“You’re gonna get us kicked out, George!”
Malachi, the keyboardist for the ultra-indie rock band Red Flagg which was composed of five Boston University students, anxiously scanned the hamburger place where he and his bandmates were eating after just having played a less-than-amazing show. George, the bassist, crumpled hamburger wrappers into balls and shot them into a trash can fifty feet away.
“And scare away customers? Please.” Dan, the drummer, scoffed, which prompted George to chuck a few ketchup packets at him.
Allen, the lead guitarist, said nothing. He didn’t care if George got banned from the joint. In fact, if the entire band got thrown in jail for the night, it wouldn’t make any difference to him. For this particular performance, only five people showed up, and security had to escort two of them out. The past three shows they’d played before this one had also gone poorly; low attendance, heckling, beer and soda bottles used as projectiles, amps, and mics cutting out with disturbing frequency. Every member of Red Flagg had their own theory as to why they were on such a rotten streak.
“Variety is the spice of life.” George piped up. “Our set had three Cars songs. You wanna become a tribute band?”
“Amps are fine. You guys were out of tune for the whole first half.” Dan pointed an accusatory finger at George and Allen, neither of whom refuted the claim.
“I know I hit some wrong notes on ‘Release’”. Malachi lamented. “I’m so stupid. I wrote it myself; how did I manage to do that?”
Allen stayed mum; he took these blows the hardest out of all of them. The rest of the boys played for their own pleasure, or for a few extra Washingtons, but playing and writing music nourished Allen in a way that only a creative can understand. At BU, he was working towards a Music Education degree that would hopefully find him a teaching job that would keep him adequately fed until he could get signed to a label ¬¬¬¬¬– a goal that wasn’t realistic, his girlfriend Maggie, with whom he’d recently had a falling-out that had left him sleepless ever since –¬¬¬ never failed to remind him.
“What’s wrong with you?” Dan nodded at Allen, who was aggressively dunking his fries into a miniature cup of ketchup.
“I’m not mad,” Allen said with a fox’s grin. “I’d just like to know why I always catch you playing out of rhythm during ‘Alone In The Wild’.”
“It’s an original. The audience wouldn’t have noticed.”
”Anyone with ears would have noticed.”
“So tonight was an off night for me.”
“Every night’s an ‘off night’ for you, Dan .”
“Guys…..” Malachi, the peacemaker of the group who had witnessed many a bloodbath between Allen and Dan, spread his arms out in between them. The two boys glared at each other across the table but made a nonverbal agreement not to release the rabid dogs sitting on their tongues. Allen rested his head on the restaurant’s big window behind him, which was covered in December cold. Christmas was coming, but so was New Year’s Eve, which always stuck a toothpick in Allen’s core. At the end of every year, he always thought about what he had – and hadn’t – achieved.
The dawn would soon break into 1980, and Allen would go into the new decade with nothing but a band that consistently screwed up on stage and could never bring in an audience big enough to fill a basement. He thought about some of his favorite musicians whom he couldn’t forgive himself for not being – Graham Parker, Tom Petty, Mark Knopfler – and wondered how long they’d had to wait to become who they were. They were drinking up airwaves all over the globe – and Allen took some solace in realizing that if he kept pushing forward, the same might happen to him someday.
But right now, it seemed as though he was surrounded by a force field that kept him from touching Hallelujah.
“It’s not the end of the world,” Malachi said kindly.
“Of course it isn’t.” Allen spat, and Malachi shrunk back. “It never is”.
“Lighten up, Allen.” Dan wasn’t normally one to stand up for anybody, but he clapped a protective hand on Malachi’s shoulder. “There are bigger things -”
Allen shot him a look. No one could talk to him about “bigger things”. “Bigger things” was his arena and he owned it. “Bigger things” was where his childhood friend Sara had been living for the past two years. He wondered what she’d be doing now, two plane tickets away. It was morning in Tehran, so he figured she’d probably be waking up to the gentle aroma of plum trees outside her window. Or maybe she was already sitting down to breakfast with Maman Bozorg – her maternal grandmother who lived there and whose failing health had caused Sara’s parents to move their family to be closer to her ¬– watching cold butter succumb to hot, puffy bread with caraway freckles.
