I resurfaced from the starlit deep of Swainia not some chlorine teen born again, but with clothes damp and spirit heavy. The night’s festivities would pass, and I would wake in a doldrum no less dim than what had hung over the recent fracturing of my high school identity. In fact, I was still in the sting of that slow, uneasy splint of meat from bone. My old boat, splintered as it had been by my absence, had just recently been broken into two smaller boats to salvage talent. One of them, a varsity double featuring my co-captain and future collegemate Ben, managed to take home a national title – but it didn’t carry quite the same prestige the quad had, the medal we’d been chasing to restore our ancient coach’s fading legend. My sudden ailment had dashed those hopes for all of us.1
The season ended, summer arrived, and Yale’s head coach cudgeled me with a battery of emails, each assaulting my character and the dossier of lab results that cushioned it. Over the course of what seemed a creative week, he penned scolding whodunit novellas about my suspiciously missing spine, fanfics about how I could have been an Olympic rower had I simply ignored the doctors and willed myself a new pair of lungs, perhaps just by pretending mine were fine.2 As I read, I felt nothing – I had by then numbed to any pain my lungs might cause me. I was depressed, instead, by my show.
It had been the biggest success possible. A lifelong non-musician, I had decided I wanted to articulate a vague and world-sized sonic idea, picked up an instrument and began practicing with a growing collection of mostly-strangers more talented than me, and just a couple months later had my recently unimaginary band play a headlining show to over 200 paying listeners who paid many dollars, from their parents’ wallets or boss’ under-tables, for the express purpose of listening to the earliest iteration of that idea. What’s more is that most of them liked what they heard, in the general spectrum between love-liking and not wanting a refund enough to embarrass anybody. Our nascent Facebook walls (still paginated, then, in their youth) soon expanded in adulatory increments; we were invited to more parties; we felt the windfall of a modest teenage victory.
That didn’t mean it wasn’t garbage. I knew what I had made was bad, even if nobody told me or a friend. Certainly nobody in the band had any sense that what we had just participated in might have sucked, as its reception argued otherwise. But I knew I had set out to make something special, and what I made instead was a cover band with the attention span of a radio dial — a 30-minute rendition of a hypothetical person’s hypothetical drive and SiriusXM subscription. I hadn’t expected to achieve more than base entertainment having spent all of a few months attempting music, but that didn’t make the reminder I was nowhere close any more uplifting.
A week after the show, still feeling low, I went to see Built to Spill play a gig in Philadelphia. I had stumbled into them in the spring, when we went to Borders after a practice and Jack announced that he’d buy one album for everyone. I don’t remember if I got anything, but Summer picked Perfect From Now On, which she, Pete and I listened to in the ‘Copter while I drove us all home. None of us had heard them before, and it was among my life’s most ideal first listens. I can still remember Pete air-drumming to the start of “I Would Hurt a Fly” from the shotgun seat, head nodding, face knotted. Everything introduced – the morass of guitar sadness that enveloped the car’s interior at 0:21, the 1:27 cellos that thickened the deeps but later led the way to what was then the most exquisite bridge I could fathom, the surprise maelstrom of the last two minutes – hit us with grins, shivers, convulsions, shouts. Disbelief.
Neither of them could come, but Lupin – already a longtime fan – met me there. We stood in line together, then made our way to the almost-front, where we swayed through a set by a very nice local band called Illinois. Between performances Lupin began texting into his brick phone, and soon a friend and classmate of his appeared. Her name was Natalie. I didn’t know it then, but Natalie had seen me in photographs from our show and had pinpointed me as someone she wanted to meet; she had bought tickets to this concert and got a couple of Built to Spill CDs for homework, maybe mostly just to meet me. When she floated her way to the front and clap-clasped my hand with a winking greet, I figured she was really cute. She was wearing a tight white tank-top that, on second and third glances, confirmed her to be in fact greater than cute. I thought maybe she had some Russia in her, with her pale skin and hair that matched the black walls when the lights went down — like she was maybe the one actually really hot girl you’d hope to see in a leather jacket and studs when you went to go see Mindless Self Indulgence or somebody.3 I was completely wrong, but didn’t know it by the time Built to Spill appeared.
