The Twilight Sad @ the Empty Bottle, Chicago
March 2, 2012
The Empty Bottle bar
If I hadn’t been riding in a cab to the show I would have had to double check my directions. After arriving at the Empty Bottle in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village I couldn’t believe that a band like The Twilight Sad would venture from Kilsyth to Chicago to play in a corner dive bar. If I hadn’t seen the band’s bassist lingering around the swag table (which flanked a Ms. Pacman cabinet) I’d have called the whole operation into question. No punches pulled, the place is a dive, though a dive in the best possible sense – a local joint where you’d go to see your cousin’s band play a set of Ramones’ covers but only because of the $3 Shiner Bocks. The walls held together by thousands of staples, the wallpaper comprised of the impressive shards of posters documenting past acts. Tattoo-sleeves on the bartender. Multi-colored Christmas bulbs dangled above the stage. Chiaroscuro spots at the side of the stage, that would in due time, obscure all of my attempts at in-concert photography.
Micah P. Hinson warmed up the early crowd with some standard-fare singer-songwriter angst, albeit wearing white Buddy Holly specs which at least provided a topic of conversation while my party warmed up the back end of the bar.
The penultimate band, a Bay Area export by the name of Young Prisms, provided a pleasant smattering of Jesus and Mary Chain covers, which actually turned out to be their original material. The perfect opening act – familiar and unmemorable but with some potential to become an “I-saw-them-way-back-when” band. The curious footnote about the Young Prisms’ set, which proved to be a harbinger of things to come: we couldn’t tell if the supposed lead singer was actually singing. I changed my viewing angle of the stage so that the microphone wasn’t blocking the lead singer’s mouth. Yes, indeed, she’d been singing. News to us.
More about the venue. Imagine an L. Place the bar along the long upright and a two-tiered riser for concerts in the short end. The stage at the crux and a brick column flanked by doorways directly in front with room for about two dozen spectators between the stage and the column in a crowded mass. With Stella in hand I pushed near the front end of the bar in anticipation of the Twilight Sad. Though it wasn’t really anticipation per se since they were already on stage testing and honing levels without much fanfare. And then they paused. James Graham huddled over the microphone, wilting inside himself. A pause before synth and haunting distorted bass reverb commandeered the Empty Bottle. Graham’s body seethed with intensity as he brooded the opening of “Kill It in the Morning,” the concluding track on their latest No One Can Ever Know. No translation necessary. Not that deciphering his thick Scottish accent proves necessary to getting lost in the music or understanding Graham’s cryptic lyrics – but because it was almost like he wasn’t singing at all, despite the clear intent and focus on consuming the microphone. The swell of synth and percussion near the end of the song resonated with the largely idle crowd, causing the first head widespread lost-in-the-music head nods and air drumming. With the vocals drowned out by a wall of reverb, I relocated to the two-tier risers, figuring on improved sonic fidelity.
The Twilight Sad (not at the Empty Bottle)
“Don’t Move” followed but instead of reverb distorting their sound, percussion overshadowed the mix. Only when drummer Mark Devine launched the recognizable opening drum cadence for “That Summer, at Home I Became the Invisible Boy” did a song resemble an album recording. Graham belted the repeated chorus “Kids are on fire in the bedroom” clearly and intentionally, the minimal reverb finally allowing an aural connection to the singer but these connections seemed localized to songs from their prior albums. Fan favorite “Cold Days from the Birdhouse” and “Reflection on the Television” succeeded due to a more minimal, precise mix of vocals, drums and guitar. “Cold Days” in particular offered Graham’s voice a chance to come into focus. He lingered on particular passages, slowed the tempo, played with our expectations and highlighted a sadness in the song’s chorus that isn’t wholly apparent on the album version.
But this highlight came too late in the show, perhaps, to hook anyone unfamiliar with the bands catalog. Those already familiar with The Twilight Sad and their music would have reveled in the chance to witness Graham, in the way the prior music generation witnessed Ian Curtis’ localized intensity, his ability to command a two foot space on a stage and thereby an entire room. The orchestration sustaining his performance on stage, eyes closed, lost in the synth and reverb. Songs from the “No One Can Ever Know” album, as great as they are on the album, amplified too large for the space and drowned even Graham’s confident vocals. Poor Stephanie Hodapp of the Young Prisms’ never stood a chance.
