“I, only I, am the spectator in the orchestra.”
He moved over the bedcovers in his graceful, stalking way, pawing at the blankets as he surveyed the soft, lumpy texture in search of the perfect place to lie. Seamus. He was maybe four or five, a long hair, black all over with some puffy white fur around his face that spread down to form a patch over his throat. He was a nice cat, despite his imperfections, because of them. Running a hand over his head and down along the curve where neck meets back, he purred with lazy satisfaction, arching his back and tilting his head, his little legs taut and trembling, before settling into his selected spot.
A dog can only belong to one person, but Seamus was ours. He made me feel good about things like few things did. Laying there listening to his low, mantric purring, his half-open eyes suggesting a contented tiredness, limbs huddled up under his furry round shell of a body, it felt like it would be all right, even with all the shit, some of the time. Like there was a little less hate, conflict and uncertainty in the world. And that was enough.
There wasn’t much else. The afternoon slipped past like a secret that couldn’t be kept. I wanted to hope, I wanted to believe. I really did. But it had been settled. She was leaving the next day.
That night we would sleep together for the last time. Our life together had started over two and a half yeas ago, most of it documented in a blog we kept regularly updated with photos and short entries recounting experiences we had had. Like the trip to Dublin where we had our passports and credit cards stolen and spent the weekend of the annual Bloomsday celebrations camped out in Phoenix Park amid the thousands of sloshed and surly locals. The time we stayed at a cabin on Waterton Lake and I got bit by a snake, an endangered Massasauga Rattler, after a swim, and almost had three toes on my right foot amputated. There were our two cats we rescued, Seamus and Stokes, who no one wanted them on account of one having lost an eye and the other having a stub for a tail.
We had shared a lot, and even the sour times I wouldn’t have given up for anything.
Over that time we had also befriended many new people—more than I had ever known on my own—a lot of them couples like us, and the thought of telling them she was no longer a part of my life, and I a part of hers, seemed unfathomable. I didn’t know how to tell myself.
We slept on separate sides of the bed, our backs to each other for most of the night save for when I woke to the sensation that everything was too real and rolled over on my side, wrapped my arms around her and held her close like I used to, those first couple months we were together, before she moved in permanently and would only stay over and in the morning, with the fresh light trickling through the half-drawn curtains, we would make it until both us didn’t feel anything, eventually getting up to shower, and, one hunger giving way to the next, I would make us three cheese omelets while she read from a piece of writing she was working on.
But before long it got to be too hot and uncomfortable, and we were back in our original positions, together in the same bed but divided by an impossible gulf of bitterness and longing that best intentions could never fill.
A while after that she got up, went to the bathroom and when she came back she was wearing only herself. She crawled across the bed and, her breasts dangling in front of me like ripe pears on the bough, asked me if I wanted to have sex. But I told her there was no point and rolled over on my stomach and swallowed a mouthful of pillow.
In the morning I laid in bed watching her get ready. She packed the rest of her things and then checked herself one last time in the mirror. She started for the door but came back to give me a kiss on the forehead, and was gone.
I continued to stare at the door. One of the cats hopped up on the bed and tried to curl up at my feet but I kicked it off. I smoked a joint she had left on the bedside table and went back to sleep.
It was a Saturday. That night there was a show at the Elks Hall. All of the bands on the bill were of either the screamo or metal persuasion—all of them except my friend’s band, O’Malley’s Alley. They had a sound about as far removed from those types as you could get. I didn’t much care to go but a buddy of mine, Paul, called me up and insisted I get out of the house. What the hell. So we made plans to meet for drinks and then go check it out.
When we got there the first band was already on stage. The music was deafening, the sound of the instruments bleeding together into a raw metallic roar. I hung back with Paul, observing the action. Bodies in the first few rows flailed and shook with abandon. On stage, the singer was possessed, striding back and forth with a snarling expression, occasionally taking up the microphone he clutched, while assuming a fighter-strike pose, and breaking into a hysterical shrieking fit that could have been in Turkish or Swahili. It didn’t matter. Words meant nothing. The expression was all.
