Thursday, March 12, 2009
Over the last month or so, I've been really enjoying reading some my friends' Top 25 album lists on Facebook. It never ceases to amaze me how powerful music can be to everyone, especially during those teenage years, when our scope of reference is smaller and it's so easy to live and die with every single event in our lives. So many of these lists I've read are dominated by the records, CDs, tapes, downloads, etc that were discovered during our ages between 14-24. I often find it sad that so many people lose that same intimacy with music as we grow older. I understand it, because life changes; priorities change; and the impact of singular songs or albums becomes slighter as we realize that there's not a lot that we haven't heard in some form before. Music from those years stays with us longer too.
About a month ago, I grabbed my dusty copy of the debut Pet Shop Boys CD (Please) off the shelf and threw it in the player. I hadn't listened to this album in at least 19 years. Hearing the opening drum machine of the song "Two Divided by Zero" made me realize three things: I knew every nuance of this album despite not hearing it in ages; it immediately brought back images and moments from the past into vivid detail; and finally, it sounded fresher than anything I had listened to for a long while. I suppose it makes sense that I would remember every nook and cranny of this CD, because when I bought it in 1985, I had about 20 other CDs in my fledgling collection. Now, when I get a new CD, it has to compete with a couple of thousand, along with the endless soundtrack of songs that float through my mind - most of which I would never consider purchasing in any form. For example, I still devotedly go out and buy the latest music from the Cure, but it gets shelved quickly after a few listens and there's certainly no rush to get it. I remember driving to Salem of all places on a sunny early summer day in 1987, so I could get the Cure's Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me the day it was released. I drove straight back home (I also remember picking up a copy of that debut Concrete Blonde record along with it! Great day!)and listened to it in it's entirety - only coming out of my trance long enough to flip the records over when it was time.
Yet I realize that I still get that excited about new music. Maybe I am in a state of arrested development, but I find myself counting down the days till I can go track down the new Camera Obscura album, or the new Doves, or the second LP from Great Northern, or I find myself wondering if and when a new Lawrence Arms CD will be out. My enthusiasm is constantly being replenished by new music, or discovering new-to-me old music, or a fresh look at old favorites. Like right now, I'm listening to a song that I find myself pulling out of the archives about once a year on a sunny day, when I need a boost, or if I want to maintain some positive momentum, or when I decide to do some Spring cleaning: "Breakout" by Swing Out Sister. Today, I need a boost and this old 12" single is providing it. What could be better?
Sunday, March 1, 2009
He was standing on the second floor of the old apartment building. The hallway was in shadows, as the flickering lights that normally cast a dingy white hue across the middle of the hallway had clicked off. There were no windows in these sloping old passages, so the only illumination came from the buzzing bank of lights from the hallway behind him and from her room.
Her door was open and he stood nearby. Her door was usually open at least part way when she was home. Her room was a beacon of hope for him in this old building. Her brilliance inside felt like a cozy and safe place deep in the bowels of this soot stained dark brick beast that eats the desolate lives inside generation after generation. The early autumn rain that had begun to fall that day could not begin to wash away the shroud of filth that blackened the four story building over its 100 years of existence. It was a building allowed to survive inside bleak shadows, while providing affordable rent downtown.
Colored lights were bouncing around the expanse of the nicotine stained wall that was exposed. He decided that her TV must have been on. Her room was at the end of this stretch of the hallway. Straight ahead, past her door, was a painted over old fire escape. The rusty ladders outside the escape had long been taken down and dumped in a pile behind the building. They were so worn that they were more dangerous than dueling with a fire inside with no where to run. The door had been sealed shut by crackling off-white paint, in an attempt to blend it in with the wall color. Unfortunately, the wall paint had worn off decades ago, leaving the door conspicuous and the building frightfully escape proof. Between him and her room, she had left a garbage can just outside her door. He could hear the sounds of movement inside. He marveled at the different colors that looked like reflections of twinkling Christmas or carnival lights. He was trying to slow his breath, while picturing her inside. He had never seen the inside of her place, except for the two feet of temptation that she often provided for him as he passed by on his way to or from the front stairwell.
