by Dao Strom
She had seen him before on television, when she first moved to town. He was locally famous, not even that famous. There were many other musicians’ names she spotted in the paper more frequently; his had even disappeared for awhile, it seemed. He was young, this guitarist, and appealed to her not only for his dexterity and passion at playing the guitar, but also for the beautiful nervousness with which he played it. He was a lead guitarist and his playing was obviously impressive, even extravagant, yet his stage presence was never arrogant, was not even comfortable. He wore glasses and a necklace—when she met him in person he was wearing this same necklace. A flat, broad, circular ivory stone with a hole in the middle, tied to a strip of black leather. She wanted to ask if his necklace meant something, but this was too much the kind of question a girl asked in flirtation, or as an excuse to touch a boy. So she didn’t ask it.
He smiled selfconsciously when he played his solos, and he played toward the singer and his bandmates more than toward the audience. He played fluidly and complexly without making faces or jerking motions with his body, like so many other lead guitarists, especially of blues bands, especially male ones, would do. His hair fell over his eyes when he played. He made mistakes, bumping into the microphone when he stepped up to sing his harmonies. He had a surprisingly gravelly, impassioned voice for someone of his youthful looks. She thought maybe he was older than he looked, though. When he put down his instrument, she noticed, he looked physically incomplete, his body being very slim and almost concave.
At the break she was introduced to the woman singer of the band first, who had a strong handshake and a polite cheerful indifference. “Can’t wait to hear you one of these days. Brad says you have some real nice songs,” said the singer at the same time Mia said to her, “You guys sound great.”
Women, thought Mia, were always giving one another this kind of false encouragement. Though Mia had enjoyed the set, in the back of her mind she had also been entertaining the self-assuaging thought that, though this woman was a very good singer, she was still only singing other people’s songs. The singer had carried her purse with her off the stage and now held it dangling from her forearm like a prop, a boxy candy-apple red affair. She was undeniably pretty in a manner that was both intelligent and demure and that Mia could not really criticize. She watched the singer walk with a feline pertness up to the bar after letting go of Mia’s hand.
The other band members were then introduced. Brad, the bass player, was the one Mia had met the week previous in another bar. She had gotten up and sung a half hour’s worth of her own songs in a state of mild terror, and people in the bar had whooped and cheered. Mia still wasn’t exactly sure why. Later, the bartender, a weathered, moderately attractive woman in her forties, smiled at Mia and said, “You keep on giving those boys some hell now, y’hear?” And Brad had introduced himself and told her she should come down to see his band and meet them. The band he played with—the woman singer’s band—was fairly well-known around town. Mia had felt tenuously validated by his attention that night.
When she heard the guitar player’s last name was when it occurred to her this was the one she used to see on the local music channel. She used to hope to see him, in fact, his shy looking away from the camera at the end of a song. “Hey, aren’t you, were you once a part of the Wheldon Brothers?”
He leaned toward her and said affably, “And we still are the Wheldon brothers.” He meant his brother—now she saw the resemblance—who was the drummer, and himself. He held his hand out to her in greeting, then knelt beside her chair and said, “So you’re a singer, too?”
Her answer was not confident. “Uh, yeah.”
“‘Uh, yeah?’ What is that?” He was teasing her, she realized. Yet, this kind of teasing felt like acceptance, a level of comfort immediately established, a willingness to engage, and almost a sweetness. But maybe he would approach anyone this way until they gave him reason not to. Still, she was glad to have illicited whatever this degree of inclusivity from him was. He had brown hair, slightly long, and pale blue eyes. There was around him a wide, easy radius of warmth.
He sat down at her table even though Brad the bass player had stopped only to shake her hand and say thanks for coming down. This association seemed enough, though, for the guitar player to not consider her, or her girlfriend at the table with her, as strangers. He had a beautiful manner of suddenly joining in, thought Mia. The beauty of it was that he had not bothered with being invited or even asking to sit with them, yet his style of imposition was neither overbearing nor intrusive. He exuded an air of expectation that was slightly awkward, but also disarming in its openness, and enervating; his very presence imbued lightness and chemistry. He lit a cigarette and blew the smoke sideways out of the corner of his mouth. He sat forward with his back not against the back of the chair. His skin was pale and soft-looking, like the underside of a plate. He had a smile that made his eyes look like they were laughing, that made you feel like you had been singled out by his smiling at you, by his leaning loosely on his elbows across the table toward you. There was something to his sitting down so casually and staying, she thought, to his listening in with such candor and self-effacement.
Maybe it seemed to him a typical girls’ conversation.
“So what did she say that makes you think that?” Mia’s girl friend, Natasha, was asking her.
“She calls me up—she calls me up regularly, in fact—and makes a lot of complaints about how we’re communicating or not communicating. Our personalities just totally clash. I’m not vocal enough for her, she’s really demanding and difficult to work with for me. Um, it was just bad.” Mia glanced toward the guitar player apologetically and said, “We’re gossiping, sorry,” and then became more tight-lipped and hesitant. She turned the conversation to him instead.
