Friday, January 30, 2009

Redemption Songs, Part 2

"Take me dancing," she said to me when we met again at that coffee place.

"I'm, uh, I'm not much of a dancer."

"It doesn't matter," she smiled, "It's not the skill that matters. It's the heart."

We walked down darkened streets, breathing the humid summer air. Her long white skirt swished against her legs in translucent waves. A bead of sweat formed at her hairline, trickled down her forehead, her cheek, down her chin, broke loose and fell through the night to splash against the pavement. The city pulsed with a strange energy. I was alive for the first time.

She led me down a dark alley, leaving me confused, disoriented, wondering that such a woman could exist who trusted a stranger in a dark place. She seemed untouched, untroubled by the worries I carried and assumed everyone else carried, too. As we walked the alley gradually lightened, the air filled with the low hum of voices and the deep, resonant sound of music. It buzzed in my ears, beckoning me forward.

He hand found mine. She turned, took my free hand, walked backwards, dragged me towards the sound and the light. We emerged from the alley in a large, open square. Strings of Christmas lights criss-crossed overhead, bathing the dozens of couples dancing below in artificial starlight. A DJ pushed the music through a pair of massive speakers in one corner of the square. A temporary bar in the opposite corner promised refreshment and the courage to take the floor. "Come on," she said as one song ended and another began, "This is my favorite song."

It began, chirpy, light bossa nova. Or maybe a cha cha. Truth be told, I couldn't have told you the difference then and I can't now.

I wrote a little insurrection
That moves in the direction
That beauty is beauty in spite of perfection

My right arm wrapped itself around her waist, my hand found the small of her back. Her right hand found my left. Somehow I found the beat.

Slow. Slow. Quick quick. Slow. Slow.

She was all hips and smiles. It was all I could do to keep up, keep from stumbling over my own two feet. Her dress brushed lightly against my legs whenever she moved.

Well put your feet in the sand
A lukewarm beer in your hand
And mama let down your hair
Yes I've chipped a tooth
No need to call home
I don't have to be anywhere

"See," she said, "You know what you're doing."

"I guess so." I gave her a half smile, tried to stay in the moment. Somehow, though, talking broke the brief, fragile spell.


"Excuse me?"

"You look like you're about a million miles away."

And she swears she'll be gone
When the sun hits the ground
And she ain't comin' back to my cell

"What the hell is your problem?"

"What do you mean?"

"You've just been moping around," she said, her voice taking that annoyed, accusing edge it took all too often of late. "Yeah, things aren't going so well, I get it. Stop feeling sorry for yourself."

"Well what do you want me to do?"

"I don't know," she shrugged, "Stop waiting for the world to fix itself for your benefit. Stop sitting in the dark. Go out and do something."

"No," I blinked, pulling myself back in to the moment. "I'm here."

"Good," she smiled, flashing a row of straight, white teeth. "It's where you belong."

We can hear the bossa nova
And we can sway the night away
The steps to the dance are best left up to chance
Better beautiful than perfect anyway

"Who are you?" I asked, suddenly struck anew by the strangeness of the situation.

"Does it matter?"


"Right now?"

"No, it can wait."

While the moon wanes and waxes
Death and taxes are lurking out there
Life is grand, love is real, and beauty is everywhere

"All that matters right now is right now," she said.

"Yeah." But it was too late.

And she tries
And she tries
But my feet just won't leave the ground
And I'm tired
And I'm tired
Of this prisoner's life
And these chains that drag me down

"Nothing's working for me right now. You know that."

"So the fuck what? That's life." She sighed. "You can't just sit here feeling sorry for yourself and listening to this depressing shit all day."

"Why not?"

"Because I just can't take it any more. I can't take you any more."

"Hey, you're losing the beat."

"Oh, sorry."

So the clear blue sky, no she never let us in
But she was blindfolded, gagged and bound
See the poppies pushing up through the bones on the ground
But the body's never found

"It's not like I ever had the beat to begin with, anyway."