***The last time he saw her, she had spoken to him. Somehow she knew his name. She commanded him to smile, as she was walking purposefully down the hallway in the opposite direction, while beaming at him. He almost cowered on the other side of the hall they had shared. Her strong personality was too much for him and he had not been ready. He did not yet know her name, though he had been attracted to her since the day he had moved in. She knew his name and he could not stop thinking about her.
The first time he remembered seeing her, she was at the café across the busy boulevard outside the building. She was sitting at a table on the sidewalk outside the café in the warm evening sunlight and he was on the steps up to the front door of the apartments. He was trying to enjoy the fresh evening air after working up a sweat all afternoon moving junk into his place. At first she seemed familiar to him. She was very pretty with her short dark brown hair curving just around her ears. Something made her different to him than all of the other pretty girls he normally saw from day to day. Her draw was hypnotic, yet elusive for him to comprehend. While he stared at her, she caught him. She was chatting with a younger girl – maybe a niece or a younger sister, because she didn’t look old enough to be the mother of a girl nearing her teens. When their eyes met, she smiled and raised her eyebrows in acknowledgement, before turning her attention back to her companion.
This was his first apartment and he felt energized. It had been a long time, since he had felt a spark. He chuckled to himself as he stood up to stretch out his tired muscles, hoping she would look his way again.
***He shook this memory from his mind and moved a step closer to her door. He stopped and felt a chill trundle down his back. He thought of her smile. She was able to not just smile with her eyes and mouth, but with her entire body. Her smile was so genuine and so overwhelming to him that his stomach knotted up every time she used it. She expressed a carefree and positive energy that electrified every thing in range. Her presence made him excited and yet he didn’t know her. He was trying to gather up the nerve to knock. He wanted to express how attracted he had become to her since he moved in a month earlier. Then he heard voices from inside her room. He thought that someone was in the apartment with her. Maybe it was the TV, but it was too hard to tell. The noise began to crumble his resolve.
He looked down at the flower in his hand. It looked weary. When he picked the flower, only a short while before, it was brimming with life and color against the graying skies and the grim backdrop of the building. The flower had been a solitary bright color amongst the dusty weeds that had spit out from the broken backside of the apartments. The rich red petals of the flower reminded him of her lips and the silky dress he had seen her in almost a week earlier. They had met at the front door the previous Friday when he was returning from a late movie alone. She was wearing a rich red strapless dress that drew his attention to her smooth ivory skin. She also wore a black choker around her neck and black stockings that highlighted her nice legs. Her short, dark brown hair was shining in the streetlights and had a little added wave to it. He had never seen a more stunning beauty. He tripped as he approached the front steps, barely keeping upright. She smiled down at him and asked if he was okay. She was wearing more make-up than he had seen her with prior, especially that lipstick and striking eye-liner. He assumed that she was returning from a date, because her spirits were clearly high. He wanted desperately to ask her out then, but how could he? He was disheveled and greasy from the popcorn he spent his last five dollars on. He didn’t compliment her. He didn’t say a word.
He had never seen her with anyone who looked like a boyfriend. She was with different people most of the time he saw her around. With her ability to be friendly to anyone, his inability to engage her in casual conversation had frustrated him. Despite the sense of familiarity she had for him and his belief in her as a kind and tender person, his nerves always won out. All he wanted to do was ask her out, or find the courage to talk with her. He was hoping that just knowing her would instill him with some comfort. If he did manage the courage to open his heart to her, he would’ve expected her to say no. This is the response he expected from any girl who ever peaked his interest with any intensity. This girl was the first one who had broken through his self-imposed purgatory and had him considering that she might give him a chance. If only he would ask. He felt a slight glimmer of hope from her, an indulgence he didn’t understand, but grabbed hold of. With that indulgence, came pressure for him to do something about it.
