The following piece was presented at the Jersey City Writers’ monthly genre event–Reflections: A Reading of Memoir Vignettes. Please enjoy.
I watched from a distance as the opening band to our gig arrived. Aware of their extreme tardiness, the passengers spilled out of the car and rushed to unload their gear. By contrast, the driver slowly peeled herself from the hot vinyl seat, careful to preserve her sleek outfit. She had expertly applied her makeup but nothing could hide her fundamental disappointment. Her boyfriend, the guitarist, was in load-in mode and girlfriends no longer existed, just helpers and bandmates. She lingered in the door frame and awaited acknowledgement or instruction, but it never came. It was evident he’d forgotten about her after his second trip, so the only way to gain his attention was to help. She angrily swung a cable bag onto her shoulder and picked up a rack tom like a baby. The items weren’t heavy but appeared weighed down by confusion and annoyance. She awkwardly clicked her heels toward the venue, her earrings undulating wildly. She’d prepared for another type of evening altogether.
When the car was empty, the guitarist handed her the keys and asked her to find parking. She responded wordlessly with an ‘I didn’t sign up for this shit’ look and stormed into his twenty-year-old jalopy. She clearly wanted to stew in the car all night, or perhaps call a cab and call it quits. This was the moment of choice, a defining moment in the relationship between a musician and non-musician.
As she sat there in her boyfriend’s old clunker, I wanted to counsel her like a fairy godmother of music and unfold her fate before her. I’d explain how nights like these are terrific if you are in the band because the transformative rush of adrenaline awaits. But as a band girlfriend, your boyfriend’s shows get old quickly. You spend hours by yourself while he sets up and plays, and you may only know a handful of people and not that well. You have to constantly remind yourself you came because your dopey boyfriend asked you earlier this morning-sweetly, needily-and you agreed because you were feeling generous and a little vulnerable and he’s so cute when the morning sun lights up his sleepy face. But that’s all worn off now and you’re feeling more lonely than you have in a long time, much more than if you stayed home alone. You brace yourself for incalculably long hours ahead.
It wasn’t always like this, and won’t always be like this. When you first started dating, you loved going to see his band play. It was electrifying. You were not just on the list, you entered through the ultra-cool side door with the rest of the band. During their set you’d mentally shout at the crowd, ‘see what he did there? He’s MINE! Can you believe it?’ He’d never dream of putting you to work in those days. But the honeymoon ended tonight, and from now on he’ll ask you to help out more-maybe work the merch table or iron the t-shirts-and you’ll fully experience the tedium of being in a band without the joy of playing in one. You are now left with three choices:
- Realize dating a musician isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, break up with him and find the bar where the investment bankers blow off steam. You update your wardrobe with cocktail dresses and mini-purses. The only music you listen to now is the autotuned thump of the nightclub songs you know from your aerobics classes. You sip your Red Bull-vodka, run your fingers along the smooth dark muscles of your next beau, and never look back.
- Decide you’re just not and never will be a night owl but you love your dopey boyfriend, so you stop attending his shows figuring you’ll see him the next morning. But in reality, he sleeps late then goes straight from his shift at Guitar Center to band practice and gets home hours after you’re in bed. You make plans for the Thursday after next, but even then he can only give you a weak ‘maybe.’ Option Two is fraught with solo evenings and long explanations to your friends that yes, you’re still together, but Dopey couldn’t come to your own birthday party because of a show in Poughkeepsie. Chances are good you’ll drift apart. He might go on a weekender and start receiving suspicious texts from a stranger named Michelle. You might go to a work meeting and enjoy flirting with Kevin, who has the same charm and spunk that led you to Dopey in the first place, but owns a house and a 401k and is by all accounts a grown-up. You stick it out with Dopey for another year until you can no longer stand the exasperation your friends try to hide when you mention his name. You’re outraged Dopey is only mildly upset when you break it off, and you promptly ask around about Kevin’s relationship status.
- Identify the problem: you’re not the one on stage. You don’t play any instruments suitable for a band, so you do the next best thing. You dust off the fancy camera you received two birthdays ago and begin photographing Dopey’s shows, figuring proximity will suffice. This will carry you through another year, but you come to understand you were attracted to a musician because you wanted to BE a musician. Badly. When you can no longer tolerate pining for the stage, you do something about it. You might start with the wrong instrument at first-ukulele deceptively seems like the quick fix- and you fumble around until you find your instrument. You finally find yourself.
You approach your new instrument with humility and reverence. Suddenly, finding a parking spot, loading in gear, and waiting hours for Dopey to get paid are no longer chores. They are training. You muster up the courage to ask Dopey’s bandmates for tips on buying the right gear and ignore the pity and amusement dancing across their eyes. You spend a couple years looking old and helpless with a child’s rudimentary book on your music stand, but it doesn’t matter how silly you seem because you’re unlocking your hidden desires. You trust if you work hard enough, the stage will find you.
Everything is easier because you’re actually doing what you want. By circumstance, you end up playing in a band with Dopey and every night you play a show, you fall more in love. Your sense of self becomes deeper as you sweat out the impurities of the past, drop by glistening drop. You forgive yourself for all the time you spent not playing music, and your present and future collide the moment the house lights go down. There is no greater joy.
I chose option three.