“I used to see you on the music channel, I remember. I remember because I liked it, what I saw.”
He received compliments nicely, she noticed—not too shyly, not too gratefully. He nodded, smiled, gave further information. He had been out of town for awhile, had gone to Seattle to be in another band, that band had broken up, so he had come back south.
“And you played for a little while with Heather Thamos,” she said, recalling something else she had seen.
He lit up. “Yeah, that’s right.” He looked at both Mia and her friend as he told them about a show coming up. It was a big venue, a band more famous than the one he was playing with that night. He said nothing about degrees of fame, though—that was all only in Mia’s mind. She didn’t care for the band, the more well-known one he would be playing with, though she knew they were good, technically speaking. She didn’t say any of this aloud, though.
“I’ll have to keep that in mind,” she said, nodding.
He looked mildly apologetic but aware. He said, humorously, “I have to advertise the show, you know, the show.”
Something was happening back at the stage—someone was signaling to him. He made a gesture that he would return, a ducking of his head and a slight smile, and got up quickly. His fingers, momentarily pressed against the tabletop, were, she noted, long and slender and quite effeminate.
Mia and Natasha went back to an earlier conversation.
“Sometimes I think, what is wrong with me? This restlessness, this restlessness, am I the only person in the world who feels it? My god. My job is so boring and then I open a magazine and it’s a travel essay, some woman hiking across a glacier in Iceland, and I’m like, my excursion is to the mall at lunch hour to attack the sales rack in Banana Republic,” said Natasha.
“You are not the only person who feels that way. I believe if you feel that way, it’s crucial to follow that feeling. It’s like a call and you have to answer it. If you don’t, you’ll miss out on something important. I don’t mean quit your job tomorrow, but maybe you could start to take steps. I mean, God knows, I’ve been feeling that a lot in my life lately.”
Mia had only a month earlier left her husband. Their relationship, as she thought of it now, had always had a basis in intellectual life more than physical life. Though, apparently, of course they had shared a physical life—they had a son together. And certainly there had been passion, and abandon, and signs of permanence, even, she had thought at times, for she was the kind of person who liked to read meaning into things. Whether this was because she earnestly believed in pre-destiny or because she needed the reassurance of there being a way to know the future, she was aware of both as possibly deluded world views. Yet she could not stop looking for signs. There had been the giant spider in the middle of its web on the back deck of her husband’s apartment on the night (she was sure) they conceived their son; there had been the Chinese funeral procession that passed them by one morning early in her pregnancy, which she had pondered as an omen of the destined longevity of their union—for if a funeral was not some sign of permanence, then what was?
But the other, and simple, truth was (and they had gone through a long, arduous, rational process to arrive at this) she no longer loved her husband. Their baby was four now, not a baby anymore. Mia had also of late come to the realization that she was a far less free woman than she had previously considered herself to be. She made very little money of her own, she had ambitions—this singing thing, for one—she was still afraid to seriously pursue, she was not as comfortable with being frank on the subject of sex and other intimate matters as she felt (as an adult who was also now a parent) one perhaps should be. She was smart and had always been thought of by others as smart, surely, but this perhaps was her biggest setback, for it had made her believe she knew what she was doing and that what she was doing was smarter than what other women her age were doing or had done. Having a baby unplanned, for instance. She had thought this was an indication of her fearlessness and her better connection with nature than those who planned and waited and lived with care.
Recently, or over the past year or more, the kind of men who had begun to appeal to her were all around twenty-six years old. It was not their youth so much as it was a kind of wide-open awareness they seemed to possess. They were looking for love and had not yet been deeply impacted by it—as mundanity, as responsibility, that is—but they would say they wanted it, all of it, that they were “ready” for it. At the same time they were still quite busy taking in everything else in the world, with idealistic blitheness, with indefatigable self-confidence and optimism, or so it seemed to Mia; they possessed innocence and intelligence together, they didn’t know any better yet. They hadn’t been disappointed or tested or given reason to fear (or feel harangued by) the potential weight of a woman in their lives. She didn’t know why exactly this kind of boyish man should appeal to her now, besides the obvious reason—which she also thought she was still too young (and too smart, or should be, at least) to buy into—that someone else’s youthful verve would retrieve her somehow. There were other rationales she could make, that this was the time of her first Saturn return cycle, or that it was time for her to accept that more grounded and reasonable approach to life, called “living in the present” or—the one she hated the most—“living in the real world.” It didn’t seem fair to her to be so discontent, whatever the case; she was not even thirty yet (she was twenty-nine). But she had lost something. That she felt was certain. Graces were small and few and fleeting. In matters of romance she was already relying on a store of memories and fantasies. Her son, who was four, had declared “You’re amazing!” to her the other night when she popped a videotape into the VCR so that he could watch a movie. This was the first such compliment she had heard in months. What a tender absurdity it was, that it took one’s child to recognize the sheer uncongratulated effort a mother summoned every day in order to perform the most ordinary of actions.