This was the way he liked to imagine her new normal; completely unworthy of news coverage, devoid of yellow ribbons, prayers for hostages, and riots in the streets. All he had were her letters, which these days seemed to be fewer and farther between, in which she talked about everything from the mundane (“There’s a stray cat in our neighborhood; it dropped a dead bird on our doorstep today”) to the heartwarming (“Sami says hi; he told Dad last night at bedtime that he wants to be a guitarist, just like you”), all signed “SVV” (Sara Van Vliet).
Had he not been paying attention to the news, he would have believed this was the whole story. Thinking about her made him jittery; he needed to write to her again, or at least make a long-distance call to hear her voice, to make sure she was okay, and tell her about everything that was keeping him up at night and have her listen with a non-judgmental ear, as she always – and Maggie usually never – did.
Then, George, who would die if he stopped being the center of attention for more than a minute, took a giant swig of Sprite and began to gargle to the tune of “The Star-Spangled Banner”. All the boys but Allen laughed and clapped in amusement. As he often did during times like these, he withdrew into his own imagination, where he sat out on the patio of the house that he and Maggie – both much older – shared in his native Chicago. Album covers framed on the wall. Music awards on the shelf. Her head on his chest.
A son and daughter playing together in the yard. “The word ‘impossible’ says ‘I’m possible’” was one of many Sara-isms that frequently popped into his head, and whenever he said it to himself, it always brought his hopes a little higher. Maybe there was some truth to it, and these bits of mind dust would someday materialize into something everyone could see. But for now, he was stuck in a leather booth, swirling what was left of his milkshake around in his cup, pitted against a universe that took its sweet time to come together.
That night, he dreamt about Maggie. When he woke up and trudged into his kitchen to fix some coffee and breakfast for himself, he clawed at his memory to remember what she’d been doing in his dream. All he could recall was that she had just sort of hung in the background like an extra in a movie. That was pretty much how she lived in the physical world – quiet, stoic, mostly serious – which made their occasional fights more jarring than they probably should have been.
He thought back to their last one, which happened in her apartment while he was improvising tunes on his guitar and she was nose-deep into her homework.
“Yep,” Maggie muttered, without looking up.
“Yep”. She said again, with the same flat inflection.
“I knocked up a girl in my Music Theory class.”
“Yep,” Maggie mumbled, but a few seconds later, she straightened up. “Wait…..”
Allen laughed with his mouth closed; his little trick had worked. “You don’t have your listening ears on, I see.”
“Yeah, sorry, I’m a little busy.” She said, not rudely.
“Doing what?” He glanced over her shoulder at the messy diagrams and formulas on her paper that he, not being a nursing major, couldn’t understand.
“Improving people’s lives.”
“So am I.”
He then gave her the same spiel he gave everyone who questioned the power of music, about how hearing a guitar solo can transport someone back in time, how a melody can soothe an aching heart, how the right lyrics can remind someone that the world would stop spinning without them.
“Do you get it?” He asked her when he finished.
“Whatever you say,” Maggie muttered.
“Is this about yesterday?” Allen asked, referring to the previous night’s concert. Maggie had wanted to go to the movies, and while he did as well, he couldn’t miss the gig Red Flagg had scheduled for the same night in a rinky-dinky rec hall near where their school’s campus kissed Cambridge. “It’s paid”, he’d told her (the band put out a tip jar and only got a paltry twelve dollars to split amongst themselves); “It’s Friday; we’ll draw a big crowd” (ten people showed up). Still, no amount of justification could erase the scowl from her face; Maggie’s free time was limited, and this hadn’t been the first time he’d put her on the back burner for a gig.
“Not at all,” Maggie replied, in a tone that suggested that her mood had everything to do with yesterday. When Allen subsequently tried to snuggle with her, she wriggled away.
“I told you I’m busy.”
“You’re acting like our nursing school is gonna disappear from the face of the Earth.”
“How much did you make after the show?”
“We did fine.” Allen gritted his teeth.
“Can you support yourself on ‘fine’?”
