back in 1999, i met connie when i still rated my life experiences on how they compared to the film version of my life that would one day surely be made. dreaming how each moment could be written in the impending screenplay. i imagined where i would improve, edit, cut. add an explosion, a monkey sidekick. drop the perfect song in behind the action. at the time my life was like the movie clerks. i worked graveyard shifts at a convenience store. there was a little video store next door. the guy that ran the place was like randal. came in and helped himself to what he wanted on some secret credit system he’d invented, bitching about customers and the big chain video store down the street. how a guy my age managed to look like a once-glorious italian barfly 30 years into his own future was incredible, silk shirt half unbuttoned, gold chain winking in the flourescent light over his hairless chest. he should have had his own theme music to walk in and out of doors.
and i was like dante. working on my days off. complaining about it. i’m not even supposed to be here today! i once worked a 24 hour shift, strung out on dr. pepper and blue balls and sleep deprivation, for which i was awarded a pin of meritorious service. and an unpaid day off. i was trying to get over my meteor-crash separation from my fiance, for whom i’d whimsically moved across a state line for. girl trouble my whole directionless world. the solution was to affect a cinematic lack-of-care, play guitar behind the register, buy a motorcycle, make long distance phone calls on the clock to left-behind friends in the hometown of my left-behind sense.
then there was this girl who lived not too far from my store, who had a runner’s muscled legs, a huge laugh that went from high alto to deep baritone like a cartoon guffaw, crazy teeth. a tendency to talk in funny voices, emulating movie characters i’d never heard of. i picked faltering notes out of my guitar and listened to her laugh, which she did every time i said something ridiculous–which was just about every time. partly because i was nervous, and partly because flirting is a very abstract art form for me to begin with. sometimes people think i am coming on when i’m not. apparently direct eye contact and trying to be funny is flirting, or taking whatever people say at face value and remembering it. when i actually put forth the effort to flirt, either i picked people who just weren’t interested in me and got ignored. or put people off with my sincere claim that my car was in fact a time machine on loan from the 1970s, that ran on liquid disco.
but connie was into me. it probably had less to do with me being a smooth talker than the fact that i played a little music, listened to a weird variety of songs from care-package mixtapes, and she was herself a musician. a berklee school of music trained musician. her brother was also classically trained. her dad taught guitar out of a studio in their house, and her mother had played most of her life. when she brought me home to meet her family–most of whom i’d already sold soda and chips and newspapers to– i stood in awe. they lived in something more than a musical museum, it was a church.
there were full-stack marshall and fender guitar amplifiers in the living room. the living room. a piano. everything ever made to produce melodious sounds with a string. several woodwinds. little metal and plastic percussion toys. not a speck of dust on any of it, these things got played. potted plants and flowers everywhere like they’d been shot out of a cannon across town through the front door. books of music theory, sheet music, photobooks of bands. autobiography of a yogi by one paramahansa yogananda, which connie’s mom lent to me with a laugh bigger than her daughter’s, that sounded like fresh black coffee on a humid july morning. stories lived in that house where a first marriage had lived strong for decades. where children grew up, left to travel and adventure, and returned happily before going back to college.
all of the musical instruments and the love that caused them to sing made their house into a cozy gnome castle. a palace. a cathedral. i noted that of the four cars in the driveway, the least of them was a 80s-era bmw. i was embarassed to park my old dodge there, which i woke up to find one morning had been washed and waxed into a mirror-smooth finish. connie’s brother announced this by taking a running jump and hip-slide down the vast gleaming length of the hood. the family fed me, encouragingly handed me guitars that my breakfast sausage fingers wrestled chords and choked little beginner scales and riffs out of. they didn’t mind that i slunk into their house at 615am after work to bed down with their youngest child, not yet old enough to buy her own alcohol.
they seemed rich to me, beyond all of their material possessions. because each of their hearts seemed to pump dandelion wine, ancient with music and shared family jokes that they explained and included me in. just like they’d been expecting me to come along the whole time. connie’s parents played bach duets on nylon-stringed acoustics. amid their wealth, i felt the huge shameful poverty of my own childhood. constant moving, different schools, divorce and divorce and sacrifice. a mother’s tough veneer smile over hard times and isolation. this middle class family felt like royalty to me. i felt rich for a little while with them.
