied. “He’s in the hospital with his mother right now. I hope he knows I’d be there if I could.”
When we were finally inside the theater, we waited in the dark for them to start, still wet from the rain. We hadn’t spoken since we’d fought in line, and we’d come without any other friends, having bought the tickets months ago, thinking it would be the perfect date. This was the first time in weeks that we’d been together, I mean, really sat together and shared silence.
There were things I could have said to make it better before they finally came on, but all I could think about was you and him. He was somewhere out in the dark audience, about to listen to our band and our songs. Who were all these good-looking people around us? Who were they to listen to our songs?
The anger you had subdued in me, the anger I used against would-be suitors on the telephone or your ex-boyfriends in violent daydreams—it began to soar up from inside me.
Just when I thought I might leave, they came on.
Around us, the noise of a thousand teenagers spilled out, whistling and screaming. We knew this noise, we’d heard it in this very same theater so many times before. Except we’d never heard them play, and when they began with “The Chain” there was something that happened, unsaid, between us. I’m not sure what it was. It was elusive, a holy thing, not entirely physical, but not wholly metaphysical. It was as if all this time, we hadn’t believed they were real. Now they were in front of us, lit up by a hundred lights of a hundred different hues of rose and amethyst, wreathed in a growing fog as that proverbial bass line carried us onward to the inevitable crash of voices at the end.
We reached for one another instinctively. We held on until the song rumbled to a conclusion. At the edge of breaking up forever, we forgot everything bad and good that had happened between us. We were virgins again, sitting on the edge of your bed, the smoke from our first toke hovering on the edge of our lips, the needle on the edge of what would become our favorite record, both of us smack dab in the center of our lives.
I think it was at Penny Deetz’s shotgun wedding when you stood up as her maid of honor, that I decided I should probably marry you. You stood beside her bulbous, pregnant torso, as if guarding the last moments of her life as a single woman. We kept making eye contact, trying to make one another laugh despite the solemnity of the occasion. Penny’s aunt, a hairdresser, had put your hair up in some beehive as if sculpting some big ’60s time capsule on your head.
“I look ridiculous,” you muttered, as we rode the train south to the courthouse downtown.
I laughed as I took you in. “All the girls on the train are going to think that’s back in style seeing it on you,” I told you.
“They’re going to think we’re going back in time,” you said. “Prom night 1963. We’re going to stop the Kennedy assassination afterwards.”
I laughed, watching as you stared past me into the window, using it as a mirror to shift the big cone of hair in place. The image was simplistic, something I’d seen many times even. But that was it. The man I was before I met you fidgeted restlessly through every scene of his life. He was either going to join a gang or go to prison with that meanness in his heart. But the man I was then, jostling about on the seat beside you, was weak and heavy-hearted all the time. He dreamt up nice things to say to you or played with your hair to help you fall asleep. He had fun doing things like sitting on your roof late at night waiting for storms to come, or standing in line at the DMV.
“What is it?” you asked, always picking up on auras.
“Do you want to get married?” I said.
You laughed. “Are you actually asking me, or just asking about asking?”
I hesitated. “I’m just throwing out ideas.”
“We’re barely out of high school,” you said. “Isn’t there something you want to do?”
“What am I going to do?” I asked, saying this half in derision, half in hope that you’d just tell me what it was I was supposed to do.
“You’re good at a lot of things,” you said. “You’re interested in computers.”
“Okay, but I’m not talking about computers or jobs,” I said, turning to see you. “I’m talking about what we’re going to do next.”
“You’re serious right now.”
I blinked and the train slanted downward into the subway, into the intestines of the city with a flicker of the lights overhead. I realized I’d never been out the other end. I’d always gotten off at Roosevelt or somewhere before. For all I knew, the way out could have meant a portal into another world where everything was perfect and our parents were all together and Penny Deetz was marrying someone she actually wanted to be with. Maybe instead of Chinatown, we could get out at some paradise, some topsy-turvy bizarro land where you were ready to settle down, and I had a job that made enough to pay for the ring and the house and the two cars and the dog food each week.
“Some day,” you said with a sad smile.
I smiled back and a moment passed before you turned your head to set it on my shoulder. The egg-shaped crown of your hair pressed against my face, probably messing it up somehow, but you didn’t care. You never cared.
Nick Kostopoulos with his olive oil skin and his silky voice. He started showing up at parties and nights out at Ollie’s with his fucking leather jacket and his fucking black hair running down in scandalous curls around his fucking head. And he had a motherfucking beard. Where did he come from?
Suddenly he was part of our group. He was there putting disco—fucking disco—on the jukebox. Donna Summer, Gloria Gaynor, and the whole goddamn soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever played each night we went out. Our girls, the girls who had grown up listening to the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, were suddenly joining him on the dance floor of clubs, as if he were the activity director on a cruise ship, throwing sunlight everywhere and shoving piña coladas in their hands where once a crisp Schlitz had been.
