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Heavy Metal Valentine: How it Maybe Was

"Because otherwise," they said, "we'll have to sleep in the van." They looked embarrassed. They were nice, middle-class boys, twenty-something, pleasant and well-spoken, and here they were having to beg for temporary shelter. It couldn't have been easy.

"Because we don't have anyone else to ask," they said, "and we don't have any money."

It was cold outside. So Jen and I said okay. But we said it reluctantly. Not so much (at least on my part) because we thought we might get robbed or raped or kept awake all night by their rock-band-style carousing, but because their asking it of us seemed to require a shift in our understanding of everything that had come before the asking. Had they been so friendly for the last few hours because they'd liked us, thought us pretty, smart, funny, cool enough to hang out with the band; or had they been angling all along, as skillfully as they knew how, toward this moment, this thing that they could get from us?

You could also wonder about it this way: had they liked us first and then decided to ask us; did they pick us to ask because they thought of us as new friends, and helping each other out was something that friends did? Or had they singled us out so early in the night as easy pickings? Had they thought us not as pretty as the other girls in the bar, or seen something pathetic and needy in us?

It wasn't so much, really, what they wanted from us: just some room to spread out a little for the night, to sleep on a carpeted floor in a climate-controlled room instead of all crushed together in the back of a van in the parking lot of a bar on a 20-degree February night. Didn't just about anyone deserve that much? All the same, the fact that they asked it of us made everything different and not as good as it had been. After that, we couldn't be sure what appealed to them more, us, or our living room floor. We didn't know whether—or to what extent—we were being used. And they knew we felt that way—we could see that in the awkwardness with which they asked us and the sorrowful, sheepishly apologetic looks they gave us when we said okay—but they didn't know what to tell us. I don't mean that they were stupid; they weren't. One of them even had a law degree (Although, arguably, anyone who went to the trouble to earn a law degree and then decided to, instead of practicing law, cram himself in a van with four other guys and drive all over the country being the singer for a heavy metal band is in certain key respects, pretty fucking stupid). But they were hungry and cold and tired and by then pretty drunk. Probably it just came down to that. They'd simply reached the point in the night where their basic animal needs for sleep and food started overriding everything else, and they'd started thinking more and more about sleep and how best to get it, and they'd looked right in front of them and there we were, two girls with a house right up the street. So they asked.

We were so stupid back then, Jen and me and the rest of us. We had no idea of the power we could have wielded. We gave so much of it away.

Earlier, they'd been sad, and I'd liked them for it because I was sad too. I wore all black that day, tight black jeans and a black t-shirt. It was Valentines Day and I was bitter. That morning, after the class we were taking together, my ex-boyfriend Craig had offered me a ride home, and—maybe because I had this stupid idea that if Craig spent 10 minutes alone with me in the (relatively) close quarters of the cavernous beige interior of his old Ford Bronco, he'd have a chance to rediscover whatever it was about me that had made him want me back before he'd suddenly decided that he didn't want me anymore—I said ok.

But instead of wanting me back, Craig asked if I'd mind if we stopped off at our friend Doug's store on the way, and I said sure, and when we got there, there was this girl working, an almost inhumanly beautiful girl, maybe 19 or 20 years old (I was 24; Craig was 28) with long, water-smooth dark hair and strikingly clear, gray eyes, and she was Craig's new girlfriend. "Hey, Hon," he said to her, "this is Leslie from my graduate program. Leslie, this is Caroline, my new girlfriend."

He said it with an easy smile, as if it was good news all around that I was getting to meet her. Off in the corner, Doug, who was older and had an air about him of having seen it all and come away from it all with a general outlook of benign tolerance, smiled too—smiled at all of us, like wasn't it just great that here the four of us were in his store, getting to catch a nice little breather in the middle of a hectic day. And I wondered if Doug knew about me and Craig, the way I now knew some of our other friends did, knew that after chasing me for months, Craig had turned around and dumped me hard and fast the minute Caroline came into the picture. (If you could see her, you'd understand, he'd told me the night we had "the talk" about it. She's just so… He couldn't even finish the sentence. He was a writer, a published creative writer, and the lead singer for a band; words were what he was good at, but she left him wordless. And now that I was seeing her, I did understand. I just couldn't believe she wanted to go out with me, he'd said, his face a mask of reverent wonderment.)

