Monday, February 16, 2009

Redemption Songs, Part 5

I got a letter a while ago. It seemed like the sort of thing that should have floored me.

"I just wanted you to know that I found someone," it said. "He's kind, loving, generous. I think you'd like him."

No guy ever does. I think there's some unwritten law. No matter how well or poorly the relationship ended, the next guy isn't going to be liked by the last guy. It's probably some sort of caveman competition thing.

Hell, I dated a girl just after high school. It ended extremely badly. She turned out to be a total bitch. A couple of years I ran in to her and she said she was getting married. I hated that guy for no damn good reason.

Maybe it's just one of those things. We know she's a bitch, or at least was, but we want the thing that happened to mean something. We want to believe that there was something good going on, that it wasn't just a waste of time. So when some new guy shows up even if we laugh and say, "Best of luck, dude," we're secretly thinking, "I hate you, jerkass."

Or maybe it's just me. Maybe I just suck at getting over it. Okay, there's no "maybe" about it.

Anyway, the note continued. "We're getting married in May. I can't believe how fast this is happening.

"I hope that you've found happiness like I have. All my love.


There was a picture. She was standing on a street corner, all smiles and joy, arms wrapped around some guy who looked like he'd just stepped out of an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog.

I hated that guy.

Even then I thought it should have been me. That, by the way, is what I like to call a red flag.

See, I got a call. The university wanted me back. A position had suddenly opened up and I was the only one with the right curriculum. I'd made the logical, rational choice, left Sophie's warm embrace and headed home.

She'd kissed me one last time, blinking away tears, and said, "Be happy. Be loved."

The shit of it is, at first I was happy. I was back at work, filled with purpose. It was what I wanted to do, what I was good at. I loved it.

But every night I returned to an empty, cold bed. I start going to clubs, finding girls with the same look of desperation I was sure I had. I drank too much, partied too hard. I nearly got caught one night in an empty lecture hall with one of my students. She was a dark haired freshman with big, bright, green eyes permanently open to a look of wide-eyed innocence that she most certainly did not still possess. She liked older men with authority, even the minimal authority granted an adjunct faculty member. She liked it best when I bent her over a chair, lifted her skirt, said, "We'd better do this quick."

She snuck in to my apartment one night. It was forbidden, exciting, I wanted it to go on forever. Then, as the sun began to peek through the window, she'd grunted out the word, "Daddy."

I stopped. She looked at me, confused. "We can't do this anymore," I said.

She looked at me for a moment in confusion. "Okay," she said finally, shrugging, "Can we at least finish this up?"

I switched from clubs to dive bars. I spent my weekends drinking in dark caverns with all the other hopeless, angry wretches that the world leaves behind, listening to sad country music and hoping that one day things would change.

It was at that point she found me again. I was staggering home from another night of using Maker's Mark to punish my liver for all my heartache and suddenly she was there. She told me later that she was on her way home from a complete failure of a date and she just happened to see me, took pity on me, drove me home.

It was a miracle of sorts, I guess. Or, at least, that's what I thought when I woke up the next morning and felt that familiar body pressed against mine and found myself inhaling that familiar, intoxicating scent of her hair.

We spent the next couple of days talking. I was so relieved to have a friendly face around, so convinced that maybe this was a sign that there was some sort of god, that I forgot all the shit we'd been through the first time around. I told her I was sorry, that she was right. I hadn't tried particularly hard when everything had gone to shit. I told her I hadn't deserved her.

She'd apologized, too. She told me that she'd been too uptight, way too freaked out by the idea of being punished by god. She told me she'd started going to a different church, one that was more about love and forgiveness than spite and anger. She'd asked me to go and I'd said yes.

It wasn't Sophie's church, but it was a far cry from the old one. She hadn't sat there with that tortured look on her face, hadn't spent the service in tearful, silent prayer.

She spent Sunday night in my bed. Some part of me feared that the pattern was starting up again. The old pain didn't return, though. I thought maybe we'd learned, that maybe we'd finally figured out how to meet in the middle instead of standing on our own sides of a vast canyon and yelling across, imploring the other that it would be okay if one of us just agreed to become exactly what the other wanted.

A funny thing happened when we took away god as the convenient guilty party to blame for all of our problems, though. We learned that we didn't actually like each other that much, anyway.

She started blaming me for shit that I'd never done. She'd done it before, but I'd assumed it was the guilt trips from god. Turns out that was only partially right.

For my part, I started to get absorbed with all the thoughts of who she should have been. It wasn't that I saw some girl on TV who was better looking or anything. It's just that I had this idea in my head of who she was supposed to be and the reality never matched up.