Still trying to find that sweet spot, that spot that allowed each component of music to flourish, I nestled into the small crux of the “L” next to the brick column directly in front of the stage and located a semblance of fidelity just as “And She Would Darken the Memory,” a favorite track from Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters, concluded. Even the accent-clouded lyrics of the chorus “And their friendly faces with put on smiles” emerged through the din with a measure of intelligibility. Sigh. Once the Twilight Sad left the stage after their curious closer, “At the Burnside” – a song noted for its notorious “wall of sound” comprised of wailing guitar, piano and percussion – I reported my finding to my party, now nursing their final drinks at the rear of the bar. They shrugged and we wandered out into the snowy Chicago evening. We caught a cab and I spent the entire time questioning what went wrong, my voice too loud for the silent cab. I began the process of turning down the volume on the synth and reverb still echoing in my head. I questioned the choice of venue and the sound engineers but never the band. Not even once. The performance was there and showcased brilliantly in fits and spurts. But in the end, I decided that maybe this venue, this corner dive, was precisely the place that the Twilight Sad could be precisely themselves, baring their damaged souls but still hiding among the reverb and causing everyone else to question, exactly, what it all means.
So my wife and I just had our second daughter this past week. Awesome. Yes. But it also means that any posts I had in the works are going to be a little delayed… also my music reviews for www.spillmagazine.com… and really anything that requires even a moderate amount of focus. So this morning while I take a few hours at a coffee shop to catch up on email, twitter, send out some short story submissions, I’ll make my obligatory 30Hz Recommended post for new music Tuesday. I say obligatory because this past Tuesday brought us some absolutely fantastic albums that deserve your attention.
The Jezabels, Prisoner
Critics call the Sydney quartet’s music everything from alt-rock to disco-pop. The band refers to themselves, with a hint of self-deprecation, as “intensindie.” However classified, Hayley May brings some infectious swagger, a la Pat Benatar, to her frontwoman style (particularly on the mid-tempo burner “Endless Summer” and “Long Highway”), and the band borrows a small slice of the Joy Formidable’s symphonic rock. They’re also not afraid to slow the pace to play, with plenty of confidence, some alt-rock power balladry. It might sound like a mishmash of uninhabitable musical genres and regrettable nostalgia but the whole thing comes together to create the best pure “driving record” of 2012. (Driving Record: an album without a clear pinch, containing varied song-styles with constant forward momentum. As in an album that can repeat on long drives without the immediate need to swap out upon conclusion. Previous “driving record” accolades belong to Sliversun Pickups and the aforementioned Joy Formidable). The band has been a relative to-do in Australia for a couple of years. (Pittsburgh folks need to get a ticket to their show with Imagine Dragons next week at Brillobox.) Here’s the band playing a fantastic version of “Hurt Me” at the Annandale Hotel, Sydney in 2009.
Great Lake Swimmers, New Wild Everywhere
It’s time to jump in with the Great Lake Swimmers. Criminally underappreciated might begin to describe the lack of attention paid to this Canadian (oftentimes) quintet. I’m happy to see some buzz around this new release, but if it’s not on your mp3 player of choice, well, you need to fix that. The Great Lake Swimmers might be the flipside of the Jezabels. They won’t self deprecate and there’s nothing intense about anything they’ve ever done. Compare them favorably to the likes of Will Oldham and Iron & Wine. Earnest folk-rock made for being chill and contemplative. The title track from this new record might be the most raucous I’ve ever seen the Swimmers. It’s hard for me to believe that they’ve been around long enough to have released five albums (5!). Have they ever made a bad track? I’m not sure I can think of one. Ideal listening conditions: sitting outside, beer in hand, basking in cool evening temperatures and a setting sun. Here is “Quiet Your Mind,” a standout track on this album, backed by an ample string section. Just listen and get lost in the beautiful orchestration. You never knew simple, straightforward folk music could have so much depth.
Also new and noteworthy this week:
the first full length LP from Of Monsters and Men, My Head is an Animal
and Lotus Plaza, Spooky Action at a Distance a solo project from Lockett Pundt, guitarist/multi-instrumentalist from Deerhunter.