Three bands played after them and for most of it the intensity of the crowd didn’t let up. I’ve never been to any live UFC or NWA events, but I get the idea. And this wasn’t much different.
Between bands, while we were outside having a smoke, I told Paul that during the next set I was going to go up front and join in. He said that would be as good as suicide and I said, “Exactly.”
Sure enough, while the next band was on stage, someone got laid out by a forearm shot to the face, but only suffered a broken nose and chipped tooth. Most of the crowd didn’t notice him until the song ended, when some guys working security came over and helped him to his feet. He was good and dazed, eyes glazed over, and he probably couldn’t recite the alphabet to save himself, but as they escorted him out the fucker was grinning like a snared hyena. All the blood made him look like a circus clown with epic snot nose, or a rodeo clown who forgot his armor.
After that the band played one more song and the spilt blood got cleaned up. O’Malley’s Alley was next to go on. While they were getting ready there was a noticeable change in the room’s vibe. It was still a good size crowd; most people remained or were replaced by others who had just showed up. And though there were still lots of long hairs in the crowd, most of them were now female.
The stage darkened. The band was introduced by the single ringing notes of a lone guitar that was soon joined by an acoustic guitar, followed by an electric—the sound building until it was filled out by the rest of the band, and then the gentle wail of the keyboard player on top of it.
I looked around at others in the crowd. Compared to the overt displays of angst and aggression from earlier they were downright calm and attentive, faces peering up at the stage, focused on the intricacies of the music. Without glancing over for acknowledgement, a girl pressed herself close to me. I turned my eyes back to the stage.
It didn’t hit me until a few songs in, during a cover of The Loved Ones’ “Sad Dark Eyes,” that it was at their first show, all those years ago, that I had met Candi.
I went out into the lobby and ran into my sister. She asked me if Candi was with me. I told her she left this morning. She says “Oh, OK” in an affectless tone and goes into the washroom.
I took a seat on a bench. Next to me were two guys and a girl. The girl was standing pacing in little circles in front of them. They were in the middle of a heated discussion, their voices raised above conversational pitch, the girl’s especially, so I couldn’t help but catch certain details. Mostly it had to do with one of the guys’ getting shipped out the next week. The girl made it known how against this she was. But to her opposition the guy would only say in response, “It’s just something I gotta do,” over and over, which only made her more boisterous, more animated. Her wild eyes lit up like hot coals.
“If you don’t come back, if you don’t fucking come back, I swear, I swear, you bastard, I am going to hunt you down and fucking KILL YOU!”
“No choice, something I gotta do.”
“Goddamn you, Markus, goddamn you.”
She collapsed down next to him with her head in her hands and started to sob, in mourning for something that would always elude her. She had a shiny nose ring and her long curly blond hair was showing dark at the roots, in need of a dye job.
So was I.
I got up and went back to watch the rest of the set. But by this time they had finished playing. The show was over.
Over by the stage I caught sight of Bradley’s sister, who played bass in one of the bands, and was packing up her gear. She had long black hair and tattoos for days. I congratulated her on a good performance even though I couldn’t make out any of her playing.
“You still play much?”
“Me? No, not really,” I said. “Maybe should get back into it.”
“You should. Come by the house sometime. I’ll show you a thing or two.”
“How ‘bout tomorrow?”
“Sundays aren’t good. Sundays are bad.”
“It’s not like it’s a commitment or anything. Just stop in for a couple hours. Learn something new for a change.”
“You’re right. See ya then.”
“Sunday,” she said, lowering her head.
She slung a bag over her shoulder, picked up her bass case.
I had had enough, was ready to leave. I was anticipating the ringing in my ears that would keep me up most of the night, among other things.
The crowd had thinned out. I looked around for Paul but couldn’t spot him. Some of the guys from O’Malley’s Alley were hanging out off to one side of the stage, but that wasn’t my scene right now.