They played a set that, minute by minute, proved they needed all three of those guitarists. One of them, Doug Martsch, also sang the songs he had written in preparation for that night and others like it. He didn’t play “I Would Hurt a Fly.” That was track two on the album Pete and I had loved, and loved Summer for finding; instead, at some point, they played “Randy Described Eternity,” its track one. Randy was a clever Christian who once told Doug that eternity was like whittling a metal sphere ten times the size of Jupiter down to a metal pea strictly by brushing it with a feather once every thousand years. It made for a pretty good, long verse for a pretty good, long rock song with two verses and no chorus. At the end of that first verse, Doug says that that eternity is only half a blink in the secular eternity he’s talking about. Then he sings the second one.
I’m gonna be perfect from now on, he wailed, slow and deliberate like on the album in my car.
I’m gonna be perfect, starting now.
I was disappointed track one wasn’t track two when he and his band started playing it, but by that second verse I didn’t care. They were exactly right. I’d tried to be my best for a while, but now, starting tonight, I was going to be perfect. I mouthed those words and none of the other ones, until they were done and gone.
I didn’t know where Natalie was by then, and left thinking it was a shame I’d probably never see her again. By the time I got home, I was completely wrong again, with a new friend request and AIM buddy waiting for me. We talked for about an hour. She was actually Italian.
Her boyfriend had been at the concert too, though she had ditched him in the back of the room to come up where I was. One of the few things I remember from that first meeting was that he kept texting her, telling her to come back,4 while she replied telling him to come up. Finally, he appeared some five people-rows back, his pouting face bathed in moon-white stage lighting as he silently beckoned her. It was a motionless beckon. Continually she refused, both of them without a word beside the ones exchanged in T9 morse code. It was one of the more dysfunctional things I’d ever seen transpire between two people nominally in love. So much so that when I typed to Natalie that I wouldn’t go for a taken girl that night, but that she could get in touch when they broke up, I figured it’d be soon. If I was naive, I wasn’t yet as much as I’d be a week later, when she invited me to a movie.
The cinema of choice was the royally dilapidated reel-dump in Wayne, a Mainline hangout that was a bit juvenile for a rising junior like her (all the moreso a recent grad like me). I swung the long way over in the Shitcopter, parked out front and, slightly late, strolled my way down the aisle after previews. I found my place next to her and a couple of her friends, who fell back into the script-margin oblivion of my life halfway through “hello.” Natalie took the next line and asked for a kiss, from which I demurred; I just met you, I wanted to say.
“I’m not trying to make out in public here,” I said instead, and it was more than half true — even if the theater was less than quarter-full. As her brow arched distraught in the simple glow of a terrible movie, I noted, reading this expression on her face for the first time, that she looked markedly different than she had in the simple glow of a good concert. She looked even prettier.
“Why not?” Things started feeling surreal as I tried to process her request, the situation, her concern-magnified prettiness — all things not quite like anything I’d faced before. I filled the space with a quick kiss, but held my ground for the rest of the movie, ignoring it as I pondered the fresh spark in my lips.
The movie didn’t protest; it was, after all, Bruce Almighty II. I remember nothing but the raccoons.5 Natalie had been folding herself up onto her chair and in my whispered direction the entire time, and leveraged the good fortune of those raccoons — “Oh my God I hate raccoons!!” — to recoil herself up halfway onto me for a bit. I figured she was just improvising a phobia for intimacy’s sake, but like her heritage, I’d later learn the truth. She really did hate those things.