Reason #278 to buy vinyl: Rescuing misplaced treasures from a vinyl purgatory
For any open-minded, intrepid collector and music enthusiast, Reason #278 might be the best reason of all to support vinyl. The earliest lateral-cut discs (the precursor to vinyl as we know it) had been produced nearly a century before compact discs stomped all over its turf like Godzilla over Tokyo; therefore, it’s no surprise that the breadth and variety of available music for the turntable knows no equal.
Wander any decent second-hand record store and you’ll be treated to unorthodox genres long since forgotten. At some point in our consumer past, sellers/distributors shoehorned all genres into a select few. Rock/Pop. Jazz. Country. Classical. Rap/Hip-Hop. Am I missing any? Shop vinyl and you’ll find genres like Hawaiian. Banjo. Soul. Rockabilly. I am always compelled to linger over these genres even though my knowledge of the artists contained within could be found lacking. I want to pick one at random, just to give it a listen. If nothing else, experiments like these provide great fodder for the bl-g. But the number of potential targets overwhelms and ultimately I move on to more familiar pastures. Next time I’ll come armed with a Google search and a list of obscure artists in obscure genres and do some exploration. After all, $2 per adventure seems pretty damn cheap these days.
I am much more comfortable making decisions at the intersection of the familiar and random. And it turns out that the best place to discover the intersection of familiar and random is at shops that are not just music purveyors. Half-Price Books, for example. While they have vinyl, they are predominantly a seller of other used media. The vinyl that winds up in the wooden crates at Half-Price is generally of the omnipresent variety: Tom Jones, Roger Whitaker, Anne Murray, Kenny Rogers, Barbara Streisand, Huey Lewis, Kenny Loggins, Chicago and so on and so forth. These stores are a dumping ground for entire collections that no longer have value to their owners. Many are inherited. Some are just unwanted, replaced by space-saving digital media. But when people dump collections indiscriminately, collectors are often rewarded for taking the time to dig a little deeper.
Last week I brought my daughter into Half-Price to do a little browsing. On this occasion she’d been the one that had asked to go to the “record store.” And who am I to disagree? I’m so proud of her—the “record store” resides right next door to Toys R Us and she never thinks twice about her decision. I’ve been through the crates at this particular Half-Price enough to know that I’ve pretty much picked out anything that would have interested me. My daughter sits down at my feet and re-sorts the 45s. And by “re-sorts” I mean she finds one with a spacious paper sleeve and crams as many as she can fit into that sleeve. These records are generally in such bad condition (read: unplayable) that I don’t monitor her too closely. If I notice she’s getting a little too aggressive I pick her up and ask for her help flipping through the 33s. This is for her benefit only. If you’ve ever tried to read a book in a toddler’s hands you’ll know the impossibility of browsing records when they’re similarly in control. It’s not an ideal solution but she’s two years old, almost three—there are no ideal solutions for two year olds and vinyl shopping. This particular day I noticed that she’d gone a little too far with the 45 molestation, reaching a crop of unsullied records that deserved a better fate. I bent down to redirect her attention to the previously mauled items or the Disney Princess card game (she is content to merely dump this on the ground) but as I did so I noticed the boxed sets of vinyl stacked up behind the piles of 45s. They were situated in such a way that from my angle I could not have seen them unless I’d been kneeling on her level. There were some mail order classical music collections from anonymous orchestras but the boxes were curious enough and unusual enough that I felt compelled to pull them out and peruse their innards. As I descended into the abyss behind the 45s, beyond the mail-order classical, I found a couple of boxes much more to my liking.
The first was a generic, blue vinyl folder. The Half-Price sticker labeled the set: “$5.00 – Random.” I unsnapped the cover and flipped through the sleeves. The book had been filled with 7” 33rpm singles of various big bands of the 40s and 50s. Almost all were in great condition. Bing Crosby. Louis Prima. Kay Kyser. The history of this folio intrigued me. Someone had taken exquisite care of these records, most produced between 1945 and 1955, only to have them dumped here. The value isn’t the point however. They could be worthless, everyday coaster-fodder, but it wouldn’t matter. There’s a history here that’s beyond monetary measure. Old records smell like history. They have a weight, an importance—even when they came a dime a dozen at the time of their original distribution. I could take these home and one by one, place them on my turntable and discover something old and potentially meaningful that is again made brand new. People that do not buy vinyl just do not understand this. They don’t take much care in browsing a used CD rack for oddities and curios. Anything that is odd is probably not worth having. And if there is some perceived worth in compact discs, the worth is measured in nostalgia or kitsch but not adventure or discovery. Vinyl shopping is a treasure hunt. Used CD shopping is a force of habit.