“We’re having a nice night.” He kept his voice down to a low warning. He marveled internally at how far they’d strayed from where they’d started. They’d met in freshman year, during one of those compulsory beginning-of-the-semester mixers that ninety-nine percent of college students would rather jump out of a window than participate in.
During one of the icebreakers, she had been standing alone in a corner when he walked up to her and found out a few facts about who she was (favorite color: pink, star sign: Libra, home city: Toronto), and over time, those tiny nuggets of small talk gave way to phone conversations and “coincidental” run-ins in the dining hall. After all, they had shared, now they were situated on opposite sides of her bedroom, in their own bubbles.
“We haven’t had ‘a nice night’ for ages.”
“Whose fault is that, Maggie?” He sneered, and when she peered over her paper at him, he almost cracked up.
“Nursing school tends to crap all over your freedom.”
“Well, you made that choice.”
“At least I made a choice.”
Allen gulped. Maggie had indeed made up her mind about how she wanted to spend the remainder of her time on the planet, while Allen was torn between visions of domestic scenes with Maggie and the burn of stage lights. Many times, over the years, he had worried about whether or not they could continue going through life together. He had always suppressed his doubts, but he could feel his them starting to boil inside of him.
“This -” Allen pointed to his guitar and waved his hands around to denote something greater than himself “- keeps me going.”
“Well, what’s gonna keep us going?”
The two sat frozen in an obese pause, and Maggie returned her eyes to her work.
“If you’re gonna be canceling on me this often, you’d better start selling out stadiums.”
“And if you’re gonna be…..” Allen tried to think of a retort that would bite but realized that nothing he could say would make sense. He couldn’t complain about the all-nighters that would end in her falling asleep at her typewriter or those multi-day periods not hearing his phone ring, because unlike his own efforts, Maggie’s were following a clear path.
“I’ll be working the day after I get my diploma.”
“Ambition is a beautiful thing.”
“Only if it’s yours, right?”
Everything had snowballed from there. After trading a few obscenities with Maggie, Allen had stormed out of her apartment, thinking about how the very qualities that had drawn him to her –drive, tenacity, unwavering strength – were the same ones that soured his perception of her now.
The growl of the coffeemaker brought him back to the present morning. Allen poured himself a cup, which he took to the living room along with a bowl of cereal. Then, with legs made of sandbags, he approached the television and turned the knob, looking for something mindless to drown out his feelings.
The first channel he landed on was showing the news, and Allen felt his throat begin to tighten. For the past month, the country held its breath for any updates on the hostages who were trapped inside the American embassy in Iran, and this morning marked the crisis’ fortieth day.
Allen couldn’t help but think about the people inside, and what waited for them back home: children lying awake in bed, engagement rings rusting in drawers, gifts under Christmas trees – and was thankful that Sara wasn’t in there. Dan was right; there were bigger things. The television then showed a car besieged by protestors in the middle of an already narrow road. In spite of himself, he smiled at the image, for it made him think of Sara, who always used to tell him horror stories about Tehran traffic long before revolutionary waves had shocked Iran.
“Picture snowstorm traffic, rush hour, and a presidential funeral motorcade having a threesome.” She told him one afternoon, right around the time her family was getting ready to move, as they sat in the grass of their local playground that had practically raised them when they were little. “That’s what the traffic is like over there. On a good day.”
“Eh, still sounds better than Boston.” Allen used his hands to illustrate tightness. “You gotta see it, especially during move-in weekend. Every year, a moving truck gets stuck on Storrow Drive and everything grinds to a halt.”
“And to think some people drive from here to Boston.”
“Would you do that to visit me?”
“Not a chance in Hell.”
“What if Harrison Ford was there?”
“Hmm…..” Sara, a huge Star Wars fan, tapped her chin exaggeratedly. “Then I’d have to reconsider.”
“Could you imagine being married to Harrison Ford, though?” Allen suddenly blurted out after a few seconds.
“I certainly could.”
“No, but, like…..being with someone who is just miles ahead of you in every way –
“I know what you mean,” Sara said, and Allen could see from her expression that she sincerely did. She could always empathize with him, a department in which Maggie sometimes lacked.
“Could you see me being married to someone like that?”
“For a bit, yeah, but then I could see you getting resentful and eventually eating a bullet.”