“Aren’t you going to dance with me?” you said one night at Ollie’s and four drinks in.
“I think he’s got you covered,” I replied, sipping my beer sullenly.
“Who? Nick?” you said. “I’m pretty sure he’s gay.”
“That’s just what he wants you to think.”
“I’m not going to do this right now,” you said, setting an empty glass down roughly beside me. You returned to those hips, snugly wedged into those jeans as they gyrated to “Bad Girls.”
He tried to ingratiate himself with us guys too. He’d make inquiries about our favorite beer and he’d show up to house parties with a case of it atop his sculpted shoulders.
I figured there was something going on the night of the New Year’s party. You navigated his apartment as if you’d studied the construction blueprints. You showed me to the bathroom where I went to do a few lines of coke by myself. You opened the first cabinet in his kitchen and found just enough glasses for everyone. You stepped gracefully over the dumbbells he kept in the living room, the ones he used to put together that muscular frame the boys and I were always standing in the shadow of. And you knew exactly where he kept the trash bin (under the sink) when it had taken you nearly a year to recall where I kept mine (under the shelf with the toaster oven.)
But it was when I was looking through his record collection as I always did at anyone’s house, that I realized you were fucking him. In between Thelma Houston and Boney M. was the unmistakable artwork of Rumours.
I don’t remember what was playing, no doubt something lame, but off it went with a sharp thwoop, and in its place was the unmistakable silence of a party temporarily derailed.
A quarter till midnight and suddenly “I Don’t Want To Know” ran wild in Nick Kostopoulos’s apartment. Some of our friends nodded along at first. They could see I was blitzed, so they forgave me for hijacking a home owner’s record player, an unsaid rule that was strictly obeyed.
You looked at me from across the room, as Nick Kostopoulos stood just beyond your shoulder. You didn’t smile or wink. You just stood there as if we were mirror images of one another, unmoving as we examined one another for flaws and perfections and came up short for either.
I didn’t wait for the song to end. I just left. I needed to be alone in the cold air as I heard the sound of another year breaking hard and fast over the city. I heard the firecrackers over the rooftops and people together in all corners of the city, a hundred thousand couples kissing with champagne still on their lips while I sat alone in the snow, fumbling for cigarettes and trying to forget all the things we had ever done to one another.
I heard your response a few moments later. Or maybe it wasn’t your response, since the two tracks followed one another. But “Oh Daddy” filled the street, filtered through Nick Kostopoulos’s open windows. Sometimes I imagined you at those windows, and I hoped you were looking out, wondering where I was at that very moment, what I was doing in the middle of that big city we used to share.
Delirious and hopeful, we stepped out from the theater into the rain bursting down onto the pavement. People scattered around us, but we stood in a nearby doorway, waiting for it to let up as we talked enthusiastically about what we’d just seen.
I don’t know how long we stood there talking about each song individually, weighing its merits, measuring the performance against what we’d always known from the actual album. You were animated and sexy, clouded by some enchantment that had been placed on us both sometime during the twenty-one-song set.
Sometime after that, we realized we should probably get going. We never said together or back to my place, but maybe we both didn’t want to go home just yet. You suggested the Golden Nugget, only a few steps away.
By three in the morning, the stoners and partiers had drifted off, quieted by greasy food. The diner was empty except for a few sleepwalking diners and Roy Orbison warbling “Blue Angel” overhead.
We took a booth by the window, watching as buses and cabs swooshed through the street water. For a long while, we were quiet, glancing over menus and suddenly wondering what we should talk about next.
“Do you know what you want?” you asked.
“I think so—”
“Let me guess,” you said. “The club with no mayo.”
I grinned. “And for you: probably something with bacon. Fried eggs most likely.”
“I should watch what I eat,” you answered.
“Watch what you eat?” I said. “You’ve never worried about that.”
You stammered, “It’s just… something I figured I should start doing.”
My smile faded as I realized who’d put that worry in your head. “I see.” I paused. “Were you supposed to see him tonight?”
You sighed and looked away.
“You can tell me,” I said.
“Are we really going to get back into this?”
“I’m not getting in to anything. I’m just asking.”
“Were you going to see Diane afterwards?”
“No,” I said. “I don’t feel like seeing her right now.”
“It’s none of my business,” you said.
“Isn’t it?” I asked. “We never really broke up.”
“Stop looking for a fight,” you said, as your voice rose.
“We went for the music, not for each other,” you said.
“Keep it down over there!” said a hoarse voice from the end of the restaurant.
You and I both turned to see the only other customer in the joint. She was sitting in a lonely corner by herself, wide sunglasses over her face and several scarves looped over her small body. She was eating pancakes.
I looked back at you, but your face was ashen and eyes wide.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. “I didn’t mean to start—”
I looked back. “What?” I saw her again and realized I’d seen her before. Just hours ago, she’d been at the head of the stage, a priestess in her temple, chanting about winners and losers in the game of love, and now there she was, Herself, seated a few tables down from us.