Great Jazz Artists Pla the Music of Great Composers
My second discovery wasn’t so much an oddity but a welcome and immediately identified necessity. Though the box appeared worn, somewhat torn and tattered around the edges, the picture of the front screamed “BUY ME”—Nat and Cannonball Adderly beneath the title: Great Jazz Artists Play the Music of Great Composers. So I did. I bought that sucker and the “$5.00—Random” folio. Later, I looked up the label that released the set, Murray Hill, and found that they mostly reissued other catalogues. Sure enough, there on the back of the set:
“…these unsual LPs, drawn from the extensive catalogues of Riverside and its affiliated Jazzland label, bring you a fusing of some of the finest and most interesting examples of both elements. Here are many of the best and best-loved melodies of our greatest songwriters, as interpreted by varied lineups of modern jazz talent…”
Track listing for Great Jazz Artists Play the Music of Great Composers
And some further interweb browsing revealed that the set sells for as much as $50. Again, the potential resale value isn’t important. Interesting… but not important. The find, the search, the discovery, the hope of finding something sacred in a slushpile picked through by hundreds before me. Sacred means something different to everyone. For me, it was looking on the back of Great Jazz Artists to find Cole Porter songs played by the likes of Bill Evans, George Shearing, Wes Montgomery, Cannonball Adderly, Sonny Rollins and Johnny Griffin. Thelonius Monk playing Irving Berlin. Charlie Byrd and Billy Taylor doing Gershwin. These names are sacred to me. And after only one listen through Side 1 of Record 1 I knew I’d found something special. The recordings are clear and the vinyl in excellent condition. I can’t help but imagine this set’s prior owner and their connection to the records. Did they consider it a gem or merely part of the overwhelming burden of their old music collection? Judging by the condition of the box (worn and split along one seam) compared to the condition of the vinyl (superficial scratches, no skips)—I believe it must have been treasured just as I treasure it now. And this thought gives me great pleasure, that I’ve again given this music a good home, having rescued it from a vinyl purgatory. I haven’t yet listened to the entire set—there are 12 glorious discs that must be savored and brought back to life, but all in good time. Listening is only part of the joy. Shopping for vinyl—going, browsing, inspecting—forever offers new opportunities to strike gold, but if you’re not taking the time to search those darker corners of the second-hand stores and flea markets you’re going to find a lot of Anne Murray records but nothing particularly as precious or mysterious as “$5.00—Random.”
Why isn’t Fanfarlo a bigger deal? They play a brand indie-pop of reminiscent of early Arcade Fire, Talking Heads with some Beirut-style horns mixed in for good measure. I understand the criticisms leveled at them for being derivative. Sure, we all want something new, something thrilling because it’s never been done before. But at the same time, I’ve got to level with you– it’s all already been done in some form or another. To be overly brief, all art is derivative. Even the first cave paintings were inspired by real life; Death of a Salesman didn’t just spontaneously appear in the mind of Australopithecus. Why then are some critics so offended by similarly sounding music? Fanfarlo is the first modern band I’ve heard that has really nailed the mid-tempo Talking Heads groove. Most bands sound bored or restrained when dealing with that middling pace, but Fanfarlo legitimately understands what made the Heads such a pleasure.
There’s something called the Pleasure Principle. We seek pleasure in order to avoid that which might harm us. It’s in our very nature to feel comfortable with familiar music in the same way we’re going to avoid jumping out of a three-story building, just to see what happens. Fanfarlo won’t be knocking on the pearly Pitchfork gates anytime soon but they’re a tight-sounding quintet that has a lot of fun playing music. So in short: Arcade Fire? Good. Talking Heads? Good. Beirut? Good. Joey Tribiani’s Trifle Logic proves true. Fanfarlo. Good. See below for reference.