Hell, maybe she was doing the same thing. I don't really know. I never thought to ask.

It was at about that time I got the wedding announcement from Sophie. All those memories of that summer came flooding back. I realized that I was forgetting everything I learned from Sophie, everything I'd learned about myself.

I broke things off with her, took her number out of my phone, deleted all her emails, erased all the pictures of her from my hard drive. I couldn't call her now if I wanted to and she hasn't been trying to reach me. The look of relief on her face when I said we needed to move on told me she never would.

At the end of the school year I took a different job out in the south suburbs. It's not a dream job by any means, but I needed to get away from the college girls. I needed a change of pace and scenery, too.

Still, I couldn't help but go to the city. I loved my city. The first time I took 55 up to the Dan Ryan I realized there was something different about seeing the city from the south. I'd almost always come in from the north or the west before, mostly on the El, too.

It was different from the south. Or, maybe, I was different and it was the same.

I started going to concerts all the time. I saw Local H, the Lovehammers, Lucky Boys Confusion, bands that just screamed Chicago to me. I caught pretty much anyone who came through town, too. I went to big venues, small clubs, and dives out in the suburbs.

I'd feel the music wash over me, feel that sense of community and purpose that comes from a really good show. Then I'd go home, alone, and find that it wasn't so bad. It was actually kid of nice.

I guess that time really does heal all wounds. Although I think you have to keep yourself distracted long enough for the universe to mix up that magical poultice of distance and space.

All I know is that one day I was ready. I was standing in Millennium Park staring up at the city reflected in the curves of the bean when I suddenly realized that I wasn't alone.

I turned and found my unexpected new companion smiling at me. I decided I liked that very much.

"Hi," I said.

"Hi," she replied. "I'm not intruding, am I? I mean, this isn't the sort of thing I usually do..."

"Don't worry," I smiled. "I was just about to go have lunch. Would you care to join me?"


And the rest...well, that story hasn't been written just yet.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Redemption Songs, Part 4

The sun woke me up. My head flopped around as my squinting eyes tried to make sense of the scene. "Where am I?" I muttered. "Am I...outside?"

I sat up with a start. I remembered. Sophie, dancing, the walk back, the strain of music. The clothes falling to the floor.

She wasn't there. The bed was far too small for her to hide. I looked around, half panicked. "Sophie?" I finally asked.

She appeared next to the bed, almost as if by magic. She looked freshly showered and was wearing a pair of black pinstriped pants and a red silk blouse.

"Oh, good. You're up. Just in time."

"Just in time for what?"


"Oh, god," I said, pinching the bridge of my nose. I felt the little bumps of my tear ducts under my fingers, worried for a moment that I might damage them. I decided I didn't care. "Not again."

"No, really," she said. "I want this more than anything."

"Are you sure?" I asked, not at all convinced. "We don't have to. Really."

"No, I want to," she smiled and kissed me quickly. "I love you. I want you to know how much."

We were lying on my bed. Her shirt was somewhere on the floor and my pants were unbuttoned. We'd been here before, but she'd always stopped before we got any further. It was starting to get frustrating, getting all ready to go, then watching her run out and finishing up all by myself.

The last time it happened I hadn't even thought of her when I masturbated after she left. I'd thought of a girl from one of my classes. It's hard not to get distracted, I guess, when you're teaching eighteen and nineteen year-old girls who are living without limits for the first time. I was rapidly approaching the age when girls like that didn't notice me at all, when I was too old to be the hot, older, experienced guy but too young to get the ones with the serious daddy issues. Not that I was ever that hot. Or, I guess, that experienced.

It surprised me at first, but I went with it. Then I'd gotten my second surprise when I'd walked out of my bedroom and found her sitting on the floor, back against my couch, knees up to the point where she was nearly folded in half, with her face buried in her hands. I sat down next to her, put my arm around her.

"I'm so sorry," she whispered. "Next time. Next time we'll make love."

I didn't believe her. It had never gotten me anywhere before.

I cursed myself for falling in love with someone I didn't, I couldn't, trust.

"Church?" I asked. "I, uh, I haven't been in years. And I don't have the clothes for it."

"Nonsense," Sophie smiled. "Take a shower. What you had last night will do just fine."

I rolled out of her bed, hopped in to her shower and stood under a scalding stream of water, hoping that she'd join me, forget about the whole church thing.

She didn't.

I got out, got dressed, followed her down to the street. She glided forward down the sidewalk, as effortlessly as the night before. I plodded along, as excited as a man on his way to a date with his own firing squad.