I was standing there helplessly, repeating to myself “I got to get out of here,” when Sheila came up to me. I hadn’t seen her all night. The expression she was wearing, she looked about how I felt but not quite. I was starting to say something to her but barely got out two sentences as she took me by the arm and started leading me somewhere. “Come with me,” she was saying, “right now, just the two of us.” I didn’t know where we were going but her boyfriend Dan was nowhere in sight, and next thing I knew we were out the door and down the street.
As we walked along I started to notice that others were following us, had joined us. I didn’t know where they were coming from.
“Where are we going?”
“Never mind that. Keep moving.”
We made the steep climb out of the downtown and I realized we were headed for her house, a new place—she was always moving—I hadn’t been to yet. By now there was a line of people going back almost a block, some of whom I recognized from the show, and even more once we reached the top of the hill. We were surrounded by people, the streets filled with them all drinking and shouting and having a good time with it. Somewhere in the confusion I lost Sheila and was off on my own, another stranger in the crowd.
I was at the center of something I couldn’t name. Something overtook me and I started back in the direction I came, away from everyone.
I didn’t know where I was running to or why but it didn’t matter, and that was the point.
Everything was like in a dream. The song “Where the Streets Have No Name” could be heard playing from somewhere, some invisible stereo, like a movie soundtrack. The downtown businesses passed by on my left and up ahead I could see another person, a girl, coming directly toward me, also running, her long hair flapping behind her like a frayed, cut-off cape. She got closer and closer. She was coming straight on with no sign of let up, her eyes fixed on something beyond me. She kept coming and coming, and I waited until she was within near breathing distance before stepping off the sidewalk onto the street to avoid crashing into her. She flew past and I hopped back up on the sidewalk, narrowly escaping another head-on collision, this with a street cleaner my attention had been drawn from.
The streetlamps beamed down weak light. The night sky was black nothing. There were splotches of pink scattered along the cement, a regular pathway to nowhere. Nothing made sense and everything was as it should be. If life was like one of those mad Joyce novels I read my only year of college, this would be my divine moment.
But then it was over before it happened.
I cut left at the next block and found myself back at the hall where the show had been. In the parking lot, I slowed up, flushed and perspiring, bent forward with my hands on my legs above my shaking knees, trying to find my breath, regain some composure.
A girl I knew from someplace and a friend of hers came up to me.
“Hey, what are you doing? Surprised to see you here. Alone. Where’s Candi?”
“I don’t know.”
“Oh. Well what are you doing?”
“I don’t know.”
“We heard there was something going on up at Sheila’s.”
“Yeah. There is. Something.”
“I think that’s where we’re headed now. You want to come with? or you got other plans?”
“No. I’ll go.”
They started walking away and I pulled myself up, straight.
“We can take my car.”
“Are you sure? You alright?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. Let’s go.”
The car was around the other side of the building, in the middle of the lot, the only one there.
“Your car’s not that nice,” said the girl’s friend.
“Wait till you see the inside.”
I took a needless turn on the way and ended up down an unfamiliar side street. I turned into the parking lot of a convenience store, meant to be a shortcut, but a semi appeared out of nowhere, blocking the far exit.
“Watch out for the Handy Van!”
“I see it. I see it.”
I hit the brakes but the downhill slope we were on made them slow to respond and the eighteen-wheeler, seeing this, hooked it and managed an impossibly tight U-turn as we came to a stop barely a couple feet from it.
Coming out of the parking lot I took the next right. I felt lost but knew we were close when I saw stragglers from earlier bumming around, and swung into an intersection.
The first thing I caught side of was its sharp, wicked eyes flashing in the oncoming headlights like two small, concentrated candles burning in the night. Then the rest of its startled figure emerged, a sinister black statue in the street, and I stopped dead and turned my head to the passenger side in time to catch my divine moment shining at me, bright and perfect. And this time it wouldn’t pass me by.