i poured my weird dreams out to connie, the wild daylight dreams of writing and music and painting. the haunted night dreams that begged me to remember them half awake at a neverending string of jobs. dreams that were movies– soundtrack, credits, celebrities acting out all of the paranoid delusions of grandeur in my graveyard shift clutterbox. years of arthur c. clarke and ursula k. leguin, bradbury, asimov, pynchon, all extruded through my disdain for authority and minimum wage, alone in the dark of some convenience store parking lot with the stray cats, glittercoated cigarette butts from smalltown strippers. far-off clanging sounds of the trucking company hub echoing like sinking submarines, the place where i’d quit to take this lousy job. convinced that humanity was grinding to its own fiery war machine endgasm, that the world would end before i became a star. i worry dreamed the movie of apocalypse so many times, civil war, spaceflight. my dead relatives suffering alzheimer’s in the afterlife with broccoli instead of hair. the coldblood water sadness of great white sharks forever eating, unable to stop swimming, even mating a brief violence without warmth or lasting companionship.
to her amazing credit, connie never laughed about this stuff, or called me crazy for taking my dream life so seriously and my success and hygiene for granted. she brought me dinner at one in the morning. she wrote a song about a private love-thing we used to say to each other that i drew a picture of once, recorded it in a night, and brought me the tape at work with a kiss. we played music together, me, her, and her brother–i wanted us all to be in a band together forever. she pulled out a camera often, at moments i wouldn’t have thought to take a picture. she revealed to me that most of her family had intense dreams too. incredible, lucid, prophetic.
when her father helped me trade in a 12-string stratocaster of mine for a gibson explorer re-issue i’d been lusting over, her brother told me he’d dreamed about it the night before. in his dream, the three of us all plugged in to play at their house on a cloud-filled day. when i struck the first notes, the clouds had parted and white rays shone into the very room we were standing in, haloing my head. that day, i played a rock opera of the earth’s orbit, my hands made of sunlight.
we didn’t have a summer love. we had a witchcraft. a duel with chainsaws made of magic lightning. an escape from a three-alarm tenement blaze into a riot beginning. and, as is sometimes the way with amateur warlocks tirelessly shooting comets of screaming fire at each other, we burned up. well, i did. really what happened is that her brother got mad at me once about something i said one morning, then got drunk. built it into an inferno of hate. sweating poison fury, he showed up glowing orange at 3am while i stood staring at cigarette smoke curling greasy over the ice machine in front of the convenience store. the thing i’d said bubbled horror under his face skin, and he threatened to do me some pretty serious damage over it.
the reason he didn’t liquefy me, he said, was that i was good to his sister and that she loved me. but that was only going to save me this once and never again. the next day connie told me that her brother, twisted with some barely controlled anger, had been in plenty of fights at school and had beaten a kid into the hospital and been expelled. the shrink couldn’t determine the source of his temper, given his apparently happy childhood and family. none of it matters much at 3am when naked violence stares out at you through wide open eyeballs. though i dodged another beating, i didn’t dodge the memory of prehistoric rage shining through his skullholes that night, which i can still remember better than my first kiss, or my father’s birthday.
our dreamy little movie was playing while the world was getting real panicky about the millenium clock running out, computers failing–especially the ones that stored financial data, and the ones that were wired to nuclear weapons. leading up to the year 2000, people fulfilled their own suicide cult destinies in large numbers, or stockpiled food, water, bullets. a world still in its tweens of instant global communication, panic threatened to detonate the headtops everywhere. rational people turned up in the papers and on tv, dead by poison koolaid, kids strangled then parents offing themselves. husbands jumping out of apartments, off bridges. and right before i wrote the last scene for our movie on july 4th, 1999, under the red exploding sky, sitting together on the hood of my car, connie told me her dream.