Allen cocked his head back and forth, not denying what she’d said.
“Did Maggie get you thinking about this?”
Allen didn’t answer; there was no point in lying to her. He and Sara had been friends long enough that they couldn’t hide anything from one another.
“You’re gonna wind up dead in the hospital one day.” He recalled Maggie lecturing him one Sunday morning, feeding him ice chips with a spoon as he lay half-alive in bed after a post-concert celebration with the boys.
“Maybe it’ll be your hospital”. Allen croaked, trying to lighten the mood.
“Yeah, you know: kids, siblings, spouses -“ She leaned in, and poked his nose affectionately. “But before we get there, I need you to have both feet on the ground.”
“No, we don’t.” Maggie’s tone was soft, but her face was stern. “You know, this kind of stuff was okay when we were eighteen, but now -”
“I don’t know,” Maggie replied, caught off guard by his interruption.
“So he could ‘Listen to Her Heart’.”
Maggie let out a long groan, and Allen giggled.
“You gotta admit, that was funny.”
“My patients tell funnier jokes.” Suddenly, she gasped, and lightly tapped his arm. “Oh! That reminds me; I forgot to tell you….. I had to draw a little boy’s blood during my last clinical, and naturally, he was scared to death. So I told him, ‘Why did the nurse need a crayon? To draw some blood.’.He laughed all the way through the procedure.”
“Are you dead-set on pediatrics?”
“Oh, yeah. Working with kids just makes me feel something I can’t explain.” As Maggie often did when she spoke of something she was passionate about, she became electric. “I love talking to them, too. I had a little girl once tell me that she wanted to be a butterfly princess when she grew up. It’s just funny; the things they want are so fantastical, but you have to bite your tongue.”
“Yeah.” Allen sighed, feeling his already queasy stomach tie itself into a knot. Maggie slipped under the covers and curled up next to him.
“Do you know what you want?”
Allen glued his eyes to the ceiling. God, how he hated this question, especially when it came from her. He had known what he wanted since he was five years old, sitting in his living room watching The Beatles play on The Ed Sullivan Show for the first time. He was trying his hardest to grab his dream by the jugular as much as she was trying to grab hers – and she knew it.
She was, after all, partially responsible for his dedication to his career; some of her drive had rubbed off on him and given him a kick in the rear to fulfill his potential. Sure, her hyperfocus irritated him sometimes, but no one else in his life – not even Sara, or his bandmates – inspired him as she did.”
“I do. I just don’t think it wants me.”
“Well, you can show it who’s boss.” She stroked his forehead. “Because you’re gonna shake the world as hard as you can.”
“What if this is as hard as I can shake it?” He whispered, and Maggie lifted his chin.
“It’s not.” She said and gave him a peck on the lips. When she lay her head next to his, Allen stopped to take her in – the calm waves in her hair, the cursive ‘M’ of her lip line, the cute dimple in her chin – and asked himself what he had done to deserve this woman who, though she didn’t always convey it well, wanted nothing but the best for him and cared for him in a way that no other woman could. He knew that if he thought about how much she meant to him, he would surely start crying.
But he was in no condition to dive into that pool, so he shut his mouth and dozed off. Later, when he felt better, they did what they had done a thousand times before, what human bodies never forgot how to do.
“I only know her from your stories, and she seems nice enough,” Sara said, taking Allen out of his brief reverie. “But she’s not Harrison Ford, so there’s no need to worry.”
Allen beamed and scooted closer to her. There was never any need for him to worry when he was with Sara; no obsessive talk about the future, no reprimands for not growing in time with her, just pure peace and assurance that who he was right then and there was okay. Then, noticing that she was holding in a laugh, he asked her, “What’s so funny?”.
“I’m just remembering that time in first grade – well, when I was in first grade, you were in third – when you ripped your jeans on that jungle gym.” She pointed to the metal play structure, which was teeming with little children.
“Oh, jeez.” Allen snorted. “I forgot about that.”
“That was during Maman Bozorg’s first visit to the States. I’ll never forget you walking around my house in your underwear as she stitched up your pants. And then, afterward, we had a fight because you were hogging my Etch-A-Sketch.”