Her husband was not a door-slammer or an overtly jealous man. He was meticulous and private and devoted. He recognized her tendencies toward indecision and rashness as a vital part of her that, along with the rest, he loved just the same, he would say. He was not emotionally oppressive; he’d had few questions for her or demands, in the end. “I’m a sensitive person who when I get hurt I want to find somewhere and hide. That’s who I am,” he had said.
She used to affectionately (or not so affectionately?) call him a turtle. But she wouldn’t remind him of that now.
Natasha was thirty-seven and had been single for years. Sometimes they talked about the possibility of there being a point. A point of no return. If you walked away enough times, at enough critical points, would you at some point be condemned to staying “out there” for the rest of your life? Was it possible to make a mistake that put oneself out in the cold for always? Natasha too had walked away from a marriage in her late twenties, and though she did not regret it, she wanted badly to be married again and feared not being able to find the right person. But Mia thought the difference between happiness and unhappiness should be only a matter of perception, that lives unfolded as the people living them ultimately believed they would and as they believed they deserved: the trick was all in the believing—that one deserved to be happy, or to recover, or to forgive, or be forgiven. How much love and how much pain you were capable of taking in would be all you were given. And you would never be given more than your capacity to handle. But you had to be willing to rise to the occasion. She believed maybe it worked somehow like that.
“I’ve been always following these currents. I think they’re for sure, and then it turns out they’re not,” she had said this recently to a stranger in a bar, to which the stranger had replied, “You’re talking about currents and you don’t even see what the word implies.”
“I have a lot of stuff!” exclaimed the drummer, pushing past the table now with a large black piece of equipment, grinning. He had the same pleasing, faint, curved lines at the edges of his smile as did his brother.
The guitar player came back and sat down again at Mia and Natasha’s table. They talked some more. There always came a time in such conversations, however, when she had to make mention of her real life. There was a marked difference between her and other women: she would never know what it was like to be a twenty-nine year old single woman without a child, nor even a twenty-six year old one. How do you know so-and-so? My son—my son goes to a school where so-and-so drives the bus. She mimed the bus’s steering wheel, to convey this message as lightly, as casually, as she could through the bright, smoky noise of the bar. Colored Christmas lights were strung up along the walls and ceilings of the bar even though it was nowhere near Christmas. The stage was small and the place felt intimate. There were so many young, good-looking, hiply dressed people in here, Mia had noticed from the moment they walked in; and all of them, she suspected, were childless. Even the driver of her son’s schoolbus, who had been mentioned because he also knew the woman singer’s band and was in the bar that night, was childless—a single man in his forties. But how good it had felt to be spotted upon entering by Brad the bass player, who had been onstage at that moment, yet had expressly leaned over and told the doorman to put Mia and her friend on the guest list. How ridiculously validating it felt to be recognized in such a place, through all the dimness and the dark, chunky outbursts of revelry and exchange and the electricity of music in the air—how ridiculous! Candles glowed in small glass cups set atop small tables and the tiny flames sent wavering yellow light up to the faces of smokers and laughers. A tall, attractive woman with her shirt unbuttoned to a very low point between her breasts (most certainly childless, thought Mia) was walking around with a tip jar, gathering tips for the band, holding the jar out for potential tippers with a fluorish, her knees sometimes bent together or one leg shot out straight to the side. She was wearing tight jeans and shiny black platform Mary Janes. She was working the men in the bar harder than she was the women, both Mia and her friend noted. And it was working. Money was going in the jar.
Both men and women could be disappointing at times, thought Mia.
From the guitar player there was a visible falling back at the mention of her son—of course there would be. After a moment he said, “Gotta get back to work,” with an amiable shrug. His bandmates were regrouping onstage, slinging guitar straps over shoulders, buckling themselves in again. The woman singer was stepping up to the microphone with fresh red lips, smiling.
They laughed about it later in the parking garage, about Mia’s excitement at meeting the guitar player she had seen on television.
“He really is cute but kinda young, huh?” said Mia, though this was not what she really meant. She had to take a position, though, she had to play it off in some way or another.
“I wouldn’t give him over twenty-five. Maybe not even that,” said Natasha emphatically.
“You think?” said Mia, playing along although she believed Natasha was wrong. Some things you had to keep quiet about though, she realized, you had to hold them secretly close, if you were trying to save them.
Musical Contribution: “Hell’s Gate”
In Their Own Words
After a two-winter stay up in the snowy gray north, I moved in 2008 from Juneau, AK back down to Oregon. We drove the Al-Can highway through British Columbia. There was a particularly pretty canyon stretch running alongside a river – the Fraser River – and the high narrow canyon walls there had been given the name of “Hell’s Gate” by its early explorers who’d come, like so many to this side of the continent, in search of gold or trade routes or other endeavors of expansion. The lyrics for this song started to come to me then, in the voice not of the explorers but of the place – the land herself – receiving them.
Dao Strom has pubished two book of fiction, The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys, and Grass Roof, Tin Roof, and released two solo music albums, Send Me Home and everything that blooms wrecks me. She lives in Portland, Oregon. She is lately recording and performing as The Sea and The Mother. You can find out more at www.daostrom.com