Her bra came off. This was new. This was progress. She sat up, put her weight back, rubbed her crotch against my erection through several layers of fabric. Then she smiled.

"Told you tonight was going to be the night."

"I knew it all along," I lied. I reached up, put my right hand behind her neck, pulled her face back to mine. My left hand cupped her right breast while my thumb traced its way around her hardened nipple.

"Mmm," she said through closed lips before opening her mouth and stucking her tongue in to mine. Her right hand made it's way in to my pants, wrapped itself around me. She pulled her tongue out of my mouth, pulled her head back, smiled. "I've never touched a penis before," she said.

"I know."

The rest of the night was a blur of skin and sweat. She cried out to god. She called me "Daddy."

It surprised me when she pushed me away when I tried to wrap my arms around her as we drifted off to sleep. I guess it shouldn't have. When I heard her sobbing quietly, whispering, "I'm sorry, forgive me," over and over in to her pillow, I knew what would come next.

She jumped up an hour before dawn, got dressed, and ran out of my apartment. She called at noon in tears, asking me not to be mad, swearing that she liked it, promising me that she wouldn't do that the next time. It didn't surprise me when she offered that night as the next time.

It surprised me a little when I agreed.

"Do you believe in god?" Sophie asked me as we walked down the street. She grabbed my hand, cupped it in both of hers, pulled her body as close to mine as she could.

"Not really," I shrugged, mostly with my empty shoulder.

"Why not?"

"He's, um, he's caused me more problems than he's solved," I said. "I was under the impression that god wasn't supposed to work that way."

"Maybe he was trying to help you with your faith," she offered, a definite note of uncertainty in her voice.

"It wasn't my faith that was the problem," I said. My voice dropped. "It wasn't my faith at all."

She got in to the habit of dragging me to church every week. We'd spend Friday and Saturday nights having sex, then come Sunday morning she'd barely look at me, barely touch me, barely talk to me. We'd be in a pew and she'd have her eyes closed, mouth moving in a prayer of absolution. I'd take her to lunch after and she'd tell me all the ways she thought things had to be different.

Then she'd spend the night. And the next.

By the next Sunday she'd be as freaked as ever. I'd sit in that pew next to her, completely alone in the world, listening to the shitty Christian pop that passed as worship music at her church. Then I'd listen to the pastor harangue the crowd about their terrible, sinful lives.

Most Sundays I fantasized about walking to the front of the sanctuary and punching the asshole right in his smug, pinched little face. His garbage about sin and wrath and the need to be pure for the end times was supposed to save our souls. But all it did was tear apart the woman who sat next to me, the woman I loved more than I could understand for reasons I couldn't explain.

I hated Sunday mornings with a passion. I lived for those Sunday nights, when she'd finally be done with the tears, look at me with wide eyes, say she just couldn't help herself, and lead me in to my bedroom. I never understood why, but she never seemed guilty on Sunday nights. We'd fall asleep holding each other as tight as we could, whispering, "I love you."

I always hoped that time would stop on Sunday nights and I'd get to stay in that moment forever.

"We're here," Sophie said, stopping in front of an old stone building sandwiched between a pair of much newer looking apartment buildings. She led me up the stairs and through a pair of heavy wooden doors.

We crossed a vestibule filled with milling pairs and groups of people in hushed conversation, then entered the sanctuary. My footfalls seemed sacreligiously loud as the clicked and creaked on the floor and echoed up in to the high, vaulted ceiling. Rows of stained-glass windows marched down the sides of the room, lit from the inside, probably because the buildings on either side cut out the light of the sun.

I noticed the choir up front at the moment it started.

Ahhh-agnus Dei

A woman's voice rang clear across the space.

Ahhh-agnus Dei

A baritone joined the lone voice.

Qui tollis peccata mundi

The whole of the choir came in, a torrent of sound washing across my body.

Agnus Dei

The lone voice again.

Agnus Dei

I closed my eyes, stood still, gripped Sophie's hand as the dozens of voices took me...somewhere.

Qui tollos peccata mundi
Dona noblis pacem
Dona noblis pacem
Dona noblis pacem

"What does it mean?" I whispered to Sophie.

"It's a call to god," she replied. "Asking Jesus to take our sins and replace our fears with peace."

"Is this why you come here?" I asked.

"Yes," she smiled. "It's the place where I find the peace I need."

I opened my eyes, looked at her, took in her smile. "Thank you," I said, "For sharing this with me."

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Redemption Songs, Part 3

We walked the dark city streets. The party was still going on somewhere behind us, but after dancing for what seemed like an eternity she'd said, "Come on, let's go talk for a while."