"C'mon, don't be so hard on yourself. You're doing fine."

"Are you sure you don't want to take over? I'm sure you can lead."

"No," she shook her head. "You look like you need the practice."

We can hear the bossa nova
And we can sway the night away
The steps to the dance are best left up to chance
Better beautiful than perfect anyway

"Okay, just don't be surprised if I screw up."

"You'll only screw up if you think you're going to."

Oh, but in my four, in my four
In my four, my four walled world
Yeah, in my four, in my four
In my four, my four walled world

"Did you hear me?" she asked, blinking back tears.


She picked up the remote and shut off my stereo. "I don't think you did. I said I'm leaving."

I closed my eyes, bit my lower lip. "I know."

"Do you even care?"

While the moon wanes and waxes
Death and taxes are lurking out there
Life is grand, love is real, and beauty is everywhere

I squeezed her hand. "I don't want to screw up any more," I said.

"Then stop."

"Is it really that easy?"

"Shouldn't it be?"

Monday, January 26, 2009

Redemption Songs, Part 1


I didn't look up from my book. "Busy," I mumbled. Go away.

"That's too bad. You miss a lot when you keep your head down like that."

I pretended to be engrossed in the book. Truth is, I didn't even know its name. I'd bought it for a buck at a little used book store because a face buried in a book is a good way to say leave me alone without having to actually speak. Some people, though, are body language illiterate.

My eyes scanned the page without really bothering to do the work. Something about a murder. Some guy, maybe a butler. He was either the killer or the author's stand-in amateur sleuth who would solve the crime. Who gave a shit?

"Whatcha reading?"

I sighed heavily. My unwanted companion was marvelously bad at missing the point.

It was funny, in a way. I'd spent years wanting attention. Then when everything fell apart, when I headed to a place where I could be anonymous, alone, nurse my grief and anger, I couldn't even drink a coffee and read a shitty murder mystery in peace. It was time to stake out my space, time to be rude.

"I'm really not interested in conversation," I said, lowering the book. "Now would you..."

Dark brown eyes full of mischief met my gaze. They smiled out of a round face.

"That's better," she said. "You've gotta put those books down sometimes, look at the world. See what there is."

Her eyes flicked down, went to my coffee cup. Her finger traced lazy circles around the top. I watched, momentarily mesmerized. Slowly, carefully, I traced back from her finger, down her forearm, to the elbow resting on the edge of the cafe table, up a toned, olive forearm, across a round shoulder, up her neck.

She was smiling at me, her mouth drawn wide, a welcoming array of white teeth and dimpled cheeks.

"You have nice eyes," she said, "Soft. Smart."


"Yeah, soft. Like the world can still reach you."

She obviously didn't know me. I'd given up and sealed off the world long ago. Still, I played along. I didn't know why, but I wanted to keep that smile, those dimples, and that pair of mischievous eyes around.

"I, uh, I try to keep an open mind," I shrugged, hoping it was a gesture of nonchalance.

"You should smile," she said. "I'll bet your eyes light up."

I snorted. "I doubt that. It's been a while."

"I know."

"Huh?" I raised an eyebrow at her. "How can you know that?"

"Your face is sad," she told me. "I saw that when you came and sat down. That only happens when you forget how to smile."

"There's no much to smile about," I guess.

The last few months had been tough. There was no way around it. Letters from one school after another. I wasn't qualified for their program. I was qualified, but I was too late. Wait, you might be able to make the alternate list. Then the call. My contract wasn't to be renewed. Budgets, you know. Best of luck, let us know if you need a letter of recommendation. You did a wonderful job. We'll keep you on mind if things get better next year.

Then, at the lowest, the two worst words in the world. "I'm leaving." The bitch. She always knew how to kick me when I was down.

I hated her. I loved her.

I hated myself for loving her. I hated myself for missing her. I'd even taken her special ringtone off of my phone. Now every time someone called I allowed myself to hope that maybe it was her, calling to say she was sorry, calling to say she was wrong.