I’d love to tell you more about Gardens & Villas live set but quite frankly I missed the entire thing because I had to get my daughter to bed. The my wife is 9-months pregnant and largely incapable of dealing with a highly-energized (nearly three year old) daughter. So it goes. I bought their solid 2011 debut album on vinyl to make peace.
Fronted by the Swedish Simon Balthazar, Fanfarlo started minimal, opening with a personal favorite track and the first song on their latest album Rooms Filled With Light: “Replicate.” Thanks to Youtube user pghmusicreport for uploading video from this show.
The sparse orchestration of the track allows for a cross-section of the sound. Isolated violin. Keyboard. Bass. A couple of songs in, Simon finally began some chatter and mistakenly suggested it was the band’s first trip to Pittsburgh. He was immediately corrected by Cathy (violin, keyboard, vocals) and his drummer Amos who pointed out someone in the front row who had done some drawings of them at that prior show at the Brillobox. Quick wit, from a drummer. I texted my wife to tell her about the drummer with the quick wit. She didn’t believe me.
The band played tight but chatted loosely. Later in the show Cathy again corrected Simon who had incorrectly pronounced the name of the opening act (Vill-ahs rather than the correct Spanish pronunciation Vee-yas). And they had another good laugh at Simon’s expense. Amos later apologized for taking the last small white Fanfarlo T-shirt from the swag booth. Bassist Justin Finch praised some sing-a-longers (specifically the tall guy in the black hoodie) who knew all the words to their songs and then (without pointing fingers) chided those that sang-a-long but didn’t know the words (“It’s actually quite distracting and you should study up before next show.”) All in good fun. I prattle on about their stage prattle because it’s part and parcel with a band that’s up there having fun with their music even though the actual performance goes pretty strictly by the book. There was very little deviation from the recorded versions of the songs. I wouldn’t expect new-ish bands to do much free-styling. Simon, however, seemed to cut loose a little bit on “Harold T. Wilkins” — the standout track from their 2009 debut. Video again courtesy of pghmusicreport.
So maybe they’re not the most original or the most innovative band. They’re comfort food for the ears and an inherently likeable UK-based quintet that spins carefully orchestrated indie-pop . In these days when a single Pitchfork review can mobilize entire legions of potential fans and bloggers in either direction, it’s a shame that Pitchfork review unfairly labeled Rooms Filled With Light a waste of time. I doubt I have the pull to override even a fraction of the negativity but I’m going to do my best. Listen to Fanfarlo. Support the tour. And learn your lyrics.
(originally published by Thematic Literary Magazine)
a short story by James David Patrick (cover photo by andrew and hobbes)
“I’ll hide. You find me,” she said. Eyes veiled by Snow White bangs. Others had readied for the game and gathered around, but “you” had meant me. Her eyes had paused on me.
Courtney’s annual Halloween party. The night I’d ask her to go with me – to go steady perhaps, depending on your choice of juvenile idioms. Until then we’d done nothing more than pass notes during class, folded notebook paper containing checkboxes under the guise of platonic boy/girl friendship. Meet me at the kickball backstop during recess. Box for yes. Box for no. Katie would come too. So would Josh and probably Delmar, the kid with the buggy eyes, because he always went to the kickball backstop just in case a game ever broke out. And sometimes it did. If I’d ever have attempted a rendezvous for two, we’d have been teased about sitting in trees and pushing baby carriages, a tease so worn-over it’d lost its teeth even before the third grade. Still, I just couldn’t handle the drama. I still can’t.
The party had begun to wind down. Cookies had been served. Apples had been bobbed. Costumes unraveled. Many had been discarded altogether. An empty Ewok head flanked the orange punch. Unscripted games had begun to crop up organically here and there. Hide and seek, for example.
She ran off to hide. “One. Two. Five. Ten,” I counted, peeking through parted fingers to be the first to find her. She cut left around the outside of the house, her vinyl cape, a red flutter, frozen in time by the porch floodlight. A frame on a Viewfinder wheel. I accelerated my cadence and followed but found no one but Delmar, who’d stopped to grab rations before arriving at his final hiding spot. I pardoned him and let him continue on. I searched the tree house, behind the tool shed. I peeked inside the kitchen door.