She amazed me, this woman who fearlessly walked the streets of her city in the wee hours of the morning. I jumped at shadows, gripped her waist tight and tried to hurry her past yawning alleyways, keeping ever vigilant for attentive outsiders. She just walked and smiled and laughed.

"How do you do it?" I finally asked.

"Do what?"

"Act like you don't have a care in the world."

She turned and looked at me, then smiled. "It's not an act."

"I don't understand."

"I know."

"I mean, there's so much shit out there, so much going on. So much to be scared of."

She stopped suddenly, cocked her head ever so slightly to the right. "Do you hear that?"

"Hear what?"

"Listen. Just close your eyes and listen."

I did as I was told. The street we were on was nearly silent, but off in the distance I could hear traffic rumbling on a highway, an ambulance siren. I gradually began to take note of the slight breeze as it wound its way down the street, ruffling papers, rattling against a creaky iron fence.

I opened my eyes, looked at her. "I don't know..." I started.

She put her finger to her lips. "Listen."

Again I closed my eyes. I took note of the traffic, the distant siren, the wind. The...violins?

"Adagio for Strings," I murmered.

Her hand found mine. She squeezed it. "You heard it."

I took a course on the humanities once. Part of it was music appreciation, something I'd never really gotten around to doing before. I grew up on rock and pop and had never had the time for the history of music. Most of the time when the teacher had brought in some classical piece or some old choral work I'd tuned it out, left it alone.

One day he'd started talking about modern composers and begun playing Samuel Barber. I was captivated from the very beginning and couldn't begin to understand why. There was something in the music, some infinite, unrequited longing in the song that touched me, painted a picture in my mind, opened my heart to a world I'd never seen before.

I'd never been to San Francisco, but for some reason I always imagined the Golden Gate Bridge when I heard Adagio for Strings. It was covered in an early morning fog and I was waiting for it to dissipate, watching from somewhere above, expecting something amazing. But whatever I was waiting for never happened.

The song always broke my heart. It rose ever upward, until hitting that single note, that ethereal point where joy and wonder meet expectation. That point where god reaches down, touches the Earth.

And then...


That morning in that humanities class I heard more in that moment of silence than I'd ever heard before in hours of music. The fog lifted, my heart rose. Then it broke. The fog rolled back in. The moment was gone.

Even with my eyes closed I knew Sophie was watching me as I felt the music rise. I clung to that tiny stream of music as it came to me from the ether. I forgot about the dark alleys, the dangerous people, the shadows in the alleyways. I just hoped against hope that this time the music would rise, rise, rise, and stay forever. It began, that moment I loved and dreaded, when the music climbed the mountain and the sun broke free to burn the fog away.

I held my breath. I felt the goosebumps run up and down my spine. The music rose, the note held.



It only lasts a moment before the song picks up again, but it's always lower. It never builds back to those great heights. It's never the same after the silence.

"You're crying." Sophie whispered. Her right arm snaked around my waist. Her left hand cupped my right cheek and she pulled my head down, kissed away the tear that was working its way toward my chin.

"I, uh," I croaked out through a gravel throat, "I love that song."

"I could tell."

"It's just so sad to me," I said. "The silence always breaks my heart."

"But the music starts again afterward."

"It's not the same."

She smiled up at me for a moment, then wrapped her arms tightly around me and buried her face in my chest. I returned the embrace, holding her as close as I dared. After an eternal moment her grip slowly relaxed. She looked at me again.

"Um, do you want to go back to my place?" she asked.

"More than anything in the world."

She took my hand and we walked down the street with a purpose.

Her apartment was only a few blocks away. We glided toward it with purpose.

"It's not much," she said as she opened the door, "But I call it home."

The scene before me was, for a moment, confusing. Every inch of the walls was covered with color. She'd painted a pastoral scene of impossible blues and vibrant greens across her walls, turning a tiny one-room space in to the whole of the outdoors.

"Wow," was all I could manage to say.

"You like it?"

"It's amazing."

I put my hand behind her head and pulled her close. Our lips met.

She pulled away after long, lingering moments, took my hand, lead me around the corner.

Her bed was a twin mattress pushed up against a corner, sitting atop a box spring but no frame.

I dropped on to that narrow mattress, pulling her with me. Our lips met, parted. Her tongue flicked across my teeth.

She pulled away, grabbed her shirt, lifted it over her head.

My hands found their way to her waist. They traced a path up her body, gripped her shoulder blades, pulled her back down. My lips found hers again, our tongues danced.

Somewhere back in the deepest recesses of my mind I heard the high note from Adagio for Strings. This time, unlike any other, it held.

I gave in to the moment.