What the fuck was my problem?

"There's plenty to smile about." Her hand came off my coffee cup, brushed a stray wisp of her black hair over her ear. "You just need to know where to look."

The left corner of my mouth twitched ever so slightly upward. "Maybe you're right," I said.

"Maybe?" Her eyes flashed. "I am right."

"You're awfully sure of yourself."

"I know." She took my right hand in her left, produced a pen. "Call me, soft eyes," she said. The pen moved across my skin. Sophie. Ten digits.

"Don't you even want to know my name?" I asked.

"Of course."


"Call me, Jim. But don't wait too long."

And then she was gone.

I stared at my shitty murder mystery for five or ten minutes. Maybe it was a half-hour. Maybe it was forever.

The words blurred together. I got up, began walking. I'd left everything behind, come to this alien city where the sun burned bright against my skin. And yet I carried her with me wherever I went. The first thing that went in to my suitcase, I now realized, was the hurt, the loss, the shame. It's why I always went to one album when I grabbed my mp3 player and put on my headphones.

And if I told you
That I'm sorry
Would you tell me
You were wrong?
Would you hold me down forever
If I came to you for answers?

I remembered that first night. We'd sat and talked until the sun came up. It was like a scene out of a movie. I'd thought it was the one that came at the end, where after wading through all the shit of life the two people suddenly came together. It was an accident, y'know? She's walking in to her house, carrying a paper bag of groceries with two loaves of french bread sticking out of the top because that's the kind of grocery bag women carry in movies. He's walking down the street, head down, depressed, wearing a black pea coat and counting his steps.

They meet. By accident. French bread flies, oranges roll across the pavement, because beneath the french bread there are always oranges. He apologizes profusely, eyes still on the ground, seeking those runaway groceries. Finally he hands her an orange, looks at her for the first time.

Meg Ryan always played that role I think. Probably Julia Roberts, too. I haven't seen those movies in a long time. Who plays that role now? Anne Hathaway? Kirsten Dunst? Amy Adams? Do they still make movies like that?

She never dragged me to movies like that. Maybe it was a sign that something was horribly wrong. Guys always get dragged to those movies by their girlfriends, always complain about it, talk about how if they don't go they won't get any. Yet I think that there's something in those movies that guys want, too. We can't all be Bruce Willis or Daniel Craig saving the world and making wisecracks. But we can be Billy Crystal, Vince Vaughn, or Seth Rogan, fumbling our way endearingly towards something great.

At least, some days I like to think that's the way it works.

I remember that first night, that night we talked until the sun came up. I drove home listening to Matt Nathanson singing about how he wanted someone to tell him how pretty the world is. I knew then that I would always think of her when that album came on. I always thought it would have happy connotations.

Funny. I listened to his live CD for the first time not long after. I listened to him introduce a song that was on an EP. He told the audience that it was from a CD of songs that basically bashed one particular girl. All of the other songs were on that CD that I'd once thought was so happy. It took me a while to put it together, but one day it hit me.

Well I'm surrounded, you spill
All alive and brand new
And I forget about you long enough
To forget why I need to

I saw pictures in my head
And I swear I saw you opening up again
Cuz I would be heavenly
If baby you'd just rescue me now

My steps carried me back to my little rented room and I sat on my empty, rented bed.

Matt Nathanson told me all about it. He told me all about happy songs turned in to dirges, joy turned to loss.

She was broken when I met her. Truth was, I was, too. I thought I could rescue her, thought I could rescue myself if I did it right.

But there was no happiness to be found there.

Still, I loved her. I missed her. When I closed my eyes I could still see hers, so close, yet so very, very far.

I stared at the wall. I blinked, saw those eyes for a split second every time mine closed.

Once, just once, I saw a pair of mischievous, dark eyes framed in a round, olive face.

I sat in my little rented room by myself for three days before I finally picked up the phone and dialed those ten digits on my hand.