I searched until my mom came to pick me up in that white Buick Riviera with the maroon interior. I begged her to let me stay. I suggested she grab a plastic cup and have some orange punch. Take a seat. Relax. I’ll be back in a just few. I detached the cardboard trailer from my homemade Optimus Prime costume to suggest how serious I’d been about finding Courtney before I left. She replied with her familiar brand of inarguable logic: You’ll see her on Monday. Outwitted, outmatched, I settled on explaining my departure to Courtney’s mom. She’d been a fixture on the front porch throughout the party, staring down the gravel driveway at the arriving cars, the fireflies, one of the town’s two traffic lights, blinking yellow just through a blind of trees.
“Tell Courtney I said goodbye,” I said.
She nodded, arms crossed at her chest. She wasn’t in costume like the rest of us. Not in the spirit. She frowned a little, not saying what was really on her mind. Maybe she’d seen through to my designs on her only daughter. Without a father around, I can see why she’d gone a little rough, a little Gulag over Courtney’s freedoms. In bed no later than 8:30. No TV after dinner. No phone calls after 5pm. We would have made it work had we ever gotten the chance. Even now, Courtney’s mom haunts that memory like Macbeth’s weird sisters.
Twenty years later, having just survived another breakup – divergent futures, existential crises, incompatible opinions on the oeuvre of Huey Lewis and the News – I entered a coffee shop on the South Side where I’d just rented a studio apartment over a tattoo parlor. When I first saw the girl standing, arms crossed, back arched like a cornered tabby, behind the glass counter of croissants and vegan granola bars, I immediately thought of Courtney’s mom at that Halloween party. Silently plotting, gears turning. My momentary pause gave way to hesitation and doubt, then a request for an Americano. The girl nodded, but she hadn’t looked up from the register, even after punching the button. Her hair, finely chopped bangs, espresso brown, black but not, shielded her eyes. Bangs were back in, just as they had been. When I traded three dollars for thirty seven cents, her fingertips brushed my palm. She looked up, a trained smile, thanks for coming, enjoy your day. But no recognition.
She paused, hand hovering just above mine. We studied each other. I’d studied those eyes during math lessons. I had no patience for numbers. It could have been no one else. Two seats to the left, one seat behind. Even now I could have identified her anywhere, anytime. Plaster skin, flushed cheeks and the pointed nose of a rogue softened by the filter of Teen Beat. Her expression remained unchanged. I’d lingered too long without speaking. The upturned corner of her mouth meant what? Embarrassment. Fear?
I interrupted the castrating silence. “Courtney?” I sounded wanting, maybe needy. I wanted to take it back. I wanted to say something clever like “Tag. You’re it,” but Courtney might have found my attachment to a single moment to be overwrought, if not a little childish, like a Best Picture of the 1960s. Another long moment passed. I dropped the change into the tip jar. I wished for nothing more than to hear her voice; I leapt into a series of unspoken prods and provocations. You taught me how to tightroll my jeans. I remember exactly. We were in the cafeteria. You were on my left. Katie on my right. I’m pretty sure that was my first erection when your fingers brushed my leg. Okay, my first except for that sleepover scene in the movie Big, but other than that scene with Elizabeth Perkins, my first one.
Still she said nothing. Someone else had entered the coffee shop. I paid them no attention though I certainly wouldn’t continue almost talking about erections among mixed company.
“I’m sorry,” she said finally. “I need to help this customer.”
Worrisome was the blankness of her eyes. I shifted right, to make way for a balding man in a suit that fit a little snug in thighs. He ordered a large drip coffee and left without leaving a tip. Courtney and I were again alone.
“Of course I remember you,” she said. I exhaled. “I recognized you before you stepped through the door.” She focused on the espresso syrup falling from the machine like motor oil. With the espresso pulled, she topped off the paper cup with hot water from a spigot and placed it on the counter. Instead of a girl that disappeared from my life overnight, swept off to a new town, a new state forever, the one that got away, she played this like we’d just bumped into each other, friends of a friend on Facebook, aware of each other only by a 90-pixel avatar. Mine still the celebrity I most resemble – Neil Patrick Harris. Hers certainly would have been a casual photograph with friends overlooking Machu Picchu because that’s the girl I’d imagined she’d become.