“Is there much the doctors can do?” Allen whispered.
“No. Especially not there.”
Sara stared off into space, and Allen studied her face, which the autumn wind had turned pink. Obviously, he didn’t care for her in the same way that he cared for Maggie, but he dared say that while the love he had for his girlfriend had a different flavor than what he felt for Sara, the absence of one woman would leave just as big a crater in him as the other would.
Their friendship predated Maggie, had carved its initials in playground equipment and school books, had gotten them through various heartbreaks and had withstood hundreds of petty arguments. Now, it would have to withstand an ocean. She wouldn’t be leaving for two weeks, but he was already beginning to miss her.
“What fans? The only fan you have is on your ceiling.” When the joke landed like an anvil, Allen started clapping, and Sara hid her head in her hands.
“Let’s have a round of applause for Joan Rivers.”
“Wow.” Sara covered her eyes with her left hand. “That had so much potential, but it just veered into a ditch.”
“It’s true, though.”
“No, it’s not.”
“Well, maybe you think so, but I just feel like my turn will never come.”
“I hope it does, but maybe it won’t.” She said matter-of-factly, and Allen had to admit that acknowledging that truth secretly felt good. When he wanted so much from himself, it was a relief to be with someone who asked for nothing.
Allen was brought back to reality again when an orange juice commercial soon took the place of the news. Feeling a sudden burst of creativity, he turned off the TV and made a beeline for his guitar. He picked at the strings for about ten minutes, trying to put a tune to what wanted to force itself out, but came up empty-handed. Frustrated, he sat at the window for a bit, watching bustling Boston and the people that kept it alive each day, repeatedly telling himself that the song – like everything else he prayed for – would come when it was ready.
Later that week, Allen found himself casting a shadow over Maggie’s door – not to beg for forgiveness, but to attend a Christmas party she was hosting and had invited him to before their ties had become frayed. Some of his bandmates would be there; “ ‘Cause your friends are my friends,” she had sung, in a rare fit of playfulness, on the phone while giving him his verbal invitation.
“The more we get together, the happier we’ll be.” He had finished the verse without missing a beat. The memory warmed him up. Still, Allen wondered how he’d be received tonight – post-battle, with growth hormones injected into his image; hair slicked back, collared shirt, cologne dabbed onto his neck. If she wanted someone who had “both feet on the ground”, he figured that he should at least look the part. He could feel himself twitching as he waited to be let in. Eventually, he was, by Anya, one of Maggie’s friends that he had talked to only a handful of times. He had nothing against her, but his heart dropped slightly when he saw she wasn’t Maggie.
“Hi.” He painted over his disappointment with a polite nod. “Is Maggie here?”
“No.” Anya shook her head. “She left and just let us use her place for the night.”
“Of course she’s here.” She motioned for him to step inside and led him into the kitchen, which looked just as small and messy as he remembered. He thought of all the sweet nothings those walls had eavesdropped on, the flickers of affection they had witnessed. Next to the sink stood Maggie, dressed in a snowman sweater, pouring herself a glass of eggnog.
“Bye, Allen,” Anya said in an overly sugary tone. When she left, Allen eyed Maggie for about five minutes, and then, like a child nervously approaching a new school building for the first time, slowly stepped towards her.
“Hey.” That was as far as his greeting went. To his surprise, she embraced him.
“Hey, yourself.” She said into his shirt. They remained that way for several seconds, hoping to resurrect something that would feel like home, but got nothing. Just then, they were approached by George, who had a hand mirror duct-taped to his shirt.
“Yo, Allen.” George pointed to his chest. “Check out my ugly sweater.”
Allen peered into the mirror. It took a couple of seconds for him to understand, but when he did, he couldn’t help chuckling.
“That’s pretty good, George.”
“How about you, Maggie?” George turned himself towards her. “Take a look.”
“Okay, no more.” The amusement drained from Allen’s face, and his voice became firm. Maggie stared at the mirror, befuddled.
“Did you take that out of my bathroom?”
“Here, let me help you.” Allen peeled off the tape from George’s body and handed the mirror back to its rightful owner. “Why don’t you go say ‘hi’ to those guys over there, George? I’m sure they’d love to meet you”.