What it seemed like that afternoon in Doug's store was that he was so proud of her, wanted to show her off to me, wanted me to admire him for having a girlfriend like that; what I couldn't tell was, did he even remember that up until a month ago I'd been his girlfriend? Had I been so easy to forget? Or, had I seemed to take it so well when he dumped me that it didn't occur to him that I'd be anything but delighted to finally get to meet the girl who'd worked out better for him than I had? Or was it just the opposite: had I been mooning after him so transparently and pathetically that he'd realized the only way he was going to shake me off was by letting me see for myself how much younger and prettier she was?

I wanted to think it was that he thought I didn't care. But it also didn't really matter what he thought. What mattered was what I thought, what I wanted: I wanted Craig, and now I knew, much more surely than ever, that I couldn't have him.

So I went to work that afternoon in a bitter-black mood. I was the happy-hour bartender at Rockafellas, a bar that featured live music most nights of the week, and that meant I was on duty while the bands were setting up and doing their sound checks. Happy hour at Rockafellas was slow, and since most of my income came from tips, being the happy hour bartender wasn't very financially rewarding, but it did have its perks: I got to hang out with lots of interesting band guys from all over the country, and since I was off work by 9, there was plenty of time to see whatever band was playing.

That night in 1991, there was, God knows why (although probably it was because the booking guy was so not a romantic), a Valentine's night heavy-metal double-header, with a band from Myrtle Beach headlining and a band from Detroit opening. I don't remember the name of the band from Myrtle Beach, but the band from Detroit was called The Colors. They rolled in pretty early into my shift, tumbled out of their van, lugged their amps and instruments into the building, dumped them all off near the stage, then sat at the bar and started drinking draft beer. There wasn't any point in them doing anything else because the only thing to do before the gig was sound check, and the headliners, who hadn't even arrived, always sound checked first. Draft was cheap—30 cents a cup. They weren't tipping. I didn't hold it against them, because I could tell they weren't exactly flush. But my manager, Pete, said it was shitty of them to drink so much without tipping, and when they weren't looking, he scooped up a bunch of change they'd left on the bar and dropped it into my tip jar.

The Colors didn't look like heavy metal guys, even though back then lots of guys who weren't in heavy metal bands dressed like they were: long hair and torn jeans, cheap flannel shirts and beat-up Chuck Taylors. The Colors were clean-cut. Two of them had short hair, and all of them had both the brooding sensitive affect and the nice-wholesome-middle-class-guy-underneath-it-all look that signified arty college rock band (derivative of REM and/or Sonic Youth). Heavy metal guys can look kind of rough; you can see how all the partying and the lack of time spent in daylight is getting to them, but there's still a kind of robustness to them, a tough, energetic male physicality. Indie rock guys tend to look like they either don't eat enough or they eat too much. The Colors were of the former variety—not unnaturally skinny—just kind of undernourished.

They weren't especially good-looking—nothing like Craig, the singer for a local Grateful Dead tribute band, who, when he stood on a stage with his guitar with his tall, lanky frame, long, wavy hair and Native-American cheekbones, could make you feel that yearning rock 'n roll groupie ache even when you knew what a shit he was. So, The Colors weren't rock-sex-god hot, but they weren't bad looking either, not like some of the indie rock guys who made you think, thank God for them that they have some talent and a guitar, because otherwise they'd never get laid. They fell into the category of, well, you wouldn't get excited about it if they hit on you after the show the way Jen got excited about some of the band guys (nearly all of them tall, staggeringly handsome, brooding-cowboyesque alt-country types) who hit on her, but attractive enough that you'd probably go out with one of them if he asked.