a group of friends sit in a circle on the floor. you and me, somebody’s party. it is december 31st, 1999, close to midnight. we’ve all taken acid, and peaking, we decide that we are all going to kiss everybody else in the room at midnight. when the clock strikes 12, there are mouths all over the place. yours, mine, all of us. when the kissing stops, we are all still alive. the lights are still on. not even a flicker. there are no bombs flying, or planets sent spinning wild out of control into the sun, no second coming. then we all hug in a big pile, crying. happy, relieved. with one voice, we shout a happiness. one long sound, not even a word. when i woke up from the dream, i was saying out loud, everything’s going to be all right.
everything’s going to be all right. the last happy words i ever hear her speak.
shortly after that night, the manager of the convenience store accused me of stealing cigarettes. which i had not done. i suggested he perform an anatomically complex act of autoeroticism. then moved back to the city i’d split from to get engaged. got into a party house with friends. and the y2k zoomed closer. the year two thousand. the year that used to be magic words. what humankind would achieve by then. flying cars. robot butlers. indefinite leisure, indulgence, enlightenment. not britney spears. monica lewinski. people being dragged behind trucks because of their skin color. kosovo. star wars becoming this whole otherthing. world trade organization.
most of the really ugly stuff going on in the world didn’t hit me hard, except the WTO thing that got me tear-gassed while i tried to get some hash browns. one crap job in one state turned into another crap job in a different state, though i didn’t have to work graveyeard shifts any more, and we got to close early for new year’s eve. which was really the big deal. if everything was going to come unglued, and we began an era of lifecinema directed by roger corman, i wanted to be intoxicated, and among friends. didn’t hold out much hope for the room full of people kissing everyone. one kiss would cut it. even better if at 12:01 there was another. but i didn’t want to get greedy.
plans were made for the new year’s party. 1) clean three manchildren’s rooms worth of chaos out of the house. 2) set up the music. 3) acquire intoxicants. the house cleaning was a work in progress. one of the roommates was a forward thinking musical optimist, and had midnight’s music planned out: the opening 44 seconds of pink floyd’s time, which faded into… what else? that prince song about the year we were in that was playing all the time. party like it’s 1987. then the liquor store. a trip across town where after some pre-millenium intoxication, we were shown one household’s social-crash survival setup: lots of large knives, a library of survival books ranging from army to boy scout to urban shamanism. the word around there was, cannibalize the neighbors, start a religion. my housemates and i would probably be spared.
the big night finally came. we gathered our friends in our little house, doused them with drinks, music, ultraviolet lights. and when the big moment came, we all held our breath a little bit. waiting for the rapture, power failure, or the suddenly liberated nuclear warheads to come roaring out of their oubliettes in russia and kansas and the middle east. we counted down. my housemat cued the pink floyd. then prince. then no music. people standing around and pouring drinks. not whooping or making out. we’d just lived through a moment like the best of pink floyd songs, where the song ends and you realize you’ve been holding your breath a little, waiting for a triumphant musical and lyrical resolution. only to find that the songhas built to an interminable anticlimax.
i didn’t get the kiss. i thought of connie and hoped she was somewhere rolling around on the floor kissing everyone in sight, then went out to the front porch and lit a cigarette. the house emptied onto the porch around me in the chilly night, and we all sort of huddled there together looking out over the city full of lights. full of parties everywhere where fears were abated, paranoias about the end put to bed. tomorrow there would be a worldwide terror hangover, people having to pick up the mess they’d made in their house or bar or church. and maybe look at the world different, like we’d all felt like we were really on the brink for a minute, and now that we’re all still alive we can get to work on loving thy neighbors and building me my dang jetpack.
there was a kid there at the party, visiting from the midwest. not quite old enough to legally drink, but good and drunk. he’d been carrying this little glass aquarium thing around all evening, about the size of a pint mason jar. it was full of sea monkeys. maybe in ecstasy, or maybe disappointment in the lack of destruction that we’d been warned of for months, he let out a choking cry. and that little watery prison became a starship for a moonlight instant. it angled up high over the street and fell down and down. broke on the curb, the sound cold and tiny in the midnight. a sacrifice. and because it was a jar full of brine shrimp and not us that were convicted and sentenced to die that night, we were glad. and began to cheer. i took a drag off of my cigarette. then i felt lips on my lips. exhaled smoke through my nose. everything’s going to be all right, i said. and began to laugh.