That pressure really intensified the evening that she knocked on his door. She and another girl he had seen in the building unexpectedly visited his room. He had been engrossed in a book, sitting beneath his desk lamp. He had been reading for so long that when he looked up, startled by the commotion at his door, his eyes had trouble focusing. The rest of his room was dark and all he could see was the slit of light peeking in from the hall. He opened the door hurriedly, without even considering that this was his first visitor and was immediately embarrassed by his state when he saw the two girls. The shock of seeing her launched his heart rate into the stratosphere and he began to choke on his own saliva.
He stood there listening to what they had to say, though he was distracted by his worries of having her see him so ragged, standing over a pile of dirty clothes in his dark room. He was worried about his unshaven face and his sloppy hair and the huge red blotch that had formed on his left cheek from propping his head up for the previous few hours. They had shown up to invite him to a potluck gathering they had planned for the tenants of the building. It was all over before he could respond or acknowledge what they were doing. The girls had moved on cheerfully to the next room over extending their generous invitation to the prying, despicable old man next door. He was always at his door listening to what went on outside. He would often open his door and stand there and watch if people were having an exchange. If there was no action in the hall, he was probably listening through the walls of his neighbors or staring out the window at whatever motivated this emotionless gray man’s habit.
“Only this girl would have the guts to try and get the outcasts around this dump to all become neighborly,” he thought to himself, as he reluctantly closed his door. Seeing her in his doorway so unexpectedly nearly made him pass out with surprise. He felt like one of those swooning teenage girls from the clips he’d seen so many times of the Beatles or Elvis on the Ed Sullivan show. It was a daydream he had repeatedly, finally coming true, or at least, partially true. The girls had been dressed up in second hand prom dresses as they delivered their home-made invitations. Though they were going for some humor with their outfits, he couldn’t help but realize how fetching she was. She wore a frilly pale pink dress and gaudy, bulbous costume jewelry that was dangling off her ears, wrapped around her neck and slipping around her slender wrists.
He lay back onto his bed and stared up at the sagging and stained ceiling. He usually slept on his stomach or sides, mostly out of paranoia about what was up above his helpless body at night. He guessed that the ceiling was comprised of a mixture of asbestos, mold and pests. At any time he expected the concoction to give way in a shower of debris, his upstairs neighbor, rodents and piles of sticky mulch that would splash down on him. If he didn’t look at it, he wouldn’t worry about it. At that moment, however, his mind was focused on her and the opportunity that this potluck presented to him. Maybe then he would get a chance to know her a little and to finally talk with her.
As he lay there alone, his thoughts turned to fantasy and he imagined a second knock on his door. This time she would be alone. This time, she would ask him out or she would confess her love to him. This would fill him with so much confidence that he would wrap his arms around her and she would bury her face into his neck as he pulled her closer to him. He would enjoy her velvety hair against his chin and savor her sweet scent. He would close his eyes and try to absorb her essence. Lying there in his room, he could still smell her.
***The colors on the wall changed. He could hear voices and could not place their source. Then he thought he heard crying. This was not his time. He looked at the trashcan outside her door and moved quickly towards it. He held the flower in front of his face between his fingers and examined it, then took a shaky deep breath. As he exhaled, he parted his fingers and dropped the flower into the can. His body slouched with disappointment and he felt nauseous. He turned around, nudging the garbage can accidentally with his right toe, and headed back to his apartment frustrated.
When he reached the stairwell door, halfway down the hall and into the light, he slapped the heavy door with both hands and shoved it in. His apartment was up one story above hers. When he found the third floor, the fluorescent hall lights were piercingly bright, burning his squinting eyes. He stopped at his door, turned the knob to the unlocked room, looked both directions and stepped inside.
His heart was pounding and he was breathing quickly. There was a pressure at his temples, so he decided to lie down. He couldn’t relax, because he had failed. The mounting urgency in his mind was so massive that he was exhausted. He was sickened at his inadequacy. He had no insurmountable trouble functioning in any other part of his life, but he could not break through and ask this girl out, or even attempt a conversation. Maybe the potluck was his time.