“I wrote to you,” I said.
For the first time her eyes set upon my face rather than shifting from one task to the next. “Mom didn’t like you much. I guess because she thought you were the cutest one.” A confounding mixture of derision and flattery.
“So you never got them?”
She shook her head.
My first impulse was to question why she hadn’t contacted me. I hadn’t left. I’d remained right where she’d left me. How many letters had I written? I couldn’t even count. When Katie had come back with stories about Courtney’s new life or her new school friends, I’d written her off. I decided she’d never liked me, that I’d made it all up. I’d just been there and I’d been replaced by someone else that had been there, wherever there had been.
“I know what you’re thinking,” she said.
“What am I thinking?”
“Consider this.” A draining breath followed. “We were twelve years old when I left. Say you’re my first kiss. How does that change this moment? I’d still have left. At least now there’s no regrettable history. And next you’re going to ask why. Everyone always asks why. And in this instance, that ‘why’ would have hurt a lot more than it does right now. Now, we’re a clean slate. You’re just a guy that looks like someone I used to know and I’m just a girl that looks like someone you fancied.”
She looked down, eyes again hidden by a shell of black hair.
I felt compelled to read a laundry list of personal effects. “I have notes you wrote me in class. A few even have letters dotted with hearts, and not just the I’s. The jean jacket you gave me. Your brother’s old one with the Clash patch on the left shoulder. We won the three-legged race at one of my birthday parties. There’s an 8” x 10” at my parents’ house to prove it.”
“These things,” she said, “they don’t matter anymore. They never really did. Denim and thread and fond memories. That’s all. And not that memories aren’t important, but…” Her voice trailed away into the hum of ambient electricity.
The stress on “these” forced me to pause. Clean slate, she’d said. I glanced at the coffee cup and considered pushing for more information. What were the things that mattered to her? Was she married? Divorced? Kids? Where had she hoped to be by this point in her life? How did she end up here, a dumpy coffee shop 500 miles away from anywhere we’d ever been together? But I said nothing further. The steam from the coffee rising through the vent on the lid brought me back to the moment in front of each of us. I felt the scar on my right cheek. A tic. A pond hockey game with a cousin in Toronto. I still couldn’t skate. I took medication for migraines and anti-depressants, but during the winter months. She wore a charm bracelet without pendants on her left wrist. She looked skinny, not quite unhealthy. Shadows pooled in shallow wells beneath her eyes. Twenty years ago we were brand new. Now? We weren’t strangers as she’d suggested; we were something else. Painful reminders of our own dissolved youth, the twenty years that had vanished, overnight, through the compression of time.
Did I want to know her disappointments? I couldn’t decide. Or did I want to find her exactly as she’d left me. I wanted to finally find Snow White. I understood that she wanted me to be anything but the boy in the Transformer costume. But right then, at that moment, I didn’t have the stomach to meet her half way. So I thanked her for the coffee. She said it had been nice to see me again. We were going through the motions now, reading the script. She said that we should get together sometime, in that way that someone does when they don’t want anyone’s feelings to get hurt if nobody ever gets together. A starter scene from one of my playwrighting workshops on subtext. To punctuate my exit I kicked over a chair. No one was sitting in it.
I stood outside, staring back at the front of the coffee shop. I watched Courtney pick up the chair just as I’d watched her house recede from my view just beyond the railroad tracks. At the time I’d been thinking about what I’d say to her on Monday. I liked your party. Sorry I had to leave. You should come over and play ping pong in my basement. It wasn’t until years later that the Halloween party turned into the missing piece of a more complicated puzzle. A thing that mattered, a trinket at the bottom of my childhood chest of drawers that ultimately amounted to less than the cup of coffee I held in my hand. Now even that memory failed me. It had been the last night I’d ever seen Courtney. Now that I’d found her the night meant nothing. I was just eleven. It was just a party where I got a little sick on some kind of orange punch. Now that I’d found her it was my turn to hide; but would she bother to peek through her fingers to cheat, to find out where I’d gone.