“What do we do?” You gripped my arm from across the table.
“She’s a celebrity,” I said. “Shouldn’t we leave her alone?”
“We have to say something,” you said, your knuckles turning red.
“I don’t fucking know!” you said. “We’ll regret it if we don’t. We have to talk to her.”
“Are you coming?”
“Of course I’m fucking coming,” I said.
Slowly you pulled yourself up from the table, smoothing out folds in the clothing you’d put on specifically to match hers.
She didn’t notice as we inched our way up the aisle towards her. She was busy cutting her pancakes, taking sips of hot tea with lemon, too busy being alone.
“Excuse me,” you began.
She looked up at us through her sunglasses.
“Pull up a seat,” she replied.
We stood dumbly for a moment, until she waved her knife at the open booth. Shaking, we slid in across from her as she went on eating.
For all the times we’d listened to her music, it was she who had been your idol. You’d been thirsty for whatever it was she poured into your soul. It was only right that you went first.
“I just want to say,” you began again, “I think you’re…” You trailed off and I nudged you to keep going. “I think you’re the best… and…” You went quiet. I took my eyes off her to see what was wrong with you.
You had tears in your eyes. They began to run down to your wordless mouth.
“I can’t do this anymore,” you said. “What should I do?”
“What are you afraid of, honey?” she said quietly.
“I don’t want to be stuck anymore,” you whispered.
“You gotta ask yourself what good is there in staying, too,” she replied. “You have to look down both roads before you pick one to walk.”
I looked between the two of you, unsure how you both seemed to know so much about one another. The séances, the music, maybe there’d been some telekinetic radio link between you. Maybe as she’d been talking to you through her songs, you’d been talking back through your devotion and your dancing, all your worrying pain, and now you were both sharing some language I would never understand.
“I don’t want to feel bad anymore.”
“You’ve hurt each other a lot, haven’t you?” she said, looking at me. I think my heart stopped. “That’s what happens. That means it was good. It was very good.”
“Is it even possible to go back to that?” you asked.
“You can try,” she said. “But in the end, the more you hurt one another, the more you have to try and forget. Eventually, you’re just going to forget all the good stuff and the bad stuff. And then there’s just nothing left at all.”
“What should we do?” I finally spoke.
She laughed, and I went flush.
“I wish I knew,” she said, her voice cracking.
When the rain stopped, we walked out from the restaurant and onto the quiet streets. No sirens, no taxis, no L train rattling by. Just the sound of us wondering which way to take to get home.
I looked over at you, finally. I took in the smooth contours of your face, the way your hair fell down around your features. Goosebumps spotted your tanned arms, while the silver half moon amulet fluttered at your chest. You were cold and I did nothing.
“I guess I’ll see you around,” you said simply.
I hesitated for a minute. “Yeah,” I muttered. “I’ll see ya.”
We lingered for a few seconds more. You turned first. At the very least, I could have walked you home. But you were tough as nails and nothing scared you, least of all whatever happened at night in these parts.
I looked back in the window where she’d sat and eaten and talked with us. I wanted her to still be there so I could run back in and ask if any of this was right. But she was gone. I was never really sure if she was real.
There’s one last song on Rumours. Only the real fans would’ve even known of its existence in those days, and few had ever heard it. We’d hunted for it in record stores and jukeboxes, even scraping together enough money for an ad in the paper asking for a copy: “WANTED: Will pay handsomely for anyone with a copy of the song ‘Silver Springs’ by –” but the ad was cut off, buried deep in an inky sea of other urgent requests and propositions.
I heard it years later, when it was put back on the album. Her voice had changed over the years, but there, preserved on vinyl (I never switched to tape), she was just as we’d known her.
When you finally hear it, you think it’s going to be a soft song, a quiet reflective one like “Landslide” or maybe even “Storms.” You think it’s going to be a love song, but in its purest form, it’s not. When it gets going, she’s heated, she’s a woman scorned and reeling from regrets. She’s been duped by lovers and by herself. There are many voices around her, but all of them are hers, multiplied a dozen harmonious times into a whole army of women marching towards the crescendo. Her voice is a shout, gravelly but not threatening as she rises. For all her wounds and betrayals, you know she’s going to be okay. There’s something else in her voice that tells you this. You might never know what it is, and you can never quite put your finger on it before the song begins to fade out. Instead, you’re left wondering, listening to the empty pulse of a record at its end, thumping away like a heartbeat drives you mad, in the stillness of remembering what you had. And what you lost.
David Nelson was born and raised in Michigan, where he earned his bachelors in creative writing from Albion College. He received his masters from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Most notably, his report on the ongoing identification process for Balkans war victims was published by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) and continues to be used as an educational resource by the International Commission on Missing Persons. “Tusk” is his first piece of published fiction. He lives in Chicago where he is currently at work on both a novel and true crime book.