***She was sitting on the futon in her room, surrounded by several crumpled wads of yellow paper from the pad she held in her lap. She set the pad and her pen down and stood to stretch and rub her tired eyes. She wanted to turn off her blaring TV, which had begun to irritate her. If she was going to get anything done, she would need some music.
Her apartment was warmly lit by a table lamp next to the folded futon and a light hanging on the wall next to the kitchen doorway. Her studio had a couple of bookshelves loaded with books, CD’s, a stereo, a few plants and lots of framed pictures. As she reached over to the stereo to put something on, she heard a bang outside her open door. She froze in place and stared intently at the partial opening. All that she saw were the boxes that she had packed earlier stacked neatly behind where the door swings inward. She was startled by the sound and a bit shaken, because she lived at the end of the hall, so no one had any reason to be out there, unless they were visiting. She called out a quiet hello and waited for a moment and then, despite her nerves, cautiously went to the door and pulled it open. She peaked out into the darkened hallway and didn’t see anyone, so she put her left hand on the knob, toed the line between her room and the threadbare carpet in the hall and leaned out. To her right was the sealed Fire Escape as always and to her left, she spotted the quiet guy from the third floor walking into the stairwell, letting the door slam behind him. She rummaged through her thoughts, to determine the source of the sound and relaxed as she decided it must’ve been the guy tripping on what was left of the carpet. It was worn completely through in places, and folding upwards in others. She laughed, because the carpet had made her stumble on a few occasions. She always assumed that the patterned carpet once had an array of colors, but now it was a mossy dark gray and a serious hazard. She relaxed and leaned back into her room, spotting a red flower in amongst her garbage. She picked it up with curiosity and pondered this new mystery as she turned it around between her right thumb and forefinger enjoying its simple beauty. She pinched her lips together in thought and shot another glimpse back down the vacant hallway.
She went back into her room, wondering about the appearance of the flower, still damp from the rain outside. She heard a muffled door crash echo through the stairwell. With sudden determination, she shot from her room padding towards the stairs in her bright white socks. She was ready to gamble and track the flower to its source.
With a bit of trepidation, but mostly exhilaration, she hopped up the stairs, two at a time, reaching the heavy door for the third floor before the door behind her had closed. She looked through the wired glass to see if anyone was visible. Then she slid into the hallway, holding the door, so it wouldn’t slam shut and crept down the hall looking at each door that she passed, searching for the source of the flower.
***He had sat on the edge of his bed feeling a bit woozy. The only light source was coming from the kitchen in the back left corner of his place. The window directly across the floor from his door was open as it had been since he moved in at the end of August. His bed sat to the left of the door as you entered with the headboard against the hallway wall. Other than the kitchen and bathroom, his apartment was a perfect square. No decorations hung on the walls, there was no television and the only light source was the lamp on his desk at the foot of his bed, along with a little stereo. He had taken the bulbs out of the overhead light, so it could never be turned on. A pile of CD’s and records sat on the window sill getting damp from the rain blowing in. A cool wind swept through the room, as a blinking crosswalk sign flashed endlessly from above the intersection outside. He listened to the traffic splash through the wet crossing below, thinking of how to redeem himself.
He was in disbelief that he hadn’t knocked on her door. He mocked himself in frustration. In reality, deep down, he knew that he wouldn’t go through with it. His loneliness was sometimes unbearable, but it was all he knew and he was too timid to change what little of a life he had managed to pile together – no matter how fragile. He was terrified of being rejected, but the pain this girl was causing him from her peripheral presence alone, had him feeling hollow, lost and achingly empty. If he would’ve just left a note or something with the flower, it would have been cowardly, but it might’ve at least started a dialog.
***A light knock tapped on his door, startling him. He looked at the blond wood of the door, unsure whether the knock was at his or his neighbor’s door. Another, firmer, knock hit three times. He stood up and attempted to compose himself. His hands were trembling. He didn’t want to answer the door, because he was too shattered by his failure. He opened it anyway.
She was standing in front of him holding the flower he had found for her. It no longer looked wilted and tired in her hands. She looked up at him expectantly and didn’t say a word. She didn’t budge or avert her eyes from his. She presented the flower to him with a quizzical expression.