So they drank their draft, and I chatted with them a little bit, and while all this was going on, I was playing a mix tape on the stereo. After a little while, a Tom Waits song came on, and their guitarist said, "Oh, oh, Tom Waits, God, you don't have any more Tom Waits, do you?"

I did—I had a whole mix tape of nothing but my favorite Tom Waits songs out in my car. So I went out and got it and put it on. And then they got really quiet, just sat there and listened for a while, looking almost stunned, and forgetting to drink their beer. Tom Waits rasped and crooned, about blind love and how you should hang down your head, and about how he didn't want to fall in love but knew he was going to anyway—on and on—so beautiful and sad, and none of us were talking, and I started to feel sort of stressed about that, because it was my job as the bartender to keep the whole conviviality thing going, and what I'd done instead by putting the Tom Waits tape in was take everything from friendly-chatty and draft-beer buzzy to gloomy-broody silence in about two seconds, and that probably wasn't a good way to keep a bar in business.

And they all pretend they're orphans, Tom Waits sang, and then he sang about Brooklyn girls on the downtown train, and none of us were Brooklyn girls or knew what it was like to be a Brooklyn girl, but listening to Tom Waits, we felt as if we did. And it's memories that I'm stealing, he sang, but you're innocent when you dream. After a while, sorrow became almost a palpable weight in the air around us, and I could see that I had fucked things up, because it was happy hour, and I was supposed to be in charge of making sure everyone had fun at happy hour. But then, you know, screw it, none of us were happy, so why shouldn't we listen to Tom Waits?

And the guitarist said, "It's just so hard, you know, I mean, it's Valentine's Day, and my girlfriend's so far away and I can't even talk to her." I thought he was probably going to cry, but he didn't, not quite. His voice was thick with it, though.

They were just so glad, they said, that I had the Tom Waits tape for them to listen to. The only one of them who wasn't completely immobilized by it was their sound guy, a younger cousin of the bassist, maybe 18 or 19, who was cuter than the rest of them, and, although nice and genuinely friendly, carried himself with the kind of swagger that said he knew the world generally found him appealing. He was the kind of kid who would have been popular in high school, and I guess that most guys who were truly popular in high school don't, on the whole, have a deep affinity for Tom Waits. Besides which, the kid was clearly having such a good time, getting to go to bars like Rockafellas every day and drink beer even though he was underage and getting to meet the bar's sound guy, so they could mess around with the sound equipment, which was what he and our sound guy, Gary, were doing at that moment, in a big-gestures, big-grins, animated kind of way.

But as for the rest of them, I could see why Tom Waits would have some appeal. I could see how it was hard for them—not so much because they were away from their girlfriends as much as why. It wasn't like they had to go away on urgent business, or even because legions of screaming fans were clamoring to see them play. They were away on a tour of dive-y bars like Rockafellas, where most of the people had never heard of them, were there to see the other band or had nothing better to do. They had given up being with their girlfriends on Valentines Day to be the opening act for a big-hair band from Myrtle Beach at a bar in Columbia, South Carolina. You could see how that would make them feel about what it had all come to.

Probably they had dreams that better things would come of it all, that if they put in the time playing for small, listless crowds in backwater college towns, they'd eventually start to get better-known, land a major-label recording contract, move up in the world, get to tour in a bus instead of a beat-up van, have room to bring the girlfriends with them. But they must have also known that just wanting a certain kind of future wasn't always enough, that even wanting it bad enough to drive all over the country half-starved, leaving girlfriends and jobs as lawyers behind to climb up on a stage every night, tired and unwashed, to look out at the little clusters of people standing there, bored, patently not giving a shit one way or another whether you played or not, and to still summon up the will to perform with the kind of energy and charisma that would give the audience the illusion that you were feeding off their love for your music—that even all of that might not be enough.

So I liked them, because they were losers, too. Not dumped by their girlfriends like I'd been dumped by Craig, but still, you could tell they were feeling that they'd fucked things up or been fucked over, same as me. We were all stuck in the same dark and seedy bar and in the same miasma of defeatedness. And we were making the best of it by listening to Tom Waits. And somehow there was a kind of weird, poignant but sustaining beauty in all that. Almost no one else can romanticize sorrow like Tom Waits can; and in general and on principle I'm suspicious of that kind of talent, which seems to me to encourage or at least enable us to wallow in failure instead of trying to move past it. But when you're all stalled out in self-pitying sorrow to the point of not having the will to see beyond, there is at least some consolation in knowing that there's beauty in it.