He pointed to a small garden of unfamiliar young men next to Maggie’s Christmas tree, and George, giggling like a little girl, obliged. As soon as he was out of earshot, Maggie whispered into Allen’s ear.
“Two Cape Codders.” She tipped her head towards him. “I’m gonna have to hide the cranberry juice.”
“I’m so sorry.” Allen rolled his eyes. “He’s not much better when he’s sober.”
Maggie swatted the apology away with her hand. “I saw crazier stuff happen at the vigil last Tuesday. One guy – drunk or high as hell, I don’t know – took his shirt off in forty-degree weather and started waving it around in front of everyone, yelling all kinds of things about Carter. Eventually, the cops had to take him away.”
Allen perked up. About a week prior, he had heard that a group of students planned to hold a candlelight vigil for the American hostages on Marsh Plaza.
“You were there?” He was genuinely surprised. In the time they’d been together, Maggie had never shown the slightest interest in politics.
“Yeah, I mean…..” She took a ladylike sip of eggnog and stared him down. “…..Sometimes it’s nice to think about something other than yourself”.
“How would you know?” Allen shot back, completely zen. Maggie didn’t respond; instead, she looked at her feet and refused to engage. Part of Allen wanted to shove his words back into his mouth, and the other part of him wanted a front-row seat to her unraveling. But before he could decide how he really felt, a swift hand slapped him on the back.
“Allen!” He heard a voice shout. He whipped around to discover it was Dan, who had just joined the party and reeked of vodka.
“So,” He put an arm around both of them, stumbling a bit as he did so. “Did we kiss and make up?”
“You pre-gamed, didn’t you?” Allen whispered into his ear.
“Me? No.” He winked at Allen and Maggie and gestured toward Joel and Malachi, who were chatting up women in the living room. “Joel’s over there, playing wingman for Malachi. I don’t think they know you’re here. Come on.”
“I don’t need a wingman.” He hissed back, looking at Maggie.
“Come on, Allen -“
“You should go say ‘hi’. He heard Maggie say, to his amazement. He looked more composed than he’d ever seen her, a block tower shaking but still determined to stand.
“I need to, um, put more food out anyway.”
“Thanks, Maggie,” Dan said. “You’re a great host.”
“I try.” She answered, turning away to bring out a bag of pretzels from the cupboard.
Dan took Allen’s arm and led him towards Joel and Malachi. Allen went along but stole one last peek at Maggie. He felt gravity beckoning him to go near her again, get down on his knees and wax poetic about clean slates, but instead, he followed his friend, battling contrition that hurt like a mortal wound.
The party died down around eleven-thirty, and soon all the guests were out the door. After helping make transportation arrangements for a few of them who needed it (including George, who by that point could barely stand up), Allen and Maggie sat down on either end of the couch, both grasping the air for something to say.
“I think they all had fun.” Maggie turned to face him. “Especially George. That was some….. interesting behavior.”
Allen’s lips curled wryly. “B-e-h-a-v-i-o-r.”
“B-e-h-a-v-i-o-u-r.” Maggie stretched out the “u” like taffy. They had always busted each other’s balls over his American and her Canadian way of spelling things, but every time they did, Allen always ended with the same joke.
“But I can’t spell ‘favourite’ without ‘u’.” He touched her chin – the way they did to each other in happier times – without thinking. She usually liked that, but this time she solemnly removed his hand. The two sat mute, listening to the dull whine of sirens and car horns outside. Eventually, she got up to turn the TV on. Saturday Night Live was the only watchable show that was on at this hour, and there was nothing left for them to do, but let Gilda Radner do the laughing for both of them.
When the show ended, he looked over and saw Maggie sprawled out on the other side, her profile traced neatly by her Christmas tree’s rainbow lights. When his emotional hourglass had finally run out, Allen slipped gracefully out of the apartment, without looking back. He was tired out of his mind, yet found his way to the bus stop without sparing an ounce of brainpower.
That was muscle memory at work again; melodies in fingertips, oaths sworn in fields, bedroom moves from time immemorial. Even the bus that took Allen home seemed to run on autopilot somehow, stopping and starting in all the right places, dumping out lonely souls into their own broken records of living.