After several seconds, he slid his feet backwards, moved his shoulder back and opened the room up for her to enter. She took a couple of short steps into his room, leaving the door wide open. She noticed a smell like burnt toast as she scanned the sparse arrangement of his place and wrapped her arms around each other with a sudden chill. He stood back watching her eyes as they looked over his life. The room didn’t reveal much, but her presence made him fidget with anxiety. He felt naked and vulnerable.
“What is this?” she finally asked, breaking the hypnotic sizzle of the cars driving on the wet pavement outside.
He looked at the flower that she was again holding out for him and stammered, “It’s a flower,” knowing full well that his sarcasm was unwanted by both of them.
“How did it end up in my garbage?” she queried expectantly, undaunted by his annoying reply.
“I feel like I’m in trouble,” he laughed back nervously.
“Maybe you should be,” she replied sternly, grimacing slightly.
“Maybe wild flowers grow from the trash,” he explained and turned his head toward the window.
Her hand holding the flower dropped to her side as she exhaled. She looked down at the cracked tile beneath her feet and let more air out from her lungs. She was upset. This was too awkward. She was unsure of what to do. His flippant responses made her feel that coming to him was a mistake. Maybe she had been mistaken about his interest in her.
“Listen, I’m sorry I’ve bothered you like this. I thought that you had brought this flower to me, but maybe that was an absurd thought, since I found it in the trash. Just because you put a flower in my garbage…” she trailed off, “I don’t know what I’m doing. Maybe I’m losing my mind. I thought that…” she stopped again, looking back down and reset herself, “I’ve been packing all afternoon…”
“Packing?” he asked quickly.
“Yes, looks like I’m moving out,” she managed in reply.
“Why?” he asked with increased panic.
“There are too many expenses. I have been unable to keep a job and continue full time with school. I don’t know how to handle it all,” she paused and crossed her arms again as another chill hit her. She looked out the open window into the blackness, seeing only a faint reflection of him and her and the blinking light outside. She mumbled, “I guess we’re meant to be only one color in life…” she stopped before finishing with a shrug. “I’m moving home to try and sort things out.”
She looked back at him, directly into his blue eyes. He noticed that her eyes were filling up with tears. His were already, but he had been trying to keep them hidden. His mind had been frantically racing the entire time, unable to put together a coherent thought. He wanted to help her, but even more urgently, he wanted to stop her. He needed to keep her there, so he could figure things out, and to calm down. His head was spinning from what was happening. He had been alone so long that he wasn’t even certain if this was real. He said nothing to her. Instead he looked at her with concern and felt her slipping away.
“Yes,” he finally blurted, “I was going to give you the flower. I thought I overheard someone with you, so I left. I didn’t want to bother you,” he confessed, as she moved towards his door, “that’s all.”
“That’s all? Well, thanks for the sentiment, I guess,” she said to him and turned away.
He didn’t say anything as she stepped back into the hall. He followed her to his door, as she spun around again to face him. He could see her lips quivering as she raised the flower up to her chest. Her eyes were wide open and glistening with emotion. He still didn’t know what to say to her. She’d just told him that she was moving away, right after allowing him the notion that she might be interested in him. She had come and completely shattered his world and he was agitated.
She continued to stand in front of his door, waiting for him to say something. In his eyes, she could see that he was searching for something, but nothing came.
“I’d better get back to packing,” she whispered into the void.
“When will you be moving?” he asked, grabbing the chance to inquire about the concept his mind couldn’t comprehend.
“Tomorrow afternoon. My father will be helping me.”
He didn’t want her to leave. He didn’t know how to get her to stay. He didn’t have a clue what to do. He never did. He didn’t know why he was so afraid. He had never pictured himself with a girlfriend and has always stuck by that by shooting himself down before anyone else could. This entire moment was foreign and frightening for him.
“I’m very sorry to hear that,” he stated, trying to stop from throwing a tantrum. “What about the potluck next weekend?”