As the credits rolled, we made our way back to the suburban-chic streets. If anything happened between leaving the theater and being led to the partial privacy of a one-walled parking lot, I don’t recall it. Sliding my back down the lone brick sheet of the imaginary room around us, I bridged some of the gap between our noses. Her tip-toed kisses felt so impatient and passionate I started to smile, until my lips parted so wide between impressions of hers that they simply had to laugh.
She had to laugh, then, too. “What’s so funny?” The deep hazel of her eyes shone even brighter with expectation, hiding all kinds of pretty complexities I couldn’t yet see. (It was dark as night out, like her hair, like those eyes that night.)
My mind split-seconded the girls I had liked before. There was the season-long, long distance, theatrical first “relationship” I started with a girl in Tennessee the autumn after sophomore year, September 10th, the night of my first real concert; there was the wild Mainline girl whose hair alternated between natural blonds and reds (maybe the copper in her shower water), who tried to steal me back from the south, outlining a love triangle that felt like fiction for a shy kid who had barely even touched a girl just months ago (I wound up being with her while she was blond, wishing red); there was the gorgeous-goofy, perfect-height siren who sweetly tried to make it all so simple, and my clueless self stumbled nearly every step of the way (eight months to get with a girl who clearly liked you day one ought to be illegal); the rower girl who I July Fourthed with on her farm, who rolled on top of me sometime between feeding her nocturnal llamas and brushing the horses at dawn; good friend Marie; and maybe a couple other girls the circumstances around whom were too unmemorable to be literary, or anything feigning literature at all.
It took me no more than a single beat to speak: “This kind of thing just…doesn’t happen to me so often.”6
She smiled what I would’ve called the purest smile I’d seen so close. Then its symmetry curved sexily to one side.
“Well, how about this?“
She put two steady hands to my head, tensed her runners’ calves to propel her own, and landed tongue-first in what was certainly, suddenly, my left ear. I laughed again, shoving her off me like a wet towel.
That “this” was totally different, one that must have really taken something to be comfortable trying on a guy you just met. I didn’t know if I’d ever know what.
- I felt especially bad about Harrison. He was relegated to a junior varsity boat, which I knew for him was insult enough — but some dead weight in that hull only made it worse, and Harrison narrowly lost the same race in the same boat he and I had the year prior. Like me, he was a deeply serious kid, and I knew it tormented him to have to go down like that after everything. It was like knives just having to watch, useless and to blame.
It was still bearable while there remained some hope for my lungs’ quick recovery, but once my coach said it was too late to recondition me even if magically healed that minute, I grew weak. I averted my eyes, focusing them anywhere else at all: a woefully understaffed senior project, the fretboard of my bass, my budding best friendship with Jack. I needed distraction, and thirsted after these different sapors greedily. I became the stuff of shifty gossip at the boathouse, having been its cornerstone not even a month ago.
Then came the funereal end-of-year barbecue at Ben’s. After a series of awkward speeches skirting the season’s limp anti-climax, Harrison — a likely captain for next year — got up to handle the last words. He recounted gravely the story everybody already knew — and then, graver, began to lie. He said that even when my body gave out, I didn’t. He said I kept coming to practices, kept helping out — because that’s the kind of guy I was. Voice faltering, he said half a dozen things he shouldn’t have had to improvise. Whether he meant to bury the hatchet or carve a parting notch, I couldn’t tell, but as he gestured to me and the crowd broke into applause I rushed to embrace him without a second thought. My muscles bracing to stave a tear, I could feel the same reflexes tensing in his. [↩]
- In fact, that’s exactly what I attempted for a week straight before I finally went to the hospital. It didn’t help me breathe better or sprout fresh organs, but it did scar the lungs I do have. [↩]
- I’ve never went to go see Mindless Self Indulgence. This is speculative. [↩]
- “It’s my boyfriend,” exasperated. She seemed like the type of girl who maybe thought that was hot, and might’ve maybe been right. [↩]
- Apparently, it was actually called Evan Almighty, something the largest encyclopedia in human history just now taught me. [↩]
- I was lying; “this” had never happened to me at all, like that. [↩]