When I got off work, I went home and told Jen we had to go see them play, not because I thought they were going to be great, but because I thought she would probably like them too and because, after Tom Waits and all the rest of it, I thought it would be rude of me not to come back. Jen had nothing better to do, so she put on her all-black too and we went.

I don't remember a thing about their set. It wasn't memorably good, but it wasn't memorably awful either. It just wasn't, at least not to someone like me who saw bands three or four nights a week, memorable at all.

Afterwards, all of us agreeing we didn't want to see the hair band from Myrtle Beach, Jen and I took them down the street to Group Therapy, an even divier bar. We stayed there a couple hours, and again I don't remember much of what we talked about, but I do remember that it was comfortable hanging out with them, that they seemed like the kind of guys who, if they lived here, would probably be our friends. I remember being surprised that I was having a pretty good time hanging out with Jen and The Colors in Group, that it was a positive enough experience to counterbalance the otherwise pervasive misery of having been dumped, and that made me cautiously hopeful and happy. I felt grateful to The Colors, thankful that they'd come along just when they had, on this, the very day when Craig had decided to introduce me to his new girlfriend.

It got late, and The Colors had to get up and drive to somewhere in North Carolina in the morning, and Jen had to get up and go be a manager in a department store, and I had to get up in time to get the mail as soon as it came so I could see if I'd gotten into any PhD programs. So we left Group and walked back to Rockafellas, and Jen and I figured we were about to say goodnight and goodbye to The Colors. That was when they asked us if they could come and stay with us. We were standing right by their van, and we looked at it and could see that, as an alternative to our living room floor, it was pretty sucky. And we'd both been brought up Christian, me and Jen, or at least I had (she'd fallen in with the Southern Baptists in high school) and it seemed like it would be unchristian to make them sleep in the van in the cold. So we weighed our feelings of being exploited if we said yes against our feelings of being total shitheads if we said no. We said okay. And they got in the van and followed us up the hill to our house.

Jen and I shared our house with our friend Deborah, who, despite being younger than us, had a real job and a fiancé. Deborah wasn't very happy when she got woken up by Jen and me and a band at 2:30 in the morning, and she was even less happy when she found out the band was going to be staying the night. You could see her point. She had responsibilities and she needed her sleep. And we didn't know them, not really.

Deb slammed her bedroom door shut, and Jen and The Colors and I all looked at each other and shrugged, what are you gonna do? Then Jen decided we should feed them. She got out a bunch of packages of Ramen and boiled some water on the stove, and we all stood around in the kitchen. When it was done and Jen passed out the bowls of Ramen, the sound guy set his on the floor and started scooping it up and shoving it in his mouth with his hands. My dog Nicholas saw the bowl on the floor as a rare and not-to-be-missed opportunity and trotted over and started slurping up the Ramen too. The sound guy was either too happy or too hungry to care. He and Nicholas shared the Ramen until it was gone.

Afterwards, we all went to sleep, me in my room, Jen in hers, The Colors on the living room floor. In the morning we woke up and they hadn't raped us or robbed us. They could have, though. Deb was right about that. She had a lot to say about it after they left, and I really don't blame her, because I'd have felt the same way if she and Jen had shown up in the middle of the night with five drunken strangers.

Before they left, though, it was awkward. Thanks, they said, kind of stiffly, and, no problem, we said. "So maybe we'll see you around," they said. "Um, yeah," we said. In the morning, in the clear winter sunlight and with the knowledge that I really wasn't going to get Craig back now starting to take hold in my mind, the singer seemed cuter than I'd realized the night before, his beaky-nosed face appealingly sensitive, framed by all those shaggy brown curls. I had this feeling that maybe I'd let an opportunity of some kind pass through my hands. Maybe he looked so appealing because he was about to be gone.