The old man next door opened his door to her right and she jerked her face in his direction. The man looked at her, as if she wasn’t aware of him. After a moment, she managed a half smile for him as she sniffed and he pulled his head back inside and closed his door. Feeling overwhelmed, she turned to leave.
“The potluck doesn’t need me. Go and have a good time,” she tried to sound enthusiastic. “Enjoy the party without me,” she added as she disappeared around the corner back to the stairwell.
He continued to stand in his doorway. He wanted to go after her, but it was futile. She was gone.
***He closed his door lightly and dropped, once again, onto his bed. He was in shock. Hundreds of undeveloped thoughts tore through his mind, confusing him more. He wondered if she was interested in him and how she knew that he left the flower. She had been in his room, but now she was moving out. He still didn’t know what to do. He never had known.
As he sat there, he thought of what he always thought of when he wanted a girl in his life. He continued to keep that Christmas vacation when he was 16 years old in his mind. It was a trap he didn’t feel he could escape. A girl he had known as a young kid was visiting his family with her mom. Before then, he had only known her as the snotty little brat who lived next door, who his parents forced him to play with. It was probably because she was the only kid his age on the block, but he figured it was because she had no friends. When she was there, that Christmas, he realized that she had become a very pretty girl. She had these iridescent blue eyes, sweet full lips and soft, shoulder-length light brown hair. She was stunning – a totally different girl. During her stay, they became friends. They shared many interests and joked about the old neighborhood and really enjoyed each others company. One night, after watching a movie on cable, and all the parents had gone to bed, they discovered each other. It was clumsy and scary, because neither one knew what they were doing. It didn’t matter to him though, because he was falling in love and it was a rush he had never experienced. The next day, their last together, he wanted to stay with her every possible second and profess his feelings to her, but she wouldn’t talk to him. She stayed by her mother’s side and if she even looked at him, she would do so with a cold emotionless gaze. He never saw her again, except when her mom sent school photos of her in cards and letters. Her eyes in those pictures were always the same ones that shunned him at his most desperate moment. She raised him to his highest high and smashed him with one look. She had stolen his ability to trust. Perhaps the girl who had just been in his room was right. Maybe people are one color in life. Maybe people are unable to truly change. Maybe his path had been chosen. Maybe his hopes of a girlfriend weren’t meant to be.
He stood up and stepped out into the hallway. He shut his door, locked the deadbolt, flipped off the creepy old man’s door, imagining him crouched on the other side listening. He went down to the second floor, slowing near the darkened corner of the hall where her room sat, noticing her door was now closed and the garbage can was gone, before speeding off to the front entrance of the building.
The steps up to the front door extended up from the sidewalk to the second floor for some reason. He didn’t know how the first floor inhabitants got in and out of their apartments, because there seemed to be no doorway or stairs for them, and the building had no functioning elevator. They were most likely trapped there like everyone else. Except for her, she was leaving.
He stepped outside and remained at the top of the steep stairs, where he first saw her. He sat down on the wet concrete handrail. He could not see anything but his breath and streaks of rain dropping down on him. He looked back at the building in the direction of her place, but her window was around the corner. The building was almost invisible in the dark, except for a few lit windows scattered around its carcass. This building had no charm and most assuredly never did. It was just a piece of trash. He didn’t want to go back inside, so he crossed his arms over his knees and leaned forward to rest his head onto them.
***In her room, she sat on the futon and held her head in her hands. Her room was silent. She felt humiliated. Her life was falling apart. The phone rang and she lifted her head to stare at it with her bleary eyes, cursing the unwanted alarm until it stopped. She had gone through so many emotions during the day that she felt numb. After several moments, she looked out her window to the shiny blacktop below. Traffic passed as it always did. She thought of his blank expression when she went to him, and then climbed off the futon. She kicked the wads of paper into a pile and threw them into her garbage. She took a long deep breath and puffed out her cheeks when she exhaled. She grabbed some books from her shelf, ignoring the wild flower sitting in a glass of water, and began stacking them into an open box by her door.
Story last finished in 2005
With inspiration provided by the long missed band, The Abecedarians