And what did it mean, that stiffness in their demeanor as they walked out of our door? It could have meant they saw no need to be really nice to us anymore now that they'd gotten what they wanted from us, or that they liked us enough to have felt bad about needing to ask us the kind of semi-degrading favor, or that they were hung over and too tired to act as friendly as they felt, or that they somehow felt snubbed or rejected by us because we hadn't slept with them or stayed up all night talking, or that they realized in the morning light that we were even prettier than they'd realized. Maybe they were just tired of South Carolina and wanted to be on the road. Anyway, they left, and Jen went to work and I went to my guitar lesson and when I got back and got the mail, I hadn't gotten into or gotten rejected from any graduate schools. And we never saw, heard from, or heard anything about The Colors again.

What I think about now when I remember that night, though, is how sad for us I feel—for Jen and me and the rest of us. We spent so much time trying to interpret everything that happened to us and figure out what it meant. And we were so defeated by all that wondering. Why couldn't we just have taken things as they were? Why couldn't we have believed that we got to decide who we were? Why couldn't it just have been as it probably really was: that the guys in The Colors liked us and that's why they were both sorry to have to ask us for shelter and glad that it was us who provided it? That yeah, Craig dumped me, but so what? Who needed a shithead egomaniac boyfriend like him anyway?

We could have asked for and gotten so much more—from boys—from everything. We just didn't know it.

And if we were as self-defeating as it seems to me now that we were, then what I have to wonder is to what extent it all comes back to Tom Waits. To the fact that narratives of loss and heartache are just a lot more interesting and seem a lot more profound and meaningful than narratives of easy success. On some level it feels more meaningful or more exciting or more something to get fucked over. The losers are always the good guys, right? Craig's the winner in this story: he dumped me and got an even prettier girlfriend. But that also makes him the asshole of the story. And it makes him seem shallow too. We were all shallow, really, at 24 or thereabouts. But we didn't want to be, or at least we didn't want to be seen as being shallow. And being a loser, being able to cast yourself as belonging in a Tom Waits song, is a way to visibly signify that you're not shallow, because you're suffering, and suffering is never shallow, especially not when it's so beautifully, hauntingly sad.

And maybe that's how it felt to The Colors too. Or maybe there's a more hopeful way to look at it: that The Colors got something positive out of their at-the-time-pretty-fucking-depressing life on the road, that they were able to come away from it all with an idea of themselves as people who really had known what they wanted and had flung themselves at it as hard as they could, and so, even though it hadn't worked out, they knew that they'd had the courage and the fortitude to try.

But here's how it seems to me now:

They put out a record, The Colors. They had copies of it with them on their tour, and they talked Jen and me into each buying a copy. It was five dollars. I've never played it. I pulled their record out the other night, though, and as I was going through all my old LPs to find it, I came across so much great stuff: Husker Du, Alex Chilton, Miracle Legion, American Music Club, Billy Bragg. Why would I want to listen to The Colors?

Here's why:

Because they put so much into it all: put the law career on hold, left the girlfriends behind, crammed themselves into a van driving all over the country, making enough money, if they were lucky, for draft beer and a meal a day, sleeping on the floor of a stranger's house. All that they did, and they weren't bad at what they did, but they weren't good enough either. What I remember them for is not their music but their begging to sleep on our floor. And that one of them sat on the floor and ate Ramen noodles with his hands. And that their Tom-Waits-funk of Valentines Day melancholia meshed with my own.

So, I remember them for the way they fell into my story, not for the stories they were trying to tell with their music. I wouldn't want to play the part in someone else's story that The Colors play in mine, but if Craig remembers me at all now, I probably do—you know: the poignant little footnote in his story.

Tom Waits, though, would tell it differently, would say it's my side of the story that really matters, not Craig's, that I'm a footnote in The Colors' story, not the other way around.

So I guess in the end it's all just a matter of perspective. Which is something that Jen and I—with all our wondering about how it really was—somehow knew all along.